Monday, December 17, 2012

Marty and Gertrude: An American Story

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. - Henry David Thoreau
Some people believe in destiny and fate, others in free will. For most of us, life is but a roll of the dice, a complex mixture of chance and circumstance that affects the course of our lives. We do not choose the country of our birth and have no say in the immediate circumstances of our upbringing. We do not choose our ethnicity, our race, or the major events of history that coincide with our own personal histories. Some people are born rich and privileged, while others are born poor and unloved. But all of us must learn to live with the cards we are dealt and, ultimately, choose how we live.

Through my relationship with Andrea, I have been blessed these past ten years to have come to know two extraordinary human beings, Marty and Gertrude Gelman. They are Andrea’s parents, but more importantly, they are models of decency and how to live one’s life; two people who together have confronted life’s many challenges and built lives of rich fulfillment.


Born in the roaring twenties and raised in the Great Depression, survivors of the Great War, the story of Martin and Gertrude Gelman is an American story. They first met in 1938, when the photograph above was taken. I am not certain who took the picture, but at that very moment Gert Golden, a sassy 15 year-old girl from West Oak Lane, was introduced to Marty Gelman of the Logan section of Philadelphia. The young man making the introduction was Marty’s best friend, Seymour Frank. Gertrude and Seymour were dating at the time and, not surprisingly, Seymour had taken a liking to her. But this was the Great Depression, times were tough, and Seymour had landed a job for the summer as a busboy in New Jersey. As he would not have the means or a car to return to Philadelphia during the summer, he hoped Marty could keep an eye on Gert while Seymour was away.

Marty, whose back is to the camera in the above photograph, was nothing if not a young man of his word, so he was most happy to oblige. And keep an eye on her he did. By the time Seymour returned at summer’s end, Marty confessed that he and Gertrude had fallen in love. Six years later, they were married; it is a bond that has lasted sixty-eight years and counting.

When Seymour told this story a few weeks ago at Gertrude’s 90th birthday celebration, he acknowledged his disappointment at the course of events. “But,” he said, “If someone was going to steal away my girl, at least it should be my best friend.” As Seymour quipped, “There is nothing I wouldn’t do for Marty, and nothing Marty wouldn’t do for me. And we’ve spent our whole lives doing nothing for each other.” Seymour proudly noted that, seven decades later, he, Marty, and Gertrude remain the best of friends. But as for Marty, Seymour added with a twinkle, “I never did trust the son-of-a-bitch.”

* * * *

“Life is like a blanket too short,” wrote Marion Howard. “You pull it up and your toes rebel, you yank it down and shivers meander about your shoulder; but cheerful folks manage to draw their knees up and pass a very comfortable night.” The most amazing thing about Gertrude is her upbeat and positive manner. It is a cheeriness that defies logic once you know something of her young life. Born in 1922 to a tailor’s family in Philadelphia, Gertrude was five years old when her mother was hospitalized. It was a tragic story, one that Gertrude would only piece together in later years, with the benefit of time and distance; a story of conflict and disharmony. But for a young child in need of a mother’s love, it could only have been confusing and frightening.

A year later, Gertrude’s father, a lifelong smoker, developed lung cancer, became very ill and was hospitalized. Gertrude, now six and essentially parentless, was sent to live with relatives, a family of modest means with many mouths to feed. It would be only a temporary home. The last time Gertrude saw her father was towards the end of 1929, close to her seventh birthday. She remembers the year because only a few months earlier the stock market crashed, plunging the country into the Great Depression. Her father, who remained sick in bed, died not long after.

Parentless at the age of seven, Gertrude was eventually placed in foster care, cared for by the Association of Jewish Children of Philadelphia. She moved from home-to-home, five in all, some better and more caring than others. She remained a foster child until the age of 16, when she moved in with her oldest brother, Jack, and his wife, Fritzie. Although she saw her mother once at the age of 13 and sporadically thereafter, the visits were often difficult and unsatisfying. It was not a sheltered, pampered, or privileged life. Life was hard. But through it all, Gertrude never lost her sense of optimism. She has said that once, around the age of ten and feeling sorry for herself, she came to the realization that her destiny was in her hands. “And then I stopped crying and got on with my life.”

In 1940, two years after she met Marty, Gertrude graduated from Olney High School. But most girls in those days didn’t attend college, so she went to work, earning ten dollars a week at J. Schwartz & Company, a furniture store on Germantown Avenue. She and Marty would later become engaged, but when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Marty went off to war. Gertrude landed a job at the Frankford Arsenal, delivering mail and doing administrative tasks for the Small Arms Department, Mail and Records. Perhaps it was there that Gertrude developed the philosophy that has served her well all these years. “Smile at people and they will smile back.” “Laugh a lot – at how ridiculous life is. It helps you get through a lot of the hurt.” “Above all else, do no harm.”

A weaker person may have lost hope and become bitter at life’s offerings, but Gertrude never lost her positive outlook and always treated people with friendliness and kindness. Although she is not a deeply religious person, deep down, I believe, she has a faith, in God or the human spirit, which helps her get through difficult times. She could not have helped but wonder every day whether a telegram would arrive informing her that Marty had been killed in action, news that would afflict hundreds of thousands of wives and girlfriends, mothers and fathers, throughout that deadly war. But Gertrude never lost hope and, by the summer of 1944, Marty had completed his 50 missions and returned home. They were married three days later.

Over the next several years, Gertrude gave birth to three children and took care of the household while Marty worked days and attended graduate school at night. An intelligent and intellectually engaged woman, in later years Gertrude would go back to school, first at Montgomery County Community College, and later, Beaver College (now Arcadia University) in Glenside, Pennsylvania, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1982 at the youthful age of 59. She even found time to take care of stray animals, including an injured baby squirrel that had fallen from its nest. Whenever her children complained, she would have none of it. All of them recognized, as adults, just how right she was. They knew that their mother was the foundation of her family, a rock of stability, and the strength of the Gelman clan.

[T]he powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse. ~Walt Whitman, "O Me! O Life!", Leaves of Grass
I know less of Marty’s childhood years, except that they were happier and more stable, the perfect antidote to Gertrude’s young life. Marty was the son of Jacob Gelman, a printer who owned a shop on Cherry Street in Philadelphia, next door to Kelly for Brickwork, owned by the father of Grace Kelly. Gelman’s Sign and Printing was a family affair, co-founded by Jacob and his two brothers, with family members performing all of the tasks needed to run and operate the business.

Marty was a smart, street-wise kid with an intellectual bent. As an eleven year-old boy in 1932, when the Japanese invaded Manchuria, he sensed that another world war was on the horizon. His parents did not discuss current affairs, but Marty paid close attention. By the time he met Gertrude in the late 1930’s, he was very aware of world events and followed the political rise and growing power of Hitler with great trepidation. Then, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the whole world changed. Marty was 20 years old. Like many young men at the time, my uncle Ted (my Dad’s oldest brother) included, he enlisted. Life would never be the same again.

Years later, Marty would describe the heavy cloud that hovered above as he left for training camp, a burden he now recognizes as “sadness, numbness”. He worried that he would not measure up as a man and wondered how, as a Jewish kid from Philadelphia, he would be perceived and accepted by the gentiles, particularly in a war that he knew would have a profound impact on Jews. Like most of the young men he was about to meet, he was “frightened, distraught, filled with despair.” Soon he would realize that, from the vantage point of a scared soldier, religion and ethnicity and differences mattered not at all. All were Americans fighting for freedom and peace.

He was stationed in Italy and served as lead navigator in the 15th Air Force, 450th Bombardment Group, which flew B-24 Liberator’s. Now considered a member of the Greatest Generation, he scoffs at such a notion. “Each day I awoke with terror of not wondering if I would die, but how I would die,” he said during an interview in the fall of 2007. “Each day that passed was just a postponement of tomorrow’s execution.” He loved receiving mail but found it difficult to write home. “What was there to say when you know that tomorrow you will have to die. To this day, I don’t understand how it turned out otherwise.”

Through the grace of God and the fortunes of fate, Marty made it through the war, surviving 50 missions over enemy occupied Europe, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and countless medals and honors. His crew survived three forced landings in the mountains of Corsica, but in the end, he was the only one that made it back unscathed. His last mission, the 50th, was aborted three times before his crew was granted a three-day reprieve for some R&R in Bari, off the coast of the Adriatic Sea. But Marty was impatient and ready to go home. He could not tolerate the delay, so he volunteered for another mission, with another crew. An angel must have watched over him that day. “I caught a break,” he recalled years later. “It was a milk run. There was no flak, there were no fighters.” With 50 missions completed, he could now go home. His return was bittersweet; perhaps it was fate, or just plain dumb luck, but on the very next mission flown by Marty’s assigned crew, the plane was shot down. The crew members who survived became prisoners of war. As Gertrude later recalled, “Marty’s bewilderment at the bizarre manipulation of fate . . . left him numb.”

“The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time,” wrote Eudora Welty, “but in their significance to ourselves, they find their own order ... the continuous thread of revelation.” It took fourteen long days for Marty to get back to the shores of the United States (by ship) and, as no one in his family knew precisely when he was to arrive, when Marty reached his parents’ house in Philadelphia, no one was home. He got on the phone and called Gertrude, who came over right away. His family had gone to Atlantic City for the day, but when they learned of Marty’s arrival, they rushed home. That night, Marty and Gertrude made plans to marry and, three days later, they were husband and wife. The rest is history. Three wonderful, accomplished children, four beautiful grandchildren, and a life of love and fulfillment.

While working at the family print shop, Marty attended Temple University at night and eventually earned two Ph.D.’s (Anthropology and Psychology). He began a successful clinical practice and taught for 45 years at Montgomery County Community College, where he was one of its first professors in 1964, and where he molded and impressed the minds of thousands of grateful students. Never having forgotten the unheralded protection that the Tuskegee Airmen had provided his B-24 crew during the war, and sensitive to the slights caused by discrimination and prejudice, Marty, as head of the Social Sciences Department, was instrumental in hiring the college's first African American professor. He also mentored and supported the African American Student League, for which he was given special recognition at a 2008 Martin Luther King Day celebration, the only white professor in the college’s history so recognized.

In looking back on his time at war, on the death and destruction that was a part of everyday life for young men in their late teens and early twenties, Marty has recalled that it took more than 30 years before he could resurrect the pain and heartache he experienced in combat. It is a pain that “has made it difficult for me to cry about loss or to fully face life head on.” He dismisses the notion that war makes a man out of you. “War makes a man out of no one,” he insists. “The best it does is rip away the filter of illusion and scald you with the reality of the baseness of human existence. It’s a waste. The military isn’t cruel, it just doesn’t give a damn.”

Sometimes our light goes out but is blown into flame by another human being. Each of us owes deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this light. – Albert Schweitzer
I have only known Martin and Gertrude Gelman for ten years or so, but my life has been greatly enriched because of it. As with my own parents, it is hard to imagine two people better suited for each other. They are generous to a fault, love their children unconditionally, and continue to look at the world and the human race with a healthy dose of humor. “We are a rotten species,” Marty often jokes. But their love of America is unrivaled and their appreciation for a good book, a good lecture, sage advice, and a young child’s smile is readily apparent. Good conversationalists, you can always anticipate a lively debate, or a story or two, when eating dinner with the Gelmans. Gertrude remains the optimistic, upbeat one; perhaps from a deep-seated recognition of the deprivations of the human spirit and weakness of human character, Marty remains the realist.

“God asks no man whether he will accept life,” wrote Henry Ward Beecher. “That is not the choice. You must take it. The only question is how.” Martin and Gertrude Gelman are the rare breed of human beings who have accepted life’s many challenges and risen above them without complaint. We choose our own destiny in life and must make the most of it. Erma Bombeck once said, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’” Here is to Marty and Gertrude, an extraordinary couple who gave life everything they had. The world needs more people like them.

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