Saturday, June 27, 2020

Summer Place: Book Three of the Thunder Rise Trilogy

During the #coronavirus pandemic, I am regularly posting stories and selections from my published collections and novels. Read for free! Reading is the best at this time!

This 13th free offering is Chapter 67 of "Summer Place: Book Three of the Thunder Rise Trilogy," published by Crossroad Press in March 2013.

Chapter 67

Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. Caleb felt it as soon as he and his sister crossed the threshold into the kitchen of the summer place. He felt it grow as they went room to room, calling their father’s name, getting no answer — only a spooky echo of Caleb’s voice that was like the time Mommy had taken them to the Museum of Art and he’d shouted down a long marble corridor. He could see the Dark Thoughts now, quite plainly: They’d returned from their hiding place the instant they’d come inside.

Something was wrong.

But what?

Well, Daddy was missing, that was wrong. That was scary, if you thought about it too much, which Caleb tried not to. He kept telling himself that Daddy must be in the barn, or maybe out looking for Paul, or getting help somehow. And he’d be back very, very soon.

No, it wasn’t just Daddy’s absence that had brought the Dark Thoughts out of their hiding place. It wasn’t the by-now-dull ache from where he’d been bitten. Bites were no fun, but they hurt a less than bee stings, and if you tried really, really hard — if you did what Daddy always advised, “grin and bear it” — you could almost forget about them.

So what could it be?

The house. It had to be something about the house. Standing on the second-story landing, holding his sister’s hand, looking down the stairs into the brilliantly illuminated living room, Caleb struggled to figure what, exactly, was wrong with the house.

On the surface, nothing was different.

All the furniture was where it belonged. His and Sarah’s toys were where they were supposed to be, in their rooms. There were dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. The candle they’d been burning was still in the living room, along with the empty cans of Raid. And those bugs — the dead bodies of the ones they’d killed were scattered around, and there were a few new live ones, which Caleb had dispatched to bug heaven with his remaining Raid. If anything, the house should have been less creepy — the power was on, and as they’d moved through the house, Caleb had turned on every single light. It was like daytime in here now, so bright there didn’t seem to be any shadows.

No, it should have felt OK. Should have felt good.

But it didn’t.

It was like someone was watching them. Like the house was watching them. Like the walls and the ceilings had trick mirrors and there was someone behind them, following them as they moved, listening, listening to what was inside his head... the Dark Thoughts... and waiting...


“Daddy?” he called, his voice thinning. “Daddy are you up there?”

He had not opened the door to the attic yet. Except for the barn and cellar, which wasn’t sure he wanted to check, the attic was the last place left. The entire first floor, the bedrooms, bathroom, even behind the sofa and in the downstairs closet — he’d looked, and Daddy wasn’t there.

Don’t have to check the attic, he thought. Daddy wouldn’t have gone up there.

But what if he had? What if, for some reason that made sense only to a grownup, he’d climbed up there and had an accident? Like Caleb had had that accident under the barn? What if he was up there on the floor right now, unconscious, needing to be rescued, the way Caleb had needed to be rescued?

For the first time, it occurred to Caleb that Daddy might not be OK. The realization terrified him. So many other bad things had happened this weekend, but Daddy — Daddy had been all right. Daddy had been invincible.

I have to go up. Even Mommy, mad as she was at Daddy, would have insisted he go up if she’d been able to advise him.

“Sarah?” he said, his voice a whisper.

Sarah did not respond. Her tears had dried up — she’d been crying so long and so hard there probably weren’t any tears left, Caleb figured — but she was still out there in another dimension. Since the car, she’d been like that. She’d followed Caleb obediently, without a whimper of protest, without a word of any kind, not even when he talked to her. It was like she was sleep-walking.

“Sarah?” he said again. “I have to check up there. I’m gonna just run up and come right back. You think you’ll be OK?”

Caleb squeezed his sister’s hand. She kept staring into nothingness.

“You’ll be OK,” he said encouragingly. “I’ll only be a second.”

He opened the door and turned on the light, illuminating the wooden stairs, where new cobwebs had materialized since his last visit. Just before he’d broken his ankle, he’d snuck up here to investigate those two old trunks that had come with the house. Both had been unlocked, and both were empty.

“Here I go!” he announced.

Up he went, favoring his hurt ankle, which all of a sudden was throbbing. He stopped at the top of the stairs. The bulb that lit the stairs didn’t work so well up here. Whole corners of the attic were shadowy, and some — in the rafters there behind the chimney, for example — were downright dark. But this would have to do. There was only one light in the attic.

But it wasn’t the shadows that sent a shiver through Caleb. It was the trunks, side by side by the tiny window.

The trunks were open.

He’d closed them after exploring that day.

He remembered that vividly, as vividly as he always remembered the details of his mischief, as his parents called it. Mommy had a real eye for that sort of thing. She was like Sherlock Holmes, finding all the clues. Seeing the trunks open when they were supposed to be closed — she’d automatically finger him. So he knew he’d closed them.

They were definitely open now.

He could not see inside yet, only the lining on the insides of their lids, a red cloth as soft to the touch.

Just like coffins, the Dark Thoughts shrieked at him. Your Daddy’s coffin. Your Mommy’s coffin. Mommy and Daddy, laid out in their best clothes, and cold as January. Would you like to see them one last time before they’re buried? Before they’re six feet deep? Before the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on their snout?

“They’re not dead!” Caleb screamed. “They’re alive!”

He was frozen now. He still could not see inside the trunks, but he did not want to. He wanted to go back downstairs, run out of the house, run to...

Run to where? To whom?

And what if Daddy was in one of the trunks? he wondered, his mind racing. Not dead, but hurt real bad? It did not occur to Caleb how improbable that would be. On the contrary, on this horrible weekend, Daddy in a trunk would almost make sense.

Caleb had to see.

And so he forced himself across the floor, forced himself to drag his cast and ignore how the light seemed to be dimming, the shadows growing longer, the walls pressing in on him. Closer to the first trunk, his angle of vision increasing, able to see more and more of the inside.

The first trunk was empty.

On toward the second one he moved, closer, hobbling, almost able to see to the bottom now, almost—

There was a body there.

A dead body, dressed in a fancy suit — a tuxedo, isn’t that what they called it? Daddy had worn one once to a wedding.

A dead body — old and gray. Worse — much worse — parts of him had been eaten. There was no mistaking it. The flesh was flecked and wormholed, the way garbage looked after maggots had gone to work. Eaten. Eaten. The eyes were gone, nothing but the sockets left. The hands, folded across stomach... they were bloody stumps, cartilage and bone only. And the mouth, the lipless mouth. It was open and something was inside, curled around its teeth. Something white and moving. A worm. Eating.

Eating. You could hear it.

Caleb’s bladder let go. His breathing was coming in fits now and he felt like he’d been punched. For the first time since the car, he wanted to cry.


Caleb knew immediately. Knew because he’d seen Valkenburgh’s picture in that article Mommy had Xeroxed at the library, an article he’d found snooping through the pile of books and articles and all the other stuff about bugs she’d hidden in her bottom drawer, under her sweaters.

Caleb screamed. He screamed and turned and tripped, hitting the floor with a slap. Crying, he got back on his feet. It didn’t matter that his ankle was shooting stilettos of pain through his body. He bounded down the stairs, hit the landing, and grabbed his sister’s arm.

“Come on!” he managed.

Sarah didn’t move.


But she could not be budged. Had withdrawn further into herself, into a catatonic state.

For a second, Caleb thought of going without her. Leaving her on the landing, to take her chances with... it. But he could not do it. He loved his little sister and he’d been raised believing it was his solemn duty to protect her. He couldn’t abandon her now.


He looked up the stairs, certain that Valkenburgh would appear there.

But Valkenburgh did not appear there. Caleb pleaded and begged, and one minute turned into two, and there was no sound, no Valkenburgh, only the feeling of being watched.

“We have to go!” Caleb shouted. “We have to find Daddy!”

Sarah finally stood. She stared emptily, as if her brother had become invisible.

(Should you wish to purchase any of my collections and books, fiction or non-fiction, visit

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

An Uncommon Man: The Life and Times of Senator Claiborne Pell

During the #coronavirus pandemic, I am regularly posting stories and selections from my published collections and novels. Read for free! Reading is the best at this time!

This 12th free offering is the prologue to "An Uncommon Man: The Life and Time of Senator Claiborne Pell," edition published in 2011 by University Press of New England, in Kindle and hardcover editions.

Newport: President John F. Kennedy with Pell, circa 1961.

Prologue: A Cold Winter Day


Dawn had barely broken when the crowd began to build outside Trinity Episcopal Church. A frigid wind blew and snow frosted the Newport, Rhode Island, ground. Police had restricted vehicular traffic to allow passage of the motorcade carrying a former president, the vice president-elect, and dozens of U.S. senators, representatives and other dignitaries who would be arriving. Men in sunglasses with bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the church grounds, where flags flew at half-mast.

It was Jan. 5, 2009, the day of Senator Claiborne deBorda Pell’s funeral.

Some of those waiting to get inside Trinity Church were members of Newport society, to which Pell and Nuala, his wife of 64 years, had belonged since birth. Some were working-class people who knew Pell as a tall, thin, bespectacled man who once regularly jogged along Bellevue Avenue, greeting strangers and friends that he passed. Some knew him only from the media, where he was sometimes portrayed, not inaccurately, as the capitol’s most eccentric character, as interested in the afterlife and the paranormal as the federal budget. Some knew him mostly from the ballot booth or from programs and policies he’d been instrumental in establishing. First elected in 1960, the year his friend John F. Kennedy captured the White House, Pell served 36 years in the U.S. Senate, 14th longest in history as of that January day. His accomplishments from those six terms touched untold millions of lives.

Pell died at a few minutes past midnight on Jan. 1, five weeks after his 90th birthday and more than a decade after the first symptoms of the Parkinson’s Disease that slowly stole all movement and speech, leaving him a prisoner in his own body. He died, his family with him, at his oceanfront home -- a shingled, single-story house that he personally designed and which stood in modest contrast to Bellevue Avenue mansions and Bailey’s Beach, the exclusive members-only club that has been synonymous with East Coast wealth since the Gilded Age. Pell, whose colonial-era ancestors established enduring wealth from tobacco and land, and Nuala, an heiress to the A&P fortune, belonged to Bailey’s. But the Pells were unflinchingly liberal and Democratic. In the old manufacturing state of Rhode Island, where the American Industrial Revolution was born, blue-collar voters embraced their aristocratic senator with the unconventional mind.

The motorcades passed the waiting crowd, which by 9 a.m. was more than a block long. Former President Bill Clinton stepped out of an SUV and went into the parish hall to await the procession to the church. Vice President-elect Joe Biden and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, whose malignant brain cancer would claim him that summer, followed Clinton. A bus that met a jet from Washington brought more senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republicans Richard Lugar and Orrin Hatch. Pell’s civility and even temper during his decades in the Senate earned him the respect of his colleagues. “I always try to let the other fellow have my way,” is how Pell liked to explain his Congressional style. It was the best means, he maintained, to “translate ideas into actions and help people,” as he described the heart of his legislative style. He had learned these philosophies from his father, a minor diplomat and one-term Congressman who had cast an inordinate influence on his only child even after his own death in the first months of John F. Kennedy’s presidency.

The doors to Trinity opened and the crowd went in, filling seats in the loft that had been reserved for the public. The overflow went into the parish hall, to watch the live-broadcast TV feed. Led by their mother, Nuala and Claiborne’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren took seats near the pulpit. The politicians settled in pews across the aisle. The organ played, the choir sang, and six Coast Guardsmen wheeled a mahogany casket draped in white to the front of the church.

 From early childhood, Pell had loved the sea, an affection he captured in sailboat drawings and grade-school essays about the joys of being on the water. When he was nine, he took an ocean journey that would influence him in ways a young boy could not have predicted: traveling by luxury liner with his mother and stepfather, he went to Cuba and on through the Panama Canal to California and Hawaii. “It was the most interesting voyage I have ever taken,’’ he wrote, when he was 12, in an essay entitled The Story of My Life. 

An early passport for the world-traveler.

After graduating from college in 1940, more than a year before Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Coast Guard, pointedly remaining in the reserves until mandatory retirement at age 60, when he was nearing the end of his third Senate term.

In the many stories that had accompanied his retirement from the Senate, Pell had named the 1972 Seabed Arms Control treaty, which kept the Cold War nuclear arms race from spreading to the ocean floor by prohibiting the testing or storage of weapons deep undersea, as among his favorite achievements. He pointed also to his National Sea Grant College and Program Act of 1966, which provided unprecedented federal funding of university-based oceanography. And one of his deepest regrets, he said 1996, was in failing to achieve U.S. ratification of the international Law of the Sea Treaty, which establishes ocean boundaries and protects global maritime resources.

In planning his funeral, Pell requested a ceremonial honor guard from his beloved service. The Coast Guard granted his wish -- and added meaning when selecting Pell’s pallbearers. Two of the six had graduated college with the help of Pell Grants, the tuition-assistance program for lower-  and middle-income students that Pell called his greatest achievement. Since their inception in 1972, the grants by 2009 had been awarded to more than 115 million recipients. Without them, many could not have earned a college degree.

Kennedy left his wife, Vicki, in their pew and walked slowly to the pulpit.

In his nearly eight-minute eulogy, the last substantial speech the final Kennedy brother would make, Ted talked of Pell’s fortitude when he and Nuala lost two of their grown children. His hands trembling but his voice strong, he spoke of his family’s long relationship with Pell, which began before the Second World War -- and of his own friendship with Pell and their 34 years together in the Senate. He spoke of Pell’s political support for his president brother and his support for hos own son, Patrick Kennedy, representative from Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District, which includes Newport. He recalled the summer tradition of sailing with Vicki on his sailboat, Maya, from Long Island to Newport, enroute to their home in Hyannisport on Cape Cod. During their overnight visits with the Pells, Claiborne, who owned no yacht, relished sailing on Ted’s sailboat Mya, even after Parkinson’s Disease left him in a wheelchair and unable to speak. “The quiet joy of the wind on his face was a site to behold,” Kennedy said.     

Kennedy closed with tribute.

“During his brilliant career, he amassed a treasure trove of accomplishments that few will ever match,” Kennedy said, citing the Pell Grants, Pell’s 1965 legislation that established the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Seabed Treaty. It was Claiborne Pell who advocated the power of diplomacy  before resorting to the power of military might. And it was Claiborne Pell who was a environmentalist long before that was cool. Claiborne Pell was a senator of high character, great decency and fundamental honesty. And that’s why he became the longest serving senator in the history of Rhode Island. He was a senator for our time and for all time. He was an original. He was my friend and I will miss him very much.”

Kennedy returned to his pew and Clinton took the pulpit of the historic old church, which has overlooked Newport Harbor since 1726. Drawing laughter, the former president told of first seeing Pell: in 1964, when he was a freshman at Georgetown University living in a dorm that overlooked the backyard of the Pells’ Washington home.

“I was this goggle-eyed kid from Arkansas. I had never been anywhere or  seen anything and here I was in Washington, D.C., and I got to be a voyeur looking down on all the dinner parties of this elegant man. So I got very interested in the Pell family. And I read up on them, you know. And I realized that they were a form of American royalty. I knew that because it took me 29 years and six moths to get in the front door of that house I’d been staring at. When I became president, Senator and Mrs. Pell, who had supported my campaign, invited me in the front door. I received one of Claiborne Pell’s courtly tours of his home, which was like getting a tour of the family history. There were all these relatives he had with wigs on. Where I came from only people who were bald wore wigs. And they weren’t white and curled. It was amazing.

“And even after all those years, I still felt as I did when I was a boy: that there was something almost magical about this man who was born to aristocracy but cared about people like the people I grew up with.”

He cared, too, Clinton said, for the citizens of the world. Clinton spoke of Pell’s belief that together, nations can solve the planet’s problems -- a belief that took root in his childhood travels and solidified in 1945 in San Francisco, where delegates of 50 countries drafted the U.N. Charter. Pell served as an assistant for the American delegation.

“Every time I saw him -- every single time -- he would pull out this dog-eared copy of the U.N. Charter,’’ Clinton said. “It was light blue, frayed around the edges. I was so intimidated. There I was in the White House and I actually went home one night and read it all again to make sure I could pass a test in case Senator Pell asked me any questions. But I got the message and so did everybody else that ever came in contact with him: that America could not go forward in a world that had only a global economy without a sense of global politics and social responsibility.”

The ex president ended with a reference to ancestors.

“The Pell family’s wealth began with a royal grant of land in Westchester County where Hilary and I now live,” he said. “It occurred to me that if we had met 300 years ago, he would be my lord and I would be his serf. All I can tell you is: I would have been proud to serve him. He was the right kind of aristocrat: a champion by choice, not circumstance, of the common good and our common future and our common dreams, in a long life of grace, generous spirit, kind heart, and determination, right to the very end. That life is his last true Pell Grant.”

Despite the work of transitioning from the Bush to the Obama administration, Biden had taken the morning off to eulogize the man who befriended him when he arrived in Washington in 1972 as a 29-year-old senator-elect. Biden had just lost his wife and baby daughter in a car accident. “You made your home my own,” Biden said, turning to Nuala. In the Senate, Pell became Biden’s mentor.

The vice-president-elect, who served with Pell on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, enumerated more of Pell’s accomplishments, including legislation that helped build Amtrak and a lesser-publicized campaign against drunk driving -- a cause Pell embraced when two of his staff members, including one central in the fight for Pell Grants, were killed by drunk drivers. In these efforts and in all of his Congressional dealings, Biden said -- and all of his campaigns, none of which he ever lost -- Pell brought a gentlemanly sensibility that seemed outdated in an era of hot tempers and mud.

“I’m told, Ted,” Biden said, “that your brother, President Kennedy, once said Claiborne Pell was the least electable man in America -- a view that, I suppose, was shared by at least six of his opponents when he ran for the United States Senate over the course of 36 years.”

Laughter filled Trinity Church.

“I understand how people could think that,” Biden continued. Here was a graduate of an exclusive college-preparatory school and Princeton, who later earned an advanced degree from another Ivy league School, Columbia -- a man born into wealth who married into more and had traveled the world many times over before ever seeking office.

“He didn’t have a great deal in common, I suspect, with many of his constituents in terms of background, except this: I think Claiborne realized that many of the traits he learned in his upbringing -- honesty, integrity, fair play -- they didn’t only belong to those  who could afford to embrace the sense of noblesse oblige. He understood, in my view, that nobility lives in the heart of every man and woman regardless of their situation in life. He understood that the aspirations of the mother living on Bellevue Avenue here in Newport were no more lofty, no more considerable, than the dream of a mother living in an apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant.…each of those mothers wanted their children to have the opportunity to make the most of their gifts and the most of their lives.”

Biden told some favorite stories, drawing laughter with the one about Pell going for a jog on a trip to Rome dressed in an Oxford button-down shirt, Bermuda shorts, black socks and leather shoes -- an image of Pell that his friends and family knew well. Sweat suits and Nikes were not Pell’s style.

“To be honest, he was a quirky guy, Nuala,” Biden said.

Biden consoles Nuala Pell at the senator's funeral.

The mourners laughed -- Nuala most appreciatively, for she understood best what Biden meant. For two thirds of a century, she had experienced his odd dress, his obsession with ancestors, his bad driving, his frugality, his fascination with ESP and the possibility of life after death, his manner of speaking, as if he had indeed traveled forward in time from the 1600s, when Thomas Pell was named First Lord of the Manor of Pelham. These traits were all part of his charm, which sometimes annoyed but often amused his wife. This and his handsome looks and ever-curious mind were why Nuala had fallen in love when they met in the summer of 1944, when she was 20, and why she married him four months later. Claiborne Pell was different. Unlike most other young men of her circle, he aspired to be something more than a rich guy who threw parties.

Biden’s eulogy was nearing a half hour, but he had one more story.

“One day, I was sitting in the Foreign Relations Committee room waiting for a head of state to come in.” Pell was there.

“He took his jacket off, which was rare -- I can’t remember why -- and I noticed his belt went all the way around the back and it went all the way to the back loop. I looked at him and I said, `Claiborne, that’s an interesting belt.’

“He said, `it was my father’s.’ And his father was a big man.

“I looked at him and I said, `Well, Claiborne, why don’t you just have it cut off?’

“He unleashed the whole belt and held it up and said, `Joe, this is genuine rawhide.’ I’ll never forget that: `This is genuine rawhide.’ I thought, God bless me!”

Almost a half century before, Pell’s father, Herbert Claiborne Pell Jr., had been remembered here in Trinity Church after dying of a heart attack in Munich, Germany, on July 17, 1961. A plaque in Herbert’s name hung from the wall behind the pulpit from which distinguished men now eulogized his son. “Lay Reader in this Church,” the plaque read. “Kind and beloved Public Servant & Scholar. Member 66th United States Congress. United States Minister to Portugal and to Hungary.” 

Elected from Manhattan’s Silk Stocking District, Herbert served one term, from 1919 to 1921, in the U.S. House of Representatives. Losing re-election, he became chairman of the New York’s Democratic State Committee, remaining until 1926. His friend President Franklin Delano Roosevelt named him minister to Portugal in 1937, and then, in 1941, minister to Hungary. When Hitler’s war forced Herbert to return home, Roosevelt named him a delegate to the United Nations War Crimes Commission.

Herbert was more an intellectual than a politician -- a bibliophile, art collector and writer whose inheritance allowed him to do whatever he desired. Herbert owned properties in Manhattan, New York state and Newport, and kept a staff that included a chauffeur and a personal secretary. He traveled extensively, preferring to stay at the many European and American men’s clubs to which he belonged. But of all his passions, none rivaled the interest he took in his only child.

Herbert made the decisive decisions about Claiborne’s education. He critiqued the young boy’s penmanship and tennis serve and brought Claiborne along with him on his world adventures. He used his considerable influence in attempting to place the young man into the military and, after the war, public service. He advised Claiborne on matters of business, politics, ethics and love. He responded at length when Claiborne sought his counsel, as Claiborne regularly did. He established the trust fund that would free his son, as his parents had freed him, from the concerns of  earning the daily bread. He taught his son that the family had maintained its wealth since the 17th Century not with the sort of obscene extravagance that had eroded many a Gilded-Age fortune, but by living a refined life without want, but with limits that protected the base for subsequent generations.

“Financial independence, even the humblest, is not a necessity but it is a most desirable concomitant of spiritual and intellectual freedom,” he wrote to his son in 1939, the year Claiborne turned 21 and Herbert, 55, gave him control of the trust. With the money came words of fatherly wisdom. “I strongly advise you not to make the mistake I made: Do not accumulate possessions. I do not say that if I had my life to live over again I would own nothing except my clothes, but I would give a lot of heart to following that drastic course than to doing what I did.”

Claiborne was six months into his first Senate term when Herbert died, without warning or goodbye, 4,000 miles away. Claiborne flew to Germany to oversee his cremation, returning with his father’s ashes, which were scattered in the ocean off Jamestown, an island community next to Newport. Already obsessive about Pell family ancestry, as Herbert had been, Claiborne decorated his Washington and Newport homes with paintings and mementoes of his father. He began wearing his clothes, much too big for him. Herbert stood six-feet-five-inches tall and weighed nearly 250 pounds; at six-foot-two and 156 pounds, Claiborne was physically slight by comparison.

But it was not the only measure by which Pell likened himself to his father -- and in which he saw himself short. This senator who would draw many of the nation’s political elite to his funeral was never convinced he was the man his father had been. It was a judgment that would both drive and haunt Pell, in his legislative career and personal life. It was central to the fascination he developed with the paranormal and his largely unpublicized but obsessive quest to learn what, if anything, lay beyond death -- and whether it was possible to communicate to those who were departed.         

If it was, perhaps he could reach his father, who had not lived to see what his son had become. Perhaps he could receive Herbert’s approval.

Senator Jack Reed, who received Pell’s endorsement and succeeded him in the Senate, joined the other eulogists in praising his predecessor’s accomplishments. Like Biden, Reed had a funny story related to Pell’s forbears. It took place in 1992, when Reed, a freshman member of the House, was waiting with Pell for President George H. W. Bush to sign the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which provides the funding for Pell Grants. Reed, the son of a janitor and a housewife, had grown up admiring Pell.

“Now, Claiborne was a master of many things, but small talk was not one of them,” Reed told the mourners. “We got through the weather and the traffic pretty quickly and we were rapidly moving into the area of awkward silence. But I was sitting next to one of my heroes and felt compelled to keep talking so I blurted out:

“ `Are you going up to Rhode Island this weekend, senator?’

“Claiborne perked up noticeably and said: ‘Well, no, Jack, I’m going up to Fort Ticonderoga for a family reunion.’

“I was a bit thrown by the response, so I said: `Why would you ever go up there for a family reunion?’

“ `Well, Jack, you see, we own it.’ ”

Laughter filled the church.

``For a moment, I thought he was pulling my leg,” Reed continued. “But that was not Claiborne Pell. As President Bush entered, we stood up and I realized one more reason why Claiborne Pell was so unique and so deserving of trust: he owned his own fort.”

The last to speak was Nick Pell, 31, Claiborne’s oldest grandson. Tall and slim like his grandfather, Nick listed the qualities he would remember best about his grandfather: his stubborn resolve, his patriotism, and his generosity to his family and constituents, though not in the ordinary sense to himself. Pell could have bought many things, but he had heeded his father’s 1939 admonition about possessions.

“My grandfather will be remembered by those who loved him for his extreme frugality,” Nick said. “For some, this may be a negative trait, but in true New England WASP form, my grandfather was actually quite proud of his ability to conserve resources. He served famously bad cigars and wine. He jogged in actual business suits that had been reluctantly retired. He drove a Chrysler LeBaron convertible, which was outfitted with tattered red upholstery, a roof held together with duct tape, and an accelerator which was so old it required calf-strengthening exercises just to depress the pedal. When it finally fell apart, he replaced it with a Dodge Spirit which he had purchased used from Thrifty Rental Car.  I guess Hertz was too expensive.

“When my sister lived with him in Washington for the summer, he used to make her gather hors d’oeuvres from cocktail parties as he’d just as soon not pay for dinner. He used to say `food is fuel’ and `never turn down a meal, as you never know when your next one will come.’ He was able to strike the perfect balance between a gentleman and a man in tattered suits living from meal to meal.”

 Nick did not repeat his grandfather’s Congressional achievements, some of which came after years of work. What he would remember with deepest respect was his grandfather’s inner strength as his Parkinson’s advanced and freedom slipped away.

“He won some impressive battles during his time on the hill,” the grandson said, “but in my mind, his greatest show of strength was his battle with his failing health. He had been sick for well over ten years and while his body gave out long ago, his will to live was of mythic proportions. He showcased what we in the family call ‘warrior spirit’  -- and his resolve to live and enjoy time with the people he loved most, his family, his friends, and his constituents. It’s as if God had told him years ago that his time was up and he just said,  ‘Not until I’m ready.’ ”

(Should you wish to purchase any of my collections and books, fiction or non-fiction, visit

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Toy Wars

During the #coronavirus pandemic, I am regularly posting stories and selections from my published collections and novels. Read for free! Reading is the best at this time!

This 11th free offering is the first chapter of "Toy Wars: The Epic Struggle Between G.I. Joe, Barbie and the Companies That Make Them," first edition published in 1998 by Random House, with  subsequent print and Kindle editions.



The hearse bearing the body of Stephen Hassenfeld left New York the afternoon of June 26, 1989, and reached Mitch Sugarman's Mt. Sinai Memorial Chapel in Providence, Rhode Island, by nightfall. After being washed in accordance with ancient Hebrew custom, Stephen was dressed in a burial shroud, a simple garment that is white, to symbolize death's democracy, and pocketless, a reminder that nothing material from this world survives to the next. At the family's request, a business suit was placed over the shroud. Stephen was laid out in Sugarman's finest mahogany casket and wheeled into the chapel, where a red memorial candle with a Star of David burned.
The coffin was closed. Dark-haired and handsome in life, an impeccable dresser with exquisite taste in everything, Stephen in death was devastated by AIDS, which had finally claimed him after almost a month in a coma in Manhattan's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.
Stephen's callers the next day were only those closest to him. His mother, Sylvia, was in from New York, along with his sister, Ellie Block; during Stephen's hospitalization, the details of which they'd kept fiercely private, they'd maintained a bedside vigil. Stephen's life partner and longtime business associate, Robert Beckwith, came, as did Leslie Gutterman, Rhode Island's foremost rabbi.
As midnight neared and his mother and sister wearied, Alan insisted they leave, to get what rest they could. Jewish tradition requires the deceased be attended until burial, and Sugarman ordinarily hired elderly holy men for the ritual. But Alan did not want Stephen with strangers. He'd insisted on watching, on reciting the Book of Psalms, by himself. Sometime in the pre-dawn hours, he put his book down, opened the casket, and tucked into a pocket of Stephen's suit the notes and pictures his nieces and nephew wanted their uncle to have. Alan had a note of his own and he placed that in the pocket, too. Then he removed one of his rubber bands and placed it on Stephen's wrist, to be worn for all eternity.

Through his tears, Alan spoke of his love for his only brother and best friend, seven years his senior. His thoughts wandered to their childhoods, here on Providence's East Side -- the fancy Porsche Stevie had driven, his reputation as a debater at the prestigious Moses Brown School, how Stevie always came to the rescue when Alan's shenanigans landed him in trouble with mom. He pondered the tragedy of Stephen's disease, which Stephen had confirmed only to Beckwith. Only when Stephen was on his deathbed did his family confront the truth behind the maladies that had slowly consumed him until, at his last public appearance, Hasbro's annual meeting in his beloved New York showroom, this man who'd once regularly worked 18-hour days was exhausted by a routine thirty-minute presentation. Forty-seven years old, Stephen had died without finding the way to unburden himself.

He was called the father of the modern toy company, but that hardly did Stephen D. Hassenfeld justice. In 1980, when Stephen became Hasbro's chairman and chief executive officer, toy companies were but a quirky footnote on Wall Street. Investors were wary of businesses built on the whims of kids, for good reason: One big hit and men became millionaires overnight, one bomb and bankruptcy beckoned. Hasbro had been no exception, having made tremendous profits in the mid-sixties with the introduction of G.I. Joe, and then sputtering into the seventies as Joe's popularity waned. Hasbro lost more than a million dollars in 1978; two years later, it made a modest five million, its stock traded at but six dollars a share, and revenues were only $104 million. Mattel, the industry leader, was eight times as big, and vastly more profitable.
Under Stephen's leadership, Hasbro in the next five years surpassed $1.2 billion in sales, clobbering Mattel, whose investments outside of traditional toys had left it deeply in debt. Forbes magazine rated Hasbro first in a thousand-corporation survey of increased value during that tumultuous period, well ahead of other high flyers such as Wal-Mart and Berkshire Hathaway.
Alan had been a force in all this, but a less potent one than Stephen. President and chief operating officer, he was primarily responsible for international, the side of the business he'd joined after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he'd majored in creative writing. Stephen involved Alan in major decisions and both took pains to describe their relationship as teamwork, an accurate description; until Alan had married this spring, they'd even shared a house in Rhode Island, home of corporate headquarters, and apartments in Palm Beach and New York. But there was never doubt who was in control, never suspicion the younger brother coveted the older's job, for truthfully he did not.
``It's the old Chinese philosophy,'' Alan would say. ``Two tigers can't live on the same hill.''

Until cardiac arrest sent him into irreversible coma, Stephen had believed he would recover. A wonder drug would be found, a miraculous new therapy perfected, something. He'd never discussed succession at Hasbro with Alan or anyone else. Stephen had confidence in his brother's potential, but he'd never wanted to believe he would be tested this way.
Should I?
Alan was talking aloud again. In the scented shadows of the funeral home, he imagined Stephen would respond.
How tempting it was to simply walk away. A millionaire many times over, Alan could return to writing, an earlier passion he still carried within. He could devote himself to philanthropy or pursue his distant dream of being a diplomat or holding political office. Alan had never shared his brother's single-minded focus. Life for him was a great feast, meant to be sampled in its many delicious varieties.
What would Stevie or their late father, Merrill, Stephen's predecessor at Hasbro, have wanted him to do? For that matter, what would their grandfather, Hasbro's founder, have thought? It was difficult to imagine that any of the Hassenfelds, even soft-hearted Merrill, would have approved of the final brother simply walking away. But Alan had someone else to consider: his wife, Vivien, a granddaughter of Prussian nobility who'd schooled in England and built a successful Hong Kong design firm. She'd married Alan, barely two months ago, expecting to continue her cosmpolitan lifestyle, not be anchored in Rhode Island, a post-industrial backwater that had no charm she could discern, except, perhaps, Newport. Alan knew Vivien would support any decision he made, but her happiness was a concern he could not blithely ignore.
Alan didn't question where mom stood. He never had, not through his youth or later at Hasbro, when, regardless of where she was in the world, she telephoned her sons at least daily. Sylvia was a noted philanthropist, prominent in domestic and international Jewish causes, but no small share of her stature rested on the foundation of Hasbro. It mattered not that, unlike her firstborn, Alan had come reluctantly to the firm and had remained contentedly in Stephen's shadow. Alan was the only one she had now in a position of corporate power, for her daughter Ellie, herself a philanthropist, was of a generation whose women were kept from the executive suite.
And if he did seek the chairmanship of Hasbro -- he supposed it was his for the asking, although he could not be certain until the board met -- how would he fill this void Stephen had left? Alan's strengths were product, merchandising, manufacturing, and overseas. He knew little about balance sheets and investor relations -- Wall Street, the treacherous soil on which the legend of Stephen had grown. The prospect of following him there was terrifying.
As dawn came, Alan thought he could hear Stephen giving him advice. Alan accepted it. ``He would have killed me,'' Alan said, ``if I had basically thought of anything different.''

From the funeral parlor, Stephen was taken to his home in Bristol, on the east shore of picturesque Narragansett Bay. Stephen was no sailor, but during the America's Cup campaign of 1983, which was staged from Newport, he'd chartered three large sailing vessels for the exclusive summer-long use of business associates, family and friends. Alan kept a photograph of him with his brother on one of those long-ago cruises on his desk.
Alan placed white roses on the casket and he and the small gathering of family and friends bid Stephen farewell. The hearse returned to Providence, to Temple Emmanu-el, where bronze tablets and a stained-glass window inscribed with the names of Hassenfelds attested to the family's prominence for most of the century. Stephen's senior executives awaited the deceased in the warmth of the summer day. Of the innermost circle, only Robert Beckwith was not standing with them, was not a pallbearer; the Hassenfelds had not asked him. But as he ascended the temple steps, he was hugged by all of Stephen's senior people, each of whom Stephen had made a wealthy man.
Stephen A. Schwartz, chief marketing executive during the years of fastest growth, had been instrumental in returning G.I. Joe from retirement in 1982 -- the single most critical factor in building Hasbro's huge cash reserve, which Stephen had applied to acquisitions, which in turn brought growth. Schwartz had a tremendous ego, but it was not undeserved. He was smart and stubbornly ambitious, a fast-talking native New Yorker endowed with great product sense. Two more of the industry's most profitable lines of the 1980s, Transformers and My Little Pony, had been introduced by Hasbro on his watch.
Lawrence H. Bernstein stood next to Schwartz, his close friend. Bernstein was the best salesman Hasbro had ever had -- an exceptionally entertaining man whose jokes and mannerisms were reminiscent of Sid Caesar, a comic he'd adored growing up in '50s Brooklyn. Bernstein could make the unique claim of having coaxed Stephen, after too much wine, into reenacting a Marx Brothers routine at a company gathering. The Three Musketeers is what Bernstein had called himself, Schwartz and research director George A. Dunsay, no longer with Hasbro. Standing there, consumed by grief at the loss of a man he loved, Bernstein could not possibly have imagined what fate would soon befall the surviving two of the Three Musketeers.
Barry J. Alperin, executive vice president and the only officer beside Alan to serve on the board at that time, was the lone intellectual on the temple steps. An aficionado of ballet, opera and theater, as Stephen had been, Alperin had grown up in Providence, where his family's philanthropy brought him into contact with the Hassenfelds. Alperin was an attorney, a bespectacled man steeped in the arcana of acquisition law. Before his death, Stephen had given Alperin a new responsibility in marketing and product development, including development of a secret video game. Like Bernstein, Alperin could never have guessed what his future at Hasbro held.
With Alperin was George R. Ditomassi Jr., Stephen's games vice president, entrusted with Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, and other timeless jewels. Ditomassi had come to Hasbro with Stephen's acquisition of Milton Bradley, America's premier maker of games and puzzles. Dito, as he was known, had style that rivalled Stephen's. He was that rare man who could wear gold without seeming tacky or pretentious.
And then there was Al Verrecchia, who knew more about the business than anyone but Stephen himself.
Of all the chairman's men, Verrecchia most looked the part of senior executive. Six-foot-three, broad-shouldered and fit, and uncommonly handsome, Verrecchia favored suits and wing-tip shoes. Employees sometimes joked that his hair must obey different laws of physics, for a strand was never out of place. ``Make sure your hair is combed and your shoes are shined,'' his grandmother had said in advice he'd taken to heart, ``for those are the first two things people see.'' Twenty-five years with Hasbro and recently promoted to president of manufacturing, Verrecchia had no equal with numbers. Many an underling had experienced the chill when he perched his reading glasses on the tip of his nose, took up his mechanical pencil, ruler and calculator, and started into their business plans. Verrecchia knew the underside of Hasbro: the late '60s and early '70s, when Merrill, president, had been forced to put up his personal property as collateral on high-interest loans needed to cover the payroll. It was Verrecchia who'd negotiated those loans, Verrecchia who'd begged resin suppliers for extended terms to keep the molding machines running, Verrecchia who'd analyzed when individual paychecks were cashed so that he could dole out the precious dollars to cover them.
Despite their grief, Stephen's senior managers had not lost sight of succession. Few doubted the board would deny Alan the chairmanship if he sought it, but they had few clues about how, when, or even if he would restructure the top after taking charge. Alan's U.S. office was next to his brother's at world headquarters, and he was everywhere at Toy Fair, but there was an ethereal quality to him. With his international duties, he was always traveling, and when he was home, he was as likely to regale them with tales of expeditions through early post-Mao China as with marketing strategies for toys. Alan's closest confidants at the company were his mother and brother, and his wife to most was a stranger. No one knew his vision for Hasbro, because he'd never had to spell one out.

In his eulogy, Rabbi Gutterman spoke to more than company executives, for Stephen Hassenfeld would long be remembered for more than stock options and dividends alone. Factory workers whose names and birthdays he'd never forgotten were present, together with politicians, religious and community leaders, and beneficiaries of corporate and family philanthropy. ``If every person Stephen Hassenfeld touched with happiness brought a flower to his grave,'' Gutterman said, ``he would sleep tonight beneath a wilderness of roses.''
Led by a State Police escort, Stephen's funeral procession was more than three miles long. Those familiar with such matters said it was the largest motorcade in Rhode Island history, surpassing even Presidential visits.


Seven days after Alan had thrown the last spade of earth onto his brother's grave, the directors of Hasbro Inc. gathered in a conference room on the mezzanine floor of the company's New York showroom. Alan spoke a few words to the board and he, his mother and Alperin left.
Directors were aware that Stephen's hospitalization and persistent rumors about its true cause had troubled Wall Street before the chairman's death. Their concern was compounded by Hasbro's uncharacteristically flat performance in 1987 and 1988. Had Stephen lost his touch -- or was Hasbro simply catching its breath after its extraordinary run? Whatever the case, Alan, this man with the rubber bands always on his wrists, gave Wall Street the jitters. Would he and Sylvia -- they effectively controlled almost a third of Hasbro's stock -- decide to sell? Speculation that the Walt Disney Co., entertainment giant MCA, video-game maker Nintendo, and Mattel were interested in acquiring the firm had led to a run on Hasbro stock. If Hasbro remained independent, more probable after adoption of a so-called poison pill a week after Stephen was hospitalized, would Alan be up to the job? The Wall Street Journal was among the doubters. It recently had described him as his brother's ``shadow.''
Behind closed doors, director E. John Rosenwald Jr. had the floor. Newly named vice chairman of The Bear Stearns Companies, one of New York's foremost investment bankers, Rosenwald had been a close friend of Stephen and was the most powerful member of the Hasbro board, after Alan. Shortly after the funeral, Alan had visited him in his Fifth Avenue penthouse. Sitting on the terrace as the sun set over Central Park, Alan had poured his heart out. ``I'd be a little bit different from my brother,'' he told Rosenwald, ``but I know the business and I want my shot.''
Rosenwald related their discussion to the directors, some of whom had spoken privately with him of their inclination to sell Hasbro and, having turned a tidy profit, be done with it. He talked of the depth of Hasbro's management team and praised Alan's intelligence, experience and desire. ``He deserves his shot,'' Rosenwald said. ``His name is on the door, too. He has spent his whole life here and he's ready to roll and he has a plan and I think you should support him.''
The vote was unanimous. Alan returned with Sylvia and Alperin and was congratulated. He had not heard, of course, Rosenwald's caveat about the last Hassenfeld brother -- sole surviving grandson of the founder, a Polish immigrant who'd arrived in America, virtually penniless, at the age of thirteen.
``If it doesn't work out,'' Rosenwald had said, ``we can always sell the company.''

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