I GREW UP IN MIAMI BEACH, FLORIDA IN THE EARLY 1950’s, when television was in its infancy (only three channels). We had a twelve inch black-and-white Magnavox, which we kept in the living room – and I begged my parents to buy a smaller set for my bedroom – but they refused, afraid that TV could hinder my intellectual growth. My father, who encouraged me to share his love of reading, often warned about the danger of too much TV: “Beware of the ‘boob-tube’ – it’s a path to nowhere – but if you are a ‘reader’ you’re destined for success in school, in business, and in life.” Thus, instead of buying me a TV, he purchased a set of the World Book Encyclopedia, which was stacked on an oak bookshelf in my bedroom. As a result of this adroit decision my favorite bedtime activity soon became crawling under the sheets with a beautiful volume of the encyclopedia, which I read by flashlight, just like Lincoln, who read by candlelight in his log cabin. Those leather bound treasures were my portal to the wonders of the world.
Mostly, I read biographies, never anything about plants or vegetables – I had an aversion to vegetables. During the 11th grade I was obsessed with a few great people and places in the P-volume, especially Plato, Peter, Paul, and Philo. I also read about Pluto, which was then the 9th planet, and the controversial General Patton, but I lost interest in Patton once I learned that he slapped a soldier at a hospital. And when I wasn’t in the mood for reading I browsed at pictures of scary P-animals like pythons, piranhas, and the poisonous puffer fish, or bizarre animals such as the duck-billed platypus. I showed my father a picture of that strange looking mammal. “Hey dad, I bet you don’t know the plural of platypus.”
“Probably platypi,” he responded.
“Nope! If platypus was derived from Latin you’d be right, but it’s a Greek word and the plural really should be platypodes, but that word is never used in English. So, the commonly accepted word is platypuses.”
“Smart ass!” My father beamed with pride as he chewed on an unlit cigar.
I skimmed quickly over Pierce and Polk, the only American P-presidents, but I preferred reading about interesting P-places like Petaluma, California, where they held the annual arm wrestling competition, and Portland, Oregon, which got its name from its founder, a homesick man from Portland, Maine. I also liked Pennsylvania, the only P-state, especially the double-P names for some of the sports teams – the Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies..
“That’s nothing,” said my neighbor, Flo Loerber, “Peter Piper is also a double-P and he picked a peck of pickled peppers.” I used to spend many hours chatting with Flo on her porch (never in her bedroom) lamenting my unsuccessful attempts to end my virginity (I had just turned sixteen) but Flo bragged about her recent sexual experience on a 3-day cruise to Havana (she was eighteen). However – and this seemed so strange – the boy didn’t speak English; she wasn’t even sure of his name.
“I think it was Paco,” Flo smiled, “or maybe Pedro. He was a cute cabin boy.”
There were also a few good P-wars; my favorites were the Peloponnesian Wars and I loathed the bearded Persians who joined forces with Sparta to defeat Athens; that was the end of the Golden Age of Greece. But, one hundred years later Alexander the Great got his revenge and demolished the Persian Empire of Darius III. I also read about the Punic Wars, there were several of them. I was enthralled by the daring exploits of Hannibal. He led thousands of soldiers from Carthage and attacked Rome from the north by crossing the Alps with elephants; he would have defeated the Romans, but most of his elephants died.
I enjoyed reading about Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, and Pamplona, where they held the annual “Running of the Bulls,” and Piccadilly Circus, a vibrant public square in London, not to be confused with piccalilli, a relish used on hot dogs, and I learned that ping pong (a great double-P game) was developed by the British, not by the Chinese or Japanese, and anyone who called the game “table tennis” was just being a snob. The real name was ping pong – and I was pretty good. We had a table in our garage and I played for hours and hours with some of my friends, and I was “king of the neighborhood.” I had an amazing serve – no one could return my hop-spin power serve. Then, I entered the city of Miami Beach ping pong tournament and let loose with my fabulous serve; I won the first five points. Unfortunately, my opponent complained to the judges and my serve was declared illegal. Apparently, you aren’t allowed to pinch the ball with your left hand (creating a spin) while hitting the serve through your hidden grasp; you have to throw the ball into the air (several feet above the paddle) making it visible to your opponent when you serve. Damn! We had to start the game over and without my deadly spin serve I was killed in that match … 21-3, 21-4.
When I returned home I didn’t tell anyone my serve was illegal, so I still beat all my friends, but I knew I was cheating and ping pong lost its excitement, kind of like cheating in pinball and winning every time. I did that by putting thick glass ashtrays under the front legs of the machine, slowing down the ball, but it got boring winning every time, either in pinball or ping pong. I learned an important lesson – without the fear of losing there is no fun in winning.
At first, Plato was my favorite P-guy so I went to the library and checked out a copy of “Plato’s Republic.” However, I thought most of that classic book was utopian nonsense. In his “polis” (city-state) Plato created a perfect harmony of economic and social values; he did that by eliminating human choice. He put people into separate categories. In Plato’s ideal world all men were not created equal and he proposed that philosophers should be the leaders. I guess he felt people were stupid, that we were all staring at artificial illusions in a cave, and only the philosophers were smart enough to escape from the darkness and see the light.
That’s not very different than the Orthodox Jews,” said my father. “In that culture everyone has a well defined role, especially men and women in the home, and the Talmudic scholars are the leaders.”
Although I somewhat agreed with Plato, that the most intelligent people should become the leaders of a country, I preferred our system of government over his structured republic. In our modern republic we elected presidents even if they weren’t the smartest people. The best example was Eisenhower. I liked Ike (so did everyone else) although he wasn’t nearly as intellectual as Stevenson, and Truman sure wasn’t a philosopher, but he was an excellent president. I was too young to remember FDR, but he wasn’t a philosopher either (except for his famous speech about having ‘nothing to fear except fear itself’). However, in my opinion, he was one of the best presidents in American history, and from what I read, Woodrow Wilson was definitely a philosopher (Plato would have loved him) but he wasn’t a very good politician. He saw the light at the end of the tunnel and conceived the idea of a League of Nations, an organization designed to end future wars; he even won the Nobel Peace Prize for that brilliant idea, but he couldn’t convince Congress to join the League. He couldn’t even convince them to sign the “Treaty of Versailles” – the treaty that ended the First World War.
“Wilson was an idealist,” said my father. “He was a noble man, but he had his head in the clouds. The first time I voted was 1912 and I loved Theodore Roosevelt, the Bull Moose candidate, but it was a three-party election and Wilson, the Democrat, won. TR was my favorite president until his cousin Franklin. The charismatic old “rough-rider” pronounced the family name like the ‘oo’ in rooster, and FDR pronounced his name with a hard ‘o’ like row.”
I was captivated by the P-volume of my encyclopedia, although not to the point where I would eat peas (like I already mentioned, I hated vegetables) but during my nightly love affair with the World Book I ate plenty of potato chips, peanuts, and pretzels. Finally, to show my passion for the letter “P” I bought a black Princeton sweatshirt at a local sporting goods store. I thought of the sweatshirt idea when I read that Wilson, the idealist, was once the president of Princeton, and forty years later Einstein had a research chair at that same prestigious university.
However, the sweatshirt didn’t say “Princeton,” it only had a large orange “P” on the front and if anyone asked why I was wearing a P-sweatshirt I came up with a variety of cute answers … “Pernicious” “Pugnacious” “Persnickety,” and if they asked what those words meant, I simply said, “go look it up.”
“Myron, I think your ‘P’ stands for ‘pompous,’” said my best friend, David Steinberg, “or maybe ‘pussy.’”
“Yeah, definitely ‘pussy,’” said Josh Broden, a boy who lived several blocks from my house. Josh often used the word “pussy” to describe people he regarded as nerds or nebbishes – or anyone who disagreed with him.
“Maybe Pontiac?” said David’s twin brother Shelly, another one of my closest friends. “He was a famous Indian chief who fought against the British ten years before the Revolutionary War.”
“I don’t know much about him,” I responded, “but I’d love to have a white Pontiac convertible with an Indian head ornament on the hood.”
“How about Pythagoras? said Josh. “He figured out how to measure the hypotenuse; that’s the shortcut from my house to yours. Instead of walking one block west and two blocks north I can save time by walking diagonally, cutting across a few lots.”
“I like him too,” I laughed, “But the hypotenuse won’t work if there’s a fence blocking your path – or a Pit Bull.”
“What about Ptolemy, said Shelly? “There were several of them, but the most famous one was the astronomer.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I responded, “the ‘P’ in his name is silent, like pneumonia; it isn’t a real ‘P’ name, and he wasn’t too smart — he said the sun revolved around the earth.”
“Well, if the ‘P’ stands for Priapus, that’s OK with me,” said Flo, “he was the Greek god of fertility, and his pecker hung to his knees.” Flo had a far away look in her eyes – fond memories of her recent sexual experience on the cruise ship – and she told me the boy had an uncircumcised penis.
“I’ve seen pictures of Priapus,” I commented, “but, you can’t call his humongous penis a pecker – on statues it’s called a ‘phallus.’ But, I thought you said size didn’t matter.”
Flo grinned. “Hey, don’t guys always gawk at girls with big boobs?”
“Well, not if they hang to their knees. But, the ‘P’ on my sweatshirt isn’t for penis, pecker, or phallus – and even if it was, it wouldn’t be for one with a covered head. They’re freaky looking, and how does that guy pee? Doesn’t the foreskin get yucky wet?”
“Probably, but how difficult is it to wash down there every time you pee? Girls always wipe when we pee.”
“Yeah, but girls are sitting; that’s a lot easier,” I responded. “Anyway, you should be happy you’re no longer fooling around with that cabin boy or you’d be wearing an extra-large P-sweatshirt today, and the ‘P’ would be for ‘pregnant.’”
I couldn’t understand how Flo was able to love that guy’s penis without even talking to him or knowing his name. We’re not dogs in heat or rabbits. I was positive once I finally had a serious relationship with a girlfriend the best part would be eating pizza together and talking, or walking barefoot on the beach, or maybe kissing in the rain.
Flo stared at me and shook her head: “Myron, you are so naïve; you’ve got a lot to learn. Let me know the next time you see a man kissing a prostitute in the rain. By the way, ‘prostitute’ is also a P-word, so is ‘prophylactic’ – and you better carry one in your wallet, in case you get lucky.”
Margaret Parker, my World History teacher, put her hand on my shoulder as she elaborated on the importance of classic Greek philosophers. Miss Parker was an exchange teacher from England, unmarried and probably in her forties. She spoke softly, with a very proper British accent, and her blonde curly hair was neatly groomed in a poodle cut, a popular style inspired by a few movie stars – and we were alone in her classroom. I was positive this middle age spinster had no first hand experience with a penis, either a circumcised one or an ugly one with a foreskin. A weird thought came to my mind – maybe we could lose our virginity together.
“Yuck, that’s sick,” said a voice in my head, which always intervened when I had crazy thoughts. “You’re probably infatuated with Miss Parker because she was your mother in a prior life. If you bang this old broad there’s a good chance your dick will fall off or maybe you’ll turn into a centaur, that’s the half-human, half-horse animal.”
Of course I never discussed this pubescent fantasy with any of my friends; they would think I was a pervert or a mentally disturbed degenerate, but they shared my opinion about the virginity of Miss Parker. “Oh yeah; she’s definitely a virgin,” said Flo, “but I’m sure she’s seen lots of pictures of penises – especially the Watusi warriors in ‘National Geographic.’”
“I’m curious,” I commented, “with boys, when we ‘you-know-what’ it’s kinda’ obvious, but with girls it’s different. How can you tell when a girl?” I blushed, unable to finish my question.
“It’s our secret,” Flo grinned. “Many girls lie to their boyfriends and fake orgasms by shaking and screaming, and they shout ‘Jesus Christ’ even if they’re Jewish. But there is a way to know if a girl wants to get laid – her nostrils twitch.”
Miss Parker continued her fascinating discourse on the ancient Greeks and I cringed when she talked about “Oedipus Rex,” the famous play where the king had sex with his mother and then gouged out his eyes – and I think she read my mind. She smiled and removed her hand from my shoulder. “Myron, much of our western culture is derived from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and of the three, Plato had the most enduring impact because he founded the ‘Academy’ in Athens. That became the major center of learning for one thousand years.”
I was seduced by the sultry British accent of this very intelligent teacher and I listened intently to her compelling stories, but I couldn’t stop glancing at her nostrils – to see if they were twitching. You could definitely get in big trouble if you stared at a teacher’s chest, you’d probably get expelled from school, but there was nothing wrong with looking at her nose. “I read ‘Plato’s Republic,’” I responded, “but he had a strange way of writing, almost always through the voice of Socrates, rarely taking credit for his own ideas.”
“That’s true,” said Miss Parker. “It was the same with Paul, who often wrote through the voice of Jesus, but the difference is Paul never met Jesus, except in a ‘vision’ on the road to Damascus.”
“I don’t know how he learned so much about Jesus during that vision,” I commented. “How long did it last, a month?”
Miss Parker laughed. “The story of Jesus was around before Paul. It was spread by the Apostles, mostly by Peter, who was the preeminent voice of early Christianity.”
“I read about Peter,” I observed. “he was originally a Jewish fisherman named Simon, then he changed his name. Who wants to be called Simon, like Simple Simon the Pie Man? He is usually called the father of Christianity, but he wasn’t really trying to form a new religion – only to get Jews to adopt the teaching of Jesus. The real credit for starting Christianity should go to Paul – he converted pagans by saying it was OK to eat pork and it wasn’t necessary to get circumcised.”
“That probably was a major factor,” said Miss Parker, and she chuckled, “but if you want to read history, rather than undocumented theology, go read about Philo. He was a Greek Jew who lived in Alexandria at the time of Jesus.”
That night I crawled in bed and read about Philo. He was sometimes called Philo the Greek (by the Jews) or Philo the Jew (by the Greeks). He wrote about the relationship between philosophy, politics, and religion, and for the first time I realized all three cornerstones of our civilization were closely connected. It’s too bad President Wilson didn’t understand this connection; if America was a member of the League of Nations maybe there wouldn’t have been a Second World War – maybe six million Jews wouldn’t have been slaughtered in the Nazi death camps.
After reading about this ancient philosopher I told my friends the “P” on my sweatshirt was in honor of Philo. “Huh, who the hell is Philo?” asked David Steinberg … and everyone else asked the same question. Of course, they all heard of Peter, Paul, Patton, and Plato, but no one ever heard of Philo; he became my new super hero. “Philo the Great!” “Philo the Omnipotent!”
I stood tall and proudly responded to their question. “Philo was the father of philosophy.” That wasn’t really true, but it sounded impressive.
Several days later while sitting at my desk Miss Parker approached me and smiled. “Myron, I like your Philo sweatshirt; you got me thinking. He was a very important philosopher in the Greco-Roman era but he is relatively forgotten by history. I’m going to have the class write a paper about the life and theories of Philo.”
That Saturday morning, before I sat down to write my Philo essay, I had a kitchen table discussion with my father while eating toasted bagels and cream cheese. “Philo only spoke Greek,” said my father, “even though he was Jewish. He attempted to blend the philosophy of Plato with the stories of the Old Testament, but his Hellenic ideology had no impact on Jewish thought. However, two hundred years later Christianity adopted many of his ideas.”
“I guess that means he wasn’t such an important person for Jews. That’s too bad; I was really starting to like him.”
“He was a very respected leader of the Jewish people,” noted my father, “but I don’t think he had much of an impact on Jewish thought, at least not in that era. However, most modern rabbis, except for the Orthodox, apply a figurative interpretation of the Bible – somewhat consistent with the ideology of Philo.”
I still had to write my paper but I no longer was enthused about Philo; his philosophy was way over my head and I was confused by his mystical analysis of Genesis. He couldn’t make up his mind whether the snake gave the apple to Eve, and then she fed it to Adam, or whether she simply grabbed the apple away from the snake. Either way, Philo blamed evil on the snake; that’s probably why we hate snakes today, and I don’t think he really trusted women (but that’s just my theory). However, I could never understand what was so terrible about eating from the “tree of knowledge,” isn’t that why we were going to school?
“Myron, this wasn’t one of your best essays,” said Miss Parker. She sat at her desk and scribbled on my paper with a red pencil. “I gave you a ‘B’… you write well but your paper lacked zeal. And how did you come up with a preposterous conclusion that Philo disliked women?”
“Well, just look at those ancient Greek statues.” I stood in front of her desk and tried to force a smile. “Always fat women with big butts. Some don’t even have arms.”.
Miss Parker laughed, “don’t blame that on Philo. The statues of fat women were around long before his era, and they didn’t lose their arms until hundreds of years later, probably not until the Middle Ages.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Parker,” I responded, “you’re right. Philo didn’t excite me. I think his Biblical allegories were not accepted until several hundred years after he died. Most people think Christianity is simply a continuation of Judaism, but because of Philo it seems that the Christian religion also includes a lot of Greek philosophy.”
Miss Parker looked up from her desk and smiled. “Why didn’t you say that in your essay instead of focusing on fat women? That’s a provocative assumption; I’m not sure it’s entirely correct, but it definitely gets you thinking. I would have given you an ‘A.’”
“I think Philo was more Greek than Jewish,” I noted. “He didn’t even read Hebrew and his ideas seem like they came straight from Plato.”
“That should be obvious; many of the educated Greeks in that era studied at the Academy in Athens. As you know, that school was founded by Plato and for one thousand years it perpetuated his ideology. Philo had a deep reverence for Plato and sometimes referred to him as ‘the most holy Plato.’”
I felt bad; I liked Miss Parker and she was disappointed that my Philo essay was very superficial. “Myron, I was hoping you would comment on Philo’s concept of a supreme deity. He disagrees with the main Jewish premise, that God actively changes the world and aids his chosen people.”
“Well, I’m not an expert on God,” I responded, “but I always hated the idea that Jews were called the chosen people. God sure picked a strange way of showing his love, especially during the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazi genocide. However, there was one thing that really confused me about Philo. I know he lived in the same era as Jesus Christ, but I couldn’t find what he had to say about Jesus.”
“Of course you couldn’t,” said Miss Parker. Her eyes opened wide as she reached across her desk and squeezed my hand. “Philo never mentioned Jesus, even though the great philosopher was a frequent visitor to Jerusalem, where he had intimate connections with the Royal House of Judea, including King Herod.”
“How can that be?” I asked. “Wasn’t Jesus one of the big stories in Jerusalem?”
“Apparently Philo didn’t think so.” Miss Parker continued squeezing my hand. “He wrote exhaustive commentaries on religion and politics, approximately thirty manuscripts, and well over 800,000 words. He made at least one thousand references to Moses but not one mention of Jesus or any of the events described in the New Testament.”
“That sounds like Jesus was just a fictional person, like one of those gods from Greek mythology. But I sure won’t say that around school; I don’t want to get expelled.”
“That’s for sure,” said Miss Parker. “And, please don’t tell anyone I put that idea in your head – blame it on Philo. Incidentally, you might want to read about Apollo, one of the favorite Greek gods; his mother was a virgin goddess and his father was Zeus, king of the gods. Does that story sound familiar?”
“I didn’t know that,” I responded. “I guess Paul copied some of his ideas from Greek mythology. But, that makes sense; he was preaching to Greeks, not to other Jews.”
“And he was a very effective preacher,” said Miss Parker. I glanced at her nose (a quick glance) – it looked like her nostrils were twitching – then I stared. Immediately, she pulled her hand away from mine. “Myron, why are you gawking at my nose?”
“Uh! Um! I’m sorry – bad habit of mine. Say, maybe we can write our next essay about General Patton? Except for slapping that soldier, he really was a great man.”
“Absolutely not!” Miss Parker closed her briefcase and started walking to the door. But, before leaving the room she stopped and turned toward me. “Pinocchio would be better, seeing how you are so fond of noses…or maybe Jimmy Durante.”
This brilliant teacher was not really pretty and she had a large rear end, like the statues of ancient Greek women, but I felt a cerebral attraction. I envisioned spending the twilight years of my life sitting in the living room with a woman like Miss Parker, reading classic literature, drinking fine wine, maybe even smoking a pipe. We could discuss philosophy, religion, and contemporary politics, the three main concepts that Philo addressed two thousand years ago.
“That sounds boring as hell,” said Josh. “Do you really think you’d have fun screwing a wrinkled old hag with a dried-up pussy?”
“That’s called Platonic love,” I chuckled. “Plato was the inspiration for Philo and Paul. The P-philosophers weren’t obsessed with their penis; they were in search of truth.”
Josh laughed. “I wonder if our principal is ‘in search of truth’ with his hot young secretary?”
“OK, forget Philo,” I replied. “He wasn’t a hero like I thought. I guess the ‘P’ on my sweatshirt will be for General Patton; that should make you happy. He was probably a sociopath but he was the greatest tank general we ever had.”
“Fuckin’A – now you’re talking.” Josh gave me a “thumbs up” sign of approval. “Makes more sense than Philo, and don’t go calling Patton a psycho. He knew what he was doing when he slapped that cry baby soldier – cowards are bad for military morale. But, if you really want to be like Patton you gotta’ get a pearl handle revolver; Patton always wore a pistol, just like a cowboy.”
That Saturday night I wore my P-sweatshirt (no pistol) and went with David and Shelly to the movies; we saw “A Star is Born,” with Judy Garland. I loved the scene where she sat on the edge of the stage and sang “I was born in a trunk in Pocatello, Idaho.” Since Pocatello was spelled with a “P” as soon as I got home I read all about that quaint little town. It was named after Chief Pocatello of the Shoshoni tribe who granted the right-of-way for the railroad. What a dumb decision! But at least the invading hordes of white people named their town after him. I don’t think Pocahontas ever had a town named after her, and she was a lot more famous than Chief Pocatello.
I then told everyone the “P” on my sweatshirt was in honor of Chief Pocatello. My new ambition was to visit that historic city in Idaho, to lay a wreath at the Pocatello memorial (if there was one).
I concluded my reading of the “P’s” with Pompeii. Sadly, that legendary Roman town came to a tragic end on the morning of 24 August, AD 79. Vesuvius erupted and Pompeii was buried under an explosion of super-heated highly pressurized volcanic rock called “pumice” – that was my final P-word.
“Why did people as smart as the Romans build their city so close to an active volcano?” I asked my father. “You’d think they’d have more common sense.”
“I guess they had faith that their gods would protect them,” he replied. “But are we really any smarter today? San Francisco is on top of the San Andreas Fault. I wonder if those people pray for earthquake protection.”
I then moved on to the Q-volume of the World Book and read about Don Quixote. I liked him, even though my friends thought he was a senile weirdo. “If you like that old geezer so much,” said Shelly, “why don’t you wear a Q-sweatshirt?”
“I thought about that,” I replied, “but I can’t find one.”
I understood why Don Quixote always fought with windmills; it was for the same reason I often argued with my teachers. Sometimes you’ve just got to make your point, even if no one else cares. “That’s stupid!” Shelly laughed. “One of those philosophers said if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, then it doesn’t make any noise.”
“Well, not exactly in those words,” I replied. “I think that famous quote was stated as a question without an answer – something to think about.” Philosophers are like that; they ask a lot of questions, but rarely give answers. They leave that up to us.
Illustration: Shreyaa Krritika Das