Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Hero's Obiturary

This morning, I looked at the New York Times online before I ran off to class and saw the obituary of someone I knew- Milt Wolff.

Around 1993 or I was working at the N.N. Smokehouse, a popular rib joint that my friend Larry Tucker had opened near Irving Park Road and Ashland in Chicago. It was early in the shift, and it wasn't busy, so I was reading Dennis Gilbert's book Sandinistas, a history of the Sandinistas, who overthrew a the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979 (yes, that's the kind of stuff I read). My only customer was a quiet, older (seventies) sometimes grouchy woman who came in once a week or so, ate quietly and left. This time, she wasn't quiet.

She asked me what I was reading, and I told her. To my surprise, she started talking about the Sandinista revolution and Nicaragua.

It turned out that she had been involved in leftist causes since her youth. Her name was Gladys Knoebel. From then on, whenever Gladys came in, until her death about a year later, I always waited on her, and we talked about politics and history. In the course of time, somehow we started talking about the Lincoln Brigade-- the American volunteers who joined the Spanish Republic's fight against a miilitary takeover in the late 1930's. I had, in fact, become quite interested in them, and had been trying to find information on them, going as far as contacting the New York-based "Veterans of the Lincoln Brigade" organization, and beginning an exchange of letters with some of the vets. Her late husband, she told me, had wanted to go but was considered too young. I mentioned some of the vets I'd either contacted or read about. When I mentioned Milt Wolff, she uncharacteristically blushed like a high school girl, got a coquettish look on her face and said "Oh, Miltie Wolff!" She'd clearly admired more than his political committment.

In 1996, a book was published on the Lincoln Brigade, The Odyssey of the Lincoln Brigade, by Peter Carroll. On May 11, 1997 (I remember the date because it was my birthday), I went down to Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago and saw Mr. Carroll speak. It was the beginning of my own odyssey.

I ended up chatting up Mr. Carroll and some of the veterans, and about a year later, ended up being asked to co-chair the Chicago Friends of the Lincoln Brigade.

Over the next couple of years, I was involved in a lot of activiites. I helped organize a lot of events, and usually emceed them. One of those events was in Oak Park in 1999. The town of Oak Park was honoring the centenniel of the birth of native son Ernest Hemingway. One of the events was co-sponsored by the Chicago Friends of the Lincoln Brigade-- bringing Milt Wolff in for a talk.

Milt was the last commander of the American battalion in Spain. By the summer of 1937, it was clear that Spain was going to lost the war. Desperate to get the thousands of German and Italian troops Hitler and Mussolini had sent to help Franco's fascists out of Spain, the Spanish government had agreed to send the tens of thousands of volunteers from 54 different countries if Germany and Italy would pull their troops out. Milt was sent home.

And Germany and Italy kept their troops there, leading to Franco's victory in Spain.

Milt had gone to Spain with the intention of driving an ambulance-- he considered himself a pacifist. He soon lost his pacifism and took charge of a machine-gun crew.

He'd lied to his mother, saying he was working in a factory in Spain. His cover was blown when famed photographer Bob Capa snapped his picture standing next to writer Ernest Hemingway (the picture at the top of this post), and the picture was on the front page of a magazine in the United States.

Milt continued with leftist causes. Here are links to his obit in the New York Times (you have to be registered with the New York Times online) and to an obit Peter Carroll posted on the VALB-ALBA site (he's also quoted in the New York Times obit).

New York Times obit

Peter Carroll-penned obit

I'd met Milt briefly in New York in 1998 when I visited the annual meeting the surviving Lincoln Brigade vets had back then. When we brought him to Oak Park in 1999, I hung out with him all day, and later we all had dinner and drinks with him. I could see why Gladys Knoebel had been smitten with him; he was handsome, gregarious, charming and very, very funny.

As I got ready to write this post, it occurred to me that we had a picture of Milt hanging in our home. In our dining room, we have a poster that my friend Andreas had given me a few years ago. It was a poster advertising a benefit for a striking labor union. The main attraction was the appearance of some Lincoln Brigade vets. When I met Milt, he had chuckled about how the Lincoln Brigade vets had become, when they returned from Spain, the rock stars of the left. Their commitment-- and blood that so many of them had shed-- had demonstrated without a doubt their commitment to the left and to a better world.

Milt's the guy on the far right in the photograph.

I read something back years ago-- that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who wait for something to come to them and those who go out and make it happen. Milt Wolff was, happily, one of the latter. I feel lucky to have known him.


Mathman6293 said...

Your post hooked me with the Irving Park Road reference, that was my mom's favorite road. If you couldn't get there via Irving you just didn't go.

But what an interesting story. I love how you got to know about Milt and then meet him.

When we left Chicago I realized that I missed the Trib's Obits most. And I still read them.

Bubs said...

You're lucky to have known Milt Wolff. I ran into a few Spanish civil war vets years ago at Modern Books when it was down on south Dearborn.

cheer34 said...

you meet the most interesting people.

Erik Donald France said...

RIP. Impressive eulogy and guy.

SkylersDad said...

You continue to amaze me with your life experiences JY!