Friday, May 30, 2008

A Couple of Cool Guys I Knew

Recently, I've seen obits for two really cool guys, both of whom I was fortunate enough to meet.

A few weeks ago, I saw the obit for Abe Osheroff. Abe was a lifelong political activist, who served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade-- the American volunteers who fought fascism in Spain in the 1930's.

For several years, I was co-chair of the Chicago Friends of the Lincoln Brigade. We brought Abe to Chicago to speak to several student groups.

If you've ever seen the documentary "The Good Fight," Abe is featured in it. He was one of the most impressive people I ever met in my life. He was an activist before and after going to Spain, where he was wounded several times. He was a carpenter by profession, and went to Nicaragua in the eighties, at the height of the U.S.-sponsored terrorism, the Contra war, to build hospitals.

I ended up spending a lot of time with Abe while he was in Chicago. He talked about Spain and about moral courage. He didn't consider himself a hero (though I do). He told that the lesson he carried away from Spain and his other life experiences was that in life-- in a war, in a relationship, whatever, you come to a point where you have a choice between doing what is right and what is easy. To take the right choice, even when it's more difficult, is what defines heroism.

One other thing I remember was when I was driving him to Midway Airport, we nearly did not make it in time; there was a traffic jam outside of the airport. We got past the car that I assumed had had an accident-- there was a car that had a crumpled hood and a distraught woman standing next to it, with the police and an ambulance. What I discovered the next day was that a wheel had fallen off of an airplane and landed on her hood. We missed it by a couple of minutes.

By the way, The Good Fight is finally coming out on DVD on July 29 of this year.

The other obit I saw was yesterday-- folksinger Utah Phillips.

Around the year 2000, I was working with my friend Stuart McCarrell on getting a proper burial site and headstone for Lincoln Brigade veteran Eddy Balchowsky. Jeff, a Chicago Friend of the Lincoln Brigade member who was related to Eddy, contacted Utah Phillips, who, it turned out, was going to perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Utah agreed to do a benefit concert. Cynthia, my wife at the time, offered the use of the Flamenco Arts Center, the dance studio that she and I owned. The Sun-Times had an article about the upcoming show and attendance was great. We did not charge for the show; we asked for donations, and got them. We raised most of the money needed for Eddy's headstone and cemetery plot (I posted last year about a visit to Eddy's grave).

Utah Phillips was amazing: raconteur, storyteller, singer, activist, he was also one of the most impressive people I ever met. That he played in our little studio was, to us, amazing and very, very cool.

When went back to look at the pictures from the event, I was struck by something very sad-- that in the group picture, which included, besides myself, Jeff, Lincoln Brigade vet Chuck Hall and his wife Yolanda, Peter Glazer (who was the son of the folksinger Tom Glazer and the nephew of Sidney Glazier, who was the producer of the original version of The Producers), who is now a theater professor at Berkeley, Utah and my friend Stuart. Of the people in the picture, three have passed away-- Chuck, Stuart and of course Utah Phillips. Tempus Fugit.


Erik Donald France said...

The coolest characters, people, men. I will definitely seek out the DVD. RIP to these amazing folks/

Some Guy said...

So sad to see Utah Phillips died. I have a few of his CDs. He seemed like a great guy.

Distributorcap said...

two amazing people
peace to them
and thanks for your tribute

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

RIP Utah.

Johnny Yen said...

You'll enjoy the DVD. We also co-hosted, with an Oak Park historical society, Milt Wolff, who was the the last commander of the batallion (the "brigade" part is a misnomer) during the Hemingway centennial a few years back. Milt met Hemingway. Wolff had been lying to his mother that he was not in combat-- that he was working in a Spanish factory freeing up a Spaniard for duty in the war. When the picture of him with Hemingway, identifying Wolff as the commander of the American batallion appeared on the front page of a US publication, he was busted.

Some Guy-
He was-- not just dedicated to the cause and a talented entertainer, but also a geniunely nice guy-- Exhibit A being his jumping at the chance to perform the benefit. We raised most of the money needed for Eddie's grave that day.

I finally found, today, the videotape of his performance. If I can get it from video to dvd, I'd be glad to send you a copy. Email me your address at juanyen at yahoo dot com.

I was truly blessed to have been able to meet them in my life.

He was definitely one of the good guys.