Tuesday, February 28, 2017

More Stories From Berlin

Berlin, 1963.

My sister Leslie, our German babysitter Monika, and me
One day I was at a field house and had just finished a basketball game. I must have been all of nine.

That year I scored four whole points. That's how good I was. I showered, dressed, and left the locker room with my gear and as they say in the South, I was fixin' to go home.

The place was packed with over 2000 screaming people because the Army men were having a tournament. They were going up and down the court, scoring, rebounding, passing.

There was a circle of kids off to the side in the crowded gym and all I heard was them saying "You do it," "I'm not going to do it," "How 'bout you do it?" They were a bit older than me but I wanted to be cool and fit in so I said, "I'll do it."

They turned as a unit and showed me the object of their attention. A whistle. "Blow it," one said.

That was all I needed to hear.

I puffed my cheeks out and blew it as hard as I could. And the game on the court came to a dead halt. The guy dribbling the ball stopped and looked incredulously at the ref. The ref looked back at him and shrugged his shoulders, his palms up, as if to say,"I didn't do it."

All my new friends pointed at me and said, "He did it!"

Well, the ref said to the players, "I'll be right back." He walked over, took the whistle, and escorted me to the door, in front of all those people, and before I knew it I was outside and on my way home.

Earlier than I thought.

Hard way to learn a lesson.

I lived in Berlin at the height of the Cold War. How cold? We had tanks, that's right tanks, motoring down the avenue outside our apartment building.  You could see them from my living room window. The first time that happened it was kinda scary.

But it happened so much I got used to it.

One day there was a conference that the East Germans weren't invited to. No big deal, right? Wrong. All day MIG jet fighters were in the sky breaking the sound barrier and shattering windows.

Scary again.

John F. Kennedy came to Berlin.

Remember the "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech? It was then. There was a big crowd lining the streets to catch a glimpse of his motorcade and I was in that crowd. There were policemen everywhere and wooden barriers that you weren't supposed to cross.

A white guy said to me, with a smile, "You should see your president," and held me up high above the people.

I was a young black kid.

I wonder if that would happen today.

There's an addendum to that story.

This happened five months later.

Berlin is six hours ahead of New York. So right before bed time I'm in the tub taking my nightly bath. I was busy pouring Ajax into the water to give the appearance of the water being dirty.

Why I didn't just take the bath is something that only a nine year old understands.

Real life intruded, the President had been assassinated.

When you're nine, news like that doesn't usually affect you. Here's how it affected me.

The story came over the radio at my house and caused quite a commotion. My father upon hearing the news rushed past the open bathroom door on the way to his bedroom.

Sounds came out of that room.

He was sobbing.

It was the first time I heard my father cry.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017


There's been a lot of talk lately about a wall. Let me tell you about my experience with a different  one.

The Berlin Wall.

Berlin, Germany.

I used to live in Berlin.

My father was in the Air Force and that's why we moved there. It wasn't the first time we lived in Germany. When I was 'little Mark' we lived in a town called Zweibrucken. That's German for two bridges and my younger sister, Karen, was born there.

Some of my earliest memories are of that time. Think hard of your first recollections. It almost hurts. It's like seeing everything through the haze of a shower curtain. At least that's how it is for me.

So, Berlin.

We moved there in 1962.  There were six McEwens when we arrived. When we left there were eight, I had two new brothers.

Talk about a stranger in a strange land.

Some streets were cobblestone, I had never seen that before. The mark was their dollar and when I was there it was four of them for one dollar of ours. My allowance was a dollar a week. Guess who was always converting dollars to marks? I would spend all my allowance on gummi bears and sweets  from the bakery.

Television was new and we didn't have one. That's where reading took hold and I read everything. Well not everything but things that a kid would read. Mad Magazine, the Hardy Boys, Chip Hilton, Tom Swift.

Don't tell anyone but I even read Nancy Drew books.

I read The Call of the Wild by Jack London. It's set during the Klondike Gold Rush and introduces you to a dog named Buck. I know, I know, too much information, but I remember shivering from the cold, in July, because of that book.

It was the first time I played baseball in little league. My team was called the Cardinals and I pitched. Bob Gibson became my hero because he played for the St. Louis Cardinals and he pitched also.

Ahh, happenstance. Ahh, heroes.

There was a German kid named Roman in my school. His mom would give him a Schmaltz sandwich for lunch every day. Schmaltz is chicken or goose fat used as a spread on bread and he hated it.

I did not.

I bet you know who ate his lunch every day.

There was a park behind our apartment building, Berlin was full of pretty, green, parks. People would walk through it holding hands sometimes, deep in conversation at other times, or just saying nothing. You weren't allowed to ride your bikes there, you were supposed to walk them.


We would ride ours, laughing the whole time. The older park ranger would shake his fist, yell at us in German, and chase us on his bike. It was on. Great fun for us kids.

Now the Berlin Wall.

You know the story. One day there was no wall the next day there was. People who just happened to visit their boyfriend, their girlfriend, their family, and spent the night in what became known as East Berlin, were trapped and could not go back home.

I'd never heard of anything like that.
The Brandenburg Gate

People in a state of shock that their brother, their mother, their good friend, was on the other side of that wall it seemed like for good.

There were wreaths in places along the Wall where people had been shot trying to escape.
They had wooden platforms where you could look over the Wall into East Berlin and I did.

I saw nothing moving as far as the eye could see.

I remember thinking, even as a kid, "How could the streets be empty, how could nothing be moving?"

Not even a bird flying.

An image that has stayed with me forever.

Also being black you were like a rock star in Germany. German people were always wanting to touch your skin and squealing when they did. In my school there were three, count them, three black students.

And the rest?

A sea of white faces.

In 1965 we moved from Berlin to Montgomery, Alabama where we definitely weren't rock stars.

To the people there we were other things.

I went from a sea of white faces to having one white face in my school. And, repeat after me, everyone knew his name.

It was a Catholic school, St. Jude's, I was in sixth grade, and we all had to wear maroon uniforms and ties.

It was there I ran into a totally different wall.

All the kids knew each other and had gone to school together from kindergarten. I was new, had just moved there, and was, how do you say, different.

No big deal, right?

Let me tell you why it was.

Patricia Douglas, I still remember her name, took a fancy to the new kid. She kept smiling at me in class. Just one thing, Marco Pendarvis, still remember his name as well, liked Patricia. And the fact that she cottoned to me didn't sit so well with him.

Before I knew it, Marco, me, and a group of kids were heading to the schoolyard at recess for a fist fight.

I didn't want to go. Told Marco I didn't want to go.

It didn't matter.

So there we were, in the middle of a circle, fists up, when I used the only move I knew. I faked to his stomach with my left hand, he went for it and dropped his hands. It was then my right fist said hello to his face.

After I hit him everything stopped and a tear slowly trickled down his cheek.

Marco never bothered me again.

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Friday, February 10, 2017

Kids And Food

This was printed in the Orlando Sentinel January 31, 2017.

Can we talk about something that I'll bet every parent struggles with?

What foods your kids will eat.

Before I start let me tell you about my house when I was growing up. My Mom made dinner. That was what was on the table at dinner time and we ate it. There was no making a bunch of different meals for us kids and there also was no negotiating about whether we liked it or not.

Not mean just the way it was. And that system worked just fine.

I've never been to your home but I'll tell you what's shaking in mine. My twins are now 13 and their food history kinda goes like this.  They like something a lot for a while and then they don't. As Pee Wee Herman used to say," It's a mystery." Especially to this Dad.

Let's start with what they do like.


I won't even eat there but for them it's heaven. They even have their own order: Double Cheeseburger, ketchup only, large fries. They could eat that, not every day, but close to it. It's gotten to the point that I recognize workers because I go through the drive thru so much.

And I have to admit Dad is a hero when he brings that home.

I remember when I was younger we had to go out of our way to avoid McDonald's when my brother was in the car. When he was little if he saw those golden arches we had to stop. So the game became to stay away from them.

Other things my sons like, pizza, mac and cheese, hot dogs in crescent rolls, grilled cheese, pancakes, doughnuts, cookies, and on and on.  Basically stuff I refer to as junk food. But I'll let you in on a little secret, there is no such thing as junk food when you're a kid.

I know what you're thinking, what about them eating vegetables?

Is there trickery involved? The answer is yes. Is there bait and switch? The answer again is yes. Parents know this--whatever it takes to get them to eat healthier, that's the way to go.

The word around this house is that we're working on it.
Miles on the left and Griffin on the right

Miles hasn't met a food he doesn't like except vegetables. Griffin is a bit more finicky but he'll eat them. Like I say, we're working on it.

Just so you know they each have a multi-vitamin every day. That's part of the working on it.

Here's something I hadn't counted on.

Miles is a bit of a cook. Granted it's pretty basic now but he's really interested in it. This semester he's taking his first culinary class. It's fun to watch him in the kitchen boiling water and spraying Pam on things.

He has no idea now but later when you're dating and you make the dinner?

Nothing but net.

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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Some People I've Met

I never met Sinatra or Satchmo or Duke Ellington.

I did meet Rosemary Clooney and Ella Fitzgerald.

There's more of a story with Rosie so let's start there. The famous Clooney these days is the Oscar winner, the handsome guy, the glib guy, the cool guy, George Clooney. But Rosemary was huge long before her beloved nephew.

Her song, "Come On-A My House" sold a ton, was a huge hit in the fifties, and went to number one on the charts. That song made her a star and it was the beginning of many hit songs. That led to her acting in movies opposite folks like Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye.

How did I meet her?

By accident.

Cut ahead to years later and I was the weatherman on The Morning Program on CBS. In addition to telling you if it was going to rain, or snow, or be sunny, I announced birthdays. Every day I told you who was born that day and in what year. So one day it's Rosie's birthday. I had heard of her but didn't know much about her other than her name. I say, on the air, it was her birthday and she's turning... 28.

She told me later she was lying in bed, in her pajamas, saw me say that, and laughed out loud. When she finally came on the show our anchor, Harry Smith, was so excited to meet her. She very politely said hello, thanked him profusely for his kindness, and then turned to me and said, "You're the one I wanted to meet."

She proceeded to tell me the pj/birthday tale and that's how we became friends.

Let me tell you a story.

It was Rosie's 70th birthday, a milestone, and she had a big family dinner at Patsy's on West 56th in New York. It was made famous by Frank Sinatra himself and was his favorite restaurant. He used to eat there all the time and Rosie told me that when she was just starting out and starving, they kindly let her run a tab. Even though she hardly had any money, she always had a place to eat.

So there we were at the dinner, there must have been 20 people or more there, but get this. My Maya was little and Rosie had us move her high chair so she could sit next to her and in turn Mr. and Mrs. McEwen sat next to her as well.  Maya was too young to remember it but Dad has never forgotten.

Okay on to Ella.

I was at the Grammys, they were broadcast on CBS, and was heading down the aisle of the theater and there she was. Again, I didn't know her but I knew of her. Who didn't? I had to go say hi. I introduced myself and she graciously said hi back. She was older then and I remember her thick glasses and just how dear she was.

Ella, everybody.

She reminded me of my mother.

It was brief but there's more to this story.

As I'm continuing to my seat who do I see? Miles Davis.

I had to say something to him so I go down to where he's sitting and say, "I'm Mark McEwen and I just wanted to say hello." If you know anything about Miles what he did next won't surprise you.

He looked at me stone faced. And said nothing.

Not exactly the warmest egg in the bunch.


There was a woman sitting next to him who I found out later was his sister. She elbowed him hard in his side and said, "That's the weatherman, Miles."

He changed completely.

He smiled, reached out to shake my hand and said in a gravelly voice, "Oh, nice to meet you."

Too funny.

Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney.

Some people I've met.

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