Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hal Fishman: Forever "Read," White and Blue

by Donna Perezella

When I married his son 16 years ago, he asked me to call him “dad.” It felt strange at the time, but even stranger now that my own dad is gone.

He is often there for me when I am in a bind. Like the time, fresh off a flight from China, he donned a clown's costume and filled in at my store for the one who cancelled at the last minute. Jet lagged, he still did it – just like a dad would do.

And this time, he is doing it again -- because I need a veteran, and he is one.

I arrive ahead of schedule to interview Hal Fishman, the man who is both my veteran and father-in-law. Scanning the room, I am hoping for some kind of Oprah-like sign to begin our interview. And then I spot it, lying open on the coffee table, a copy of Washington Rules, the latest book by Andrew Bacevich, a former military man himself. He is Fishman's foreign-policy guru and his long-time professor at Boston University, where he is a student in their Evergreen Program.

Believing that I have found the perfect icebreaker that would make even Oprah proud, I begin by asking him about Washington Rules.

"It's very good. Bacevich talks a lot about the problems and the burden of our defense budget; in general, he is quite pessimistic over our continued involvement in foreign affairs," Fishman tells me, with the energy and enthusiasm of a man 30 years younger. Now in his 70s, he still maintains his college weight, thanks to a good diet, daily visits to the gym, and the game of golf.

He is now in full kibitzing mode, as he likes to call it, when we sit back and discuss his favorite topics -- usually education or American foreign policy -- passions he had long before there was a Korean War and he was a part of it.

Fishman was drafted into the Army right out of college, shortly after completing his bachelor's degree at Boston University. He tells me that because he tested at a high level on his IQ test, it was recommended that he train to be an infantry leader, a tank commander, or a forward artillery observer, but he wasn't too interested in any of them.

"I wanted something more comfortable," he confides in me.
When he was just 21, he was sent to basic training along with Arthur Simon, his childhood friend, who he was drafted with. He fondly recalls the day they were shipped off to Fort Dix, New Jersey and tells me they were picked up at Uphams Corner in Dorchester, with the Salvation Army on hand to give them a farewell party and farewell kits that included packs of Lifesaver candies.

From Uphams Corner, Fishman was taken to the Boston Army Barracks for a physical which lasted about four hours. Ironically, the mental evaluation consisted of just one question -- "Do you like girls?"

"I guess I passed, because I answered yes," be says matter-of-factly.

Decades away from the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Act, his response was rewarded with a 12-hour bus ride to Fort Dix. (When I question the length of the trip, he tells me that they made many stops.) They arrived close to 1 a.m., and got to sleep at 3 that morning, only to be woken at 5:30 by the call of the reveille. He told his friend that "it wasn't for them, it was for the other soldiers -- after all, they had just gotten there."

"I told Arthur to go back to sleep. But then our staff sergeant came into our barracks and promptly turned our beds over, while we were still in them. I told him it didn't apply to us, after all we had just gotten to bed two hours before," Fishman explains. " He told me 'This is the Army, son. Everybody gets up.' And so we got up."

And for the next eight weeks, he got up -- every morning at sunrise, where he was conditioned to run long distances and learned to fire a rifle, all as part of his basic training. He was determined, however, to take advantage of his "high" placement status and his B.U. ring; that led to his assignment in the Quartermaster Corp. at Fort Lee, Virginia.

But, Uncle Sam had plans of his own for Hal Fishman. It was during his sixth week at Quartermaster school when he realized he wanted to be a teacher, that he received an order to report to Germany. Without a direct order from the Pentagon to keep him stateside, he thought Germany was his destiny; not a very appealing place for a Jew, less than ten years removed from the Holocaust.

"So I went into hiding at the movies. I waited for the orders from the Pentagon to come. And sure enough they did on that Friday at 5 p.m., right before I was to be shipped off," he tells me.

The Pentagon, in fact, not only ordered him to remain stateside, but to report to teacher's college for the next five weeks. It was there that he was taught the Army's method of teaching -- being assigned a random subject and "teaching" it for 20 minutes.

This assignment brought other perks as well.

"After eight weeks of basic training, I felt free. I taught four hours each day and I had my uniforms cleaned and pressed for me. I was starting to like the Army," he shares with me.

He salutes the Army's then-commitment to education. With its goal of having every officer complete a minimum of two years of college, courses were set up at night taught by visiting professors from both the Universities of Maryland and Virginia. Since these officers could not attend traditional colleges, the Army brought college to them.

Fishman also commends the Army's commitment to educating all soldiers beyond the physical classroom, utilizing a mail-order education system called the "Armed Forces Institute." The Army would lend textbooks with forms and questionnaires, which once completed by the students, would be returned to the institute for evaluation. They provided credit for work completed. Unfortunately, the success rate was lower than they would have liked.

It was after Fishman's first year of teaching when the US government, afraid that the North Koreans were brainwashing American soldiers, introduced a special program of counter-brainwashing, known as "Educating in American-Democratic Ideals." It was mandatory for each returning soldier to attend the two-hour-per-week program, write propaganda about how bad Communism was, and to distribute these testimonies. Perhaps a better name for this hysteria was McCarthyism.

But before Fishman himself could instruct the returnees, he needed to carry top-secret security clearance, and was subjected to a taste of McCarthyism himself.

"The government did a thorough background check on me. I had to divulge everything I was ever involved in, including all schools I had attended and any associations I had been a part of," he says."They even questioned my neighbors. It took almost two years for my final security clearance. By then, it was time for me to go home."

And when his two years were up, Fishman did go home. He had considered going home earlier when he heard about a new change to the GI Bill -- a soldier returning to college could be released up to three months early. He considered it. Strongly.

"I had a choice, make $110 per month to go to college, or $99 per month to stay in the Army. I thought about it, but stayed and finished my two-year commitment," he candidly explains.

The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, or more commonly known to us as the GI Bill, was created after World War II with its goal, among others, of reintroducing our veterans into a welcoming society -- that of education -- while eliminating the struggles they might encounter by entering an over-flooded job market and competing with little or no skills.

With a penchant for higher education and the added incentive of the GI Bill, Fishman applied to B.U.'s Graduate School of Arts and Science. A Business Major during his undergrad years, he chose to major in English this time. The tuition was just $400 per year, without room and board. (Compare that to B.U.'s current undergrad tuition of $40 thousand per year.)

He says it was the poet, Robert Lowell, who taught at B.U. for just one year in 1955, who had a memorable impact on him. Required to write a twenty-page essay, Fishman chose Robert Frost's The Path Not Taken. He received a B+ from Lowell and a hand-written note that read "I think you understand more than you let on." Fishman still has the note.

Along with poetry, he took classes in short stories and American literature. He believes there were other Korean War Veterans at B.U., but as a commuting student, he had very little contact with them. And perhaps that, among other reasons, is why after one semester he decided to leave school. The eldest child of Russian immigrants, Fishman also felt he needed to make money -- for himself, and for his family.

And he did. What began with the purchase of a single truck to pickup uniforms from factories and return them laundered, grew into a multi-national manufacturing business. Ironically, the thing he loved having done for him the most in the Army -- having his uniforms washed and pressed -- he was now doing for other people.

He credits his initial and continued success to education. Over fifty years later, Fishman is still an avid learner. For the last 25 years that he has spent in blissful retirement, he has refused to retire his brain from education. He spends his summer and fall living and learning in Boston, and his winter and spring following the same pattern in Boca Raton. I call it being an eternal student. He calls it a gift.

I decide to accompany him to a class at FAU (Florida Atlantic University, a public university in Boca) one Monday morning while visiting him over this past Spring Break. He often invites us to attend a lecture that he finds interesting, hoping that we, too, will share his enthusiasm. Today's topic in his semester-long course entitled "Great Decisions 2011" is Multilateralism (versus Unilateralism), a candid lecture of America's involvement in international affairs. It is not only always interesting to hear these wonderful lectures, but to observe Fishman's unbridled passion for this field and for learning in general.

FAU's main campus in Boca Raton is a sprawling setting of multiple buildings set against a backdrop of palm trees and asphalt. When he enters this learning institution, Fishman is in his element. Given the choice, he prefers to spend his days indoors basking in a lecture hall instead of outdoors in the Florida sunshine.

We decide to take this time to continue our interview while we wait for the lecture to begin. It is an easy task, which I credit to the eagerness of my veteran.

"Everyone should be exposed to education. And it's never really too late. Look around at the diversity of people here of all ages, all hungry for knowledge," he says, glasses perched on his nose as he reads the program.
I, too, notice the diversity and ask him about his current exposure to GIs.

"I don't think I've encountered a single veteran from either Iraq or Afghanistan back in Boston at B.U., " he tells me, not surprisingly. "That is really too bad. But here at FAU, there are many who are taking advantage of the educational benefits available to them when returning home. I just wish that more of them did. There is no better tool for success in life than an education. Without one, what does one do?"

Which is why Hal Fishman is such a strong proponent of the GI Bill and the opportunities that it affords our veterans.

"Education is the best thing that can happen to our returning soldiers. We owe them so much for all that they have done for us. The GI Bill, however, is not meant to provide compensation, but rather an incentive for our veterans. Each soldier deserves the opportunity to learn new skills when re-entering civilian life. What better way to make that transition than with an education," he speaks to this.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill, also known as the Yellow Ribbon Act, currently provides veterans with both tuition and fees equal to, but not in excess of, the program with the greatest cost in their state's higher education system. For example, in Massachusetts that cap is based on a BA in Engineering at UMass Amherst, the degree program with the highest tuition and fees among the state schools. The Post-9/11 GI Bill also gives returning soldiers a Basic Housing Allowance (B.A.H.), which is based on the cost of living in that soldier's school zip code.

With an amendment to the current GI Bill scheduled to take effect in October of this year, I ask him what he thinks of the "new and improved" ceiling on tuition at privately-funded colleges and universities of $17,500 per year. To me, this indicates that any private universities or colleges will still remain out of reach to our GIs. Fishman, however, has
a different take on it than I do.

"It really doesn't matter where you go to college, as long as you go. I have a professor here at FAU -- Robert G. Rabil, who is a world-renowned expert on Middle Eastern Studies, he was even an advisor in Washington. Do you know where he began his college career?" Fishman tells more than he asks.

I unfortunately don't, because I have never heard of him.

"At a public college, right in Massachusetts -- Mass. College of Liberal Arts in North Adams. And he received his master's degree from Harvard, not from the University, but from their Extension School. He did get his Ph.D. from Brandeis," he informs me, with conviction. "But he got to Brandeis and where he is today with an education from a Massachusetts' public college."

And while $17,500 may not cover the cost of tuition today at a private university, it will certainly buy a returning soldier one heck of a solid education at a public institution.

Just ask Dr. Robert G. Rabil's student, Hal Fishman, and he can tell you from his own college experience that has spanned over half a century and five wars, just what kind of people graduate from public colleges and go back there to teach.

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