• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: It’s July 7. I Am 70 Today. Whoopee!

I am obsessed with the number seven. I was born 70 years ago today on 7/7, lived my first 17 years on the 7th floor at 610 (6+1=7) E. 20th St., worked on 43rd (4+3=7) Street for over 34 years (3+4=7), was once 7 years old (a good year, as I recall), lived at 7 W. 16th St. (6+1, etc.) for many years, and now my current address in New York City adds up to seven. There was a time when I'd set my alarm for 7:07 a.m. and have dinner at 7:07 p.m. So, turning 70 on 7/7 has superstitious significance for me.

Nonetheless, I have been reluctant to publicly acknowledge this milestone until recently, when some older friends who repeatedly exclaim "You've got a big one coming up!" insisted "its no big deal." Baby boomers are turning 70 every day. 70 is just like being 60, only 10 years older (6+1=7) with 70% higher medical bills but half-price MTA fares. Then I realized that an algorithmic elf keeps track of these stats online anyway, and Facebook always notes birthdays in a most obnoxious display of balloons and emoji … so why be coy?!

Also, I just found this photograph (below), taken when I was 13—which is not one of my favorite numbers. But I learned a lot that year and this photo illustrates some of what I learned. If you are wondering what it has to do with the number seven, don't bother, it does not.

I enjoy photo forensics, analyzing photographs to identify subtle or hidden meanings. This picture is full of them. It was taken at the military summer school that I attended from ages 11–14. In fact, I wanted to go to military school and this was one of the few such academies that accepted Jews, so long as we didn't eat Kosher and agreed that we would attend Episcopal chapel every Sunday morning. I could live with that, and my parents did not seem to care.

I was a novelty among my classmates. I was more interesting to them as a New Yawka than a Jew (although maybe they thought the two were the same). I never pronounced the letter "r" in any word or sentence, and the predominantly gentile kids seemed entertained by New Yawk accents (though mine was fake because I was born in the accent-less part of Manhattan). I do not recall much anti-Semitism, other than occasionally being called "Hymie," just for laughs. Haha!

I did, however, learn some important lessons for my future military career. You see, at that time, I planned to apply to the Air Force Academy when I was old enough. It was either that or go into advertising. So I learned how to field strip an M-1 rifle, shoot an M-1 carbine, fire a bolt-action Springfield M1903 and a .45 caliber air-cooled machine gun (all loaded with blanks). I mastered basic camping survival skills, how to dig deep trenches, care for assorted bruises, bites and wounds and, most important, how to shit in the woods when no one was looking.

Every week a teacher we called Major Manners, a former spit-and-polish British army officer (in fact, most of the officer/teachers were British vets), taught us how to walk, talk, march, eat a "square meal," spit-shine our shoes, salute and firmly shake hands with our fathers, call them "sir," and and call our moms "mother." We were coached on how to be polite toward our friends' parents. And how to "act like men" if our parents failed to show up on visiting day, which was very common. Those who were "orphaned" remained on the campus working as "Officers of the Day," answering the telephones (sometimes from our own parents who, having forgotten it was visiting day, called to apologize). We had to learn the niceties of how to speak on the phone. "Yes sir or ma'am. Please allow me to write down your message, sir or ma'am. Have a very pleasant day, sir or ma'am." We always ended sentences with "sir"or "ma'am" (the pronoun quota was limited back then). Calls could not last longer than five minutes and crying because of homesickness was unacceptable and punishable.

In addition, we were trained in special drill techniques, horseback riding and standing at attention in moving half-track vehicles on parade. For the musically inclined, learning to play in the marching band meant studying up-tempo John Philip Souza military tunes complete with Souzaphones. As I only played piano, I did not qualify.

There were other things I learned, and that's why this photo is relevant. "Courage, Honor, Conquer" were essential virtues. Courage, I learned, meant conquering one's fears. To win a red courage ribbon usually meant that during simulated battle maneuvers one would have to overcome the fear of pain. This included picking up a cherry bomb with a lit fuse, which the instructors would throw at us to simulate grenades. We were considered brave if we caught and threw them back. Of course, sometimes they would explode in our hands, leaving a nasty burn. Also, being hit anywhere on the body with the hot wax of a blank round was very unpleasant. Again, crying was disallowed, but groaning was somehow acceptable.

I learned that Honor meant blind fealty to the school, nation and flag. Blind was the key. I learned that Conquer meant superiority. This was one reason why the academy hired former British colonial officers and NCOs, who retired when England lost its colonies. These men, who all served their Empire, taught us the existential significance of colonialist rule and the justification for discipline imposed on colonial subjects of the realm. (Sounded cruel to me, even at that age.)

To underscore their claim that colonialism wasn't so bad, the academy hired a Native American (a "noble savage," they called him). On weekdays he taught math classes and wore an army officer's uniform. On Sundays he dressed up in a multi-feathered headdress and posed for photos with those of us who earned one or more of the weekly awards that represented "Courage, Honor, Conquer." (I received a red ribbon for Courage for unluckily being burned but soldiering on, an orange one for Conquer for luckily making a game-winning homer at an intramural baseball game, and a green one for Honor—which everyone eventually got simply for not getting caught doing something dishonorable).

Now that I'm 70, this all seems surreal but not unreal; it is what Americans did, it is still done. By my last year at the Academy in 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin occurred and the U.S. was officially fighting against the Viet Cong in Vietnam. One of our younger teachers, generously, honestly and candidly admitted that this jungle war could never be won. He went as far as to say the war was based on racism and ideology and we had no business being there. It would just result in killing a lot of poor kids. I still wonder what happened to him.

At summer's end, my father, who worked for the U.S. Air Force as an auditor, took me on a road trip of bases on his annual inspection tour. His intention was to convince me this was not the best time to pursue a military career. Little did he know, I had already decided, based, paradoxically, on what I had learned at the academy, to protest the war when I got home. And thus began a new phase of my life that had a lasting impact.