He was born in Atlanta, the son of a Russian immigrant father and Scottish immigrant mother. His father was named Yaakov Sirota. We think he came to the name Jake Russ very simply. Somewhere between Ellis Island and the paperwork, he felt that he had to fit in. He threw his Jewish Russian sounding name overboard and changed Yaakov, Yiddish for Jacob to Jake. Sounds Americans enough. As for Russ? All we can guess is that he saw written next to Place of Nationality: RUSS for Russia.
Jake Russ. A craftsman who did drapes for very wealthy people in Atlanta. His daughter, my Aunt Norma tells me he was often called in after a job because people trusted his judgment and workmanship and wanted to know if they paid too much. He also worked in a family grocery store in downtown Atlanta.
Annie Smith from Glasgow. Don’t know much about her. I remember her when I was very young looming over me talking to me in an accent. I don’t remember the accent. Then again, as the youngest of five in a Jewish immigrant family, you can expect that everyone within range of you will loom over you and pinch your cheek and talk in an accent.
My brother Barry and I had the notion that we might have a tartan since Smith is a Scottish dynastic family. After a little research at the Atlanta Archives Mom blurted out that there was so much anti Semitism in Scotland that Jewish Scots threw their names out and opted for a less obvious one.
She used to be Annie Shevinski.
You have to wonder why two boys thought we might be the only Jews with a tartan. Or why we even wanted one. Oh well, hot humid summers in Atlanta and two brothers with too much time on their hands. It became a joke around the house. “We were looking for the Shavinski tartan, which was the Smith tartan but marked off 20%.”
Anyway Dad was the oldest of three. His middle sister is Madeleine. Then Norma, the youngest. He was born on 12/31/1921 Marvin Edward Russ. He was big kid, beefy, boney, and tough. I don’t know very much about his childhood except that his Mom was a sweet person who could be a cantankerous battle-axe. (Dad’s words, Norma, Dad’s words…) She wore a pull over moo moo dress with flowers on it and big black orthopedic shoes. Dad’s father was a sweet man, a semi-workaholic who apparently did not wear the pants in the house.
Dad was a difficult kid who got into fights and ran away a few times. One of those times he went to Tampa Bay and ended up under the purview of the Tampa Bay Police Chief Jeff Elliott. I can only imagine that Dad went down there and did something and somehow came to the attention of an Andy Griffith like officer. When my sister got married and Mom and Dad spent a few weeks in Israel, Jeff’s daughter Violet baby-sat for us. It was disastrous but this is about my Dad, not her.
Once I understand Dad made it to Charleston where he stayed a bit. Jake and Annie enrolled him in the Georgia Military Academy thinking that a more structured and disciplined environment would benefit him. I don’t believe he went past 10th grade as everyone, him included, was signing up to fight right around the time that war was breaking out in Europe.
Dad went down to a recruitment center on Spring Street and swore out an oath to the flag and off he went. He joined the precursor to the United States Air Force, The US Army Air Corps. He was stationed out at RAF Bassingbourn, Polebrook Airfield on the flat windy plains of England’s eastern seashore. He was in the 91st Bombardment group, 1st Bombers Wing, 8th Air Force, and “The Mighty Eighth”. Later his wing was staged out of Kimbleton. His job was to prep planes for missions and clean them afterwards.
This was the original awful job. Usually a bombing mission would consist of 12 to 25 planes. Of the 12,731 B-17s built, 4,750 were lost to combat. That’s over one third of the force that took off didn’t come back. So 12 go out, 9 come back. 25 go out, 15 come back. Those that returned were often blood soaked pits. Flak bursts and fighter rounds sliced through the thinly armored hide of the Flying Fortress and cut down gunners, pilots, navigators, bomb bay door operators. He often had to remove body parts, or help determine which planes were going to need repair and which ones were headed for the bone yard. I don’t know if he was ever friendly with aircrews that failed to return to base. I heard him talk about machine guns and body parts.
Often his job was dangerous, pushing a special pallet full of the B-17s bombs under the bomb bay door, loading them into release mechanisms. The B-17 had 13 M2 Browning machine guns. They fired 12.7mm or .50 cal if you wish. This is an old gun that we still use quite a bit in the modern Army. The Brownings are belt fed and provided a curtain of lead shells from four turrets, dorsal, tail, ventral and nose, and belly turret and two near the cockpit. Sometimes the temperature at altitude was 20 degrees below zero F. Even then, over anxious gunners would pull the trigger until the barrel melted. No worry, Dad would unscrew it, and screw in a new one.
During breaks with the other Airmen, Dad went off to London and partied. He found cousins of ours in England, one named Dougie but pronounced Doogie. They were brutes just like Dad, big beefy men. Dad must have the DNA of a Scots Highlander because he didn’t look typically Jewish. I heard this story from Dad a million times and once after he died from Whitey, in 1977, who called the house looking for Dad. Around the time that he was on leave in London with his buddy Whitey, a British national, they would ride the trolley cars for free because they were soldiers. The trolleys only went about 15 miles per hour and it was relatively easy to catch up and grab a bar. Hanging off the back of a trolley car, Whitey saw his girlfriend and he and Dad jumped off to go see her. A minute later the neighborhood was wracked with a tremendous explosion. A V-1 had pretty much shred the trolley car he had moments before leapt off of. Once again, Dad was picking up body parts.
Dad spoke fluent Yiddish which is comprised of about 80% German, some Hebrew, Czech and Russian. I don’t know whether he volunteered for service in the occupied territory or was asked, however immediately after the war, there was an enormous need for help for broken Germany and Berlin was being divided into four segments, the Russian, the French, the British and the American sectors. Knowing that the Russians were going to enact revenge for the atrocities committed by the SS Einsatzgruppen and the general destruction of their homeland, Germans were pouring into the American sector. United Nations and US Allies were desperate for German speaking help. Oddly, Dad ended up in Fritzlar, close to the Displaced Persons Center where he met Mom.
I have said the biggest event of my own life is the fact that my mother survived Auschwitz. That is another story on another day. But suffice it to say that Dad romanced Mom and my oldest brother Harvey (also a US Army veteran) was born in the 488 Army Field Hospital in Geisen, Germany.
Dad loved hunting and knew everything about guns. He would go to the Dekalb Firing Range, often he took us, and we all shot his .38 cal S&W Combat Masterpiece, his Browning High power .9mm, his high-powered rifles including his National Match M1 Garand. In Germany, he and a Japanese American named Kinichi Hori and a German defector named Max hunted choleratic wild boar for the German forestry commission. I have great picture of Dad also kneeling down with Hori and Max by some enormous bucks he shot and whose skulls taxidermied properly graced his bedroom until the day he passed.
Dad bought and sold guns all the time. Once he bought a broom handled Mauser from some old Army/Navy store and later sold it. He believed that the gun was later used in a rather spectacular murder.
He would buy Mauser 98Ks and refurbish them, “sporterized” as they said at the time. ( Flash forward-When my father died he had missed an insurance premium or perhaps two. I don’t know but Mom got nothing from State Farm after decades of paying into his life insurance. He had some Nazi paraphernalia and once after he died we found a Luftwaffe uniform and sold it for $880. That was two months mortgage at the time.)
Dad and Mom and Harvey first came to Florida after the war and stayed with the Elliotts until Dad brought them to Atlanta. Dad worked in odd jobs, as a carpet salesman and as a floor salesman at area department stores. He worked at Fred’s Delicatessen and loved speaking Yiddish with a black guy who worked there. Dad was just knocked out that this Black guy spoke great Yiddish. I heard them as a kid once exchange. Dad worked for years at Fred’s on Sundays and often brought home huge banquets of white fish and pike and lox and bagels and sour cream and pickled herring.
After Harvey came Stephan and then Estelle and by then dad was back in school: The Georgia Institute of Technology. Of all the things my Dad bragged about, of all the things he’d beat his chest about, one fact that never got to me while he was alive was this: Georgia Tech is a damn tough school. If it weren’t in the South it would be considered an Ivy League engineering school. Dad made it through GT with a slide rule, three kids, a full time job, and a tenth grade high school education.
Then came Barry, my dearest friend in the world (after YOU Caroline, after YOU).
Dad was an enigma to me. He could be incredibly charming and gregarious and curious. He would take us to the Atlanta Zoo and wouldn’t you know it? He knew the Zoo keepers so we got to go back stage and once I saw a picture of my Dad holding Willie B not long after the lowland Silver Back gorilla born there in 1961.
We would go to a Chinese restaurant and he took us back to talk to the proprietors.
We would go to the Dekalb County Farmer’s Market and sure enough he knew Mr. Collins and we would get free treats and samples of fresh watermelon or apples.
Among Orthodox Jews, he could hold his own. He could read Hebrew, knew enough prayers to get by at a service and made a great Passover Seder. He never took to Orthodoxy as I got nearer and nearer to it. Finally when I was 14 he let us Kosher the house. It didn’t last very long but we got there.
Once two Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on our door, and this was right after Dad had just finished James Michener’s history of the Jews called The Source. He invited them in and by the time they had some of Mom’s ultra sweetened tea and Dad’s lecture, they were so confused.
He could also be incredibly intimidating. When my Dad loomed over you, or started yelling, something bad would inevitably follow, something with a Georgia Tech graduation ring on it, something that left a knot.
He would take you on a drive and just vent. Everyone was an idiot. The government sucked. Kids these days were awful. He could be profane and bigoted. Life was harder when he was a kid.
“Dad, are we there yet?”
“Shut up and quit complaining. When I was you age we NEVER got there…..and we were DAMNED grateful.”
Once I was in an elevator with him in New Orleans. The Musak was playing The Ray Conniff Singers singing an even SLOWER version of The Beatle’s “Yesterday”. Dad gestures with his thumb to the speaker. “The Beatles were crap! Now THIS is music.”
You just knew better than to open your mouth.
Once he and I were headed somewhere in the front seat of his 1955 Ford Station Wagon, two toned, pale blue body with a white top. He drove it with one of those suicide knobs one it, you know a round knob that allowed you to turn the wheel with one hand and hit a kid in the seat next to you at the same time. He got into a flip off contest with some redneck in a car next to us. I was scared to death because we were racing and they were challenging each other.
Dad pulls over. The other guy pulls over. “Don’t you move,” he says to me. I look out the window and it’s about 7 PM, the sun is setting over the trees, we are on a flat empty highway, at a closed gas station. Dad and this guy go out back behind the gas station. I hear a fight.
Dad comes out around the back with a torn shirt and a cut on his forehead that was starting to bleed down. He grabbed a cloth out of the back, wiped his head and off we went. I never even saw they other guy. Yes, Dad was a Jew. He was also a Redneck and I mean a big one.
You see when I went to school and kids would say, “My Daddy can whup your Daddy,” I knew they were delusional. So I’d just say, “OK then. He gets home at six. I’ll bring the popcorn.”
When Barry and I tested for our karate rank, Dad came to every test. He cheered us on. We fought and we passed and he would take us out and I remember how proud he was when Barry and I got our Black Belts. It was August 26th, 1974. After a six-hour exam we made it. I remember my Dad saying “All my boys are baddasses.’
And for a short while, we were.
Dad loved the military and carried some reminders inked in tattoo blue on his chest and arms. He loved America and Jack Webb, we watched Combat and The Gallant Men and were otherwise inundated with all things military. He hung the flag proudly, knew how to fold it and proudly put his hand over his heart for the Pledge of Allegiance. He thought Barry Goldwater was brilliant and hated Communism.
Dad loved firearms and hunting and often took us with him. You couldn’t go wrong when Dad took you hunting or camping. By the time you got to the mountains of Georgia, he was all yelled out and happy. He was a different person in the woods, a place he was utterly comfortable in; out there he became calmer, more patient. He knew the woods. He knew what he was doing out there.
For years he worked as a mid-fleet truck manager at a company that distributed women’s sports apparel. I was with dad on one of those Saturdays when a bird got into the warehouse, threatening to soil the merchandise. No amount on shooing or opening of windows would work. We went home and there he picked up the phone and had a screaming match with someone in Yiddish, then complained about what a shyster that schlamazel was. He went into his room and came out with a P-38 9 mm Parabellum, a classic Nazi officer’s sidearm. We drove back all the way across town to the warehouse on Chattahoochee Avenue, he walked in and took one shot and hit the bird between the eyes. That was my Dad, in a nutshell.
Dad was a scoutmaster for Troop 268. He did a ton of scouting and could hike farther and longer than any of the kids. Dad was built like the Old Soviet weightlifter Alexiev. He had a huge upper body, lots of body fat, huge muscular shoulders, and legs like an Adonis. My Dad’s legs were enormously strong and sculpted. Dad was very generous with his time at the Boy Scout lodge. He led many kids on wonderful weekends at the campfire, and Jamborees. Harvey received his Eagle Scout rank, Stephan was a Star Scout, Barry made it up there and I ended up a Tenderfoot.
When Harvey turned 18 Dad told him he had to get out of the house and Harvey joined the US Army right in the middle of the Vietnam War. Mom was apoplectic. But the Army really did give Harvey what it promised: job skills. The Army was great for Harvey and I remember Mom and Barry and I driving through the night to see Harvey’s Boot Camp graduation from Fort Jackson, South Carolina. They put the back seat down, spread some blankets so Barry and I could sleep. But I couldn’t sleep right before a military ceremony. It was a hot sunny day, Harvey was skinny and handsome and Dad was happier than a Herpes at a YMCA. Finally, he had raised a man.
Stephan joined the United States Navy and served on board the USS Wasp as a fire control person on the carrier deck. Later he was at Guantanamo. He was with Sixth Fleet and I remember pictures of Stephan, all skinny and handsome all over Europe.
It’s not news that many young men join the military because they want their father’s love and approval. The enemies of this country have no idea how much hell wrought upon them is fueled by stand-offish, judgmental American fathers. I believe Stephan was looking for something from Dad that would always come strained. If the Army was right for Harvey, the Navy was not right for Stephan, but he tried.
In 1974, my Dad lost his job, and decided to open a Delicatessen. He took out a second mortgage and opened “Marvin’s Deli” in Smyrna, Georgia. Today Smyrna is an affluent suburb of Atlanta. Back in 1974, it was Darwin’s waiting room. No one had even heard of a delicatessen in Smyrna, much less a Jew. Hell they were still struggling with the alphabet.
It went under. Worse, my Dad needed an operation and received one at the Veterans Administration Hospital. It went badly and in four short weeks, he was dead. I won’t give you the gruesome details, except for this about my father and my brother Steve. Both of them served their country and both of them died due to absolutely horrendous or non-existent medical care promised to Veterans. When their country needed them they were there. When they needed their country, it was hiding under piles of bureaucracy and negligence. We owe our Vets cradle to grave health care of the finest order. But that’s another story, another day.
Dad was buried at Greenwood Cemetery under a willow tree, appropriately pristine when we visited the spot. It was May 4th, 1975 and the Boy Scouts of America showed up at his funeral and wanted to put a flag on his grave but the rabbis objected and so he went in a pine box, unadorned, not unlike his life. In retrospect, I think it was a mistake to deny Dad his flag. He would have loved it, and the colors certainly fly because of the sacrifices that millions like him made.
The 18-year road I was on with my father is full of stories so unusual, so fantastic and so personal that I simply cannot tell them. For eight years I was the creative director on the US Air Force account and my team made some really great TV spots that ran all over the country. Long gone, he never saw a one of them. I wondered if he would have been proud. He loved his country in ways I could never love it. And he served it and then died young. George Orwell reminds us about people like Dad. “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm” I am only weeks away from Dad’s age when he died. So I have been thinking about him lately and the debt we all owe him. I agree with Orwell, we are free to mow our lawns and raise our children and forget every lesson history would teach us in part because people like my Dad stood up and were willing to be exceptional.