Friday, May 20, 2011

My Unforgettable Roommate, Art Aronson

Class of 1957 at formation, ready to man whaleboats

                Our four years at the Naval Academy began with two months of Plebe summer, and I remember that as endless drills, running, sweating, waiting to catch a boat across the Severn river to fire on the rifle range, sweating as we rowed the heavy old whaleboats, running an obstacle course, swimming, playing tennis, basketball, golf, marching drills, flying little seaplanes and landing in the river near the Academy, more marching, more sweating.    
I met Arthur Aronson sometime that summer, and he asked me to join him as a roommate, along with another young man.  When it was time for the Brigade to return for the academic year, we moved to our Plebe year room, in Bancroft Hall.

Art Aronson and another classmate on Midshipman Cruise, 1956

            I soon discovered that Arthur was a foreigner. He was a Jew, born in Krakow, Poland, and he and his family had been herded by the Nazis into the concentration camp at Auschwitz (Oswieczim), Poland.  Arthur ’s mother and sister died in the Camp, but he and his father had survived, and after the camp was liberated, they had made their way to London, and then eventually to New York City, arriving in 1948.  Arthur had somehow gotten sent to Houston, Texas and had spent a year at Rice Institute there.  Arthur’s English was so good that I had not realized he was a Polish Jew for several days. 
            Arthur was probably the most brilliant person I have ever met.  He spoke not only Polish and flawless English, but German and Russian.  He could gobble up whatever subject the Academy threw at us— Calculus, Thermodynamics, Steam Engineering, Naval Gunnery, Physics, English, History, Navigation, and then took the time to help his less brilliant classmates understand. 
            Art was also an excellent artist, and developed a cartoon style that he used to illustrate Naval Academy magazines all four years of his time at Annapolis.
                In the spring of 1955, in my second year at Annapolis, I took the train to New York with Art.  We went to see his New York stomping grounds and meet his father.  According to Art, his father was quite a ladies’ man.  However, also according to Art, during the war he had been one of several men at Auschwitz who were working in a factory building ammunition boxes for the Wehrmacht.  The crafty elder Aronson invented a way to build these wooden boxes so they looked fine when they were inspected, but when loaded with ammunition and in use in the field, the bottoms would fall out.  The Polish Jews also sabotaged socks that had been knitted in the camp for shipment to the Nazi soldiers on the Eastern front by quietly slashing through each box of socks, so that the socks were useless for protecting their wearers in the brutal Russian winter.
            Arthur and I, in our blue Midshipman uniforms, visited the United Nations on this short spring vacation in New York.  By this time, we both spoke a good bit of Russian, and enjoyed using it to converse without others being able to understand.  At the U.N. we visited the only conference of delegates that was in session at the time, a round table of women discussing women’s international issues.  We were both wearing headphones, which could be switched to hear the discussion in any of several languages.  We chose Russian, and were listening to this rather haughty, self-important Soviet woman say, “In the Soviet Union women have freedoms that women in other countries can only dream about.”
            When you are wearing headphones and talk with someone, unless you are careful you talk really loud, and so all of a sudden the women delegates around their circular table were looking at these two American midshipmen, talking Russian.  One had just said to the other, “Kakoi bol’shoi govno!” or, “What a load of (expletive)!”
            We were asked to leave.
            That same day we visited Rockefeller Center, or wherever Dave Garroway was having the Today show (1955),and joined the crowd of onlookers when the cast did their outdoors stand-up.
            When it was time to head back to Annapolis, we boarded the train at Grand Central.  On the train we sat near two young women, and Art, who was always more skilled at this than I, started a conversation with them.  One was reading her history text book, and we began to discuss it, and asked them where they were from, etc.   
            Art and I got off the train at Baltimore, and the girls continued on to Washington.  They were traveling from Boston to Washington for a visit with a friend there. 
            After we got back to Annapolis  I thought it might be nice to send a letter to one of those girls. We started an exchange, I invited her down for a weekend at the Academy, we later got engaged, and were married a day after graduation, on June 8, 1957.
             I can thank Art for arranging that meeting!

            Art Aronson, at right, in 2002.


Arthur died September 4, 2008, in Syracuse, NY. 

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