Benjamin Federov has lived a thoroughly American life. The son of immigrants, husband to a lovely wife, and father to two healthy sons, he is successful in business, and blessed with good health. During a lazy 1964 summer afternoon at his son’s baseball game, Ben reminisces on the triumphs and failures of his past fifty years. He recalls the comedy of his youth and the horrors of World War II, his alienation as a second-generation child in America and the tenderness of his first love. Insightful and evocative, Voices of a Summer Day is an enchanting story about a man’s life and an unforgettable look at the power of memory. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Irwin Shaw including rare images and never-before-seen documents from the author’s estate.
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Voices of a Summer Day
By Irwin Shaw
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1965 Irwin Shaw
All rights reserved.
Benjamin Federov held his brother Louis's hand. They had both been to the camp the year before, but Benjamin's parents had made a last plea to him to take good care of Louis, who was only nine.
The camp was in Vermont and was reached from New York by a night voyage on the Fall River Line and buses for the rest of the way. On the evening of June 30, 1927, long before sailing time, the shed at the foot of Fulton Street began to fill with boys and parents and the counselors who were doomed for two months to protect everybody's little darling from drowning, snakebite, homesickness, and moral contamination. Here and there a small boy wept because he was being taken away from his parents for the first time, but the atmosphere in the old dark shed, smelling from salt and years of odorous cargo, was chaotically festive, as mothers kissed children good-bye and fathers sought out counselors to tell them that their sons wet their beds or walked in their sleep or had to be prevented from diving because of sinus trouble. Whistles blew, lost tennis racquets were discovered at the last moment, and the holiday began in an excited straggle up the gangplank.
Trying to appear sophisticated, Benjamin waited for most of the other boys to go aboard before starting up with Louis's hand in his. Even then, the difference between the two brothers was already marked. Benjamin was tall and large for his age, with an athlete's muscles and movements and an impatient physical and mental quickness. Louis, with a cherubic high brow and curling golden hair, was quiet, dreamy, inward, neither social nor antisocial, reserved in his affections, non-assertive, and beneath it all, unmovably stubborn. Surprisingly, he was a ferocious fighter when challenged and had consistently beaten boys two or three years older than he on the block in Harrison on which the Federovs lived.
Israel Federov, Louis and Benjamin's father, had come from Russia at the age of six, one of a family that eventually numbered eight children. He had grown up amongst the usual terrors and sweated labor on New York's East Side and only in the nineteen twenties had begun to prosper in a small automobile-accessory business that he and a partner ran on the outskirts of Newark. The fact that now, in 1927, he could afford to spend six hundred dollars to give his two sons a summer in the mountains seemed in the nature of a miracle to him. Even earlier, the realization of the immense difference of what his life would have been like if his family had remained in Russia instead of immigrating to America, had made him the most blindly ardent of patriots. Despite the fact that he was married and had one child, with another on the way, he had enlisted in 1917, leaving Benjamin's mother to scrape along on what she could earn as a piano teacher and on what her own family, who were almost equally poor, could spare for her in her husband's absence.
Israel was so committed to what he thought was his plain duty to the country that had taken him in that he had had one of his rare quarrels with his family on the subject. He had a younger brother, Samuel, aged twenty, who was studying to be a pianist and who regarded Chopin and Schumann as more important than any war. At a family conference it was decided that one crazy brother going to fight a war was enough for one family and that Samuel, following a custom consecrated by tradition for centuries in the Jewish villages of Russia, would have himself deliberately ruptured (there were experts at this among all the immigrant communities) and thus be unfit for military service. Cutting off a finger, another sensible device for avoiding the recruiting sergeant in Russia, was considered and rejected as being unrealistic for a pianist. Israel had stormed out of the house, saying he would never speak to any of them again if Samuel went through with the proposal.
Awed by his brother's rage, Samuel had dutifully reported to his draft board, only to be told, to his great relief, that he had a heart murmur, and was rejected. He played the piano happily from then on, although it was years before Israel finally forgave him.
His quick and spontaneous enlistment in the Army of the United States fighting a war that Israel would never admit, to the end of his days, was bungled, unnecessary and disastrous in its consequences, was the one purely selfish act that Israel Federov ever committed in all the seventy-one years of his lifetime.
The funnel horn blew, the ropes were cast off, the last handkerchief waved on the pier, and the boys lined the rail watching the buildings of New York slide by in the splendid mild evening light as the ship steamed up the river toward Long Island Sound and the calm open sea beyond Montauk.
Benjamin went down to his stateroom before they reached Hell Gate Bridge. He had bought a new fielder's glove two Saturdays before, having made the long trip from Harrison to a shop on Nassau Street in downtown New York that had a reputation for baseball equipment. The glove was an Eddie Roush model and had cost five dollars and fifty cents. Benjamin was very serious about baseball. He hadn't trusted putting the glove in the foot locker that had been sent off with all the camp uniforms and sweaters and socks with name tapes sewed on by his mother. He took the glove out of his overnight bag and a bottle of neat's-foot oil, which was the only oil to break a glove in with, and sat on his bunk in the stateroom, rubbing the oil into the new leather and pounding his fist into the glove to make a secure pocket, as the white ship throbbed steadily and the salt breeze, with its promise of future, incalculable voyages, swept in through the open porthole. There was a possibility, which he recognized later on, that this was the happiest moment of his life, and he regretted it when a counselor opened the door to his cabin and told him that it was time to go to dinner.
They reached the camp in buses late the next afternoon and, after they had thrown their belongings on their cots in the six-man tents in which they were to live for two months and had dutifully taken the spoonful of castor oil that officially opened the camp season, all the older boys stripped and ran out onto the large grass square around which the tents were grouped. They wore spikes and baseball caps and carried their gloves, but aside from that they were naked as they shagged flies that two counselors fungoed out to them from the end of the square. The mountain air was cool, the lake three hundred yards away glittered in the light of the descending sun, the winter-white, quick bodies flashed across the coarse grass in an unembarrassed and joyous rite that cleansed forty boys of ten months of decorum, school, constricting clothing, the tabus of the grown-up world. The long summer of adolescence was before them, with its games, its mountains, its smells of balsam and blossoms and lake water, its competitions and liberated laughter, and they saluted the young season in primal nakedness as they raced across the turf and leaped, in a flashing clatter of spiked shoes, to steal catches from each other. Illness and age were impossible then, for an hour or two, and even September was an eon in the future on that first afternoon of July, 1927.
Because Benjamin was so large and could more than hold his own in sports with older boys, he was put in a tent of seniors, all of them between fifteen and seventeen. During the day the difference in age didn't count particularly, but after taps, when all lights were out and the other boys began to talk about such things as cigarettes, liquor and girls, he lay quietly on his cot, looking up at the stars through the open sides of the tent, feeling childish and uninitiated. He had read much more than any of the other boys, but it was one thing to have thumbed through Mlle de Maupin behind the locked door of his room while pretending to be doing his homework and quite another to lie in the fragrant dark and listen to a sixteen-year-old boy describe how he had seduced a virgin in Lakewood, New Jersey, the summer before. "I took her cherry under a cherry tree," the boy said, and then went on with a detailed account of the performance that left Benjamin shaken and full of a trembling longing that he was sure would never be satisfied in his lifetime.
He had never kissed a girl (he was convinced he wasn't good-looking enough for this ever to happen to him), he had never smoked a cigarette (he wanted to be an All-American halfback), and never drunk a drop of alcohol (at the age of thirteen he doubted that he would be welcome in a speakeasy). He was by nature truthful and could not boast, like the other boys, who, while not going as far as the cherry-tree boy, spoke knowingly of kissing with open mouths, putting their hands under girls' skirts and getting drunk on their parents' hidden liquor on holidays.
The cherry-tree boy was named Boris Cohn. About two-thirds of the campers were Jewish. Somehow, in 1927, this easy association of Jew with Christian seemed natural and unforced. Only after the advent of Hitler would a similar mixture bear the burden of self-consciousness. Cohn came from a wealthy family in Manhattan, which had obviously spared no expense to spoil him. He had arrived in camp with a portable phonograph and a large collection of popular records. He went often to the theatre, he said, especially to musical comedies, took girls to restaurants, visited whorehouses, drank bathtub gin, smoked secretly, and insisted that he had driven a Packard phaeton for two weeks the summer before in Lakewood, New Jersey, using an older brother's license and getting away with it. To put the seal on his exalted status, he had brought with him two dozen new Spalding tennis balls. Benjamin, like his other tent-mates, had brought a box of three balls, which he knew would have to last him the summer.
The phonograph blared for hours each day. Cohn had a particular liking for two songs, "Hallelujah" and "Sometimes I'm Happy," from a musical comedy called Hit the Deck. Cohn would play them over and over again, practicing dance steps barefooted on the rough plank floor of the tent. The terrible thing about Cohn from Benjamin's point of view was that, despite his depravity, he was generous and good-natured and was the best athlete in camp. He was the trickiest pitcher, with a curve, a drop, and a floater, he was the fastest runner in the 100- and 220-yard dash, he led the entire camp league in batting, he won the tennis tournament for seniors, he knocked out his opponent in the first round of the 150-pound finals, he beat the next man by five yards in the 100-yard free-style and won the mile swim across the lake by nearly 300 yards. He also dispensed largesse to whoever happened to be present upon the arrival of the luxurious packages his parents sent him two or three times a week. Two hours after mail call he never had as much as a Hershey bar left for himself. He also masturbated serenely when there were no counselors present. At the age of thirteen Cohn managed to shake, for life, Benjamin's sense of morality and his belief in the rewards of virtue and the wisdom of his elders.
The counselor for the tent, a darkly handsome, thick young man by the name of Bryant, who was a second-string halfback for Syracuse, was completely under Cohn's spell and didn't even report Cohn when he caught Cohn smoking one night after taps. Bryant suffered from two obsessions. One was that he was going to be bald by the time he was twenty-five (which, in the event, turned out to be optimistic, as he was bald by his twenty-fourth birthday). The other was that he was better than the first-string Syracuse halfback and was only kept on the bench by an irrational dislike that the coach of the team had taken for him. Of all the five boys in the tent, Bryant discussed these weighty matters only with Cohn, who promised to find him the name of a doctor who had saved Cohn's uncle's hair under similar circumstances. Cohn also loaned Bryant a jar of expensive hair cream and, on two occasions, on Bryant's day off, a ten-dollar bill. He also promised that another uncle of his, who was a graduate of Syracuse and a weighty influence in alumni affairs, would personally talk to the coach in Bryant's behalf. Rich in everything, Cohn had an uncle for all eventualities. Actually, the next season, poor Bryant was demoted to third string and never even won his letter, but there was no way for him to know about his impending tragedy as he conferred in low tones throughout the summer with the all-powerful Cohn.
To the tune of "Sing Hallelujah, Hallelujah, sweep all your troubles away ..." and "Sometimes I'm happy, sometimes I'm blue, My disposition depends on you ...," the summer passed, swinging into August on a chant of exultant optimism or Broadway melancholy, as the mood seized Cohn, cranking the handle of his phonograph and dancing barefoot on the tent floor.CHAPTER 2
I took her cherry under a cherry tree, Federov remembered nearly forty years later, her, cherry, cherry, cherry, under the cherry, cherry tree. Old English ballad.
There was a shout of warning and Federov looked up just in time to see a foul ball coming at him. He could have stood up and cupped the ball safely in his two hands or let it go entirely, but instead, at the last moment, he stretched debonairly above his head and caught the ball with his left hand. The boys on the field laughed and there were a few cheers for the catch, and Federov made a grave baseball player's salute, as though he were doffing his cap to an admiring crowd, before he tossed the ball to the pitcher. The ball had stung his palm and had broken a nail and his finger was bleeding a little, but he put his hand into his pocket and dried the blood off against the cloth. It would have been more sanitary to wrap a handkerchief around his finger, but he didn't want to let on that the catch had been more troublesome than it had seemed. Showboat, he thought. Two hands for beginners. He smiled wryly at the everlasting vanity of old athletes.CHAPTER 3
Other things happened to Benjamin that summer. He played in three games on the senior varsity and made a diving catch in center field to save a victory against another camp that brought him the election of the Best Athlete of the Week at the Friday night ceremony of awards. Cohn gave him five dollars for the catch, because Cohn was pitching at the time. Benjamin didn't get paid again for engaging in any sport until he played two or three games of semipro football in Newark for twenty-five dollars an afternoon the year after he got out of college, during the Depression.
And for the first time in his life, that summer he shed tears for someone besides himself. That long step toward maturity came after the finals of the boxing tournament, in which his brother Louis was beaten in three rounds for the seventy-five-pound championship by a boy two years older than he. At the end of the fight, Louis's lip was cut and there was a big lump on his forehead. Louis took his beating with his usual stoicism, but, while Benjamin was leading him to the showers to stop the flow of blood and put an icy washrag against Louis's forehead, the tears of helpless love suddenly came to Benjamin's eyes. He turned his head, trying to keep Louis from seeing what was happening. But he knew that Louis knew, though they never talked about the moment, even when they were grown men. Louis looked at him gravely, wondering and a little ashamed of what seemed to him incomprehensible childishness in a brother he had never seen weep before.
Each summer, toward the end of the camp season, the seniors went on a three-day trip, usually to play baseball and basketball against other camps within a radius of 200 miles or so. But this summer Cohn had to be reckoned with. After supper one night on the lawn outside the mess hall, in a general meeting of the seniors that he had persuaded the head counselor to call, Cohn stood up, smiling and at ease, as usual, and made a speech. "I got a great idea, fellers," he said. "Let's be different for once. We've been playing ball all season long. What's the sense in driving all over the place in trucks just to play some more ball? Anyway, we're more than forty of us and only about fifteen fellers're going to play, while all the rest of the guys just sit around like dopes. I don't think that's fair. After all, everybody's paying the same twenty bucks extra for the trip, why should only fifteen guys have all the fun?" There were some cheers at this unusual example of self-sacrifice, since everybody knew that Cohn would pitch both days and play in both basketball games. Benjamin listened with sinking heart. He covered center field for the varsity and had dreamed of batting against pitchers he had never seen before and stealing base hits from strange hitters for the glory of his team. Summer meant baseball for him. If it weren't for baseball, Benjamin wouldn't have cared if it was winter all year round.
Excerpted from Voices of a Summer Day by Irwin Shaw. Copyright © 1965 Irwin Shaw. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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