by Al Erlick
Al Erlick, long-time resident of West Mt. Airy who moved to Florida two years ago, retired after 24 years as editor of The Jewish Exponent. He died May 24 at the age of 88. In 2006 he wrote this article for the Local. We are running it in his memory:
Nostalgia is the opiate of the aging, the brain-candy of retirement. There are mornings when I wake up and can’t remember my name, but I can recite the lineup of the 1948 Cleveland Indians flawlessly. Still, some history is better left forgotten.
The young soldier in the photo is poised — steel-taut, rifle at the ready, obviously honed to a keen fighting edge. Seven weeks of basic training have melted off the excess pounds, hardened the muscles from head to toe. If, at the same time, brain tissue has softened under the pressure of the military way of life, at least it doesn’t show in the picture. He weighs 179 pounds, and the actuarial tables that insurance companies love so dearly would have attested to that number’s favorable relationship to his height, an inch or so below six feet.
I know all this because my wife keeps dragging out the picture and leaving it where I can’t possibly miss seeing it. That young, lean, discouragingly trim soldier points his accusatory rifle straight at my overly generous midriff. If a bayonet were affixed to that World War II weapon, it would be designed to cut away flab, of which I have accumulated more than my fair share.
“What have you done to me?” that 18-year-old’s frozen memory asks. And in reply, I can but hang my double chin in shame. It has often been said that inside every fat person there is a thin person longing to be released. Ah, the days, weeks, months, meals of grass and birdseed I have endured in that liberation effort. I have devoured grapefruit by the crate, drunk water by the gallon, shredded mushrooms by the bushel, measured out tons of cottage cheese and opened enough cans of tuna to send the owner of Chicken of the Sea into luxurious retirement forever.
I have weighed myself scrupulously, battling ferociously over each quarter of a pound, tearing apart the scale that seemed forever frozen at the 230-pound mark. I have sat in group sessions with other fatties, exchanging horror stories of gustatory excesses that could put a sizable dent in the world’s hunger problem.
Each of us is pursued by a different demon. We can be brought down — or rather blown up — by the appetizers of this world, the entrees or the desserts. Only the salads are our friends, but we can poison that alliance, too, as we dip overzealously into the blue cheese dressing. And always, the pounds we accumulate with such ease are shucked only through a lifetime of deprivation.
We are spurred on in our effort by the rare but satisfying success stories we see in
advertisements: “She came to us a Rosie O’Donnell and left to take a high-paying position as Kim Basinger’s double — and all in eight months.” “Come forward, Seymour, and accept your award, a bronzed watercress sprig. Seymour has shed 147 1/4 pounds since this date last year.” Up comes simpering Seymour, resplendent in his skin-tight designer jeans. He has succeeded where we weaker mortals have failed.
The confession sessions are grisly exercises in self-abuse, comparable, I imagine, to the old Red Guard trials of bygone years in Communist China. The miscreant confesses publicly to a staggering array of personal, social and financial wrongdoings and is sent off to the country to dig cesspools for a year or two.
One woman of mammoth measurements told an awed but believing throng that each morning upon awakening, she would creep to her kitchen and proceed to grind up a full bag of potato chips, stir it into a full jar of mayonnaise, and spread it on a full loaf of white bread, Each of us harbored a refrigerated ghost of our own, but for sheer magnificent decadence, the potato-chip lady took honors.
Another remarkable overeater, whose weight stubbornly refused to melt away, was as devoted to chocolate bars as her fellow-fatty was to potato chips. She perfected the toilet-tank technique: A waterproof plastic bag suspended in the tank hid her hoard of Hersheys. During the long, foodless nights, frequent calls of nature fed her compulsion while her vigilant husband marveled at the slowness of her metabolic rate.
I have only kind thoughts for the potato-chip devotee and the toilet-tank stuffer. I wear my own albatross, the deli-demon. It is the corned beef special on which I come a cropper; the kosher salami that brings me to my knees; the seeded rye that stirs my vital juices. I quit smoking cold-turkey. More than two packs a day on Monday and nothing — not a puff, not a sniff — on Tuesday and more than three decades thereafter. I do not brag. I know how easy it is to backslide. Like the alcoholic on the wagon for 10 years who considers himself a drinker between drinks and takes one day at a time, I know I am just a smoker between smokes.
So why can’t I overcome the craving for smoked meats and Jewish rye? If I must engage in self-analysis (failed dieters engage in little else), I’d say it’s the all-or-nothing nature of the tobacco vice that renders it manageable. Giving up smoking involves no choice more complex than “yes” or “no.” However, “one from column A and two from column B” sets the head whirling and the salivary glands frothing up a storm. Would that the surgeon general might affix to the entire output of Hebrew National a stamp declaiming, “This product may be hazardous to your waistline.”
Even that wouldn’t stop me. If pastrami sandwiches could be secreted in crystal chandeliers, I know I’d be making midnight forays to the ballroom. And so the teenage soldier frowns, and the battle against unnecessary poundage moves on in fits and starts. The thin man inside cries out to be free — and the deli-demon laughs.