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Jewish World Review Dec. 3, 1999/ 24 Kislev, 5760


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Necker Idyll Continues; The Babe for Man of the Century -- AS IS TRADITION this time of year in the Smith family, as in countless other families, I’m sure, we try to guess Time’s “Man of the Year,” although the twist this time was “Man of the Century.” Out of 16 participants, the guesses went like this: FDR, six; Churchill, three; Hitler, two; Gandhi, four; and Reagan, one. I doff my cap to the fella who picked the Great Communicator for the honor, but I don’t think he quite finishes in the Top 3. In fact, while I’m sure Franklin Roosevelt will be the boring choice—if you’re playing straight, come down on Churchill’s side, not only for his enormous courage, brilliance and charisma, but for that famous saying that’ll never be forgotten. I’m paraphrasing now, but: Winston was in a row with a straightlaced lady one night and she spat out that he was drunk. He shot back, Yes, ma’am, but in the morning I’ll be sober and you’ll still be ugly. It’s astonishing how much Churchill accomplished given all the booze he consumed, at any time of the day.

Hitler’s out because he lost. Gandhi’s the Californian choice and preempts Martin Luther King, but his legacy hasn’t left much of an imprint. Teddy Roosevelt was bandied about, with his rugged individualism, his internationalism and his goading the country into a new age. But there is the matter of his trust-busting, and he’s really too much of a 19th-century man for consideration. Myself, I choose the fellow who invented air conditioning. Not a particularly original thought, but think about it: If a.c. didn’t make life bearable in the South and Sun Belt the entire infrastructure of the United States would be different today. Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Phoenix, L.A., Las Vegas and Dallas wouldn’t be vast population centers; power would still reside in the Northeast.

I also think a cool choice would be Babe Ruth, for a couple of reasons. One, it would aptly lampoon the entire idea of constant list-making, and who better than Time, which started a lot of this nonsense, to make fun of themselves? Also, the Babe was truly larger than life, not a snotty braggart like, say, Donald Trump, but a man who had a bad start in life, did a stint in reform school, hit it huge in an emerging sport and lived every second of it: blasting home runs, eating and drinking and whoring like it was his last day alive, the idol of every boy and of most men in the country. Now there was an unadulterated American hero: he had nothing to do with killing people or saving their lives; didn’t invent a new medicine; wasn’t involved in statesmanship or politics; and wasn’t a brilliant man. Just a strong kid who hit the lottery in life and made the most of it.

The ages of our group spanned from oldest brother at 57 to five-year-old MUGGER III. My boys hadn’t seen their California cousins, Xela and Kira, in quite a while, though they’re old buddies with Quinn and Rhys. The six youngest got along splendidly, with just a minimum of culture clash. Quite a feat, since we’re talking San Luis Obispo, London and New York City. As in years past, during most of the nights after dinner there were songfests, and it was fortunate that we were the only guests on the island, so that the staff, which is paid, were the only ones who had to bear witness. An odd shift has taken place in the last five or six years, with this vacation only more pronounced because we were together for so long. After the original Smith Brothers faded out with songs from the 50s and 60s, the next generation took over, due to stamina and the ability to drink till the wee hours.

I’m biased of course, but look at the Bros. playlist, compare it to the next generation’s and you decide. We started with some Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, Del Shannon, Frankie Lymon, early Stones and Animals. When Caleb belted out “Jeremiah was a bullfrog...” I felt like I was 100 years old. And it just got worse: Police hits, the Grateful Dead, possibly Billy Joel, 90s tunes I simply don’t know and on and on. I took a break with my brother Gary out by the pool and we just shook our heads in disbelief, not only for the travesty inside, but for all the memories we’ve shared.

The next night a local reggae band was shipped in but I was too bushed from a day’s activities to participate in the rapping, game of limbo and dancing. I read Junior a Dr. Seuss book as he went to sleep and I was amazed he could drop off with all the racket; as for me, it took five pages of another Kennedy book and the sound of Traie’s husband impersonating Dr. Dre to do the trick.

The chefs at Necker are quite astounding. Every morning the main dining room table was laden with croissants, English muffins, bagels, platters of fruit with the best pineapple I’ve had in a year, star fruit, red and purple grapes, mangoes, papaya and bowls of jams and cream cheese. The heartiest among us had eggs and bacon with a side of sausage; I got my oldest brother in the doghouse when I inadvertently told his wife his white egg omelet had about a pound of cheese in it.

It was dinner when the kitchen really shined. One night it was kangaroo in a blueberry sauce with bacon on top, with lamb or red snapper as a next course; fresh mahimahi every day, conch, potato-leek soup, quail in a lime/chili vinaigrette, tuna spring rolls, beef carpaccio, tempura prawns, beef with asparagus and whipped potatoes and grilled grouper. The kids didn’t do badly either, at least those who were adventurous: one night delicious baby roasted chicken, the next a quiche that was more like pizza, and then fajitas. Junior, on his usual Spartan diet, stuck to Cap’n Crunch, fries and maybe three or four bites of hamburger (not cheese, because once again, he’s lactose intolerant, except for when it comes to ice cream), but MUGGER III more than made up for it with his tomato and cheese scrambled eggs, hot dogs and fried chicken, tastes of rack of lamb and the kangaroo or anything else with cheese in it.

By Saturday night, some of the group had already departed—it was 15 hours to California and 19 to London—and so our group was a little more reserved, tuckered out from so much sun, food, gab and sporting activities. However, at lunchtime, three of my brothers and I told the remaining kids about the dining habits of the Smith Family at 123 LaRue Dr. in Huntington. Randy allowed how he’d never seen lettuce except in a porcelain bowl in the kitchen. Jeff told a story about when he first started dating his wife Mary: he went over for supper one night and Mrs. Hilderman offered him some sour cream for a baked potato. Jeff, who was so used to the sour milk that was in the home fridge (a laboratory unto itself) politely declined, thinking, “Why would anyone want something that’s sour on purpose?” Gary threw in the true story of how Mom’s idea of a “snack” consisted of day-old bread and jelly; the only problem was that you usually had to scrape off the crust inside the Welch’s jar. For my own part, I remember how for about two years each of the five boys was limited to one soda a week, and it was always a No-Cal, a precursor to diet drinks. It was poisonous stuff, but we looked forward to them just the same.

Then there was the time that Jeff, as chairman of some event at Huntington High School, brought home over 200 sandwiches leftover from the concession stand. Yellow wrapping was for tuna salad, pink for ham—and straight into the garage freezer they went until the supply dwindled down to the last dozen or so, about a year later. Now, tv dinners were a staple of the 50s, as were canned peaches, pears and vegetables, and we had plenty of this cool new convenience, especially the fried chicken and turkey options. Trouble was, Mom would save the tins and use them for her leftover meat loaf at any dreaded time.

Anyway, those are the old war stories that my brothers trot out each time the family’s together, and the second generation is usually patient in putting up with the dashes of hyperbole, although I swear most of it’s true. I’m still not sure if Randy was exaggerating when he claimed to write a letter of complaint to Alpo when the dog food he ate in his penniless college days was too gritty, but it sounds pretty plausible to me. We all raised toasts to the family’s fortune and how no one among us, unless it’s their wish, has to eat canned fruit cocktail ever again.

JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and publisher of New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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©1999, Russ Smith