Fathers, Sons and Planned Parenthood

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
My Father and I spend some time together. We both see each other in new ways.

Submitted: November 22, 2018

A A A | A A A

Submitted: November 22, 2018




By Sam Berkow. 2016 All rights reserved.


I remember riding my bicycle, a red Schwinn 5-speed around the Suburban New Jersey cul-de-sac our family lived on. I can remember seeing my father’s car turning on to our street and into our garage. It was before 8am on Sunday morning and he was just getting home.  Being 15 years old, I didn’t wear a watch, so I couldn’t tell you exactly what time it was, but I did know it was too early to knock on the neighbor’s doors to gather other kids to play.I saw the one non-Jewish family that lived on the street heading off to early morning mass.  It was before 8am for sure.

For many families, the Dad coming come after being out all night would have been strange or even scandalous.  But on our closed, mostly Jewish little cul-de-sac, my Dad getting home at dawn or later was a regular occurrence.My father, like his father before him, was an OB-GYN, his job delivering babies and tending to the problems of woman’s ‘plumbing.’  This line of work meant many late nights at the hospital, delivering babies on a timetable set by the babies and not by his choice.  For my Dad, arriving home at any hour was normal.

For my sister and me, this meant there were many opportunities to stay up late and watch ‘extra’ TV!  If the phone rang at 6pm or 7pm and my father had a delivery that wasn’t expected to take too long, my sister and I would jump at the chance to go with my Dad to the hospital.  This was an invitation sit in the Doctors Lounge, watching, what was even back then considered an old beat-up Black and White TV. I remember my mother objecting that we would be out too late, but my Dad answering with, “Rhoda, how late can it be, she’s already at 7 to 8 centimeters” (which all the doctors pronounced sahn-o-meters).  Cervical dilation was my introduction to the metric system.   But going to the hospital, sitting in the Doctors lounge, and having the labor & delivery nurses offer the occasional piece of candy, beat being home and having to go to bed at bed-time every time!  The big payoff was when the delivery went late, and we got to stay up and ‘out’ on a school-night, sometimes until 10:30pm, 11pm or occasionally even mid-night.Our 5th-grade teacher Mr. Graph was a young progressive guy who introduced soccer into the local community and schools.  Ken Graph saw that we young kids needed some life lessons before leaving our K-thru-5 school and were sent out into the world, headed to the larger and meaner middle school for 6th thru 8th grades.  Our class was coming through the school system at an interesting time, a time of change and transitions; our class was the first year to have co-ed gym class, the first to have co-ed little league, and when we finally got to High School, the first to have a required sex-education class.

To help us learn some of the ‘facts-of-life’ before we got to the 6th grade, Mr. Graph arranged a 5th grade Father-Son Night, where he planned to show films, approved, or more likely imposed by the school board.  The films were so outdated, that even we 5th graders, who supposedly needed basic sex-ed, would be laughing at the almost puritanical nature of the films.

At 7pm on the date in question, pairs of fathers and sons enter the combo gym/lunchroom, which featured long tables and attached benches that folded out of the large rooms side walls, leaving a wide-open space in the middle of the room, with people on each side.  Filmed in back & white, the films featured a girl in Bobby-Sox and a boy in a white button-down shirt greasing his hair back with a small black comb and worrying about pimples.  They looked like people who if time had marched forward on film, would have been much older than our parents.  The ‘action’ as it were, was narrated with a tone that was both amazingly condescending and simultaneously detached from reality.  I distinctly recall the phrase “….and having looked carefully for pimples, Bobby is ready to go out on his date to the local Soda-shop”. To end the evening Mr. Graph, whose wife was a patient of my father’s, had asked my Dad to help ‘guide the discussion’ and ‘answer questions’. 

Both my father and Mr. Graph had naturally assumed that there would be questions.  After the two short outdated films and an introduction of my father, “…a doctor who can help answer our questions.”  My father was greeted with a deafening silence.  He looked around the room, pleading for a question with his eyes. He regrouped quickly.  My dad reviewed some of the things we saw in the films, “You boys are at the age where many changes to your bodies are happening.  Some of you might have already noticed hair under your arms or around your genitals… which refers to the area around your penis.”  He may have said ‘penises’ but the end of the word was lost to the many gasps heard in the room.  It was one thing to have a cut-away graphic of a penis shown in a black & white film that even we didn’t take seriously, but it was another thing altogether to have a real adult-human person say ‘penis’ or ‘penises’ out-loud in a room full of 5th graders and their fathers.

More silence.  Finally, a father, wearing a Yamika (which was very rare to see in public in our town), raised his hand, and asked: “Doctor, could you please speak to the responsibilities associated with sex?”  My father stammered thru the ‘Issues’ of; marriage, pregnancy, sexually transmitted illnesses and monogamy, like he was walking thru a field spiked with landmines.  From the opposite side of the room, a black man raised his hand. “Doc, can you speak to the pleasures of sex?”  I saw my father quickly glance back to the Jewish man on the opposite side of the room and scanned the rest of the audience to see how to respond.  It was not hard to see my father feeling trapped between two world-views.I saw him take a breath and he did what doctors do, and went into a clinical explanation the topic at hand, in this case, ‘pleasurable sensations of sex.’

Finally, a kid raised his hand.  It was my friend David Ross.  David had been to our home many times and knew my father well. “Dr. Berkow, how many times can a kid,,.., I mean a person,  have sex in one day or one week”.  David had copped a penthouse from his older brother’s room, and we had read a Penthouse Forum where a guy re-told the tale of screwing his girlfriend and several of her girlfriends several times each, each day for a week.  We had also found the Penthouse Forum article sent in by our camp counselor Rick ‘Mandrill’ Bellit, who described in painstaking detail, how his girlfriend had used his tobacco pipe in a way never intended by the manufacturer, leaving him with “a smile on his face, and a pipe that never gave a better smoke.” Let the fun begin! 

Having broken the ice, with a question designed to resolve an important topic of conversation of our week, the floodgates opened.  Kids asked questions of every type and topic, coming very close to the question we all wanted to know but were afraid to ask: “Hey Doc, can you do it with a pole vault?”  Hey, we were 5th graders!  Sex was strange and foreign and not something we would take seriously for a year or two.  My father tried to answer each question carefully and accurately, without making the kid asking the question feel either self-conscious or stupid.  It is with no small amount of pride, that I can tell you my father showed up to the 5th grade Father-Son Night to help ‘guide the discussion’ and ‘answer questions’ for 14 straight years!

A couple of months after I got my drivers license, I spent a night out mixing sound for a hippie rock band - a habit I would find very hard to shake for many years. About 4 am, I pulled my mom’s car into the driveway, and as I got out, my father was walking out the front door.  Clearly, the old man was not thrilled seeing me get home at this hour, but he maintained a calm tone. “Come-on, take a ride with me, I’ve got a quick delivery to do, then we can get some breakfast at The Diner on Parsonage Road.”My first reaction was to say no and climb into my bed, but as the song goes, ‘strategy was his strength, not disaster’ and off to the doctor’s lounge at Perth Amboy Hospital we went.

Perth Amboy, NJ is a town that has had its ups and downs.  The late ‘70s were not a great time for the town at the northern tip of ‘The Jersey Shore’.  White flight, a boom in public housing, and the movement away from shopping in more urban towns with suburban malls becoming the big draw of the times.  This left semi-urban towns like Perth Amboy, NJ hurting and depressed.The Perth Amboy General Hospital was not spared, and the Hospital building always seemed to need more basic maintenance than its leadership could fund.  My father parked in a Doctor’s Only space behind the building.  We then climbed up the back stairway, and walked down an empty hallway lit by exposed fluorescent tube lighting, finally passing thru the delivery floor double doors.

The old television in the doctor’s lounge of my youth had been replaced by another old television, this one a color-set.  I was thrilled to learn the new-old set received all 7 channels being broadcast at that time.  As my dad turned to head off to the delivery room, I heard myself saying words, not knowing where they came from. “Hey Pop, can I watch the delivery…?”  I think my dad was as surprised as I was.  A moment’s hesitation and he responded, “Ok, let’s go scrub…”.

So there I was, exhausted, freshly scrubbed, standing, behind a plexiglass ‘shield’, only a dozen feet or so from a woman giving birth.  I was able to see the messy but miraculous event in all its gory detail.  I was unprepared for time to stand still, as my father held up the still silent newborn by his legs, with my mind silently pleading, ‘Cry God-Damn It, Cry’.  My father gave the new-born a gentle tap on his back-side, and with that gentle stroke, those few silent seconds that seemed like an eternity disappeared into the past, with the clear, strong crying sounds of the newborn boy filling the room with joy.

My father checked on the new mother on our way out, said some goodbyes to the nurses, and we headed down the back stairs.  “Pop, that was AMAZING. Holy Shit, that was awesome!”  My father shrugged and kept walking.  “Pop, your telling me you didn’t think that was amazing?”  “I do this many times a week.  I’ve delivered perhaps 3 or 4 thousand kids……..how amazed would you like me to be?” 

Then he stopped on the stairs, turned to me, and paused.  I could see an unfamiliar look in his eyes. “You know what, if I take a moment and think about it, you’re right.  I really do enjoy those moments.  Being part of a great moment in a family’s life….  I enjoy helping them have a kid…. It is amazing and wonderful.” I could see he meant what he was saying.  “There are lots of reasons for me not to like this job, but being part of births is really great.” He paused again, thinking something, what I’ll never know.  Perhaps thinking about his father being an OBGYN, or how we both already knew I wouldn’t be one.Wh atever he thought, he didn’t say.“Let’s get some breakfast, and get home, I promised mom I would get you to help clean out the storage closet.”

After an uneventful breakfast at the Parsonage Diner, Salami and Eggs with coffee for my dad, a turkey club with green tea for me.  The green tea, seemed to be a more exotic choice back then, than now.  We headed home, two overly tired guys destined to clean out a closest.  My father pulled his car into the driveway. Two guys left here a few hours ago.  The same guys came back, but something had changed.  “Sam, grab some garbage bags and lets go clean-out the closet….”

The storage closet was really the back half of my father’s half of my parent’s walk-in closet.  Filled with boxes of who knows what; old clothes, an old Halloween custom or two, some bad “what were you thinking when you bought this one’ ties, a red valour smoking jacket with black satin trim and a fancy black fabric belt, and my fathers old army uniform.  “This stay or go?” I said holding up the smoking jacket.  “Hey, that smoking jacket was considered very stylish at the time…” “Really Pop, what time was that???”

“Hey pop, you were a Captain in the Army, ever shoot anyone?” I was holding his uniform up, the label B E R K O W above the left breast.  “Are you so tired that your brain has stopped working?  I was a doctor stationed in Baltimore. When would I have a reason to shoot anyone?”  “Hey, Doctor-Captain B-E-R-K-O-W, ever save any lives in the Army?”  “You must be brain-dead! Too much of that rock’n roll music!  Have you heard of any recent battles in Baltimore?  Just whose lives could I, working as an Army OB-GYN save in Baltimore?”  And just then, for the 2nd time in a just few hours, my father paused and looked at me in a way that was not familiar.  He looked both serious and relaxed at the same moment, like a burden was about to be lifted.  Getting close for us was getting harder, my head lived in a smoke-filled cloud of music and magic, my father, was becoming increasingly aware that the world he lived in was not the place that he had always thought it was.  I knew that for the 2nd time in so many hours, he was about to talk to me as a real person.  Not offering fatherly advise, not evaluating or judging me, but just two guys who shared a house, a family and our lives, talking, just talking. 

“You know what Sam, I did save lives in Baltimore. Actually, quite a few lives.” He paused. “Every Friday, I saved lives.”  Somehow I knew this wasn’t a joke. “When we left NYC and got down to Baltimore, I had just finished my residency, it was late in 1963.  The Army base was near the inner harbor, which was a horrible place, filled with really dehumanizing and heavily populated public housing.  It was a violent place.  In those days, hospitals could turn people away if they couldn’t prove they could pay, and abortions were still illegal.  The policy of the Army Base Hospital was NOT to turn people who were seriously ill away, and at least get them stabilized.  It was considered good for community relations.” 

“Every Friday around 7 or 8 pm, the women would start showing-up, bleeding or worse, the results of a back-ally butchering, done by someone who claimed to be an abortionist.”  I could see the real anguish in my dad’s face, his forehead wrinkled, his eyes squinting, like he was looking back through the years and the miles and the many changes that had happened both to him and his world in the time since then.  I think he was looking back at the faces he had seen.  “What I saw in those woman was horrible. Their insides were ruined. I had heard all the stories but was never sure I really understood or believed them.  Tales of coat-hangers and bleach and incompetent people trying to play doctor.  Those stories or nightmare-tales turned out to be true.  Many of those I did help, would never be able to have kids again, and without us helping, many would certainly not have made it thru the night.  So yes, I saved lives in Baltimore.  Lots of lives.”  The look on his face wasn’t prideful, or angry, or relieved.  The look was his way of dealing with a world much more complex than he wanted or needed it to be.  “And if you ever want to know why I believe that abortion should be safe and legal, it’s because I have seen, first hand, with my own eyes, the real horror what happens when it’s not.”

Working in silence my father and I sorted and filled four garbage bags with the miscellaneous crap my parents had stored in the back of their closet.  I carried the bags downstairs to the garage, and it would be months before I got them over to the Goodwill.  I kept the red smoking jacket with the satin trim, and my father’s Army Fatigues and hung them in my closet, where they hang to this day.  I don’t look at them often, but I looked at them for quite a while last week when, in response to some horrible and dishonest attempt to discredit them, I wrote a check to help support Planned Parenthood. 

My dad is gone now, but I hope he knows that I learned something that day, and I hope I can teach my son Kayden some similar lessons: about compassion, about life, about

fathers & sons, and about Planned Parenthood.


(end of story)


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