Bastards, now those guys and gals have it tough.
Not having a dad to help you through life would be hard enough. Imagine the additional angst of not knowing your father’s name or background or, worse yet, whether he was alive or dead.
My dad was a bastard. I am the son of a bastard. I claim some expertise on the subject.
Not to confuse, my dad was a good, hard-working man and father.
He also fits the definition of “bastard,” a child born of unmarried parents. To my generation and the one before that, a “bastard” also became commonly accepted to be a kid born after dad ran out on mom. That left mom either silent about the dad’s identity or willing to fabricate to help the kid — poor little bastard — feel better about the whole thing.
Our dad told us he never knew his father’s name. His mother kept the identity to herself. My dad and mom also acknowledge telling my siblings and I a lie when we were young. They said our grandpa died when my dad was very young, about 7.
It kept us from asking a lot of questions. But, it didn’t stop other people, like schoolmates and neighbors, from asking a lot of questions. “Where is that name Iseman from? My mom says your name sounds Jewish, is it? Why don’t you have any pictures of your grandpa? Where did he come from? How come you guys go to Catholic school if you’re Jewish?”
And on, and on.
The Jewish question did not go away with childhood. It has followed me during my 60 years of life, long after anyone knew, or gave two whits, whether I had a grandfather on my dad’s side.
It’s like I have a disappearing-reappearing skullcap. It pops onto my head at key moments … after the third beer when I was trying to get to know a new boss at the bar … while I negotiated with a cautious source to go on the record for a deep interview … just as a new acquaintance started into his racist jokes.
Of course, simply being asked about your heritage does not have to be a negative thing. When I lived as a young man in New York City, where lots of Jewish people make their home, being mistaken for a Jew usually ended pleasantly. Either I learned more about Jewish people or someone learned more about the word “bastard” and what it meant to me.
But, there have also been negatives, too, lots of misplaced prejudice, especially as I worked as a reporter and editor.
Years ago, when I was leaving one newspaper to move to another I learned that a high-powered official angry with my reporting had always presumed I was Jewish. So, for years, this guy behind my back had referred to me as “the hymie hack.” He also liked to joke about a very specific way I could end up dead, according to a photographer-friend who knew this official better than I did. (My friend waited to tell me all until I was leaving the paper, explaining he didn’t want to skew my objectivity while I still was covering the guy.)
Perhaps the most high profile time my alleged Jewishness bubbled to the surface was in 1990, when I was covering a strange legal battle over a woman’s estate.
Elderly but in control of hefty funds, the woman decided some new friends should take care of all her money, and transferred some assets to them. Her relatives cried foul, alleging these new friends, who were associated with a Catholic Church near the woman’s home, befriended the woman with misinformation and unduly influenced her using religion.
The men had brought statues into the woman’s home, including one that someone convinced the woman could shed real tears. When our paper began reporting on the case, these men came to not like me. Their lawyer, a proud Irishman known for some raucous behavior, particularly didn’t like me.
He also presumed I was Jewish. He said that explicitly in filing a $1 million lawsuit against me and the newspaper where I worked at the time. He also didn’t like Hitler. He put us in a paragraph together.
Here is that part of the suit, edited for clarity.
The defendant “has designed a plan of actual malice to ridicule the Plaintiff herein, the Roman Catholic Church and its members, with actual hatred that only a liar and propagandist against the Catholic Church” could design. The ridicule “is reminiscent of Adolph Hitler’s lunatic attacks on Mr. Iseman’s fellow Jews in the 1930s and 1940s.”
The suit (it’s reproduced lower in its entirety) didn’t go very far. However, it did succeed on one front: our paper’s policy was to remove any reporter who was named in a lawsuit from any story that was complained about in the lawsuit. The move was temporary, but it kept me from writing about the guardianship case for months.
Eventually, I had to spend some time responding to the suit, mostly to fill out and swear to an affidavit containing denials of specific points it had raised. I also had to swear that — contrary to the suit’s strong language — I was Catholic and not Jewish.
The lawyers didn’t ask if I was a lunatic or liar or a propagandist, so I was denied the fun of responding to those claims.
Looking back, I cannot recall all the mundane times the Jewish question surfaced. I do know it was routine enough that it didn’t really surprise me much. I just let the question roll off my back, like other pointed or malicious ones reporters seemed to face all the time when I was in that job.
I started in journalism in 1981 and worked as a reporter about 14 years before becoming an editor. The move up the journalistic ladder can mean an end to what some consider grunt work — gathering of facts, interviewing of newsmakers, researching documents, making those seemingly endless calls to source after source. For me, though, it never felt quite right to be totally removed from reporting.
So I tried hard to stay involved.
I helped make calls when we were under the gun. I interpreted documents to help reporters when I had the time and deadline approached. I did all — or nearly all — of my own reporting on my opinion pieces.
I enjoyed talking to people. Everyday folks were just plain fun … cranky, plucky, zany. I welcomed the challenge of public officials and bureaucrats plotting to avoid the release of information. And, politicians, well, you watched at least some of the recent GOP debates, right?
It’s interesting to see reporters fight back these days, for instance, when attacked by Donald Trump. I’m not sure journalists did enough to publicly respond back in the 1980s and ’90s when we took fire.
And we did take our share, especially from political figures. Reporters, especially print reporters, were punching bags.
Nothing outside of a direct slur or claim of racial inadequacy seemed out of bounds. Not ethnicity or age, not economic status, not even size of your belly or how long you had gone without a shave.
We played along, in part, thinking we were being tricky. So what if you were publicly lambasted by the mayor for wearing the same stained tie two days in a row? If it helped loosen hizzoner up, got him cocky enough to fire away with a quote he should have kept to himself, so be it.
Nowadays, I’m amazed how often reporters catch a politician going off the rails, and railing at the reporters. Not all of these are newsworthy. But I think journalists have gotten smarter to step out of the mindset ingrained into us years ago. I can remember many grizzled editors preaching that the public doesn’t give a damn how hard we had to work to get the news or how much grief we endured. Joe Sixpack doesn’t give a damn if you were yelled at or had your poor little feelings hurt today, Iseman. What can we tell him that he will read? Where’s the news?
In reality, the grizzled editor needed smacked down himself. His advice has been debunked, to some degree. Technology today allows us to track who clicks on Internet news. That gives a reporter ammunition to use data to challenge that editor. We can now show how thousands of people watched the video of the governor arguing with reporters, threatening to douse them all with Flint River water, while nobody clicked on the editor’s favorite story about the $3 million lead pipeline study.
Of course, it helps today’s reporters to have more tools than we had. A smart phone that can capture footage of a source going ballistic and get it to the office in minutes can be a powerful weapon, and a deterrent.
Looking back, I wish I had a recording of the latest time the Jewish question surfaced in my life as a journalist. It was several years ago at the News-Leader in Springfield where I live now.
I was in charge of the editorial page then, with the specific title of Voices Editor. The idea was to get lots of voices in print and online. But not all the voices, I came to learn quickly.
There were a couple folks, my predecessor warned, that were essentially banned from the page for hate speech. I was told that one, avowed white supremacist Frazier Glenn Miller, had kept his head down for years but might rear back up anytime soon.
Glenn Miller called me after he decided to run for the Senate in 2010, pushing for us to run a pretty rough letter from him. Gruff-voiced and direct, he demanded an explanation. I introduced myself, began to explain a little of my background but he interrupted:
“Iseman. Is that Jewish?”
I actually giggled a bit as I said, “No.” I was thinking back to so many similar questions from the past. Then, before he could speak again, I launched into a speech I had prepared about specifics in the letter, why we were not running it.
He argued for a bit before interrupting himself to ask again, loudly:
“What’s your name again?”
“You sure that’s not Jewish?” He spoke slowly, like he was spitting his words into the phone.
I considered launching into my mini family history, my spiel about bastards, but I didn’t. He wasn’t worth it. Becoming a bit angry now, I kept my answers short, while letting him ramble. I read over other things while he blew off steam. He eventually hung up.
His Senate bid went nowhere but, as you probably realize by now, Frazier Glenn Miller was not done making news. He became a racist killer.
I read closely as the information began to flow from the shootings he was accused of doing in April 2014, how he had murdered three in cold blood, how he planned to shoot Jews at two Jewish sites in Overland Park, Kansas, how he meant to kill more, his smug pronouncement of Heil Hitler when caught.
I remember being surprised that this deluded creep had actually failed miserably in his mission. He couldn’t even find the right kind of people to shoot. He killed no Jews. He killed Christians. One was only 14.
Glenn Miller. Hey. Look. There they are. Over there by the Jewish center. Must make them Jewish, right? But, better think now Frazier.
Are they Jewish?
You sure they’re Jewish?
By media accounts, Glenn Miller had children but they distanced themselves from him in later years, probably as soon as they could. Speaking about them in past interviews, long before his botched Aryan mission, he lamented causing them hardship through his outspoken racism. Of course, that didn’t stop him.
I tried but could not find any stories in which his children tried to defend — or even explain — their notorious father. One son was killed several years ago in a shootout with police. Others, have for the most part stayed quiet, out of the limelight.
Probably better that way. Pretend like he never existed, like they never really knew him, like he was never actually in their lives.
I feel bad for them.
It’s tough enough to be a bastard. Tougher yet to wish you had been.