A cantankerous old coot

A cantankerous old coot

October 29, 2009 14:16
Norman goldenberg 248

Norman goldenberg 248. (photo credit: Suzanne Bercovici)

The speeches of praise were years late in coming, but Norman Goldenberg was pleased even though he didn't understand a word. The opening of a museum in the upscale Galilee village of Kfar Vradim a few weeks ago was being twinned with an 85th birthday party for the defiantly downscale Goldenberg. An American World War II ski trooper, he had been living on the edge of the village, and well outside its ambience, for three decades - in recent years with only his pack of dogs. "He will be better known when he's no longer with us than he is today," said one speaker at the ceremony. With a lifestyle some would consider eccentric, Goldenberg never fit into the Kfar Vradim milieu. He lived on his meager American social security, had no car, didn't speak Hebrew and occasionally took swings at people half his age who riled him, as he did a few months ago with someone he accused of poisoning one of his dogs. (He spent six days in the Kishon lockup for the assault.) The man hit back. "He beat the... out of me," admits Goldenberg, who earned a Bronze Star fighting the Germans in northern Italy with the US 10th Mountain Division. Over the years he has gone head-to-head with local authorities who spurned his ideas for projects in the village and argued with neighbors objecting to late-night barking from his backyard. More than anything else, his failure to speak the language set him apart for many as a cantankerous outsider. "Because I don't speak Hebrew, people regarded me with suspicion." (Goldenberg attributes his inability to learn Hebrew to having been repeatedly hit with a stick by a teacher in the heder where he studied for his bar mitzva.) Ironically, despite his outsider status his name has become better known than anyone else's in the village except for that of billionaire Stef Wertheimer, who founded Kfar Vradim. Residents from around Western Galilee have come to know of "Norman's trails" which he single-handedly cut through the undergrowth of neighboring Mount Esh'har. The mile of artfully designed paths have names like "Red Brick Road" and "Piece of Cake" and igloo-like bowers into which children can crawl for story telling or solitary imagining. Thousands of families visit the trails each year, although few know who Norman actually is. His birthday party a few weeks ago marked Goldenberg's belated embrace by the village. It was held at a horse barn built by him 20 years ago as part of a short-lived zoo in the village center. "I wanted them to let me run the zoo," says Goldenberg, "but it folded because of political problems. I would have made something spectacular out of it." The barn was a replica of ones he built in Massachusetts after World War II when he ran a prosperous business constructing fences and barns. "I had muscles bigger than [Arnold] Schwarzenegger's. The soil in Massachusetts is tough and I used a 20-kilogram steel bar to loosen up the rocks." Kfar Vradim's Visitors' Center had decided to convert the empty barn and an adjacent hut into a museum - From Artifacts to Art - displaying a collection of ancient artifacts in one and paintings by local artists in the other. "When I learned that Norman was having his 85th birthday at the same time as the opening, I decided to celebrate it," said Drora Weiner, the center's director. "He has given so much to the village." DESPITE THREE heart attacks and two bypasses, Goldenberg had for years gone out almost every day to the hill, a few hundred meters from his living-room window, to cut his way through brush and move rocks. He would usually go up with his dogs before dawn and lie for a while on the forest floor, sometimes composing poetry, sometimes recalling his adventures as a boy growing up alongside Bronx Park and then in the wilds of New England. When the crump of artillery could be heard from across the Lebanese border, he would recall his months of combat in the Apennine Mountains. He had volunteered for the ski troops in 1943 at 18 and underwent intensive training in Colorado, learning to live in snow for as much as six weeks without shelter, warm food or warm drink. "It was the best experience of my life. The hardest, most demanding and the best." Of his original platoon of 42 men, only five came through the war unscathed, including him. In one day he was promoted from private to staff sergeant. "I loved being a soldier. I loved the hardship of it. The cold and the mud, all that stuff is easy if you have a work ethic." Because of permanent damage to an ear from an artillery blast, he used a hand cutter on Mount Esh'har to clear brush instead of an electric saw, whose noise was an irritant. Goldenberg had first come here in 1947 with his bride; they were among the founders of Kibbutz Sasa on the Lebanese border. Two years later, the couple returned to Massachusetts where they would have four children. Hurrying to a post office in Boston one Christmas season, Goldenberg ran into someone hurrying in the other direction and knocked him down. As the man got up, Goldenberg recognized him as the young congressman who had an office above the post office and whose picture he had seen in the newspaper, John Kennedy. Both apologized. After divorcing, Goldenberg returned to Israel a year before the Yom Kippur War. In its wake, he was asked by the army, which had learned of his background, if he was willing to help train the IDF's first alpine unit being formed on Mount Hermon. He readily agreed. Even though he was almost 50 and despite his heart problems, he stayed on the mountain for five months, reveling in the hardship. Veterans of the unit were among the guests at the birthday party, including its then company commander, Lt. David Matek. "Norman proved to be a hidden treasure," says Matek. "Before he came, the instructors they sent us included a woman skier and a young physicist from the Technion who skied in Europe on holidays. None of this was relevant." When the gruff-talking American began speaking through an interpreter, the men knew that a professional soldier was at last standing before them. "He told us that 80 percent of what we were being taught was a waste of time," says Matek. "We had learned how to ski, but on the Hermon you can only ski downhill, you can't go cross-country. You have to walk. He taught us how to walk in the snow and how to dress. He taught us not to panic if we're overtaken by a snow storm, but how to dig a cave and make sure it doesn't collapse. You can remain comfortable inside for 12, 24 hours until the storm is over. He taught us how to navigate in the snow. He loved being in the field. The men looked up to him like a father." Recalls Goldenberg: "I taught them how to move from A to B through the snow in a military manner - how to get there with every soldier fit and ready to fight. You rest your muscles by shortening or lengthening your stride and changing your pace, but you do not stop or else you freeze up. You walk at a modest pace, but you get there like a machine. If I had to pick men to go into combat with, I would rather have well-trained men who have never seen combat than combat veterans who never were trained thoroughly." Goldenberg was disappointed at the level of training he encountered. "There was something lacking, a certain hardness. They have tough training, but there are big holes in it. Soldiers should not have time off from tough physical strain during their whole army career. There should be no such thing as tough times and easy times. It should always be tough. Then the tough becomes easy. This should be true for the whole army, not just select units. It's ridiculous to think that some men make better soldiers than others. Every man is potentially the best soldier in the army." Goldenberg was touched by the gift the alpine veterans gave him for his birthday - a pair of skis with a dedicatory plaque embedded. HE RETURNED to the States after his Hermon stint, but in 1979 came back for the last time and soon after married his second wife, Moroccan-born Annie. She worked for Wertheimer and arranged for the move to Kfar Vradim. Since Annie's death several years ago, Goldenberg camps out in what had been the living room of the handsome, two-story house, sleeping on a cot which he shares with several of his dogs and a cat. His favorite dog, Sweetpea, named after a character from the Popeye comic strip, sleeps at his feet. "Animals are 100 percent our equals on planet Earth," he says. "To hate them is like being an anti-Semite." Most of his living room and the adjacent kitchen are given over to artistic displays of twigs, many of them striking, that he has picked up on his forest walks. Some he has glued together to create a composition, and occasionally there is a dab of color but most are untouched. "I get very intimate with the forest. I see the art that is already in the tree." Despite his heart problems, Goldenberg never gave up physical work and his body at 85 is that of a hardy outdoorsman. "Work is the greatest thing in the world," he says. "Hard work. I mean year after year after year. It gives normality. One reason we're so messed up is that we work less and less. I've been a laborer all my life. A true blue-collar laborer." His embodiment of the work ethic caught the fancy of Wertheimer, a self-made man like Goldenberg. (Three years ago, Warren Buffett purchased an 80 percent interest in Wertheimer's metal cutting plant for $4 billion.) At Goldenberg's urging, Wertheimer built a windmill in neighboring Tefen Industrial Park, visible from Norman's trails. "A windmill is poetic," Goldenberg said. "It lights up your life." Wertheimer, asked to explain his quixotic gesture, said, "Norman is a precious human being." The recent birthday party was an acknowledgment by the rest of the village that the near-recluse was one of them. Says Goldenberg: "I was pleased. They always regarded me as strange but I'm quite a good citizen - the trails, the soldiers I trained, the zoo. I didn't do any of it for money. It was work. Work is life." Asked whether he intended to fast on Yom Kippur, Goldenberg said no. "I'm a patriotic Jew but I'm an atheist." As often happens, the subject triggered memory of a vignette from the war. "I was caught in the open one day by a heavy German barrage, air bursts and ground bursts. I ran looking for a hole, but every one had dead Americans in it. I finally found a shallow hole and jumped in. Then I heard someone whining nearby. I shouted 'Who's there?' It was someone the cooks had sent up with food. He shouldn't have been there. I told him to crawl over to me. I got him to lie on the bottom of the hole and I lay on top of him. But this put me back at ground level and there was shrapnel bouncing after every burst. I don't have fear but it was just common sense not to want to be hit. I shouted, 'God, get me out of here' and I immediately answered myself, 'There is no god. Norman, get yourself out of here.' What a wonderful moment that was." He still brims with plans. "I want to get back into shape. The trails need trimming. I want to walk cross-country to Karmiel like I used to - in three hours and 15 minutes." He would like to cut a cross-country trail, about a kilometer long from Kfar Vradim to Ma'alot, so that children going to high school there could walk through the countryside instead of being driven. "It's not normal not to have physical adventures in the wild. That's the way man lived for millions of years. That's who we are." With winter approaching, Goldenberg is planning to move down to his small basement, which is easier to keep warm with a wood-burning stove. His debts have caught up with him and he is thinking of opening his house to the public to see his twig art. He does not know whether to charge a fee or just leave a hat by the door where visitors can deposit whatever they wish. He is leaning toward the hat. He is adamant, at least for now, against selling any of his twigs. Apart from a bit of money, Goldenberg says he lacks only one thing - a woman. One, of course, who abides animals. Someone around 60 would be nice. If she turns up, he promises to reopen the bedroom on the upper floor and leave the dogs downstairs. n abra@netvision.net.il

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