A humble hero tells his story
Review of Mark Schlefer's Book 'Incidents in a Life: The War is Over. I'd Like a Glass of Champagne'
PUTNEY — Mark Pascal Schlefer, of Washington, D. C. and Putney, has lived an astonishing life. He has participated in numerous significant historical events. However, his manner of recounting these events in his book "Incidents in a Life: The War is Over. I'd Like a Glass of Champagne," is low-key and conversational, as though the reader were sitting in his living room, enjoying a cup of coffee with him. Or a martini.
There is no braggadocio whatsoever, as we hear how he made 36 bombing runs over German-controlled territory in World War II as a bombardier-navigator in the Plexiglas nose of the plane, and survived flak and a crash landing. We learn how he met and wooed the love of his life, his wife Marion King Schlefer. They had been married over 70 years at the time of her death on Jan. 17, 2016.
The book is in four parts with a prologue and an epilogue. Though at Schlefer's direction the reader is under no obligation to read through from beginning to end, but rather can wander as interest dictates, Schlefer presents these incidents in chronological order.
Thus, he recalls his small act of rebellion at age seven, which caused his parents to take him out of the neighborhood New York City public school and enroll him in the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. This was the first of several events that changed the course of his life. He calls it "an extraordinary educational experience." In an email, he gave an example: "Mrs. Lehmanhaupt, my Fifth Form English teacher, distributed a half-dozen newspaper columns, (such as) Westbrook Pegler's column, Eleanor Roosevelt's My Day, and others. She said, `It doesn't matter whether you agree with the writer's ideas, but I want you to tell me what factual assumptions the writer made.'" Mark put this training to good use.
He pays tribute to his ancestors, including great grandfather, Pesach Pascal, who emigrated from Romania to America in 1888. Schlefer remembers as an 8-year-old in 1930 seeing a "Hooverville" and other signs of the Great Depression.
"Part Two: A Bombardier in World War II" details incidents he experienced as a serviceman, including one nail-biter, the November 1944 bombing mission in which, as the bombardier in the lead plane of the B-26 Marauder crew, he was responsible for the Norden bombsight, at the time "a military secret of the highest order."
All bombardiers were under orders to destroy the Norden rather than risk its falling into enemy hands. Schlefer's description of his plane's crash landing had me holding my breath: "The plane hit the runway hard, the landing gear folding and the left wing scraping the runway I cannot remember whether I went forward to blow up the bombsight with the small charge under it, or whether it was smashed in the crash landing."
Not until I read that he "... hit the ground with a thump, and, fearing a fire or worse, raced away from the plane," did I exhale.
Schlefer's connection to Putney is through his wife. Her mother bought a farm in Putney in the 1940s, and Marion was a graduate of the Putney School. Marion was a student at Swarthmore College while Schleferk was overseas. She was graduated with honors in the class of 1945. Upon Schlefer's return from the service, Carmelita Hinton, the founder of Putney School, offered Schlefer the opportunity to teach American and medieval history, which he did for a year. Then, it was time for law school, followed by Schlefer's stellar 55-year career as a lawyer in Washington, D. C.
During his long career, Schlefer was involved in several events of national, and international, consequence. From his earliest years, he has been and continues to be an advocate of fairness and justice. In "Part III: A Young Lawyer" and "Part IV: An Advocate — Principles and Practice," he explores different events and cases that relate to equal treatment under the law. Although the connection was tangential, Schlefer's career was affected by Senator Joseph McCarthy's "Red Scare," as we find out in Chapters 19 and 20.
After Mark and Marion Schlefer moved with their children to Washington, D. C. in 1951, they were distressed by the overt segregation in the Washington area. Schlefer recounts his persistent and ultimately successful efforts to integrate Washington's private schools.
For this reviewer, one of the most compelling incidents in Schlefer's legal career details his contributions to the writing of, and guiding the legislative passage of, the bill that became the Federal Freedom of Information Act when President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law on July 4, 1966, a law essential to increasing transparency in government. In 1983, Schlefer used the very law he had helped to write to bring an action in the federal courts against the Maritime Administration. His account of Mark P. Schlefer, Appellant, v. United States of America, et al. is a delight to read.
Part IV closes with Schlefer's thoughts on what he calls this country's "crisis in ethics" and the way to address it.
Reading this book, one gains fascinating insight into the comprehensive way Schlefer's mind works: he sees all the potential avenues of a question, anticipates what is likely to occur, and determines his course of action consistent with the principles of law and ethics. Then, he does the research in the law, philosophy, literature, or in whatever field is necessary to support his decision and answer whatever counter-arguments come his way,
Schlefer's writing is so clear that even as complicated a legal story as "Chapter 21: Merrimack, Monitor and a Chief Justice" holds the reader's attention to the very end.
"Incidents in a Life" reveals an amazing person. Because Mark Schlefer is far too modest to call himself a hero, I'll do that for him.
Nancy A. Olson, a frequent contributor to the Reformer, can be reached at email@example.com.
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