Wednesday, September 1, 2010

September song


While many of us look to September as the month that signals the end of summer and ushers in traditional things like college and regular season professional football games, I am always struck by the very first day of the month. That's because it is the birthday of my late father, Dr. Arnold Smason. My dad was an O.D., which is a doctor of optometry, an eye specialist in the correction of the human lens. He was quite good at what he did, but excelled in a great many other things too. He did his early morning regimen of crossword puzzles (both of them) and the Jumble® before he finished his morning coffee. And he always did them in pen. I marveled at his energy and industry. He ran two offices - one downtown and another in the bustling Metairie suburb - and arranged his schedule so that he saw early morning and late afternoon patients downtown and late morning and early afternoon patients in Metairie. He did this six days a week and managed to still find time to handle a number of other chores including being active in the Jerusalem Temple Shriners and his Masonic lodge, where he served as treasurer. As a college student during World War II and a child of the Great Depression, he knew that hard work would eventually pay off in his realizing the American dream. But with the war came new challenges and dangers. He elected to become a chemical engineer due to his mathematical prowess and keen understanding of science. Many of his graduating class members were sent off to fight overseas and many of them perished. I am sure he would have served had he been drafted, but another fate awaited him. As soon as he graduated, my dad was given a military deferment and ordered to report for important civilian work at a little town in Tennessee that had blossomed practically overnight into the third largest city in the state. He became a specialist dealing in uranium gas at a complex in Oak Ridge that would, in less than a year, become famous as the place where the first atomic bombs were manufactured. He admitted to me many years later that even he had no idea what they were working on. It would seem only a few higher ups knew what the Manhattan Project was about and only those with a need to know were informed as to what the ramifications of this important work would portend. After the war and his release from service to the country, he settled back in New Orleans expecting to be snatched up in the wake of revitalization in the petroleum engineering firms that were headquartered there. He sent out numerous resum├ęs, but was never granted an interview that resulted in a job offer. At the time there was no law prohibiting a firm from asking applicants personal questions on the application. Every firm requested he state his religion along with name, address and phone number. Curiously, when he wrote down "Jewish" on the form in the space provided, he never got a call back, even though others with less experience did. After a year and a half of waiting and hoping, he decided to go back to school and enrolled at the Southern Illinois College of Optometry. Three years later, after attending classes, teaching, dipping ice cream and holding other assorted odd jobs he graduated with his O.D. degree. He came back to New Orleans and in short order became the head of the optical department at Maison Blanche, then the largest department store in the busy downtown shopping district. In a story I read on his appointment, it was noted he was the youngest department head at the busy downtown location. It wasn't long after that he was married to my mom and had started his family. He became noted as an outstanding optometrist and one one of the first in the city to offer what we now know as "hard" contact lenses for his patients. He eventually left Maison Blanche to start up his own practice, which he kept downtown at various locations. Later he took on work for the Cole National Corporation, which outfitted the optical departments at Sears and Montgomery Ward stores. Due to state laws, optometrists either worked for themselves or for other doctors, but they were compensated for sales they made through the optical departments at Sears and other locations run by Cole. Cole National was founded in Cleveland, Ohio, by a very interesting and dynamic fellow named Joseph Cole. At one point in the 1990s, it was the third largest optical retailer in the country. Interestingly, this is yet another connection I have to Cleveland, the site of my exodus following Hurricane Katrina. In any event some 15 plus years after he passed away, I am still thinking about my father and the legacy he left behind, especially on his birthday every year.

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