Category Archives: Friends / Family

RIP Scooter Scaggs: There are 5 Fingers Pointing at You!

On Thursday, the incredibly loved and influential David Marshall “Scooter” Scaggs passed away after having suffered a rare form of early onset dementia that he had been diagnosed with in 2008. I don’t even know how to begin describing Scooter. He was a force of life. A husband, father, teacher, coach and mentor to so many of us young boys trying to become men.

He was never my coach per se, but was my first boss and champion. Scooter had been the coach of the very celebrated Woodward High School soccer team during the 80s. But more importantly for me, he developed and ran the Maryland Soccer School which was held for five weeks each summer at Bullis High School, just a short walk from my house.

How and exactly why Scooter hired me, I don’t remember. Most of the guys he picked were his Woodward players, went to Walter Johnson after Woodward closed, or were considered the county’s soccer All Stars. I was none of these. When my teammates Jim Geopfert (whose brother Rick was a counselor) and David Schwab were fourteen, Scooter tapped us to be gophers. Basically that meant we set up the fields for the day’s training sessions and games, but it also entitled us to hang with the older camp coaches and counselors.  These were people like Friedy, Devin, goalkeeper Tim, Steve K, Irv the Swerve and his brother Mike. For guys like Jim, David and I, they were our heroes and role models. We got to eat with them in the coaches’ room (basically the locker room), and play pick-up games during the lunch break with all of the kids cheering us on.

I was a very shy kid who always flew under the radar, so the fact that Scooter had somehow selected me to form part of his elite gang of youth soccer stars was an inexplicable honor. As mentioned, the vast majority of the coaches and counselors were not from my high school. That Jim, David and I were the only ones selected from our year was also very special, and we felt it. Furthermore, Scooter demanded a level of responsibility, enthusiasm and kindness from his counselors that was required to manage and motivate his campers. In other words, it wasn’t enough to be a great player, you needed to be someone who could handle kids from the ages of 6-14.

After two years as gophers, we finally graduated to full camp counselors, and I remained at the Maryland Soccer School every summer until my freshman year in college. When I look back at my formative high school years, those were the most memorable. It made my summers. I spent from 8:00am to 4:00pm with a soccer ball at my feet, and I started developing those first skills that have later defined me as a professional. I learned to be empathetic and use empathy as a key asset, to be part of team, to manage and motivate. And I learned that when you are the coach and you’ve been handed a team that you cannot fire or change, you need to find the best role for each member to make that team successful.

As mentioned, one of the biggest highlights of the day were the exhibition games played amongst the counselors. Another were the indoor sessions the kids would have twice a day to get out of the summer heat. In these, we watched films about Pele or the World Cup. Friedy would announce with great fanfare the first, second and third “stars” for each game, with the first stars winning the highly coveted blow-pops. This was usually followed by the entire camp chanting “Friedy eats quiche” (whatever that meant). Then Scooter would give us motivational talks, usually about the importance of team work. Here are some of his classic lines:

  • There is no “i” in team
  • When you point your finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you
  • Inch by inch, life’s a cinch, yard by yard it’s very hard
  • If you hoot with the owls at night you can’t soar with the eagles in the morning!

And then the silly ones like:

  • If the rain keeps up, it won’t come down
  • A buck two eighty

With Sam Debone at the Dr. Peppers Cup in Dallas

But Scooter didn’t do it all on his own. His family was always there, and he had Sam Debone. Back then Debone was the soccer coach of Whitman High School and the Wheaton Kickers club team, both of which were my high school and club team’s biggest rivals. Debone was another mentor. Knowing that I was loyal to my club team and couldn’t be poached, Debone nevertheless invited me to play for his team in tournaments where mine was not competing, including traveling with the Kickers.

In 1988, Scooter and Debone took a select team of Montgomery County soccer players to play exhibition games in London. I was asked to join them. It was my first ever trip to Europe. The following year I was again invited when they took a team to Nice and Cannes where I am pretty sure we played against Zinedine Zidane. You could say that those first trips to Europe had an incredible influence on my life. I ultimately moved to Europe where I have been living now for almost two decades.

Sadly some time in the early 90s, I lost contact with Scooter, his family and coach Debone. Nevertheless, I often thought about them. For example, I would go to a Real Madrid match in Madrid and think about the first professional match I went to with them in London (Chelsea vs. Arsenal). Or it would rain, and I would think, “if the rain keeps up …”, or I would see the word “team” written somewhere and immediately notice there was no “i”.

This past summer, I spent a few weeks at my parent’s house in Maryland with my wife and kids. I put my eldest son (then 6) in the Bullis Soccer Camp which is now run by Coach Andrés and the Bullis School. Coach Andrés does a fine job and my son loved it. But I couldn’t help to look around with a heavy heart full of nostalgia, searching for Scooter with his Soccer-topper hat, Coach Debone with his whistle, Anna and the kids, and all of us coaches wearing our yellow camp counselor jerseys. The camp no longer uses the old locker room where we’d negotiate which kids got which stars, play practical jokes on Scooter and Debone, or where those who played for Scooter would share their war stories. When I got home, I searched and searched for one of those old Maryland Soccer School jerseys. I used to have dozens and wore them all summer long. But there were none to be found. I also couldn’t find any decent photos of our trips to London or France.

But even without any good physical remnant of that time, on those rare occasions when I meet up with Jim, Rick or David, we almost always immediately go into rambling off our favorite Scooter Scaggs catch phrases.

So Scooter, if you can see me now, I am pointing at you with all five of my fingers. Thanks for believing in me.

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Christmas Series Part 4: 100 Christmases

I love Christmas. It is special and joyous and nostalgic, often bitter sweet but always hopeful.

This year will be my grandmother’s 100th Christmas. I just can’t start to explain what that means.

Let’s give Nat King Cole a little lesson in arithmetic:

Merry Christmas to All from One to Ninety-Two One Hundred and Two!

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Christmas Series Part 3: The Songs

In Part 1 of my Christmas Series 2017 I wrote about the Islamic Jesus, and in Part 2 about Hanukkah and my healthy childhood for the Jewish holidays. But one thing I definitely preferred about Christmas over Hanukkah was the music. Hanukkah only had the dreidel song, but there seemed to be endless Christmas songs, each with an inherent sense of nostalgia and hope, which in the end are the cornerstones of the holiday season’s allure. So every year starting on Black Friday, I fire up my favorite Christmas songs, and ever since becoming a father, I literally inundate my home with Christmas music as I tell my children stories about spending the holidays with my grandparents as a child. Like with fragrances, each Christmas song immediately conjures up an image from Christmases past.

For example, now whenever I hear “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, I think of those flights back home for the holidays during my first years in Spain. On the last leg of my flight, usually connecting through Philadelphia, I would listen to my Christmas playlist on those final 25 minutes home, starting with the Bing Crosby version of that song.

Whenever I hear the word “mistletoe” as in “some turkey and some mistletoe”, I can see the mistletoe hanging in my grandmother’s house. Whenever I sing, “later on we’ll conspire”, I think of romantic side of the holidays. When the Little Drummer Boy says that he is “a poor boy too” and that he’ll play his “best for him”, my heart — which is not religious at all — feels like a believer. And whenever I sing “our friends who are dear to us, will be near to us once more”, I always have an image of a cold and dark, yet clear night, together with my parents and siblings on our way to or from our grandparents in New York.

This year, I introduced “Silent Night” into my repertoire. Maybe it was a touch chauvinistic, but I reserved it exclusively for my one year old daughter, as the lullaby to put her to sleep. These have been my kids favorites this year:

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East West Street and MAGA

I recently finished Philippe Sands’ East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” which tells the interwoven stories of the author’s own family origins in Lviv with the lives of the two central legal scholars behind the theories of genocide and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials. Besides being an excellent read and reminder of the horrors in the not so distant past of European and Western culture, this story made me reflect on how MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) relates to America’s past and present, and how I now as a father relate to the Holocaust.

How Great Were We?

When we think about America at its greatest (what Tom Brokaw called the “Greatest Generation”), we think about Americans (including my grandmother’s two brothers, who were the children of immigrants) putting their lives  and resources at risk to save Europe and its minority populations from the Nazi Germany. Any time a European criticizes the U.S. or our policies, we Americans proudly remind them of the beaches of Normandy and our conviction that they owe us eternally for having acted as their savior. Furthermore, our self-image has always been fortified by the contrast between our young men fighting to save the world and the demonic, goose-stepping Nazis.

I certainly won’t deny the bravery of my ancestors and fellow countrymen and women both fighting abroad and working for the war effort at home to make the world a better place. But when we talk about the superiority of American values over say those of the Nazis – now rightly synonymous with evil – I am often reminded of what Jesse Owens had said when asked about Hitler refusing to shake his hand at the 1935 Olympics: that the U.S. president wouldn’t invite him to the White House either. Or that black soldiers returning home from the war in Europe, instead of being treated as heroes were once again assaulted by the Jim Crow South and a G.I. Bill that that  discriminated against them.

What I hadn’t realized (and it shouldn’t be a surprise) was that the U.S. team at the Nuremberg trials was staunchly opposed to prosecuting the Nazi defendants for the crime of genocide for fear that it could open the door to Americans, especially in the South, being tried for their abuse of black and Native Americans. In other words, as heroic as Americans may have been in “saving” other minority groups from tyranny abroad, our government wanted to protect its ability, under International Law, to mistreat and abuse its own citizens and minorities with impunity.

Our greatness was still tainted by our greatest shortcomings.

MAGA and Repeating History

The Nazis did not suddenly come into power one day and on the next day put all of the Jews in concentration camps where they were murdered in mass two days later. No, it was a long, slow process of instilling racist and nativist fear, followed by a series of laws that restricted movement (including entry), employment and association, attire, segregation, all leading to the ghettos, concentration camps and murder. While today in America there has been an increase in open association with white supremacist groups and an increase in open anti-Islamic discourse in private and political life, I don’t believe that the U.S. is on the path to becoming a Nazi state. Yet the similarity with the early days of the anti-Semitic propaganda is uncanny. Ultimately, a large enough chunk of German society bought into the narrative that Jews were dangerous, destructive and incompatible with German values to accept the anti-Semitic laws and then actively participate in or turn a blind eye to one of the most the disturbing massacres in modern human history.

So how easily are we today convinced that Muslims and/or Islam is the problem? How many times have we heard that we should “bomb” or “carpet bomb” an entire region or country? How many times have we heard that their culture is incompatible with our culture? And how many times have politicians and political pundits whether on TV, in print or on the internet advocated for travel bans, bans on immigrants, their attire, language, or religious practices, regardless of the fact that all of these measures violate what we celebrate as our Western values? Glenn Greenwald here gives the perfect example of how everyone was all Je Suis Charlie when Charlie was anti-Muslim but not so much when they were making fun of Texans.

So to make a long story short, the Nazis were not built in a day. Their movement started out with the same type of narrative that we are hearing today from the MAGA folks, one that popular culture has arguably already bought into. And as much as we hail the superiority of the West, the 20th Century’s greatest crimes were perpetrated in the West by a Christian people under the veil of protecting Western values.

As a Father

I have always been very conscious of the Holocaust, not in terms of a mere historical fact that you read in a text book or watch countless movies about, but as a real, concrete horror story that had an ongoing effect on the lives of people around me. As a child visiting my grandparents in the Bronx, I remember being introduced to a woman on the elevator and my grandmother asking her to show me the concentration camp tattoo on her arm. My grandmother wanted me to know what people had gone through. Then a large percentage of the kids that I grew up with had parents who were first generation Jewish Americans whose families had fled from Europe. While no one ever discussed what had happened to their family members who did not make it to America as refugees, the Holocaust was a living, breathing and evident part of their personal experience.

But now as an adult, as a husband and father of three small children, when I read East West Street or think about anything related to the horrors and desperation of trying to protect one’s family (be it from the Holocaust, Slavery, Jim Crow, or a flood in Houston or Bangladesh), I am left speechless, with nothing else to say . . .

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Three Years

August 20th was the third year anniversary of Chantal Cavé’s passing. I just looked at my calendar and saw that I had totally forgotten the day.

I have not forgotten Chantal or her loved ones who miss her dearly.

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Thunder in the Mountains and the Fourth of July

Last night on the eve of the Fourth of July, I finished Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War by Daniel J. Sharfstein. I read his previous book The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America two years ago.

Sharfstein and I went to secondary school together. Not only was Sharfstein the smartest kid in class (he tutored my older, honor roll sister in calculus when she was a senior and he was a sophomore), Sharfstein was also one of the nicest kids around. Back in those days, I spent most of my time playing soccer (and probably listening to Reggae), not doing schoolwork. Nevertheless, I was fortunate enough to share two courses and interests with Dan: AP Spanish and Creative Writing. What impressed me even back then was that Dan seemed to be motivated by intellectual curiosity and not just getting the answers right. So when I read The Invisible Line twenty-five years after last seeing Dan, I was not surprised how thoughtful he was in choosing his topic or the efforts he put into his research. But when it came to Thunder in the Mountains, I was struck — almost offended even — by what an amazing narrator and storyteller Dan had become. I mean, it is one thing to be the smartest kid in class. It’s quite another to have real talent. And Bravo, Dan! You’ve got both, plus the discipline to put a book like this together. I am beyond impressed.

This morning when reading Eugene Robison in the Washington Post about the Fourth of July:

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were highly imperfect men. Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Southerners were rank hypocrites for declaring “all men are created equal” while owning men, women and children as their slaves. John Adams was sour and disputatious, and later as president would sign the Sedition Act cracking down on criticism of the government. John Hancock was accused of amassing his fortune through smuggling. Benjamin Franklin could have been described as kind of a dirty old man.

Yet they laid out a set of principles, later codified in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, that transcended their flaws. At this bizarre moment in our history, it is useful to remember that the ideas and institutions of the American experiment are much more powerful and enduring than the idiosyncrasies of our leaders.

Thunder in the Mountains immediately came to mind as the epitome of this narrative. That constant American struggle to overcome the conflict between our most celebrated and emblematic values and our immediate economic, political and tribal interests is perfect for the Fourth of July. That is Oliver Otis Howard’s story. Howard goes from fighting for the most basic rights of life, liberty and property for certain people to fighting to deny others those same rights.

The story goes something like this. After the Civil War, Howard (for whom the university is named) became the commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau and the face of Reconstruction, convinced that the freed slaves could participate fully in American political life. That didn’t end well.

The notion that equality would follow from emancipation—the great hope of Reconstruction— had been destroyed the moment the federal troops left the South in the mid-1870s. Through murder, fraud, beatings, and threats, white southerners, often acting in military-style terror campaigns, stripped blacks of their voting rights and trapped many in sharecropping contracts with no escape from lives of drudgery, debt, and want. Even in the North, the promise of equality had given way to a consensus steeped in white supremacy and the need for racial separation.

And just as Reconstruction failed, Howard’s reputation took a major hit. In his efforts to rebrand himself, Howard found himself in Oregon commanding the U.S. military’s campaign to expel the Nez Perce people from their land. Howard was led by his Christian conviction that the only salvation for the Nez Perce was for them to abandon their homeland and become Christian farmers on a reservation of the U.S. government’s choice.

That Americans prided themselves on religious freedom while using religion as a sword should not be shocking to anyone. Christianity became a major political force both in its benevolent and extremist manifestations. While the staunchest white abolitionists where devout Christians, Southerners were convinced that Christianity sanctioned chattel slavery and dictated Jim Crow which lasted until 1970. And the main philosophical justification for the new Americans to strip the native populations of their lands was that doing so was destined by God.

But Thunder in the Mountains is also the story of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Joseph spent his lifetime both before and after the war trying to convince U.S. officials and anyone who would listen that his people deserved the same rights as White Americans, in particular the right not to be deprived of property without due process. Joseph made a lasting impact on almost every U.S. official he met, but his cause and his arguments were ultimately rejected at every turn.

This story is of two tragedies. It is the tragedy of Howard: of how the ideals of equality were first destroyed by the terrorism of others and then by his own extremist views and need for political redemption. Then it is the tragedy of Chief Joseph whose only dream was to remain on his homeland where his father was buried, and whose weapon was to appeal to Americans’ sense of justice. He never regained his land.

* * *

The beauty of the American story is that when we tell it, we can measure ourselves against that original July 4th declaration and hope at least that we are moving in the right direction.

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The End of Innocence

My six year son is having regular, recurring nightmares. Even before he falls asleep, he tells me that he is scared because he doesn’t want to have “bad dreams”. Normally when I ask, he says he doesn’t remember them, but yesterday morning he snuggled next to me on the sofa and said, “Daddy, I know what my bad dreams are about. War.”

It all started last month when his class began studying Picasso’s Guernica. He was fascinated about the painting, especially because his book on Picasso said the painting was bigger than a soccer goal (and my son is obsessed with soccer). But one night before going to bed, he asked me why planes were bombing the town of Guernica and what happened to the people when they were bombed, especially the kids his age. I did my best to say that the war happened a long time ago.

He then said, “Daddy, what was World War II?” which he only knew about because according to his book it is when Picasso lived in Paris. I told him that it was a war that happened mainly in Europe a long time ago. When he asked if Grandpa was alive then, I explained that his great grandmother (who is still alive today) had two brothers who fought in the war and that one of them was awarded the special Purple Heart medal.

My great uncles were first generation Italian Americans, who like many first generation immigrants were the first to be drafted and sent to war. I didn’t get into details, but here is an extract from a short piece about the one who was wounded (not the one in the photo):

In 1942, as a very young man, Ralph was drafted into the U.S. Army 441st Auto-motored Weapons Co. His first time out of the Metro New York area was for Basic Training at Camp Stewart, Georgia. From Georgia, his world travels began in earnest with his unit being deployed to Africa. Ralph and his army unit then became part of the Allied Forces that invaded southern Italy in 1943. Ralph became a member of the four-man team half-track crew, which housed a twin 50 caliber machine gun. Ralph’s unit then moved from Sicily to Anzio, where they joined Patton’s 5th Army.

As the 5th Army proceeded next to Rome, Ralph was very seriously wounded and left on the battlefield for dead. By some stroke of very good fortune, Ralph’s cousin happened upon him and carried him to the medic station. From there, he was taken to a hospital in Naples for the start of his treatment. Ralph Perrotta was awarded a Purple Heart, during his stay at the Naples hospital. He was enrolled in the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in recognition of exceptional sacrifice in defense of the U.S.

My son then wanted me to confirm that the war was a long time ago and that there were no longer wars or bombings. I told him honestly, yet gently that there are still some wars in the world, in particular one in Syria. He then asked if in Syria they bombed at night time and where the kids would go during the bombing.

I lied and said that the children were safe and that Syria was far away. But Syria is not far away, the kids are not safe, no one is safe, and no one can say that wars like the brutal civil war in Spain or the world war shortly thereafter won’t threaten my children in their lifetime. Certainly I cannot imagine what it was like for my uncles to be sent off to Italy to fight in a war, ironically they didn’t believe in (at the time many Americans, especially anti-communists like my great-grandfather, were very much against U.S. intervention in Europe).

Maybe it’s the man we now have in the White House, his utter disregard for the world order and all décor, the fact that on the other side of the Mediterranean, a horrendous war continues and that when a fire spreads, there is likely nowhere to hide – but I feel like I am losing the fatherly innocence that the world will be safe for my children. If my child is terrified by the 80 year old painting of a war, I cannot begin to imagine the life of a Syrian child or parent today.

* * *

A few weeks later, my sister and niece came to visit us in Madrid, and my son was very excited to go the Reina Sofa Museum with them to see the Guernica. “Daddy, it’s bigger than a soccer goal!” But when we were just turning the corner into the large room that holds the painting, my son began to cry and say that he was too scared to see it. After fifteen minutes of back and forth, I finally convinced him to take a look. He loved the painting, especially its size. It’s funny because I never thought much of the Guernica, but it is a real testament to Picasso’s art that 80 years later, his painting – which was intended to depict the horrors of war – can have such a profound impact on a child.

About the same time, Audi premiered its Super Bowl commercial about how girls face greater challenges than boys. I have two boys and a newborn baby girl. Until that commercial – even though I considered myself very conscious of the disparate treatment of women in society, I had never given a thought to the fact that the little girl before me would face a different reality to that of my sons. Who said art no longer has an impact?

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