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"Selenium" Sam - a Mensch!

Copyright by Martin Siegel, 2000

Uncle Sam called me "young man" so often that I sometimes doubt he knew my name. The oldest of Mom's three brothers, my early knowledge was that he was a scientist of some unexplained renown. Those were years when families were stronger and elder relatives commanded unwavering respect. I dared never mention my comical feelings, for what else would a child think of a rotund figure, no bigger than five-feet five, with a ceaseless fascination for Farmer Brown cartoons on television?

As if reading my mind, Mom would, in her modest, offhand manner, occasionally say words to the effect that her brother, vacant as he might seem to things going on around him, was a person of note, though she couldn't precisely tell how or why. Such changed abruptly when I began college, finding with a shock that my always-pleasant but odd uncle had appeared in "Who's Who in America" since 1922 (when he was 34), been the first Jew offered a job by Thomas Edison, and had gained a court victory involving a patent against Albert Einstein himself! And there was more....

Over forty years have passed since that awakening. "Who's Who in America" is now kept in two-year volumes and bears scant resemblance to what it was at the actual time of publication. Reading the now dusty, picture-less tomes brought back memories of when I was a freshman.

Unlike today where college, more often than not, is taken as a given and considered a vocational training ground, going from class to class then meant an excursion from Plato to John Keats to physics to political systems of government. Ideas and achievement were twin doors opening wide and here, all along, a cherubic eccentric of high accomplishment had been sitting on the sofa, munching grapes and watching the funnies!

The initial "Who's Who" listing of 1922 cites Samuel Wein as a chemist and inventor. The reference is repeated to 1940, but my memory has it that, originally, there were yearly updates with photographs. In one of the latter, taken in the thirties, I recall him as surprisingly natty in a white suit, sporting a hat and the grin of a successful man at ease with his position in life. Even so, it's heady stuff viewing faded, brown pages that reach back in time over six and a half decades with details of my uncle as someone who "discovered a method of producing light aluminum alloy, discovered a method of recording sound by photography, discovered a method of producing plastic images in copper by photography" and so forth. My goodness, radio was hardly more than static, Yankee Stadium hadn't been built, and the king of the hill was Jack Dempsey!

The citation further refers to scholarly articles, one of which, Selenium Cells and How They Work, immediately focused the times when he was most prideful. "Young man, they called me Selenium Sam," he'd state, as if the title was that of prince. And he would go on and on about selenium and the meaning of his discoveries.

Oh, if only I had taken notes! (If memory serves correct, one was using selenium in the plastic casings of meats such as sausage and frankfurter to make them digestible, but this is solely guesswork.) He was far more proud of the nickname given by his scientific brethren than the Einstein court victory, which he invariably cast aside.

In peculiar juxtaposition, we once spoke at length about Thomas Edison and World War II. Edison, it seems, keenly urged him to join his staff working in New Jersey, saying that he'd been the first Jew ever to receive a job proposal. Without means to travel to and from New York City, Uncle Sam turned him down. He also wondered about the difficulties of communicating with a boss who was practically stone-deaf. With rare animation, Uncle Sam demonstrated what it was it was like yelling at the top of his lungs into the megaphone Edison had to his ear, one that virtually touched the lips of whoever was talking.

Regarding World War II, Uncle Sam worked gratis for the government. When I asked what he did, he replied in a what-else tone: "inventing." Unstated, yet pervasive as if it were heated stone, was the cast-iron belief that it was a Jew's duty to do anything and everything against a monster like Hitler. Money in such a struggle was beneath dismissal. What a look he had telling me that!

Now that I'd gained a sense of him, Uncle Sam put my view of Mom in a different light. She, with her five other siblings, had come from the same immigrant-poor background and left high school after only a year. Although the six closely resembled each other, they were vastly different in temperament.

How had Uncle Sam managed to graduate Columbia University? How had Uncle Mike, another high school dropout, become a successful businessman? How, even, had Mom met Dad? Further, her best friend, the brassy Gussie Rosenbloom, was the sister-in-law of Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, the light heavyweight champion of the world in the early thirties and a member of the Boxing Hall of Fame. There must have been countless times when Slapsie Maxie and Uncle Sam, each a different sort of champion, were elbow-to-elbow at party and picnic. So modest, so casual, I'd wonder was this my Mom?

As the youngest of seven children, my college graduation became a big event. Shortly afterward, before embarking on whatever road Fortune had waiting, I visited Uncle Sam for the last time. He was living in a suburb outside of Boston with his third wife, a George Bernard Shaw devote named Sadie. We talked randomly for hours as, typically, he watched video cartoons about a foot from the screen.

I must have left at 5:30 p.m., for it coincided with the end of the program, prompting him to turn off the TV. Nearing eighty and never even remotely physical, he accompanied me to the door with a shuffle. "Come again young man. You know," this with an unusually direct look, "I'm proud you graduated. Let me hear how you're doing, understood!" In routine, I nodded and smiled, shyness causing my face to flush over the compliment.

It was always so easy being with the man: my noteworthy, kind and eccentric uncle. The trip back to New York City was symbolic of the many journeys that would begin for me as his was winding down. My guess then, as now, was that Uncle Sam must have enjoyed quite a ride!


from the March 2001 Edition Jewish Magazine

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