This is Bill Cohen for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society. The date is August 6, 2019 and we’re here at the offices of Jewish Columbus to interview Arthur Flesch.
Interviewer: Art why don’t you start out by telling us anything you might know about your grandparents, where your roots are. Some people don’t have much information. What can you tell us?
Flesch: Well I don’t have a lot of information. In fact, I’m hoping in the near future now that I’m involved here at the Historical Society that I will use some of the research opportunities to actually get much more involved and reach out to my last living relatives to find out, beyond anecdotes, what information is out there. On my mother’s side I’ve been told that they are from the Ukraine originally, came over at the turn of the 20th century, in the early 1900s, right after 1900 I thought. My mother’s maiden name was Lubin and my maternal grandmother was a homemaker. She had three daughters my mother being the youngest and the baby. My grandfather, Avrom, was, I believe, a carpenter in the Ukraine. Anecdotally, they left during a pogrom and migrated into western Europe and then eventually got on the boats and came thru Ellis Island.
Interviewer: So Lubin, your grandmother’s name on your mother’s side and her first name was?
Flesch: I don’t really know for sure. All I know, it was Nana. My Hebrew name is Avrom Lazer, Arthur Lawrence Flesch and that was for him. On my father’s side I have a little bit more information. My grandfather was Charles Flesch. He came over again at the turn of the 20th century. He was one of three brothers. His brothers apparently were college educated. One was a physician. One was a doctor and my grandfather ended up as a tradesman. I don’t know if that’s because if he was the eldest, or whatever, and helped provide for the family. On my father’s side I’m Hungarian, from Budapest. I’m not sure if it’s Buda or Pest. I don’t remember which side of the river was where the Jewish enclave was. I think it might have been Buda. Anyway, I know when they came across at least the brothers were not in steerage. They were fairly well off. One of them, I believe Bernard, could have been an uncle because a large part of the family came over within a short period of time, including some uncles. One became a physician in New York City, as a matter of fact, delivered Mayor Wagner, then Senator Wagner, in his later years as a doctor. He was the obstetrician that delivered Mayor Wagner who then became the Mayor of New York City. My family, apparently, they became well-to-do after they came over. They set up my grandfather in business, in the dry-cleaning business in New York City which then became the largest dry-cleaning factory in New York. Through the family he got large contracts like with the New York Police Department dry cleaning. I think one of the ball teams, I don’t know whether it was the New York Yankees, or whatever. He ended up with a fairly large plant. He started rubbing elbows with people of a fairly significant station such that “Charlie,” as they apparently would refer to him. They started taking him under their wing and started giving him investment advice as he was building his business which he took and regretfully took right up until (19)29 when based on, I can’t say it was Astor or anyone else. When the crash took place, in a short period of time, he lost the business. There but for the grace of the crash I would probably be the son of wealth at this point, several generations down. My father used to tell stories about going into the factory and learning to play craps behind the … He learned to gamble playing craps with the workmen behind the factory. The bosses’ son would walk thru and stuff. He ended up getting thru. He didn’t have very many resources. He ended up opening up a small dry- cleaning business in Bayside, New York which is in Queens, New York. Till the day he died he had his dry-cleaning business there.
Interviewer: Your fraternal grandfather. He lost everything. He lost his big firm but then he started a small (company). He started up again.
Flesch: Yes, he never expanded. After that he had three boys and a girl. Both of my uncles I never met. They were both killed in World War II. They were both pilots. The one uncle was killed in bombing raids over Germany. The other was a fighter pilot who made it back. He was a trainer training pilots in Fort Laredo, Texas and one of his students froze at the controls and dove into the side of a mountain or a hill down there in Texas. My grandmother, Ottlie, appealed to the Department of Defense. This is after the Sullivan brothers and everything in early World War II, the five brothers had died on the one ship. She appealed. My father, at the time, he had graduated from Columbia University. He put himself thru Columbia University and had a professional degree in pharmacy but enlisted. He was also in the Army Air Corp training in Texas when they pulled him off of combat training and assigned him stateside as a pharmacist for the duration of the war.
Interviewer: That was because your grandmother appealed. She had already had a death in her family, two, so don’t send our other (son).
Flesch: It was a relatively new rule that they had instituted in World War II. My aunt Sylvia was the only one that I got to know. She passed away a number of years ago, had retired in Florida. All my early Jewish memories were going to grandma and grandpa’s in Bayside and watching my grandmother in the kitchen. I learned to cook by watching her cook all of her special spaetzle noodles and chicken and dumplings and learning how to dip them out of the side of the spoon and hearing her talk about her family most of which I don’t remember.
Interviewer: This is on your father’s side?
Flesch: My father’s side, yeah.
Interviewer: His mother, the one who saved, in a way, perhaps saved her son from going into combat?
Flesch: Yeah. Those are my memories of my grandparents, very little on my paternal side because they both passed away very early. My grandfather had already passed when I was born. My grandmother on my mother’s side did come to live with us, on Long Island, for a very short period of time and I was an infant so I don’t really have very much of a memory. I got to spend time with my fraternal grandparents at their small home in Bayside, Long Island.
Interviewer: Your father, what did he do for a living?
Flesch: He came back from the Service. He had married my mother during the war and we moved to a community called Stewart Manor on Long Island, which was in Queens. He started working as a pharmacist in somebody’s store in Stewart Manor. What he did, he saved up his pennies. His goal was always to open up his own drug store. He found an opportunity. We moved to a bedroom community of New York City, in Nassau County, called West Hempstead. There he had the opportunity, still working as an hourly pharmacist working for someone else. He met some people. One of them happened to be a Scottish immigrant named Richard McNeese who became friendly, who was a carpenter who had started his own construction business. They struck up a friendship and he became his silent partner and helped fund my father’s store which was built on a main thoroughfare in Nassau County called Hempstead Turnpike, East, West corridor in this community of West Hempstead. They opened up Mayfair Pharmacy which was just a local pharmacy. My father worked his Kijaskas off to make that business go. My early memories were of after school going to the store. When I was old enough to work the register that was okay. He had a little soda fountain in there so I could make two-cent crème sodas, two cents plain. So that was part of my life. He was not home very often because he’d open the store and he’d close the store. He wasn’t in a position to pay a lot of employees so he built that business from the ground up. He did a heck of a job. It became the number one pharmacy in the community. He became a very respected leader in the community. He was president of the Residents’ Association. He became a significant leader in the Lions Club which is a fraternal organization. Some Lions affiliates here in Ohio, they do a lot with sight. He became an international governor of the Lions Club. We used to go to annual conventions up in the Catskills when the Lions would have their district meetings and things up there. So I got a little bit of the Borscht Belt experience when I was growing up.
Interviewer: Your father’s name was?
Flesch: Ernest Howard, Ernest Howard Flesch and my mother’s name was Minnie.
Interviewer: How did they meet?
Flesch: I’m not sure about the meeting story. I never really locked that down. My mother grew up in Philadelphia. I always refer to the Philadelphia mishpucha as the part of the family that we would go visit when we would travel sometimes when school was out. The closest people I was to, I had twin cousins that were just a couple years older than me, two girls, Shelley and Tamara. We would go down there and I would see uncle Phil and aunt Stell. They were still in Philadelphia. That’s where my mother grew up. They literally were in the same house that the girls had grown up in on South Fairway Street in South Philly. My aunt, aunt Molly, who was the third of the sisters on my mother’s side, who was the oldest, she was college educated, the only one, and ended up in New York City, somewhat sophisticated woman. I remember in the (19)30s I assume as a young woman apparently enjoyed life greatly, was married for a short period of time, Levey. She married someone with children, first marriage for her, second for him, and that ended up in divorce. She ended up working for a company in New York City, name doesn’t come to me, that sold film equipment or rented film equipment for movies and the film industry when they’d come to New York so she got to meet a lot of people. She had a beautiful walk-up apartment on West 23rd Street off of Avenue of the Americas. She was one of my early mentors in my life. My mom was a sweet person but unsophisticated. My aunt was very cultural. She took me to my first Broadway show. She’s the one, I would go in on weekends, she’s the one who took me to the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Statue of Liberty, the Natural Museum of History. That’s where I remember going. Somewhere in a box I have old photographs with my aunt going to the Statue of Liberty. I remember wearing a Fedora and a tie as an eight- year-old out on the town with my aunt.
Interviewer: You had the whole New York City experience.
Flesch: Oh yeah.
Interviewer: You grew up in the suburbs on Long Island. You came into the city all the time, had the full experience?
Flesch: Yeah, exactly, both the arts and sports. That’s where the hockey bug bit me there as I was growing up, going in to watch the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden. My father was a big football fan so we would go see New York Giant football games in Yankee Stadium, go up to Morningside Heights to see Columbia Lions, college football. He would go back to his alma mater occasionally.
Interviewer: The suburb that you grew up in, was it known for being a somewhat Jewish suburb, or not?
Flesch: Interesting, there were sections in town. The Dogwood section was the Jewish section up above Nassau Boulevard. It was a very diverse community. I would say it was about 30% Jewish, about 25 or 30% Roman Catholic Italian. There was a mix in there of Norwegian Lutherans believe it or not. I lived in a part of town that was totally diverse. We lived on Coolidge Street in West Hempstead. Two doors down was my brother and other mother from junior high school on, Mike Tutoro, Roman Catholic Italian. We’d be there for Christmas dinners. They’d be at our table for Passover. Mrs. Tutoro knew very little difference when it came to parenting skills between good Italian mothers and good Jewish mothers. For example, that was the days when door weren’t locked and you were in and out of everybody’s house. If my mom wasn’t home and I deserved it, Mrs. Tutoro had full license to yell at me just like my mother and mete out punishment, vice versa. Round the block was my friend, Woody Johnson, David. His nickname was Woody. He was Norwegian Lutheran. So I had an experience growing up eating lutefisk, which was this horrible dried cod which is a cultural dish from Scandinavia, salt cod that is just horrendous. Going over to have mama T’s lasagna. My mother cooked but she wasn’t …. Sitting at the Seder table with everybody, it was very ecumenical. In high school, there were cliques but not divisions because I think all the sports teams were made up of all of the mix of cultures and religions. We weren’t dramatically successful. Academically we excelled. We had scholars galore. Athletically we were average. Back then, the suburbs, the only thing we didn’t have in our community were African Americans. The school district had been carved out so that right next to West Hempstead was a suburb called Malverne and that’s where the African Americans had basically, that’s where they lived. They were fairly affluent. They were not like low income. Elston Howard who was a catcher for the New York Yankees lived in Malverne. They had their own school system and so did Hempstead which had a more racially diverse community. Anyway, one of the things that we were known for, we, I say myself and my group I mention, Woody and Mike. All of us played together. We were all musicians as well. We all played athletics too. I played football and Lacrosse in high school until my knee gave out one year. I also played in the orchestra and the marching band and the concert band but I also was a keyboard player so we had a garage band called the “Crescendos.” Woody played base, I played keyboard. We had a drummer, Jeff Kinchon who was a year younger than us. Mike was the real musician. He played alto and tenor sax and jazz flute and to this day he still plays out in groups in New York and Long Island and Florida where he lives half the year.
Interviewer: Now let me make sure we’ve got this in the right time context. You were born what year?
Flesch: 1947 in New York City.
Interviewer: This was part of the post war story.
Flesch: My father was an entrepreneur. He built his business from the ground up, partially with GI Loans and things, again a silent partner.
Interviewer: Were your parents members of a synagogue?
Flesch: We were. As we were growing up we belonged to a Conservative temple in the town right over Hempstead. I don’t remember the name of the congregation right now. With a group of other families, they grew somewhat frustrated about some of the hypocrisy of High Holy Day Jews and the administration and the elitism in leadership. There were about seven families that met and decided that this new Reform Judaism had a great attraction to them. They went out and decided to form a congregation. I don’t know what they went thru in terms of getting the information and the chartering from the Hebrew Union. They went out and they recruited a rabbi, a young rabbi who then was serving in Georgia. I don’t remember where he was from originally. He came out of the military, World War II. He served as a chaplain. He was relatively young, same age as my father. Rabbi Sidney Ballon, who they recruited to come in and be the rabbi at what became Nassau Community Temple. They found an old storage quonset hut in town, rented it, and it became the base for eventually a very large Reform congregation. I grew up essentially with the birthing of that congregation. That’s where I was Bar Mitzvahed. One of my two best other friends that were not in my musical neighborhood group, Douglas Ballon, the rabbi’s son, became one of my closest friends. To the day I always remember growing up together, Doug and I and another friend of ours, Scott Weinstein. We would go into New York City, grab a bus to the subway, take the subway into New York. That’s what you did when you were a teenager. You had that freedom to go to hockey games. One day we were there early and we’d go get something to eat. What you could afford to eat, people may not know, in New York there was a place called Horn and Hardarts, H&H. It’s an automat. What you would do, you’d go in there. There’d be a wall of what looked like safety deposit boxes and they’d have everything there. They’d have food and sandwiches and desserts. Just like you feed a parking meter, you’d put money in and turn the little dial, open up and pull the food out and go sit down and eat. An automat I think is what they called it, Horn and Hardart. We would eat there. One day I got Doug to pull out a sandwich. It wasn’t until we were finished eating, he said, “Oh that was great, what was that?” “That’s a ham and cheese sandwich”. He looked at me. I said, “That’s okay, it was a kosher ham, don’t worry about it.” Years down the road, the rabbi would always, whenever he would see me, he would feign horror and say, “Yeah, you’re the one that had my son eat his first ham and cheese sandwich.” They kept kosher even though they were reformed.
Interviewer: Do you remember going to Sunday School and your Bar Mitzvah?
Flesch: Absolutely, walking around collecting Karen Ami money. In the early days we’d plant a tree in Israel. As a matter of fact, after my Bar Mitzvah I stayed in Sunday school right thru 12th grade, until I graduated.
Interviewer: I have to ask, did you enjoy going to Hebrew and Sunday School?
Flesch: I didn’t enjoy Hebrew. I did what I needed to do so I could do my Haftorah and have my Bar Mitzvah. If you haven’t been able to tell just from my dialogue, I am performance oriented so I wanted to make sure that I had a good performance at the Bema in terms of my Torah portion. I worked at it with a goal but it was not because I had a love of the language. I enjoyed the heck out of the history. We studied Talmud. We did a lot of very interesting things thru high school. It was mostly because I had buddies that did the same thing, Scott, as I said, this overlapping network of friends I had. This network with Doug who, by the way, now is an ordained rabbi in California. He’s taken his Hebrew name, Yeshua, Yeshua Ballon, and we’re still in touch on Face Book and with e-mail. He’s out in the San Francisco area. He worked for either IBM or one of the big firms out there in Silicon Valley.
Interviewer: You mentioned this band. Would this have been in the (19)60’s?
Flesch: This was absolutely in the early 60’s. I graduated from high school in (19)65. We were most active from 62 to 65. We were pretty good. We came close. We made a demo tape. We were invited to do that at the same Oceanside studio, Oceanside, Long Island studio that Billy Joel did his demo tape at. Of course, the outcomes were quite different. We were not offered even an interim contract. The truth of the matter is we played out but we had more fun rehearsing because it became, starting with our sophomore year in high school, Friday nights at Arties. We had a big basement with a 20 ft. bar in the basement my father had built, an entrance to the basement from my back yard so you didn’t have to go thru the house and disturb my family. So basically, Friday nights people would go to Arties for the band rehearsal and so it was basically “Party at Arty.” It became pretty well known. We played more for our fun and our friends than we did anything else.
Interviewer: The Beatles didn’t make it big and start influencing things until early 1964. You started before then.
Flesch: We’re talking Beach Boys. We’re talking Little Anthony and the Imperials. We’re talking doo wop. We’re talking about lots of fun. We also played American Songbook back then. Because of our diverse backgrounds, we all played in concert bands and orchestra. I played a concert tuba in band and orchestra, a sousaphone, in the marching band but I played keyboard in the band and rhythm guitar like when we’d do some of the Beach Boys’ and stuff like that, I’d pick up a guitar. We had a fabulous time just playing standards, American Songbook standards, Cole Porter and Sinatra, and all kinds of things. We also had this fabulous band singer who lived down the street from us, around the corner. Lulu was her nickname. Here’s the name for a band singer. She should have been in grand opera. Her name was Lucretsia Von Vulari or Lulu. She had this fabulous soprano voice and she also was a great jazz and scat singer. She would sing with us when we did a lot of our standard stuff. We did play out some of those kind of gigs on Long Island. She and I would make a little extra money. When the band would take a break in between sets, I would turn on the piano light. She would sit on a bar stool with a microphone and she would just sing things like Summertime or Stormy Weather and I would noodle on the piano. They’d give us an extra 50 bucks a piece for the evening for that kind of stuff.
Interviewer: Wonderful. So then, did college follow high school?
Flesch: Yeah, I had been kind of a Jewish jock in high school. I got out of sports but I was really still very much into my music and taken very much by marching bands. The sport that I was still able to play was Lacrosse. I applied to three schools, Penn State. First of all, I got a regent scholarship for New York State. I qualified for that, which was a four-year tuition scholarship in any state school that was part of the SUNY system. I don’t know whether it was payback to my father or whatever. He said, “He’s looking at colleges. All he cares about is public or private but they’re real expensive and out of state. That’s all he’s looking at. I don’t think he’s going to go there.” I didn’t look at any of the New York schools even though they were great. Penn State, Ohio State and USC, I had people in every one of those states, not in Ohio but in California and Pennsylvania, that if I was going to be accepted, I was going to establish residency there. I had an uncle, Richard Flesch, out in California, in Los Angeles, and I had my people in Philadelphia so I could be qualified as an in-state student. I really wanted to go to USC. I ended up on the wait list there and got accepted at the other two. So my father said, “Let’s go visit” because I had only known them on paper and at a distance. Of course, they all had attractions either a little bit academically, but for USC and Ohio State it was marching band. Ohio State actually had a Lacrosse team. I didn’t know till I came out here how many New York Jews ended up at Ohio State. That was very fascinating to me when I got here. Anyway, it got too late for me to get into USC as an in-state student. We drove out to Ohio State on old Rt. 40 before it became I-70 all the way. I just remember looking as we drove in from the east side. There was only one building over three stories tall. It was the LeVeque Lincoln Tower. I live downtown now. Every once-in-a-while I go out on my balcony and I look and say, “Holy mollie, what a life. Look at this city now.”
Interviewer: Funny how things have changed.
Flesch: Unbelievable. I ended up coming to Ohio State, accepted a position in the freshman class too late to go into the dorms. They were all closed. They didn’t have very many dorms back then. I never had to live in the dorms. I was able to find an apartment on West Tenth Avenue, South Campus, with an upper classman who was a Junior at the time, Jewish, through Hillel we found a connection. He had a two-bedroom apartment on West Tenth and I became, not his little brother, but I became the crazy New Yorker that moved in with him. If I can digress. A year and a half ago, at Congregation Beth Tikvah now, I’m on the Brotherhood Board and I direct the Red Cross Blood Drive there on behalf of the congregation. Collection last summer, I’m sitting there and a gentleman wheels in. He’s post-operative in a wheelchair, had a knee replacement, whatever. He’s sitting there and I’m taking his information down. He says, “And your name.” I said, “Oh, I’m Art Flesch.” Silence. He turns around and I write his name down, Steve, I can’t remember his last name, Steve whatever. He said, you’re not Art Flesch from New York are you?” I said, “Yeah, originally I’m from New York.” “Did you go to Ohio State?” Turns out this was my first roommate in college whom I had not seen in 50 some years. We had a year and a half living together in his apartment. He ended up graduating as an accountant, went to Cleveland, led his -whole life. He moved down here with family and he’s a member of Beth Tikvah now and I meet my college roommate. Unbelievable, it was quite fascinating to catch up. I came to Ohio State and indeed fulfilled my dream which was I made the freshman Lacrosse team. They had freshman team back then. I played. My first- year varsity award was Lacrosse.
Interviewer: You competed against other Big Ten teams?
Flesch: No so much the Big Ten teams. Big Ten schools didn’t have a lot of Lacrosse. We played against smaller schools like Kenyon and Dennison. Lacrosse was more of an Eastern kind of a … In New York state, it was sanctioned. There was no spring football. It was not like in Ohio where football is king. In New York you either ran track or field events or played Lacrosse in the Spring. Those were the sports, baseball. You either were in field events, weight events, or you played Lacrosse. For example, Jim Brown, I think, was more famed on Long Island at Massapequa High School as a Lacrosse player than he was as the world-renowned football player that he was. The first time I was ever knocked unconscious in my entire limited athletic career was on playing beach pick-up games on Jones Beach, Lacrosse games that you would play during the summer and I got the crap knocked out of me from behind and woke up looking up into the face of John Mackey, former tight-end for the Baltimore Colts, who was a high school senior when I was a kid and he just clocked me. I came to Ohio State in (19)65 and spent two years enjoying the heck out of my college experience and occasionally going to class. At the end of two years I had taken a lot of different classes. The ones I liked I got four points on. The ones I didn’t I slept in on. My performance was erratic enough that as I closed in starting my second year, I had Fs and As such that they invited me to leave school. I was academically put on probation and then kicked out saying you can re-apply but you need to mature. Of course, the idiocy of that was it was the height of the gearing up of the Vietnam War. I got kicked out just before the Tet Offensive in (19)67. I was still a New York resident and my local Draft Board in Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, just got the red light to go find me and I had a low number. Before I could do anything to get back in school or join Youth Connections to try to get in the Reserves, they snapped my young butt up and the next thing I know I was drafted.
Interviewer: The Tet Offensive was in 1968. This was 1967, just before.
Flesch: Yeah, I ended up going to Vietnam right after the Tet Offensive but I was in the Service. September ‘67 is when I went in. They were just really gearing up. We were starting to send over large numbers of troops again at that point.
Interviewer: What were your thoughts about the war before you even got to Vietnam? Did you know anything about it? `
Flesch: Yes, I was not politically active. I was not involved in any movements. I grew up in a fairly privileged environment. I was of a group that, I was a Jewish jock. I was kind of an all-American kid. I was in Boy Scouts. So I really didn’t question a whole lot. I believed in my country and the flag. As Don McClean sang, “Apple pie and motherhood.” I wouldn’t have presumed to think that there weren’t wise people making these decisions and we weren’t there for reasons. By then you were already reading things in the paper about starting the coalitions forming across, civil rights and peace. It had not reached the fervor that it would later on. I went in with a little bit of a naïve outlook that, not my country right or wrong but my country probably right. Almost from the first day of my military experience, I realized how generals fight the wars and young men and women die fighting them and usually those people of lower economic status who end up in the army and in the infantry. Anyway, I went in. They sent this northern boy south, to any fort south of the Mason-Dixon before I finally shipped out.
Interviewer: You were trained in southern states?
Flesch: Oh yeah, I went in. My basic training was at Fort Gordon, Georgia, Augusta Georgia. My advanced infantry training was at Fort Benning. I was starting to become wise as to how things were much more screwed up than I thought so I decided to sign up for different training which would have extended my time in the Service. To sign up for certain schools, it was a waiver even though you were a draftee. If you signed up for this training, it would extend your term of service by that period of time. They were trying to get me to go into Officer Candidate school because I had and I did not want to do that. I went to Advanced Infantry. I went to Mortar and became an expert mortar man. I went to the specialized training they had, Long-range Reconnaissance Training. I refused to go, I was offered again OCS and they said, “But we’ve just opened up a new training facility at Fort Benning called NCO Academy,” non-commissioned officers. I found out subsequently the death rate for sergeants in Vietnam was so high, squad leaders and platoon sergeants, that they decided we’ll set up this analog to Officers Candidate School and after graduating this 12-week academy at the infantry school at Fort Benning, you would be given the rank of E-5, Sergeant, three stripes. Then you would have 30 days leave and then you would ship out to Vietnam as a squad leader. They’re people who had been in the army for 20 some years and had just gotten that third stripe. So, you can imagine, they started derisively referring to graduates of this program as “Shake and bake NCOs.” They didn’t care because they said, “There’s 80% chance you’re going to get killed anyway.” That was the death rate for whatever.
Interviewer: Did you know this at the time?
Flesch: No, I didn’t. There was another school to go that I would not have to sign up for the commitment to become a regular officer, a four or five-year commitment, if you go to OCS or whatever it was. I still would have my regular term of service but I knew I would go to Vietnam. But, the truth Bill, was once I got in, one way or another, I knew I was going. So I said, “I’m going to learn everything I can to get my young ass back from Vietnam.” I basically took it all very seriously and essentially took every bit of that training and I excelled. I mean not just I was okay physically. I did really well in the top quartile. Because of lacrosse I was great with a bayonet and fejo sticks and whatever. Also, in the classroom, if I was not first, I was 1A or whatever. So I graduated in my NCO class which I think was the third cohort to go thru as the academic graduate in the top of 175 in the class. I still have my oak plaq uewith the infantry shield with the silver bayonet on it and the number one graduate. What I got out of that was not only the training and a lot about the military and leadership but also then I got to, before I was shipped out to Vietnam, I was sent to Fort Polk, Louisiana to be a training NCO. To say you’re going to be a sergeant, do that here first as a training NCO in an advanced infantry battalion that was training troops for Vietnam.
Interviewer: So you were training other troops but you had never been in combat yourself?
Flesch: No, and so we went to Fort Polk. Let me put it this way. There was an approbation back then about Fort Polk and, apparently, it’s still today from what I’ve heard. It would say, “If God chose to give the world an enema, He would stick it in Fort Polk.” Okay. We went to North Fort which hadn’t been used since Korea as an active fort. We literally, when I was there, we were literally rebuilding the barracks as we slept in them and trained troops to go to Vietnam.
Interviewer: Just a little bit of a Jewish angle or perhaps lack of one, you were in the South at all these training facilities. Were there many Jews around you?
Flesch: Hell no. When I was at Fort Polk, I remember I had, Billy Ray Smith from Delphi, Arkansas. First of all you need to know that most of the people who were drafted were in the infantry and were poor urban Blacks from the North and southern Whites, poor farmers and lower income ‘good old boys’ from small towns. That’s basically who was training in the infantry. I remember I had Billy Ray come up to me one day and say, “Sarge, are you really a Jew?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I never met a Jew before.” I just looked at him and rather than being offended, I said this is just lack of…. I said, “You know what, I don’t usually wear my horns and my tail with my uniform. They’re in my locker if you want to come by.” He looked at me like is he telling me the truth? Then he said, “You’re kidding me, right, you’re joshing me sergeant? I said, “Yeah, I don’t have a jar of Christian children’s blood in my locker for special ceremonies.” No, I never met another Jew in all of my time stateside in the infantry like I was, okay. Eleven Bravo which is straight leg infantry, it’s a military occupational specialty MOS. They all figured out a way to be a chaplain’s assistant or go into the chemical core. There were a handful that I met in training when I got to where I was and had some responsibility. The other Jewish story I’ll tell you about the military in the South. I was sent to advance infantry training, Fort McClellan, Alabama which is near the thriving metropolis of Aniston, Alabama. I say that with all due respect. The town of Aniston was run by the sheriff and the mayor who also owned the bar, the grocery and the brothel. It was a brown bag, it was a dry town. The only way you could drink in town was you had to join the club behind the grocery and you’d carry your own booze in which you could get on base. They would sell you set ups, soda, ginger ale, for $5 a glass. You’d be able to go into town. It was a fairly large … Before we got there as a small contingent of advance infantry training unit that was being run by the army rangers at the time, it’s where the chemical school was located. There were Jews there because they were chemists. They were geeks. When we would go out in field exercises, training exercises, they had to truck in water because of the chemical school there. You look at a stream and it might be running purple or it might be orange. God knows what they were dumping into the aquifer there. The biggest thing about Fort McClellan, there weren’t that many GIs there but there were over 10,000 women. It was the central training and headquarters for the Women’s Army Corp, the WACS. So in terms of role reversals, again, I’m one of the few Jews there, the only Jew in the infantry unit. There were some that were in chemical. They used to bring a rabbi in because there were a number of women that were Jewish. They would bring a rabbi in from somewhere else in Alabama, Birmingham. He would come in every other week, there were two of them, to have Services in Central Fort which is in the middle of the women’s compound. Look, I still played the angles. So, rather than going out on five or ten mile forced marches for training on Saturday, I would become very religious and I would get a chance to put my dress uniform on and walk across fort to go to Services on Saturday morning, Friday nights and Saturday mornings over on basic fort.
Interviewer: You had a choice. If you were religious and wanted to go to a Service, they would let you out of the forced march.
Flesch: Oh yeah, I became very religious in the military, at that point. To get there I would have to walk from where we were at one side of the fort across the compound over to where the PX and the church and everything was on central fort. To do so I’d have to walk most of the way through the women’s barracks area and I was totally socialized. For the first time I became aware of the objectification of women. I remember that first Saturday morning, I was walking across and walking down the street with barracks on either side of me and women hanging out the windows yelling lewd obscenities and invitations to come up to the third floor as I was walking across. “Hey GI.” My immediate reaction was well, I never, and I said, “Oh my gosh.”
Interviewer: Role reversal.
Flesch: Role reversal. I laughed about it and I thought about it. Maybe it was the dawning of the planting of the seed of my education in terms of the plight of women in society. I’m not sure. Again, being Jewish was very handy at that point in time.
Interviewer: So you get shipped over to Vietnam. You said something earlier about from day one a light went on or ….?
Flesch: Well it had gone on in training and talking to people who are training COs and officers who had been there and talking to veterans, and you know, being aware as society was changing, and staying informed, reading the news, hearing from friends back home who couldn’t believe that I had been drafted and I was in the military. They were getting involved in the anti-war movement on college campuses and whatever. When I went home for my 30 days leave before shipping out, they sent you home one last time before you shipped out. I got to see some of these guys and gals, was on campus with them, some parties so I got to get a sense of what the dialectic was, what was going on and the turmoil that was just building. The end result was I shipped out of Fort McCord, landed in Camron Bay. I had orders to join the Ninth Division, which was in the South, but when I got there, they immediately changed my orders and said, “No, we have a need for you in this other unit.” So next thing I know, I’m on a helicopter. Four days after processing in country I’m in a helicopter flying out to Elsie Mary Lou in Central Highlands to take over as a sergeant in Charlie Company Central 25th Fourth Infantry Division.
Interviewer: Elsie Mary Lou?
Flesch: Landing zone. They named them all. Just like you name hurricanes, you name strategic bases and things. I remember landing on the edge of a dormant small volcano and being escorted up the side, away from the landing pad. Here I am, meeting my squad for the first time. I’m an FNG, excuse, I don’t know how the language works here but it’s an ‘effing new guy,’ an FNG. You’re considered highly dangerous to the health and welfare of everyone until they figure out if you’ve got any smarts and whether you have any skills or whether you’re an asshole or not, to be truthful, okay. By the next morning, we’re getting ready to move out in a combat mission to relieve a special forces camp that had been under siege for 30 days on a click away which is a 1,000 meters. Supposedly they’d been under siege by a regular North Vietnamese battalion and the Special Forces came, called Dukla Special Forces came. It was very well documented. It was before Kasson up in the North. It was one of those where they’d held out for a long period of time. We were going to combat assault and relieve that camp.
Interviewer: When you say Special Forces, that’s what we laymen know as Green Berets.
Interviewer: The elite fighters and they were under siege and you were being called to help them out.
Flesch: Well that’s what the mission was, to relieve them, yeah. The whole idea was to drive this North Vietnamese battalion west, toward the Cambodian border where the army of Vietnam Republic, 22nd Panther Division, the elite of their fighting force had been set up as a barrier force near the Cambodian border. We were going to drive these North Vietnamese regulars into them and they were going to decimate them. It was going to be one of the great victories. We got there, not that we were disappointed. We got there and found out that the North Vietnamese had fled overnight and had left but we figured, okay, we’ve done our job now we’re going to pursue them, but what happened is they disappeared. Apparently, the South Vietnamese army didn’t have quite as much stomach for battle as we were led to believe. Basically, as the North Vietnamese fled toward Cambodia, so basically, they pulled an ‘oleh’, just let them through.
Interviewer: The South Vietnamese army just let the North Vietnamese army go back home?
Flesch: Yes, or go back to Cambodia, across the border. Within a couple of weeks I realized how totally messed up the mission was. You’d take control of an area during the day and then at night, when you pulled back into your compound or pulled back into your camp, the Vietcong would be … Billy Joel has a line in his song, ‘Night In Saigon,’ “We rule the day, they rule the night.” Basically, when I was in the Infantry School, I was taught two things are prime. Number 1, accomplish the mission. Number 2, take care of the welfare of your men. I found out that the mission, excuse me, was all effed up. There was no mission. So then all that was left for me, at least my commitment, was the welfare of my men. From a very early time on, I did everything I could to maximize the welfare of my troops. It didn’t mean that I didn’t do what I was told but it did mean that I realized how screwed up the military was, especially in a combat situation. The Fourth Division was known from WWII as one of the premier fighting units on the beach at Omaha, Omaha Beach and D-Day, a very glorious past. In Vietnam they were known as the ‘fabulous effed-up Fourth.’ It was mostly because of logistics. We would go out on a combat assault which meant you’d load up on helicopters and in waves you would go in and hit a hot elsee and you’d start a mission. It was not untypical, in the Fourth Division, to get halfway thru the airlift with the helicopters and figure out they didn’t have enough fuel. They didn’t calculate properly. In the middle of an insertion you’d get your first two flights into the elsee and set up your perimeter and all of a sudden they’d say, “Well, we’re trying to locate more aviation fuel so set up and hold ground until we can get the rest of the people out there.” I mean stuff like that. After my first couple of missions, look I’m not going to talk to you about war stories, okay? There are things I don’t talk to anybody about. I was wounded in an ambush. I went into the, I took some grenade fragments in my back, very superficial, but they evaced me out. We took 11 killed that day and 17 wounded. I went into the 91st Evac Hospital in Tuy Hoa for recovery. I was promoted. I got a fourth stripe. I was made an E-6 Staff Sergeant which meant that, when I went back to the field, I was a Platoon Sergeant, not just a Squad Leader. I was now a Platoon Sergeant. There’s a Lieutenant and then there’s a Platoon Sergeant. That’s the leadership team of a Rifle Platoon which has anywhere from 25 to 37 men in it, three squads and a CP or a command position.
Interviewer: So you were responsible for more men then?
Flesch: Oh yeah. There are stories to tell. Let me put it this way. Regardless of any citations I got or commendations or medals, there’s only one thing that I’m truly proud about. The only medal that I wear on my lapel is my Purple Heart because that’s a solidarity kind of thing for me with my men. The others sit in a drawer elsewhere. In the entire 12 months I was in Vietnam, that includes time in the hospital. I had Malaria twice and was hit once so I was in the hospital three times, never had the million-dollar wound. They always sent me back to the field. As I was trying to say, the thing I’m proudest about is in the 12 months I was there, I never had a price on my head.
Interviewer: Explain that.
Flesch: There’s something that took place. I don’t know if it was unique to Vietnam but became something documented more consistently. I have no idea how that’s developed over the last decades with the Gulf Wars and whatever. There was a practice called ‘fragging.’ What that was is if in a situation combat troops felt that someone, it could be a individual member of a platoon or more likely it was a Lieutenant or Sergeant, was incompetent or incapable of leadership and acting in ways that were threatening to their survival, it was more prevalent, it was never documented but it was not ever routine but it did take place because I know that it took place. I was there. The term came from the practice of rolling a grenade at night into the sleeping quarters of the Lieutenant or whatever, fragmentary grenade ie ‘fragging.’ Basically, get that person out of the field. More common, as one of my squad leaders said, he was African American from Newark, New Jersey. Frank, he said to me, “You know, Sarge, combat is hell and when them bullets are flying you really can’t tell where that bullet came from.” That’s when we were talking about a Lieutenant who we had, Lieutenant Hanish, if you’re out there, who was a National Guard Lieutenant from Hawaii. He was a little martinet. He had a John Wayne complex and a corn cob up his butt and he came out, was assigned to us, and he just was dangerous. He thought he knew it all and he knew nothing. An example is the one day, I was a veteran. I was there like eight months. I normally would give the orders for the day and set up the order march sentencing, determine who’s going to be flying security, have to decide who’s going to be on point which is usually a death sentence if you’re going (on a mission). We were required to run missions that were called RTC missions, Reconnoiter To Combat. That’s a fancy way of saying walk thru the jungle until you run into something. How did you run into something? Usually the point man or a flank security guy would either set off a booby trap or walk into an ambush and then you engage. Heck of a sophisticated technique, right? It’s kind of like walking thru an urban neighborhood until you get jumped by a gang and then fight it out, whatever. Anyway, we’re getting ready to go out this morning. “Sergeant, I’m going to lead us out today.” He got up and he ….
Interviewer: You’re talking about Hanish? This was the officer who was not liked by his fellow troops?
Flesch: Yeah, by the troops that he commanded, the whole platoon. He looks at the map, takes his compass out, and he says, “Alright, let’s go,” and headed out. I knew as soon as he headed out that he read his compass backwards and we were heading 180 degrees in the wrong direction but I wasn’t going to say anything because we were heading 180 degrees away from where the enemy was supposed to be. Was I going to complain? No, everybody kind of looked around and next thing we know we’re walking, we’re walking, and we end up. He looks at the map and says, “Officer, what’s going on here? I can’t recognize it.” “Well the reason, sir, is we’ve been marching or we’ve been walking for about an hour and a half in the wrong direction.” He got all blustery and whatever, turned around, and led everybody. We turned around and obviously nothing happened that day. That night Frank came up to me and said, “You got to tell him. You got to tell him either he gets out of the field or something’s going to happen.” I went in and I said, “Lieutenant Hanish I got to be honest with you.” I laid it out to him. I said, “Look you got a price on your head.” I said, “I don’t know what you need to do but as quickly as possible you need to figure out a way out of the field.”
Interviewer: Because your own troops see you as an enemy and they’re willing to do damage to you?
Flesch: Understatement, yeah. So, about 45 minutes later, we’re sitting around and all of a sudden we’re BANG. I run over to his hooch where we had some cover. I walked in there and he’s wreathing on the ground. He had been cleaning his side arm. Officers carry a ‘45’ as I did. Accidentally, while cleaning his weapon, he shot himself in the foot.
Interviewer: So one guy solved his problem.
Flesch: He solved his problem by airlifting out by the morning when daylight, back to the hospital for his foot wound. They didn’t send out a replacement so, essentially, for the next six weeks I was basically doing, you can see, I’ll show you later. I have a picture, at the end of those six weeks, after being out in the field as a platoon sergeant/leader, I came back into the, we came out of the field back to the battalion base camp for what’s called ‘Stand Down’ to become what’s called ‘Palace Guards.’ There are four platoons in a combat company. Three of them are out rotating, doing missions, whatever, and one is providing security back at the battalion base camp, which is perimeter security. It’s pretty much stand down duty. Occasionally you get attacked at night. Basically, it was rest and rehabilitation. One out of every four weeks, ideally, you’d be doing that. We had been out. When we got pulled back, so that’s when you go that long without getting your mail. We hadn’t had a hot meal in a long time. You’ll see in the picture, when I show you, literally my jungle fatigue is almost rotting off my body. I’m sitting on the hood of a jeep having just picked up my mail and I got all excited because there was a package there from Nassau Community Temple Sisterhood. I figured oh they just sent me a package from home. It’s got to be cookies and the bourbon balls that I like. I open it up and you see the picture sitting on the jeep and, on one side, is an industrial sized can of matzo ball soup and on the other side is a box of Maneschevitz Matzo. The look on my face, it could almost write the caption, ‘and this is what I’m fighting for.’ (Laughs)
Interviewer: You weren’t expecting that?
Flesch: No, I was expecting something pretty cool, not a Passover package.
Interviewer: At least they didn’t send you bitter herbs?
Flesch: No, they did not.
Interviewer: Now, you have a story, I don’t know if you’re willing to tell it, about when you were in the hospital after being wounded and you had some contact with your mother.
Flesch: Well, yeah, I’m more than happy to tell it because I always delight in it. I wrote maybe a total of two letters back home when I was in Vietnam. Some of it was circumstance but it was also a time when I was back in a base-camp situation, I had access to telephone, radio telephone. Either the Red Cross had a place where you could do that or, when I was in R&R in Australia, I could place phone calls that week that I was there. I was not a big writer to begin with. When I got wounded, I knew that the Red Cross sent or the Department would send notice that your son has been wounded in combat. I know my mother so I assumed that she would worry. It said Art is okay and expected to recover, blah, blah. I never saw the telegram. She never was able, she didn’t save it, or whatever, but she was not satisfied with that. She was sure that things were worse than the telegram so she called our rabbi who called. Next thing I know, from their end, they were reaching out to find out thru the Red Cross to Vietnam, where the Red Cross is active, is he okay. All I can tell you, I’m laying in an ambulatory ward in the 91st Evac Hospital in Tuy Hua, Vietnam, known as the Atlantic City of the South Pacific, by the way. It’s right on the beach. Three o’clock in the morning, or thereabouts, I am being jostled and it’s the ward nurse and he’s going, “Sergeant Flesch, Sergeant Flesch, wake up.” “What’s going on?” “Wake up, you got to get on the telephone.” “What?” “Your mother’s on the phone.” I’d never been so disoriented in my life. I know where I am. I’m waking up at 3:00 a.m. I could be under attack. I thought there was a sniper attack or something and they were trying to evacuate the ward. “Wake up sergeant. Your mother’s on the phone.” I wake up. I’m dreaming, right? I walk to the end of the ward and get on the phone. He motions to me, go ahead, speak. “Hello, mom.” I hear this Long Island Jewish mother say, “Hello, Arthur, are you really okay?” Then there’s a silence. This is not regular telephone service. This is being done over short-wave ham radios all the way from Long Island to one station or another to Vietnam to hook up into the radio telephone system. She’s required by international rules to use radio telephone procedure. Here is my mother on Long Island saying, “Hello, Arthur, so you’re okay?” I hear mumbling, “Okay, okay, over.” “Mom, I’m really okay, over.” This conversation goes on and she’s getting more aggravated and aggravated as she’s being counseled about how to talk on the phone. So we got throughthe conversation. I convinced her that I was fine, no, I wasn’t coming home. I’ll be going back to the field. I’ve only got another four months to go. Love to everybody. I hang up and I’m sitting there at 3:30 a.m. and I’m going, “What the heck was that?” Surreal is not the word to describe it. I vividly remember it right now. As it turned out, ironically, a couple of months later she received a letter from Senator Barry Goldwater, retired, not a Senator anymore. Apparently, he was one of the largest ham radio operators in the Southwest United States. He had this huge tower out there in the desert. It was one of the main relay towers and he had logs. I think, by law, they’re required to log all of their (communications). What he would do. He provided service as a relay for this radio telephone relay network that supported troops in Vietnam. He wrote a letter, I’m pretty sure it was standard, expressing appreciation for my combat and commitment to the country and humbly saying he was grateful that he was able to provide the opportunity for her to speak with me. Somewhere in a box somewhere that letter sits. I think I saw it once. I don’t think I’ll ever find it again. Yeah, very strange.
Interviewer: Now later, and we’ll get into this a little later, you were very active as an activist against the war. When you were still in Vietnam, you already talked about how you saw a lot of incompetence by the American military. That was one thing that turned you off and you also saw that the South Vietnamese army was not, didn’t seem to be very committed to its cause. There was another factor that anti-war activists gave as another reason for being against the war. They said the South Vietnamese government was corrupt and didn’t really care about its own people. When you were in Vietnam, did you give that a thought? What was your thinking about why you became disillusioned about the war?
Flesch: I think, related to that, where I operated, the Fourth Division was called the Central Highlands. It’s everywhere from coastal plains all the way up to the Central Highlands and into the mountains along the Cambodian border. In the Cambodian border region and in the foothills there, there were indigenous tribes called Hmongs. They had their own militias. They were native to that whole area that was Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam border area. Their ethnic area overlapped all those borders, all those countries. There were various offshoots of it but they were generally referred to as Hmongs. They put together what were called Regional Force Groups. They were like local militias. They were very much like the Vietcong, very accomplished jungle fighters because that’s where they lived. They were there fighting against the North Vietnamese and they were titulary under the direction of the South Vietnamese army. The analogy though is, a rough analogy would be they were treated ethnically within South Vietnam much like Blacks were treated in America. When we did joint operations and we did some. We worked with what were called Regional Force Groups or ‘rough buffs’ is what we called them, the ‘rough buffs’. Where we never really trusted South Vietnamese regular soldiers very much, especially their officers, I’d walk backwards out of a room. I wouldn’t ever to turn my back on them. The ‘rough buffs’, they felt it was the highest honor to work with Americans. As a matter of fact, when you worked with them, they would often surround you because it would be great dishonor on their tribal group if an American ever got injured while in an operation. You’d have a guard almost when you worked with these troops. They were loyal. They were tough. They were wonderful people. I still have at home in a drawer, several of us were inducted. We worked on several operations over a period of months. There was a ceremony in one of the villages when we were inducted into the tribe as honorary. I still have a bracelet, an honorary knife that I was given as sergeant. I saw the way they were treated by the Vietnamese, yet these were the people I had the most respect for. I said, “You know, the world around, it’s the same difference, prejudice, people treated as second-class citizens.” I started thinking, how about all these rural farmers. When you got there, you had already been indoctrinated to hate the ‘gooks’, if you will. The Vietcong were the communists that were going to come and attack America, ridiculous as that sounds. That’s what we were fighting for, the American way. I thought about it and I said, “What if I was a rural farmer who was over-taxed and abused by my own government, the South Vietnamese government. I lived in a village, whether I was not the Hmongs, or just rice farmers and the government was totally disrespectful of and disconnected from me. Then along came these people, some of whom were my neighbors, they offered me the fact that, if I joined them and fought against the central government, I could own my own land, I could keep my own crops, I’d be able to create my own leadership cadre., I’d be able to feed my children. Why would I not be attracted to that? When you think about why people would fight with the Vietcong against the central government, you see that on a daily basis. You’d see the dehumanization that war brings in general. You’d see how the presence of a big war machine like America had on the country, turning little kids into beggars and thieves in the cities, in the countryside, just the dehumanization of the whole … You’d walk thru an area that had been blanket-bombed from a B52 with 500 pound bombs or you’d walk thru villages that had been burned out. Remember when I was there, there were still parts of the country and parts where we operated, were still considered ‘free fire zones.’ What a ‘free fire zone’ was, when you walk into that area, it didn’t matter, anything that was not American was the enemy. You, essentially, had a license to kill. You presumed the enemy rather than …. All of that played upon your mind. Again, we received some news. The Internet didn’t exist, none of that, but we would still see things and hear things.
Interviewer: You’re talking about protests back home?
Flesch: Yeah, about what was going on back home to some degree. The Stripes which was the Army newspaper or the Vietnam radio would carry, it would be slanted to some degree, but you’d still hear about the dissension. There was a lot. Then, of course, there was the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, that whole crazy period of time. I expected possibly to come home and there might be revolution in the streets and I was going to have to pick a side. I wasn’t sure, by the time I left the country, wasn’t sure which side I’d be on.
Interviewer: When you returned to the United States, you became very active in the anti-war movement.
Flesch: Not right away but when I came back, I was messed up to some degree. I got back in September of (19)69. I had everybody from the American Legion who wanted to honor me and hold a ceremony welcoming me back to friends of mine who looked at me as a baby killer. They had evolved so emotionally to the point where I was the enemy. My father, my parents had divorced when I went away to college. My father had started a second family up in Connecticut and I went up to stay with him. I spent some time with my mom on Long Island where she still was. Then I went up to Connecticut to spend time with my dad. He was an army veteran and he had lost a brother. We talked and I got some counseling. I couldn’t be around crowds. I couldn’t, I mean it got so bad, at one point, I went out, took a sleeping bag and a tent and I went out into the national forest in central Connecticut and just stayed out there four or five days in the woods. I made plans to come back to Ohio State. I was committed to succeed where I had failed. I was going to do it on my own, not take any more money from my dad. I felt I had used his good graces. I had the GI bill but that’s not enough. I had to work. While I was in Vietnam, one of my other mentors, we didn’t talk about it. I came out to Ohio State to play Lacrosse and the Marching Band. I played Lacrosse but I also was in the Marching Band for two seasons, one as an alternate and one as a band manager. I became very close to the then director, Dr. Charles Van and the assistant director, Paul DeBrosse. When I was in Vietnam, I wrote some letters to Charlie who had then left the band and was now Assistant Provost at the university. He got into central administration. He was one of my sponsors for my re-application and helped me get back into Ohio State based on who I was when. I came out here earlier, around Thanksgiving time, to get situated and get all my paperwork done, spent time with Charlie and his wife while I was looking for a place, found something on West Northwood Avenue, North Campus, and started back in school in January, (19)70, a couple of months before May, ’70.
Interviewer: Kent State, not just Kent State but Ohio State had tumultuous things happen.
Flesch: We had people shot here two weeks before Kent State. By then, in May, late April. When I got here, I was attracted on campus. I started classes again. I ran into some vets and they talked about a group of vets that were ‘Vets Against the War.’ They were having discussion groups and stuff. I became involved with them. I found a counselor here on campus, continued to work with her, wonderful person, Sandy Shulman. She’s been here for decades since but she’ was a graduate student psychologist at that point.
Interviewer: When you say counselor, you mean a mental health counselor?
Flesch: Yeah, oh yeah, I had lots of things to work throughand that continued for a number of years. Anyway, I got involved with this group and, the next thing I know, I’m a spokesperson on campus for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, within several months, working with another veteran named Bill Crandell. The two of us were two principal organizers of the chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, on campus. That’s where my history of activism started.
Interviewer: There were tumultuous protests in late April on OSU campus a week or two before Kent State. There were a lot of different issues that students were upset about. Black students were.
Flesch: Black students, mobilization issues.
Interviewer: When you say mobilization, against the war?
Flesch: Against the war. There was the vets’ group and those were the principal drivers of the different things going on. There were a whole lot of residuals around Black issues on campus and speakers’ issues and faculty and all kinds of things had gone on. Women’s issues were just bubbling to the surface in terms of equity issues and sexual discrimination and everything else. There was also a movement for quality of life. On campus there was a ‘Community Union’ that formed which was a food collective. Different support groups in the community for life-style changes and there were the ‘Yippees’ and the crazies on campus. There were a whole lot of fringe groups that were around, ‘Gay Activist Alliance,’ back then. GAA was also just coming to some prominence.
Interviewer: That week when the National Guard was on OSU campus, were you, as a Vietnam Veteran Against the War, active?
Flesch: Very active. Even to this day I’m not going to talk a lot about some of the things we did, but we had a small cadre of people who were combat trained. When Franklin County Black Shirt Deputies with black tape over their badges so you couldn’t identify them, and black helmets, would run thru the neighborhoods cracking skulls and pulling people off the porches on 15th, 16th, 12th Avenues, we would wait for dark and we would essentially run counter insurgency kinds of things.
Interviewer: You engaged them somewhat?
Flesch: Not knowing the statute of limitations, let me just say, “We were active.” There would be police cars that would run down the street and, all of a sudden, run into concrete barriers in the street that were not lit up. There were several situations which pay back is ? That’s not principally what we did. We basically started off trying to stay non-violent and we did but on campus demonstrations we would try to position ourselves between brick throwers, try to get them to stop, and National Guard who were, for all we knew, just as uncertain and scared and fed propaganda as some of the crazies on the left, ‘Yippees’ that were trying to incite violence. We actually worked with more groups. Faculty had a group called the ‘Green Ribbon Committee’ which was a group of faculty members who wore green ribbons on their clothing to put themselves, can we reason together to try and keep (order). There was some very distinguished faculty I got to know at that point because I was still in touch with people like Dr. Spahn. We were there basically saying, “Listen to us. We are veterans. We’re telling. Let’s talk about the war. Let’s not, why are we fighting each other” type thing. Of course, when you are put in situations that require you to defend yourself, you defend yourself. I laughed that one of my badges of honor was being arrested at Eleventh and Neil with the future mayor of Cleveland, Mike White, and the bull horn. They arrested the bull horn.
Interviewer: He was an OSU student at the time?
Flesch: Oh yeah, he was a student. They arrested everybody for supposedly closing the gates. As it turned out later in trials that came out, I was released without charges, as was the bull horn. Mike White was charged because he was very active in the Black Student Movement. Years later, it came out that the gates were actually closed by undercover police officers trying to instigate. History has a tendency to correct some things. I eventually, when the campus closed, I was selected to be on the committee of students that negotiated for the university to re-open. I was on that student committee. My soon to be first wife was there. She was president. Graduate student, Joann Podd, she was the president of Student Mobilization Committee Against the War. Myself, there were two representatives from the Black Student Caucus. One was Roger Barrito who became a professor of Philosophy, ended up working in state government, as I did, years later. Jerry Roberts, that was his name, who became Otto (Cambaum??) who became in his middle age a leader in the Afro American community in Columbus and served as a principal aide to City Council and was very much involved in politics here in town. Linda Green who represented the Women’s Collective. We were there. The other side of the table were a whole lot of middle to late-middle-aged white guys in crew cuts. A couple of them had slick-back hair but they were, a couple of them stood out, John Mount, who was vice president. I don’t think he was vice president then but he was Dean of Students, I think at the time, and vice president Ned Molton. They decided we would start meeting in the old Ohio Union, this was about a week after the university had closed, to try to negotiate demands and see whatever. That was a very interesting period of time.
Interviewer: Did you notice many fellow Jews being active in the anti-Vietnam movement?
Flesch: Absolutely. There was a history of Jewish activism, both faculty and student, going back long before I even started to the early Sixties. One of the guys that I ended up recruiting into the vet’s group, Bill Shkurti, we were in Vietnam at the same time. He was an artillery lieutenant officer in charge of the battery in the 25th Division at the same time but we never knew each other until we both came back to Ohio State to go to school. He’s written a book, a couple books, but one of them touched on the turmoil of the Seventies, actually more of the Sixties. He’s also got a presentation that he did at Temple Beth Tikvah and at the Arlington Library on Jewish Activism at Ohio State in the Sixties and Seventies. He centered on the, he has all that material. I think he focused on nine people. He goes all the way back to Free Speech days and chronicles these folks, Nikki Schwartz, people from Cleveland, attorneys, where they were, what they did, and where they are now. I was quite surprised, when he got to the end of the presentation, the last person he chose was me. That was humbling at the very least. I think the positions of leadership, but back then the movement was way diverse and very ecumenical. It was not led by any group.
Interviewer: But Jews were disproportionate?
Flesch: I would say so.
Interviewer: Let us end the interview for now with you, Art Flesch, and hopefully pick up in a second interview sometime soon, your life from the late 1960’s or 1970 and bring that forward. Let’s end now on this note of the turbulent 1960’s and 1970. Thank you very much, Art Flesch. This is Bill Cohen for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society and hopefully we’ll be back with a second interview with Art Flesch.
This is Bill Cohen for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society. The date is September 19, 2019 and I’m here at the offices of Columbus Jewish Federation also known as Jewish Columbus. We’re here for part 2 of the interview with Art Flesch.
Interviewer: Art when we left you before, the year was about 1970, April and May of 1970. You were active against the war in Vietnam. You were a Vietnam veteran. You came back, you opposed the war and you were helping organize sentiment against the war. You were involved with students at Ohio State University protesting all kinds of things, including the war. The National Guard had been called out. There was a lot of dissension on campus and you told us a little bit about those demonstrations, etc., but there was one story you didn’t get to and that had to do with you being accused of trying to assassinate a vice president of the university. Tell us about that.
Flesch: Yeah, one of my ignoble badges of honor, I had been representing Vietnam Veterans Against the War as part of the student coalition that had been leading the strike at Ohio State and we were at a point where the university actually was closed down and there were guard posts at all entrances. The university had put together a group of administrators to negotiate with student leaders to reopen the university. I was one of the designated eight students to sit down with those administrators. I also had a previous relationship with a number of them, including vice-president John Mount who I had a friendly relationship with, knew, and I knew his secretary. Their office was in the administration building on the oval. So, I was the one that got designated. In order to be able to start negotiations, they had to create passes, if you will, authorizations for individual members to come on to campus past the guard post. Official letters were drawn and I was sent. I was supposed to pick it up at 10:00 on the morning before the first negotiation at the Ohio Union. Well I didn’t have a car at the time so I talked to my buddy, Jim Carroll, who was one of my vets in my vets group and said, “Could I borrow your VW Bug and drive on the campus and pick these letters up?” He said, “Sure.” He threw me the keys. I got in there. Without even thinking, I drove his car over on the campus over by Neil Avenue. I got to the check point, there were three National Guard people there on duty protecting the university against all of us outside agitators. I stopped. He said, “Who are you?” I identified myself. He got on the phone and one of the other guardsmen was looking around the vehicle and whatever. He said, “Alright, you’re authorized. Go ahead and drive thru.” I said, “I know where the Administration Building is.” I just drove thru. I get to the Administration Building. The campus is deserted because it’s closed. I park, go in the front door, and I go up to the second floor where Dr. Mount’s office was and I walk in. I see his secretary and she’s looking. She kind of very nervously says, “Ah, ah, ah, hello Art, have a seat.” Okay, and it’s quiet and time goes by, like five minutes, and she didn’t come back down the inside hallway. All of a sudden, the door bursts open and in rush what I knew to be university undercover campus police officers and National Guardsmen and they pick me up and throw me down on the floor and, you know, start to cuff me. I have no idea what’s going on. At which point, as soon as one of them says something, “Okay, he’s secure,” or whatever, John Mount’s head sticks around the corner. I look up, totally in wonderment, and what’s going on? He said, “Hi Art.” I went, “Hi Dr. Mount. How are you?” I asked, “What is going on,” before they dragged me out. He said, “Well, we were informed that you were armed. You had carried a weapon onto campus and you were headed to John Mount’s office.” By the time it got to this group of enforcement people, I was on campus to assassinate vice-president Mount. Luckily, I didn’t resist. I was totally shocked. I said, “What are you talking about?” John came out and now we’re just having a conversation but I’m cuffed. He said, “Well, come downstairs.” They take me downstairs to my borrowed car and said, “There’s a weapon in your back seat.” I said, “What are you talking about?” So, I look in the back. Jim Carroll, who is a water safety instructor and made extra money at the YMCA, I believe it was, and he taught water safety. He was a lifeguard and he also did swim lessons and things. In the back seat was his towel and his bag and I could just see there, tucked under the towel, was his starter pistol that he used for races at the natatorium where he’d, you know, shoot blanks to start off races at the natatorium. I gave them the keys. They opened it up. I explained the whole thing. They looked at me, very unbelievingly, but took it out and looked at it and saw that it was not a functional weapon. Luckily, Dr. Mount was there and he said, “This is ridiculous. This is a total misunderstanding. Please release Art. I need him to come upstairs and get these letters.”
So I then went back upstairs. He apologized. I said, “This is why this has gotten out of hand, there’s all this paranoia.” We talked for a little while. Then the next morning we were at the Ohio Union to open up negotiations at which point John opened up his opening remarks by saying, “Well, I’m very lucky to be here today, especially since Art had come up on campus yesterday to assassinate me.” That became an apocryphal story. Subsequently, I would be at meetings, alumni meetings of the association or Arts & Sciences meetings and I’d run into John. It’s been several years now, but the last time he had somebody wheel him in. He was recovering from a debilitating injury and he had one of his students with him. He said, “Let me introduce you. This is Art Flesch. He tried to kill me once.” He kept that going, we kept that going for quite a long time. That was my assassination attempt but then we did open up the negotiations that went on for four or five meetings before we finally got some commitments to resourcing and procedures and they agreed to have a committee look at, not the vestiture, but look at the investment portfolio of the university in terms of support of war machine and military contractors and military on campus, recruiting. We had an agenda, at least, we created for future discussions. The Black Student Union was there before it became the African American Student Union. We had discussions about the precursor to creating, a long-standing issue several years back with Dr. Ross in social work, some of those issues. We created a multiple agenda around which future discussions would be held and we then were able to reopen the university within a week or so after that.
Interviewer: Eventually the university created a Department of Black Studies or something like that. That was kind of one of the demands?
Flesch: Right, and much more consultation with the Black Student Caucus on campus. I just remember I had great admiration for Gil Kilgore and Jerry Roberts who were two of the principal leaders at that time as was the third gentleman who ended up working for the Department of Health in Psychiatry.
Interviewer: Student leaders?
Flesch: Yes, student leaders. I remember, the second meeting was just getting nowhere. We were having different conversations together. The individual I’m thinking about came in wearing an African dashiki and a tribal leader’s walking stick and whatever. All of a sudden, at a point when we were having just miserable non-give and take, he got up and everybody kind of, and he jumped up on the table and he started waiving the stick and his beads and he said in Swahili, I don’t know whether it was or not, but anyway then he jumped off the table. Everybody is sitting there, especially the Dean of the Ag school with his flat top and his lily-white mind. He said, “Well I have now exorcised the demons in the room. Now we can have a productive conversation.” Everybody went like, oh my goodness and we actually got a couple things done before the day was over. Part of it was theatre. I have to be honest. There were several of us in there that knew that part of it was doing the dance but then we were realistic about what we were going to get out. We weren’t going to get the university to declare a moratorium on all war-related activity. On the other hand, we wanted to make sure there was recognition and legitimacy on any number of concerns on women’s rights, black student issues, war issues, and freedom of speech on campus and any number of things that we wanted to get some things. We felt it was a negotiation rather than a capitulation.
Interviewer: As you look back on the late (19)60’s, early 70’s and your activism against the war. Looking back at things later, how do you feel about it?
Flesch: I have no regrets. In fact, it certainly changed the course of my life. I got a chance to, after that I didn’t go right back into school because of what had happened here and the notoriety that Ohio had following Kent State. I went into New York City and worked out of the national office of the VAW, Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I became one of the national steering committee leaders and then organized major anti-war activities. We went to Detroit and had something called the Winter Soldier Investigation which I was on the steering committee of. I got a chance to live in a commune on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit, protected by the Black Panthers, in a group that for the week of that month that we were up there involved, Jane Fonda came and lived in the commune with her then companion, Elizabeth, for a week, and was one of our featured sponsors and helped us get the whole thing organized in Detroit and get notoriety for it because, obviously wherever she went, the press followed.
Interviewer: You can say honestly, you lived with Jane Fonda?
Flesch: Yeah, right, exactly, but it was a fascinating time. Then organized a huge demonstration in Washington, D.C., Dewey Canyon Three, in which we set up camp for three days on the mall and defied the Nixon administration that ordered us off. The culmination of that was, we did a lot of lobbying. We went to Arlington, went to the Pentagon, got to see a lot of senators and representatives, individually, and then the ceremony at the Capitol where we threw our medals back on the steps of the Capitol. I was arrested in 1C. for obstructing the U. S. Supreme Court of the United States. I led a demonstration of 110 vets to the Supreme Court one morning, the second morning, to demand that the Court rule on the legality of the war because then there had been a whole lot of evidence that the whole Gulf of Tonkin incident was used to escalate the war was fiction and had been a fabrication which eventually was shown to be the truth. Ironically, we were told that we were impeding the business of the Court and we said, “Well, how?” They said, “People need to have access to the building.” We were very military and we were very organized. We split and created a pathway, wide pathway, so people could go in. The then Police Chief, Jerry Wilson, who was clear we were all going to be arrested for violating the Federal law for obstructing the Supreme Court. Myself and one of the other steering committee members negotiated with the then Police Chief, Jerry Wilson, so that on CBS news that night our arrest was seen. The police brought in buses. We worked it out that the police got in the line and they would, one at a time, come up to the steps and a vet would stand up, put his hands behind his head and walk with his escort to the bus, give his name, and get on the bus. A lot of the police officers were Vietnam veterans too so we had a lot of rapport. In fact, later that night when Nixon had the Justice Department go to court and get an order to vacate the mall, that we could not sleep over night on the mall, the Capital Police issued a statement that they would not be enforcing that order. It was a very heady time. We felt a lot of things were coming together. It was a very effective three days which then got destroyed by the Yippees. The day after we left, they came in and blocked traffic, threw garbage cans. Everything we had created in terms of good publicity within a couple of days was destroyed by anarchists that came in on the back side of that week and acted in a way that then were able to justify more repression.
Interviewer: When Vietnam veterans themselves started protesting the war, that seemed to lend more credibility to the anti-war movement.
Flesch: I would say so. It was something that allowed us to focus on the issues being raised, not the rhetoric of loyalty and patriotism. When you get people who would be supporters of the war, they were forced to talk to us about the war rather than who are you, you worthless commie, whatever. Yeah, it made a substantial difference.
Interviewer: You talked about the demonstration where Vietnam veterans threw their medals away to protest the war. That was one I think where John Carey started to rise to fame.
Flesch: Absolutely. That’s when I first met John, was at that demonstration. He was a young politician. He was there with the Massachusetts delegation of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Several of us were involved in the political action side of that demonstration. I had organized a number of people who were going to set up appointments and were lobbying with their individual state senators. I had appointments with both Senator Saxbe and Senator Taft. I had an individual appointment with Senator Saxbe which I have to say to this day, though we did not agree on a lot of things, was one of the most honorable and most thoughtful people that I had a chance to dialogue with. His son, Rocky, actually was a Vietnam veteran. When I went to his office, being treated with respect, ushered into his office, it was just the two of us. We were dressed in our fatigues and stuff. He said, “Sergeant, tell me about your experience,” which I did. I told him how my journey had taken me to the point where I felt compelled to speak out on the war. He said, “Well, I’d gotten a number of letters from Rocky and I have been pondering any number of points that he made.” We had a very interesting dialogue. I don’t know whether minds were changed. I certainly respected somebody that was willing to sit down and have an intelligent conversation. You could tell when someone listens and is actually processing information. Later that day, I took a delegation of 15 Ohio veterans to Senator Taft’s office. We were also scheduled and ushered in but, of course, he had the press there to take pictures of him talking to the veterans. There’s a picture somewhere I have in my files which all of those archives I’m going to give to the society.
Interviewer: The Jewish Historical Society?
Flesch: Yeah, I’ve already agreed to do that. There’s a front-page picture in the Dispatch of me standing in front of Taft at his desk, talking, because he tried to turn it into theatre and play to the folks back home. Again, one of my favorite stories is he was lecturing us and we weren’t going to put up with it. I stood up and I’m trying to get his attention. I’m talking at him and we’re going back and forth. All of a sudden, in the background, I hear snapping of fingers and then I hear a female voice going, “Oh sergeant, oh sergeant.” I turn around and there’s this late- middle-aged woman sitting on the couch. As I turn around and look at her, she looks at me an says, “Sergeant don’t point your finger at the Senator.” I found out subsequently, it was his wife. It was Mrs. Taft who did not like the fact that I was, now I’d say it sounded like a Downton Abbey moment in terms of “Get off him.” My comment back about it, “I’m sorry I came here. You take the silver spoon out of your mouth.” That also didn’t go over very well with the Senator. The bottom line is we talked for only a few minutes there. He got his TV shot and his photo. That was lobbying Senator Taft. To this day, I’m not a fan of the Taft family. Let’s leave it at that.
Interviewer: You talked about your Vietnam experiences with Senator Saxbe and Senator Taft. You have a story going back when you were actually in Vietnam about a nickname.
Flesch: Yeah, I’d been in the country about eight months of the twelve-month tour as an Infantry Platoon Sergeant. We were out one day on patrol after having been on continuous patrol for about two weeks. We walked into an ambush and were pinned down. I radioed back in to get support and relief, or at the very least, tell them that we were going to pull back to try to disengage and reform. I wanted to make arrangements to get choppers out there to get us out of there and provide cover. There was a brand new Lieutenant Colonel, our battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Salinsky, I’ll never forget his name, who was a gung ho John Wayne type. Anyway, he got on the radio and ordered me saying, “Well, we do not have aircraft available at the moment. We want you to literally counter attack.” I knew I had a couple guys wounded, laying on the ground. I wanted an airlift. I wanted medic evacuation. We were low on ammo. I said, I remember my call sign was “Cat Guy 36.” My unit was the second of the 35th, Infantry, 4th Infantry Division, Company C, so my call sign was “Cat Guy.” Originally, going back to WWII, it was a National Guard unit from Arizona so it was known as the “Cat Guy.” Brigade. First in the 35th and Second in the 35th were two separate units. That’s within the Fourth Infantry Division. “Cat Guy 36” was my call, my radio call sign. I said, “Cat Guy, Cat Guy 10,” which is his call sign. I said, “That’s a negatory,” which in military rig that’s how you say no. Negatory means no. After a short silence, he said, “Cat Guy 36” maybe you didn’t hear me. I’m ordering you to counter attack.” I went, “That’s a negatory.” Of course, this is on radio. Anybody who’s on the frequency can hear the conversation. This went back and forth a couple of times. I explained we’re in a situation not capable of complying. It’s suicide. I’m not going to do it.
Interviewer: You were disobeying an order.
Flesch: Yeah, in combat. I guess, is the way it was abstractly. Salinsky says, “Cat Guy 36 state your location. Hunker down. I’m coming out to relieve you of command and bring a replacement for you.” “Okay, I’ll see you in a little bit,” you know, that kind of thing. Within a short period of time, I hear a chopper, a small command chopper called the Loach. It was not one of the bigger Huey or a Gunship. It looks more like a dragonfly. I see that flying in so I’m assuming that I’m getting ready. I’m assuming they’re not going to court marshal me. They’re not going to shoot me. It’ll be bad time. I’m already figuring how long it’s going to take before I get out of whatever. I see in the distance it’s landing and then nothing happens. Next thing I hear is on the radio they’re calling for a med vac and whatever. Anyway as I subsequently found out, he was so upset, the Lieutenant Colonel, the helicopter landed, this little helicopter landed in a 500 pound bomb crater. He was so hell bent on getting to me, he jumped out of the helicopter, pulled the plug on his aviation helmet and started to run up the side of the crater not paying attention and the rotor blade from the helicopter got him in the back of the head. He had his ballistic helmet on so it didn’t literally take the head off his shoulders but he was down and out and immediately everything became saving the colonel and getting him out of there and whatever, anyway they did. I did not know exactly what was going on at the time, didn’t hear anything. One of my squad leaders, Jimmy Ray Brown, came up to me and said, “Sarg, we already decided. if he actually came and tried to get you out of here, there would have been a terrible accident.”
Flesch: Meaning that, I don’t know. All I can tell you is that my guys were pretty loyal and the colonel might have gotten caught in the crossfire. I don’t know. All I can say is I was not pulled out of the field that day. Subsequently, I expected to still be arrested or taken out of the field. Major Nelson who was our S3 came in and told me. He said, “Look, this is all going away.” The colonel died the next day. He died a hero, as they say.” They said, “Well, things are still going to be in process but right now you’re not coming out of the field. We have no replacement for you.” It just kind of went away.
Interviewer: So, in the end, you were not punished.
Flesch: I was not punished at all. I was never charged with anything. The bottom line is but what did take on a life of its own is, a couple days later, my unit was called back. On rotation, platoons would go back to the battalion base camp to pull. There are four platoons in a combat company. On rotation you’d go into the battalion base camp to stand down and recoup, resupply. You’d pull what’s called “Palace Guard” which would mean you’d guard the perimeter of the base, the fire base, while you were resting, whatever. So, when we got back there to do that, off of patrol, almost the first person I ran into said, “Hey, Sergeant Negatory.” So, it became something of a general nickname for the rest of my tour there. One ancillary story, years later I’m working as an assistant deputy in the Department of Taxation, 30 years later. I’m working for Roger Tracy who was the Tax Commissioner. I was on a committee that was formed to run the Midwest States Association of Tax Accountant’s annual meetings, the regional meetings, the next year. While we were planning for that, you went down to the, the current year, you went to that meeting to see how they ran it and learn from them so that the next year you could have a spectacular meeting. The meeting I got to go to was in Birmingham, Alabama. Alabama was hosting that year’s meeting so I went down there with a group of about ten administrators to psych everything out. I was going to be in charge of non-tax spouse trips and receptions, whatever. The first night we’re there for the opening reception. We’re all dressed up. We’re at this opening reception. There’s a couple hundred people there in the ballroom. Commissioner Tracy waives me over and introduces me. He said, “This is Lou Tickle, he’s the Assistant Commissioner of Taxation for the state of Alabama.” He introduces all of us from his group. He said, “This is Art Flesch. He’s our administrative employee involved in training and our quality programs person. The only medal that I wear, my Purple Heart. I had that on there. So, this guy, Lou Tickle, looks over and he says, “Oh yeah, Vietnam?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Who were you with?” I said, “Charlie Company Seven 35th Infantry, 4th Infantry.” He said, “What was your name again?” I went, “Art Flesch.” “Sergeant Negatory?” I looked at him. I hadn’t heard that in almost 30 years. I looked at him. He said, “I’m Lieutenant Tickle from first of the 35th, Second Bravo Company.” He turns around and he starts to tell the story. People had no idea that, anything about my, I just sat there going, “Oh my God, what goes around comes around.” Sergeant Negatory surfaced 30 years later in Birmingham, Alabama.
Interviewer: Let’s move on to the (19)70’s now. You were very active in the early 70’s against the war. What happened in the years that followed?
Flesch: My first marriage was a movement marriage. I ended up marrying Joanne Todd who was one of the other student negotiators. We were together for four years, didn’t have any children. We were here in Columbus.
Interviewer: When was that marriage?
Flesch: In the early 70’s. She actually traveled with me when I went to New York. We were doing the national stuff. She worked with the Student Mobilization Committee nationally.
Interviewer: Against the war?
Flesch: Yeah, she was also head of the, she was a graduate student here at Ohio State in Political Science. We traveled for a while and came back. I went back to school because I had not finished my under-graduate degree but couldn’t afford to do so full time on the GI Bill so I had to work. She got a job to help. I was basically in my fourth of five majors at that time. I was on the eight-year under-graduate plan. Finally ended up, the only way I got out was putting together in the Honors Program, a personalized study program. At that time there was no urban studies degrees. That’s what I wanted to do so I looked across and, thru the Honors Program, I put together what was called a PSP, personalized study program, which allowed me to put together my own curriculum from sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, history, everything that touched on urban studies, if you will. I think I’m the only person that’s ever graduated from Ohio State, from Arts & Sciences, I have a BA in Social History and the Development of Contemporary Urban Problems. That’s actually my degree. It was like having a PhD panel. You have to create a core curriculum. You have to justify it academically. You have to put together a three-faculty panel. They had to review your curriculum to show that it had academic rigor and then you had to write a seminal paper at the end of it and defend it in front of the group. That’s how I finally got a degree and then went immediately right into the Masters of Labor and Human Resource program there, handling HR, so that my area of training and development and organizational development is what held a great deal of interest for me. By then I got a staff position in what then was the School of Public Policy and Management working with one of my academic managers, John Stanley who was director of Public Management Programs. We came up with, Paul Goggin, who subsequently went to work in state government, I took his position. We all innovated a program called Management Advancement Programs or MAPS at Ohio State which was essentially a town/gown relationship. We ran a year-round seminars in organizational and personal development for public administrators. I was responsible for negotiating contracts with like, at our height we had like 65 contracts with state, federal and local jurisdictions. They would sign up on a yearly and then have the opportunity to send people to seminars of their choosing that we would put on at the Fawcett Center.
Interviewer: I know you talked about your early life and you had some Jewish training. You had some Jewish background when you were very young. I know today you have a Jewish identity. How about in the 70’s? What was your feeling? Was Judaism at all on your radar screen?
Flesch: Value basis, yes, I was who I was, but in terms of affiliation, I was unaffiliated for four years. I’ve been married twice. Both marriages were to non-Jewish women. When I was married the second time and had two boys, we talked about it. She was a Methodist. I was Jewish and still identified strongly with my faith but, again, was not affiliated anywhere. We tried different congregations, if you will, nothing really fit. We did find, for a while we went to the Unitarian Universalist church up on Weisheimer. I even sung in the choir and did some things there, but even that just didn’t meet. So, we basically became Ethical Humanists, if you will, to a great extent and really raised our children according to shared values of morality and kindness that fit both of our previous religious upbringings. I guess, after you become a fallen Unitarian, there’s no place else to go. One would say I wandered in the wilderness for several decades. It was mostly anti-establishment. It was the institution of religion that I was not comfortable with, not religious thought and moral underpinnings. Truthfully, my re-affiliation, I’d been drawn to any number of people that were friends that were members of Beth Tikvah where I subsequently became a member. About four years ago, I had an episode, not a heart attack, but one that led to a diagnosis that I had significant blockages, had to have, it was not emergency surgery, but electively I was scheduled and ended up having quadruple by-pass surgery. It’ll be three years this November, getting close. I already previous to that had had conversations with people at Beth Tikvah and then I met Rabbi Kellner and talked about, I think I want to do this. I think I want to re-affiliate. By then I was divorced. I was an empty nester. I was very much involved across the community in working with organizations, youth at risk issues. The bottom line was I got this diagnosis and, you know, I kind of smiled to myself and said, “Well listen, just in case, (laughs).” I guess you can call me, when I came in to actually pay my dues and become a full-fledged member at Beth Tikvah, prior to the surgery, I said, “Put me in the column of fox hole Jew. I figure, you know, I’m back within the fold. It can’t hurt, you know, just in case.” We teased about that, the rabbi and I. He couldn’t have been more gracious in terms of supporting me up to and thru the operation. He even called me from a trip in San Francisco the day after the operation because he couldn’t be there to stop in and see me.
Interviewer: So when you say you were a fox hole Jew, is that a play on the old phrase there are no atheists in fox holes?
Interviewer: When your life is in danger, you quickly start to perhaps…
Flesch: Contemplate your mortality and say, “You know, just in case.” I don’t do anything halfway. As I joined the temple, I looked for ways to become involved. I’m now in my third year as a member of the Shironim which is the 16-member congregational choir at Beth Tikvah.
Flesch: Shironim. I’m on the Board of the Brotherhood, program chair. I run the Red Cross Blood Drive for the temple four times a year. I participate in a Sheshim group. I’m also on the steering committee for the veterans’ Sabbath every year. As a matter of fact, that’ll be coming up again on November 15th this year. We’ll have some special things for that and just help out. I volunteer for other different activities at the synagogue. I’ll be grilling for the Brotherhood picnic this Sunday. Again, I found a new community, a whole bunch of people that I feel strongly about in terms of a circle of friends so I’m a fully affiliated and participating congregant. Oh and, subsequently, I was blessed that Debbie Vinocur, who’s our Executive Director at Beth Tikvah and a good friend for a long time of my other life here in Columbus, Barbi Crabill, turned around and earlier this year said, “Hey listen, would you be interested,” and asked me if I would be interested in standing for election to the Board of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society, I was honored to be asked and indeed have subsequently been elected to that Board for the Society and look forward to working on some projects here.
Interviewer: We touched on this earlier but being Jewish and being a Vietnam War veteran, those are two worlds that there’s not a whole lot in common there. There are Jews who have been in the military. There are Jews who fought in the Vietnam War but not a lot.
Flesch: No, in fact, you’ve got to remember when I grew up on Long Island, I played sports, I was very active. I was a Jewish jock, to be truthful. My father was a World War II vet, lost both of his older brothers in the war. I was brought up pretty white bread, patriotic. When I ended up flunking out of Ohio State, having had a great time here for two years. Before I could get back in, when my Draft Board came and got me, I didn’t fight a lot to get out of serving simply because I thought it was my country right or wrong, to a great extent still then. I was kind of a blind-eyed patriot to some degree, and went blithely into the military, quickly started to see that, as an institution, it was it was not something that I was in great admiration of in terms of the leadership. I ran into several other Jews but they all figured out ways to become chaplains’ assistants or, you know, they found ways. I never met another Jew in the infantry. I’m not saying there were not a number of them. I met one when I was in one training cycle, Thomas Fisher. He actually was killed in Vietnam. I ended up just, basically, one step at a time, ending up in the military because of my background with some college. As I did up in the infantry, I stood out with my background so I was pushed into leadership positions. That’s really how I ended up in Vietnam as an infantry platoon sergeant. Yeah, I have not met anybody else who actually served in combat. You’ve got to remember, in any war, and Vietnam was no different. For every one soldier who literally was in combat in the field, in the front lines, there were seven or eight other individuals in support of that combat soldier. As we said, “They would sleep between the sheets at night.”
Interviewer: Do you feel part of the Jewish community?
Flesch: Oh, I certainly do now. I take great pride. The affiliation is something that I speak about, as appropriate. I speak on behalf of what I consider to be my Jewish values. I have tried to re-anchor my intellectual roots as a Jew thru study and reading. I enjoy participating with all of my congregational brothers and sisters. I represent, like I say, the Brotherhood so I go to things like new member meetings and talk to people and try to recruit people for the Brotherhood. Yeah, I strongly identify. In fact, one of the things I’m doing for my two boys is I’ve already worked on my end. Going throughby-pass surgery like that, coming out right now as healthy as I’ve been in maybe 30 years, I just had another real good annual with my cardiologist. He said everything’s looking great and I’m expecting my first grandchild in December now. So, there’s a lot of things that give me a positive future orientation. Part of that is that I want to lay a groundwork for being able to represent my faith and my beliefs whether it’s leading the great panther brigade in the streets, if it ever comes to that again, I’m still demolitions qualified so I guess I can pull out some of that. Yeah, I feel very good about who I am.
Interviewer: Were you just going to say something about end of life?
Flesch: Yeah, the last great gift that I want to give my children is I’ve already got my double plot at Greenlawn in the Beth Tikvah section and next month I’ll actually pay it off completely. I’ve already sat down with Rabbi Kellner twice. Since he’s already agreed to officiate, we got into conversation and he’s interviewed me so that he has, he knows me anyway, but he has some interesting stories. He’s got my folder there ready to go on the occasion of my passing to be able to enjoy and make very personal the ceremony. I’ve already worked it out. The military will be required because of my service and my medals and things. I could be buried in Arlington but I’m not interested in that. The fact that I’ll be here in consecrated ground where Beth Tikvah has space at Greenlawn has meaning to me. The military will have to be there and do the honor guard ceremony and everything. I’m getting all of that lined up so that’ll be like one phone call when it happens. It’s all done. I thought that was, and everybody whose heard about it, there can be no greater gift at that time because they don’t have to do anything. It’s all there in the folder, take care of it, right-hand drawer, make a phone call, it’s all done.
Interviewer: You were very much, in the 60’s and 70’s you were very much involved with the world. You were outward looking. You now havemore of a Jewish anchor but it sounds like, while you have more of a Jewish identity now than perhaps you’ve ever had, you are still an outward facing Jew who is active in the world?
Flesch: Well especially right now in our day and times, you’ll go crazy if you just listen to the news and become frustrated about the direction that this country is going in. The old approbation of think globally, act locally, I’ve always been to working locally. Currently, I’m not only on the Board of the Historical Society and very active in the temple, I’m also a 30-year plus Charity Newsie here in Columbus. Most of you who hear this may or may not know what that is. We put clothes on kids in school so they can go to school with some self-confidence and pride. Secondly, I’m just past chair of and still on the Advisory Council for Mentor Central Ohio which is an affiliate of National Mentor which is our training and development here in central Ohio for over three dozen mentoring organizations in Central Ohio. I’m on the Board of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Central Ohio. My focus is basically on youth at risk. If I’m not doing something to try to do things for the next generation of leaders and young people, I think I would be, I need to wake up every day knowing that by the end of that day, if I had the opportunity, I’ve made a difference in somebody’s life. I still enjoy myself. I still have my season Blue Jacket’s tickets, football tickets. I support and work with the symphony on a volunteer basis, Columbus Symphony. Yeah, I try to stay busier now than I ever did the last few years of working in state government. Of course, my employees will tell you they don’t think I worked very hard anyway but that was because I trained them well. Yeah, I’m very much in the moment but living my beliefs, I hope. To some degree, in some small way, I make a difference in peoples’ lives, what else do you get up for in the morning?
Interviewer: This might be a good time to end our interview with Art Flesch. This is Bill Cohen for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society. We’ve been talking with Art Flesch, September 19, 2019. Thank you so much.
Flesch: Thank you.