Remembering a Friend

Last week I lost one of my dearest friends. Michael Adler was a renowned entertainment attorney whose clients included Oscar, Tony, Emmy, and Grammy winners. As Hollywood lawyers go, Mike was on any insider’s “A-List.” More importantly, his family, friends and colleagues knew Mike as an A+ human being.

Mike, who grew up in San Mateo, was my college roommate at UCLA. We had first met and become friends at Camp Ramah, a Jewish summer camp in Ojai, California. That was back in the halcyon days of the early 1960s. As I recall the wealth of experiences I shared with Mike over nearly 60 years of friendship, it’s striking how many of my most vivid recollections took place in our adolescence. Here’s an example.

In the summer of 1965, Mike worked as a waiter at Camp Ramah. He was 16 years old. On one of his weekly days off, Mike traveled by car to Los Angeles together with two fellow waiters. It was the camp’s policy that anyone leaving the premises on a day off needed to return by no later than 10 p.m. When one of Mike’s traveling companions suggested that the three stop to catch a 7:30 p.m. movie in Ventura, Mike protested. Doing so, he admonished, would place them in jeopardy of violating a well known rule. Surely, they would be caught. And negative consequences notwithstanding, it was simply the wrong thing to do.

Unfortunately, Mike was neither in the majority, nor the driver. The three waiters saw the movie, with Mike grumbling his displeasure throughout, and bemoaning the fate that was certain to await them, all the way to Ojai.

Sure enough, when their car reached the entrance to Camp Ramah, there stood the imposing figure of the camp’s director, Dr. Walter Ackerman, arms crossed and, decidedly, displeased. After the three transgressors had sheepishly emerged from the car, they were simply advised by “Ackie” that they had forfeited their day-off privileges for the remainder of the summer. Period.

Mike was beside himself. He couldn’t sleep that night, and made sure that none of his friends could either. We heard the story of his unjust punishment time and again, with Mike’s sense of righteous indignation swelling with each recounting. A lawyer-in-the-making even then, he vowed to plead his case to Ackie, come the morn. Justice would prevail! The wrong would be righted. And we could all get some sleep the following night.

Not long after dawn, Mike knocked on the door of Ackie’s cottage. A minute later the erudite Harvard Ph.D. appeared, and Mike launched into his plea. When he finished, Ackie paused for a moment. Then, in his deeply resonant and authoritative Boston accent, he told Mike to shove his head up another part of his anatomy, and closed the door.

Mike wasn’t about to let it go at that. After stewing over Ackie’s terse rebuke for several hours, he hit upon a new plan. He would lodge an appeal with the one person who could hold sway over Ackie. He would petition Ackie’s wife, Frannie, to become his interlocutor.

Trained in social work and psychology, Frannie Ackerman played the role of “Camp Mother,” which included doing intake when any psycho-social and/or emotional issue arose. Surely, Mike thought, kind and compassionate Frannie would be sympathetic to his plight!

After composing himself as best he could and finding Frannie, Mike presented the facts of the matter. Frannie listened politely, a reassuring smile on her face as Mike concluded with a verbatim recitation of Ackie’s anatomical prescription.

With the same smile, Frannie responded: “You know, Mike…my husband was in the army, and in the army you learn to say some things that aren’t very nice. But I can assure you that if Ackie told you to shove your head up your (posterior), what he meant to say was, ‘go shove your head up your (posterior)’.”

Mike stomped back to the boys’ bunk area, fuming over Frannie’s defense of Ackie’s rebuke. Without thinking, he blurted out the details of his encounters to all within earshot. Big mistake. Within minutes, the story was circulating throughout the camp. For days, thereafter, Mike’s contemporaries, yours truly among them, were competing with one another to deliver their best renditions of Ackie and Frannie telling Mike exactly where to shove his…well, you know. Adolescents can be cruel, and we were merciless in our teasing. Mike’s sense of injustice was now compounded by the pain and humiliation inflicted by his peers.

But the story doesn’t end there. Decades later, I reminded Mike of his run-in with Ackie over the unjust confiscation of his days off. It was almost as if Mike had been waiting for me to bring up the now-distant event, because his reply came before I could complete a sentence. In the measured words of a mature and reflective adult, he said: “It was the best lesson in collective responsibility I ever received.”

Mike remained a life-long patron and ardent supporter of Camp Ramah. He and his wife Brenda sent their children there, with Brenda often volunteering her services as the camp’s resident physician. Their daughter’s wedding ceremony was even celebrated on the camp’s grounds. And not once did I ever hear Mike speak of Ackie and Frannie with anything other than sincere reverence.

I believe the lesson Mike was able to retrieve from a place of anger and pain is one that commends itself to citizens of a nation riven by acrimonious hyper-partisanship. We’re in this together. Choosing to ride in the vehicle of democracy necessitates acceptance of the decisions made by the majority of our fellow travelers. We can blame others for bad destinations, sulk like adolescents, and harbor self-defeating resentment. Or, like Mike Adler, we can grow up, accept responsibility, and look to the future with both gratitude for what we have learned, and the resolve required to make our lives and those of others all the better for it.

Ron Reynolds

Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.


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