George in "Retirement"
Today at 11:11 AM, I reflected on how rare that moment, 11:11, 11-11-11 is, and as it is also Veteran’s Day, I imagined all those 1’s lined up, like a full-dress column of those other rarities, our veterans.
How rare are our veterans? Well, the ranks of our “Greatest Generation” — the WWII veterans — diminish every day. As for current veterans, consider this: less than one-percent of US citizens serve in today’s armed forces. So even active-duty service members are, statistically speaking, rare.
Focused on the theme of rarity, I reflected on those few inimitable, one-of-a-kind individuals — the truly rare — who have touched my life in a meaningful way. There are a handful, all of whom I could write about, and some who I could write a book about. But on this Rarest of Veterans’ Days, one particular individual — a veteran, entrepreneur and cherished friend stayed on my mind. His name was Yuri Mikhailevich Selizki, AKA George M. Selizki, M.D., AKA “George Michael of Madison Avenue”(TM). I always called him Dr. Michael.
George was a living witness to history who… (pick any of the following for the screenplay — they’re all true)
…witnessed his family’s humiliation under the nascent Bolshevik movement’s purges. A family of the old nobility in Saint Petersburg, Russia, they were singled out for persecution. His mother was a professional opera singer whose talents were of no use to the Proletariat. The very young Yuri saw his mother shorn of her gorgeous hair before she was taken from him. Their properties were seized (the Selizki home is now a government admin building for Russian telecommunications) and his parents were never seen again. Fortunately, the boy was considered young enough for re-education;
…after graduating medical school at the University of Petrograd (St. Petersburg) was initially commissioned an officer of the Soviet Navy; was present when General Zhukov asked — on the eve of the battle of Stalingrad — the opinions of all attending officers on that city’s defenses. The young officer told the fearsome General the city could not withstand the German onslaught. “What General listens to a little-shit fresh from academy?” he reminisced years later;
…by age 24, through a combination of merit and the Soviet Army’s desperation for live leaders, he became Russia’s youngest Colonel in command of an entire battalion, valiantly resisting Hitler’s forces along the Soviet Western front;
…was captured and languished two years in a German prisoner camp, where the officers took their uniforms, shaved the heads, and dressed them in denim (he often railed how the German officers took particular pleasure in shaving the women’s heads); was freed by US troops, joined the US Army, and served on General Patton’s staff, staying on through the end of the war and into the occupation, serving as a Counter-Intelligence officer in Garmisch, Germany, ferreting out escaped Nazis;
…emigrated to the US in 1951, piloting a ship of Jewish refugees across the Atlantic to New Orleans; retired from the US Army as a Lieutenant Colonel, went to New York and practiced reconstructive plastic surgery at Mt. Sinai Hospital;
…during the nation’s “Red Scare” in the ’50’s, was refused renewal of his medical license, having lost his livelihood as a physician, he decided on a completely new career centered around an industry he could be passionate about — and the subject of his doctoral thesis — “Hair Growth and Nutrition” (the Red Scare apparently skipping the hair business). Friends and colleagues balked at the idea, told him he was too skilled, too educated to “do hair.” He said to them, “Show me the book that says, because I have a medical degree I cannot go to Hair Dressing School!” and he began a new path, specializing on the care and maintenance of women’s long hair. Starting with two rented chairs, he built an international hair-care system practiced in salons in 10 countries;
…became a consultant for companies such as Revlon and DuPont, a member of the US Presidential Advisory Committee, Honorary President of COSMA, and was by all standards a Renaissance Man — an aficionado of classical music, international cuisine, wines, travel, books, history and beautiful women.
These were the experiences and accomplishments of just one man; an American success story if ever there was one.
George was rare in other ways: he had an encyclopedic knowledge and a remarkable memory. He once gave me exact directions to a place he hadn’t been to in thirty years. From his home in Florida, he dictated over the phone — street-by-street with landmarks — the drive from my home near Würzburg, Germany, to the Church of St. George in Walldürn, some sixty-kilometers away.
Some thought George a braggart, but they misunderstood him: he was simply a man of calibre, worldliness and acumen and he knew it, and didn’t mind you knowing it. But he was not conceited. His wife of more than forty years, Mercedes Abella Selizki once told me, “George was born without two things; innocence and modesty.” He was irascible, commanding, authoritative, opinionated, but eminently loveable, and always a very giving man. Giving of his time, hospitality, recipes, expertise, advice, money — the “shirt off of his back”, if you must.
George is gone now, his best stories yet untold. He passed in his home at age 90. Addressing mourners at his wake, Mercedes said, “George loved women,” and she explained how he truly cared for women — was an advocate for their issues, needs, and status in the modern world. I smiled as she spoke, remembering how each visit was practically a health consultation. How he would palpate my wife’s neck, examine her eyes, scalp, fingernails, and proceed to give advise on her diet, nutrition, habits, hygiene and anything else she did or did not wish to hear. And he was like that with everyone. “I miss him,” she told me just today, and she began to cry. This is the effect that George had on so many people, all over the world. We were privileged to know this rare gem of a man, and his equally fine wife who balanced and tempered him especially well in the later years.
So I honor the memory of Dr. George Michael Selizki as a veteran, and a singularly special individual. But I would be remiss where I not to mention another subject that was close to his heart — fellow veterans.
So to all of my fellow veterans,
Thank you for volunteering; whether you served in peace or in war, you knew the risks, weighed the costs and took the oath.
For those drafted to serve, thank you for answering the call of duty — you could have gone underground or to Canada as so many of your contemporaries did.
To the military spouses, thank you for your unsung sacrifices and support, it is its own service.
For you caretakers of our wounded and scarred, the war is ever before you — thank you.
And thank you — most of all — to those who paid the ultimate price, you heroes who lie cold.
On this rarest Veterans’ Day, 11-11-11, please remember those who rest beneath the long, neat rows of markers, and if you are awake at 11:11 PM, say a prayer for all who serve.