WWII vet’s rap is a hit among fifth-graders

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - Steve.lopez@la­times.com

Mel Feuer’s back is hunched and he walks with a cane.

But don’t be fooled, be­cause he charges ahead and you have to hurry to keep up.

Feuer is 92, so you’d sus­pect he might have trou­ble re­lat­ing to and hold­ing the at­ten­tion of 10-year-olds on the sub­jects of ci­vil­ity, in­tegrity and re­spon­si­bil­ity.

But don’t be fooled, be­cause he was the pied piper last week at Cas­tle Heights El­e­men­tary School in the Bev­er­ly­wood area, speak­ing for nearly an hour to 60 en­thralled fifth­graders who didn’t want it to end.

“What’s the weather re­port?” Feuer asked the stu­dents. Not the out­side weather, but the in­side weather.

“My weather re­port is very sunny, but I’m a lit­tle bit cloudy be­cause it’s my last time with Mel,” one stu­dent said.

The stu­dents were about to grad­u­ate from Cas­tle Heights, which meant this was the end of a year of weekly vis­its from Feuer.

“I feel very cloudy be­cause I won’t see Mel again, and I’m mov­ing to San Fran­cisco,” an­other stu­dent said.

So why is it that Mel Feuer — whose son Mike is L.A.’s city at­tor­ney — has vis­ited two classes at Cas­tle Heights each week, and two more weekly at Ho­race Mann School in Bev­erly Hills? And why has he been do­ing this work for nearly a quar­ter of a cen­tury as a re­tiree?

“I love th­ese kids,” he

said. “The kids are fan­tas­tic.”

But the longer an­swer be­gins with his up­bring­ing in Cleve­land, his par­ents’ strug­gles dur­ing the De­pres­sion and Hitler’s march across Europe.

Feuer en­listed in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942 at the age of 19. He was slight and not very tall, which made him the per­fect guy for the job of ball tur­ret gun­ner. He’d fold him­self into the lit­tle globe that dropped from the belly of the B-24 and fire away at the en­emy.

On his 24th mission, to knock out Ger­man sub­ma­rine pens in France, his plane was hit.

“The pi­lot said, ‘We’re go­ing to have to get out.’ I had never parachuted, but it was OK be­cause I’d read a lot about it. So I was float­ing down and I see a French­man with a bi­cy­cle stand­ing next to a lit­tle bridge, and he’s watch­ing me come down,” said Feuer, who guessed — or, rather, hoped — the man was with the Re­sis­tance. He wasn’t. “As soon as I landed, the shoot­ing be­gan,” said Feuer, who raced into a field and felt dirt fly­ing up at him from the im­pact of bul­lets that just missed.

For­tu­nately he was cap­tured rather than killed. Feuer re­fused to give his cap­tors any­thing but name, rank and se­rial num­ber, and he was taken by train to the pri­son camp that would later be de­picted on stage and screen — Sta­lag 17.

Feuer en­dured a year of im­pris­on­ment, then feared he was be­ing marched to his death when the Ger­mans quickly or­dered an evac­u­a­tion of the camp.

Feuer fell be­hind his com­rades be­cause his ill­fit­ting shoes tore the skin of his feet, and he would never for­get the of­fer of two sol­diers to carry him.

Just as he’d never for­get the sight of Amer­i­can troops who were wait­ing to res­cue them in the days just be­fore the end of World War II.

Feuer said that on the ship back home, there was talk about what the men would do with their lives.

“I thought, hey, we’ve got the G.I. Bill. Get an ed­u­ca­tion and do some­thing to make our so­ci­ety more un­der­stand­ing of one an­other and what’s hap­pen­ing around the world,” said Feuer, who couldn’t think of a bet­ter con­tri­bu­tion than to be­come a teacher.

He went from teach­ing to be­com­ing a prin­ci­pal in San Bernardino and re­tired in 1988 af­ter more than 30 years as an ed­u­ca­tor.

While vis­it­ing a Bev­erly Hills li­brary one day in 1991, he read about a vol­un­teer pro­gram run by the Maple Coun­sel­ing Cen­ter.

It’s called Com­mu­nity Cir­cle, which sends a brigade of 20 adults into schools to share life lessons and lead dis­cus­sions, drawing on the com­po­nents of late UCLA coach John Wooden’s Pyra­mid of Suc­cess. Self-con­trol, co- op­er­a­tion, loy­alty, con­fi­dence etc. Mel Feuer was a per­fect fit.

“Who can fin­ish this sen­tence for me?” he asked Cas­tle Heights fifth­graders. “I am…”

The hands shot up and stu­dents sprang out of their seats, and soon they were shout­ing the an­swer. “Some­body!” “Fan­tas­tic,” said Feuer, who in­vited stu­dents to the head of the class to talk about what it means to be some­body.

“It means that no mat­ter how many mis­takes you make, you’re still some­body, and peo­ple have to treat you like you are,” said one stu- dent.

“I need four ac­tors,” said Feuer, who set up a skit in which he played an 11-yearold bully whose crimes in­cluded steal­ing potato chips from other stu­dents.

“A way to stop bul­ly­ing is to think be­fore you say some­thing,” one of his ac­tors said, ask­ing Feuer how he’d feel if he were the one be­ing pushed around.

Feuer told the class he’d seen a won­der­ful thing. He’d seen a stu­dent in the of­fice who’d been in­jured, and she was sur­rounded by friends who sac­ri­ficed re­cess to be with her.

Feuer in­vited the stu­dents to ex­plain why they did that, and next, he asked other stu­dents to talk about their own good deeds.

“He makes them all feel worth­while,” said fifth­grade teacher Barry Feeney, and Mel knows all their names, too.

Stu­dent Ruby Field has heard Feuer’s story of his sur­vival dur­ing World War II. She now writes let­ters to sol­diers serv­ing over­seas, and she shared one of those with Feuer in class last week.

“Mr. Mel is a man who in­spires us to reach our per­sonal best,” she wrote to a sol­dier named Ryan, adding that Feuer’s words of en­cour­age­ment “will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

The fifth-graders went to a Dodger game to­gether re­cently and had to de­cide on the re­cip­i­ent of a Clay­ton Ker­shaw jer­sey for best ef­fort this school year.

On Thurs­day they pre­sented it to Mel Feuer, who will be back at school in the fall for the start of his 25th year as a vol­un­teer.

K atie Falken­berg Los An­ge­les Times

MEL FEUER, 92, has been vis­it­ing with el­e­men­tary school stu­dents for nearly a quar­ter of a cen­tury. “I love th­ese kids,” he says. “The kids are fan­tas­tic.”

Pho­tog raphs by Katie Falken­berg Los An­ge­les Times

MEL FEUER, a re­tired teacher and prin­ci­pal, car­ries a bal­loon given to him by fifth-grade stu­dents at Cas­tle Heights El­e­men­tary School.

FEUER GETS a hug from Adam Ber­man on Feuer’s last day meet­ing with fifth-graders at Cas­tle Heights El­e­men­tary School. Feuer shares sto­ries about his ex­pe­ri­ences in WWII and as a prisoner in Sta­lag 17.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.