Pittsfield Township Historical Society :: Fred Hendel: My Good Neighbor Fred
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Fred Hendel:
Anti-Hitler Protester, Physicist and Mountain Climber
and My Good Pittsfield Township Neighbor, Fred

by C. Edward Wall

Everyone has a good neighbor Fred, or Juanita, or Kim -- a neighbor who has experienced important events and done interesting things -- such as fighting in wars and participating in civil rights marches. We just need to look around and get to know our neighbors better -- and we'll be able to share the rich moments and memories of these remarkable persons.

I have lived next to our good neighbor Fred -- Fred Hendel -- and his wife Florence, as long as we have lived in Pittsfield Township, Michigan. We share a hedge across our back yards. When my wife and I moved into our house and looked over that hedge for the first time, we noticed an above ground pool and a large garden -- and a yard that needed mowing.

Early in the spring, Fred would uncover his pool and clean it. If the water was cold, he would coil several long garden hoses up and down his roof, and pump water from the pool through the hoses, where the sun would heat it before it returned to the pool. Suddenly, all the children in the neighborhood would descend upon the pool, where they would play Marco Polo -- a kind of underwater tag -- splashing and laughing in great fun. Every child (and adult) in the neighborhood was welcome to swim in Fred's pool, as long as they observed a few simple rules.

Also early in the spring, everyone would hear Fred start his rototiller, and we knew he was preparing Florence's large garden for planting. This was a very big job. Every autumn, when the leaves began to fall, Fred would check the Ann Arbor News to learn the routes for picking up fallen leaves. Ann Arbor is known for its trees, and leaf clean up is a major autumn activity. Each morning, Fred would leave early for work at the University of Michigan, driving his truck along the leaf pick-up route for that day -- before the city got there to pick up the leaves. Fred would load his truck to overflowing with bags of leaves, and then he would park his truck in a university parking structure until he finished work. At night, he would unload his truck, creating a huge mountain of leaf bags, which could be seen from a great distance. Many years he would collect 3,000 to 4,000 bags of leaves, all of which he would subsequently mulch into a large round wire enclosure. During the winter the mulched leaves would decompose, becoming a large pile of rich soil, which Fred had to spread around the garden before he could till it in the spring. This happened year after year, and soon the garden was a foot higher than when we moved in -- because of all the new rich soil that Fred obtained from those bags of leaves.

All year long, the garden would produce an abundance of huge, sweet vegetables, which Florence and Fred would share with everyone in the neighborhood. And Fred would take vegetables to the university for all the people he worked with there. In the Fall, Fred and Florence would gather the giant pumpkins and squash, and stack them high in their garage. They would place extra pumpkins and squash next to the road, with a sign that said, "Please help yourself." As the roadside pile got smaller, Fred would replenish the pile. As Thanksgiving approached, Fred and Florence would fill the truck with pumpkins and squash and take them to various service organizations that distribute food to persons in need.

Fred and Florence were always very busy. Many times, during the summer, they would be away for long periods of time, and their grass would grow long. Suddenly, an old rider mower would come speeding out of the garage and careen around the yard. Fred and Florence were home, and the community was back to normal.

Every year, late in the summer, Fred would drive his riding mower across the road and through a neighbor's yard to a vacant field on the other side -- and there he would mow up and down the largest hill in the community. When snow began to fall, all the children began to assemble at Fred's house, and he'd pull out his huge supply of skis and ski boots -- skis and ski boots of all sizes. Every fall, Fred added to this supply by going to the University Ski Swap to buy more used skis and boots. There was never a child, of any age or size, that went away without skis and boots. And they would all head through the neighbor's yard to the vacant field, which Fred had mowed. There, Fred would teach them the proper techniques of downhill and cross country skiing.

There was a pine tree on the other side of our backyard hedge, which was about 25 feet high when we moved in. One late November, lights began to appear on the tree, starting at the very top and extending precisely to the very end of each branch. Slowly, over several days, more and more lights would appear, and be turned on each night, until the tree was completely covered. Every spring, Fred would climb the tree and take the lights down, carefully test and repair them, and store them for the next winter. And each year he'd buy more lights because each year the tree grew taller and wider -- and he needed more lights to cover it. The neighbors would enjoy the beautifully lighted tree each winter, and wonder why Fred waited until it was so cold to decorate the tree -- and why he just didn't leave the lights up from year to year. Fred said that when the wind blew, the moving boughs would stretch and sometimes break his strands of Christmas lights, so he couldn't decorate the tree too far in advance -- and he had to repair the lights for the next year. Decorating the tree became a bigger job each year, but each November the lights would begin to appear at the very top of the tree, and every night more and more of the tree would be covered with lights until they reached the very bottom. People would drive from miles around to enjoy that tree, but all we had to do was look out our back windows. We always felt special -- that Fred had decorated that tree just for us.

Every Christmas, Fred and Florence would have a huge community party to which everyone was invited. For weeks prior to the party, Florence would bake wonderful bars and cookies and make cheese spreads and.... People would line up around their big table, enjoying all the special treats. In another room, children would play all kinds of unique games, which Fred would show them how to win. Occasionally, if someone begin to play the piano, Fred would dig an old accordion out from behind the piano, and after listening to the music for a few minutes, he would begin to play also. Fred could not read a note of music, but he could play anything "by ear."

One summer, one of our children got married. Fred came early with an old 35 mm camera, and took lots of snapshots -- of people arriving to get dressed, of people putting on their shoes, of all kinds of strange, candid moments that most photographers would never think to photograph. When the members of the wedding party came down the central aisle of the church, Fred laid in the aisle, photographing everyone from a "very low angle." All the guests must have wondered about the person who was taking photographs from such a strange place. That evening, as the bride and groom were opening presents, Fred arrived with a picture album containing the photographs he had taken just hours before. Every picture was a masterpiece of composition and lighting, far better and much more interesting than those taken by the professional photographer at the wedding.

One summer, when Fred and Florence were gone, Florence sent us a post card. It was postmarked Sunspot, New Mexico. Florence said that Fred had set up equipment in a tent on top of a mountain in order to run some experiments, and that it took him a couple hours to ride his bike to the equipment each morning, but that it only took Fred about ten minutes to ride down the mountain each night.

Fred rode his bike everywhere, especially to the university every morning -- unless he was picking up leaves. Every Saturday he would ride his "freight bike" to garage sales. People would see Fred all over the community, often many miles from home -- in all kinds of weather -- riding his bike everywhere he went. Sometimes he had accidents. Often a car would pull out of the driveway just as Fred was coming down the sidewalk, and Fred would hit the car, flying over the top, and landing on his back on the other side. Fred began to ride in the road rather than the sidewalk to get farther from the driveways. He would frequently ride down the middle turn lane -- feeling that was safer than next to the curb. After Fred had a particularly bad concussion, he bought a used hockey helmet at a garage sale and began to wear "head protection" for the first time in his life. In subsequent accidents, the head protection probably saved his life.

We didn't really know what Fred did. In the neighborhood, he never spoke about his work, but we knew he must be very dedicated to it -- because he never missed a day going to the university, and his work took him away from home frequently. One year we heard that an international conference of physicists had been held in Ann Arbor and that Fred had given the keynote address to the group. We also learned that immediately after his speech, Fred had admitted himself to the University Hospital where we subsequently found him in the eighth floor oncology (cancer) ward.

For several days before the speech, Fred had an obstruction in his large intestine, which caused him great pain and discomfort. He could not keep any food down. The doctors figured Fred had intestinal cancer, and wanted to operate right away. Fred insisted on attending the international conference and giving his speech, which he did. None of the other physicists at the conference knew there was anything wrong with Fred. But Fred had wanted to see his long-time friends and colleagues from around the world one last time -- just in case he had serious cancer.

Fred was lucky. He did not have cancer, but he was in the hospital for over ten days. He grew increasingly restless and wanted to get back to his "normal" routines. He would go everywhere in the hospital, such as the small park behind it. The elevators were too slow for Fred, so he would walk the eight floors down -- and up -- pulling and carrying his IV stand everywhere he went. On the day he was to be discharged from the hospital, Fred got dressed, walked down the eight flights of stairs to the ground floor -- and then to the university where the huge annual Ann Arbor Art Fair had just begun. He walked the entire show, with its 1100 booths spread out over several miles, talking to all the exhibitors he had gotten to know over the years. He then went back to the hospital, climbed the eight flights of steps, and was sitting calmly on the side of the bed when the doctor came in to discharge him.

A couple days later, Fred showed up at our publishing company, riding his bike. My wife said to him, "Mr. Hendel, what are you doing riding your bike? Did the doctors tell you you could ride your bike?" "No," said Fred. "The doctors said I couldn't drive a car, but they didn't say anything about a bike."

Most people who live in our community don't know very much about Fred and his wife Florence. I'm lucky; I have lived right behind them for many years, and, little by little, I've learned more about them, as we talk over the back hedge -- or when Fred delivers some fresh vegetables. I think what a shame that others don't know him (them) as well as I do. And then, when Fred finally took the time to write several books about experiences in his rich and diverse life, I discovered how little I actually knew about Fred myself -- and how much I would have missed if he hadn't taken the time to write those books. To learn more about Fred, check out his two autobiographies: Mountains in Bolivia and Revolutions in Bolivia, which should be available at your local library. Through those books, I'll share my good neighbor, Fred.

Note: Fred and Florence Hendel live on Hillside in Pittsfield Township, Michigan.

 

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