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Monday, November 17, 2008

I Shook Hands with the Man Who Shook Hands with Mikhail Gorbachev

I grew up in a rural German-speaking community. We shook hands, but it was often the “dead fish” shake, never a grabbing of the elbow. Hugging in public was rare and in some families never practiced. In the Army I saluted when required but never shook hands. In the last several weeks of WWII we had a large number of German soldiers surrender to our unit, mostly teenage boys or elderly men, late recruits to Hitler’s army. They always wanted to shake hands, which I refused, remembering that just weeks before they had been shooting at us.

I can remember when I felt uncomfortable being hugged and hugging in public was not common. Times have changed. Now our church has a time of greeting during the service and I notice a lot of hugs being exchanged. Maybe handshaking is no longer done, but I can recall one particular incident.

One evening in about 1990-1991 my wife announced, after reading a letter from her sister-in-law, that on a certain day her brother and his wife were flying back from vacation in Mexico and had a 4-hour layover at Houston Intercontinental Airport. I was to meet their plane and take them to lunch. Their plane was on time and after hugs we took the underground trolley to the food area. Beverly said Eugene could not shake hands with me because he had not washed his right hand since the previous evening. After we ordered lunch Eugene told the story.

They had noticed in their hotel lobby that there seemed to be a large number of men in dark suits, most with radios in one ear, that looked like Russians. On their last evening at the hotel Eugene spotted a man who seemed to be in charge and asked if the group was Russian. In broken English the man said Mikhail Gorbachev was in Mexico to meet with the Mexican president and that they were occupying the top floor of the hotel. Eugene said he admired that Mr. Gorbachev was trying to bring about cooperation between Russia and the US and he would like to personally thank him and shake his hand. The guard, after consulting with someone, said Eugene should stand beside him and hold out his hand when the elevator doors opened.

In a short time the guards, standing in rows about 6 feet apart, made a passage from the elevator to the door of the hotel, and Eugene stood where directed. When the elevator opened, Eugene thinks he said “I’m Eugene Bartels from Nebraska and I want to thank you for working for peace.” Mr. Gorbachev shook his hand and said in good English, “Thank you, I know where Nebraska is in the United States.”

Eugene remembers that Gorbachev was taller than he expected and that the birthmark on his forehead was hardly visible. I don’t know when Eugene washed his right hand.

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Ben the Cook

Ben the Cook
Action shot from the 1970s



I recently made Tuna Helper, following the instructions on the box and adding margine, milk, etc. Priscilla and I had generous portions for lunch. When she asked about my recipe, I pointed to the kitchen table where the box was sitting...and only then noticed the unopened can of tuna sitting next to the empty box.

Well, we enjoyed our macaroni & cheese lunch and already have the tuna on hand to make another box of Helper.


I watched the TV news show "The Eyes of Texas" for years. When in the mid 1980s they announced the publication of a Texas cookbook I wrote down my grandmother's honey cookie recipe. I asked Priscilla to type it, and she mailed it along with several of her personal favorites.

When the book was published Priscilla's recipes were not included but mine was, with a special mention in the cookbook's introduction. I was invited to the signing in Houston, where I got all three of the main Eyes of Texas contributors to sign the front and while standing in line got a number of contributing cooks to sign their recipe pages.

Some might consider the description "somewhat chewy" an understatement. For those who are dentally impaired, I recommend soaking a cookie in milk or hot coffee before trying to chew it. The good news is, these cookies will keep indefinitely.

Eyes of Texas Cookbook introduction:
My great-grandparents August and Caroline Weiss operated the first cotton gin operated by steam, near Salem in Washington County, Texas. They were among the first German settlers in that area. Money was scarce; however, they always had bees and native pecans...consequently, this recipe was a favorite.

1 1/2 pints honey, warmed
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
Dash of salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup chopped pecans or other nuts
1 tsp. baking powder
Enough flour for a very stiff dough

Mix all ingredients well. Roll dough out on a floured board and cut with a cookie cutter, or drop the dough in a greased pan and flatten with a floured glass. Bake at 325 degrees until golden brown, with edges slightly darker. These cookies will be somewhat chewy.

Ben's Bio

I was born in Rose Hill, Texas in 1925 and at age 18 drafted into the Army. After my discharge I settled in Tomball, which although a small town had more opportunities than Rose Hill. I ran my own appliance installation and repair business for many years and in 1977 accepted a position as Plant Engineer and Director of Maintenance at Tomball Regional Hospital, where I worked until retirement in the late 1980s. In the 1970s I served two years on Tomball’s City Council, was elected mayor and served for six years during which major streets were paved and guttered, utility lines were extended, and a new jail and city hall were built. After retirement from the hospital I spent time on a genealogy project that included two trips to Germany to visit relatives and look up archival records. I have also gotten into writing, chronicling my WW II experiences and authoring Growing Up in Rose Hill, published by private press and sold as a fund-raiser for the Tomball Community Museum Center, where I have served as a volunteer, trustee and Chairman. I am still involved with the Tomball hospital as a weekly volunteer and serve as General Manager of Tomball Emergency Assistance Ministries (TEAM), a church-sponsored operation that provides food and other assistance to area families. I continue to be involved in writing about my childhood and personal interests, and I still enjoy woodworking and other handyman projects. My wife and I still live in Tomball and are not far from most of our 8 surviving children and 14 grandchildren.