Two fires taught me lessons about my life, two fires separated by nearly six decades. The second fire was mine, but the first was my father's, and it happened in 1931, when he was fourteen years old.
My father, Abraham David Fishman, was a short boy with large dark eyes, a Buster Brown haircut, skinny arms, and bowlegs. He was the youngest of four children living in a dreary, two-room apartment on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. Abie's father was long dead. Abie's mother was a walnut-faced woman with the shape of a fireplug, who pursued her small family's survival with brutal tenacity. It had taken Minnie Fishman -- an...