Here's an old column I wrote for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy. It's about my Polish father and how hard he worked when he came to America as a Displaced Person in 1951.
THE HARDEST WORKING MAN IN AMERICA
My father was probably the hardest working man I knew.
When I was a kid he would work double shifts, 2 8-hour shifts a days, and some years he wouldn’t take the scheduled one or two week vacations because the bosses at the factory where he worked would pay him double time if he worked through his vacations. That’s right. The bosses would give my dad his vacation pay, and then they would give him the week’s salary on top of that. They would tell him he was being paid double time.
Double time. It was one of the first phrases he learned when we came to Chicago from the DP camps in Germany in 1951. He loved earning double time. He’d laugh and say it was one of the best things about America. Like getting something for nothing.
It hadn’t always been that way, of course. He had spent 4 and a half years in Germany as a slave laborer working 16 or 18 hours a day in the German fields and factories. Even though he was working those kinds of hours, he would never get paid a nickel. Once, when he complained about the work, the guard clubbed him unconscious. When my dad woke up, he was blind in one eye.
When my dad wasn’t working at the factory in Chicago, he was working around the house. Five years after coming to America, my parents bought a 5-unit apartment building on Potomac Avenue, just east of Humboldt Park. It wasn’t any kind of great place, but my dad and mom both were proud to be able to say they were landlords. And 9 years after coming to America, they sold that one and bought a bigger and better apartment building a couple blocks away on Evergreen Street.
My dad–and my mom–were always working on these buildings to maintain them and spruce them up. They plastered ceilings, painted walls, and stripped and varnished floors. When he wasn’t doing that kind of work, he would be outside chopping wood to feed the massive furnace we had in the basement, or he’d be in one of the apartments with his pliers and hammer working on a leak. He didn’t know a thing about pipes, but he was sure that sweat and hard work could fix anything. He was always like this.
Toward the end of his life, after he retired to Sun City, Arizona, he was always hauling new orange trees — with their roots bundled up in burlap — into the back yard and trying to plant them. Even when he knew he was dying of cancer, he was still working like this.
But sometimes, he just couldn’t do the work anymore. He didn’t have the strength to stand up, and he would ask me to help. He’d sit on a chair in the backyard, struggling to breathe and pointing to a spot where he had lugged the orange tree. ”Plant it there, Johnny,” he’d say in Polish. „Plant it there.”
Sometimes, he’d have so little breath that the words would be a whisper.
You know what I mean.
(You can read more about my parents in my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues -- available at Amazon.)
The 83rd Anniversary of the Start of World War II
My mother didn’t like to talk about the war. When I was a kid, I would ask her, and she would just wave me away. If I kept asking, she would only say, “If they give you bread, eat it. If they beat you, run away.”
She would say this, and then she would walk away. It wasn’t until I was in my late 50s that she started to share her experiences in the war with me.
One of the first stories she told me was about the day German soldiers came to her village in eastern Poland in the fall of 1942. The story was brutal, and my mother told it staring into my eyes and talking slowly as if she wanted to make sure I understood every word she said.
She told me of the day the soldiers came to my grandmother’s house. They shot my grandmother in the face, and then they kicked my mother’s sister’s baby to death. When they saw my mother, they didn’t care that she was just a teenager. They raped her so she couldn’t stand up, couldn’t talk. They broke her teeth when they shoved her dress into her mouth to stop her crying.
When they were done, they dragged my mother into a boxcar that was filled with other young people from her village that were being taken to Germany to be slave laborers. The trip to Germany took a week.
My mother cried all that week, first in the boxcars then in the camps. Her friends said, “Tekla, don’t cry, the Germans will shoot you and leave you in the field,” but my mother couldn’t stop. Even when she had no more tears, she cried, cried the way a dog will gulp for air when it’s choking on a stick or some bone it’s dug up in a garden and swallowed.
My mother finally stopped crying when the woman guard in charge gave her a cold look and knocked my mother down with her fist, and then told her if she didn’t stop crying she would shoot her.
My mother never thought she’d survive that first winter in the slave labor camp. She had no coat, no hat, no gloves, just what she was wearing when the Germans came to her house and killed my grandmother and took my mom to the camps. A soldier saved her life there. He saw her struggling to dig beets in the frozen earth with her hands, and he asked her if she could milk a cow. She nodded, “Yes,” and he took her to the barn where the cows were kept and raped her. Later, the cows kept her from freezing and gave her milk to drink.
Two and a half years later, the war ended, but it didn’t really end, not for her. The war was always with her. For my mother, like for so many of the Poles who survived, the war never ended. It was always with them.
Jan. 6: Insurrection or Picnic
Let me say right off the bat that I think the January 6th events in Washington D.C. were an insurrection. Trump, I feel, tried to overturn the results of a legitimate election so he could be the first illegitimate President of the United States.
Having said that, let me tell you why this column is here today.
Many of us are watching the January 6th hearings or at least interested in knowing what’s going on. The polls say that 60% of Americans are aware of the hearings and follow them. I’m assuming that the other 40% are busy playing with their video games or watching people on TV drive golf balls.
But what’s interesting to me is that those of us watching the hearings don’t actually agree on what we’re seeing.
Let me tell you about a conversation I had with a friend. This guy is smart, clever, and successful as an actor and director. Talking to him is always a pleasure and an education.
Yesterday, I mentioned to him that I’ve been watching the January 6th hearings and that I felt Trump should take responsibility for the attempted insurrection, just the way Hitler and Charlie Manson and Osama bin Laden should have taken full responsibility for the crimes they encouraged people to commit.
My friend – I’ll call him Alex – laughed and said that comparing Trump to Hitler and these other villains was ridiculous and showed a lack of understanding on my part. Trump, Alex said, is no fascist.
I responded by saying that if Trump isn’t a fascist, why does he keep talking about the election being rigged as a justification for overturning the election?
Alex answered by suggesting that Trump may or may not believe that the election was rigged. Trump is often just delusional and megalomaniacal. Even though he repeatedly says it was rigged, this doesn’t necessarily indicate he believes it. He may just be echoing all the conspiracy theorists who say it was rigged. Alex also tried to make the point that even though Trump encouraged people to stage this riot, that’s not necessarily a criminal act. Besides, Alex said, the rioters who were misled are not bad people. They were innocent folks acting in good faith. Sure, there was some vandalism, some broken windows, and the people who broke those windows should be punished for their vandalism, but finally all of this liberal outrage against these people who rioted is unhealthy.
I was surprised by his downplaying the attack on the Capitol, and I mentioned the 5 people who died and the 140 police officers who were injured. Alex said, “What’s the big deal? The injuries were accidental, people pushing against each other.” He said he didn’t see any kind of vicious intentional violence or killing. Things, he felt, just got a little out of hand.
I realized then that nothing Alex would see or hear would make him feel that what Trump did was intentional and that what his followers did was wrong. I realized there was no point in talking to Alex any longer about this.
In his mind, January 6 was more a picnic than an insurrection.
This column first appeared in the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish paper in America.
On Henry David Thoreau’s 205th birthday
ME AND THOREAU AND MY DAD
Thoreau is an author I love.
When my daughter was a kid, I would reel out these Thoreau quotes on every occasion whether we were making vegetable soup or going to a funeral. I would have a quote, and I always acknowledged my quotes. "Like Thoreau used to say ..."
I thought I was giving her gospel that would help her in all circumstances. It would be the universal clock that Melville writes about somewhere--right in all longitudes and latitudes.
I was wrong--but have never learned how wrong.
I taught Thoreau’s book Walden for years and expected students to say, "Yeah, this makes sense." They never said that.
Students hated him. Hated it.
He goes so much against their grain, and against the grain of any practical person.
I was reading a review in the New Yorker about some book from Oxford U Press about technology in the 19th century, and the reviewer points out that Thoreau was the anti-modern. The whole world wants to go forward into the 20 century and then the 21 century--except Thoreau. He wants to take us all back to the 18th century!
People don't want to be farmers--lead simple lives.
Let me tell you a story and then I'll stop.
My father grew up on a farm in Poland--my mother did too. My dad then spent 5 years in Germany as a Slave Laborer, and 6 years as a refugee. When he and my mom finally came to America, they were offered the opportunity to work on a farm in upstate New York, make a living and settle there. They stayed on the farm there long enough to pay off their passage over from Germany.
Then, they moved to Chicago (3 million people, coal dust in the air, not a cow in sight [they have some now at Lincoln Park Zoo]). My parents worked in factories, double shifts, never took vacations. There was nothing rural/bucolic about their lives there. I once asked them, "Why didn't you stay on the farm in Upstate New York? The trees the cows the quiet"
My mother said, "Are you kidding?"
Working a shift and a half everyday in a factory where melting plastic burnt their arms and chemicals scarred their lungs was better than working on a farm.
I know I could never live on a farm. Not now. It's no country for old men. I can barely keep track of the garden in my backyard, the leaves of grass in my front.
But I know I can still read Thoreau, and dream about the forests beyond the garden in my backyard.
The photo is one I took of Walden Pond about 10 years ago on a Saturday afternoon in early September.
I Can’t Boogie Anymore!
On June 22, I will be 74 years old, and as you can imagine I’ve been thinking a lot about aging recently and about what I’ve learned over the years.
One of the things I’ve learned is that I can’t boogie any more no matter how hard I try, but you probably figured that out for yourself, so let me get down to what else I’ve learned.
One of those other things is that aging isn’t easy. My father used to say, “Aging isn’t for sissies.”
As I watched him age, I realized he was right. In his mid-70s, he barely had the strength to lift a gallon of milk because of his breathing problems. My mom’s aging was much worse. I watched her drag herself through two cancers, chemo, several strokes, major heart trouble, and more. I haven’t had the health problems they had so far, and I’m thankful for that.
Something else I learned from my parents about aging is never to give up hope. When my dad was dying of liver cancer, he tried to climb out of the hospital bed repeatedly and go home. My mom was the same. Even when she had the final stroke that left her almost completely paralyzed, she still made it clear to me that she wanted to live, that she didn’t want the doctors to give her the drugs that would just let her die peacefully without a struggle. My mom used to say that “Hope is our mother,” and I’ve learned over the years that she was right.
Another thing that I’ve learned is the importance of family. As I look at my life now, I realize that the best thing that happened to me is that I married a person who was the best person for me. My wife Linda and I have been married for 47 years. Our marriage and the family we’ve made has given me more happiness than my years as a professor and the books I’ve written and continue to write.
I’ve learned a lot of other stuff, but I just want to mention one other thing I’ve learned.
I’m 74 now, and what I’ve learned about life’s changes is that we change the way the great glaciers change. Slowly.
One year we melt a little. The next we freeze a little. A wind comes from some place then and shines up our northern walls. The following year the wind is a little stronger or weaker. We don’t change the way people in books change. Today’s hero, tomorrow’s fool.
Our future—a patient grandmother with a toddler in hand—comes slowly.
My latest column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy
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