Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving Day

My people were all poor people, the ones who survived to look in my eyes and touch my fingers and those who didn’t, dying instead of fever, hunger, or even a bullet in the face, dying maybe thinking of how their deaths were balanced by my birth or one of the other stories the poor tell themselves to give themselves the strength to crawl out of their own graves.

Not all of them had this strength but enough of them did, so that I’m here and you’re here reading this blog about them.

What kept them going?
I think about that a lot.

Maybe there's something in the DNA of people who start with nothing and end with nothing, and in between live from one handful of nothing to the next handful of nothing.

They keep going.

Through the misery in the rain and the terror in the snow, they keep going--even when there aren’t any rungs on the ladder, even when there aren’t any ladders.

(The photos are of my uncle Jan Hanczarek. He was taken to Siberia by the Russians in 1941. The Russians enslaved millions of Poles. In the first photo, he is standing with his wife and two children. I don't know their names. In the second photo, he and his wife are standing at the grave of my grandmother and my aunt and my aunt's baby who were all killed by the Nazis.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Happy Places

Sometimes when I'm doing poetry readings, I get questions about whether or not my sister and my parents and I were ever happy given the kind of experiences my parents had in Germany during the war. I can't talk for them, but I know that there were times that I was happy when I was growing up. This is a piece I wrote a couple years ago about those times.

We all have special perfect places, places where we feel most ourselves, most comfortable. In these special places, we feel our “self” most fully; we feel that what we were meant "to be" is suddenly "is"; we feel that our pasts, our presents, and our futures are mingling. We feel the joyful arms of our guardian angels and personal saints embracing us, and we feel their warmth touching us in seventeen places all at once. For some people, this special place is a chair in the kitchen or a bleacher at a baseball game.

Happy people are those who know where this place is.

They can go there when they need to: maybe not in their darkest moments (at the bedside of a dying parent or friend, or when a woman or man they truly loved leaves them finally with no offer of a hand to hold for even a moment), but surely in those moments after those moments they can turn to these holy places.

For me this place was a place in time: The June day I turned four, a Sunday in 1952, when I stood in the garden in the back of a house we were renting from a veteran of the First World War, an alcoholic with a plate in his head to cover the spot where a shell fragment had carried away a piece of his skull (his name was Ponchek which means donut in Polish and always made me laugh to say it), and I stood in his garden among Black Eyed Susans with their yellow petals and long necks. And my mother in a white dress with little blue flowers sat in the garden between me and my sister, and my father stood in front of us with a Brownie Cadet box camera.

He was asking us in Polish to smile, while my mother told me about the day ahead, how we would go to Kiddie Land up in Melrose Park, Illinois, and my sister Danusha and I would ride on the blue and yellow and red cars and the roller coaster built just for kids. My mother made it sound like there was something special about being a kid the way she talked about the day we had planned.

It makes a picture I don’t want to forget.

Maybe we remember these special places and special times and turn to them because they were the places and times our parents were happy, before their lives took their inevitable turns. Maybe not. Like most of us, I’m not good at figuring out the complex why of things.

But I remember a Sunday morning, and you remember sitting at a ball game between your mother and father, and both are screaming at the batter in a way that frightens you just a little but you know is okay; or you remember a day on a beach in Ocean City with your mother laughing at your father wearing her bathing cap pulled down over his eyes; or you remember your father sitting at the piano with a cigarette between his lips playing a piece you love like “Wild Colonial Boy” or “Stardust” while your mother stands at the ironing board straightening a pleat in her skirt with steam.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

November 11, 1918--The Day World War I Ended

I first heard of World War I when we came to America as Displaced Persons in 1951. We were refugees after World War II, and we moved into a basement apartment on Hamilton Street in Chicago.

Our landlord was a veteran of the First World War. He was a Polish American named Ponchek. He was also a drunk, but that wasn't anything special. There were a lot of drunks around. What made Ponchek special was that he had a steel plate in his head. As a kid and a recent immigrant to America, he had been drafted and sent to France to stop the Germans who were trying to rip France apart and shove it into the Atlantic. He ended up in the trenches in France in late October fighting the Germans, and a bullet took off the top of his head. The doctors cut away what bone they could, cleaned out the wound, and screwed a steel plate into the skull bone.

This fascinated me when I was a kid. I wondered about that plate, and what it felt like. Did Ponchek always feel a weight pressing down on his head? Was it like wearing a steel hat? A steel helmet? And I wondered what they covered the plate with. Skin? And where did it come from? Was it his skin or someone else's? I never could ask.

Like a lot of the veterans I knew, he was frightening. He wasn't a guy you wanted to spend a lot of time talking to.

Veterans were men who limped. They dragged their legs behind them like Lon Chaney in the Mummy movie. They were men who had wooden legs that creaked when they walked past you and the other kids sitting on the stoop. These veterans had no arms or only one arm, or were missing fingers or hands, or ears.

My dad, a guy who lost his left eye when he was clubbed by a Nazi guard in a concentration camp, used to go to a bar where the owner had a black, shiny rubber hand. He lost his real hand during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 when he shoved a homemade grenade into the steel treads of a German tank. The black rubber hand was like some kind of weird toy. Sometimes, it looked like a black fist, sometimes it looked like an eight ball.

Sometimes, a vet without arms or legs sat on the sidewalk in front of this bar. He had a cloth hat in front of him, and he was selling pencils. He'd sit there smiling, making chit chat with the guys walking in and out of the bar. You'd toss him a nickel, and you could take a pencil, but most guys didn't. Who needs a pencil?

Veterans were frightening. Some of them beat their kids and got drunk and had trouble getting through the day. They had trouble getting through the night too. There were these two little girls who lived two doors away, Patty and Cathy. Their dad was a Korean War veteran, and he would come home from his job at about midnight. The kids and their mom had to be out of their basement apartment then. He would beat and curse all of them if they weren't. They'd have to walk around the neighborhood until he was safely in bed, asleep. This veteran didn't like to fall asleep with people in the house. Everyone knew he was crazy.

Ponchek was a veteran too, and -- like I said -- he was a drunk and a man with a steel plate in his head. One time he and his two buddies got so drunk that they all came down to our basement apartment and tried to force my mother into giving them money for whiskey. There she was alone in a house with her two little kids, and this drunk and his two drunk buddies came around trying to take money from her. They told her that she hadn't paid the rent, and that if she didn't paid them, they would throw her out on the street. What kind of guys would do that? She pushed Poncheck down and kicked him, and took a broom and beat him and his friends as they tried to get away from her. My mom was a veteran too; she spent two and a half years in a Nazi slave labor camp.

Three or four years later, my mom and dad and my sister and me visited Ponchek in the big Veterans Administration hospital on the south side of Chicago. We didn't have a car, and so we had to take buses, and it seemed like it took forever to get to the hospital. This must have been about 1956 or 1957. The hospital was full of veterans, men from World War I and World War II and the Korean War. Ponchek was dying from some kind of stomach cancer, and he was in a lot of pain. We came to say goodbye to him. We found him in a bed in the corridor because there were no available rooms.

He was happy to see us. My parents had brought him some cigarettes, and my dad gave him one, and lit it for him. My sister and I stood there watching my mom and dad and Ponchek smoke and talk. They talked about those days on Hamilton, and the good times they had.

They didn't mention his steel plate and his drinking and his craziness.

PS: Before I sign off, let me say something about Veterans Day.

It grows out of Armistice Day, the day the carnage of World War I ended. It ended on the 11th hour of the 11 th day of the 11th month.

Here's a poem by John McCrae called "In Flanders Field." He was a doctor who wrote the poem in 1915 for a friend who died in the Battle for Flanders Field. The battle lasted 100 days and cost 400,000 Allied and German casualties. The war went on for another 3 years after that, and millions of people died in those years.

Here's McCrae's poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

When I told my daughter Lillian that I was going to use the Flanders Field poem, she suggested another poem.

Here's what Lillian wrote:

"Personally, I like the Ode of Remembrance (the 3rd and 4th stanzas of Binyon's "For the Fallen") that they use throughout the "British Empire" at Remembrance Day commemorations. I think Binyon's poem, at least the following two stanzas, is more universal. It could be any war, any century, any side; and I think that is what Remembrance Day is for, remembering every fallen soldier--every kid who is too naive or too idealistic or too stupid or too gullible and so they join up for all of the right and all of the wrong reasons and then they die, painfully and horribly and wastefully, but bravely and nobly."

And here's Binyon's poem:

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

PPS: Let me say just one more thing:

War comes to us, and we weep at our losses and pray for our delivery. And then peace comes and then peace goes, and wars come and come and come.