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.


Jen said...

That's a great entry, Jon. So vivid! You should turn it into a story. I really like the part about taking the bus. I think a lot of story arc could take place there, in the narrator's head.

Marty said...

Vonnegut railed against changing Armistice Day to Veteran's Day, and he was right. Someday I'll have to tell you the story of the Pole with a steel plate in his head who saved my life.

John Guzlowski said...

Lisa Childress sent me a note I want to share. It's about the singer/writer Eric Bogle:

Very moving post, John. Do you know of Eric Bogle’s songs? He wrote two about WWI that fit in with your selections there. I don’t know if you can post them on your blog, he is pretty proprietary about his work, as he should be. But if you go to his website, ericbogle.com, he has, or had the last time I checked, his lyrics in pdf format for viewing. The two I am thinking of are And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, and one that goes by three different names. He actually named it No Man’s Land, but it is also called Willie McBride and The Green Fields of France. It is actually about Flanders fields. If you want to hear him singing the songs, that is even a better introduction to them, and to him. Both songs are overwhelming.

sue said...

Thanks for this John, I think the horrors suffered by the young men of so many nations during WW1 is often forgotten nowadays.

And what was it all for?

What was the point of any of it?

I think that Baldrick's explanation (in Blackadder Goes Forth) makes as much sense as any other I have heard.

He said that he heard the war started when "a man called Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry".

Here are links to two poems that I hope match the two lovely ones you and your daughter have chosen.

Firstly, Randall Jarrell's poem: "A War":

And secondly that famous poem by Kipling, Tommy:

regards Sue

Chris said...

What was the point of this missive? That all veterans are drunks, or crazy, or horribly disfigured, or some combination of these?

The shallowness of this post does nothing to illustrate the purported title. I fail to understand what any of these anecdotes have to do with Armistice Day, or Veterans Day, or indeed with anything at all.

This day was set aside to remember those who sacrificed, not denigrate and belittle them. I don't know what you set out to do, but that is what you have accomplished.

John Guzlowski said...

Hi, Chris, I didn't mean any disrespect to veterans. I was trying to write about the veterans I knew as a kid of 4 and 5 years. Veterans were scary people to me. When you're that age and you see someone without a leg or a hand, you don't know what to think.

I also tried to suggest that I learned something from my parents about how to see veterans and appreciate and respect them.

Tim said...

John, I didn't see this as a belittling post at all. I think you made these veterans and their sufferings vividly palpable, and I appreciate that.

The Accidental Existentialist said...


You have a new and devoted reader. Your skill at painting a picture, even one so personal as this, is masterful.

Keith Olbermann commented on the over-politicization of Veterans Day on Monday night. He, (and this notion comes completely from the Flanders Field poem), along with Richard Wolffe of Newsweek, seemed to pine longingly for a rememberence in the style of Englands. Understated. Unspoken. A single poppy worn on the lapel to acknowldedge those that gave their lives in service to whichever nation they fought, whether through conscription or volunteer service.

Steve said...

My Uncle never said anything about his service during the war. In fact, upon his return, he forbade everyone to ever ask him about what he did while he was in the ETO. Only recently, as I searched for info on him did I find out anything. Bits and pieces really; but one thing struck me and stayed with me. My cousin says that about 10 years ago, as he was being xrayed for the spread of cancer, the doctors found a suspicious lump in his knee that they wanted to (I guess) do a biopsy of. he told them he'd save them the trouble, it was shrapnel from Bastogne. thats always struck me as the type of man he was. he carried that chunk of metal for almost 60 years, and never once complained about it.

Just felt like sharing.....

Anonymous said...

Hi, I was just wondering about the first picture, is it from the world war I, and where did you get it?


John Guzlowski said...

Hi, Anonymous,

I found the image on the web. It came from http://www.stephentaylor.ca/archives/inflandersfields.jpg

A said...

Okey, thanks!

So you don't know what war the picture is from then?

John Guzlowski said...

Sorry, it's WWI. The photo caption is "In Flanders Field."

Flanders Field of course is a place fought over during the First World War.

A said...

Thank you very much!

wnygrl585 said...

Hello John, Thanks for sharing this great post. I don't agree with the other Chris...I think he/she missed the whole point. I don't usually comment on the blogs but do read and enjoy them. Keep them coming. Thank you.

Zizou Alphonse Corder, PhD said...

Flanders Field is not actually a particular place. It refers in general to fields in Flanders, which is an area in the north of Belgium. This picture is from the Third Battle of Ypres (modern name Ieper) in 1917. The word Flanders means Drowned Lands - much of the are is actually below sea level, and drained by canals. The battlefield was reduced to appalling mud by the destruction of the drainage system by constant shelling and barrage.

Zizou Alphonse Corder, PhD said...

Flanders Field is not actually a particular place. It refers in general to fields in Flanders, which is an area in the north of Belgium. This picture is from the Third Battle of Ypres (modern name Ieper) in 1917. The word Flanders means Drowned Lands - much of the are is actually below sea level, and drained by canals. The battlefield was reduced to appalling mud by the destruction of the drainage system by constant shelling and barrage.

John Guzlowski said...

Hi, Zizou, thanks for the comment. Sounds like you're a historian. Take a look at my entry about history and numbers.

Kristi said...

Wow, John. That was really moving and powerful. It strikes how you point out how your mother was a veteran too, having fought and fighting her own war. Thank you for sharing this enlightened piece.

Anonymous said...

"Po tee weet." Did I ever tell you about the Vietnam veterans I meet and lived next to the summer after I graduated from high school? One would talk for hours by the lurid glow of a old antique lantern while swilling Early Times whiskey out of a gallon jug, and chased it with a can of Busch. Perhaps the most memorable moments of my life where listening to his war stories as the night wained, and the clock over the kitchen table slipped to its highest point, I would wander across the yard, to begin the night of debauchery with my age appropriate pals. Ironically I yearned for the next time I would hear Jimmie's stories and the look from his partner Paul Tennes, his eyes seemed to warp back to that time (he was in the same regiment as Jim) the difference was he could not speak about it; he would nod occasionally or shake his head, sometimes laugh, and most poignantly often tear up and look the other way as myself and my two buddies were enthralled to the point that he could not bear to look at us in his rawness.
thanks John for the post, awesome as always. Ron Lybarger

John Guzlowski said...

Ron, thanks for your war story. I think what you point out is that we all are touched by war, the veterans and the now veterans.

oriana said...

A fabulous post. I did not feel you belittled veterans -- only showed their suffering to point out what war can do to the participants, disabling them for the rest of their lives. Ponchek was likely brain-damaged, as were probably quite a few of them.

WWI also gave us the emergence of the Soviet Union. It's often called "Europe's suicide," and I can see why.

Finally, I find the last stanza of "In Flanders Fields" simply revolting. It calls for the perpetuation of warfare. It goes back to the primitive belief that the ghosts call for revenge. An example of a poem that is lovely yet pernicious. Lyrical poison.

oriana said...

I want to add just this: I admire your mother for having fended off the drunk attackers who wanted to extort money from her. What a strong woman! I know she had her problems, but given what she'd survived, wow . . . I admire this woman, who reminds me of the strong women in my family, esp my grandmother who survived Auschwitz and was likewise a proverbial tower of strength. It's not a sweet personality, but certainly not a meek doormat.

John Guzlowski said...

My friend Sue Knight wrote me a letter about this blog that I am posting:

Thanks very much for reminding me of this post John. And of all those traumatised young men. I see I did manage to comment on your blog, so I must try again. It must be possible.

We were made to love each other, not to fight and kill each other. So when we do go to war, we not only damage the other, but we damage ourselves. And you are right to record that damage.

There was a quote I read many years ago from a veteran of the trenches of WW1 - the horror of which I suspect we can barely begin to imagine. His description was so vivid that it stayed in my head.

He said: "We cowered in our trenches as if angry demons were stamping overhead."

I couldn't forget those words, but it wasn't until years later when I began to study the Bible and came to understand the Book of Revelation that i realised how truly he described it.

This is an extract from "The World", which, in 1914, was a leading newspaper in New York City:

"The terrific war outbreak in Europe has fulfilled an extraordinary prophecy... 'Look out for 1914!' has been the cry of the hundreds of travelling evangelists, who representing this strange creed (associated with Russell), have gone up and down the country enunciating the doctrine that 'the Kingdom of God is at hand'" - The World Magazine, August 30th, 1914

The people of the 'strange creed' were the Earnest Bible Students (sometimes known as Russellites), now known as Jehovah's Witnesses.

1914 is a very significant date in Bible prophecy. And Revelation explains simply and clearly why it marks a time of terrible trouble for the world - and why that young soldier said what he did.

If you want to know John, obviously I am more than happy to tell you.

all the best Sue

My Blog: http://sueknight2000.blogspot.com/

John Guzlowski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...


Im in 7th grade... and this article and info helped me sooo much on my test that I'm taking tomorrow... I used this to study WWI and the time period of Eleanor Roosevelt!

Thanks soooooo much!!!


Anonymous said...

Hi Jon,
I was very happy to stumble upon your blog. I am currently writing a history paper about displaced persons camps and was looking for pictures of them when I found you. I don't know how much you have read or are interested in the history of displaced persons' camps after World War II, but I would recommend reading "Jews, Germans, and Allies" by Atina Grossmann if you are. She discusses the significance of the high birth rate within the camps, which you might find particularly interesting. You might also like Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe's Families, which comes out this month.

John Guzlowski said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I'm very much interested in the DP camps and will check out the two books you mentioned. I have photos of the camps and would be happy to pass them on to you.

Stuart Vail said...

Your mother... what a pistol! Great post, John. Everyone has a story, and no true story is to be discounted. There's gold in them there tales, so have at it!

I love the poem that your daughter submitted as well.