May the Angels lead thee into Paradise; may the Martyrs receive thee at thy coming and take thee to Jerusalem, the holy city. May the choirs of the Angels receive thee, and mayest thou with once poor Lazarus, have rest everlasting. Amen.
The Old Country
The grass still had dew upon it; the sun hadn’t rose enough to lift it away. Instead, the sun turned the tops green hills of the Polish countryside golden and left the bottoms of the hills dark. The hills and the countryside, these were among the things that I missed the most.
I told Mother that I wished I could stay but she recited the reasons why I must come with the rest of the family. She went through the reasons the same as she always did and each time she ended by telling me I had no say in the matter. Our family was going and I would not be left behind alone or with relatives. Our small farm was sold already. The animals were either put down so we wouldn’t have to buy food while we traveled or the animals were sold to Josef Gryziak, the butcher, so he could make sausage to sell. Father’s small shop, where he bent hot metal and people brought their horses to get shoes, was also sold for a small sum to his apprentice. Mother had many more reasons, but I never cared to hear them all. ‘Don’t you walk off while I am talking to you, Mieczyslaw,’ she would call to me and then continue her list why I couldn’t stay.
It was true, our family was leaving. Not all of the family, just my parents and my brother and I. My uncles and their families weren’t coming, but I don’t think there was much hope of staying with them as mother made it clear every time she lectured me about how I couldn’t stay. Plus, I was hardly old enough to get along on my own. Nine was not an age where even the toughest and most industrious of boys, like myself, had a fair chance of surviving in Poland.
We were leaving the next day at dawn, which meant I had little time to say goodbye to the place I called home and to anyone I hadn’t already said my farewells to. Without the animals to look after or the blacksmith shop to run, there was little for my parents to tell me to do. We had spent the past month packing what we needed for the trip and selling the rest. Our small pile of things that we were bringing with us was crammed into the corner of the house, closest to the door. There were three steamer trunks packed with clothes, blankets, photographs and small odds and ends that we thought necessary to bring to America. Other than an old ball and clothes, I didn’t have much that was necessary to have in America. I hadn’t had much to begin with. Mr. Gryziak’s daughter, Doloreta, had given me a photograph of herself. She was a few months older than me and Mother said she fancied me. Truth be told, I fancied her too, but I had never spoken that aloud because I think that the other boys would have made fun of me for liking a girl. While I was glad to have the photograph, I doubted I would need it to remember the twinkle in her eyes or the way her smile forced its way into her round cheeks. If only Mr. Gryziak would have decided to follow our family to America. I would write Doloreta when we settled in America and tell her where we were living so she could find us, if ever she left Poland.
“Mieczyslaw, what are you doing?” said Bruno as he pushed me from behind. He was always trying to prove that he was stronger than me because he was younger than me.
“Nothing, Bruno.” I told him I was standing there in our yard and I was doing nothing. I wanted my last memories of this life to be of the morning when everything was at peace and the air was fresh and clean. I wanted to remember how anything more than a whisper in the morning seemed to be a shout. And I told him I wanted to remember the hills and how they glow as the sun rose in the East; how their shadows would slowly shrink away as the day grew.
“They say that in America there are rolling hills as far as the eye can see; great patches of land that haven’t ever been touched,” Bruno said.
“Yes, I know,” I said but I had also heard about the great buildings all over the American cities. There were so many buildings and they were so close together that they blotted out any chance of seeing the hills. I couldn’t wait to see one of the buildings. I wanted to go to the top of one and look out, if I got a chance.
I stood next to my brother taking in the morning, waiting for the sun to rise above the hilltops. Around us, birds sang their morning songs while their chicks chirped, demanding to be fed. From where we stood, we could hear the faint morning noises of the town Miechow. There was the soft clang of the hammer on the anvil coming from Father’s old blacksmith shop. It echoed off of the hills. The railroad men were shouting to one another, preparing the freight before the train left the station. I could even pick out one boy shouting the morning’s headlines, though I could not tell what they were, to attract the town to buy his papers.
“Where are you going, Mieczyslaw?”
“I’m going to wander downtown. You are welcome to join me.”
“I can’t. Father asked me to help him check over the barrels of meat before we leave. I’m surprised he hasn’t asked you too.”
“I haven’t seen him,” I said.
“Why don’t you come help anyway? Then we can be done sooner. We can go to town after we finish.”
But I didn’t want to help. I knew that if I was there when they were done checking the barrels of meat, I wouldn’t ever get to town because Father would have something for us to do after we were done, and then something after that and then after that. There would be work all day, even though there was really little to do.
I had nowhere in particular to go, but I went anyway. There wasn’t much happening at this time in the morning so I ended up at the train station. The men who worked the rails were strong, throwing barrels and boxes of goods from the beds of the cars down to the men on the ground, unloading and loading the train before it left the station.
I remember when the train first came to town; it wasn’t very long ago. I was three or four, I don’t remember, and Mother and Father were excited to see it. The whole town was excited and came out to see the big steam engine stop at the station. Most of them had remembered when they laid the tracks so many years ago; some had even helped put them down. But the tracks came from Krakow and wanted to connect to Kielce and we were just in the middle, so the train didn’t come our way until the tracks stretched all the way to Kielce. Maybe when we got to America, I would work on the railroad. I heard in school that they were still building across the country to connect the big cities.
There was a bench across the street from the train station and I sat on it for a long time, long enough for the sun to rise and warm the streets as they became filled with people running errands about town. I just sat there, watching the railroad men work and eventually watched the train leave the station but my mind was elsewhere. It was then Doloreta managed to sneak up and sit beside me without my noticing.
“You are leaving tomorrow, aren’t you Mieczyslaw?” she asked.
I wondered why she asked me this because she knew it already. “Yes,” I said. I told her that tomorrow at dawn we were taking the train south to Genova, Italy. Father wanted to take a ship from the Mediterranean because he was worried about the cold from the North. He also wanted more of our travel to be over land than on the sea.
I looked at Doloreta sitting next to me. She stared off at the train station like I had for the better part of the morning. Her light blue dress was pressed and clean; a simple dress that her mother had sewn for her. Her brown curls were pulled back away from her face and they sat upon her shoulders. Her eyes that always held a twinkle and brought a light to her pale skin, the same eyes that were captured in the photograph of her now placed in the depths of my trunk, seemed distant and cloudy. As if she knew what I saw in her eyes, tears began to stream down her face.
“Why are you crying, Doloreta?”
“You know that I don’t want you to go, you’re my closest of friends. I asked Mother if we will ever leave Poland and go to America and she told me no. She said that Father’s business is good and it’s always been good. I don’t think I will ever get to see you again, Mieczyslaw.”
She hadn’t told any of this to me when she handed me the photograph. And truth be told, it hadn’t occurred to me that I might never see her again. I’d assumed that I would send her letters telling her of the wondrous things in America and that would be enough to convince her entire family to come to America. At the very least I thought I would return to Poland and sweep her away to America with me.
“Oh, Doloreta, don’t speak like that. Some day you will make it to America. You don’t have to wait for your parents to leave this country.”
“How would I get there without them? They do not give me any money.”
“You could run away from home, find yourself work in a grand household in Krakow. Then you can save what you need to come. We’re still young.”
“Oh Mieczyslaw, I just don’t know.”
I didn’t know either. It would be hard for her to come on her own. She needed money for the voyage and to get along when she came to America, or otherwise she would need someone to bring her. If her parents didn’t come then she would have had to have found a man to bring her. I didn’t want to suggest that, in case she got the wrong impression.
We continued our conversation in silence. I didn’t want to say that I might never see her again. I stared off at the train station across the street and wondered if this was the train that would take my family south tomorrow. I watched the glimmer of the glass on the door move as passengers entered and emerged. Every time the door opened, and again while it closed, there was an instant when the sun reflected into my eyes.
“Mieczyslaw, there you are. I’ve been looking all over town for you. I figured you’d be at the candy shop but you’re here. Father wants you to come help him. I think he’s checking our trunks to make sure it’s secure. Mother went through it in a panic last night making sure she had all her knitting needles,” said Bruno. “Oh, hello Doloreta,” he added, taking off his hat.
Bruno was born in 1907, less than three years after me. He was six now and already I could tell the man he would be. Always energetic, always talking and moving. Every other day he had a new plan for life and not once did I ever see him stick to the plan for more than a few hours. He would get discouraged and give up because he didn’t have this or couldn’t go there. Mother and Father saw this too, they laughed at his ways. I thought it wrong for them to encourage him; he needed some sense of what he actually had to do in life and not what he wanted to do on a whim. Where would that get him?
“Alright, Bruno,” I said. I was done with the train; the next one wouldn’t come in for another hour.
“Doloreta, I suppose this is goodbye. If I go home now, Father will have me working all afternoon and we leave in the morning.”
“Yes, I suppose,” she said.
“I’ll write you as soon as I know where we are.”
“You better,” she said as she grabbed me about the chest and squeezed as though she was holding on for her dear life. She let go so and she turned away and headed towards her father’s shop. I watched her for a few moments, her head was low and I saw her raise a hand to wipe her eyes.
“You like her, don’t you?”
“Shut up, Bruno.”
I had been on a train before so it didn’t excite me like it did Bruno. I liked the feeling of going fast; Father reckoned that this train was moving somewhere around ninety-five kilometers an hour. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I could tell that it was fast because the Polish country side would slowly start to fade to a green blur as we picked up speed between stations.
People got on and off the trains at the stations. Some people had big trunks like ours and some people had nothing. I could tell the other people who were going to America like we were. There usually was a large family traveling together with five men and their wives and a handful of children to each couple. They would usually take up more than one compartment. The mothers would sit and try to calm the children while the men sat together to discuss how they would live when they made it to America. These conversations weren’t anything new to any of the men because doubtless they had had the conversation a dozen times or more before leaving. Father had the same conversation with his brothers. They didn’t want to hear it. They had told him that their life was quiet and good, working only when they had to work. Father told them that they were foolish to want to stay in Poland when there was so much opportunity in America. He told them all of this a handful of times, much of it I think Father regretted saying years later. After months of trying, Father gave up and didn’t talk to his brothers any more.
The train ride took the better part of the day and we didn’t arrive into the station at Genova until dusk. Father had set up the trip so we would have a day in between the train ride and when the boat left. He wanted to make sure that we didn’t miss the boat for any reason. I had never asked Father why he wanted to go to America. He had work and a life in Poland. None of our neighbors had left and his brothers didn’t want to go. Father was born in 1881 and his parents were born in the forties. His father had been a blacksmith before him. I assumed that one day I would start learning to be one too. That day hadn’t come and it was safe to say that it would never come because in a few weeks, father would be as far as he could be away from blacksmithing.
They said that it was the land of opportunity; that a man could grow and work to be any sort of man that he desired. It made me wonder if Father ever wanted to be a blacksmith, or if it was something that he did because it was expected of him. Maybe Father wanted to start a new line of work in America. I wondered if he had anything in particular in mind. The only thing that I wanted to do was work on the railroad. I had nothing against being a blacksmith like Father, but if I didn’t have to be one then why would I want to be one? I thought I might join the railroad in New York when I’m old enough and lay tracks for them. I wouldn’t stop until I had worked my way to the other coast.
In the water next to the shack was a big steamer. ‘Maestosa Viaggio’ was painted on its hull. I did not know what it meant but it sounded beautiful. The ship looked as though it had just been dropped into the water. It glistened in the morning Italian sun as we took our place in line. Men were aboard it, moving all about the deck. They were cleaning and hauling trunks and crates aboard and presumably taking them below deck. These men looked weathered and hardened, it made me feel better knowing that they would be the crew taking care of our ship while we sailed.
“Mieczyslaw, d’you see those men? I want to be one of them,” said Bruno.
“Yes, I see them.”
“Wouldn’t that be the life? Sailing from port to port and not having to worry about anything. When we get to America, I’m going to learn to sail.”
I just nodded at Bruno. I had a good feeling that this was another thing in life that he would forget in a few hours.
“Oh Bruno, if you run off and be a sailor who will take care of me,” asked Mother.
“Father will,” he said.
Why did Mother and Father always encourage him? How would he grow into a man if he didn’t know how the world worked?
We stood in that line all morning. I could tell that Father started to get worried whether or not there would be space on the boat by the time we got to the shack. The other men around us talked nervously about it too. Father shifted from foot to foot and stood on his toes to look ahead at the line anytime we moved, just to make sure no man came out to tell us there was no room left.
I thought I heard a man say that the next passenger boat wouldn’t leave port for another two weeks. That’s why Father worried. We didn’t have the money to stay for two weeks in a hotel and eat. We would need the food we packed for the voyage on the ocean.
After standing in line all morning, it was finally our turn to purchase our tickets for the boat. As Father stepped into the shack, I caught a glimpse of his face and he looked calm. We weren’t the last ones to get our tickets, but there weren’t much space left by the time we got there. The four of us had a cabin to ourselves. It had one cot in it that Mother and Father would share. Bruno and I had the floor.
The rest of the day we spent hauling out trunks to the ship. The man selling tickets in the shack said it was better to get them on that day because the next day the boat was to leave at nine in the morning and if our things weren’t aboard, then they wouldn’t come with us. So we hauled our trunks down the stairs of the hotel and down the block to the Maestosa Viaggio where we had to wait again until someone came along to load our trunks into our cabin. Father had asked the man in the shack if we could stay aboard the boat over night. I didn’t hear the man’s answer or his reasoning but we ended up staying in the hotel again; I assumed the answer was ‘no’.
I stood next to Mother as the boat left port. I remember looking up at her and seeing her dark frizzy hair blowing in the wind, desperately trying to escape the pins that held it to her head. Everyone else around us seemed cheerful, smiling and waving goodbye to the people the left on shore. Mother did not smile and there was no one for her to wave to. There wasn’t any emotion on mother’s face, but slowly tears seeped out of her eyes.
Father, who stood on the opposite side of Mother from me, looked down and put his arm around her. He pulled her in tight and whispered into her ear. I couldn’t make out all he said, but I think I heard him tell her that it was ‘going to be better in America.’
The voyage to America was supposed to take two and a half weeks. We were supposed to arrive in America in late June. I expected the trip to be boring; I wouldn’t get to wander about a town or the countryside. In fact, I had seen every part of the ship that I could by the end of the second day. Bruno took to following me around. We tried to find other kids to play with us, but there were only a few who spoke Polish and their parents didn’t want them running about the ship.
Mother continued to weep long after we had left port. She would move about the cabin or take walks on the deck and the tears continued to stream down her face. She was in constant pain of homesickness. At meals she hardly ate. At night I heard her toss and turn on the cot. And she was always wrapped in an extra layer of clothing, but that didn’t seem to help because she still was always shivering.
On the sixth day, Mother couldn’t get out of bed. She said she felt sicker than she had and her face was green with seasickness. And then she started throwing up. It was a foul business. She couldn’t eat because it made her sick, but then she complained that the hunger made her nauseous. All the while, it made our cabin smell. Father had Bruno and me take turns running the buckets of vomit up to the deck to dump overboard. It didn’t do our room any good, the smell lingered even when we dumped the buckets and washed them before coming back. Our room smelled sour and Mother looked worse each day.
On the tenth day Mother seemed to be feeling better. She even ate some solid food; before she had just been a broth made by soaking some meat from the barrels in water.
When we woke up the next day, Father motioned for us to be quiet and to leave to room. I did as I was told and caught a glimpse of Mother before I left. It looked like she was catching up on all the rest that she had lost over the past few days. Bruno and I headed to the deck to get some fresh air.
I had taken a liking to the sea air. At first, the smell bothered me, it smelled strongly of fish. But slowly, as we made our way out to the open sea, I learned to smell the sea as something exhilarating and cold, clean and fresh. It was a good way to start each day, to lean over the side of the boat and to fill your lungs with the air.
“Do you think Mother is going to get better before we get to America, Mieczyslaw?” asked Bruno.
“I hope so,” I said. We still had a week or so to go. She had plenty of time to rest up. I hoped that she would be on her feet and with the rest of the passengers of the boat when we would first see the shores of New York. I hoped that she would look at them without tears. I hoped that she would welcome the new country with nothing but smiles.
Bruno and I wandered about the deck for the better part of the morning. We assumed that Father didn’t want us coming back to the cabin and waking Mother up. Around lunchtime Father came to find us. He told us to follow him. We went back to the cabin. Our door was open. There was a man outside the door and another one inside standing over mother. They were silent.
Father told us to say our goodbyes. Mother had died.
Before the War
I was the only person in the family to graduate high school. Bruno left school the same time I graduated. He wanted to follow me into the workforce so he could help make money to support the family just like I was going to do. Father didn’t mind, he welcomed the extra income.
Father had taken us away from New York as fast as he could. Mother was buried once we made it into the city. Father said his goodbyes to her grave and then bought us tickets on the first train to Chicago.
While Bruno and I went to school, Father spent his time working in a deli close to our home. He was employed by a Polish man who didn’t care that Father worked as a blacksmith back in Poland.
“As long as he is Polish I can be happy thinking that when he swung his hammer he was practicing to swing a butcher’s knife,” his boss would say.
Father enjoyed his work. He said it was more relaxing than being a blacksmith because his cuts involved more precision than the strength required bending metal. Father also like that he could talk to people while he worked.
He had regulars. Every day Father would come home and talk about which of the regulars had come in that day and what they had ordered. It always was a small scandal when one of them ordered something other than what they always seemed to order because when Father saw them come in the door he would start preparing their usual.
After a couple of years of working in the deli, Father started talking less about the regulars and seemed to talk increasingly about one woman and her sons. He would say, “Aniela came in with her oldest, Gus, today. He’s two years older than you Mieczyslaw, he left school early like you did, Bruno. I don’t know what he does but he told his mother to order whatever she wanted. She ordered a pound of pastrami, a log of salami and two dozen sausages and the sauerkraut to go with it. Then he pulled out a roll of bills and paid for it. I’ve never seen a boy with that kind of money before. I don’t even think I’ve seen a man with that kind of money. You should meet him, Mieczyslaw, and maybe he’ll get you into his business.”
I smiled and nodded at Father. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but I didn’t want to make that kind of money. It sounded like Gus was doing something illegal. What kind of man carries around a roll of cash? It’s as though he wants to show off to the world that he has money. I want to be an honest man and earn my money doing an honest day’s work. That’s how Father did it and that’s how I will do it.
It was less than a year after that conversation when Father came home and told Bruno and me that he had asked Aniela to marry him. I knew Father had taken a liking to her but it caught me off guard when he told me. Every night before he went to bed, he would kiss the photograph he had of Mother on the table next to his bed. He hadn’t shown enough signs of moving on after Mother. Sometimes I suspected that he proposed to Aniela for financial reasons because after they married we moved all of our things to the apartment building that Gus owned.
The building was four floors. It was built of red brick and there was a small but grand staircase leading to the doorway. Aniela and her three children; Gus, Henry and Joseph lived in the apartment on the first floor. Gus rented out each of the upper floors to different families. Whatever Gus was doing, illegal or not, it allowed his family to live in small luxury.
I had a hard time moving into the new apartment. I had no issue with Aniela or Henry or Joseph. They treated me well and they were good for conversation. However, I had a lot of trouble getting along with Gus. Because he made enough money to support the family on his own, he felt entitled to be the head of the household. Father didn’t even argue with him even though Father was the natural head of the house. He wasn’t much older than me and he hadn’t finished high school.
Gus would sit at home and boss people around. He didn’t do it in a mean way, but he did it in a way where I could tell that he took great pleasure in having people do things for him all day.
It was in 1924 when I graduated from high school and Bruno and I took jobs working for the railroad. Father was proud of us, we were working hard for our money and he liked that. The work wasn’t so bad, we would unload trains when they came in and load them up before they went out. It wasn’t the kind of railroad work that I wanted to do, but it was work. It kept money in my pocket, gave me something to do and it made my arms strong. It also kept money in Gus’s pocket.
When Bruno and I got our jobs, Gus told us that he would be taking a cut of our pay every week. He said it was so he could maintain the household that he was letting us live in. He said if we didn’t like it, we were more than welcome to stay until we could find a place of our own. I tried to get Father to intervene but Father told me to listen to Gus because Gus was older than me.
Gus also discovered that when we were paid each Friday, the railroad company didn’t check whether or not we were employed with them. The man handing out the money had a list of names of people who shouldn’t get paid as much as everyone else because of days missed and as long as you weren’t on that list, you could collect the full week’s money.
So every Friday, Gus would wait in line with everyone else and get paid for work he didn’t do. After a few weeks, he started bringing a few of his friends along to do the same. I never met the guys, but I’m sure they were in the same illegal business as he was. Those guys started bringing their friends and eventually the railroad noticed that they were losing more money than they could afford. They changed their system to keep track of the names of people who should get paid. Somehow they managed to trace all of the extra people collecting back to Bruno and me. Someone must have known that Gus didn’t work for the railroad and that he was related to us. However they did it, Bruno and I lost our jobs.
I will admit that Gus did have a short stint where he worked and earned honest money. He held a job a few years after the railroad incident as a floor walker for one of the department stores downtown. From what I gathered, all he did as a floor walker was to dress nice and look for things in the store that were out of place, and he would put them where they belonged. That job lasted him three months before he quit and went back to only collecting money from Bruno and me. I don’t think he ever stopped with his illegal dealings.
All through this time, I kept a correspondence going with Doloreta. She too had completed her schooling in Poland. She worked in her father’s shop as a clerk. In my letters to her I would tell her how wonderful America was and how I was working to save up the money to come and steal her away. Her responses were usually the same:
Poland is slowly rebuilding itself again after the war. Father’s work is slowly coming back to him as couples return to Miechow with their children.
America sounds even more wonderful than what you described in your last letter. I will await your arrival in Poland. My bags are packed and waiting by my bedroom door. I will be able to leave at a moment’s notice.
With all my love,
She was interested in everything about America. She couldn’t wait to see the wilderness and she couldn’t wait to see the cities. I really wanted to take her to a baseball game because it had become a passion of mine in recent years. Father had taken us to see the Cubs play in Wrigley Field and I will forever be a fan of baseball. I only hoped that Doloreta would be able to see how wonderful the game was too.
After ten years of working for the City of Chicago, half of which was during the Depression, I had hardly any money saved up to go to Poland to get Doloreta from her parents like we had been planning. It was hard keeping money for me when Gus would take every penny he could get out of me. After the stock market crashed and money was scarce, the amount of money he demanded each week stayed the same while the money we made became less and less. Bruno and I were fortunate enough to keep our jobs through the hard times.
So it was in 1935 when I went to Gus with my hat in my hands so I could ask him for a loan to get Doloreta from Poland.
“Gus, I have been paying you the same cut of my paycheck every week for the past ten years, regardless of how much money I made. I only questioned it a few times. Now, I would like it if you would give me some money to get Doloreta from Poland. Times are getting tougher for her there than they are for us. I don’t know how much longer she’ll be able to last in that life.”
He looked me over for a long minute from his armchair in the living room. “I’m sorry; Mieczyslaw, but I won’t give you the money. We need that money here.”
“What has that money ever bought us? I have never seen anything new in this apartment that you bought for the family. I only see the things that you buy for yourself.”
I didn’t speak to Gus after that if I could help it. He didn’t deserve my attention if he couldn’t help me with my happiness.
I only received a few more letters from Doloreta over the next few years. Each one seemed to tell a tale of a Poland that was slowly getting worse and worse to live in. She relayed stories of families disappearing in the night. Then in 1939, I received my last letter from Doloreta.
I have heard rumors that the Germans and the Soviets are in Poland. I would wait to write this letter until I know more, but if they truly have arrived, then there is little time to get this to the post.
I want you to know, I love you Mieczyslaw. I will wait for you to come and sweep me away.
With my everlasting love,
I was sitting at home, by the fire listening to the radio when I heard what happened. The Japs attacked one of our military bases on the island of Hawaii. I was sitting in my arm chair, finishing reading the Sunday paper and I didn’t hear the first announcement. Gus did, he leaned over to the radio and turned the dial up. The voice of the man reporting made it clear that this was serious, I felt as though he knew someone stationed at the base just by how his voice sounded.
“Do you think we’ll enter the war now?” asked Gus.
Gus had been one of the few people who wanted to go and lend aid to Europe and fight against the Germans. I think he regrets having missed out on the last war due to his age. He wanted to go off and fight the Germans then and he had been looking for a reason to do it since. I wondered if he thought we would be fighting the Germans now, even though it was the Japanese who attacked us.
“I don’t see how we can’t do something,” I said.
“Today of all days. It’s a Sunday you know. They must have known we wouldn’t be ready to fight. People were in church, they couldn’t have manned the guns fast enough to put up a strong offensive.”
Gus was in frenzy about this. After he turned up the dial, he didn’t sit back down. He was pacing the room while talking to me.
“Frank, have you heard the news? We’ve been attacked,” said Gus.
My Father had come into the room. By the looks of it, he had just come from the market because he was carrying two grocer’s bags.
“Yes, a man was running through the street yelling the news.”
Father spoke quite plainly. He was calm and showed no worry. I wondered whether Father knew that Gus was going to leave when American declared war. I could tell that in the twenty-two years of being Gus’ father he had grown to love him as a son. I wondered if he worried about me leaving to fight for America also.
I had been looking for a reason to leave home. I loved Father and Bruno as much as I ever had. Aniela wasn’t a bad mother either, though she would never replace Mother. I also got along alright with Henry and Joseph. It was Gus who I made me want to leave. I was still mad at him for not letting me get Doloreta.
Gus didn’t do what most people did with their money, he didn’t spend it on entertaining himself of women and he didn’t put it in the stock market. What he did was buy the building that we live in. It wasn’t anything spectacular, just four floors of apartments. We lived on the first two and he rented out the top two floors to some nice families, the Wantuchs and the Rominski’s.
The fact that we had a place to live through the past few years, they had been rough, made all the difference. We didn’t have to worry about finding money to pay rent. What little money we made could go towards buying food and whatever other amenities that we needed. Each week when we had money, we had to give it to him so he could buy food and whatnot for the house and then he would give us back what he felt was necessary. I rarely got enough to buy myself a meal.
I worked hard for my money. Bruno and I repaired the streets and we helped build public buildings. We ended up in one of Roosevelt’s programs but I can’t remember which one. It wasn’t important. Sure at the time it was a source of pride telling people that you worked and for what organization, but what was really important was having the money come.
I had other reasons for wanting to leave, but Gus was the main reason that I needed to get out of there.
“Mieczyslaw, are you going to go fight the damned Japs?” asked Gus.
“We’re too old, they won’t want us.”
“You’re thirty-seven and I am thirty-nine, that isn’t that old. I bet they’ll take anyone who’s willing to fight. I am.”
I was too. But I wasn’t going to tell him that.
I wasn’t telling anyone that I was going. I wanted to cut free. At the time, it made more sense. I wonder if it was the best thing for me to do. No one knew I was gone and no one knew my name. I couldn’t imagine what Father went through when I didn’t come home from work that day. I told Bruno that I had some things to do before work and he should go without me.
At the recruiting station they didn’t ask many questions. There was a physical, which I passed and there were a lot of forms to fill out. All in all, it wasn’t a very difficult process. They seemed ready to take anyone to fight. I wondered why Gus wasn’t able to enlist. He went the very day that America declared war. They sent him home and he would say why. Part of me wonders if he really went to enlist that day or if he just left the house for a couple of hours and came back. I always thought that he was too attached to that house of his to leave it.
Anyway, the men at the recruiting office told me that the train for basic didn’t leave for two days. He told me when and where to report to make sure I was on that train. So I had two days to kill. I didn’t go home. I could have gone home and stayed there until the train left, but then I would have to answer to Bruno when he asked why I didn’t show up at work that day or the next because I’m quite certain that I lost my job by not showing up. There were too many men willing to work.
Instead I wandered around the rest of the day before checking into a cheap hotel near the train station. I feel a little guilty about doing it, but I stole some of the cash from where Gus kept it in the house before I left. I wasn’t sure how long I would have to wait and I wasn’t sure if I would need money while I was at basic training camp.
I spent the day between signing up and shipping out in a diner, eating and writing a letter. I wanted Doloreta to know that I was going to the war and that I would try to find her if I got the chance. I also wrote her to tell her that I had changed my name so if she wanted to find me, she would know where to look. I still hadn’t heard from her since she wrote me in 1939. I still sent her letters, but they were never answered. I hoped that she was still alive. Every time I met someone who had fled from Poland, I asked them if they had heard anything about her or her family.
I went to sleep early that night. I wanted to get plenty of rest before I started my career in the Army.
Most of the guys had gals they left back home. It was all they seemed to talk about. They were fighting this war only so they could come home and be with those girls. I was asked by a lot of the guys early on in basic about my girl, who it was that I was fighting this war for. At first it was hard to tell them that I was fighting in the war to get away from home. Then it was even harder to tell them that there wasn’t a girl back home that I was fighting for, it was actually a girl over there. I think they misunderstood me. I think they thought that I knew where Doloreta was, what she was doing and that she was alive. I didn’t want to explain any of this to them. I told them that when we got to Poland, I was going to the last place I saw her and then I would find her from there.
We stayed stateside for a while. Basic was supposed to take twelve weeks and then we were supposed to start advanced training. Later in the war, I asked the guys if they remembered when basic ended and when advanced started and no one could recall a date. It didn’t matter. We were still learning what we needed to know to keep ourselves and those around us alive.
I signed up for the infantry. They gave me a rifle and taught me to shoot it. At one point in basic I think I had the choice to switch out of the infantry and join the armor division or learn to operate the machine gun, I didn’t want to. The way I looked at it was that I would rather be outside walking than be cooped up in a tank all the time and I would rather carry my standard issue Thompson than a bulky machine gun. It’s easier to run and stay alive when you have less to take with you.
Anyway, we left the states after a little more than a year of training. I thought it was odd that I signed up a little more than a month after the war started and it took so long to get me to see the action. I had no complaints though. I was getting away from home, getting paid and the later I get into the war the longer I would live in it.
We hopped a train and rode it all the way from Tennessee where we had basic to New York where our ship was waiting. This was the first time I had been back to New York since arriving on the shores back in 1914. It was also the first time I had been on a boat of any kind since leaving Poland. It gave me something to live through the war for. I wanted to be able to tell people that I went overseas with my country to fight for the one I had left as a child. It gave me two senses of pride and I liked it.
New York was much different than when I last saw it. Everything seemed bigger and faster. And with all of the infantry coming into town to ship out, the whole city was packed. People were running about, taking care of last minute things before their boats left port. Even with all of the military order it was difficult for us to move. I couldn’t go anywhere without bumping shoulders with someone. The urgency only added to what you could pull out of the air. There was also a good helping of fear. I was with a group of men who were ready to die for their countries if they had to. Every day we spent waiting for our ship to sail we would hear about another person who didn’t show up for roll call. These were ones who hadn’t thought the whole thing through. They knew they wanted to defend their country but the realness hadn’t dawned on them until they saw the ocean. The ocean made them think of what was to come on the other side. I won’t lie, I had the thoughts too. We all did. But in the end I figured if I didn’t go and fight, there was one less person to fight for Doloreta. I liked to think that the men, who didn’t leave on that boat with us, came to a similar realization and caught the next boat.
You could have said that there was excitement in the air too. I lost track of the times that I was asked if I was excited to go and fight the Germans. Was excited really the right word? At the time, I thought I was excited. I told everyone that I was. I believed them to be the vilest enemy that America had ever faced. I don’t think most of us were excited like we said we were. I think we were just trying to be American heroes, doing what we had to do. Then again, I knew that there were some who truly were excited to get to Europe and to kill some Germans. I saw those men die on the battlefield, killed by Germans.
Our ship took us to England, Bristol to me more precise. Fortunately very little happened on the ship. No deaths, mostly seasickness. All the time we were supposed to keep watch for other ships and German U-boats. It kept us on edge the entire voyage, but we didn’t see any. I never figured out how we would have seen them because the point of a U-boat was that they moved and attacked under water. If we did see one, it probably was too late.
We stayed two weeks in Bristol before piling into trucks heading to London. We were to meet up with some more Americans who have been helping defend the city alongside the British. Our commanding officer, Lieutenant Briggs, told us we would have left for London sooner but we were replacing a group who was making their way to France for an assault and we needed to wait for barracks to open for all of us. He also told us that there had been German planes trying to make bombing runs recently. There was a fear of the blitz starting again, but he told us not to worry because the Royal Air Force was determined to maintain their air superiority over England.
We were so close to the action. Those weeks in Bristol I didn’t see or hear anything that sounded like the war was close, but I could feel it. I felt as though I could feel when bombs were dropped, the dull thud and explosion moving from across the Channel to where I was. I asked around and none of the other guys said they could feel it. Maybe I just wanted to.
When we made it to London, we were assigned to our barracks and then Lt. Briggs split us into patrol groups of eight men. Our mission was to patrol the city and be on alert for German ships and planes. We were to radio in anything we saw that might be suspicious.
Each patrol was assigned a man for communications, two men for a mobile machine gun and five men for rifle support. I was in the rifle support of my patrol along with Johnny West from California, Steve Tanner, Sal Marino and Louis Smith. Robert Bessler and Donald Schroeder were in charge of our machine gun. They were big muscular guys; I doubted that they would’ve needed that gun they lugged around to scare off Germans. Paul Terrus was our communications man. He was a small man who wore thick glasses. The first day I met him and found out he would be in charge of our patrols communications he introduced himself as Paul the Apostle. I asked him why he called himself an Apostle.
“Charles,” I had changed my name to Charles Wright when I enlisted, “my name is Paul and I use this radio to speak to the higher ups. They are the ones who tell us where we go and they are the ones who have a good deal of control over whether we die or not. As far as I am concerned, I am speaking to God.”
We patrolled that city for four months before anything happened on our watch. It wasn’t even anything threatening to all of us. Johnny got sick, something he ate didn’t agree with him. Whatever he ate came out of him at both ends as fast as he could get it in. This took all of the fight out of Johnny. We ended up having to patrol without him. The last I heard of Johnny, he was transferred to a hospital outside of London. Whatever sickness Johnny had, it took him out of the war before we saw anything.
After six months of being in England, we received a new batch of infantry from the States for support. Rumor was that large group of our men were going to cross the Channel and try to put a dent in the German defenses. The patrol I was in didn’t get on the list of units to go the mainland. I think it was because we were down a man and they wanted full numbers in the patrols. Either way, it led to a reunion from back home.
Lt. Briggs told us that our patrol was going to be absorbed into the new group of infantry and it was likely that we would head over with them. He told us that we could stay together as our patrol was but take on a new member, or that we could split and each be placed into a new patrol. Since we had all taken a liking to one another we opted to stay together. With the exception of Johnny, we had been quite lucky not seeing any action.
Lt. Briggs introduced us to our new commanding officer, Lt. Stevens, and wished us the best of luck. He was leaving with the rest to fight in Europe. Later, I heard that Lt. Briggs was leading a patrol when his unit walked into an unknown German machine gun squadron. The entire unit was wiped out.
Lt. Stevens told us that we would be assigned a new man to our unit. Since we had lost a rifleman, we would be getting a new one. I was surprised to hear that the name of our new member was Edward Wantuch. There had been an Eddie Wantuch living with his family on one of the upper floors of Gus’ building. His sister, Eugenia, and my brother Henry seemed to be spending a lot of time together when I left for the war. I hoped that this Edward would be the same Eddie that I knew. If it was, I hoped that he had news from home for me.
Much to my delight Edward was the same Eddie that I knew. It was a difficult moment when he joined our unit. We only saw each other on occasion back in Chicago and we had only talked a few times. He actually didn’t recognize me when we were introduced, though I think had I been introduced as Mieczyslaw Borowcyzyk he might have at least recognized my last name.
I waited until we were patrolling to ask Eddie about home. He was quite surprised when I asked him how Eugenia and Henry were. It took him a moment to put things together. It was quite amusing watching him study my face before he realized who I was.
He asked me what happened to me. He had heard that I went missing and my father had asked everyone he knew if they had seen me, apparently it got him into a little trouble at the deli because he slowed down customers when he drilled them for any information they might have. I told him my story, leaving out the part why I left. I didn’t want to spoil his image of Gus with my complaints. Fortunately for me, he was satisfied with my story and he never asked for a reason.
Eddie told me that Henry had proposed to Eugenia. He said the wedding was small but very nice. It was after the wedding that he joined the Army. He said he was going to do it sooner but he found out about the wedding and put it off until after. He wanted to be there to see his sister get married.
It was odd to think that I was in this war and I found out that I had another brother. It was even odder to think that by fate alone he was put into the same patrol as me. Later when I thought about it I realized had he not shown up, there would have been so much less that I would have known about what happened at home. I was glad to have him there.
It was about this time that Lt. Stevens came to our patrol and told us that we had earned a month of leave. It was uncommon to get leave in those days. Because we hadn’t had a break from our patrolling in a year and they didn’t need all of us, they offered. We gladly accepted. Eddie got leave too even though he had only been patrolling for a six months because he was without a patrol and there wasn’t room in other patrols for him to go into while we were away.
I hadn’t considered how I would spend my time when Eddie came up to me and invited me to come with him. He said he was going to Iceland. He had met a gal in Bristol when he was there briefly after arriving from America. He had been in touch with her since via post. She had kept asking him to come visit her when he got a chance.
I had heard about Hekla, Eddie’s gal many times while on patrol. She sounded wonderful. The way Eddie talked about her; you would have expected her to be a goddess. He described her as the most beautiful woman, golden hair and strong yet soft features. She lived with her parents and sisters on a small farm in Iceland. I was eager to meet her, to ensure that she was everything that Eddie said her to be, not that I doubted him but more to see what such a perfect woman was.
Eddie wrote her a letter, telling her to expect us in a few days and sent it ahead of us. The journey was relaxing and we took our time getting across the country to Bristol. In Bristol, we hired a fisherman to take us on his boat to Iceland. He was worried about taking American infantry on his boat because he thought it would draw the Germans to him, but we ensured him that we would do everything we could to protect him–we had brought our weapons with us for our own protection. He seemed calmed by our reassurance of his safety.
Fortunately for Eddie and me, Hekla lived just outside of the port that the fisherman brought us into. We only had to do bit of asking around to find where she lived. My only worry was that she hadn’t received Eddie’s letter before our arrival and wouldn’t be expecting us. I doubted that this would have kept her family from taking us in for the time, but I felt better knowing that we were expected.
Hekla was everything that Eddie described her to be. She was, in fact, quite beautiful and her family was very generous. They were more than willing to let us stay for some time. Hekla had received Eddie’s letter and they had prepared an area in the barn for us to sleep.
I wasn’t sure what I expected when I agreed to go with Eddie to see Hekla. I suppose I should have realized that he would like to spend time alone with her, but it didn’t dawn on me. I didn’t mind. I walked the countryside by myself and had time to think in peace. It might have been because Eddie was with Hekla, but I did an awful lot of thinking about Doloreta. I had sent her a handful of letters since coming overseas, though I doubted whether she got any of them. I told her that I was in London and that I was on patrol for the American Army. I told her that I would always be looking for her and that if I ever got the chance, I would return home and try to find her myself. I told her that I would always be waiting for her. However, I never heard back from her nor did I see her while patrolling. I’m sure I would have recognized her in an instant, she had sent me a more recent photograph of her and I had studied ever inch of the photo until I could have drawn a perfect copy.
When I wasn’t lost in my thoughts, I spent much of my time helping Hekla’s family around the farm. Her parents were the nicest old couple that I had met and her two younger sisters, Svana and Valdis, were a delight to be around. I think they took a liking to me because I was a man in uniform. I doubt it dawned on either of them that I was much too old for them, they were hardly twenty, and there was little hope that I could ever be with them. It didn’t stop Hekla’s parents either from trying to get me alone with their daughters. To them, I must have been an American G.I., like Eddie, who could take care of their daughters.
After a week and a half of staying in Iceland with Hekla’s family, Eddie and I decided that we should head back to London. I made sure to thank Hekla’s parents for their hospitality before leaving. They said they looked forward to seeing me once Eddie and Hekla were together again.
“Hekla was wonderful, her whole family was,” I said.
“She told me that she wanted me to propose to her. Did you know that? I wanted to, Charles. I really did. But I had to be honest with her and myself. I’m fighting a war right now. What would happen if I married her and then we shipped off to the mainland and got ambushed by German panzers? She wouldn’t have a husband. No Charles, I told her that the moment we win this war, I’d come back and take her away with me. I told her after this war, we could be together for good.”
I told Eddie that it took a lot of man to think like he did. I also told him that I wanted to be there when he proposed. I didn’t remind him, however, that he as good as proposed to Hekla and that dying in the war now would be the same as dying in the war if he married her. I didn’t want to think about it too much because we could die at any moment.
We soon found out that the operation wasn’t going to happen right away. But I could tell that it was going to be big. There would be talk at meals from the other patrols about extra duties they had. We would have to do them too, even though we weren’t told what it was for. A lot of it was clearing bombed areas for storage of vehicles and then covering them with camouflage in case any bombers made it into Allied airspace they wouldn’t be able to recognize it from the air.
There were tanks and troop transports everywhere. The airfields started to overflow with fighters and bombers. More and more vehicles arrived by the week. Whatever this military operation was, it was big. I wanted to write this to Doloreta and tell her how the air was filled with excitement, but I left it out of my letters. It wasn’t standard practice to divulge our military plans in letter in case the mail was intercepted. This was one of those gray areas because we hadn’t been formally told about the operation.
Slowly the city and the countryside began to fill with more and more soldiers. They were arriving daily with more from Allied countries. I ran into other Americans, Brits, Canadians, French and even some soldiers from Poland. I couldn’t help but look at this and think about the time we read the Iliad in school. The teachers told me that Helen was promised to Paris by the goddess Aphrodite so he took her from King Menelaus back home. We were told that Menelaus asked his brother to join him in war to win back his wife and the Greek states sent a thousand ships to save her. I looked around at the other soldiers and saw enough men to fill a thousand ships even if we didn’t take the tanks other vehicles with us.
Hitler took Europe from us, and we wanted it back. It comforts me to remember that the Greeks defeated the Trojans in the war. I hoped we were the Greeks and Hitler’s army was the Trojans.
I ran this thought by Paul one day while we were out on patrol.
“Look Charles, I carry this radio around with me day and night. When I get a chance I sit and listen to it. Something about it soothes me. But I haven’t heard anything about a major operation. There’s more chatter but it’s because there’s more people around lately,” he said.
“I think Charles is on to something,” said Edward, “Why else would all of these soldiers be here and not be out on the front?”
“Exactly,” I said.
“It makes sense Paul. Plus, think about it. If they went around telling all of us what we’re doing here, there’s a better chance that a spy will hear. That’s the same reason they don’t broadcast about it on the radios. How could we succeed if Hitler’s army is waiting for us when we strike?”
“Where would we even strike?” asked Paul. “We’re amassing on an island and our armies on the mainland are too scattered for us to make any affect on the front.”
“What if we’re creating a new front? It’s only twenty some miles across the water to France.” I said.
“How could we get all of these men over? It would take weeks or we would need five thousand ships. There is no way we could create a front in France. Plus, aren’t the beaches heavily fortified in case we do try to do this? We would be sailing into our own death,” said Paul.
“Well, make sure you pay the boatman for a ride back,” I said.
“What are you talking about?” asked Paul.
“He’s talking about Charon who would take souls to the underworld,” said Edward. “You have to pay him for the ride in. Why not pay him for a ride out too. Then there is a chance of living.”
“Thanks, Edward.” I had no idea that Edward knew Greek mythology too. I was the only one in my family to finish high school and that made me the only one to read classics. But since I didn’t talk to Edward much before the war I couldn’t have known.
“Well I don’t plan on paying any boatman. I don’t plan on dying. If we do end up actually fighting in this war I plan on killing a hundred Germans. They won’t even have time to reach for their gun before their dead,” said Paul.
Paul’s statement ended that conversation. Things got uneasy in our patrol when we talked about dying. None of us admitted to being scared of dying. I was. I’ll admit that now. But it wasn’t the death that made us uneasy. We were worried that we wouldn’t get a chance to die. We were soldiers and we hadn’t fired our weapons since training. How could we return home with them men who watched others die? I was willing to wander the world for ten years before I made it home like Odysseus did. That way the war wouldn’t be immediately in the minds of everyone back home. I wouldn’t get a hero’s welcome but I wouldn’t have the guilt of receiving it because I didn’t fire a gun.
But it didn’t matter; I got to fire my gun.
It was towards the end of May when we were told to clean the barracks. We were told to make them shine. Word quickly got out why we had to. General Eisenhower was coming to the base and our commanding officers wanted to make sure he was impressed. I understood the military’s reason for having clean barracks, it was about discipline. But somehow I couldn’t understand why I had to scrub the floor on my hands and knees to make sure there wasn’t a speck of dirt while we were in the middle of a war. It was one front and one opponent that I didn’t think we should be fighting.
And then the day came that I would never forget because it changed everything. Lt. Stevens assembled our patrols and we stood in formation alongside almost every other American soldier that was based in England. It was a mass of men, unmoving and standing tall. We knew why we were there. The talk while eating and while preparing the grounds for tanks and planes and artillery was going to be confirmed. Our army was going to do what the Greeks had done thousands of years ago. We were going to go to Paris and take back what was ours.
General Eisenhower was a magnificent man. He moved with a grace that commanded respect. The men who followed him and guarded him as though he was our only hope for winning this war. I watched him be escorted in front of us onto a small platform from where he told us what we needed to know about Operation Overload. I watched him as he descended from the platform to rejoin his escort and leave the grounds. Having General Eisenhower on our side was the reason I knew we were going to win the war.
I didn’t even worry when he told us that we would be part of a mass assault on the German controlled French beaches. It might have been wrong but I was excited to enter the war. It never dawned on me that Operation Overload could have killed me or it could have killed the men that I had known for so long. It didn’t even bother me that we were taking a page out of Russia’s book by throwing mass amounts of men at the enemy and hoping we over power them. No, I was excited that in two days we would get onto a landing craft, which apparently would include fishing boats, and I would get to fire my weapon.
“Charles, can I ask a favor of you?” asked Edward.
“Sure, anything,” I said.
“If I die on the beach or at any time in this war, can you take this ring to Hekla? Can you do this for me?”
“You’re not going to die, Edward,” I said.
“Just take the ring and promise, Charles. Promise me you will give it to Hekla,” said Edward.
I took the ring, it was a simple silver band, and I put it in my pack with my gear.
I hadn’t thought about asking Edward or Paul to do anything for me if I died. I had no one back in the states and I wouldn’t know where to send them to find Doloreta and I wouldn’t know how to describe her to them if I had. Instead I took care of it myself. I wrote her another letter vaguely telling her what our army was planning. I told her that I had always loved her and that I would be waiting for her if I died. I hoped that I would someday tell her the story myself.
Two days later, early in the morning before the light rose above the horizon, I found myself standing next to Paul and Edward in a landing craft. We were going over in one of the first waves, though I don’t think that it could be called a wave because as soon as a boat dropped its soldiers off it was to return to load up and bring more back. The boat wasn’t anything special. It was stripped of everything unnecessary to make sure it could support the weight of the men on it. The walls were high sheets of metal and in the back there was a gate that lowered so we could run out instead of climbing over the walls. We were going to have air support from the thousands of airplanes that had sat in the fields of England and the decks of aircraft carriers for months. We had to worry about mines on the water and in the sands of the beach while running through swarms of machine gun fire. While standing in that boat, it felt like we had missed our chance to pay Charon and this boat was carrying us to our eternal death.
I never was the religious man that I wanted to be but when Paul suggested that we say a prayer before leaving I felt like it was the right thing to do. The three of us bowed our heads as Paul prayed.
“We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly. But if any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy. Now get behind me, Satan: you are an offence to me. We walk about, seeking whom he may devour. Lead me to safety Father, for you I fight. Amen.”
The horizon was still dark as our boat trailed after the hundreds of others. The fog made everything damp and made it hard to see anything not on the boat. But we could tell that they were there. Over the sound of the waves slapping the sides of our boat there was the low hum of the engines on the other boats and the occasional shouting that made it over to our boat. We were supposed to make as little noise as possible to give ourselves as much cover as we could. Above us we could hear the drone of the bombers and fighters that took off to escort us and to clear as much of the beach as they could. From the shore in front of us I could hear the faint sounds of battle, growing louder as we made our way across the Channel.
I worried most about the machine gun fire. If the beach defense was what we were told it was by our commanding officers then there wouldn’t be a place to hide where machine gun fire could hit us at all times. How could we defend ourselves? The machine guns were in bunkers and our soft flesh was running about unprotected. I hoped that someone on our side could take one of the machine guns from the Germans, so we might have a section of the beach that is safer than the others.
As we came into landing distance of the beach, the sounds of battle were impossible to ignore. The constant rat tat tat of the machine gun seemed to come for miles from both directions of the beach. Our fighters dropped bombs and their explosions were louder than I could have imagined but in a way it was comforting. It gave me confidence that we had a chance to take the beach every time I saw an explosion light up the bunkers.
“Get ready men,” yelled Lt. Stevens.
I looked at Edward and Paul and gave them a nod and they returned it to me. That one nod said so much at this moment.
The gate of our boat lowered so we could face death. The twenty or so men on the boat with me rushed out into the water, keeping our guns high and dry as we struggled towards the beach. The water was cold, like ice and death.
The moment the first bullet whizzed past me and into the water behind me, it became real. After that bullet there was another one and then another followed. Faster and faster they came, each time missing me by what seemed to be less than inches.
A man in our squadron yelled. I looked and I saw him go under.
There were shouts coming from everywhere. They engulfed us, forming walls of agony that seemed to be closing in on us with every second.
It hadn’t dawned on me to use my weapon. It was just something I had been holding onto for dear life until I saw Paul aim and fire his. He was firing at the flickering light that came from the machine guns. There was little else to go by because the sun still had not peaked over the horizon. I wondered whether it ever would that day.
I raised my weapon also and I felt Edward do the same next to me. I fired my weapon for the first time of that war. And then again and again. It was easy, though I had no idea what I was firing at.
By this time, we had made it to the shore. We had lost a few men on our way in. Two were taken down by bullets and one’s leg was torn to pieces by barbed wire in the water. I looked around for Lt. Stevens hoping he would have some directions for us. He wasn’t there.
“Where’s the Lieutenant?” asked Paul.
“A bullet took him down,” replied Edward. “What do we do now?”
I looked around for some sort of natural cover but our part of the beach was flat. There was a tank that had just rolled on shore nearby.
“I think we should get near that tank. It’ll give us cover so we can make our way towards a bunker,” I said.
“Which bunker are we heading for?” asked Paul.
“Does it matter?”
We ran to the tank like cowards, too afraid to face the bullets. It was for the best though. I had forgotten about the mortar fire. It tripled our danger. We had to avoid the machine gun fire and the mortar shells and whatever the mortars threw into the air. The tank gave us protection from at least one side at all times.
Slowly we worked our way up the beach. The tank took the brunt of the attack for us but we still lost men. Our small squadron was slowly getting smaller.
Halfway up the beach, the sun rose over the horizon and lit up the beach and the bunkers. There was death all around us. I tried not to look at it or think about it. I just fired faster at whatever enemy movement I saw. Unfortunately, the light made it easier for them to see us.
Behind us more men left the transports and splashed into the water. I hadn’t seen the carnage that floated in the water when it was dark. There were bodies floating everywhere. The shoreline was now starting to pile them up and red water washed over them. I was glad that I went through it when I couldn’t see. I might not have had the will power to come ashore had I seen all of the death.
An explosion in front of the tank brought my mind back to what lay ahead of us. The tank had stopped.
“What was that?” yelled Paul. Our ears were ringing from the explosion.
“Mortar fire,” said Edward. “A shell hit the track in front of the tank. I don’t think she’d going to move any more. What do we do now?”
“Take a rest and reload. I’ll watch for Germans,” I told them. “We should try and get another squadron to join us for reinforcements.”
The other tanks around us weren’t as far up the beach as we were. We would have to double back or wait if we wanted the cover of another tank. It had taken a long time to make it this far.
I saw a squadron of men running without cover. I yelled and motioned to them to come over to us. As they did, I saw two of their men go down. Two soldiers helped each of those men make their way to us.
“Is anyone here a medic?” one of them asked.
A man from our squadron stepped forward as he pulled his kit out to bandage up the men.
“We’re trying to take that bunker. Someone down the beach radioed that they took a bunker and it cleared a nice area of our men.”
“How’d they get up there so fast,” asked a man in our squadron.
“Don’t know, but it sounded like it made all of the difference on the beach. We got the machine gun and a mortar. I think they took the remaining mortar shells and turned them on another bunker. Anyone here have a mortar or any artillery?”
“No,” said Paul, “we lost our artillery getting off the boat.”
“So what’s your plan then? Storm one of the bunkers?”
“We were following this tank up the beach until it got tracked. We haven’t come up with a new plan yet,” said Paul.
I told them that there was little hope of us making it to a bunker without some heavy artillery. We would need a tank, or a machine gun or a mortar to suppress the machine gun fire while we ran up the beach. Everyone seemed to agree. We formed two small groups and sent them out to find artillery to help us while the rest of us sat behind the tank and gave them cover fire.
While we waited at the tank we tried to find the best bunker to take and where we would need to put cover fire if we wanted to take the bunker. The problem was that we didn’t know what sort of cover we would get, if any at all. It was decided that at the very least we needed two machine guns for cover and anything else would be icing on the cake.
After an hour both groups had come back. They had done better than we hoped. One group brought a mortar team and a machine gun team with them and the other group brought two machine gun teams and a few extra men with them.
Paul explained our plans to the men who had just joined us. They agreed on our action, but one of the machine gun teams suggested we talk to command before we acted. It hadn’t dawned on me yet that we had no commanding officer in our group of men. We had been acting on our own accord since we got off the boat and no officers had come with the new groups of men that joined us.
Paul stepped forward as our leader. He radioed in to the base and confirmed our plan of action. The base gave us the go ahead and we started setting up for the offensive. The machine guns and mortar were readied to move into attack position and everyone else loaded their weapons and searched for whatever extra ammunition they could find.
The artillery teams were going to cover us as we split into three groups with six men in each. Hopefully that would keep enough of us alive to make our way to the bunker.
I was in a group with Paul, Edward and three guys from the squadron that joined us. Paul gave the signal to the mortars and the machine guns to start shelling the bunkers while the rest of us took off in our groups on separate paths. We were all meeting at the same bunker but one group ran straight up the middle and the other two flanked from either side. My group flanked from the right.
For the first ten yards I thought we were going to make it up easy but then our mortars and machine guns had to reload almost simultaneously. Instantly I started to feel bullets as they whizzed past us. I wanted to dodge them but it would be pointless. If I dodged one bullet it only meant I could be hit by another one.
We kept running up the beach. It was less than a hundred yards to the bunker but it seemed like miles. There were people shouting out orders, guns firing and shells exploding all around us. All at once time seemed to stop and speed up. Adrenaline surged through my veins, it kept me going. I wanted to turn around and run from the impending death but I knew that I had to keep fighting. We had to win the war before I could find Doloreta.
Paul raised his weapon and started firing as we ran. It hadn’t occurred to me to do the same. I was more worried about getting to cover than I was about firing. But Paul saw a man in the bunker and aimed for him. I saw Germans running out of the bunker and I jerked my weapon towards them and pulled the trigger. The power of the weapon slowed my run. I watched the bullet leave the barrel of the gun and travel towards the Germans, spinning through the air intending to kill. I missed, but it wasn’t by much because the Germans turned toward us and raised their guns. Eddie and Paul and the other three men left their targets to help me.
I wondered whether I did the right thing firing at those Germans. They weren’t worried about us until I fired at them. There were only five of them, but they had cover to duck behind if they needed to. They weren’t running either so it gave them more accuracy when they fired at us. It gave the bullet that killed Edward more accuracy.
As I raised my gun to fire again, I saw Edward from the corner of my eye raise his gun too. When I lowered my gun, I no longer saw Edward out of the corner of my eye. I turned to see where he was. Behind us, Edward lay on the ground. A bullet went through his cheek and out the back of his head. I threw myself towards his body. I was determined to bring his body up to the bunker with me. He was family, the only family that I had spoken to in the past few years.
Paul saw Edward go down too. He also saw me turn back for him and he caught me before I hit the ground.
“We can’t stop, Charles. We can’t bring him with us.”
“He’s not dead. He’s not dead,” I kept saying as Paul turned me around and pushed me towards the bunker with the rest of our squadron. I raised my gun saying to myself, “He’s not dead.” I pulled the trigger with more force as if it would make the bullet move faster or kill more Germans. I fired again and again, each time telling myself, “He’s not dead.”
We ended up taking out the five Germans. I can’t be certain but I think my bullets took out three of them. There were still more around, but the path up the beach was clear for us. Paul yelled out to us to lower our weapons and run.
As we reached the end of the beach sand, we started to get more cover from the boulders that lined the hills with the German bunkers. We could move towards the bunkers and not have to worry about getting shot at from all sides. As long as we kept low, there was very little chance of being fired at. Unfortunately we were so close to the bunkers, we had to worry about being shelled by our own men. The bombers were still flying their runs and dropping their bombs on the bunkers and tanks and mortar teams were still shelling the hills. The ground would shake every time a shell would explode.
Paul led us single file up the hill. I know there were times when we could be seen by our own men and there were times when we could be seen by the Germans. I wondered why no one had shot at us. I hoped that the Germans thought we were more Germans returning to the bunkers, that no Americans could have made it that far up the beach. Whatever the case might have been, we made it to the bunker.
I looked behind us to see where our other squadrons were. I only saw two men running together towards the same bunker that we were outside. They were men from the squadron that flanked from the left. They used the cover of the boulders to make their way towards us without getting shot.
“Hey,” yelled one of the men over the sound of gunfire. “Where are the rest of us?”
“It looks like it’s just us and you two,” yelled Paul.
Once the men made it to where we I saw that it was McGuff and Taylor, two men that came on the boat with us to the beach. McGuff asked, “Have you checked inside of the bunker yet?”
“No,” said Paul. “The machine gun keeps firing out of it. We were trying to figure out where to go from here.”
“I say we grenade the machine gun. I could easily lob it in there,” said one of the men in our squadron.
“That will work, but then we won’t have the machine gun,” said Paul.
“What do we need the machine gun for? It’s pointed at our men on the beaches and I bet it’s mounted that way,” said McGuff. “It’s better to get rid of it, in case we lose control of the bunker.”
“I’m with McGuff on this one,” I said.
“Alright,” said Paul. “How many grenades do we have?”
Five grenades were produced. It was more than we would need to take the gun out, but it was better to have too many than not enough.
“If someone steps out from behind this rock and can throw it in the bunker or as damned close to it as possible, we’ll cover them.”
Taylor stepped forward and said, “I played right field back home. I can definitely get the distance and I reckon I can get it in that bunker.”
“Alright, you have five but only throw one at a time. Best not to waste them,” said Paul.
Paul was shaping up to be a true leader in this assault. His mind seemed to work clearly amid the explosions and constant fire. I wondered where he might have been had he not been stuck on patrol in London with me for the past few years. Could he have been made into a General by now?
Taylor stepped out from behind the rock as we peered over it, ready to give him covering fire. He pulled the pin and threw the grenade and it just skimmed the top of the bunker before blowing up. He stepped back and grabbed another. The second time as he stepped out, we had to fire to keep the Germans from firing back at him. It looked like they were trying to find the source of the explosion. We took out two of them, but it didn’t matter. Taylor lobbed the second grenade into the window of the bunker, just past the machine gun.
It seemed like hours before the grenade exploded. We could hear the anxious shouts of the Germans in the bunker, no doubt trying to get away from the grenade or trying to get it out of the bunker. I sat there and counted my heartbeats while I waited for the grenade to blow. When it did, joy rushed over me. It was a small victory in regards to the entire assault on the beach, but it was a major victory for us.
“Alright men, I want us to split into two separate groups and move in on that bunker,” said Paul. “Remember that you can still be shot from other bunkers and that there might still be men alive in there. Each group, take a grenade. Whoever gets there first, lob it in the window to take care of any stragglers. Best not to give them a chance to fire at us.”
We did as Paul suggested. I went up to the bunker with Paul, McGuff and Taylor. We reached it with no problem just after the other group did. They lobbed their grenade in and we stepped back to avoid any shrapnel. After it blew, Paul motioned for us to climb in.
It was a single bunker. Other bunkers down the beach had two levels stacked one on top of the other. Inside the room was blackened from the grenade blasts. A half a dozen men lay dead on the floor. The machine guns, there were two but one must have been taken out before we charged up the beach, were twisted chunks of metal. Never again would they kill one of our boys. Somehow a pile of machine gun ammunition in the back of the bunker was untouched by our grenades. I can only imagine the chaos that it might have caused had it been hit by the grenade.
In the back of the room there was a door which was used to get to the pathways between the bunkers. The door was blown slightly off of its hinges, the wood was shattered.
There was little else in the room, mostly empty cans and rations. The bunker was designed and used for one thing, death.
Paul had ditched his radio on the beach before we charged up towards the bunker. It weighed too much and would have slowed him down. But we realized then that we still needed it. Paul, who had always seemed to know what move to make next in this assault, didn’t know where to move next.
“Take a break, men. We’ve earned it,” said Paul.
“Take a break? How can we take a break when there is still fighting going on out there?” asked McGuff.
“I know men are dying. I don’t want any of them to die. But they aren’t here with me. You guys are,” said Paul. “We could head out there and try and save them all, but that wouldn’t necessarily keep you men alive.”
Everyone in that bunker listened to Paul as though he was high command. He wasn’t any more important than me, just a private. But when he spoke, we listened and obeyed. I was fine with someone else doing the thinking for me. With trying to keep myself alive while trying to kill others, there wasn’t any time left to do any thinking. So we sat in that room.
Eventually one of the guys got curious and opened the door. It seemed odd that no one had tried to get into our bunker through the tunnel. The machine gun hadn’t been firing for too long so we kept expecting Germans to open the door to start it up again. But when they looked down the tunnel, there were cave-ins on either side preventing the movement in and out of our bunker. It must have been the planes on their bombing runs that caved in the tunnel. All we had to worry about was the window.
Eventually a group of men came by that had a ranked officer.
“Soldier, where is your commanding officer?” he asked.
“Dead, Sir. He went down as we landed on the beach.”
“Come with me men. We’re meeting at the checkpoint a mile inland.”
So we followed the officer. His name was Sergeant Horns. He took us with him to the checkpoint and we were absorbed into his unit. Sergeant Horns was the man who took me out of the war. He volunteered his unit to scout ahead for any possible German ambush. It would be a dangerous mission. We had hoped that our assault on the beach had the Germans running back to Berlin, but the odds were that they wouldn’t leave that easily. Sergeant Horns was looking to make a name for himself in the Army so he volunteered for the mission.
We weren’t a mile from the rendezvous when our unit was ambushed. It was a small group of Germans, no more than thirty. We were walking through a narrow valley when they started firing at us from atop the hill on our left. Sergeant Horn ordered some of our group to double back and climb up the hill to flank them. I wasn’t part of that group. We were to stay in the valley and return fire while to buy time for our men to get up the hill.
It’s a painful thing to be shot. I was hit in my upper left arm right after I reloaded my weapon and sprung up to return fire. The pain took me right back down to the ground. The pain surged through my body, but ultimately coming back to where the bullet rested. I tried not to look at the wound. Right after I fell I saw it but I had to look away so I didn’t become sick.
I could feel my blood flowing down my arm. It was warm and it seemed like I was bleeding more than I should have been. The sounds of the firefight slowly faded away. My vision became blurry and the last thing I remember seeing was the medic kneeling over me, tearing strips of bandage to tie around my arm to try and stop the bleeding.
When I came through again I was in the back of a truck. It wasn’t moving. From the sounds that I could hear, it was sitting by the sea. There were men speaking near me, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. My arm still hurt, but I could tell that I wasn’t bleeding anymore.
“Wright, it’s good to see you’re awake,” said a medic who had walked over when he saw my eyes open. “We’re taking you back to a hospital in London so you can recover. Try to get some rest.”
The next time I woke up, I was in a military hospital. Everything around me seemed sterile and white. A curtain was pulled partially closed around my bed. A nurse stopped when she saw I was awake while she walked by.
“How are you feeling, Charles?” she asked.
“Hungry,” I said.
“That’s certainly expected. You men don’t get enough food out on the lines and then you came back here and have been asleep for hours. It’s hard to feed a sleeping man. I’ll go and get some food for you.”
She was in a far better mood than I felt. I didn’t know what day it was or even what time of day. I assumed that it wasn’t night because of all the light, but without a window or a clock, I couldn’t tell. The pain in my arm had gone down, but now there was a dull throbbing in it every time my heart beat.
The nurse came back with a tray with food on it for me. She adjusted the bed so I was in an upright position so I could eat.
“There you go. Are you feeling better? How’s the arm? Try not to use it very much. We don’t want you opening the wound.”
“I think the sling will take care of that. I’m feeling fine, thank you,” I said.
“Do you want me to get you paper to write a letter with? You kept calling out for a Doloreta in your sleep? Do you want to write her and tell her you’re going to be okay?”
I told her yes and she went off to find some for me. I finished my food and then I went back to sleep. I would write the letter when I woke up. I also wanted to write a letter to Hekla. I didn’t know how long I would be in the hospital or where I would go when I got out and I wanted her to know what happened to Eddie. I wanted to know that he loved her.
It was late July when I stepped on American soil again. The transport ship brought me into New York. It was a much different view coming into the port than the last time I came to America. The skyline was higher and wider. But that meant by no means that it was any less exciting. I had been away for over three years fighting for freedom and it felt good to soon have my own freedom back.
When I came into New York, I had to check in with the Army base to see what I was to do. They told me that my service was up because of the wound. I was handed the remainder of my wages and was set back into the city as a man who could do what he wanted.
The problem was I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Before the war I worked for the city and during the war worked for the nation. Now, I wanted to work for me. I knew I would have a lot of trouble doing manual labor because of my arm. This saddened me because I had planned on coming home and working for the railroad.
I stayed a few days in New York. It reminded me of Chicago in many ways, but it never felt like home to me. Home was in Chicago with Father and Bruno.
I had a considerable sum of money when I got back to America. I had saved the majority of my wages while enlisted. There was little to spend things on and I had no one to send the money to. Each week my roll of money grew fatter and fatter. Now I decided that I would use that money to find a place to live, a place to settle down.
In the morning of my fourth day in New York, I checked out of the hotel and took my things to the train station. I bought a ticket for a train that would take me to California. I figured I would ride the train until I found a place that seemed like a good place to live and I would get off the train there and live the rest of my life. Once I was there, I would send a letter to Doloreta and hope that she received it.
It had been almost five years since I last heard from Doloreta. I had sent her a letter to her home in Miechow almost every week during the war. I have worried for those five years whether she was dead or not. I had been planning for the moment that I would hear back from her the entire time I was in the war. I would do what Gus never allowed me to do; I would get to Europe as fast as I could to collect Doloreta and bring her back to America to live with me.
Until the End
When I got off the train, I was in Chicago. Even though I intended to go all the way west, I knew for some reason that I would still come back to Chicago. I figured this way I wouldn’t waste time.
I wanted to go see Father and Bruno as soon as I could, but I couldn’t bring myself to see Gus. I still despised him for not lending me the money to go and get Doloreta. I doubted whether I could have controlled my actions when I saw him.
I resolved to find myself a place to stay and a job to bring me money. I would find Father eventually, but a bed to sleep on was more important. I came home from the war after most of the other men who fought in Europe. This worried me for two reasons. The first was that all of those men coming home would need a place to stay and a job to work. By the time I started looking for either, I was a late comer to the game and I feared that everything would have been filled.
Somehow, however, I found a flat on Waveland Avenue. The place was only a few blocks from Wrigley Field. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it had a bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen. It was all I needed and I could afford it. The landlord, Mr. Baniki, was a Polish man who had been in the country for nearly forty years. He had a thick accent that reminded me of Father’s and he didn’t say much in English. I told him I could speak fluent Polish and I saw the relief that came across his face. It was easier to speak to him in Polish than it was to speak to him in English.
“A lot of men these days don’t speak the old country’s language even though they learned English after coming here,” he said. “They want it to seem like they have been speaking only English their whole life. They want to fit in with the Irish and the Italians. Why not be Polish and fit in with the Polish? It’s what you are.”
“I went to both a Polish school and an American school. I think the only reason I still can speak Polish is because of the girl back home,” I said. I had already told him about Doloreta and how I planned to find her and bring her to America.
“If that’s what it takes for you to remember who you are, then that is what it takes. I would not mind having a nice Polish family living in my apartment.”
Mr. Baniki promised to bring me a bed to use until I could purchase my own. The apartment was bare without it. Once I found a job I would slowly save money to buy furniture for the apartment. But I would also want to save as much as I could to find Doloreta.
After having my first meal, cold cuts on rye bread, in my apartment I set to writing a letter to Doloreta.
My Dearest Doloreta,
It has been nearly five years since I last heard from you. I’m sure that the war has made things difficult for you to send word. I hope you received my letters from while I was in Europe. I have returned to America now. But I will return to steal you away as soon as I hear from you.
Please respond as soon as you can to this address.
With all my love,
What I needed was a job where, if I didn’t need to, I wouldn’t have to use my arm. I couldn’t go back to working for the city, it was the kind of manual labor that I couldn’t do.
I ended up trying my hand at a few different jobs before finding the one that suited me. I went to the deli down the block and asked for a job. They had an advertisement in the window saying they needed someone to work the counter. The pay wasn’t good but I took the job because it was better than what I had. I only worked there for four days before I was fired. All I had to do was wrap up the meats and cheeses that the customers wanted. My boss noticed that sometimes the customer would ask for a pound of meat and I would measure out to what was roughly a pound and then wrap it up. It was the ‘roughly’ part that he wasn’t happy with. Sometimes I would give them a little more than a pound and not charge them for it. He put a sign up in the morning saying that he was hiring again. By noon he was interviewing and by closing time I was replaced and fired.
I didn’t like to associate myself with the things that Gus did, I still ended up taking a job similar to the one he had when he worked. I found work at a department store where I was to fold shirts and pants after customers rifled through them. It was the simple work that my arm could stand. The hours were long and the work was boring. I knew I couldn’t work this job for a long time, that kind of monotony can drive a man insane. After a week and a half of folding clothes I found myself doing it while I was in my apartment. I remember standing at the window, looking down at the street and before long I found myself folding whatever clothes or bits of fabric I could reach.
I resolved to find myself a new job the next day after work.
All the while, I kept waiting to hear from Doloreta. It was possible that she hadn’t received my letter yet or if she had and had written me back, the post in Europe would be running slow due to the destruction of the war.
After a week of searching for a new job, I found one that suited me and I was hired when I walked in. The work would be easy on my arm and I would have fresh air. The only thing that might have been an issue was that I would be standing all day long and when it became cold during the winter, I would be standing outside. I was hired to be a doorman.
My job was simple. All I did was open the doors for the men and women who lived in the apartment building. I was to be nice to them. I also had to accept packages for them and send their visitors up or turn them away if it was requested. The pay wasn’t the best, but it was enough to live and I found that I would get tips from time to time. I never understood why I was tipped for doing the job I was paid to do, but I never questioned a man giving me money.
One day on my way back into my apartment after work, I held the door for Mr. Baniki. He took a look at my uniform that I had to wear for work and said, “It’s funny Charles, I don’t remember hiring a doorman but you do your job well.”
I figured as long as I was told I was doing my job as I should, I would continue to be a doorman.
“A day off, what do you need time off for?”
“I have some personal business to attend to, sir,” I said.
“Who will cover your shift? We need someone to be at the door.”
I told him that I had asked the night doorman if he could come in early for me one day. He agreed as long as I would do the same for him.
“As long as you have someone to cover for you, I don’t see why not.”
I wanted to take some time to go and find Father while he was working so I could avoid running into Gus. It had been such a long time since I last saw him and I wanted him to know that I was doing well. I also wanted him to know that I didn’t leave because of him.
At the end of my shift that day, I spoke with the nighttime doorman and he agreed to come in a few hours early for me the next day. My step was lighter on the way back to my apartment that day.
When I entered the building, I found Mr. Baniki waiting for me. He was holding some papers in his hand.
“Charles, this came for you today. The envelope is covered in Polish. Is it a letter from your girl in Poland? Will she be coming to live with you?” he asked.
I told him I would let him know what the letter said after I read it. I dashed up the stairs to my apartment and before the door had closed behind me I had torn open the envelope and was halfway through the letter.
I received your last letter. It came with a stack of letters from you that the post office had been undeliverable during the war. I have only just finished reading through them all.
I am glad to hear that you made it through the war safely. I do not know what I would have done had you died during this horrible time.
There is so much that I would like to tell you, but a letter is not enough space nor the right way to tell my story. I hope you will forgive me if I ask you to wait until I see you to tell you. Just know that I’m alive and waiting for you to return.
Please send word of when I can expect you.
With the deepest of love,
My heart beat so hard that I worried that my chest could not contain it. Doloreta was alive and it wouldn’t be long before I would see her again. Of course I would have to find a way to get time off of work for an indefinite time, but I would be willing to quit my job if that is what it takes.
I quickly scrawled a message to Doloreta and ran down the street to mail it. I nearly knocked Mr. Baniki down the stairs as I went.
“It looks like your girl is well, Charles,” he yelled after me with a laugh.
The first thing I did when I got to work the next morning was to tell my boss that I needed time off. He asked me why and I explained to him that I needed to fetch a woman from Poland.
“How long will you be gone? We can’t have the door unattended, who would open it?”
“I don’t know, sir. But I can’t wait. I need to go as soon as possible and if that means that I lose my job, so be it.”
He looked at me for a long moment before saying, “Charles, you are one of the best doormen I’ve ever had. You truly enjoy your job. The other men I hire aren’t cut out for the job and they leave after a few months. I’ll have to replace you if you go and your job won’t necessarily be here when you get back. But let me know when you get back and I will make sure to find you when I need a doorman.”
“I understand, sir. I hope you’ll need me soon.”
I worked the rest of my shift until the night doorman came. I was confused as to why he was there so early. I had forgotten that I was going to see my father. The events of the past day had taken my mind off of everything else.
I knew my father worked until the butcher shop closed for the day, so I knew that I had plenty of time to get across the city to catch him before he left for the day.
I hadn’t been back to that area of town in a long while. I realized that I missed the Polish shops and people being around all the time.
I walked into the butcher shop and the bell on the door rang. My father, who had been wiping the counter as I walked in, looked up.
“What can I get for you?” he asked.
“It’s only been five years, Father. Have you forgotten my face already?”
“Mieczyslaw, is that you?”
Father threw down his towel and ran from behind the counter to embrace me. It felt good to feel the warmth of his skin again and to hear his voice.
“Where have you been? I thought you were dead. Why did you leave without telling anybody? We asked all of the neighbors if they knew where you went,” asked Father, his voice suddenly stern.
I told him that I went to fight in the war and I told him why I had to go.
“That’s what I thought. The timing of things was too much of a coincidence for you to leave for something else. I’m glad to see you again, Mieczyslaw. You have to come to dinner tonight. Everyone will be happy to see you.”
“I can’t, Father. Not before I bring Doloreta back to America.” I then told him how I was leaving to go and get her. “I will finally do what Gus wouldn’t allow me to do before the war.”
“Oh Mieczyslaw, you need to put some things behind you,” he said. “Promise me that you will come and find me the day you get back to Chicago?”
“I will, Father.”
I stayed with him and talked until it was time for him to close the shop for the night. He wanted to hear all about the war and he was happy to hear that I was with Edward when he died. When I asked him why he was happy he said, “Eddie left to fight in the war and we feared that he would die and no one would get to see him again. This way we knew that he died with his family.”
I took the train as far as I could to Miechow but the war had twisted the tracks so the train could only go for part of the trip. I had to get out ten miles from the town. Fortunately I was picked up by an American Army jeep and the drove me into the city. It was a better way to arrive in the town because the train station was now little more than a pile of rubble.
The main street of the town was dead. People moved in and out of shops, but they moved quickly and with worry in their step. It seemed as though they still feared that the Germans troops would swoop out of nowhere and cart them off to containment camps again.
Some people tried to show their happiness, but it seemed forced. I didn’t doubt that they all were happy to be free again but I could tell that their happiness came at a great price.
I made my way across town to where Doloreta said she would be. She had tried to move back into her Father’s house after the war but it had been reduced to rubble when a bomb fell nearby. She was staying with a group of people who had also lost their families and their homes during the war.
I knocked on the door to the home and a young boy answered. Behind him I could see people moving about the house. I told him I was looking for Doloreta Gryziak. Before he could turn around and call for her, I saw her. I hadn’t seen her face to face in nearly thirty years but it looked just the picture I had of her.
She was very skinny, the war had taken a lot out of her, but she looked to be regaining her health. Her dark hair was pulled back and her round cheeks were pale. I couldn’t see the twinkle in her eyes, but it was dark in the house and I could hardly see her eyes to begin with.
“Charles? Is that you Charles?” she said as she ran to the door. As she came into the light outside I saw tears had started to stream down her cheeks.
“Oh Charles, take me away from here. Please take me away.”
When we made it back to America, we had little trouble getting Doloreta into the country with me. I told them that I was a soldier and that I was bringing her back from Europe so I could marry her. They understood like it happened every day.
As we moved through New York, on the way to the train station, Doloreta’s eyes were in the sky looking up at the skyscrapers. Hardly anything rose more than a few stories in Poland.
On the train ride back to Chicago, Doloreta continued her silent vigil. I didn’t press her to find out why she hadn’t been speaking much. Horrible things were done in that war. I saw good men die in the name of freedom and the men who killed them continued to kill as though the lives they took didn’t matter. There were things about the war that were hard for me to talk about. I had much trouble telling Father about Edward and I still hadn’t been able to bring myself to tell Doloreta about him. We let each other keep the secrets.
“This is where we’ll be living,” I told Doloreta as I unlocked the door to our apartment. “We’re only a few blocks from Wrigley Field. Sometime I will have to take you to a baseball game. I’m sure you will love them. Mr. Baniki, our landlord, will be happy to meet you. He speaks Polish and he is always around so while I’m at work, you can talk to him.”
“I knew a family of Baniki’s once. I buried them.”
I was in the middle of opening the door as she told me this. I turned and looked at her. There was a deep sadness on her face, as though she never could be happy again. She had told me why she disappeared during the war. The Germans rolled through town in their tanks and sent the Polish to work in the concentration camps. Doloreta, alongside her mother and her father were taken to one of the camps. Both her parents had died, though she didn’t say how.
“You should meet his wife. She makes a delicious homemade sausage and sauerkraut.”
“I’d like that,” she said as her eyes came back to the present.
“Father wants to see you too. He asked me to stop by when we came back to the city, but it is late and I do not like having to travel in the city after dark.”
I showed her around the apartment. She seemed happy to have sturdy walls and a bed. The kitchen was far from modern, but I could see tears in her eyes when she paused to look at it.
It was going to be difficult for her to adjust to the American life and it would take time, but I knew that she would get used to it.
“You have so many things. How did you pay for all of this?”
“Mr. Baniki had a lot of this in the apartment when I rented it from him. He has been nice to me. I also worked for some time after getting back from the war. I haven’t saved much yet, but I plan to buy us everything we need.”
“Do you still have your job?” she asked.
I told her that my boss said he would hire me back when he had an opening. I had only been gone a little more than a month, so the odds that the job was vacant again were slim. I told her we would make do with the money that I had saved.
She stepped to the counter and Father came around to embrace her. He held her at arm’s length, looking into her before pulling her close and whispering something in her ear. “Mieczyslaw, when are the two of you coming over to have dinner with the family?”
“Soon, Father,” I said. I was in no hurry to see Gus. I may have gotten Doloreta despite him forbidding me so many years ago, but I could not face him as a man if I didn’t have a job. I wanted to show him what sort of man he should have been. The kind of man with a wife and a family. He was only the kind of man who was after money.
“Soon is not soon enough. Bruno wants to see you. He gets off of work late, but if you came to the house, you could see him.”
“I know, Father. I want to see him too. Send him my best. Now, we must be going, I want to stop by and talk to my old boss about getting my job back before the day is up.”
Doloreta and I had plenty of time together. I showed her the city, downtown and the Polish neighborhoods. She didn’t think she fit in anywhere.
“Everyone here has been living in the city. They are American city people. I was born and raised in Poland. I speak Polish and only a few words of English. How will I ever fit in with them?” she asked me one morning while we sat on a park bench.
“I will help you learn English. You’ll fit in with everyone else in no time.”
“It’s more than being able to speak English. Look at that woman,” she said motioning to a woman in a blue dress carrying her groceries home. “I cannot tell if she is Polish or Irish or French or Czech. That’s what makes her American. Look at me, anyone can tell that I’m Polish.”
She had a point, the woman dressed and walked like she had never known a different country than America. “You’ll learn. I will help you.”
“Anytime you wish.”
“What about when you go back to work tomorrow? Who will teach me while you are gone during the day?”
To be honest, I hadn’t thought much about what Doloreta would do while I was at work. She could not go out because she could speak enough English to talk to people. “You could talk to Mr. Baniki. I’m sure he would like to have you around.”
I made an arrangement with the night doorman so we could get to Father’s place and have plenty of time to be with the family.
“I’m nervous, Charles. I haven’t seen most of these people before, and it’s been thirty years since I have seen Bruno.”
“Don’t worry, Doloreta. I haven’t seen them in a long time too and I just got up and left without telling them. I’m afraid most of them will be mad at me for that. But they’re nice people, you shouldn’t worry.”
I hadn’t told her the reason why I had waited so long to see everyone. I wanted to give her a fair chance in meeting Gus. She knew from my letters before the war about how I felt about him then, she just didn’t know how I felt about him now.
When we walked in the door at Father’s place, we were greeted by Father and Bruno, Eugenia and Henry, Henry’s parents the Wantuchs, Gus, and a family that I didn’t know but I was told lived on one of the floors upstairs.
“Father, where is Aniela?”
“She died two years ago. She took ill and passed peacefully in her sleep,” he said.
“Why didn’t you tell me when you saw me?”
“I did not like to talk about it. Plus, it was more important that you were back and well. I did not want to turn a happy moment into a sad one.”
“I’m sorry to hear, Father.”
When we entered, Doloreta stood behind me as though she was afraid of everyone in the room. But when she heard everyone speaking in Polish, her eyes lit up and she joined in a conversation with the family I did not know.
“I heard that you were with Eddie when he died?” asked Henry.
“Yes I was, he lived bravely, he fought bravely and he died bravely. I was honored to serve with him.”
“We’re glad to know that he was with you when he died. We didn’t want him to go to the war because we feared this, but we knew that we couldn’t stop him. He always stuck with something once he started it.”
“Did he ever tell you about Hekla in his letters?” I asked.
“Yes, he wrote us about her every time he sent a letter. After he passed she sent started sending us letters. Eugenia has been keeping a conversation going with her. Did you meet her?”
“Yes, I did. She was quite lovely. I wish you could have met her.”
“Someday, we might.”
I moved about the room and spoke with people. As I stopped speaking with one person to speak with another, they would follow me and the conversation. Everyone wanted to hear about where I had been. Eventually, the whole family was following me and mine was the only voice in the room speaking.
“I think it’s time that we moved onto dinner,” interrupted Gus. “We can continue the conversation at the table.”
The dinner was delicious and like nothing that I had eaten in years. Each bite seemed to drag on because by the time Doloreta or I could bring a fork to our mouths, someone had asked a question. Doloreta had little to say, she still had hadn’t made come very far in speaking about what she did during the war in the short time we were in America.
I, too, had trouble saying the things that I did in Europe. It’s hard to bring yourself to take a life and then afterwards is hard to be proud about what you did. I didn’t want my family to think it was easy for me to kill a man. I hoped that no one would ask whether I had killed a man.
By the end of the night, Doloreta and I had both gone through details of where we were and during the war when the big events had happened. Of course we kept out some of the more gruesome details.
It took us a long time to say our goodbyes and make it too the door. As I was about to step out with Doloreta, I was tapped on the shoulder.
“Can I have a word with you, Mieczyslaw?”
It was Gus. I had been avoiding talking to him alone all night.
“We really need to get going, I have to get to work earlier tomorrow morning.”
“It will only take a minute.”
I looked at Doloreta and she looked back and nodded as though she knew that was on my mind. She stepped back inside so the two of us could talk.
“Look, Mieczyslaw, I hope you didn’t go to the war because of me,” said Gus after a bit of hesitation. It was dark on the front step, but I could still see that his eyes had trouble connecting with mine. “I know what I did before the war wasn’t what you wanted but the family had little money and if we sent you to Poland to bring back another mouth to feed. It could have hurt us all.”
I couldn’t believe what he was saying. I expected him to apologize for what he did but instead he was justifying it.
But he wasn’t done, “I see now that I was wrong. Doloreta is a beautiful woman and I can tell that you make each other happy. Plus, had I gave you the money to go back then, you would not have gone to the war and risked your life and Doloreta would not have had to suffer through the war. I’m happy that you both made it back safely.”
All I could muster was a nod and, “Thanks.”
“I’m happy for you,” she said in English. She was progressing slowly, but she was progressing nonetheless.
“You don’t seem too happy. Don’t you understand that this means we can afford more things?”
“I don’t want things, Charles. I want company.”
She had told me on a few occasions already that she was lonely during the time I was working.
“What about Mr. Baniki? I thought you liked speaking with him.”
“Mr. Baniki is nice, but he is a busy man and I cannot go with him everywhere he goes each day. He is afraid that people will start talking about me being his mistress who follows him every time his wife is not around. So when he isn’t around, I sit in the apartment alone and when it’s nice I go to the park and I sit alone. No one comes to talk to me and I have no friends here.”
“Why don’t you go and visit Father? Or Eugenia? She is free during the day.”
“They are both so far away. I don’t like to travel in the city. It is more work than it needs to be.”
Every time we had this conversation it was the same. I don’t think that there was much I could say to convince her otherwise. I had asked around when I saw people, if they knew anyone who could spend time with Doloreta. But fewer and fewer people spoke enough Polish to talk to her and more and more women worked jobs during the day. The odds were against her.
“I don’t like being alone, Charles. When I’m alone, I only have my thoughts and they take me to dark places. My thoughts remind me of the war.”
She had started to tell me more things about what she did during the war. I think she still left some out, but it was progress. She told me how they had to work all day regardless of the weather or how they felt. If they couldn’t work, they would be killed. Doloreta didn’t tell me specifically, but I believe sometimes she had a job that forced her dig the graves for the bodies.
“We can still try for a child,” I suggested.
“The child won’t come. We are too old.”
“I will find a way so you don’t have to be lonely while I’m at work,” I said.
“I know you will.”
The worst days working as a doorman are in late fall and in early spring. It’s then when it’s not cold enough to snow so it still rains. If I get wet, I’ll end up being cold all day because there isn’t enough heat to dry me and the wind blowing on me only makes me colder. It was on one of these days, in late October, that I found to be the worst day I ever had.
I was caught off guard on my way into work when it started raining. I didn’t have an umbrella with me and I was nearly soaked through by the time I got to my door. There was little I could do. I couldn’t change at work because I had worn my uniform to work and the only thing I brought with me was my lunch. My boss didn’t keep extra uniforms on hand because we were supposed to buy our uniforms. I had to stand by the door all day, cold and wet.
One of the tenants was kind enough to bring me hot coffee midday but it only warmed me for a short time. It was hard to open the door all day and to have a smile on my face and be warm to the tenants when I was so cold. I looked at the bright side of the situation; it was hardly possible to have a worse day of work than this one.
By the time my shift ended, the only thing stopping me from dashing home was the cold that made my joints ache.
As I stepped in the building, Mr. Baniki greeted me and handed me the day’s mail. “How is Doloreta doing? I haven’t seen her the past few days.”
“She’s doing well. She hadn’t mentioned that she didn’t see you lately. Do you have any messages you would like me to relay to her?”
“Just tell her that I look forward to seeing her again.”
“I certainly will. Now I must go, I have been wearing these cold, wet clothes all day and I would like to warm up.”
I made my way up the stairs. Each step was labored because of the cold. My clothes weighed me down and made it harder for me to bring my feet to each step.
I opened the door, expecting to see Doloreta in the kitchen maybe cooking a large pot of warm soup but I didn’t see her. The apartment was quiet. I thought that maybe she had stepped out to the grocery store to get ingredients for something. I moved towards the bedroom so I could change my clothes.
My heart stopped when I opened the door. In the corner of the room next to the neatly made bed, Doloreta hung from the ceiling. She had taken the cord from our vacuum cleaner, cut a hole in the ceiling and tied the cord around one of the support beams.