In the middle of the night, in some foreign city, I woke up after a dream about my friend’s father. Before the dream vanished I got to the desk and scribbled away.
I’m walking over to Al’s home on the street of my youth, Woodlake Drive. His dad, Stan Czarnecki, is tall and athletic—the way I remember him when I was a teen. He’s going to show Al and me some baseball plays. He’s energetic, strong, relaxed, showing us a technique for fielding the ball. In the dream I burst with emotion, knowing that even though this moment has passed, it still remains fully alive in some corner of this big old world. I look around at the overcast sky and the trees starting to leaf, aware that it’s spring.
The grass is green, wonderfully green, and Mr. Czarnecki is smiling now, walking across his front yard holding a bowl of fruit, sitting down to eat.
Before waking I hear a voice, say, “If we could push sadness away we could live forever.”
* * *
On Saturday mornings I often went to the Czarneckis for a big breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast fixed by Al’s mom. His two beautiful older sisters often perched at the breakfast bar wisecracking, casting looks of feminine wisdom well beyond their years.
Mr. Czarnecki covered many topics—sports, careers, older kids in the neighborhood that were driving too fast down the street and the occasional war story. A favorite of mine was when Stan was ordered to go and wake up another sailor. Stan yelled for the man to get up and then started to rock the guy’s shoulder when a wild left hook nailed him in the jaw. Obviously a set-up, a local rite of passage, embarrassed more than sore, Stan yelled in the fella’s ear the next morning and then quickly side-stepped the flurry of punches. On the third day Stan Czarnecki stood over the sailor quietly watching him and then simply clobbered the guy while he slept. The sailor awoke dazed and hurting with the ‘Big Polack’ standing over him, smiling, right arm cocked for the next punch, saying, “Wake up! It’s gonna be a good day.”
There were other stories, the stuff of nightmares, of Japanese soldiers boarding the ship at night stripped down and greased, stabbing men and eluding capture.
The story I remember best was about a major decision Al’s dad made near the end of the war. Stopping in Hawaii for supplies, he said that he looked out from those beautiful sands upon the Pacific and weighed it against family and home. I never knew if he spent minutes or hours contemplating his next move. Seated in his kitchen, eyeing another future, his long pause made us feel we were contemplating the decision as well. Finally, slapping his leg, he returned us to the smells of bacon frying and coffee brewing, telling us that he had turned his back on a life of travel and adventure, confident that marriage and raising a family were to be his destiny.
These stories were meant to enthrall, and they did. What I know now is that Stan Czarnecki was retelling the wonders of life at sea with all its danger and terror. He had been transmitting a part of himself, the explorer part that might give his son and me that extra kick in the pants to get out in the world and make something of ourselves.
Those Saturday mornings were a special time during the long haul of growing up. We enjoyed it immensely and learned about courage and steadfastness and humor that packed a punch. But like many men from his generation, we only learned of Stan Czarnecki’s heroics after his passing.
As the USS Wren’s chief petty officer stationed in the engine room, Stan’s job was to ensure the men kept the engine running and the ship moving. The oil-fired boilers required around the clock vigilance by crewmembers: the firemen, who watched the water level in the boilers, and the oilers, who checked the bearings for overheating. Frozen, burnt bearings could not only stop the ship but signal the enemy with black smoke from its stacks, making it easy pickings for the Japanese. The crew’s other responsibility was to keep sea water from swamping the red-hot boilers and exploding.
One fateful day an air attack damaged the engine room and set it ablaze. Through fire and smoke someone had to close the valve that prevented cold sea water from reaching the boilers. When no one volunteered to make the crawl through the wreckage of twisted pipes and equipment, Stan—six-foot four, two-hundred and twenty-five pounds with a forty-four inch chest and twenty-seven inch waist—made the belly crawl, stripped down to his skivvies. His only demand was that they keep the water hoses on him. Climbing over hot pipes, staying as best he could beneath the smoke, Stan reached the valve and wrenched it closed. He returned to his crew exhausted and ‘sunburnt’ from the heat.
I did a search of the USS Wren and discovered that it was hit several times in the Pacific theatre yet never suffered any serious damage, attesting to the courage of one man who prevented a catastrophe one afternoon and saved a lot of lives.
The USS Wren and the other ships Stan served on in World War Two were Fletcher-class destroyers—fast, maneuverable, and able to take a lot of punishment like the ‘Big Polack’ himself.
On watch one night in a terrible storm, Stan had to strap himself to the railing so as not to be swept overboard. Like Odysseus (whose crew tied him to the mast, ears unplugged in order to hear the Sirens yet not follow them to his destruction) Stan likewise had to listen to a thousand symphonies of rage and seduction embedded in the storm. Perhaps over the cold, lonely hours a singular melody surfaced—the Sirens mocking him, tempting him to remain a seafarer, pointing to a Hawaiian shore and other exotic shores and oceans of the world. That night as the bow plunged deep and the waves broke high over the ship’s mast, Stan kept to his job, his station, his duty, and celebrated his twenty-first birthday with a can of tuna fish.
Mr. Czarnecki understood the dream of adventure and he understood the American dream. He once told me that his job was to make sure that his kids would do better than him. If he accomplished that, he had accomplished his most important job.
Years later, after Al’s parents retired and moved out, I still enjoyed the short walk to my friend’s house. The neat yard with its pretty flower beds, brick well with rope and bucket, still was in good shape after forty years. It was as though every owner since recognized the hard work that went before and wanted to roll up their sleeves and maintain the tradition. The only real change was that one of the two oaks near the street—used as goal posts—was gone.
Sitting in the front yard, Al and I spent many a summer night listening to the men of the neighborhood talk about everything under the sun. The best moments were at twilight.
One such evening, Mr. Czarnecki gazed at the twilight sky and began talking about death, his own. Everyone listened. The only bird still singing was a cardinal that flew from a dogwood to the woods behind the house. But Stan Czarnecki wasn’t watching the birds that evening—he was smiling, legs crossed, holding a beer. With a twinkle in his eye he described what the process of death might be like. My dad and I just listened and Al mentioned something about the soul. But Stan believed that his whole person would be making the voyage.
“It’s going to be an adventure. I don’t fear it. A real journey and no looking back.”
Remembering this evening nourished my optimism toward life. I’d never forget a middle-aged guy, smiling at death, sculpting his own view of immortality on a summer’s evening on a patch of green lawn.
Posted in Uncategorized by Fred Tribuzzo with 3 comments.