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What a Century!


My Maternal Grandfather would have been 100 years old this past Saturday. He was born June 30th, 1918. A few years prior his parents left Europe in the height of WW1 and immigrated (LEGALLY) to the United States for a better life and to pursue the "American Dream". His father (my great grandfather) died of tuberculosis when he was only two years old. This meant my grandfather only went to school till the age of 11 (6th grade) and then went off to work as a sheet metal fabricator. Though his family migrated from Poland, we found out eventually (when he died in 1989) that we were in fact part Austrian. His life was a steady diet of hard work and hardships. As a child I remember listening to his stories that were better than anything I found on tv. He saw the first of pretty much everything. He had no electricity, no indoor plumbing, cars, planes, or televisions...nothing! He often told me how exciting it was to see a car for the first time and wonder if he would ever be able to afford one. He recalled the first time he saw an airplane in person and not on a newsreel. Due to his occupation he was exempt from military service during WWII. He trained women to work the large presses in the sheet metal factory. They worked 7 days a week making anything and everything for the U.S. military. If it was stamped steel in WWII...chances are it came out of Chicago. He married, had four children, and sadly outlived both his sons. He told me how unbelievable it was to hear that we put men in space and eventually on the moon. He saw the advent of television. Elvis, the Beatles, and wasn't really fond of either. He told me about his days as a young child on the southside of depression era Chicago, when Big Al Capone gave him and many of the children waiting in line for bread, a $5.00 bill. He brought it home to his mother who cried in horror because she thought her little boy just robbed a bank. There were no phones, internet, Facebook, or modern technology of any kind. People talked, socialized, lived life, and went about their day interacting with people and surviving with that constant hope that life will get easier.

He was the first person to tell me stories of what life was like long before I was born. He sparked my interest of historical places and people. And just a few years later it would be my Paternal Grandfather (Stanley), and his service in WWII, that would ignite my interest in military history. I was lucky enough to have two wonderful grandfathers, but just for now I'm going to stay with my maternal grandfather John in honor of his 100th birthday. (I'll do another blog about "Stash". There's plenty to tell.) He had a rough life, worked for almost all of it, and lost both of his sons. One just days after he was born, and the other just days after that son's 36th birthday. The day my uncle died was a pivotal day in my family's history. It seems like the day that everything changed. I'll never forget being in the room when my grandmother told him his son had died of a massive heart attack. As the family watched through the window, he walked up the stairs, came to the door, entered the room and my grandmother told him. He looked as though a freight train hit him, and his only words were "WHAT!?" It was at my uncles funeral that I saw him cry, the only time I ever witnessed that. Men didn't cry back then, but there were some situations that garnered a pass. After that day I had always noticed that he hugged us a little tighter, and spent a lot of time with us. Looking back, he only lived nine years past his second son's death. But for some reason those nine years feel like four lifetimes. The things I remember, his life lessons, curse ridden nursery rhymes, jokes, it seems like it all took much more than nine years.

As I got older I always looked back and tried to understand (or imagine) what he was like as a child, young man, and a 30 to 40 year old. I'm pretty much the same person that I was when I was 20. Just wiser with less hair and about 25 extra pounds. So I'm pretty sure he was the same way at 20, 30, and 40 as he was when I knew him. Just with more grey hair and glasses. He was cut and dry, and told it like it was. I like to think I got my ability to tell people what I think without care of consequences from him. I never saw him get overly emotional and he never talked about his problems. He always seemed super human to me and I saw him as one of his own heroes...Superman. There was only one time in my entire life that I saw him not as Superman or John Wayne. It was that moment when I realized how hard a life he had. I keep this story private, and will continue to do so, but I will say that It made me realize at about the age of 13 that nobody is without pain, hardship, or conflict no matter how super human you think they are.

The man taught me a lot about life. I simply listened while he talked and took it all in. I processed a lot of it later in life and still do so. I could write a book about him, so to try and squeeze it all into a short blog is hard, I'm barely skimming the surface here. There were countless days and nights of sitting outside with him. Watching his favorite t.v. shows (Superman, Perry Mason, and anything with John Wayne) playing catch, going to the carwash and sitting on his lap pretending to drive while we went through it. Then again, there were times when he let me sit on the folding armrest and steer with one hand while he drove! God life was simple back then. He had given me a number of guitars that he either found at the curb, bought off guys at the bar, or that they gave to him. Even a couple amps. All of which I still have almost 30 years later. I told him I was mad at him only once in my entire life. And the reason for it was selfish and stupid, for I was a child. After he retired he continued to make extra money cashing in scrap metal. He found a Korean War era military radio and had asked me if I wanted it. Of course I said yes, but never really did anything with it. We played "Army" as kids but this thing was huge and not mobile. So he sold it for scrap and I was pissed. Days later I said I was sorry and he pinched the back of my neck like he always did and said "ah...that's alright".

In September of 1989 I earned the rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America. I of course had to run downstairs (where my grandparents lived) to tell him of my accomplishment. I was excited, he was excited, and I told him all about the ceremony and we talked. I had school the next morning so I said goodnight to him and went upstairs to go to sleep. His last words to me were "I'm proud of you. I'll see you tomorrow." I would come home the next afternoon from school to learn that earlier that day he had died of a heart attack. He complained of chest pains and had my mother call the ambulance. Now if he was asking to go to a hospital you knew it was serious. The ambulance came, they got him laid down and he waved to my mom before they closed the doors and pulled away. The hospital was only 3 miles from our home, but he died in the ambulance. Like him nine years before when he learned of his sons death, I felt as though a freight train had hit me when I heard my mother say that "grandpa died". I was shocked, and really felt nothing. I was kind of mad at myself too. I should be crying, A LOT! But I couldn't, I just didn't believe it. I was just down there last night and his last words were "I'll see you tomorrow."

He passed away on October 3rd, 1989. He is out of my life almost twice as long as he was in it. Yet, I say things everyday that he said to me growing up. I think about him, talk about him, and we toasted to him this past Saturday for his 100th birthday. I never had a chance to say goodbye to him, and honestly I'm glad for that. I'll never say goodbye because he'll always be a part of me. As an adult I realize that he wasn't a perfect man. But perfection isn't something to always strive for. More importantly he was always there when I needed him. Whether as a grandfather, father, friend, or inspiration. I'm grateful for every minute I was able to spend with him and my only regret is that my son and daughter never had the chance to him. So Happy 100th Birthday Grandpa. And thank you!

Laissez les bons temps rouler ~ Gus


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