So today was my day off of work, and it’s really the only day all week I have an opportunity to go take pictures. Trouble is, I usually like to go up to Scranton or down to Wilkes Barre to take pictures since I’ve pretty much run out of stuff around here to photograph. I’ve taken a lot of photos of stuff in town here, and I’m just like “Nah, I don’t feel like taking a picture of the cannon on Main street for the hundredth time…” So I’ve been trying to find new stuff to take pictures of. I had the idea that I was going to go a junkyard and take photos-there’s a nice old one near the neighborhood where my wife grew up in Pittston, but that’s a little hike down the line. I thought I remembered one down this way near where the strip club is off of Keyser ave, but I wasn’t sure. So I figured I’d take a walk and look.
I wound up at the local cemetery where my grandparents and some of my aunts and uncles are buried. Hadn’t been up there in a couple of years, not since I went with my cousin Mindy when she was in town from DC. It’s a small, working class graveyard, no big fancy headstones or mausoleums or anything. There’s a statue of Saint Micheal there, cause it’s St. Micheals parish, a big cross from when the cemetery was dedicated, and a WWII memorial. No, like, personal monuments or anything. No dead rock stars with statues of themselves or anything like that. Just a lot of grave markers and some low key tombstones. The names are almost entirely Polish, the exceptions being spouses who were church members and had different married names then were buried there with their husbands.
My great Uncle Tommy was there, he would have been 102 years old this year. His wife, my great Aunt Jenny was there too. Well, I don’t know exactly. Her death date wasn’t inscribed on the marker, but I’m certain one of my cousins told me she passed some years ago. My uncle Tommy used to take me fishing when I was a little kid, and he used to always buy me packs of baseball cards. He was a great guy. Died when I was still young though, back in 82. His grandson, also named Tommy, and I became good friends. He sold me my old 73 Stratocaster back in 1994. He’s a professional musician and all, says it’s the only way he can stand making a living. Great uncle Tommy and my grandfather were brothers, and great uncle Tommy’s wife and my grandmother were sisters. So it’s weird, like I don’t have second cousins in that branch of the family, they’re more like first and a half cousins or something.
My Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Al were there too. I get upset every time I go there and see their graves, and this time was no different. They were as close to me as my own parents. I used to come out here every year and spend part of the summer with them, and they let me live at their house when I first moved back here to Pa. at the end of 93. I don’t know that I’ll ever get over them being gone any more than I’ll ever get over the loss of my parents. I still miss them all terribly.
My uncle Al was always my hero. He was a big guy, his nickname was “Crowbar”, but he was the nicest guy you could ever meet. He would give someone the shirt off his back if they needed it. I used to love going to the bar with him when I was a little kid, he’d take me to these watering holes around town-like Chelland’s, or the neighborhood beer garden where the owner kept pigeons in coops out back, or his favorite hangout, Kulpak’s way up on Keyser Ave. That was where him and his buddys from work would all hang out, all older guys fifties and up, drinking shots and drafts and eating pickled eggs and Combos. I got to sit at the bar next to my uncle with my glass of RC cola and an endless supply of whatever bar snacks I wanted. I remember I asked for Sen-Sen once cause I thought it was candy. My uncle got it for me and thay all got a kick out of the look on my face when I tasted it. The big thing though, was like my uncle and his buddys treated me like I was a regular celebrity every year cause I’d travel out all the way from Washington state. I got to tell the story of Mount Saint Helens erupting dozens of times, and they were all enrapt with my tale each time. I always got to play the poker machine at that bar too, it was the only video game there and my uncle would give me a pile of quarters and let me at it. And I remember Jimmy, the owner, he used to palm me a fiver every year before I went back home. Once he gave me a free drink chip as well, told me to hang on to it for when I was old enough to have a beer. Thing was cool, it was a regular brass coin that had Kulpak stamped in it. Wish I still had it. Not for the drink, but for old times sake. I don’t even know if that place is still there. I think one of the old timers I used to drink with in town here told me Jimmy died some years back and the place closed. Like a lot of the old bars and beer gardens that used to be around here, the drinking establishment was basically the first floor of a house the owner and his family lived in.
My uncle Al was in World War Two as well. He was a combat engineer, and was in the second wave of troops to hit Normandy on D-day. He didn’t talk about it much though. At one point the group of soldiers he was with were part of the liberation of some Nazi death camps. He talked about it once with me and broke down crying. He only mentioned it because there was something on the news about Holocaust deniers. He told me not to ever believe it didn’t happen. Cause he saw it. He saw the bodies, and what was left of the survivors who were still in the camps. He said they looked like walking skeletons. Then he just broke down.
20 year old kid from a small town in Pennsylvania, and he survives D-day then sees first hand some of the worst horrors human beings ever visited on other human beings.
He used to hunt before he went to the war, but he came back and never fired another gun until the day he died. He sent back a German Luger pistol, part by part, for his brother- and he kept an SS officers sword and some German bayonets he taxed off a Nazi when my uncle’s company was assigned to take prisoners. But he just put them in the attic along with stacks of worthless Vichy French and German currency as well as a bunch of old US military scrip and army newsletters. I found all that stuff when digging through some of my dad’s old clothes from the sixties that were stored there. Blew my mind. Like, my big uncle just walked up to a Nazi officer and took the motherfuckers sword while leveling an M-1 carbine at him. Which, according to the second hand story I heard, was exactly what happened. Thats fucking hard core.
However, my uncle did tell me about “prisoner duty” once. It was on of those rare occasions he talked about the war, so I remember it well. He didn’t mention the sword or any of the other trophies he brought back, though. He told me about how the Germans were really just a bunch of scared kids just like they were. They’d take them captive, and by this time towards the end of the war the Germans weren’t really looking for much of a fight. Their supply lines had been decimated and they were just hungry and tired. So, the thing was-the G.I.’s had found out that the Germans were generally great cooks. They’d give them food, and these guys would whip up some real feast action out of minimal supplies. So, and I swear to you this is the truth as my uncle told me, they’d just let the Germans cook for everybody. The G.I.’s would give them the food to cook with and everybody-gaurds and prisoners-was eating tasty grub. He also told me about the Russian troops, and how they were basically fucked for supplies. He said any time they’d go somewhere, like through a villiage or near a farm, and there were Russians in the area those guys would just start butchering horses for food. He didn’t say it like in a ethnically derogatory sense, but he said the way the Russian army supplied its troops convinced him that communism just wasn’t working, and wouldn’t. He also noted how the Russians were apeshit for American cigarettes and would trade any manner of item for a single Camel or Lucky Strike. He traded a soviet made wristwatch for a cigarette somewhere in Germany in 1945. Said it was “Somewhere in one of my drawers in the basement.”
And the basement was my uncle Al’s man cave. Thee Olde School man cave. 1950′s dartboard, refrigerator for beer and cigars, three work benches, lathe, band saw…and his vast collection of odds and ends. He worked for an industrial air conditioning factory and he had cast off parts galore. I never had to want for new wheel bearings for my skateboard-he’d hook me up every year with resealable jobbers that were better even than 40 dollar Bones Bearings. I’d go down there and find the coolest shit, old miners lamps from the coal mines, 1950′s and 60′s magazines, his stash of Alabama corn whiskey and Gerber jars full of moonshine labeled “Panther Piss.” But I never found that watch. I wouldn’t have stole it or nothin, I just wanted to see what a Russian wristwatch looked like. Cause, you know, if they had to check their watch just like everybody else then maybe they weren’t as evil as the news and movies like Red Dawn made them out to be.
But yeah, my uncle Al was my hero. My aunt Evelyn too really, but more on an intellectual level. She was the smartest person I ever knew. I’ll tell you about her some other time because she deserves a post of her own really.
So, going to the cemetery was good. I wound up going to see some of my family there, and I pretty much forgot about my photo mission. I did take a few personal photos there, and a couple of the monuments. I’m not religious, but I can appreciate and admire the sentiment. There was just something about that statue of St. Micheal standing there with his sword keeping watch over the departed. It was moving. All of them, my peops and everybody else there-just regular folks who worked hard all their lives, and many of them who went to war for the sake of stopping the wholesale extermination of a people half a world away they didn’t even know.
I can’t say I’m proud of everything this country’s government has ever done, I don’t even particularly care for politicians much at all, and I’m far from one of those “Kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out” type people who get frothingly patriotic and start ranting about how “We” should nuke mecca or whatever. I mean, seriously. Fuck that shit. I live in America, ere I’m an American-however that doesn’t mean as much to me as the fact that I’m from a little borough of 10,000 in NE Pennsylvania where my great grandparents wound up after coming from Poland…and where my grandparents were from, where my dad was from, where most of my aunts and uncles and cousins were from and where my best childhood, and many of my best adult, memories come from. That I’m proud of.
I’ve been all over the place, lived in some big cities and lived other places but there’s no place like here. And I can call it my home town and rest well with that. Just like when I die I’ll be there resting well with all my heroes on the hill under the watchful gaze of that guardian angel.