FLASHBACKS and OTHER WRITINGS
by Stefan Golston ©1993, 2003
This set was written during my eight-year
First House I remember
My WW II Odyssey
Last Day In My City-First Day Of
Ghetto Poems (Translated)
| Translated Poems
October 2, 1992
Throughout my life in Warsaw, my family, like ninety nine percent of all residents, was living in apartment houses. They were large, gray and ugly, built without any attention to esthetics, to the need for individual character and style; and so was the one of my childhood. We lilted in that house until I was eight; I retained in my memory many details of that early period.
Like most of the others, the house was a large rectangular block, enclosing the inside court; the entrance was from a narrow cobblestone street. The building was not high - most of those from the pre-first World War time (and that was the period of this story) had four or five floors. The ground floor, called from French "par-terre," was occupied by businesses; the first floor was the next higher; the building didn't have elevators.
The courtyard was not a place for children to play; in the center stood a wooden rack for dusting carpets with a beater, and with the great number of apartments there was considerable traffic, including various peddlers hawking their ware.
There was the ice cream vendor - a great favorite of mine. He was a Russian and used to announce his arrival by a loud: "Sahar marozhnyi” – “Frozen sugar” in translation. Then there was the organ grinder with a little monkey or a parrot on a tether; for few pennies the little helper would pull from a box a card with one's fortune – very popular with the maids of the households. Again, another grinder, who would sharpen knives on his pedal driven wheel; acrobats, who fascinated me with their skill - people threw money for them from the windows. Then occasionally a Gypsy came, offering to tin the worn pots and pans; I used to watch him and still remember the smell of the glowing coke and the fumes from the tinning.
Altogether a lively parade of entrepreneurs!
Ours was a five-room apartment, a comfortable place for a family of three (in Poland the kitchen was not counted as a room). Actually, we were four persons, one room was occupied by the live-in servant.
Here, a digression is necessary. In those pre-war years the disparity between the standard of living of the middle class and the peasantry and even the workers, forced many women from the poorer classes to work as domestic help.
We were not rich; my father, a young man then, was accountant for a company; still, as many other families, we could easily afford a servant.
I had my own room, where I could freely spread my toys, coloring books and crayons on the floor without interfering with the normal house traffic. I had many tin soldiers of different formations; there were hussars, cavalry, infantry, and others. With a friend from the neighborhood we fought imaginary battles. I also remember an exciting toy I got from my father when I was older - an electrostatic machine: electric sparks were jumping between two steel balls when I turned the crank.
In bed, when the room was dark, I often heard deadened sounds of a piano played in the adjoining apartment. The thick walls carried only low tones of accompaniment: a rhythmic boom, boom, boom; in the still of the night it was eerie and sort of melancholy.
Another sound, typical to our street, but especially pronounced in the silence of the night, was the hoof beat on the cobblestones of the horse pulling a carriage: tratata, tratata. A horse-drawn carriage was the main means of transportation, the only other was a tramway on the rails, pulled by two husky stallions.
Our kitchen was large and simple: a long coal stove, an ice box, a large table and an iron sink. It was a kitchen typical for those days- it was not a place where the family would gather for breakfast, it was solely a domain of the cook. Occasionally, attracted by an intriguing smell of baking from the kitchen I would steal in there, trying to be out of the way of the busy cook, lest she would show me the door, threatening to chase me away - with the wet dishrag, as the Polish saying went.
After a morning conference with my mother, the cook went to the market to buy food; this took place daily, since our ice box was too small to contain many, or bigger items.
Often she would bring a live chicken which attached by a string to the table leg had for few hours the freedom of the kitchen. The part I did not like was hearing its shriek when carried to the table in order to have its head chopped off with a cleaver. Another time the cook would bring live fish, usually a carp, or a pike. It was immediately put in the bathtub to swim.
Dairy, like milk, butter and white cheese was supplied by a peasant woman. Milk was ladled into a pot; I often heard talk about it being diluted: bluish tinge would betray the adulteration. Milk was promptly boiled; after boiling it had a skin on the surface which I dreaded if by chance it got in my cup. Butter, formed in a ball, was wrapped in a wet rag. The farmer's cheese was in the shape of a heart, with the texture impressed by the linen bag in which it was pressed and dried.
An important time, and totally upsetting the routine of our life, was the washday. This is what was going on: Water was boiled in a large kettle on the stove, and, together with a liquid soap, was poured into a round wooden tub,. A hired woman did the washing on a washboard and, after the water was changed for rinsing, the linen went through the hand-cranked ringer attached to the tub and fell into a big wicker basket.
The washing took more than one day - on separate days they washed “whites” and “colors.”
The basket, full of damp linen, had to be dragged to the top of the kitchen stairwell to the attic, where it was hung on clotheslines.
The attic, dark, with slanted ceiling and windowless openings to the outside, was cool and windy.
However, all this was not as simple as it sounds; the access to the attic required a key, and since the attic was used by all tenants who occupied apartments adjacent to that stairwell, it was necessary to find out who had the key and when the key would be available. More often than not this involved negotiations and resulted in friction between the neighborhood maids, who were the front line soldiers in this effort.
In spite of the smell and humidity in the apartment, I liked the wash days, since that was when we used to go out for dinner to the restaurant.
My younger brother, Bronislaw, like all three of us, was born at home. That day I saw strange people rushing around; in a fleeting glimpse into my parent's bedroom I saw my mother in bed with her feet propped up; I noticed a pot with boiling water on the stove.
Later in the day I was sent away to my playmate's place, where his mother treated me to a dish of preserves. I distinctly see her when holding it by the stem, she placed a cherry on the dish. This must have been an exceptional treat for me, if it engraved itself so deeply in my memory. When I returned home, somebody said to me: "You have a little brother.
In retrospect, I have to conclude that in spite of the fact that my mother did not have in her household the technical facilities of to-day: a refrigerator, washer and dryer, dishwasher, blender, food processor and prepackaged products, she was working much less to keep her household going, than the contemporary American women.
Often she would leave afternoon to shop, or to meet with a friend in a cafe, and return home to find dinner ready.
After dinner, as soon as the maid cleared the table, we would play cards or games, read, or talk; there was no television, not even radio yet, and no football widows. That kept the family together.
But remember: all that bliss was long ago, before the two world wars!
My earliest memories of vacations are from the period before the first World War, some 80 years ago, when I was a pre-school age boy. Those years we were spending our summer vacations in a rented cottage, in a small resort near Warsaw accessible by a narrow gauge railway. Not that I can describe in details our life from that period, but I do remember some of the less usual events of that time.
I remember seeing through the window of the train a horse-drawn wagon moving on a country road below, packed high with our furniture and bedding and with our maid sitting on top of all that. I walked to her and she walked back. Or maybe she was just walking to a passing train.
I remember, once I wandered away somewhere to a peasant farm, where a colt ran over me. I came home with scratched face, crying, complaining to my mother about the colt and surprised when she spanked me.
Once I played with a toy - a sheet metal propeller on a twisted, helical rod. When pulled up off the rod, the propeller rotated and flew in the air. It hit my upper lip below the nose and cut it. Taking care of the wound, my mother wondered whether it will leave a bald spot in my mustache. I still have a little scar there, the only mark for FBI to identify me by.
I remember my father, who was visiting us on week-ends, once brought with him a business acquaintance, who chased the squirrels with a pistol, unsuccessfully. I never saw him again.
I remember watching with envy the village boys, naked, jumping and swimming in a pond.
I also remember when my mother went for a walk with another lady, leaving my baby brother, sick with diarrhea, in care of the maid. When she returned, she found the maid asleep under the apple tree and the baby in a pram gnawing into a green, unripe apple. With no doctor for miles, no telephone, no car, and the train arriving only once a day, mother was in panic. Obviously, nothing could be done.
Mirabile dictu, next day the diarrhea disappeared - baby was like new.
After that I still believe that the best cure for this ailment is a green apple. When I mentioned this to my son, who is an M.D., he smiled and said to me gently: "Dad, I fully appreciate your clinical experience, however I suspect that you are a product of the school of thought that believes in a cure-all chicken soup."
This is a short story, which I should have written several sessions ago, when we were asked in our memoir writing group to write “something about red.” I am writing it now, because it is true, and had certain influence on my life.
This is a delayed reaction, which often happens to me; there isn't any English name for such an affliction, although the French have an apt description of it, they call such person "Esprit d'escalier” and Germans say: "Treppengeist." These are people who, having left a gathering, while still on the stair down, too late realize what they should have said, or answered over there. I am such a Treppengeist.
It was a gorgeous summer day, a school vacation time, when I was taking a walk in the Warsaw Saxon Park. I was passing two young girls, sitting on the bench and hailing a lively conversation. One of them, a strong brunette, with beautiful black, slightly slanted eyes, and rosy cheeks, was holding a large red poppy on a long stem.
I was trying to be cute: "Is this flower for me?" I asked, slowing down my pace a little. Her answer was cold: “It is not.”
Half an hour later, when I was returning, they still were where I left them. However she must have seen me coming, since when I approached them, she handed me a naked stem, without petals and said with mischief in her eyes: "This is for you.”
That could have been all that was to it, except that several years later I married her.
April 8, 1992
The engineering education in pre-war Poland, as well as in Germany and Russia was in the institutes of technology called Polytechnics, rather than in Universities. These were schools similar to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in USA.
It should be mentioned that even though Poland was not a rich country, all academic institutes: the Universities, the Academies of Economics and of Agriculture, the Polytechnics were free for everybody matriculated from Gymnasium (High school).
However, acceptance to the Polytechnic was subject to successful passage of a competitive examination. It took at least six years of intensive study to end with the degree equivalent to the Master of Engineering in this country.
Mechanical Engineering students were required to spend six months of approved field work in industry. Generally, this was done during Summer recess.
In most cases these were blue collar jobs in different types of production: foundry, machine shop, assembly plant, operation of power station, and others.
I want to recall here some episodes of those “working vacations” of mine.
April 8, 1992
The time of this story was between the two World Wars, over sixty years ago. The shipyard where I was working was the same where in 1980 the Solidarity movement was born.
Gdansk, city of below 100,000 inhabitants at that time, is located at the mouth of the Vistula River; it was, and still is an important Baltic port. It is a very old city, with a picturesque medieval character, with narrow streets and old churches.
I remember a large wooden crane in the harbor, protruding from an old warehouse over the water, a crane similar to ones I saw hanging over canals from residential houses in Amsterdam, another old city. This crane is one of Gdansk’s old landmarks.
The city had changed hands several times.
Seven centuries ago, Gdansk was an important hub in European shipping trade, as a member of a group of German Hanseatic towns, even though it was in Polish hands at that time. This was changed when the Prussian Teutonic Knights seized the city and slaughtered its Polish inhabitants.
Later the Poles regained Gdansk, then lost it again, together with freedom, after the partition of Poland.
After World War One, the Versailles treaty established Gdansk as a Free City under Polish administration. It also gave Poland access to the sea by a narrow corridor running through German territory, dividing Germany into two parts.
That was the status of Gdansk when I was there for my Summer field work. At that time Gdansk was totally Germanized, with German Language and Prussian discipline in the working place.
I was assigned to the division of the maintenance and repair of Polish locomotives.
On my first day I was told to report to the division superintendent. His office was in the powerhouse, at the end of a huge turbine room, behind glass doors. The turbine room was immaculately clean, with white tiled floor and walls. Several large steam turbines, sitting on concrete bases and totally insulated under rollers, were quietly humming.
The superintendent’s office was empty, and waiting for him, I squatted on a turbine base.
Shortly I heard a voice roaring and cursing [in German, of course] and saw an angry man with a red face, standing over me and shouting. I got up to face him and asked who he was and what he wanted.
My innocence surprised him, since he thought that I was one of the workers. who came there for a rest - a serious breach of the discipline.
I was in the shipyard for two months and was working on the lathe, the milling machine and in the grinding shop. While on the lathe, I happened to use a file on a shaft I was turning and then I put the file down to rest on the lathe steel bed. I was promptly fined five guldens for that: the precisely ground rails of the bed could easily be marred by the file - there was a special wooden board to place the tools on.
In the grinding room I was helping the machinist in regrinding cranks on huge locomotive wheels. A two wheel and axle assembly was placed on rolls; the wheels had to be rotated in order to bring the cranks, which were hanging freely down, into upper position to face the grinder. This rotation of the heavy assembly was a two-man job and was done in a very primitive manner.
The machinist was using a long steel bar which he hooked on the rim of a wheel and was using his whole weight at the end of the bar to rotate the wheels. The helper (meaning me) on the other side of the wheel was holding a clamp, anchored on the floor, trying to tighten the clamp on the rim after each partial rotation, until the crank reached the top.
It happened once that the clamp got stuck, and I could not apply it to the rim promptly enough. The wheel started rotating back to the original position. The poor man who was clinging to the end of the bar was lifted in the air; when he finally let it go, he fell to the ground and dislocated his ankle.
The bar swung over the top and crashed to the floor, missing my head by few inches (or were they centimeters ?) No helmets were worn in the plant.
I went to visit the man in hospital with mixed feelings - I felt guilty and was afraid that he will blame me for the mishap. However, he was quite friendly and pleasant; perhaps he enjoyed this unexpected and paid time off?
The last days in the shipyard I spent in designing a safer method of rotating the locomotive wheels for grinding the cranks. And then -- back to school; I did not even have an opportunity to see how the new fixture worked!
May 3, 1992
Two of my schoolmates and I decided to work off in Paris several weeks of the Summer field practice required by the Technical Institute.
It was a tempting, if not somewhat unusual idea; however it did entail several problems.
In Poland at that time (i.e. between the two World Wars) existed a compulsory military service for all men 18 years old, or older; there was however a deferment for students of the academic schools. Those in Poland who wanted to travel abroad had to obtain special passports; those with deferment were usually refused such documents.
The authorities relented in our case after we presented affidavits from several respected citizens guaranteeing our return.
Another problem was the currency regulations, limiting the amount of money taken, or sent abroad. However, we did not consider this a serious obstacle - we thought that with thrifty living and with the wages for work in Paris we could get by on the limited amount of money our parents will be allowed to send us.
The difficulties swept aside, I tried to brush up on my conversational French. We also got in touch with a local agency in Paris, which would find jobs for us in proper industries.
We traveled to Paris by train through Berlin, Cologne and Brussels; at every border crossing our passports and luggage were checked. The year was 1925 and there were no flights between Warsaw and Paris; I can safely say that there were no passenger flights abroad from Poland.
The French agent had some difficulties in finding jobs for us, hence when we arrived to Paris he recommended that we temporarily stay in the hostel of the Armee de Salut - the Salvation Army. The organization could be placed between YMCA and a mission. Its officers, both men and women, wore uniforms and made impression of strict disciplinarians.
The rooms, immaculately clean, with simple furniture had to be vacated before nine in the morning; food was simple and adequate, heavily biased towards salads with oil dressing. I remember this, since salads based on raw vegetables were not a staple in my mother’s cuisine.
At last I got a job in a small aluminum foundry and rented a room in a close by neighborhood.
My duty was to clean new castings from sand trapped inside and in the folds, using a narrow chisel and a mallet.
I did not look for an excitement in my job, but after two weeks I decided that this was not a very instructive experience for an engineering student; beside, I did not think that the dean of our Institute will give me credit for the time spent at this operation.
At my request I was transferred to the proper foundry.
I was assigned as a helper to a man pouring molten metal from a hand ladle into the form; I, with a smaller ladle was to pour in additional load of molten aluminum.
During the pouring my companion called to me “coulez”; this word which among several other meanings, indicates also “pour,” was new to me, and I hesitated. As a result the casting was ruined.
My man complained to the supervisors, describing me, with certain justification, as a hopeless imbecile, and I was instantly fired.
This failure did not depress me - Paris was too tempting for that; I had already part of the required practice approved by the Faculty and still had several Summers before graduation to complete the required Six months of the field practice.
To have several weeks free to roam Paris was a wonderful opportunity, a chance that seldom a visitor, a tourist can have.
Now, after nearly seventy years, I retain not only the happy feeling I had discovering the beauty and greatness of Paris, but also many less significant facts and impressions remain vivid in my memory to this day.
Moving around in Paris was easy and inexpensive using subway (called Metro). There were excellent maps for its extensively developed lines, lines reaching every corner of the city. At many points the stations had several levels for different crossing directions. One ticket was valid for transfer to any other line.
I moved to the vicinity of the Boulevard St.- Michel, bordering with Latin Quarter, the old learning district with Sorbonne and the University of Paris, both many centuries old institutions.
North of the place where I lived was Ile de la Cite, an island surrounded by river Seine; this was the place where Paris was born in the first century B.C. Several times I visited there the Notre Dame cathedral with two squatty towers and a very tall and slender spire.
As a budding engineer I was fascinated by the structural aspect of the flying buttresses supporting the tall, vertical side walls. But the additional reason of my frequent visits to the
Ile de la Cite were the book stalls along the bank of the Seine, where among literary odds and ends one could find interesting, or sometimes old books and manuscripts.
Adjacent to the Boulmich (a popular nickname for the Boulevard St. -Michel) there is a manicured Luxembourg garden surrounding the Luxembourg Palace, seat of the Senate.
In the garden I saw scores of children playing, some floating little boats in the fountain; and many mothers pushing baby carriages.
Another neighbor of mine was the Pantheon, a huge, domed building, housing crypts of famous French writers and philosophers. From among many names I still remember Voltaire, Hugo, Rousseau, Zola -- those I was most familiar with.
There was also a unique exhibit and one I found most exciting, a copy of the Foucault pendulum. The pendulum was a weight hanging on a very long wire, which was attached to the high ceiling. Under the point of the weight there was on the floor a round brass plate with many engraved radial lines on it, and with uniformly graduated circumference.
The oscillations of the pendulum were steady, most probably prompted by an electromagnet hidden in the center under the plate. The motion of the point of the pendulum passing over the center of the plate, was proceeding along a radial line.
However an observer would notice that the point slowly moved towards the next radial line - the pendulum seemed to be rotating clockwise with respect to the plate and to the whole room.
The reality was that it was the room with the rest of the earth which was rotating counterclockwise.
A property of a pendulum, similar to that of a top and a gyroscope is that it maintains its position, in this case, the plane of oscillation; it is the earth which moves.
Four hundred and fifty years ago Copernicus said that the earth is rotating on its axis, but his was only a hypothesis, there was no proof. His theory was accepted only because it explained the solar system in a much simpler way than the old Ptolemaic theory.
The Foucault pendulum supplied the experimental proof of the Copernican hypothesis.
As it happened, I saw recently a similar pendulum demonstration in the Academy of Science in San Francisco.
I did not have cooking facilities in my room and was eating out, in numerous small restaurants and bistros in this student district.
One evening I had a late dinner in a restaurant; the place was nearly empty. Two young men at a nearby table had an animated discussion. The topic was a woman, but since they were talking in Polish, they did not bother to keep their voices discreetly low.
“I don't mind that Louise helps you with your French, but remember that she is my girl,” said one of them. The other took out a cigarette and started feeling his pockets for matches.
I struck a match, lighted his cigarette and returned to my table without a single word.
They looked at each other and one of them said: "Frenchman would not do this." Then he looked over my head and said, still in Polish: "Do you see over there a red-headed Negro?" I did not fall for the trap, and did not stir, I found this game amusing.
Leaving after dinner, I said, to their surprise, "Do widzenia,” which is "Good bye" in Polish.
This was the way I met two Polish students of Sorbonne; we became good friends and they were helpful in my operation of discovering Paris. By the way - I never met Louise.
One of the first things every tourist wants to do is to get on the Eiffel Tower. This was the year of “Exhibition des Arts Decoratifs," and the Eiffel Tower was beautifully adorned.
Many tourists were satisfied to land on the second platform of the Tower and visit a restaurant there; I got to the top.
The bottom elevator was inside of a leg and brought me to the second floor, then I took another elevator to get to the 900 feet high, all glassed in, third platform. On the top platform one could walk around and scan the whole city. I recognized Place L'Etoile, where twelve streets converge toward Arc de Triomphe and where the Avenue des Champs Elysees starts, then La Place de la Concorde, where the Champs Elysees ends.
Place de la Concorde was easy to recognize by the tall Obelisk brought by Napoleon from Egypt. Another landmark easy to notice was the elevated dome of the Sacre Coeur basilica in the North.
Champs Elysees was a magnificent, wide avenue, lined with trees, with exquisite stores, sidewalk cafes; it was a river of fast traffic. For the Parisians this elegant avenue was a promenade, where they used to go for a leisurely walk, or bicycle, or car ride. I made this mile long walk often, always impressed by its grandeur and beauty. I n spite of the pedestrians' islands, crossing of this avenue was risky, as my own experience attested.
Trying to make the crossing, I was between two pedestrians' islands when I saw two cars speeding side by side towards me; it was too late to run. I faced them, put my palms together, as if diving - they split and one passed on my left, the other on my right.
From then on I used the underground crossing only.
One of the "musts" for a visitor to Paris is the Louvre.
Museum of Louvre is a large rectangle of buildings, spread alongside the river; the museum is so large, that simply walking through all rooms of the buildings would take several hours.
Out of great multitude of exhibits I remember only two; this is not because they stood out from other beautiful pieces of art, but because they were very famous.
To stand in front of the actual masterpiece which one saw so often in the art history books, was exciting.
One of those was Venus of Milo, standing on the ground floor, where sculptures of several periods were exhibited, the other was Leonardo's Mona Lisa, (called by Frenchmen Joconda), on the first floor of the building.
On the ground floor, among the sculptures I saw a number of people making sketches on portable easels -- art students, I guess.
My friends from Sorbonne suggested to me to visit an interesting for the engineer, but little known, Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers -- Museum of Industry and Trade.
It contained exhibits of inventions and technological developments, such as first airplanes, first designs of Morse telegraph, Edison's phonograph and many other products of human ingenuity.
Another neighbor of mine was Musee De Cluny, housed in the, so called, Hotel de Cluny (which was not a hotel at all). Hotel de Cluny was an old Roman fortress, which later belonged to the Benedict Monks of Cluny.
The Musee de Cluny, large and important, (probably next to Louvre), contains a vast collection of medieval and renaissance art: statuaries, tapestry and textiles, carved wood furniture and chests, pottery and many other exhibits. As with the Louvre, it was not possible to remember details of this great collection - except for one room.
This was a room of medieval armor collection.
I saw there two halberdiers, fully dressed in the corners, and saw exhibits of coats of mail, medieval spears (halberds), and other martial objects.
There were also, somewhat associated with conducting warfare, two rusted chastity belts for the ladies left at home. I can imagine that these must have been a hey-day for the locksmiths.
I t was with special feelings, feelings of veneration, that I visited the tomb of Napoleon in the Hotel des Invalides (another non-hotel, or rather a former hotel).
In the memory of two countries only, France and Poland, Napoleon was a hero, always recalled with affection; for the rest of Europe he was a power-hungry adventurer.
Poles were the only allies of Napoleon in his war with Prussia, Austria and Russia - the very powers who divided and occupied Poland. Polish legions of one hundred thousand, under Prince Josef Poniatowski, fought alongside French armies in Europe, Egypt and in their fateful march into Russia, sharing Napoleon's victories and defeat.
Prince Poniatowski was killed in action in Germany during the retreat from Russia.
With Napoleon, Polish hopes for freedom were born and died. In the imagination of the students of Polish history, literature and poetry, and I was among them, Napoleon, the “little corporal,” was a giant, a heroic figure.
Under a huge, gilded dome, the sarcophagus with Napoleon's ashes was in a crypt, placed down, below the visitors’ balcony. The tomb was surrounded by giant figures and with flags conquered in battles.
My finances were in poor shape; I was without a job and the fiscal restrictions in Poland limited the amount of money my father was allowed to send to me. I could not afford any of Montmartre's favorite tourist haunts, such as the Moulin Rouge, or the Folies Bergere cabarets.
I had to settle for less lavish entertainment, such as a popular Cafe Concert, where I spent a couple of hours with a drink, listening to a chanteuse. Towards the end she walked around with a plate; from her expression I had the feeling that she was less than enraptured with my contribution.
The gramophone company Pathe had music rooms, where one could make a selection of a record from a catalogue, write the number of the choice on a slip and drop the slip together with a coin into a slot; upon which the operator (in the basement) would play the record, while the customer would listen through the earphones. I even remember what one of my choices was: it was Rue Maria, by Gounod.
The automatic coin player did not exist in those days.
Another noteworthy curiosity was the mail distribution within the city: they used a pneumatic system, similar to the present method used to make bank deposits from the car.
On all Parisian streets there were primitive relief stations for men, called “pissoirs." They were placed against building walls, with a round sheet metal screen covering the middle section of the human figure, leaving the head and the legs visible to the public.
Presently they are replaced by the bi-sexual, coin operated, totally enclosed booth.
Would it be that the habitual wine drinking is what makes the easy availability of these relief stations so necessary?
I was touring in Paris alone, mostly in daytime, when my schoolmates were dutifully working in industrial plants, earning their credits for the required Six months of the field practice. One evening the three of us decided to survey the red lamp district. We went in one of the “maison de tolerance," which was something between a "brasserie de filles" (a beerhouse with the girls), and a brothel.
In a large room with a number of small tables, half naked girls were meandering around.
The “half naked" calls for a closer description: none were topless and all had short non-transparent skirts. I have to say that their cover was more discrete than that of the contemporary photographs advertising ladies’ lingerie.
We took one of the tables and were promptly, without asking, served beer, the only item on the menu.
One of the girls approached the table, offering her services upstairs; since there were no takers, she asked whether she could join us at the table. Promptly she was served beer in a small mug.
The conversation was conventional, and I don't remember any details, except that she liked music, and played piano herself. After she finished her beer, she left the table.
The place was half empty and quiet; occasionally a man entered, and with one of the girls would disappear upstairs.
The mood was businesslike and cheerless - it was depressing.
Every Summer, after ending my field practice I wrote a report and filed it with the Department of Mechanical Engineering for review and credit.
Alas, this report is sixty seven years late - I don't think I should file it now - I am afraid that the Faculty may not approve it, for more than one reason.
October 8, 1992
One of the industries in which an engineering student in Warsaw was required to do the summer practice was a powerhouse. That year I chose a moving powerhouse - I worked as a coal stoker on a steam locomotive. _
Before I was allowed on a locomotive, I had to learn the railway signal system, reading semaphores and interpreting road signs. Our crew operated only within the limits of greater Warsaw, which meant that after an eight- hour shift I was back home.
The weekly work schedule was unusual: two days from 8 am to 4 pm; next two days from 4 pm to midnight; next two days from midnight to 8 in the morning; then 24 hours free.
During the daytime our train serviced adjacent cities, at night we would assemble freight trains in the switchyard.
My duties of a stoker were varied: I had to watch the steam pressure gauge, and feed coal into the boiler when the pressure started falling; I had to keep the cabin clean and the brass fittings shiny; between the chores I, together with the engineer, watched the road signs as the train was passing them.
At a station I stepped down, added oil to oil cups, wiped the steel bars, and cleaned the lenses of the lamps - the engineer kept me busy.
However, the stoker's main duty was to maintain the steam pressure, thus the power of the locomotive, on the necessary level.
I shoveled coal from the tender behind the cab through a narrow hatch onto a glowing grate of the boiler, keeping my face away from the blast of heat.
Coal had to be thrown on a wide and long grate in a thin, uniform layer. The black layer of coal on top of the glowing surface cut down the heat radiation inside of the boiler and caused a temporary, additional pressure drop; this had to be kept to minimum.
This simple operation was tricky, and required skill; however, I had no problem with it, and enjoyed the task.
During one of the night shifts we were forming a long freight train, when my engineer fell sick with diarrhea; he told me to take over and disappeared in the bushes. I moved to the right side of the cab and put my hand on the control handle - I had a pleasurable feeling of power.
This feeling was soon dashed; I was backing the long train toward standing freight cars when I heard a roar and saw a head sticking out of thebush and a shaking fist at me – “Slow down, you sonofabitch, you are going to crash!”
This was a timely tip, and I made a smooth connection with the cars.
Another time, during the night shift a young woman with an empty bucket approached us; seeing her, the engineer promptly sent me to the depot for lubricating oil, which we did not need. I must have returned too early, since I saw her leaving with the pail full of coal; I was told that this exchange of government property for favors was a very common practice.
The engineer was not a pleasant man - he was a choleric, prone to sudden outbursts of anger; once he swung at me with a wrench, but reconsidered when I put my hand on a hammer, which I used to check the wheel rims for cracks.
I filed a complaint, supported by evidence: the suffit lamp he broke in his swing; I was transferred to another squad.
Soon afterwards I asked for a leave of absence, I had to attend my wedding. The wedding took place in Sopot, at the Baltic Sea -- we were eloping.
By the way, you should know my bride - she was the brunette with slanted eyes, holding the red poppy in her hand in my earlier story: “Writing Something About Red.”
The year was 1927.
May 3, 1991
At one time or another each of the four of us was smoking, and at one time or another each of us quit. At present there are no smokers in my family.
My smoking history is rather uneventful. As with the rest of us I started it in college, which in my case was the Warsaw Institute of Technology.
At the beginning of World War Two, as a refugee, I did not smoke, I could not afford it, but after I reached my new country, Canada, I returned to cigarettes. When the reports of health problems caused by inhalation of the tobacco smoke appeared in the press I was trying to switch to cigars. This alarmed my family who promptly bought me a pipe, which for many years to come was the tool of my pipe.
I accumulated a nice battery of pipes, but have to confess that I specially enjoyed aromatic tobacco; I said "confess" because I believe that real men, like Captain Hook, or the Sea Wolf would never have touched aromatic tobacco.
And yet, after all those years of enjoying my pipes, I got tired of scraping and loading the bowl, of cleaning the stem and of the lingering tobacco taste in my mouth and one day I put the pipes on the rack and never used them again. I guess, I was not addicted to nicotine.
The business of Quitting was not as simple for my wife Lydia as it was for me.
Her adventure with cigarettes started at Grenoble University in France, she smoked when I met her in Wilno, both of us refugees, then when I saw her in Japan, and smoked for many years after we got married in Canada and then settled in U.S.
Several times Lydia tried to quit, only to return to her pipe with increased ardor.
Believing that her attachment to cigarettes is nothing more than a habit of motions connected with smoking and of holding something in her mouth, she went to a drug store and asked for a pacifier. "Is it for a baby boy, or baby girl, what color do you want?,” the sales person asked. Lydia was embarrassed, “Just give me a pacifier, please.”
This might have worked, but when Lydia, who was an accountant in a CPA’s office, was caught with a pacifier in her mouth by a client, she threw it away.
One year, when we resided for several months in upstate New York (I was a consultant to an engineering company), Lydia found an ad of a hypnotist who was treating drug addictions.
In spite of the fact that she did not believe that she would respond to the treatment because of her negative attitude and of her fear of being a subject of hypnosis, she decided to try it.
She went to Albany together with her friend, Helen, who was a chain smoker and, like Lydia, decided to try the healing art of the therapist. Upon returning Lydia told me that the whole session was a failure; she went along with the game, but never was in trance and was all the time aware of the happenings. Helen, she said, lit a cigarette as soon as she returned to the car. ''But,” Lydia said, “I lost $25 on this experiment, and will stop smoking until I recoup the loss."
And that was the end of her cigarette habit.
Yes, she stopped smoking cigarettes, but she did not stop smoking, she switched to pipe, meaning my pipes!
Even though then I was weaned from smoking, my heart was bleeding seeing my faithful pipes poorly cleaned, and the bowls emptied by an energetic rap against any hard object.
However, I was glad, this was an improvement -- she was not inhaling any more.
And as I said earlier, Lydia soon became tired of the pipe and quit.
Our friend Helen, an attractive and gifted woman in her forties, chain smoking as usual, died of lung cancer several years later.
There was a mildly humorous incident in connection with Lydia's cigarette smoking.
Occasionally I traveled from Vancouver to United States on business, or to attend a convention. Every time I would bring home for Lydia a carton of American cigarettes, which I used to declare at the Custom Office upon landing in Vancouver.
Once my return plane arrived in Seattle behind schedule and I missed the connecting flight to Vancouver, so I took the bus.
At the border in Blaine the custom officer demanded that I pay duty for the cigarettes. This surprised me - on all my previous trips I was allowed to bring one carton duty free. The rate was high and I decided to abandon the cigarettes. I was disappointed, thought this to be unreasonable and when the officer went to bring his record book I took out my jack knife and slashed the box from end to end, cutting all cigarettes in half - nobody is going to enjoy my smokes!
In the meantime the man was back. Seeing what happened he called his supervisor. There were two possibilities, the agent said: either I would pay the duty and take the cigarettes, or stand to be accused of destroying Queen's property.
I was trying to argue that at the time the cigarettes were still my property, since I did not sign the release yet, but did not want to cause any delays by further arguments, paid the duty, and for a long time Lydia was smoking the 400 butts.
Joan, our older child, was a sensitive 16 years old girl when she graduated from the Helen Bush School. She was an outstanding student, an editor of the school paper, a valedictorian at graduation and a recipient of the National Merit Scholarship. Joan was accepted to the girls' Smith College in Northampton and to a coeducational Reed College in Portland, Oregon. The proximity of the school decided on the choice of Reed.
We knew of the liberal atmosphere, in the student body at Reed, but we did not realize that it was a hotbed of the non-conformist, defiant, even rebellious individualists. After all, these were the notorious sixties then.
With the first Christmas vacations approaching, Joan, in one of our phone conversations, told us that in her circle of friends one boy from New York would not fly home for holiday, and since the dormitories will be closed, he had no place to go - could she bring him home?
When the day arrived we drove to the King railway station to meet them.
Following Joan, a very strange creature stepped down from the train: a young man, perhaps very young - it was difficult to know with the bushy hair covering his head and eyes, with cheeks and chin which did not see a razor for months, still with whiskers not dense enough to call it a beard, with shoes on bare feet, and of a generally unkempt appearance.
“This is Mark,” Joan introduced him, after she exchanged kisses with us. In the car on the way home Joan lit a cigarette - a surprise for us.
I was driving, Lydia in a front seat was silently crying, the shock was too much for her. "First thing I would like to do" she said in Polish wistfully, "is to fumigate him".
Next day, Lydia, always motherly, seeing that the boy was penniless, suggested to him a deal: he would get five dollars if he took a bath. The deal was consummated. Encouraged, Lydia pressed further, offering him two dollars if he used my spare safety razor; having in his pocket already the fiver , he said: "I am not that broke".
Joan's smoking continued for a few years, but then just as her initiation to smoking was somewhat dramatic for us, it ended simply, she just quit.
Alan is our younger child. Even though his family did not give him a good example, his cigarette smoking took us all by surprise - it was totally out of character.
A boy scout, and devoted sportsman - early in the little league, later playing in a soccer team, a captain in high school golf team, a sharp skier, he was the least likely candidate to become a tobacco addict.
We tried to dissuade him from smoking, since in childhood he had symptoms of asthma, and we were afraid that smoking may aggravate this condition, but to no avail.
Alan, an A student never caused problems; not that we did not have, let us say, differences of opinion, but they usually were of minor nature.
He would, for example, come to me with a business proposition - there was an opportunity, he would say, for an exceptionally good buy of a pair of laminated skis, which he could acquire if I helped him with half of the cost. "Did you not buy two years ago hickory skis, which were supposed to be tops?" I asked; "Yes, but...,” he would argue, and so it went.
Alan always had his own money, early as a newspaper boy, later caddying in a golf club, or working in the summer at the hardware store.
In most cases I would yield, but he did not have such an easy time with his mother.
Often, when Lydia would enter the house after the day in the office, eager to start preparing dinner, Alan would meet her at the door, anxious to get approval for his, often less then acceptable, ideas. Lydia called this an assault on her.
I remember once, when Lydia might have been more tired and less patient, and Alan more persistent, she tried to fend him off, and finally this was the exchange:
Lydia: “Do what you want and leave me out. From now on make your own decisions.”
Alan: “This is unfair. I want to know my limitations.”
Alan's smoking did not last long. After a couple of years he attended a seminar by a psychologist on the topic of hypnosis, and volunteered to participate in a hypnotic séance performed on the stage. He asked to be rid of his smoking habit.
The result was so successful that he, until today cannot tolerate even the smell of tobacco smoke.
A curious incident happened at the seminar. When Alan was leaving the stage after the experiment, the speaker said to him: “When you return to your seat and I resume my lecture, you will shout to me: 'You are a fake' and when I ask who said that, you will point at the lady sitting beside you."
As Alan told me, he murmured "Like hell I will," but as soon as he took his seat he did just that - he called the man a fake and then blamed for this his girlfriend, who accompanied him to the seminar.
For some years now all of us are abstaining from tobacco and none feel any craving for it. In fact, I can't even imagine now that I ever found pleasure in smoking.