Józefa Mianowskiego 16, Warsaw. Searching through an old, beat up footlocker, I found the old address rubber stamp with its ink pad now dry for many years. The ancient memories now came flooding back and for some unexplainable reason, I thought of the day I met my bigger-than-life friend, a true fighter pilot ace from the early days of World War Two. It was a chance encounter, one made possible by the kindness of a passerby.
I loved the Poles. It was something in their undying spirit, their ability to suffer and to come back to life; maybe a learned, fatalistic view, one fortified by centuries of war and of shifting political boundaries; The Germans to the West, the Russians to the East – surely not an easy place to call home.
I was about ten when I met my Ace. My younger brother and I had been given Polish bicycles in the days before iPhones, the Internet, and Cable TV… and how fortunate we were to be so deprived! In fact, the little 10″ black and white TV rarely came on. You see, there was only one channel back in 1970 and it only broadcast between three and eight, or something like that, and let’s not even talk about the quality of the reception!
So we were always outside doing something and the day my bike broke, I slumped down to sit by the road, the chain off the thing, dangling when a kindly, older woman came up to me and placed her hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see a genuine smile of concern when she placed her purse on the ground to sit with me. Reaching into it, she tore off a scrap piece of paper from her journal and wrote down the address and name of an older man who might be of use. Motioning down the curved street, she made a gesture to the building’s location.
Certainly not fluent, I spoke enough Polish to make sense of the kind lady’s directions and so I thanked her and began to walk down the old street. In this magic age of Google, I see that my old home has had a tremendous facelift, for almost all of the buildings that survived the war had been hastily patched, leaving the bullet holes around the windows and doors still visible under the mortar. There’s a wonderful photo of my mother standing on that balcony (left; 2nd floor; photo above).
The chain kept wrapping around the gears, making the short walk quite difficult. But something in the woman’s way left me feeling hopeful and so I continued until I found the building and number. It must have been one of these (photo below) and there, after 46 years, the bullet holes remain (upper, center of photo, below). I see that there are now modern shops at street level, something I know did not exist back in the day.
Approaching the entry, I grabbed the handle to the massive, ornately carved wooden door that opened into the sad and dilapidated foyer, lit only by a dangling, exposed light bulb from what was at one time an elegant chandelier. The old building now housed many more families than it had before the war as evidenced from the rudely inserted bank of mailboxes into the fine, wooden paneling. And over there was the door to the basement, as the lady had told me to find.
Down the stairs I went, again lit crudely by a lone light bulb in the lower level. The smell of the soft, brown coal dust was in the air of the dimly lit room. Looking left, I could make out the small, sooty windows and the large pile of coal by the furnace… and there he was, watching the ten year old kid struggling down the steps with his bike, the dangling chain hitting each tread as I descended.
Before I could come to the last step, the gentle looking man had met me half way to take the bike, motioning me to sit a spell at the old worktable. There were other bikes in various stages of repair and he placed mine next to them. Somehow, we had no problem communicating and in his way made me feel relaxed and welcome and so we talked.
“You are from America, yes?”
“Yes sir, I am. And you speak English?”
“I do, but not well.” Studying me, he relaxed into his simple, wooden chair hesitating for just a minute before he pointed up to the wall over the work table. As I slowly looked up, I could not believe my eyes for on the wall was a collection of dusty black and white photos of the man’s days in the Royal Air Force. It was a marvelous collection of old photographs, undoubtedly of his comrades, many of whom would have given their lives to the cause.
He stood up and pointed to the one photo in the center, the one of a young aviator wearing a parachute on the front side, standing proudly by the old Spitfire.
“This. This is me. I flew with the RAF.”, placing his open hand to his heart. The man, my age now come to think of it, looked wistfully at the image and turned back to what had to be a kid in awe. Who can say how long I visited with my new hero-friend. It is a memory that I’ll keep to my dying day. What an incredible moment in time.
Why I never thought to make more visits to the Ace, now a janitor in charge of keeping the old building warm in the winter months, I will never know. The distractions of youth, I suppose, and I know now that the old chap would have understood.
Funny who the people are that we meet along the way. Many, as I have come to learn, are the plain looking quiet ones, you know, the ones with the great big stories to tell if only we slow down a bit to sit and visit a spell.
[Main photo; from blog post: Polish Greatness}