In 2009, shortly after my Aunt Madeleine died, my Uncle Al wrote a letter to his (then) nine great grandchildren, which was then shared with his many nieces and nephews as well. It was a brief (he considered 17 pages brief) history of their lives, a gift as we grew older, so that in his words, we would “know something about us, and what shaped our lives, and made us the way we are.”
Uncle Al passed this summer, at the age of 97. His goal of being the last World War II veteran wasn’t realized, but he has left a lasting impression and a story for the ages.
This is his story, told in his voice, interpreted by me, his great-niece who grew up lucky to be surrounded by “Uncle Al,” his humor, his quirks (only buy America), his stories.
When we left off in part one, Uncle Al had just picked up Madeleine for their first date, after having met her while crashing my grandparents’ wedding.
On the way back from the movies I had a flat tire and had to change it. My hands were all greasy, so I did not even kiss Madeleine goodnight, but we did make another date for Saturday night. After that, we started dating almost every night. We met in late October, and by the end of November, I knew she was the girl for me. I proposed and she accepted. I told her I would buy her an engagement ring and give it to her at Christmas. The Army was giving servicemen back pay for furloughs we did not get while in service. I had over $300 coming as I had only one furlough in almost three and a half years. As soon as I cashed the check that night, we went downtown to a jeweler, and she picked out a ring. About a week later, she told me she did not want to wait until Christmas to announce our engagement, as she wanted to show it to the girls she worked with at the telephone company and announce our engagement to her parents. I gave it to her the next night, which meant I had to buy her a Christmas present, but I was so happy she was going to marry me, so I splurged for another gift. (Oh, Uncle Al was thrifty my friends.)
She wanted a spring wedding and set the date for May 1, 1948, about five and half months after we met. Since her parents were going to pay for the wedding, she had to buy her own wedding dress, but she didn’t have the money, so she borrowed her cousin Ruth’s wedding dress. She had two girls from the Sokols, one from school, and one from work for her bridal party. My brother Edward was best man; Uncle Pete, Georgie Eidel, and Harry, my soon-to-be brother-in-law, were ushers. The next day, we took the train to Miami Beach, Florida for our honeymoon.
Your great grandmother’s family was poorer than mine was. Her father had lost his job and they had nowhere to live, so they had to go live in the country as caretakers, rent-free, for a house at their *Sokol Club or they would have been homeless.
Note to designer: This could be worked in as a sidebar or boxed off in some way. It’s not part of the letter but is a note from the writer. It fits in here…
*[The official name of Sokol USA is the Slovak Gymnastic Union Sokol of the USA. It was created as a fraternal benefit society dedicated to providing insurance and physical fitness programs. Sokol was founded on the philosophy that a physically fit, mentally alert and culturally developed people can make a nation strong. The word “sokol” translates to falcon and is symbolic of the Sokol ideals: Courage, Strength, Endurance, Fraternalism, Love of democratic principles, and Pride in country. Tracing it roots to Czechoslovakia in 1862, Sokol USA began in New York City in 1896. The tradition of promoting sound values and a spirit of patriotism has attracted thousands of families for over 100 years.]
They were on relief. They lived in an old farmhouse that had no running water and no inside bathroom. They had to pump water outside from a well; also, their toilet was an outhouse in the backyard. Your great grandmother and her sister Betty had to walk to a one-room schoolhouse about a mile and half away. She never had any new clothes growing up, only hand-me-downs from her sister and cousins Ruth and Anna. When her father finally got a job, they moved back to Irvington, N.J. Their aunts had gotten married and moved out, so they went to live with her grandfather. All the Jonas family belonged to the D.A. Sokol’s, which was a gymnastic club of Czechoslovakian descent, and she had to go to school on Sundays to learn Czech and take gym classes other days. She and her sister were gymnasts all their lives, and all the Jonas family were active in the club. I, too, joined, and years later was president for 23 years. As president one of my duties was delivering eulogies for all the dying members, which I didn’t like doing, but you do what you have to do.
When she started high school some girls started making fun of her clothes because she was still wearing hand-me-downs and not the latest fashions. That is when she started making her own clothes, and she became an excellent seamstress the rest of her life.
All her life, until she became ill, she was always making something. She made her children’s clothes, drapes, slipcovers, bedspreads, quilts, curtains, hundreds and hundreds of Christmas tree ornaments (which adorn the trees of all the members of our family) and countless cross-stitch pictures. She even made me a formal dress suit when we were going on our first cruise. She was a great cook, but her main love was sewing and crafts. She was always very active in church work and taught Sunday school for years.
When we first got married, there was no housing for the 12 million vets returning as very little had been built during four years of war, so we had to move in with her parents. For you kids in California, your grandmother, Diane, was born there in 1949 in Irvington, N.J.
Every weekend, we would take drives further away from Newark and Irvington looking for something we could afford to buy. I was only making $50 a week, and the rule then was one month’s mortgage payment could not be more than one week’s salary. We finally found a new housing development in East Brunswick, N.J. that would fit our budget.
We moved into our new neighborhood in March 1952 with 300 other veterans. We paid $10,000 for our new home, and it took me 30 years to pay it off as they kept raising the taxes every year. That first Thanksgiving in our new home, my wife started a family tradition and had her family and mine down for dinner. We had 55 or 60 people that first year, and dinner was served in our cellar, but all the food had to be carried downstairs from the kitchen. Your great-grandmother was pregnant at the time, and two days later, on November 29, 1952, Chris and Steve were born.
We did not know she was going to have twins because every time she had an appointment with the doctor, he was in the hospital delivering babies. The doctor’s wife would take her blood pressure and make a new appointment two weeks later. It was quite a shock for us when she had two at once.
That first Thanksgiving, Uncle Pete started a new tradition; the men would do the dishes down in the cellar. Then a few years later, he moved to Georgia, but we men kept it up, and we kept up the tradition of having Thanksgiving for 40 of the next 41 years. When we moved to New York to our farm, we continued to host, but we were down to 12 people for the next 10 years. That first year we had a snowstorm during the night, and the kids had a ball. My wife loved to entertain.
We both loved living in New York and always had lots of company on weekends, and some for weeks at a time. All my grandchildren and our great nieces and nephews enjoyed stays at our farm with the pigs and cows. (Ah, yes. This is where I first saw a pig being slaughtered—rough even for a Jersey girl’s teenage eyes.) When the heavy snows would come, we did not get too much company, but when the snow melted, they would start rolling in.
By 1994, I was 70 years old and that winter we had very heavy snow. The weathermen on the television were saying never let snow build up over two feet on your roof, as that is what causes so many roofs to cave in. The snow was well over that on our roof, so I went up and shoveled it off. Everyone, including my wife, was hollering at me for doing it, saying a 70-year-old should not be on his roof. But the snow was so deep that if I fell off, I could not get hurt.
By then, the school taxes were getting larger than our income; we could not keep up with them, so we had to sell and move. Taxes are very low in Delaware, so we moved there. We only have to pay very little taxes here. They do not even have a sales tax here, while in California it is over 8 percent. My wife and I loved living on our small farm and hated to have to move, but the taxes on our 20+ acres meant we had to find a cheaper state than New York, as selling pigs did not bring in enough money.
After sewing (and me), your great-grandmother’s other love was traveling. We have been to most of the national parks, seen more than half the states—Hawaii twice, Alaska once, Mexico three times, Canada five times or more. We have been to all the big theme parks and almost all the Civil War battlefields in the East, plus four cruises.
Your great-grandmother’s hands were always busy doing something; she never wasted anything all her life, even her time. For over 53 years, we lived a very enjoyable life until she became ill. We even went on a cruise with a lot of you to Mexico. Then we took her last trip to California when her infusion food had to be sent by FedEx and she went to dialysis out there. When the Alzheimer’s took over, we had loved each other for more than 61 years. She was the best wife a man could have, and we always took care of one another.
On television, they are always asking people that have been married 50 or 60 years what kept their marriage going so long when so many other people were getting divorced, and they received many different answers. I asked my wife what she thought kept us together when we had been married 50 years, and her answer was, “In all our married life, we had never had a fight or argued over money.” Anything she ever asked me to buy for her or the house, I bought, and I did it because I knew she never asked for anything she did not need.
When the twins were born, we had a washing machine but no dryer. In those days, there were no credit cards, so if you needed something big, you bought it on the layaway plan. Layaway plans meant you made weekly payments but did not get the item until it was all paid for, then they would deliver it. She said she needed a dryer because of the diapers and baby clothes she had to wash almost every day. So, we bought one on the layaway plan, but I could see she needed it right away, so I got a job working midnights loading supermarket shelves, and in two weeks I had it paid off. A few weeks after we got the dryer, her mother gave her diaper service, but we had that dryer for 31 years.
Most of my life, I worked a second job until I was able to retire at 59, without a pension, as I changed jobs so often. But because my wife was such a good money manager and so thrifty, we could buy our farm and retire.
Your great-grandmother worked in a school cafeteria as an assistant cook, and when she started she was only making one dollar an hour. Later she made more, and later she would work as an assistant cook at the Sokol Children’s camp in the summer so our children could go to camp. All the money she earned working, she used to purchase her sewing and craft supplies and saved me the expense. My wife was always very generous to others, but I came across to some as a cheapskate, tight with a buck, and not overly generous. However, we both grew up at a time in history when a penny, or nickel, or any coin was big money, and dollars were just a pipe dream.
None of our children ever went hungry or lacked clothes or shoes, and neither of us ever wasted or bought anything because it was the latest fad. We were both what we called “thrifty.”
Unfortunately, our son Steven contracted polio before he was two years of age and spent his early years with braces on his legs and special shoes and frequent hospital stays and physical therapy to improve his mobility. But as he grew older, he became a good gymnast on the parallel bars, and his arm and shoulder strength enabled him to walk on his hands a great distance. He became a mason by trade and brick-coated our house in East Brunswick before moving to Florida.
Steven died at a young age. Now children usually bury their parents, but when a parent has to bury a child, a void forms in your heart for the rest of your life that my vocabulary does not have the words to describe. But I like to think that maybe God wanted him up in Heaven to build locations for the coming battle of Armageddon, as he was a mason. He was the bravest little soldier I ever knew.
I chose to always remember this: “Suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character; character produces hope, and you should never give up hope.”
And I never did.
Growing up in Newark, NJ, the house at 111-11th Avenue, like most crowded tenements, had cockroaches and bed bugs as uninvited guests. Now cockroaches come out only at night and they are different than most other bugs because they do not lay eggs, but the female has a sack coming out of her rear about half an inch long. We would go out in the kitchen when it was dark and put on a light, and there they were, and they can move fast. We would catch as many females as we could, then pull off their egg sack and throw it on the hot stove to watch it pop, then throw on the roach. We would do the light trick two or three times a night. My parents would put out roach poison to kill them. All the boys in our house did the same thing.
Now bedbugs do not eat food, only blood, and it was ours. There was no poison for bedbugs since they don’t eat food. What my brothers and sister had to do when we got up was to go over both sides of the mattress along the edges under the ticking to find them. Like the roaches, they only came out at night to eat and hid in the daytime. A bedbug is very flat and hard to kill. You have to squash it between your thumbnails, and they stink; once you smell a dead bedbug, you will never forget what it smells like.
When my brothers and I fought or were bad, my mother used her laundry paddle on us. Billy Eidel said his mother used a broom handle on them. When we were about nine or 10 years old, we began learning cuss words. If my mother heard us say something bad when fighting with my brothers, she got laundry soap and washed our mouths out. If you ever had laundry soap rubbed over your teeth, you will never forget what it tastes like. Billy said his mother did the same thing. (So did my mother, I guess she learned it from Uncle Al.) We all learned not to use bad words very fast.
For kids, it was not a very bad time growing up poor. At Christmastime, we all went to three Catholic church’s Christmas parties and got hard candy, an apple, orange, and a small toy. The fifth police precinct gave a party with the same gifts, but my father’s Masonic Lodge had a good Christmas party. We got all the Dixie [Ice Cream] Cups we could eat, good chocolate candy, and a big toy.
In the summer, my brother Edward and I went to Camp Newark down at the seashore. My one Aunt’s sister was the director of Camp Newark, and we went to the ocean every day. We did not own bathing suits, but since we were related in some way, they bought us sneakers and bathing suits. The food was not too good, lots of oatmeal and lots of bread with apple butter and not much meat. The Presbyterian churches in Newark owned a good camp out in the country and our church sent us. They had a lake and taught us to swim and row a boat; they had good food, jelly or preserves, and meat every day. Your great grandmother went to the D.A. Sokol Camp every weekend when they moved back to Irvington and learned to swim. Their father did not own a car, so friends would bring them.
We never had much ice cream as kids, but when my Uncle Robert came over, he would stop at Levy’s and buy half a gallon. But we had to eat it up then because ice cream won’t keep on ice.
As we boys got older, we would try and get four guys together and go to an Italian restaurant with a quarter each and buy a “LaBeets.” It was not until after the war LaBeets was called “pizza.” A large pizza cost seventy-five cents and four Pepsis cost 20 cents. When the girl brought us our food, we told her to keep the change. We were the last of the big spenders—a five-cent tip. Two slices of pizza and a Pepsi … that was living. Also, Spezak’s Bakery made what they called “Washington Pies” for eight cents each. They were made from the leftover bread and cake dough, and inside they would put whatever was left over that day. It could be cheese, apple, peaches, or cherries; you never knew until you bit into it. They were great.
There was no McDonald’s or Burger King in those days, only White Castle hamburgers. They cost 10 cents, but when they had an ad in the papers to “buy them buy the sack,” you got 10 or 12 for 75 cents. We would beg our father to buy two sacks for us, and sometimes he would. The only problem was the nearest White Castle was in East Orange, about a mile and a half from our house. My father would even give us 10 cents to take a trolley back so they stayed warm. Now a White Castle hamburger started out as a scoop as big as a quarter, the cook would put them on the grill and press down on them until they got as big as the roll—with a slice of pickle and ketchup, they were really good. My father always said he could read a newspaper through them, they were so thin, but he did like them, too.
The White Castle Bakery was on 11th Avenue and 12th Street next to any empty lot with big billboards on it. We would sneak onto the lot when the bakers finished baking; they would roll carts with shelves on them loaded with batches of 36 rolls stuck together by big awning windows to cool. Some of my friends (alright, me too) would grab a batch, sometimes two batches, and run to what we called our “clubhouse” in Fairmont Cemetery on 12th and Central Avenue, we’d sit under a big pine tree and eat them.
And, for you boys only, I will tell you about rotten things I did as a father when our twins were born. I would get up on Friday and Saturday nights to feed them their bottles so my wife could get a few nights’ sleep without having to take care of them. Your great-grandmother would always say, “If their diapers are dirty, change them.” I would walk into their room while the bottles were warming, and almost gag to death. I would say, “They are not even wet,” and as I gave them their bottles I would breathe through my mouth. I never changed any of my children’s dirty diapers, only the wet ones. Years later when your great-grandmother became ill and could not control her bowels, for nine years I had to clean up many messes and change hundreds of diapers. I think God was getting even with me for what I did as a parent and leaving my wife to do all the dirty jobs. It came back to bite me.
Don’t you boys make the same mistake. Always help around the house; one day you might have to take over your wife’s household work. It won’t kill you.
I will give you all some advice I have picked up over the years. As kids, we all played together. We played with Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, Polish, African American kids and everyone else and never had any problems with anyone. Then we grew up, and the hatemongers with their propaganda started showing up. Do not listen to them. All people are the same; they all want the same things for their children as your parents do, and all have the same needs. Please do not become bullies or taunt others viciously. It will only come back to bite you someday.
Some very intelligent and educated people with great minds will tell you there is no God. With D.N.A. samples, they will say they can prove that all the dinosaurs, birds, fish, all animals have some of the same markers in their bones, and we all started in some swamp in Africa when some snail or something with carbon in their make-up crawled from the swamp and over millions and millions of years changed into all these different creatures—even humans, even roaches and bedbugs. I do not know if the grass and trees and flowers came from swamp. I have never read their theory on that.
Darwin showed that all species keep evolving over eons and eons to become slightly different. But inside we all have the same needs and want the same thing for our children and our need to survive. I hope and pray we all keep changing so that we grow to hate war and bigotry in our world.
I do not want to leave you with the impression that we kids had anything to do with surviving the Great Depression. The only heroes in my story were the parents of 111-11th Avenue. They worked their fingers to the bone to feed and clothe us kids, sacrificed for us, and did what they had to do to see we survived to make our future lives better than theirs, and I can tell you they succeeded and taught us to be good parents.
Now, I will ask one thing of you: that you say a prayer for me that I get into Heaven so I can hook up with my wife again. I don’t know what a soul looks like, but I know I will recognize her when I see it.
All my love,
Your Great Grandfather (and I mean GREAT),
Uncle Al also left us with his favorite poem, Trees, by Joyce Kilmer saying, “He was killed in WWI. I don’t know why he died so young. Maybe God wanted him up in Heaven to write poetry for the angels. Who knows?”
I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast
A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair
Upon whose bosom snow has lain
Who intimately lives with rain
Poems are made by fools like me
But only God can make a tree.