My Family’s Glorious Military History

I generally don’t blog about my family, mostly because there are only four of us now, and I really want them to still like me. I also don’t think we’re incredibly blogworthy. As families go, we are quiet and assuming, and there are no interesting stories, even though it’s a long-running joke that my family tree doesn’t fork as much as it should. I still remember going to my parents’ house and my mom saying, “Good news! Your dad’s parents weren’t first cousins. They were second cousins.” This past weekend, though, I learned a new story, and I realized there was definitely a theme with regard to my family.

I remember wearing one of my dad’s army shirts when I was in high school. I was a punk, and wearing military shirts and jackets was a very punk thing to do. My dad still tells army stories now and again. He served with pride, and I believe he enjoyed the experience, which led him to his lifelong profession as a pharmacist. Of course, as an immigrant to this country, it makes sense he’d be the only one to serve in the US Army. But what about my older relatives in their native countries? Read on.

Months before my maternal grandfather passed away, we chatted on the couch in his small retirement apartment. I’d learned to listen when he told stories about his youth. Those stories were rare golden nuggets of family history, and the man had a way of telling a story with a smile and a charm that I miss to this day. On that evening, I learned about how he immigrated from Poland to Belgium. Bonpapa was drafted into the Polish army. He showed up at the appointed time and place, along with all the other draftees. After the briefing, the new soldiers were told to go home, pack a bag, and come back the next day. My grandfather said, “I thought it was stupid, so I went home, packed a bag, and went to the train station.” Yep, my grandfather got to Belgium by way of Germany after deserting from the Polish Army. Lest you think that makes him a coward, I’ll sit your ass down and tell you what he did for his family when the Germans invaded Belgium and, inevitably, came for the Jews. Oh yeah, and the man single-handedly overturned a US tank. It wasn’t on purpose, but that’s beside the point, and another blog post.

When Dad came to the United States, he lived with his Aunt Esther and Uncle Sam in South Bend, IN. I only met Uncle Sam once, when I was about two years old. Esther was Dad’s mother’s sister, so I know she was Polish, and despite being only five or six years old the last time I saw her, I remember her having an accent. During a recent conversation with my parents, I realized I erroneously assumed Uncle Sam was American, but he came to the US from Russia. I told my dad I didn’t remember Uncle Sam having an accent, but there were a few things I did remember — Uncle Sam had black horn-rimmed glasses, he wore white buttoned shirts and black slacks, he used a walker, and he was missing a finger.

“Do you know how he lost his finger?”
I turned to my dad and replied, “Didn’t you once tell me it was a work accident or something?”
Slight smirk from both parents “No.”
Dad went on to explain that Uncle Sam was drafted into the Czarist Russian Army and had no desire to serve the czar, so he did what any young man in that position would do to avoid serving. In a slight fit of irony, he shot off his trigger finger.

With this said, I will point out that my paternal grandfather did serve in the Russian/Polish military during WWI. He was sent to the front, and was promptly shot in the leg, thus ending his war service within less than 24 hours.

Because everything is about me, I’ve internalized all of this, mostly because it explains so much. I have no patience for stupidity, I have made rash decisions, and I’m a little accident prone. It’s just a family tradition.

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