THE SONIC BOOMER
Have you noticed that we’re losing all of our World War II vets? They’ve joined a slow march to the Great Beyond, taking their fascinating, yet terrifying, war stories with them. Among the latest to join the march is my Uncle Chester, a hero of the Normandy invasion. With a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, it was a broken arm that finally did him in. Well, that and the pneumonia.
Uncle Chester was probably my mother’s favorite brother. When he came back from the war, discharge pay burning a hole in his pocket, he took my mother downtown and told her he was going to buy her whatever she wanted. Why? Because of all those letters she wrote him in Polish, which he was then able to read to all the other homesick Poles in his barracks. Evidently, mom didn’t hold back and included the actual Polish expletives expressed by her father as he now did all the “heavy-lifting” farm chores alone. Chester was the toast of his unit, making the other soldiers laugh until they cried.
His love of the Polish language also led him to discover (and liberate) a group of Polish prisoners of war, not that he ever bragged about this. Mom told us.
So off to “downtown” it was. Of course, the heart of commerce in Crystal Falls, Michigan did not exactly rival that of Milwaukee, Chicago or the far-off and somewhat mythical New York City, but it was better than their hometown of Alpha (population 500), where the entire retail offerings consisted of a two-aisle grocery store and a Mayberry-type gas station.
When they arrived in “Crystal,” mom knew what she wanted immediately — the black dress in the window of the clothing shop. “Debbie,” she once told me. “That dress was totally inappropriate for me at age 15.”
I took this to mean it may have had a scoop neckline and probably a hem cut above the knee.
“But Chester went right in and bought it for me,” she smiled, remembering the day in all its glory.
“Was your mom upset?” I asked.
“Her boy was home,” mom answered, putting things in perspective.
Chester could’ve gotten away with anything right then. “I wore that dress until it was threadbare,” she recalled.
Chester was what one might call a “hearty specimen.” A doctor once told him he would live to be 100. “Can I get that in writing?” Chester asked.
At the Wisconsin Veterans Home where he lived for decades, his room was filled with boxes containing the pop tops off soda cans, which he donated to charity. When I went to visit him, he was 96 years old and a certificate on his wall marked his donation of one million pop tops. A million! (That equals a donation of roughly $435 from someone who no longer has a job and almost never leaves his home.)
In the end, Uncle Chester lay quietly in his bed, singing songs to himself in Polish. When he died, he was seven weeks shy of 100 years old.
He should’ve gotten it in writing.