Wednesday, June 24, 2015

`I Had to Learn Fast'

Every conversation with a Pole turns into a history lesson. My teacher this time was an engineer, born in Warsaw in 1969, who designs optical instruments for bio-imaging. I went to his office to talk about low-cost, portable microscopy for use in the under-developed world. We got that out of the way quickly and moved on to more important things, like the history of his nation since the sixteenth century. Now a naturalized American, Tomasz loves his native country. It’s a pleasure to listen to an unapologetic patriot. He urged me to read God's Playground: A History of Poland (1979) by Norman Davies. He digressed at length on the Winged Hussars and their origins in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 1570’s. From the Siege of Vienna he leaped forward to Gen. Jaruzelski’s imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981, which Tomasz recalled as a time when the schools were closed for two months and food was scarce. All history to a Pole is contemporary.

Tomasz came to the U.S. for the first time in 1998. He gleaned his image of America, he told me, from two principal sources – the Western novels of Karl May and Asfaltowy Saloon (1980) by Waldemar Łysiak, an account of his road trip around the U.S. in 1977. On a more modest scale, Tomasz recreated Łysiak’s journey, visiting such exotic locales as Nashville and Mobile. He reminded me of “Strange Days: Zbigniew Herbert in Los Angeles,” the late Larry Levis’ account of serving as Herbert’s chauffeur during the Pole’s sojourn at UCLA in 1971. It’s good to know Herbert, who never learned to drive, and his wife Katrina bought a 1960 Ford Fairlane in Los Angeles, and chilling when the Polish poet recalls for the American the only time he had ever driven an automobile:

“`It was after a meeting of the Underground. The boy who drove for me was waiting in the car. But dead. The Nazis shot him. Just one shot, a style they had. I came out later . . . I saw him. I had to learn fast. I pushed the boy over to other side of car seat. I drove. Just one time. With the dead boy beside me. I drove.’”

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