When my daughter Gretchen and her son Gabriel, a toddler, came to visit me in Poland the summer of 1988, a Pole who couldn’t win a place on the baseball team I was coaching, the Sparks, won one in my daughter’s heart. For three weeks in Warsaw, followed by many letters and recorded outpourings on tape carried over the Atlantic by Lot, the Polish airlines, Jacek Demkiewicz courted my romantic daughter like a man trying to stay alive. He courted her in the Old World by telling her the romantic stories Poles have been telling each other, their children, and beyond for as long as their country has existed and struggled and suffered under occupation and survived in the sun to say her poems and play her music again. He showed Gretchen the places where many of those poets, composers, artists, and other makers of the heart’s language paused in their journeys to sup or sleep and where they finally lay down from their labors to rest forever, under fresh flowers delivered daily by grateful countrymen. To remind all lovers that romance still lived.
Jacek Demkiewicz showed my daughter where Frédéric François Chopin’s literal heart had come home after a sojourn to repose in glory beside his mother in the soil of Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery, and he showed her the statue of Poland’s great national poet Adam Mickiewicz, in whose tall shadow couples might kiss, believing that this buss would bring them even closer, as nothing else could. Jacek Demkiewicz was tall, fast afoot, a good soccer player, though not supple enough to use his entire body in concert with a bat or a small, hard, white ball; he especially did not possess what baseball players call “soft hands.” A baseball will bounce off hard hands, as it will off wood, but soft hands cradle the ball, give it a nest. Jacek’s truest talent may well have been his ability to slip around the Communist system to get things that most Poles could not get—or not get as easily. Jacek was street-smart and proud of it. He was friends with the Sparks’ founder and general manager, Darius Luszczyna, a former journalist, who employed Jacek to get us things.
Jacek had taught himself pretty good American English—perhaps his second truest talent—in large part by listening closely to and mimicking song lyrics on hard-to-get American CDs. He could get them. His dream was to manage a fabulously famous band, something like the Beatles, only specializing in heavy metal. He knew heavy metal like the back—and front—of his hands. At one time he was a disc jockey on Polish radio, but something happened. He had gone too far. Too far doing what, exactly, was never spelled out. It was enough for Jacek to make a face of disgust and say, simply, “The Communists.” To his fellow Poles, including Darius and the players, this explained why he was no longer a DJ, as it explained everything else in their world that carried forth frustration, failure, drunkenness, grief, empty store shelves and, in many cases, a sudden, early, violent death.
After Gretchen and Gabe returned to the States for her to resume her studies at Drake University, I stayed in Poland to finish out the baseball season. Drake, where I was on the faculty, had granted me a sabbatical for the coming academic year; therefore I did not have to rush back—having wrapped up my Fulbright duties teaching American literature at the University of Warsaw, my official reason for being in Poland during 1987 and 1988. I had applied for the sabbatical, from Warsaw, because I was eligible for one and because I had started writing a memoir, The Warsaw Sparks, and wanted to focus on it. Which developed—receiving my sabbatical, that is—into the kind of milk-and-water entertainment that can happen in academia.
After the list of grantees was published on campus, a friend in the English department told me that some of my colleagues became very unhappy. How can Gildner receive a sabbatical when he hasn’t been here like the rest of us! It wasn’t right! Their unhappiness was transported—as if by a mule-drawn caisson draped in funeral black, one imagined—to the first meeting of the liberal arts faculty following the announcement of sabbatical recipients. A motion was actually made and seconded, my friend reported, to amend the faculty handbook so that nothing like what Gildner did could ever happen again!
It happened because, back when student enrollment in the nation’s private colleges and universities had fallen off, the Drake administration saw a real benefit to granting leaves at no pay to faculty members who were invited to teach elsewhere as visiting professors. Such leaves, of course, brought relief to Drake’s bottom line, and did not affect sabbatical eligibility. Theoretically, I could have been on leave for six years, teaching at other institutions—or not teaching, if I could afford it—and the seventh year I would be eligible for a paid sabbatical from Drake. I came close to doing exactly that, which is what caused such unhappiness among some of my stay-at-home colleagues. In any event, the motion to right this wrong, I was told, passed. I never bothered to look it up, myself. To find that balm had not been applied to such unhappiness, after all, would have been too sad and, besides, snuffed my story.
I arrived back in the States only minutes, it seemed, before the Berlin Wall came down, so I did not get to see in person the surely complex expressions of disbelief and joy on the faces of my Polish friends. The Soviet bear had finally—a miracle!—rolled over, perhaps in a fetal position, and commenced to suck its paw. Jacek Demkiewicz was frantic to leave Poland—specifically for the USA. He had great plans, which of course included Gretchen. She, almost daily, appealed to me for help. Jacek needed an invitation from someone in America—someone whose invitation our embassy in Warsaw would pay attention to when Jacek brought it there in his gladdest hand, his other holding a packed suitcase, ready, man, to go.
Almost a century earlier, sixteen-year-old Stefan Szostak was ready to go, too, but not because a foreign bully suddenly lost its chokehold on Stefan’s native land. Quite the opposite. Young Stefan’s Poland, during a bleak time called Partition, did not, in political fact, exist—only her geographical shape existed, if you looked past the hacking that had divided her into three more or less equal parts, taken and occupied, respectively, by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Underscoring Stefan’s feeling of suffocation, his birth certificate declared that he was one of those thieves, an Austrian, which may well be why he spoke only Polish or nothing his threescore and seven years.
Stefan Szostak carried no letter of invitation. My future grandfather’s most important possession as he made his way—even more important than his loaf of bread—was a language made very difficult, the Poles insisted, because it was their one valuable that no one could easily steal, followed, for merely practical reasons, by the shoes on his feet. He did have one large thing in common with Jacek Demkiewicz: as a trained blacksmith he, too, was knowledgeable about heavy metal.
I told Gretchen I would be happy to write a letter to the American embassy in Warsaw supporting Jacek’s quest for a visa as soon as she finished all her course work at Drake. I explained why. She protested that she would not be distracted by Jacek’s presence.
“You may believe that,” I said, “but distraction will happen.”
“Do only I discern the pain of hearts that yearn?”
“Now really, Dad.”
“As soon as you finish your last exam.”
“That’s next year!”
“Next year—and your last semester—begins in a couple of months.”
“Jacek is dying.”
“He is only in love. His chances of surviving are at least fifty-fifty.”
Let me back up a moment. After high school, Gretchen entered Hamline University in Minnesota. She left at midyear to go on an adventure. Gabe became part of it, born in a Nicaraguan barrio in Florida. When she realized she was not where she wanted to be, the Nicaraguans said fine, she could go, but the baby would stay. She went to New York, got a job in a Manhattan daycare, and was soon helping to manage it. One day, with her friend Maura, she flew to Miami. While Maura waited in a rented car down the street, Gretchen spoke to Gabe’s sitter—a Nicaraguan teenager she knew who was minding a house full of small children—convincing the girl she was only in town briefly, on business, and only wanted to take Gabe for a little walk. Thus my tall, rangy, romantic daughter, whose natural goodness and cheerful outlook have kept her among the happiest people I know, got her son back.
Not long after what might be called Gretchen’s street-smart caper, she and Gabe moved to Des Moines to live with me in her childhood home and resume pursuing a college degree at Drake. The fall semester following her trip to Poland, Gretchen’s academic performance was splendid and she all but said to me: see, I am serious about school. She also continued to lobby for Jacek. So after she registered for a full load of classes in the spring, though I knew in my bones something not good would come from it, I wrote the letter inviting Jacek Demkiewicz to Des Moines, Iowa, where I said he would visit and be a good boy, I believed, and not steal a US citizen’s job.
Why didn’t I wait? Because, as a writer, I am always on the lookout for conflict? No. Because I have an appetite for the raw meat of masochism? I actually prefer seafood, greens, and pasta. Because I love my daughter with whom I share perhaps too much romantic DNA and want to make her happy? Yes. Did I soon regret writing and mailing that letter? Yes.
Jacek got his visa and arrived in the Hawkeye State ready to show his best moves. Plan A on his list pointed straight at New York City and the chiefs of the music industry to whom he would pitch his famous band idea. He would not bother with letters or phone calls: in person, man-to-man, was his style in Warsaw (leave the stupid Communists out of it) and since New York City was the Warsaw of America, he said, and he was a big city boy—street-smart—he would make out fine. No one could advise him in this matter, though some tried.
“Jacek, New York doesn’t know who you are.”
“I will tell them.”
“Jacek, you don’t have anything to show.”
“I will tell them.”
“Jacek, you will be lucky to meet the people who guard the doors—”
“I will tell them.”
So Jacek Demkiewicz bounded aboard a Greyhound bus for the Big Apple in his best shirt, Air Jordan knockoffs, and biggest, most confident smile. While he was there, smitten by the famous lights and sights like many a tourist but mainly trying to tell someone important his dream of leading heavy metal to shining glory, he spent all the money he had set aside for this trip, plus much more, and spoke to no one in an office who was important, except one time to a receptionist—anyway, he supposed that’s what she was, she dressed nice—and then he came back to Iowa looking stunned and thinner.
Gretchen and Gabe had moved from my house to an apartment; it was just roomy enough for them and for Gabe’s lab-retriever mix, Brahms, and now for Jacek. When I saw my daughter, she was looking a little stunned, too. She was also dropping courses and adding yet another part-time job to contribute to the family, she said. I couldn’t bear to ask what she meant by “the family”; I could only guess that Jacek, with her help, was working on Plan B—his US citizenship.
They had a small, quiet wedding. I learned about it a week or so later. Gretchen’s graduation from Drake that spring and then her reunion with Jacek—my preferred scenario—did not happen. The roof on my house was wanting to fall in as well, creating both a painful symbolism and, come rain and snow, a possible slough over the area where I usually sat quietly and tried to write. The roofer I hired tore off five or six layers of old shingles (a major cause of the imminent cave-in) and put on a new roof, but then drove away, leaving all the old shingles scattered over the lawn where I used to play catch with my grandson. And once upon a time with Gretchen, for whom I wrote:
PLAYING CATCH WITH MY DAUGHTER
I remember the walnuts
uncurling, the lilacs on call,
the day’s sweet revolution
and verdurous smell.
I had just cut the grass.
when she kicked out
and followed through
all that green day,
how the little spears flew.
On the plus side, The Warsaw Sparks had come out and, after I was interviewed about it by Bob Edwards on NPR’s Morning Edition, the English department secretary told me she counted fifteen movie producers trying to reach me to talk about the film rights. Most of these producers, it turned out, wanted to make a comedy—another Bad News Bears, Polish-style—and I was not interested. The Warsaw Sparks does have humor—a story about Polish guys playing a game they didn’t grow up with has plenty of goofy moments—but there is more to the story, e.g., Polish Life. Which is the phrase my players often used to summarize their frustrations in simply getting from here to there.
This helped to explain why they loved baseball: it was precise, American, and it allowed them to get home, where, under Communism, they were not. The getting home part—on the field and in the heart—is something that many Americans, especially if they love baseball, readily understand. The producer who said he, too, was the grandson of an immigrant and understood the book’s metaphor of “getting home” promised, if he got the film rights, he would be faithful to that metaphor. He also thought the movie should be in black and white, and shot in Poland.
I sold him the film rights. My granddaughter Joanna was born. I held her. Gretchen and I hugged, and I helped her go back to Drake and finish that last semester. Wearing his Air Jordan knockoffs, the laces untied and dragging on the ground, according to current teenage fashion, Jacek helped me load all those shingles in my yard on a truck and haul them off to the dump.
Also on the plus side, Jacek was good with Gabe, giving him lessons in soccer. He was good, as well, with Gretchen—or as good as he could be. He didn’t get far in showing America his best street-smart moves, and had trouble understanding why he wasn’t succeeding, but he didn’t get so frustrated as to take out his failures on his wife. She, for her part, got the picture fairly quickly and would soon be saying to him that she had three children to look after, not two.
Like many growing up under Communism, Jacek had latched on to some honeyed fantasies so hard that he’d become retarded in special ways. One of those ways—which we in the West contributed to—called for (at times demanded) a vision of the free world as a near-perfect place, especially America. Where the citizens, Jacek and his fellow dreamers needed to believe, drove sleek new cars, wore the latest fashions, and speared their thick T-bones with golden forks. I exaggerate about the forks. My students at the University of Warsaw—who were smart—hated the novel Fat City when I assigned it to them. They did not want to believe that its main character, Billy Tully, an on-the-skids white prizefighter in California—in sunny California, of all places, home of Hollywood!—could be reduced to working in the fields like a migrant, breaking his back for a measly few dollars in order to buy his jug of cheap vino. Not this handsome, virile boxer! Not in America!
After Gretchen got her BA, she and Jacek and the children moved to Iowa City and the University of Iowa so she could pursue graduate work and, as insurance, certification to teach high school English. It was in Iowa City where Gretchen and Jacek parted amicably. He moved to Minneapolis and found a job at Best Buy in its music department. Gretchen did well at the university and received several good offers to teach, including one from Houston, Texas that was astonishingly generous. I did not want her and the children to live in the hot, humid cement sprawl of Houston, but I kept my mouth shut. Finally, she accepted an offer from Delhi High School in rural northeast Iowa and bought a house with a big, leafy back yard in nearby Manchester, not far from Dubuque—and not all that far from Minneapolis, making it easy for Jacek to see his daughter and kick the soccer ball around with Gabe.
In the midst of all this, a number of notable things happened. Drake’s Center for the Humanities, on my recommendation, brought to campus from Gdańsk, Poland, Jacek and Anna Mydlarski. Anna, a Solidarity worker from its beginning, had helped produce a BBC documentary about the history of that great movement and its role in the headaches the Poles constantly gave the Soviet Union. She had translated several of my poems into Polish (translation was one of her professions), arranged for me to participate in underground readings that were strictly forbidden by the Communist government, and brought me to meet Lech Wałęsa. Jacek was an important young painter in Poland. As scholar- and artist-in-residence, respectively, they gave public lectures and presentations at Drake and at venues from Omaha to Chicago during the year they lived in Des Moines. They brought along their young son and daughter and enrolled them in public school, where they performed beautifully, and we all had a wonderful time.
Down at the Polk County Court House in Des Moines, to help things from becoming too wonderful, I was being sued for alimony by an American teacher who claimed that we had had a common law marriage in Poland. A trial was held, lasting three days, and the judge found that there had been no marriage—that my invitation to Vicki to join me in Warsaw, and her acceptance, was no more than that. The good parts of this story are all in The Warsaw Sparks. Many years later, at Gretchen’s wedding to Brian Robinson, I was pleased to see Vicki again and learn that she had been recently named Iowa Teacher of the Year.
The world does turn and yearn. I got married again—ten years after Gretchen’s mother and I were divorced. I married Elizabeth, a part-time graphic designer at Better Homes and Gardens. Davidson College in North Carolina invited me down there to occupy an endowed chair as writer-in-residence for two semesters; since Gretchen was pointed in a good direction and the Mydlarskis were back in Gdańsk with some money in their pockets, I was glad to accept.
The movie producer I had signed up with phoned almost weekly. Robin Williams, heavily committed to several projects, was nonetheless very interested in playing Darius, the Sparks’ general manager, and the producer and everyone else on our project was very excited. HBO was interested in making a movie of the book, but my producer was not interested, nor was I. Kevin Costner read the script, liked the role of the American coach, and was giving The Sparks serious thought, then finally passed—having just starred in Bull Durham (the best film about baseball, many believe, including me), he wanted to try other subjects. Kevin Bacon read the script and wanted to play the American coach—which I was in favor of—but the producer didn’t think Bacon was A-list enough to raise the money they needed. Robin Williams, it developed, could not find a free space among his commitments. There were many other actors who expressed interest, plus several A-list directors, but nothing happened beyond this high-end talk during my enjoyable stay in North Carolina.
I did, however, receive another Fulbright, this time to Hungary. But, the Hungarians, now able, after Communism, to make their own decisions, couldn’t somehow get it together regarding their part in hosting the American scholars, so I and all my fellow nominees to Hungary were in limbo. Being in limbo, I thought, was dull. Going back to Des Moines was not all that exciting either. I decided to leave Drake. Quit, move, and devote my best hours to writing, give a few readings to feed the kitty. A Drake administrator said I didn’t want to just walk away from my full professorship and tenure; I would be giving up some goodies I’d earned.
Like what? I said.
Oh, like use of the library, free parking for life, free tuition for my dependants, and health insurance. Also, Drake would pay me for my tenure. Early retirement was the way to go, he said, and worked up some papers.
Elizabeth and I drove to northern Idaho, which I had seen up close a decade earlier tooling through in an almost perfectly preserved 1946 Chevy to begin a two-year visit at Reed College in Oregon. I had tucked away Idaho’s Clearwater Mountains as a good place to live, fish, and write in my later years. We gave ourselves two weeks—made a game out of it—to find the right place, if we could. On the next-to-last day we were looking at a house on a mountain with a spectacular view and a breeze in the conifers all around that called up passages of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” Elizabeth wasn’t sure. It was kind of isolated, wasn’t it? That was one of its best features, I thought. I also liked seeing the South Fork of the Clearwater River way down there, glittering in the sun like a woman’s favorite bracelet.
Next morning I learned that the Fulbright office in Washington had found another country for me—Czechoslovakia—if I wanted. I wanted. I also wanted that house on the mountain. I bought it. Then Elizabeth and I drove back to Iowa and packed for Prague. From there we took the train to Slovakia, where we would spend the next year and where Margaret, our daughter, would be conceived.
I taught American lit at Šafárika University in Prešov, an old market town whose cobbled streets went back almost 900 years. The number of inhabitants was hard to pin down; it might have been as many as 130,000 or as few as what you saw right then looking out the window. The number, always a guess, depended on whom you asked, and where, when, and how much shrug was in the shoulders.
That autumn, 1992, was gorgeous and three years, almost exactly, from when the Wall came down. We lived, Elizabeth and I, on a huge housing estate called Sečov, named for a little brook that the estate’s developers had destroyed. Our street in Sečov—Dumbierska—meant something like “ginger,” and the road connecting us to downtown Prešov was called Sibirska—meaning Siberia. The number thirty-eight bus would carry us back and forth on Sibirska for two crowns. Or we could take a shortcut on foot through a forest where Romani lived, which I liked to do, though Elizabeth did not. The Romani kids and I had spontaneously got up a game in mime. I would pretend to be lost and they would offer to show me the way. Giggling and rolling their eyes, each child promoted a different direction. I’d try a few steps wherever a finger pointed and finally end up rolling my eyes and laughing with them.
Our building, one of many concrete-colored prefab Soviet-inspired high rises, was new. We lived on the sixth floor. Later we learned that, before Communism and Sečov, the area where we lived had been called the Parsley Fields. Because that’s what was there, literally meadows and meadows of it—and where people strolled on Sundays with their wicker baskets to picnic, pick wildflowers and parsley, and lie back in the grass with their shoes off. To say “the Parsley Fields,” now—in Slavic of course—was to issue an ironic and bitter curse. Uttered even by the people who had lined up, perhaps even paid a bribe, to acquire one of the coveted flats in that bland future. The neighbors we got to know freely admitted that they were among the bribers.
“Freedom,” says Krishnamurti, “is when bondage is understood.”
The first time I looked out our living room window, straight down, I saw what appeared to be a huge, unfinished basement. It seemed as long and wide as a soccer field, had partitions for rooms, and was full of water. This, we would learn, had been the start of a neighborhood bunker; work on it, however, came to an immediate halt the day the revolution arrived because the men and women building it no longer knew who would be paying them for their labor and walked off the job. There it sat collecting rain, refuse, and rats, even now, three years later.
Almost daily, a small boy would appear on his tricycle and ram into the bunker. After ramming it, he would back up a few yards, lower his head and, pedaling hard, ram into it again. He did this over and over. We feared he would become bored with not getting anywhere and climb on the wall—not much taller than he was—to see what might be up there, and fall into the water. But he never got off his trike that we could tell; he had a mission, a job, somewhere to get to—and this thing, this dumb thing, was in his path. It made him mad, and ramming it was all he could do.
Saturday nights we could turn on the TV and watch a beauty contest. Young women paraded in evening gowns, in bathing suits. They all had long, gorgeous legs and exaggerated the swing in their hips as if parodying beauty contestants. They caressed the fenders of new Škodas, fell into new sofas, had their high, shiny cheekbones dusted with powders, modeled fur coats and leather motorcycle jackets and jewelry. They held up outsized, glossy photos of cocktail lounges and swimming pools and airplanes in which people about to take a drink or dive or fly away waved to us. All of these products and pictures, every Saturday night, were praised by a tux-tucked, toothy master of ceremonies. When he paused, an off-camera voice sang, in English, “Only you can make my life complete.”
Meanwhile, the country known since 1918 as Czechoslovakia was preparing to conduct a national divorce, a split encouraged most loudly by the Slovak president, Vladimír Mečiar, a former boxer and Communist. A pretty dumb thing to do, a great many citizens said. Even the Slovaks, who had the most to lose, held up their palms. Why make such a move? Often one heard their wonderfully tuned expression za’hada, which covered everything they did not understand. But for Mečiar, my students told me, there was never a mystery—about anything—because he feared nothing that “came down the road.” In other words, he was street-smart.
In the middle of the night, any night, we were wakened by a wail that might have been an outburst of grief or an attempt at song. Or both. It came from the flat above us. It was a man’s voice, and if he was in pain, his long, melancholy cry also seemed to say that no one, no one could help him.
A year or so later, back in the States, I sat at my desk on the mountain and wrote:
IN DEVELOPMENT NO. 3
After the revolution I was standing on a balcony with my hosts when a man from above us came flying down. His shadow passed over several balconies across the way like a black ribbon, a streamer, and met him in the street. People walking to and fro gave the body plenty of room, as if it might suddenly spring upon them. Out of the silence, a siren—sounding more like someone practicing a calliope, trying, over and over, to complete a happy line. This stopped when a van arrived. White-coated attendants removed the body. Then women appeared on the balconies around us, pinning up diapers and shirts, brushing their hair; men came out to smoke, resting their arms casually along the railings. One at the highest level—he wore an undershirt, a fedora—picked up a small child and they leaned over the railing together, gazing down at older children playing in the street. No voices were raised anywhere. The children, especially, seemed so quiet they might have been challenged to see who could hold his tongue the longest. I didn’t know what to say myself. Finally—stupidly—I asked my hosts the name of this street. One shrugged. Another said it was the name of a distant mountain, or an herb on the mountain, she couldn’t remember which. All of them agreed it was only a name, like all the other names assigned without thought to such places, and meant nothing.
The southern border of Poland, by bus, was an hour or two north of Prešov. During a break in my classes, I crossed the border to find the village where Stephan Szostak was born and lived until he was sixteen. I was working on a second memoir, My Grandfather’s Book. Had been working on it even before my Fulbright to Poland, during which The Warsaw Sparks demanded to be written first.
Now I was back in Eastern Europe and back in time to when I was a small boy of eight, nine, and ten, spending summers on my Polish grandparents’ farm in northern Michigan. I was picking up, once more, the trail of a man who was unlike anyone else I knew and with whom I’d never exchanged one word— because we did not have a language in common beyond pointing and showing, which worked well enough for a small boy and his grandfather. The summer I turned eleven and decided to stay home in Flint and join a baseball team, he died from a heart attack. He was buried on my birthday, August 22. Just before Mr. Savage, the undertaker, closed the coffin, my grandmother placed under her husband’s arm the book she’d found him holding at his death. I did not see her do this. Almost two decades later, she told me about it.
“Korzeniowski—always Korzeniowski. Even on his last day. Why?”
My God-fearing grandmother, a reader of her Daily Missal, was married to a blacksmith-turned-farmer about whom there was a mystery that puzzled her to the point of worry. A mystery she nonetheless placed under his arm.
“Always,” she said.
Stefan Szostak and I shared a language of passion, a language that Józef Korzeniowski—Joseph Conrad—translated into English and spent his life using, trying to make people see the imperfections and contradictions and mysteries of the human heart. That Stefan Szostak, an immigrant from a country that had been stolen, read Conrad’s stories in Polish only underscores his passion.
When my pious grandmother wanted me, as a teacher, to tell her why her husband was so attached to this Korzeniowski, I could only think to say she must read “Youth” and Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim and Nostromo and all the others. But I did not tell her that. I thought to ask her the title of the book she placed under his arm, but I did not do that, either. I preferred to choose for myself, and I chose Heart of Darkness for all that it says about all of us making our way—crossing an ocean, running for home, or working the hard streets we come to and for those two perfect words to take into eternity. ☐