I Gotta be a Macho Man

Another day, another song, another memory. Today a song came on the radio and I immediately thought of your grandfather—the grandfather you never knew—and I chuckled.

Your grandfather was a smart man, and like your father, he was a technical guy. After graduating from the Bronx School of Science where he was a star student in the first Electronics Industry Association-sponsored advanced television course, he went to work as a television repairman. At that time, the number of televisions in American homes was measured in the thousands rather than the millions, so he was ahead of his time.

He had a television repair shop in a very rough area of the Bronx where it was common for merchants to have guns for protection. Apparently, your grandfather was so anti-gun that Dad thinks he would be a proponent for the repeal of the infamous Second Amendment if he were alive today. Clearly, he would be appalled at what is happening these days in our country.

He received a degree from NYU in Industrial Education, so he move from being a business owner to an educator, teaching courses such as electrical shop and drafting. Eventually your grandfather headed a program of occupational education courses for the developmentally handicapped where he prepared these students to enter the workforce. He secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding to support these programs. Both young people and adults benefited from his work in training them in the areas of health education, auto mechanics, and office occupations.

So dedicated was your grandfather that he continued to work until the week before his death. Wow! I knew little of this man. Instead, I knew a man who loved to eat, loved to tell loud jokes, and loved to eat sushi, which was one of his last meals. Dad left his hospital bed to bring him some of his favorite rolls.

Why did I think of your grandfather yesterday? During a news cycle when we heard of yet another mass school shooting and I was feeling rather bummed out, a song made me think of him. For a moment, I forgot about the disturbing news and I smiled.

Your grandfather loved the Village People, especially “YMCA” and “Macho Man.” It has been thirty-seven years ago this month that he was singing about the fun he had staying at the YMCA.


The sun appeared for the first time in a very long time yesterday. Bryce was coming for a visit, so I thought a trip to the zoo would be a welcome treat for him after being stuck inside for so many days. How wrong I was! Once a truck pulled into our driveway to do some repairs on our hot tub, the boy  gene reared up in him, and he told me he did not want to see the the elephants or giraffes. He wanted to stay and watch the man with the truck.

He observed the repairman doing his job, and then he inspected the truck, peeking inside and admiring the tools. He spent the remainder of the day playing with his trains. The thing is, Bryce enjoys crashes and accidents. He purposely turns the straight wooded pieces of the track upside down, which are smooth on the underside. When he then builds his track using those inverted tracks, those smooth pieces always causes derailments.

He always smiles as the trains fall from the tracks. To me, it’s not fun and it makes the game difficult and unpleasant. Is this truly a boy thing, because as the mother of three girls, I am more familiar with tea parties, and Barbie dolls, and playing house?

But today was Veteran’s Day, so I decided to turn Bryce’s game of train crashes and derailments into a teaching moment about his great grandfather. I explained to Bryce that my Daddy rode on a train a long, long time ago not far from here. His train, like Bryce’s toy train, derailed as it was passing over a railroad trestle. The first two cars—two engines—passed successfully over the trestle but the remaining cars—the mail car and six passenger cars—left the trestle and plunged down an embankment.

Two civilians and one soldier were killed. Grandpa said the man who died had been sitting in his seat and asked to switch seats, so that man, Corporal Thomas Vest, died, and Grandpa survived with just a back injury.

Grandpa claimed that he continued to be reminded of that November day in Georgia for the rest of his life, because his back hurt whenever he tried to pick up his children and grandchildren. The thing is, he had fifty-six more years—“the rest of his life.” Corporal Vest did not, but that one request gave the rest of us life. Isn’t it interesting how one seemingly small action affected all of us so many years later?

Jersey Bound

One hundred and two years ago this week, my Russian grandma was at a train station in Libau, Latvia, a small port city on the Baltic Sea. She was waiting to board a passenger/cargo steamship with her brother-in-law Mark to join my grandfather in New York. They had not seen each other for many years.

Travel during that time was unpleasant. My grandmother, who we all called Baba, and great Uncle Mark, stayed in separate quarters between the lower deck and cargo area. The beds were narrow and dirty, and there was little air, hear, or light in that part of the ship. Seasickness was a common result of the rough seas and awful food.

We have all experienced seasickness on luxury cruises, so can you imagine what this must have been like for them? My grandmother was only twenty-seven when she left, and Grandpa’s uncle was a year older. I have a very hard time wrapping my head around what they did at such young ages. They couldn’t pick up a phone to “check in” with their parents or send them a quick text to let them know they were safe. There was no communication.

At that time of the year, the weather was raw and windy, since they were traveling along a northerly route . They stopped first in Copenhagen, Denmark, then Halifax, Nova Scotia before finally disembarking in New York on November 25, 1913, two weeks after first setting sail.

Their ship docked in New York Harbor where the first and second class passenger disembarked after a very brief medical inspection. Steerage passengers, which was what third-class passengers were called, boarded a ferry to Ellis Island. You all went there in fifth grade, so now you know that your great grandmother came through that building.

On Ellis Island, they waited for many hours for a brief medical exam and then some inspectors asked them a series of questions such as their nationality, previous addresses, the name of the closest relative “in the country whence the alien came”, and whether they had a final destination, sponsor, and enough money for their travel.

They had twenty-five dollars between the two of them, which turns out was not such a small amount back then. It is roughly equivalent to six hundred dollars today. The tickets and money were sent to them by my grandfather, who had been in this country since July, after traveling there from Argentina where he had been working for many years on a farm.

My grandfather met them at Ellis Island after all the inspections were complete. They took another ferry across the harbor to a train into New York City where they stayed a short time.

By the time my grandparents were reunited, my grandfather had a job in Dover, New Jersey working in a company called the “Ulster Iron Works. They lived in nearby Rockaway, renting a place for four years before moving into their own home.

So that is how the Russian side of our family ended up in northern New Jersey.

My Russian Grandpa
My Russian Grandpa
My Grandmother- Baba
My Grandmother- Baba

The Final Postcard: Their Wedding

I am sad that I stopped sending the postcards to Grandma. This is the letter she sent to me after my final postcard in response to the questions:

1. What was your wedding like?

2. What kind of party did you have after the wedding and who came?

Dear Karen

Your father didn’t tell me about converting to the Catholic religion. It was a surprise to me. He went through the process in Texas before we were married. He had been baptized at St. Cyril’s in Boonton because there was no Russian church in the area. So that made it easy for him. I was surprised because keeping a secret was something he wasn’t good at.

 Our wedding was very small, fortunately, because he didn’t know when he could get home. We had immediate families only. Small ceremony, no mass, at 11 a.m., Mt. Carmel. His brother didn’t like the time so he didn’t come. He gave me a lot of grief over the time.

We had dinner in Denville—a place your father and I liked. It was very nice. We went back to the Birch Street house for wedding cake. I remember my mother writing out a check for the dinner. It was under $100. We went away for the night and left for Texas the next day.

 So fifty-seven years later, here I am. This is it for now.



Grandma wore a yellow dress for the occasion. Although all her siblings had more traditional ceremonies, with big wedding parties and traditional wedding gowns, I think that was really what Grandma wanted. She never liked big fusses made over her. That has always been her way.

I am surprised at my Uncle Pete. After all they went through trying to become a family again, and all the effort Grandpa made at getting him back from Russia, I feel it was a slap in the face for him to complain at all about the wedding. He should have kept his mouth shut and came with a smile on his face. I do not understand Grandpa’s family.

Grandma & Grandpa- April 21, 1951

My Grandma & Your Grandparents
My Grandma & Your Grandparents
Grandma and Grandpa's First Home- Killeen , Texas 1951
Grandma & Granpa’s First Home- Killeen, Texas

Doctor Grandpa

I am sure you all remember Grandpa shuffling into his room and returning with a smile on his face and a piece of paper in his hand to show you. It was his report card, and he was very proud of it. After all, he did get into medical school based on those grades. He went to the First Leningrad Medical Institute, which was originally a medical school for women. It was, and still is, one of the leading medical schools in Russia.

Uncle Dave and I were able to get translations of his high school report card, and while his course of studies was rigorous, I was surprised to find only one grade of “A”, which was in English. Since he was accepted at such a prestigious university and he was always so proud, I expected many more A’s. However, Grandpa’s report card consisted of 11 C’s, and 4 B’s. The only surprises were courses in Engineering and Artistic Drawing. Perhaps the teachers just did not give out many A’s and B’s at that time. Grade inflation has been the subject of many discussions today. Several studies have shown a steady increase in the number of A’s during the last fifty years, leading me to believe those grades were considered very good during the 1930’s.

Grandpa told us that he attended school six days each week, with no vacations during the year except during the summer. Trips to the ballet and opera were regular occurrences on the weekend, an experience he was never exposed to in New Jersey. I wonder if he and Grandma had had the money, would they have taken us. Would I have been raised with more culture? I imagine Grandma turning up her nose at the prospect, but I bet he would have if they had the financial means.

I was most surprised to learn that he lived in a dorm while in college. Never did he mention this to me when I was a college student struggling with homesickness. Did he have a roommate or two he did not like? His college was in the same city where his family lived. Did he go home often? What was college like in Russia? I wish he had shared this with us.

It is sad that he was never able to complete his education after he returned to the U.S. We also all know that he was forced to leave school after refusing to become a Russian citizen, but even if he stayed, his dream of becoming a doctor would have been squashed by the war. Becoming a doctor just was not in the stars for him.

Grandpa-Leningrad High School #7- 1935
Grandpa-Leningrad High School #7- 1935

Grandpa Was Right

Grandpa was right, but I never realized it until today. When we were living in New York, we were separated from my parents by the Hudson River. There was no route between us that did not involve crossing that river, whether we crossed over the George Washington Bridge, the Bear Mountain Bridge, or the three-mile long Tappan Zee Bridge.

Like a good parent, Grandpa liked to give advance, and like most children, we sometimes laughed at him. Don’t deny it, girls. I am sure there have been times that you have rolled your eyes as Dad or I offered you words of wisdom which you thought was ridiculous. You are younger and have far less experience than us (more than thirty years less), but I am positive that sometimes you think you know more than us. Don’t even try to deny it. Mommy knows best!

Grandpa always told us that he never wanted to get a car with automatic windows, insisting that manual-cranked windows were safer. (Do you even know what this means?) He claimed if our car ever went off a bridge, having windows that could be opened by rolling them down was the only way to insure survival. His advice, to those of us who had to open our windows by pushing a button, was to have always have a hammer inside our cars.

I am fairly certain this is news to all of you. When Dad and I were teaching you how to parallel park, or do a “k-turn”, we omitted this important piece of advice because we thought it was just one of his quirky opinions.

What happened to change my mind after all these years? The awful flood here in South Carolina opened my eyes to Grandpa’s wisdom. As I read an article in today’s paper about the people who died in this flood, I read about a young girl who drowned in her car after leaving the hospital. “How did this happen, I wondered?” Apparently, she got stuck in the water, and called a friend in panic. The advice was to open the window, but she couldn’t because the battery was dead. She had no way out, so she died in her car. After reading this heartbreaking tragic story, I turned to Dad and said, “Dad was right.” This is so sad, yet we keep hearing this story over and over.

So what do you do if you don’t have a hammer or a tool to break your window? Grab something hard– an umbrella, your laptop, your phone (?), or use your foot.  The advice we are hearing over and over is to “don’t drown, turn around.”

Grandpa was right.

Grandma and Grandpa- Young Love

The postcards to Grandma were a great success; sadly I did not start sooner. Like Grandpa, her memories of both the past and present are erratic. I never know from one conversation to the next if they will be crisp or foggy. So today, I am concentrating on postcard #3 written on January 10, 2010—Grandma and Grandpa before their marriage.

1. How, where, and when did you and Dad meet?

Your father came into Norda Chemical looking for a job. I was the one who gave out      applications. He filled it out and I checked it and saw he had checked the wrong box for married, single status. Didn’t get that cleared up ‘til the summer company picnic when he asked me to dance and I asked him where his “wife” was. The following work day, he came into the office and asked for his application back and corrected his error.

 2. Where did you go on your dates?

We would go dancing at a place on Route 23. (He was a very good dancer), an occasional movie, or just sitting on the porch (Whoopee!).

 3. How long did you date until you got engaged?

We got engaged within a year at which time he was called back into service during the Korean War. He was stationed in Texas. Got married during one of his leaves and I went back with him.

 4.  Did Dad formally propose, and if so, tell me the details? Did he ask your father?

He did “ask my father for my hand in marriage” and I’m sure my father said, “Take the whole girl, not just her hand.” We drove back to Texas—a long boring ride. I was shocked I couldn’t get N.Y. stations—only cowboy music.

                                                                     This is all for this letter. To be continued.

                                                                       Love, Mom

Grandpa had already served in the army for a period of four years during World War II.  During the time of the Korean War, the Army began recalling members of the Inactive and Volunteer Reserves because they did not want to deplete all the Active Army personnel in case they were needed elsewhere in the world. This caused a lot of bitterness because many, like Grandpa, felt that they already served their country, but were recalled anyway.

Fortunately, they were back in New Jersey within five months. Grandpa told me once that there was a mistake in the paperwork—his name was misspelled—so he got out on a technicality. Was this really true? I’m not sure, but the funny thing is, his name was misspelled during his service during WW II (Wardmasky), but correctly during the Korean War (Wardamasky).  Did that added “a” really make a difference? Did he avoid being shipped overseas because of that small mistake? It’s an interesting thought to ponder.

Newlyweds in Killeen Texas- 1951
Newlyweds in Killeen Texas- 1951
In the Army again 1951
Grandpa in the Army again 1951

Working 9-5 and More

About four years ago, I asked Grandma to tell me some of her memories growing up in Boonton, but she struggled recalling any stories. So I got some post cards and began to send them to her with some very specific questions. Here follows my questions and her responses from one card.

1. How old were you when you had your first job?

I was 14 or 15 when I got my first job—on Main Street working for a lawyer. I did filing and didn’t like the job or the lawyer. He passed a comment one day that he didn’t like my make-up. In my youthful spunk I told him I didn’t wear it for him. He said, “I like you kid. You have spunk.” (Sounds like Ed Asner, huh?*)

 2. Did you contribute any money to your family?

I don’t know if I contributed at home. I did later in my “career.” **

3. What kinds of jobs did your father have?

My father worked at Norda as a chemical something or other. He had been a rug or linoleum installer previously.

4. Describe typical meals your mother made.

Don’t remember much of what my mother cooked. There was always dessert after school. Don’t know how she did it on limited funds. Never remember being hungry. I guess there was a lot of macaroni and cheese. No take out ever.

 Then she added another random happy family activity:

We used to have back scratching sessions. We’d line up on the couch for that.

*Ed Asner was an actor on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. I know you girls did not watch this show, but it is an American classic. Check it out sometime!

**Grandma told me this story at a later date. I will only tell you now that when her father lost his job also working at Norda, Grandma contributed her entire week’s pay of $72 to her family and said she was happy to be supporting them. (They were horrible employers. If you read my first book, you already know, but if not, stay tuned for another episode.)

Grandma- Looking snazzy!
Grandma- Looking snazzy!

Bumping Into History

Throughout his life, Grandpa was always bumping into history, which is why learning about him has helped me learn world history.

I learned about the Great Depression from reading about what it was like living in New Jersey at that time. We all heard his assassination story, so I researched both the man who was assassinated in Leningrad in 1934 and his killer.

His first steps on United States soil after having been away for ten years was on June 22, 1941, which was the day German forces invaded the Soviet Union.  He was finally on his way home. The rest of his family was still located in the USSR, so I learned  that battle was called Operation Barbarossa.

Grandpa’s story never wavered about speaking to a US Intelligence officer that June day, who approached him when he left the ship in Honolulu. That’s the story about Grandpa knowing about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Was it actually possible that he knew?

In 1956, he was visited by the FBI after he refused to speak at the local Lions Club meeting about his experiences living in the Soviet Union.  That was the time when Americans lived in fear of Communists—precipitated by Joseph McCarthy’s own reign of terror and the explosion of the first atomic bomb by the Soviets.  Grandma said his name was Callahan. Here history was literally knocking at his door.

I have tried, and thus far been unsuccessful, in obtaining his FBI file. I once sat next to an FBI agent on an airplane who encouraged me to be persistent, stating that “if the FBI came to your house, and your father had family living in the Soviet Union at that time, then an FBI file does exist.” I tried again this past week through a different agency—the National Archive at George Washington University.

It is not surprising that my parents’ basement was filled with newspapers about historical events such as the assassination of both Kennedy’s, the first walk on the moon, and the resignation of Nixon. Now they are in my attic in a special box, meant for the teacher in the family or anyone who wants to see them.  It was also not surprising that Grandpa died on the anniversary of a date of historical significance—a date when the world changed and a large part of this country also died.

He died on September 11, 2008.  Grandpa was the first person who called and told me to turn on the television that bright sunny day fourteen years ago when I was pulling up weeds around our pool.  I didn’t believe what he was telling me, but I nevertheless followed his instructions and was horrified when I turned on the television to see smoke pouring from those beautiful buildings we had visited and had seen viewed from the hills of Boonton. (Incidentally, my first visit to the Twin Towers was with Grandpa, when his cousin Misha visited from Russia.)

So every year on this date, I reflect back on Grandpa’s difficult life, recall how often he bumped into history, and then sadly remember all those others who lost their lives on that day.

Grandpa: Something’s Burning

Today’s post is inspired by three guest contributors—Aunt Ar, Aunt El, and Dad. We all have memories related to Grandpa and his passion for Allied Chemical and setting things on fire. He was constantly discussing Allied happenings while bragging about being unaffected by all the chemicals he was exposed to over the years. I guess he thought he was like Superman, but in the end, he wasn’t.

One day, he brought us all out in the backyard for a lesson involving matches, fire extinguishers, and a garbage can lids. As I explained in Motor Vehicle Musings, the purpose of the lid was not just to demonstrate how to pass the automobile emissions test or to contain unpleasant odors. To Grandpa, this cover also served as excellent receptacle for an impressively grand fire whereby he could instruct us on the proper method to use a fire extinguisher.

While this happened long ago, knowing Grandpa, I am fairly certain that gasoline was used to start that fire. Once the flames had erupted, he pulled the pin, squeezed a trigger, and began to empty the canister of its powdery white contents. This lesson was definitely more entertaining than learning how to iron a shirt or change a diaper—lessons I learned from Grandma.

Grandpa also had a unique approach to lighting the charcoal grill when lighter fluid was unavailable. Dad remembers that Grandpa explained to him that he could use gasoline as a substitute accelerant. Grandpa stood back about three feet from the grill, tossed in match or two, and KA-BOOM, the flames shot high into the sky.

Aunt Ellen recalled a classic Grandpa moment which occurred on her birthday. After cooking the burgers, “I believe he turned up the flame with the lid down to burn off the stuck food maybe, and when he opened it up, there was a flash in his face and his eyebrows were burnt. He looked stunned and Mart said, “Hey Dad, do you want me to throw you in the pool?” That was so Grandpa and so Uncle Mart. I can just picture the moment.

For Aunt Arlene, her Grandpa “fire memory” involved music. “One time this song played on the radio. When we sang ‘Something’s Burning’, Dad said ‘what, what?’ From then on, whenever the song played, we sang, ‘something’s burning what, what’.

I suppose Grandpa heard them singing the song and thought they were warning him of a fire somewhere, so now they associate that song with him.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WD-bnNcFNBc&app=desktop

Oh, Dad! I miss you!