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My Father's Young Life: A Memoir: The Father…

My Father's Young Life: A Memoir: The Father I Never Knew

by Jean Caroline

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In his late seventies, Stanislaus Przybzla wrote a series of anecdotes about his life that begin with his earliest memories and end in 1947. His purpose was to present his youngest child, Jeannie, an accounting of his early years most of which she had no knowledge, hoping that she would create a book to share with her brother and sister. Because I’ve always wanted to know more about my father than what he was willing to tell me, because by this act Mr. Przybzla appeared to be a sensitive person, because I am interested in the history of the 1920s and 1930s (my parents’ formative years), and because Jeannie (Jean Caroline) is a friend of mine who lives in the same town that I do, I purchased and read this book. I am happy that I did.

My Father’s Young Life: A Memoir is not the work of a skilled writer. You should not expect it to be. Mr. Przybzla (I will call him hereafter Stanley) grew up in poverty in Fall River, Massachusetts. He had a minimal education. He left his parents’ house at the age of 16 and supported himself in New York City working menial jobs. It is easy for readers to find fault with his writing. A reader will encounter frequent run-together sentences and errors of word usage, punctuation, and spelling. Many of Stanley’s anecdotes need to be narrated with greater detail. Parts of his memoir are repetitious. Deleting them would quicken the pace of the book. We would hold these flaws against a professional writer. But not this father, who makes no claim to be proficient as a writer. We know his purpose. We should judge his memoir for what he relates to his daughter, what we take from it, and how it makes us feel. My rating is based solely on those factors. I can excuse the writing errors. Jean Caroline was wise not to alter them. Doing so would have destroyed his authenticity. I had no difficulty reading what he communicated. As for the scarcity of detail in his early anecdotes, how well do we remember what happened to us 62 years ago? And why should we expect him to delete anything he wanted to relate to his daughter?

I enjoyed the book because Stanley showed himself to be a sensitive, caring person. I admired him additionally for his courage, grit, and determination. He exhibited a strong regard for right and wrong. Because I am a student of history, I enjoyed what he added to my knowledge of the conditions of the Great Depression. We learn best about a particular period in history by reading the accounts of its individual participants. Studs Terkel’s Hard Times chronicles many people’s experiences of the Great Depression, each individual’s personal story different but each connected to everybody else’s in a thematic way. Stanley’s account adds detail to our broad understanding of the time.

The memoir is divided into three sections: Stanley’s childhood years, the restless years of his youth, and his first 15 years of marriage. Throughout each section runs the theme of poverty, hardship, and perseverance. We know that nobody controls the time and place of his birth and his parentage. Stanley was born at a time (1909) when every American who was not rich was literally on his own. To survive every person born into poverty had to locate a place in the prevailing economic system. If he failed to, he died; nobody – other than family members and a few friends -- cared. Life for Stanley, his parents, and his siblings was unrelentingly harsh; yet you will find no self-pity in his story.

Death occurred all around him. Stanley remembered several of his six siblings who died while he was a child. One sister, Veronica, was special to him. “Veronica was beautiful, with long blond hair; she was very dainty as I recall.” (A Jewish family that operated a grocery store a block away had offered his parents money to buy her) “… Veronica became sick, possibly a cold at first then she ran a fever, mom and dad were both working at the time, my sister Rose was to mind her and keep her in the house. She had orders not to go outside, but Rose’s girlfriend came over and probably talked her into going out for a walk.” They wrapped Veronica in a blanket and walked her up and down the street in a carriage. “… Veronica developed a high fever a very sore throat and I think it turned into Diphtheria. I rather blame my folks also because they should have called the doctor however; in those days, you didn’t call the doctor as you do today.” She died “in our mother’s arms, I still can remember it so clearly. When she was laid out in her pretty coffin, … when no one was around I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.”

Other recollections moved me, in particular how Stanley obtained his toys and his anecdote about his bicycle.

At the age of sixteen, he left Fall River to live and work in New York City.

In the memoir’s second section we learn how Stanely supported himself well enough to send his parents regularly a portion of his earnings. He worked in restaurants, first as a dishwasher, then as a bus boy, and later as a spaghetti cook. His chief enjoyments were his walks about the city and his observations of strangers. He was a restless person, in need of breaking out of the economic constraints imposed upon him. At the age of sixteen, he and two friends bought a used car with the intention of traveling to California. The suspension went out in Illinois. They had to return to New York City. During the next five years he and his friends traveled twice to and back from California, by car, bus, hitchhiking, “riding the rails,” and walking. Here is where we learn interesting information about being destitute and, for much of the time, homeless. We witness Stanley and his friends’ ingenuity in finding ways both to survive and travel. For instance, they found no work in the San Pedro hiring hall. You had to be a union member. They did find work selling fruit in Long Beach. They worked for a fair-minded boss but were fired because they were caught eating malts and cookies in their employer’s beach-front store before it was opened for morning business. They traveled through Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas without money. How were they to eat? They stole oranges from an orchard, begged for hand-outs from home owners in trade for labor if labor was needed, received old bread from bakeries. Where did they sleep? Once under a homeowner’s back porch; once underneath a train station platform; frequently, voluntarily in jail cells – a benign practice permitted in some towns to keep vagrants off the streets after dark. They met all kinds of people, some generous, some out to take advantage. Authorities in Louisiana were using arrested hobos as cheap labor to build a new city hall. Stanley tells us about the poor roads in Texas, racial prejudice in Arizona, a functioning Indian village he observed from a distance, and a hobo “jungle.”

He and his friends crossed into Mexico at El Paso. A young girl intercepted them, encouraged them to follow her. “When we arrived at where she was living and she invited us inside, she told her father to step outside which he did. She spread some blankets on the floor and she lay down and motioned us to have intercourse. This was a crazy episode, here we were all three of us and no one wanted to do anything, she took two dollars from each of us, we let her keep the money because we felt sorry for her, especially with her father sitting outside. I felt it must be very hard for a father to have his daughter sell her body to support the family.” Stanley encountered another prostitute in Paris, Arizona, and this time indulged himself, the first and only time he had sex before his marriage. Afterward, he would see her occasionally looking out the window of her residence. “She was a very nice young woman, I would say in her mid-twenties. … Each time … it was not a happy face it seems that she saw no one, her mind was far away probably thinking of her folks back home, or her past life. In myself I gave her a name, ‘the doll in the window.’”

Of his traveling experiences, Stanley wrote: “I learned that without money a person is lost, lost in a sense of security, lost in where their next meal would come from, lost in a sense that you are alone, all the people you see passing you; they mean nothing when you have no money. It’s like they live in a different world then you. It is a very lonely place when you are without money. … I would wonder, is it really worth it to go through these hardships, yet always when you arrived home not a month later you’re ready to start out again, the hard times were always forgotten.”

The third section of the memoir is about his married life: how he struggled to support his wife and growing family, first in New York, then in rural Pennsylvania, and finally on Long Island. Through the influence of Tammany Hall he obtained a job driving a bus and, because his supervisor was an autocratic tyrant, he was fired. He worked selling wax paper to home owners, going door-to-door. After suffering much rejection and rudeness, he concluded: “you get hard after a while when you have to earn a living.” Eventually, Stanley and his family moved to rural Pennsylvania to manage property owned by his in-laws. With great difficulty they eked out an existence their first winter. He became a handy man, out of necessity. The following spring he began to prosper. A falling-out with his in-laws forced his family and him to relocate in New York. For a time he worked for the WPA at a dump site, witnessing unfair treatment of the work force. After relations with his in-laws were restored, he returned to Pennsylvania, where, next to his in-laws’ property, he purchased land, build a little house, and anticipated a better future.

World War II interceded. Stanley put his property up for sale; he and his family moved to Long Island. In Pennsylvania he had been eligible for the draft despite the fact that he was married and had three children. He obtained a ghastly job working in a Long Island wire factory that exposed its employees to lung-damaging fumes. The job, deemed to be defense related, protected him from being drafted. In 1947 he and his family moved to Santa Monica, California.

At the end of his memoir, Stanley wrote: “… I feel like there should be more to it than just saying, this is the end. … I wrote this from the stand point of bringing back a little memory of happy times that you might have enjoyed in your younger days and maybe had forgotten or not thought of in a long time. Or were they your happy days? Could they have been made happier by someone and they were not? If so and if it is through our fault please forgive us. I know we made mistakes in one way or another but maybe those mistakes could not be avoided and maybe I am wrong for trying to apologize I leave that to your judgment.” I believe he fulfilled his responsibilities. Despite the hardships he suffered coming of age before and during the Great Depression, his memoir is not a depressing story. Stanley loved adventure; he held his family members dear; he relished life. Jean Caroline honors him with this publication. ( )
  HaroldTitus | Nov 9, 2014 |
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