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              It was a blustery weekend in Muskrat Flats. The wind was conducting a symphony as the poplars bordering the vineyard...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

You want me to do what on my handkerchief?

I has been a very interesting week in Muskrat Flats. There have been overflow problems at the Farm and Agricultural Museum. It seems that more people and vehicles want to visit the place than can be accommodated.

Then again, who can blame them? The place is gorgeous. The vineyards are lush and in the process of being harvested. The surrounding hills emanate vibrant oranges, reds and umbers creating the most amazing visual panorama. The Bartelby's are fast at work with the help of the Odd Fellows as they labor underneath a 10x10 pagoda style tent emblazoned with three links of a chain each with a letter outlining their basic guidelines -

Friendship, Love and Truth.

Under this tent, shielded from the early October sun, they are selling copious amounts of warm blueberry muffins with either hot coffee, mulled cider or a crisp cold carton of milk.

As I surveyed this scene, I noticed an elderly gentleman sitting in his chair in the shade of the grand oak tree outside Sheriff Hawthorne's office. He was a veteran. He was in full dress uniform, Army infantry. He probably had served in World War II. Out of place on the uniform, but very appropriate was a red "Buddy Poppy." He was a handsome man with combed back white hair. From a distance, especially with the poppy on his uniform which signified the blood spilled in the First World War, the man bore a startling resemblance to my long deceased Grandfather.

As I took in the lush landscape it reminded me of what the homeland - Poland, might have looked like this time of year. Perhaps even what the steppes of the Carpathian Mountains might have looked like in the days of his youth.

Dziadziu (Jah Ju) we called him, was the patriarch of our clan. He was a proud veteran of WWI, He was a sharp shooter who was wounded in battle. An injury for which he was awarded the purple heart. He was a free and liberal thinker who always did whatever it took to provide for his family. Rumor has it there was a still located somewhere on his property during prohibition.

At one point, His house had burned down and he built a one room shack to provide his family with shelter using whatever materials he could find. He grew his own vegetables and hunted for meat. During the great depression, he was without a paycheck for three years. Although there were hardships, through his and my grandmother's hard work and diligence, the family was always sheltered and fed.

One time, during the Depression, a group of people were in his fields, harvesting some vegetables. My Grandmother demanded,

"Peter, do something!" He simply replied,

"I can't, they are hungry."

Things did finally settle down for my grandfather and his clan. He eventually went back to work securing a job in a drop forge. A job from which he eventually retired. One of his sons was a veteran or WWII and one of his grandsons served in Vietnam.

The funny part about the three generations of warriors was their totally different experiences. Dzaidziu used to tell me tales of what went on in France. How he had been injured as an artillery shell detonated in close proximity as it pierced the mess kit he was holding in his hands. Miraculously he survived the blast. He would point out areas on his body where there was still German shrapnel embedded in his skin.

My Uncle, never spoke of his experiences as a pilot in the Pacific Theater during WWII. All I knew of his tour of duty was that he was a pilot at the Battle of Midway. His son, my cousin, went to Vietnam where he seemed to have a grand old time hanging out on the beach and maintained Army helicopters.

As a youngster, I was just about 5 years old at the time, I used to love to sit there and listen to my Grandfather recall his experiences from what he described as the Last Gentleman's War.

My Grandfather, Peter Bukowski was born in Southeastern Poland near the Carpathian Mountains in a village named Frysztak. He was the son of a Horse Farmer. As he was approaching his later teen years, Kaiser Wilhelm had annexed Poland as part of the Austrian empire. The foundation for what would become WW I was being laid. Young men my grandfather's age were being conscripted into the Kaiser's Army at a rapid rate.

In 1914, my Great Grandmother did not want her son to join the Kaiser's Army, so she put my Grandfather on a boat to Ellis Island to join his brother Frank who was living in Three Rivers, MA. Falling ill on his first trip across the Atlantic, my grandfather was denied entry into the US and sent back to Europe, where his mother promptly put him on another boat and sent him back to the US.

His story is that his mother kicked him out of the house when he was a teenager. From my point of view it looked like she was protecting her son.

Once settled in the US, Peter joined the US Army Where he was shipped over to France during WWI. There he was taught to speak English by a Frenchman. So you can imagine the accent my grandfather had. It was a thick Polish accent sprinkled with obvious French pronunciations and flourish. Part of listening to his stories was the love I had for my Grandfather's accent which was oft mimicked in my youth and beyond.

I understood what he meant by calling WW I the last Gentleman's War when he spoke of a Christmas Day where soldiers from opposite sides remembered the spirit of the season, together, only to once again be battling each other in the trenches, the very next day.

What didn't register with me as far as the conflict being a Gentleman's War was his recollection of the harrowing stories of the use of poison gas on the allied troops by the German Army.

In 1899 and again in 1907 international meetings were held in Den Hague in the Netherlands where representatives from various countries met. Out of these meeting came The Hague Conventions. Some of the points addressed at the conventions were the rules of war and more particularly prohibiting the use of chemical weapons in war fare. Sadly the documents of the agreement were obscurely worded which left doors open for interpretation, and were, in the long run, ultimately disregarded.

The first instance of chemical warfare in WWI was perpetrated by the French Army in August of 1914, where they had employed turpinite grenades in an attack on the German Army which left many soldiers dead due to asphyxiation.

The Germans had procured documentation that the French Army had developed these grenades and decided to disregard The Hague Conventions as well. Their first attempt was launching a shell containing tear gas which did not dissipate because the chemicals did work properly due to freezing conditions.

The Germans tried again, this was done successfully in April of 1915 at the Battle of Ypres where the Germans launched shells containing chlorine gas at the trenches occupied by French and Algerian Troops. This worked so well that even the Germans were startled at the result and failed to effectively advance their front lines.

Eyewitness accounts recall that these troops were initially deemed cowards by soldiers further back in the trenches as they witnessed their hasty retreat from the wafting greenish yellow cloud.

These accusations were promptly laid by the wayside as the cloud began to burn the eyes and lungs of the allied troops causing severe respiratory distress and in many cases asphyxiation. Those who fared the worst were the already wounded at the bottom of the trenches and on the ground as the heaviest concentration of the chlorine gas traveled closest to the ground.

My grandfather spoke of burns and blisters he had witness from the use of mustard gas as well.

In the winter of 1970, I was 5 years old, not yet in school. My brother was 8 and in third grade. My brother, also named Peter, a nod to my grandfather and my Father's middle name, was always a tinkerer. He would create things and take things apart to see how they worked. He was always doing different experiments with me looking on. I used to frustrate the hell out of him as I analyzed the situation and simply declared,

"It won't work, Peter." His frustration was usually compounded by the fact the more often than not, I was right and they didn't work.

One of the hot spots we used to frequent was located at the Eastfield Mall. There, out in the open, not behind locked cases, long before the concept of homeland security was on the front burner, was my brother's Shangri La, his utopian supply depot for the ingredients required for most of his experiments, the Kaybee Toy and Hobby Store. You heard me, the Toy Store.

There at Kaybee, of course you could buy toys. What they also had was racks of balsa wood which could be used in the construction of model planes, ships and rockets. They also had model plane motors, fuel, model rocket "engines" and ... chemicals. A whole rack of multicolored glass jars filled with chemicals. In addition to the chemicals you could buy glass jars, laboratory apparatus, glass tubing of all sizes, rubbers hoses and stoppers.

Once my brother recalled he bought all of the ingredients for making gun powder, which fortunately didn't work. The clerk asked him what he was going to make, he simply replied "... gonna just experiment."

One of these "experiments" was burning strips of magnesium which produced a shockingly white and bright flame.

"I used to make ethanol, too. I'd burn strips of wood over an alcohol burner." This was done in a stoppered test tube with a tube going into another test tube which would catch the condensed alcohol.

"It was cool and it smelled good," He said.

My brother was a sickly child, often experiencing loss of breath and strength. It was determined that he had problem with his heart which could be corrected with surgery. It was during this time frame, as my brother lay in bed before and after his surgery that the plans were laid for possibly his most dangerous, and assuredly most successful experiments.

"It was January. I was in the hospital for a number of weeks. Someone had given my some chemistry books to read while I was in there." My brother recalled.

"They were advanced books probably high school or college. Certainly not a 3rd grade level," He chuckled as he recalled.

"I remember the night before my surgery the anesthesiologist came in to talk to me about the procedure the next day. He saw the books and was pretty impressed that an 8 year old was reading them." Peter went on,

"He told me he was going to give my some nitrous oxide before my surgery and asked me if I knew the chemical formula for it. I told him NO2. Not quite right (the formula is N2O) but he was impressed regardless. One of the books was pretty much a recipe book for different experiments and reactions. One of them was for chlorine gas."

When Peter got home from the hospital and he was convalescing and regaining his strength he put his plans into action.

"I couldn't get out of the house to buy chemicals so I used what was handy. In this case chlorine bleach and Drano. The experiment not only worked, but worked well."

I asked if it occurred to him what he was doing could be harmful?

"It didn't ... if I thought what I was doing was harmful or a health hazard, I wouldn't have proceeded. I wasn't secretive about it, because I didn't think I was doing anything wrong."

Peter put together the apparatus. He had three bottles. In the first bottle was chlorine bleach. In the second bottle was Drano. The third bottle was empty. These tthree bottles were connected by rubber stoppers equipped with connecting tubes of both glass and rubber hose.

Peter put the chemicals in the bottles and attached the stoppers. Immediately the the reaction began.

"You could see yellow gas pouring out of the tubes, it was really cool. It was working for a few minutes." As we sat there watching the experiment,

Dziadziu, who was upstairs with my Mom, came into the basement to see what his young grandsons were up to. He took one look at the apparatus and his his face went white. He didn't need a road map to know what was happening in those bottles his grandchildren were peering into.

He picked up the bottles and rushed deep into the woods behind our suburban house. He came out of the woods shortly afterwards, wheezing and gasping with a handkerchief over his nose and mouth. Who knows, perhaps he used one of the tricks he learned in WWI to combat and diminish the affects of the gas. You see, Chlorine gas is water soluble. If you breathe through a water soaked rag, it would protect you from the gas. It was even more effective if the water contained urea which would further and more efficiently neutralize the chlorine gas. In the trenches the best source for urea was found in their own urine.

My grandfather really didn't say anything to us directly. But my Mother heard it,

"Jesoos Chrrrist!" He yelled, "That is vhat the Germans used begainst our troops in Vorld Var I!"

That was quite a startling memory to both me and my brother as we reminisced recently.

My brother simply said, "That was end of my fun."

It is amazing what we used to not only do, but get away with as children. I don't ever recall using a seat belt when I was young. We used to have full run of our neighborhood, spending hours unattended in the adjoining woods going for lengthy hikes or running with the pack of kids our age, just generally being unsupervised. It is not that our parents didn't care what was happening with us. It was just a different time. It was a different world.

There were no milk cartons to put pictures of missing children on, milk came in glass bottles. Delivered by a man whose name you knew. Someone you trusted who would give you a ride from your house to your Grandfather's house as you stood up in the milk truck, just like he did when he drove from stop to stop.

It was a time in our lives when principles which are held in high esteem by the Odd Fellows, Friendship, Love and Truth were held near and dear and were codes by which people, at least the ones I knew, lived their lives.

I can't imagine letting my child partake in some of the activities in which I used to engage when I was a preteen. I'm sure my brother, who is a very doting and protective father of three teenagers, feels the same way.

First of all a lot of the situations that I am discussing are now illegal due to laws which have been passed to protect our children and society. But other activities such as making poisonous gas, just defy common sense.

As my teenaged daughter gets older, and she is asserting her independence, I realize that there will be a time where I have to let her fall. A time where I have to allow her to have her own life experience of defeat or failure, where she will undoubtedly pick herself up and dust herself off. But that doesn't mean she can't benefit from my experience and I can prevent her from stepping on some landmines or worse a bottle of poisonous gas.


I'll just simply encourage you to Go in Peace as I am once again,

Running Hard Out of Muskrat Flats.