BUFFALO, NY – Spelled Cichoń in its original form, my last name is Polish.
My great-grandfather, Jan Cichon, came to Buffalo from what is now Milczany, Świętokrzyskie, Poland in 1913. He soon changed his first name to John, but never changed the way he pronounced his last name.
He said “CHEE-hoyn” as a little boy in the tiny villages he grew up in near Sandomierz in southeast Poland, and said “CHEE-hoyn” as a railyard laborer for National Aniline in South Buffalo’s Valley neighborhood.
Before John’s son– my grandfather– died in 2015, one of the many hours of conversation I had with him was how CHEE-hoyn became SY-chon (which is how Gramps said it) became SEE-shon (which is how my dad and most of my family says it.)
So, here is Eddie (SYchon) explaining how CHEEhoyn became SEEshon.
Gramps says that his mother and father– both from Poland– always said CHEEhoyn. He says when he and his nine brothers and sisters starting going to school, SYchon– the generally accepted German pronunciation– was introduced to them, and it stuck.
“You say SEEshon, right?” Gramps asked me. I told him that’s how my dad says it.
“Well, your dad’s partly French,” Gramps said, cracking himself up so hard he started coughing.
I can’t find the audio– I recorded dozens of conversations with Gramps– but he also once explained that it was one of his sisters-in-law who started saying SEEshon. My grandma also said SEEshon, as did my dad, and now most if not all of the Cichons who are left in my family say SEEshon.
So that’s how my family has come to say SEEshon, although I answer to any other pronunciation from telemarketers who are just plain confused or from little old ladies wearing babushkas (or my Fair friend Jim!) telling me I say my name wrong.
By Steve Cichon | email@example.com | @stevebuffalo
My dad was a great storyteller, and most of the stories revolved around some kind of villain cramping his style.
They were fun, but you could see that 30 or 40 or 50 years later, he was still POed at Hawkeye Hayden.
But the best, warmest, aggression-free memories for the ol’man usually revolved around food– especially free food.
His Grandma Scurr would give him a quarter for the show and he’d be able to get 5 or 6 candy bars and watch cartoons all day at the Shea’s Seneca.
The meat packing plant near his house on Fulton Street once had a neighborhood cookout with all the hot dogs and hamburgers you could eat.
His dad was a night watchman at Paul’s Pies for a while… and he would bring home enough day old pies that everyone would get full.
He was always so happy telling and remembering these vivid all-you-can-eat tales, and the stories of great face-stuffings into adulthood were always part of his repertoire as well. He wasn’t a connoisseur of good food, he was a connoisseur of food.
“Man, I love soup.” “Man, I love eggs.” “At Manny’s, they give ya a hamburger this big!” “That was a really good fish fry, REALLY good.”
Before moving to The Valley and Fulton Street near my Grandpa’s family (Down the street from the Swift Meat Plant) when he was five, the Cichons lived at 28 S. Elmwood Avenue, Apartment 3, almost directly behind City Hall.
Dad’s favorite food story from that era involved “Good ol’Joe the Butcher.” His shop was right around the corner from where dad lived, and he’d “always give ya a big hunk of baloney.” The memory would fade to black with a smile, and a final, “Yep. Good ol’Joe the Butcher.”
Joe the Butcher was Joe Battaglia. He came to Buffalo from Italy at the age of 5 in the 1890s. He ran his shop at the corner of Elmwood and Genesee (nearest landmark now would be the post office near Channel 7) from 1901 until he died in 1957. In finally tracking down his location and name, and then this death notice, I found his only son died a few years later and had no heirs. My ol’man may have been the last living person talking about this kindhearted man.
I’m happy to have finally dug up the full story of good ol’Joe the Butcher. He reminds me that doing something as simple and almost meaningless as ripping off a hunk of baloney can brighten someone’s day and possibly even brighten the rest of a person’s life.
Here’s to good ol’Joe the Butcher and to us all finding ways to rip off hunks of baloney.
By Steve Cichon | firstname.lastname@example.org | @stevebuffalo
Intellectually, I know there is no time or space in heaven, so today is just a glorious, random day in an eternity of glorious random days.
I further know in heaven, we have no need for our earthly contrivances, because in spirit we are perfection.
Intellectually, I know these things. It doesn’t mean I can truly comprehend what they really mean.
My dad went to his eternal reward five years ago today. It’s a wonderful blessing to firmly believe that our loved ones die from this life into a more beautiful forever.
In our perfectly human struggle to understand and explore what we can’t grasp, we often try to define the undefinable with comparisons to other undefinable things we’ve thought about a little bit more.
In 2006, Americans sent nearly 38 billion plastic water bottles to landfills. If laid end to end, that’s enough bottles to travel from the Earth to the Moon and back 10 times.
For some reason, an inconceivable number like 38 billion is easier to comprehend when we say it could make 10 round trips to the moon. This is silly, since most of us don’t really have a firm concept of how far away the moon is, besides really, really far away (which is where I would imagine 38,000,000,000 stacked water bottles would take me anyway.)
Sometimes it’s helpful for me– and any of us, I imagine– to picture our loved ones in perfection in heaven. Since we can’t understand perfection, we put it in earthly terms that we know aren’t even close to how things really are up there.
So my ol’man is in heaven. Five years today. He was recently joined by my mom-in-law there. I smile that they are there, and that they are there together.
These two were a lot alike in their earthly lives, but one way sort of flashed at me this morning. They both loved cigarettes. In fact, they both smoked Parliament, until after years of being badgered by medical professionals and family, they both gave up the habit. But neither ever stopped thinking about– or talking about– smoking and the pleasure it brought them. It’s an eerily similar story for both.
I know if either one had been able to create their own version of heaven, it would have included a cigarette vending machine in the corner and an endless supply of quarters. It also would have a kitchen table with ashtrays, mugs of coffee, and swirling smoke.
I know heaven brings them the joy of smoking without even thinking of a puff, but some how for me, picturing them happy is easier with a butt in hand– like stacking bottles to the moon.
So today, I imagine Dad and Mom-in-law sitting at that heavenly kitchen table. They are talking and smiling, sharing a pack of Parliaments, and enjoying their heavenly life to the fullest, looking down upon all of us who love and miss them, their hearts full with the knowledge that we will all be together someday.
For us here, talking about how much you miss someone who is a piece of you is trying to put into words the indefinable. Dad’s been gone for five years, Pam for 16 days.
The yearning and sadness feels like the like the moon and back in both cases, but at the same time, the everlasting love from each is always as close as my heart.
My Ol’man and Me: My dad died at age 58. I’ve really become accustomed to dealing with grief by writing about the people and things I love, and what it is and why it is that I love them. Written in the weeks following my dad’s death on Palm Sunday, 2010. The story of his last week alive, and a reflection of our relationship and time together. Read it here, and download it as a free e-book.
By Steve Cichon | email@example.com | @stevebuffalo
I got glasses in seventh grade. My vision was really bad and I didn’t really know. I remember looking at a pine tree out our front window, and being marveled by being able to make out the needles; not just seeing a big green blob.
Sixth grade was a mess. We moved to Orchard Park late that summer, and as a late add to every class, I sat in the last seat every time. I didn’t realize it was unusual, but I couldn’t see the board at all.
It’s because of all this, I taught myself the most memorable skills I learned in middle school.
As my grades suffered in Social Studies and Math because I was blind and sitting in the back, I figured out how to do two Mr. Spock moves: make my hand make the “live long and prosper” sign, and make one eyebrow go up while the other one goes down.
These are both actions which take some muscle memory, and had someone realized I needed glasses a year earlier, I might not have had an entire academic year to train those muscles.
Star Trek was one of those shows I watched with my dad a lot growing up. It always seemed to be on, which made him selective.
There were “dumb ones,” episodes Dad thought were stupid and didn’t stand up to the standards he set for the show.
We wouldn’t watch the dumb ones, but the good ones, my dad laughed at the jokes and cheered when they won every time like it was the first time he’d ever seen it. He especially loved Spock, and was lovingly amused at his different ways in the same way Captain Kirk was.
Spock was someone we could always agree on. He’s a great character. He’s forever denying his humanity; which, ironically, is one of humanity’s most prevalent traits.
Nimoy’s calm demeanor and resonant voice brought the best of Spock with him no matter what else he was doing. Dad and I loved him on “In Search of..” as well.
Not many people can specifically remember something striking they learned in sixth grade.
I learned to be a little more Vulcan, and therefore a little more human. And grew a little closer to my dad.
BUFFALO, NY – With Ralph Wilson in the news, today I was talking with a few co-workers about death and dying.
I’d found myself in the same situation as Mr. Wilson’s family over the last few weeks. While I had hoped that my grandfather would live forever, or at least til he hit a birthday worthy of a Willard Scott mention; the truth is, Gramps was 88, and had been in slowly declining health for over a decade. It was a mix of great hope and sad acceptance in thinking about Gramps for a long time, until he did pass away March 4th.
I grieve the loss of a simply beautiful man, but equally feel some satisfaction in accepting the simply beautiful long life he lived.
As is often the case with death, it’s not quite that simple. We’ll all be attending a service for Gramps on Friday, which is also the anniversary of my Dad’s death a few years ago.
In our little conversation around the coffee pot about Ralph Wilson and death, I was about to mention something about about Dad’s death, when I realized I didn’t know without thinking how long it had been.
I just barely controlled myself, with the thunderpunch of a thought that Dad died so long ago I can’t immediately remember.
It was four years ago. And four years later, that thought that I had to do math in order to remember how long it had been since I sat with dad, laughed with dad, talking with dad, yelled at dad… It was as if he’d just right now died all over again.
But having a Mass for Gramps on the anniversary of dad’s death is somehow appropriate for me.
Losing a father is a complicated, awful, inward, outward emotional mess. Dad was very sick, and for a long time, I had tried to steel myself for the inevitable– but there’s no way to prepare. Especially when the most difficult part of it all was completely outside of me and my control.
Gramps. Spending 3 years and 11 months talking with Gramps about my dad and the fact that he’s gone while trying to keep it all together was emotionally difficult beyond words. My dad was more than Gramps’ son, they were best friends. In his own illness, my dad thought more about Gramps’ well-being than his own. He called him 3 or 4 times a day. They kept each other smiling, and kept each other in line.
My dad’s last mission in life was doing what he could to take care of his dad. My dad never asked for much for himself, but I know if we would have had the opportunity to talk heart-to-heart with me before he died, dad would have told me to take care of Gramps. I did my best, which sometimes wasn’t good enough. A call to Gramps could be crushing, and frankly, I wasn’t always up to it.
It was generally heart breaking talking with Gramps. Four or five times in the course of a 90 minute visit, he’d talk about how much he missed my dad. I sat through it, discussed it, even encouraged it– despite those thoughts ripping the heart out of my chest and leaving me drowning in emotion every time. But of course, what ever pain I have dealing in the death of a father, I can’t even imagine the pain and emptiness of dealing with the death of a son.
Once I mentioned that I had some recordings of my dad. Gramps almost started to cry, his voice shaky. “I’d love to hear his voice again, Son.” I have not and cannot listen to the hours and hours of Dad I taped through the years. I just can’t bear it. I found a short conversation I recorded when my dad called me at work one time to wish me a happy birthday. It’s dad happy and full of life… which in his last few years wasn’t always the case. Still, most of the dozens of times I played the one minute phone message for Gramps, tears uncontrollably streamed down my face. A few times I felt nauseous. Gramps often cried too, but it was therapy he relished.
Despite being blind and practically immobile, I’m sure Gramps knew until his last breath exactly how long he’d been without my dad. If Gramps was still here, I’d have called him on Friday, the anniversary of Dad’s death. “Hi Gramps, It’s Stevie.” “Hello, son. You know your dad died 4 years ago today?” “Yep, I know,” I’d have said, trying not to sound too sad. “Wanna hear the tape?”
For four years, my mourning has been wrapped in the context of completing Dad’s last mission and being there for Gramps in sharing his pain and loss.
Right after he died, I wrote about what a perfect grandfather Gramps was to us when we were little. Now that he’s gone, I’m realizing pretty strikingly that once again, Gramps was helping me far more than I could have ever helped him in talking about and thinking about my ol’man.
I saw a pristine 1990 Chevy Lumina over the weekend. I actually drove a Lumina for a while, but my thoughts turned to a great friend who drove a Lumina, too. Radio newsman Ed Little looked classy behind the wheel of his always well-maintained, respectable mid-sized General Motors sedan. The hipster who was driving it on Sunday was more ironic than classy.
My dad loved cars– looking at them and driving them. He’d always excitedly point out cars that he or someone he knew once owned. As a young man, he drove sports cars like an MG and muscle cars like an AMC Javelin. Of course, I now point out old cars to anyone who will listen.
Just like with my ol’man, seeing an old car that reminds me of a car from my past is one of those instant mood changers for me. I’ve owned a few interesting cars through the years, like a white 1971 Mercedes. Very eye catching, but not too comfortable to drive. I love my ’86 VW Golf, ’95 Plymouth Neon, and ’97 Honda Civic. Those cars weren’t spectacular, but they were comfortable and easy to drive. When I see one, I want to drive it.
But the real memories come from those cars my dad and my grandpas had long before I could drive.
First- Here’s that Lumina, like the one Ed Little had. I’d wait to see this car pull up to fine restaurants like Alice’s Kitchen, Your Host, Grandma’s Pancakes, and the Four Seasons.
In the Cichon house, we had this exact car: a Dodge Aries station wagon with faux wood paneling and tan Naugahyde seats. We also had a black one, with red velvet seats. Nice.
There were also 2 AMC Spirits in our family. Grandpa Cichon had a white one with a big blue pinstripe, my family had a brown one.
This is the exact interior of our 1981 Spirit. I hurt myself on the steering wheel playing Dukes of Hazzard, climbing in and out of the windows.
Grandpa Cichon traded in the Spirit for a Pontiac Bonneville. It was in this car, my brother and I witnessed one of the great events in our lives up until that point. Usually calm Gramps got hosed at a full-service gas station. He unleashed a torrent of Polish-American cursing that remains with me nearly 30 years later. We i see this car, I think, “You G-dd-mmed horseball!!”
Grandpa Coyle would get a new Oldsmobile every year or two… But all though my childhood, he has this odd, pea green Ford pickup– Which was actually van without an enclosed back. There were only two seats, and I can remember fighting with my brother over which one of us would get to ride on the hump where the stick shift was… on the way to the hardware store.
Finally my Great-Grandpa Wargo drove this beautiful pea green Ford Maverick. It was a car that was old and mysterious, just like Great-Grandpa. I especially liked that the old yellow NY plates had three numbers then BUX. I liked -BUX on a license plate. Our plates were boring by comparison.
What did your grandpa drive? I’d love to see it, tweet me @SteveBuffalo.
This page originally appeared at TrendingBuffalo.com
I did something great yesterday. I told myself to shut the f*** up, and I really meant it.
For a very long time, I’ve been doing an exaggerated impression of my dad, saying with disgust, “Just… shut… the f*** … up–”
He was not a fan of people annoying him by going “chirp, chirp, chirp” as he’d say while doing the blah, blah, blah hand motion.
Now, my dad was a great father and fantastic in many ways. In this case, though, he was fantastically lacking in patience, and fantastically succinct in his expression of that lack of patience.
That phrase, an exasperated, “Just… shut… the f*** … uuUUP–” came out of his mouth when he was at the end of his rope, but more “tired of it” than angry. Of course, that made it an expression commonly uttered by the ol’man, in that exact peculiar way. That strong suggestion would be offered to us kids, to my mother, to the dog, and to the TV when Don Paul was talking about something that didn’t have to do with whether it was going to rain tomorrow.
“Just… shut… the f*** … uuUUP–”
When I first started saying this phrase in this way in the company of my wife, she no doubt recognized the dramatic style as a nod to the Master of the cranky curse-riddled tirade. As time went on though, and as more and more of my personality (d)evolved into something closer to that of my ol’man’s– I think that phrase has become mine.
We are at a point where my wife knows I’m thinking it even before I do most of the time. She’ll smile, and say, “C’mon, say it.” Honestly, we both know I say it mostly for comedic effect. But as time wears on, that little kernel of truth which makes comedy funny– my actual living, breathing desire for that person to STFU… well, that little kernel seems to be growing into a greater desire for clamped mouths every time I say it. Soon, I too will be swearing at TV weathermen.
But yesterday, I was talking things over with myself, mostly being a whiny bitch, when out of nowhere, I realized what I sounded like in my own head, and had enough. I told myself to just… shut… the f*** … up. Dad would have been proud, because I meant it just as much as the ol’man meant it when Don Paul started cracking jokes about Thanksgiving leftovers one time in 1991 or so.
We all have problems, and even those of us who try to maintain a steely exterior, might sometimes get a little whiny in the doubts that share with ourselves about those problems. I know it’s not the solution for everything, but wow– realizing you’re always a loser when you play the self-pity game, and figuratively punching yourself in the face is really a great feeling.
So, the next time you start to feel all “woe is me,” remind yourself to just… shut… the f*** … up. Or call me to complain. I’ll be happy to channel the ol’man and tell you exactly what I think you should do.
This page originally appeared at TrendingBuffalo.com
It’s nearly inconceivable to me, but it was twenty years ago today. The letter that started my career at WBEN.
As a 15 year old high school sophomore, I would have been happy getting a job at Tops.
But neither Tops nor Bells would hire someone under 16. My birthday wouldn’t come until the end of summer. I needed something to do for the vacation.
I’d been earning money for years already. Helping out at a used book shop. Helping a farmer down the street pick potatoes. Cleaning up cigarette butts and cutting curly fries at a nearby hot dog stand.
I liked working and I liked earning money.
But radio? Why not, I guess I thought.
I had always loved radio, and for the few years my dad’s job took us to Massachusetts, I had a friend whose dad worked in radio. We used to go to work with him when he was the Saturday morning jock on a big station in Boston.
As an 8 year old, my first real taste of living a life in radio came when I had to be ready for Mr. Bob to pick me up at 5am to head into WHDH. No problem. Loved every minute of it.
On those Saturday mornings, My friend Jarin and I would “do production” for the “station” we ran in his basement, made up of real, but cast-away decades-old radio equipment.
When my family moved back to Buffalo, and Jarin’s moved to Maryland, he gave me some of the castaway equipment, and I built a “radio station” of my own in my bedroom.
We’d each “do shows” on cassette and mail them back and forth to one another.
I was 7 or 8 years into that “radio career” when, during my “job search,” I was struck with an idea.
I have no idea from whence the thought of an internship came, but I loved radio, and wanted to work in radio, and that’s what I set out to do.
I opened the phone book, and called every radio station listed, asking for the station manager’s name.
When I say every radio station, I mean every single one. Buffalo. Springville. Lockport. Niagara Falls. Batavia. I just wanted to get in. Anywhere.
With those names in hand, I knew to whom I should address the letters I was about to write on our Tandy 1000EX computer. The one with 256k of memory.
It was quite a few 29 cent stamps.
The letter I wrote had to have been a classic 10th grader essay on my love for radio, and my knowledge of radio equipment, with, of course, some big words thrown in for good measure (because that’s how I’ve rolled for years now.)
So, somewhere between 15 and 20 of these letters went out. And I waited.
At the mail box everyday, I’m sure I looked like Ralphie looking for that Little Orphan Annie decoder ring.
If you think about that scene in a Christmas Story, when Ralphie excitedly says “My ring!!” and runs in the house, syrupy violin music comes in to set the scene.
In my mind, that same hokey musical accompaniment plays when I opened the mailbox to find that gleaming white WBEN stationery staring at me, with my own name typewritten on the front.
It was providence. The station I listened to, the station I loved, was the only station to respond. At all. The only letter I got.
Its really almost unfathomable.
Think of some bad sitcom where a kid has a dream about pitching for the Yankees.
The focus is soft and fuzzy around the edges.
The kid’s sitting on the bench when Billy Martin, wearing a blue hat (but without a Yankees emblem) points at him and hands him the ball.
But, instead of the Yankees manager saying, “You’re in, kid!” in a dream, I got the real deal.
There really couldn’t have been anything better than getting a letter from Kevin Keenan inviting me to WBEN. And there was that letter, right there in my hands.
I’ll never forget that first day. Kevin looked like a 1993 radio newsman from central casting; white shirt, tie, suspenders.
We talked about WBEN, and I can’t imagine how hilarious it was to have a 15 year old know your programming inside out, talking about how my alarm clock was set for 6:23am, so I could wake up to the Osgood File.
He loved that I had called “Ask the Mayor” only a few days before, and had talked to him and Mayor Griffin about one of the big issues of the day: The debate over whether Jay Leno or David Letterman should replace Johnny Carson.
I showed him I knew how to put up a reel of tape, and how to bulk erase a cart.
On the tour around the station, I met sports man Rick Maloney, and sat in to watch a Craig Nigrelli/Helen Tederous newscast.
I was floored when Kevin offered me the chance to intern during the summer.
What a summer of triple bus transfers from Orchard Park to North Buffalo… And my dad acting as my radio chauffeur.
Eight or nine hour days, every day, all summer. I learned from everyone I met. Busted my hump with a smile. Loved every minute of it.
When I went to help set up WBEN’s remote at the Fair, Kevin gave me a WBEN t-shirt. I had earned it, and I loved it. I don’t know that I’ve ever been more proud to receive anything.
As I headed back to school, now a well-heeled Orchard Park High School junior, I was offered a weekend board operator job. Best of Limbaugh on Sundays.
Screw Tops. I was pulling in my $4.25 an hour working in radio. My heart is racing right now, thinking about the pride and satisfaction I felt.
I was living the Doogie Howser dream. And it’s continued from there.
That day in Kevin Keenan’s office 20 years ago today was my last job interview.
I’ve been tremendously blessed to have had so many mentors who’ve looked out for me, taught me their secrets, looked out for me, and allowed me to coattail along on their rides.
I feel a lot like a kid who went to bed waiting for one of those radio stations to respond to my letter, and woke up News Director at the radio station I really hoped would answer.
Everything I know about broadcasting, about radio, about TV, about journalism: I was taught either by direct instruction or by example from the tremendous people I’ve worked with at WBEN, Channel 4, and the Empire Sports Network.
I’d love to write about a few of the people, but it just wouldn;t be fair, because the list really has hundreds of names on it. I’m not sure how or why I’ve been so blessed, so lucky, to have so many amazing, talented people take an interest in my life and my career.
There’s not a single task I do every day that doesn’t carry along with it the embedded lessons of those people who’ve taken me in as an apprentice and son.
I’m like an orphan that was raised by the community. So much of any success I’ve had is because so many people own a piece of my success, but it couldn’t have happened without each on of them.
Twenty years of incredible luck and love. I’m not sure it’s fair that one person should be so blessed… But for two full decades now, I’ve been indescribably thankful, and mindful to never waste even a little bit of it.
It’s definitely a different feeling, but I’m not sure I can quantify how.
Dad died Palm Sunday, 2010. Three years ago today.
Today’s a different day, though. I’m writing this in an attempt to figure out how or why it’s different. It just is.
Time just brings up different feelings, is all. I haven’t accidentally thought, “I’ve gotta go tell Dad” something for a while. Thinking about that makes me sad. Even the deepest recesses of my brain and being know I won’t be conversing with the ol’man til the other side.
Of course, I can never forget my dad. But every once in a while, I’ll think of a phrase or an action that I hadn’t thought of in years– something that was in the ol’man’s repertoire.
This, too, leaves a painful hurt. I think of these usually silly, often violent sounding things, and I can’t stop myself from repeating them… because I just don’t want to forget anything about my dad. It’s not even something I do on purpose. It’s deeply embedded.
A few of the ones I’ve forgotten and remembered lately:
“Get over here and let me put a dent in your face,” was a typical way dad might tell you he didn’t like what you were saying or doing. It could have been one of the variants like “break your head,” “bust your face,” or “I’ll punch your lights out if you don’t stop fighting with your brother!”
If he was in a particularly playful mood, sometimes he’d just ball up his big meaty fist, point it at you with an onomatopoeic crashing sound,”DUHSHJZ!” As I write this, and try to figure out how to spell “duhshjz!” that I don’t think I’ve ever head that anywhere else. It sounds kind of “Polishy.”Is that sound familiar to anyone?
Anyway, as far as the ol’man was concerned, there was really no threat or even thought of actual roundhouse punches to be thrown. It was just the way he talked. And, being programmed that way, it’s how I talk. I forgot the “dent” line, but often what starts in my mind as, “Boy, I really dislike that you are doing that,” comes out of my mouth as, “You deserve a punch in the face.” I really have no desire to inflict violence on anyone, but it does seem like a perfectly reasonable way to explain myself if my guard is down. Sometimes I want to punch myself in the face.
“You look like nobody owns you,” was usually immediately followed by grabbing of a shoulder, jerking one of us into the bathroom, and soaking our head in Vitalis Hair Tonic before we went somewhere important, like to church. I don’t remember what made this one pop into my head, but it seems to be stuck there for the time being.
Dad really was something else. If I was writing a cartoon or a sitcom, Dad could be a character just as is. No changes. But he was more than that. He was a beautifully complex sonavabitch. At least I hope “beautifully.” Because it looks like in more ways daily, I’m heading in the same direction.
I’m still not sure why it feels different now, but about now dad would be calling me a lemon, and threatening to dent my head.
I knew what a veteran was from the earliest of ages.
I’m sure I started asking my dad about his tattoo as soon as I could talk. “STEVE,” it said on his forearm, in sloped writing, with a Celtic cross underneath. To say Celtic cross makes it sound better than it was. It was a stick figure cross with a circle where the horizontal and vertical parts of the cross met. It was actually a pretty horrible tattoo, which he said he gave himself when he was a Marine. I never heard the full story of the tattoo, or whether he actually remembered giving it to himself, or if a buddy told him he did it.
Dad always told us not to get a tattoo, but it was more like advice than an order. He didn’t like his tattoo, but I don’t think he considered it a mistake. He never hid it, either. I think in some ways that sums up the way he felt about his service in the Marine Corps. He was quietly proud of it, but didn’t like it.
I know he joined the Marines in 1969 as a way to “get out of the Valley,” the poor working class neighborhood he grew up in. He saw the world as a Marine, and had his education paid for by the GI Bill. But he was also struck with illness that initially almost killed him, but that also started downward progression in his health that culminated with his death at the age of 58.
My dad had few heroes and people he looked-up-to in his life, but one was his big sister Tricia. He was a Marine when her kidney disease came to the point of needing a transplant. Dad was on his way home to see if he could be a donor when she died. I don’t know that he ever loved anyone more than her. She took care of him and understood him. He didn’t get to say good bye to her because he was half a world away.
To make it worse, he had one of those awful Vietnam era welcomes. Walking down the street in his uniform, he was taunted and sneered at. Having heard this story dozens of times since I was very little, the image that pops into my head is my father walking down Seneca Street in front of what used to me Grandma’s Donuts (now Abbott Pizza, I think) with people throwing bottles and trash at him. That’s not what happened, but that’s the image my dad’s telling of the story put in my head.
He was proud of his service, but wasn’t about to join a club or line up for a parade. He was the most humble veteran at the VA Hospital, always thanking roommates, nurses and doctors for their service to our great land.
Dad’s instilling in me such a high level of respect for men and women who have served has made me keenly aware of those who’ve been a part of my life who have given of themselves for our common good.
Dad’s grandpa had two brothers die at sea during World War I. Grandma Cichon had pictures of Uncle George and Uncle Gordon and kept her uncle’s memories alive. Gordon was in the British Mercantile Marine on the SS Trocas when a German U-Boat torpedoed the tanker. George was a seaman aboard the SS Hazelwood went it hit a mine. The internet has helped fill in some of the details, but my dad knew these stories, and while was proud of his service, looked at his great uncles as heroes.
But Veterans Day is about remembering those who went through hell and came home. Or even put their time in in New Jersey or Kansas, saluted one last time, and never looked back.
As a kid growing up on Allegany Street in South Buffalo, we had a few proud veteran neighbors. Pops was an ancient, tiny liver-spotted old man who used to stand in the driveway, chew tobacco, and tell us about his service in World War I and his fear of “the gas,” which I now know to be mustard gas Germans used on American troops. It filled the trenches, and ruined the lungs of soldiers, painfully suffocating thousands.
Further up Allegany, on the other side of the street in the big light green house, Mr. Smith used to give us cookies and hard candy, a very kind old soul who was retired from the railroad. Occasionally, he’d proudly show us his perfectly preserved US Army uniform from World War II, or the box filled with medals and ribbons. I know I thought it was “cool,” but I hope i was properly respectful and reverent, too, as a 5 and 6 year old.
A few years later, when I was in third grade, my school bus driver, George, was finally awarded a bronze star, over 40 years after his heroism saved some of his fellow soldiers from Japanese attack. He cut out the photo of him holding the award that was in the local paper, and taped it up in the front of the bus. I was proud of him, and I wish I remember more about his story.
My Grandpa Cichon was one of 8 brothers and sisters who served in World War II and Korea. Even my twin great aunts, Olga and Mary, were nurses in the Navy and Army respectively. Gramps was an engineer in the Army at the end of World War II. He was in the Philippines, and likely saw some pretty terrible things there that he doesn’t talk about.
Great Grandpa Wargo was a plane mechanic in Guam during the Second World War. Indirectly, because of his service, I met one of my favorite vets ever. Grandpa W was in the VA Hospital, and my dad had little use for the rule that kept kids under 15 out of most hospitals. He’d take us to visit everyone, because who doesn’t love seeing a little kid, right?
Well, as recently as the early 80s, when this happened, there were smoking lounges on every floor right next to the elevator at the VA for the guys who were in there. Dad would ditch us in there, and bring great grandpa down to see us. One time, there was an ancient, ancient hunched-over man in there smoking. He was wearing a bright red bathrobe, had the darkest black skin you can imagine set off against his crazy sprouting bright white hair. Dad flippantly asked the guy to keep an eye on us, because he was going to get gramps. Well, apparently, this was just about the best damn thing that had ever happened to this guy.
He offered to hide us in his bathrobe if the nurses got close, his face lively and excited at not only being able to play with a couple of kids for a few minutes, but also to be a party to this rule breaking. We sat down, and he stood up with his back to us. He spread open the robe, so that we couldn’t be seen from the door. He was laughing and giddy about it the whole time, til gramps walked in.
A few years ago, I interviewed a friend’s dad about his role in the D-Day invasion. Michael Accordino described in vivid, terrible detail, sitting in the water, and watching guys run ashore, and watching many of them be shot dead on the beach. And waiting for his turn to go. And watching his buddies die around him.
My friend Ed Little always spoke in a sort of blasé way about his service in the Army Air Corps during WWII, but what he did was nothing short of spectacular and heroic. He would flying along on bombing runs in the Pacific, and using 1940s technology, record play-by-play of the bombings that were taking place for playback on radio back home. Another broadcasting friend, Fran Lucca was radio man in the Navy. His ear saved thousands from U-boat attacks, and his incessant record keeping has made the war much more real for his dozens of grandchildren and great grandchildren. Letters between him and his mother, official documents, dozens of pages of wonderful material for his years at war have been collected and preserved, and I’m honored that he’s allowed me to learn from and make a copy.
Tom Kane was another friend in broadcasting. He was the security guard at the WBEN/Channel 4 building. One day, I noticed that he went from wearing sergeant stripes on his uniform to lieutenant bars. I congratulated him on the promotion, and he told me that after almost 50 years, he’d finally become an officer. He told me about his time in Korea, and how he’d never been so cold in his life. So wet and cold. For almost a year. Being freezing and afraid of freezing to death, but having to jump into the water or be killed. Tom earned the commission, for sure.
Once in a conversation with my friend and broadcaster Mark Leitner, something about the horror of Vietnam came up. He said nothing with his mouth, but in two seconds his eyes told a wretched story leaving detail unnecessary.
My friend Pat Kavanagh, talks about the fact that he and the men he went to war with were really just about children, and that they used to call their 25 year old Sarge “Pops” because he was so old, and really felt like a father figure. Pat turned his sense of unfinished business with the war into a project to honor those who never came home: He collected the obituaries of every Western New Yorker who was killed in Vietnam during the war. Dozens of visits to libraries, historical societies, and private homes later, Pat’s work is another step in insuring that their sacrifice will never be forgotten.
My dad’s big brother, Uncle Chuck, is also a Vietnam veteran, and also lives with the lasting effects of Agent Orange. I hold a lot about Uncle Chuck’s service in my heart, and knowing that he wouldn’t want it written about here, I won’t. Suffice it to say, he’s the best brother man could ask for, a great uncle, and hero.
I don’t know that Uncle Chuck or any of the men and women mentioned above are comfortable with that label “hero,” especially when each of them can clearly see the face and hear the voice of someone who didn’t make it back to the rest of their lives.
Many heroes are like my friend Len, who has told many great fun stories of his days in the Air Force. Clowning around, having fun, traveling to exotic locales for a day or two just ’cause he could. What Len doesn’t bring up is the weeks he spent in New York City following 9/11, and the problems that he and thousands of others are fighting because of it, whether our government admits it or not.
Len, Uncle Chuck, and all these folks are heroes. They were all willing to kill or be killed for not only the common good, but for every American alive while they served, and every American who’ll ever live free.
I know so many newer, younger veterans, too, and their close friends and family. Their sacrifices are much more present in our lives, and in some cases, still open and bleeding. Because the final chapter hasn’t been written in most of their cases, it’s hard to write about them in the same way as I do some of the sacrifices of the more distant past. For most of the older folks, I think while the wounds are forever tender, they’ve healed up a bit, and have, upon years and decades of reflection, become a part of who they are, and in some fragile way, accepted.
My prayers are most with our most recent vets, and really all of those, who are still coming to terms with the hell they’ve endured while proudly wearing our flag on their shoulder. I pray that the final chapter on your service is one of acceptance and an ability to move on with your life, with the memories and realizations of your time spent in harm’s way woven productively into the fabric of who you are.
I have many more friends and loved ones who have served our great nation who’ve I’ve failed to mention here. To each of you: I beg that you please know that while I don’t know firsthand what you have endured for our country, I am proud and humbled to carry some part of your pain and sacrifice on my own heart. You have done what I haven’t. You needn’t have served in war to have sacrificed; you needn’t have never come home to be a hero.
To all veterans, though it’s not enough, please accept my humble thanks this Veterans Day, and every day.