03 May 2008

Of War, and Peace, and Sandwich bags

It was a cold, wet, December day. Saturday I think. For my father’s regular Saturday afternoon drive, he decided to drop in on Alex, one of his customers. My father was and is a landscaper, and in Alex’s case he took care of not only his house, but also his nearby factory and warehouse. I don’t remember the exact purpose of the visit, but it was probably to collect a check or give an estimate or some such. What I do remember clearly is my dad’s stern warning on the drive over.

“Listen,” he said “Alex walks with a cane, all hunched over. And his wife has a limp. When we get there DON’T SAY ANYTHING and DON’T ask him about it.”

I said I wouldn’t , but I was instantly curious. When we arrived, Alex and his wife invited us in welcoming us in mixture of broken English and Russian. He did indeed use a cane, and when he walked, hunched over considerably, though not as much as I had imagined. His wife didn’t limp so much as she slid one foot across the floor, dragging it behind her as she moved about.

I followed my dad’s instructions and did not say anything but my mind was swimming with questions. Sitting at their kitchen table with my mother and father, eating sweet cake I couldn’t help but notice a calendar on wall indicating that Christmas was January 7th. This was just too much for my young mind to fathom. How on earth could ANYONE celebrate Christmas on January 7th when EVERYONE knew that Christmas was December 25th. Against my better judgment, I sheepishly said:

“Um, why does that calendar say that Christmas is January 7th? Christmas is in December.”

My question was received pleasantly enough, and it was explained to me that Alex and his wife were Russian Orthodox and they used a different calendar. So for them, Christmas was January 7th. I didn’t really get it, but it was enough of an explanation, so I let it rest.

After a while we said our goodbyes and headed home. Back in the car, I couldn’t help myself.

“So, why does he walk so hunched over? Why does she limp like that?” I asked my dad.

“Well” he said, “That’s kind of a long story…”

As a teenager, Alex fought for the Czar in World War I and in the Russian Revolution. On the eastern front, the fighting was a bizarre mix of old and new. While they had modern weaponry, the cavalry was still an important element of the Russian army and hand to hand fighting often involved swords and sabers.

During one battle, Alex was run through with a sword and left for dead on the battlefield.. But he was a tough old boy and he patched himself up and made it back to his unit. This then, is why he used a cane and was so hunched over. Years later, he would find out that the saber passed within and inch of his heart. As a result of his actions in battle, he was awarded what my dad described as “the equivalent of the Medal of Honor” given to him by Czar Nicholas himself.

After the Russian Revolution in 1917 resulted in the abdication and murder of the Royal family, the Bolsheviks seized power and began executing those loyal to the Czar. Alex’s future wife was shot in the leg as she ran into the forest to escape the turmoil.

Their small band, including Alex and his wife and at least one of Alex’s brothers, made it into the mountains and managed to avoid Bolshevik forces, living, as my dad tells it, on snow and the occasional rabbit. Eventually, they made it to Yugoslavia, and settled into a relatively peaceful and successful life. Alex and his brother got into the steel business, and eventually owned a steel mill. They lived there until 1941, when they managed to escape to the United States just as the Nazi’s invaded.

Their steel mill was destroyed in the war, and after the defeat of the Third Reich, Alex and his brother received substantial reparations from the German government due to the loss of their property.

They invested their money wisely and, in a chain of events that is still unclear to me, in the 1950’s invented the re-closable plastic bag. This is what was manufactured at Alex’s nearby factory. The one my dad did the landscaping for. According to my father, at the time, in the ‘80’s they were the sole patent holder and so made all the bags for Ziploc and other companies.

I am starting a research project to find out more details about this man, his life and times. As I always say, I can’t make this stuff up.

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