There were four ways to get to college, as described to me by mother when I was a freshman in high school. 1) You were born rich, filthy rich, and it was paid for by your parents. 2) You got perfect grades from sixth grade to senior year and you got a scholarship. 3) You were a sports god and received a scholarship, or 4) you went into the army and they paid your way. From the view point of an uneducated working class family, that was just the way it was explained to me. I took them all at their word. None of these paths were open to me, save the army road, so that was my plan when I graduated in ’95. I had fallen in love with knowledge and education my senior year, and writing was of the utmost of importance. Mrs. Learmann’s lit class had changed everything. I wanted college and the life it promised. But the window of opportunity had passed me by. After graduation, while traveling to Milwaukee to visit family, I sank into despair with little hope of reaching my dreams of being a successful writer.
We went all over that week, visiting every corner of the city, where family rested in all their nooks. We ended up at Uncle Frank’s. By all descriptions given to me by my family, Frank was crazy. He had once roller skated the full length of the city. It had been in the paper and the family had been mortified. He had a ring of keys that tugged his pants down. His tongue was a bit too big for his mouth, and he mumbled and spit when he talked. He went on and on, they said, about things that no one cared about, and he knew things no one gave a damn about.
He built his own computers, too cheap to buy one for himself. He littered the house with books of all sorts that made no sense to anyone. He would get lost in parts of the city, even though his mind was sharp with no sign of dementia. For these reasons, and many more, he was a joke to our family. I ended up in his house, ready to leave before I got there.
The Game was on. In my family there was always a “game,” always ball being played, and it was more important than anything anyone had to say. Step dad locked himself away in the “game,” but mother was determined to make conversation. Frank stared around the room restless, his eyes roving, his fingers drumming the faded arm chair he sat in.
Many attempts where made by my mother to make conversation, but all fell flat until she looked at the room and said, “We were almost late. Jesse got lost in the museum, and we had to have him paged.” Frank’s eyes blazed and he looked at me, settling his gaze upon me and locking mine on him. Intense and powerful, his eyes immediately owned me. He smiled like a man giving matches to a child when he said, “Is that right?” He chuckled and for a minute, I was a little afraid. “Lost in the museum? Where? What hung you up?”
“It was the Japanese bows actually,” I told him. “The grip was low to the bottom of the bow, instead of the middle where western bows were held.”
“Yes, and do you know why?” he asked.
“I do. They could be bigger and more powerful. They were also more accurate.”
“Very good. Yes, they were. They say you just graduated from high school, is that right?”
“The army,” I said. His gaze kinda lightened and he nodded.
“Noble. I served, my son still serves.”
“I want to go to college and they will pay for it.”
Again fire, deep intensity in his eyes. He saw a fist in the air. He saw a rebellion to the family, to a way of life devoid of art and culture. “What would you study in this college?” he asked. His voice was the song of the snake charmer. He drew me out to dance for him.
“Literature, history, writing.” The words came out of me in a hushed tone, too radical in a room filled with baseball. Too solemn to be spoken out loud, the words themselves kindled something within me. He found that spark, that ember and slowly, gently, blew it to a flame.
He pulled out a poetry book. Thumbed, taped together and failing, he held the ragged relic to his chest and nodded. “I was in college when my professor assigned us to read Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler.” Something real and powerful. This was a Jewish man. He spoke now of a nemesis. “I read it in one night. My professor talked of how brilliant it was. How it was a piece of fiction, symbolism he said. Allegory he replied. But I knew better. The next day I marched to the administration building and dropped out of college. I joined the Marines, because I knew that man was serious. And I knew that I needed to fight him.
“When America got its hands dirty, I was ready. But I knew that war was going to be hell. I knew I would need something to fortify me. My brothers in arms all had bibles, war bibles to see them through, but I was not a christian yet. So I bought this.” He pulled the poetry book off of his chest that I had almost forgotten about. “I carried this through the war. I memorized it. This, and a copy of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, stayed with me all the time to remind me what I fought for. I memorized them.” He looked at the artifact for a moment longer and held it out to me. “Take it.”
I froze, stared at him as if he were crazy. “No.” My mother snapped. “Absolutely not. That is yours. It is too important.”
He glared at her for a moment before turning to me. He held it out. “Take it,” he said. He seemed incapable of handing it over. It needed to be pulled from his hands.
“Don’t you dare,” she said to me.
Standing there on the verge of my first real rebellious act, I paused. From behind Uncle Frank, light shined through a tiny stained glass window, set in a dismal gray wall, coloring the air around his head. He smiled. I stood and met him in the middle of the room. I took that book from his outstretched hand, and he grinned at me. Follow me, that grin said, Let’s burn it down. Mediocrity, ignorance, uneducated prejudice. Let’s take it all out and chop it up. Run with me. Let’s light a fire. And I could not say no. I had to fall in step. He gripped my hand and led me away from the life they all had planned for me. He broke me free, set me to the air. We burst into flame.
He sat me down and said, “Poetry. What do you know?”
“Some English lit,” I said.
“Read that.” He pointed at the book. “Don’t be afraid to fight it. Poetry doesn’t go down without a fight. When you are in the mix, read it out loud. The only way to read a poem is out loud. Poetry makes love to the air. Let that play out before you. Watch its carnal knowledge. You will see its beauty
“French lit. Who do you know?”
Again his face creased in a grin. He stood. He was sweating now, and his bald head glistened in the riot of colored light that bathed it. He began to talk. Soon I realized he was reciting. I reached for it, grabbing every fallen word as if it were the only sustenance in a famine-wracked world. His wife cursed at him and told him to shut his mouth. There was a game on. But you can’t shut up a rabble rouser. He ignored her and kept lighting his fires. He reached into a cavern behind his chair and pulled out a thick tome. He tossed it to me. Hugo. Les Miserables. “Good luck,” he said. He grinned again. “Read the first page,” he said. I obeyed. He had recited it verbatim.
I was drunk, imbibing everything he said to me.
He ran around the house, gathering books from every corner. He seemed to pull them out of thin air as I watched. He told me why I needed to read each one, told me I needed it all, needed to learn everything I could about them all. He pulled out Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. He tossed it at me and smiled. “Read the first three words out loud.”
I read. He waved his hand swatting the words away. “No, the name in the about the author. Read the name.”
“Joseph Conrad Korzeniowski,” I said. For a moment, it didn’t make sense, the puff of the chest, the pride in the face, until I realized his name was Frank Korzeniowski. “Oh my god,” I said, as my mouth fell open.
“Distant uncle,” he said. “Read him. He’s brilliant.”
Four grocery bags filled with books. We almost didn’t have room in the car, but I was not leaving them behind. I would have walked back to Missouri with those books tied to my back if I had to.
He had an audio book of Heart of Darkness that he gave me. I listened to it in the car on the way home. The darkness soon fell in around me, and with it came the lightning of the storm that chased us home. At one point when it was at its darkest, the words and the storm conspired to bring me such horror that I gagged in fear. I didn’t know words could do that. I didn’t know authors had that sort of power at their command.
He died two months later. He had known about the cancer when he changed my life. He had known of the fate of his life. He did not pass me his torch. He lit me on fire.
Darkness and despair have followed me everywhere. Odds unbeatable, obstacles too daunting to be traversed with any modicum of success. But Frank’s war book has been ever in my hand. He cannot know the effect he had on me. He cannot know what came of me. But if I could address him here, I would say:
I am still burning. My fist stays in the air. I have broken free. Thank you.