My regular readers know well that I have been forthright about my humble, small town beginnings.
Located in South Central Texas, Karnes County was once a major source of uranium, but in the early 80’s, when fewer nuclear power plants were being built and the Cold War started to wane, so did uranium mining in the area. As a result, many people moved away. But others are arriving–land men, geophysicists and roughnecks mostly. That’s because they’ve discovered thawt the vast Eagleford Shale lies underneath a bulk of the county and oil and gas companies from all over are there now trying to lay claim to some of that invaluable black gold/Texas Tea. Even so, the county seat and city of my birth continues to dwindle to an even sleepier status.
So, there you have Karnes City– a community that at first glance, seems to sit idle about 55 miles southeast of San Antonio. It’s nestled in a few minor foothills—nature’s last bit of geological acne before the flat, flat coastal plains takes over.
About six miles northeast of Karnes City is a Catholic church, a dance hall and a store–of sorts. Those three things comprise the community of Panna Maria, the oldest Polish settlement in the country. About 133 years ago, a group of Polish settlers immigrated from Krakow mostly, arrived in Galveston and headed north and westward. They landed in Panna Maria and the place is still predominately Polish today…ancestors of the original settlers. This is evident if you read some of the names printed on the rural mail boxes as you pass: Mocyzgemba, Kaspryzk, Gabrysch, Yanta, Jaskynia, Czerwomski–names with so many consonants jumbled together, you’d swear you were reading straight off a Polish pickle jar label.
I should admit here and now, that I am also of Polish extraction—1/8 Polish to be exact which I’m sure isn’t ethnic enough to make me president of the Lech Walesa fan club. I wasn’t raised “Polish” though. I know a few words and love beer and yes, I have at times, placed a lit book of matches on my forehead in order to play Polish miner, but still, I was never fully engulfed in my 1/8-ness. That said, I grew up with plenty of Polish kids who were. And yeah, of course I’ve heard all of the joke jokes, like what do you do if a Polish guy throws a ring at you? Run like hell because he’s got a grenade in his teeth or why don’t Polish women use vibnrtors?? Because it chips their teeth…yeah, heard them ALL.
I’m here to tell you that they couldn’t be more wrong. Every Polish kid I knew, screwed up the grading bell curve for every class they were in. These are extremely intelligent who had an academic and a work ethic that shamed every other ethnic group in school. They were devoted to family–spiritually Catholic and interesting to talk to. A lot of these kids came from families who still spoke Polish at home.
Now, what might prompt an outsider unfamiliar with these brilliant descendants of Copernicus, to think that Polish jokes are true, could be their accents. The “T-H” combo was/is always tough for native Polish speakers. For example, “these” became “deeze”; “those” became “doze” and “the” was ‘da”–hardly an uncommon English translation at all for any of the Slavic languages.
I remember during the CB craze that swept the country in the mid-70’s, there was some Polish man who went by “the handle” of the Tin Man. Fine, right? Quite plausible, yes? But based on his accent, we never knew if he was the “Tin Man” or if he was really trying to call himself the “Thin Man”.
And there were other stories.
These hardworking, clannish people were farmers mostly, so they knew the land. They brought their traditions with them and many applied them for generations. Just as their forefathers did in the Old Country, they too followed moon phases and planted accordingly. Oil was discovered on their land, so many knew wealth, but the hardcore Poles the area never knew the pretense that often accompanied it. They also knew sadness, loss and heartache. But unlike the Old Country, a few of these devoted Catholics bucked stern tradition and a few also knew divorce.
I remember hearing about one man very Polish man who years ago (he practically still had Krakovian street dust on his pants) was miserable in his marriage. He was convinced that he had married Satan’s spawn and sought a local attorney to terminate this unholy union.
He’d lived in the area for a number of years and mostly spoke Polish. What English he knew was limited at best and acquired mostly from TV and radio.
So, Voytek found a lawyer who began proceedings. The lawyer made it clear getting a divorce with any degree of swiftness or ease could be contingent on the circumstances, so he asked the Polish farmer a few pertinent questions:
ATTY: Regarding this divorce, Mr. Kolodzji, have you any grounds?
Voytek: Yes, I got me tree…four…maybe five acre un nice leetle house vit air conditioning
ATTY: No, I meant what is the foundation of this case?
Voytek: It made of dat concrete
ATTY: I don’t think you understand. Do you or your wife have any grudges?
Voytek: No, vee got car port and not need one for da cars
ATTY: I mean, what are your relations like?
Voytek: All my relations steel en Poland.
ATTY: Is there any infidelity in your marriage?
Voytek: We have hi-fidelity stereo and good DVD player. We like Polka music. We gots every ting da “Fabian Polski Trio” ever made. Day goot!! Day got a new CD record called, “My Hole Has a Bucket In It–Da Rhythmic Joys of Dyslexia”. Dey music giants in Poland!! You heard of dem already yet even here?
ATTY: No, I haven’t and that’s NOT what I meant. Fidelity means….oh, never mind. May I continue please?
Atty: Does your wife beat you up?”
Voytek: No, I always up before her. Before rooster even.
ATTY: Is your wife a nagger?
Voytek: No, she vite voowman . Pure Polski. Skin like color of da milk.
(By this point in the story, the lawyer was about to completely lose his temper…but patience persevered)
ATTY: So, then please tell me Mr, Kolodzji, why do you want this divorce?
Voytek: She going to make try to keel me.
ATTY: She’s going to kill you? What makes you think that?
Voytek: I got proof.
ATTY: What kind of proof?
Voytek: She going to poison me. She buy bottle at drugstore and put on shelf in da batroom. I know. I ken read English a leetle
ATTY: In the bathroom? Interesting. Please tell me, what kind of poison was it?
Voytek: Bottle say “Polish Remover”
ATTY: Uh, no Mr. Kolodzji, that’s not poison. Well, it is but it’s not what you….
The attorney never finished his sentence. He realized his extremely uphill battle and proceeded with his client’s wishes. He worked to secure a divorce for the Kolodzji’s.
In the end, Mrs. K got the nice leetle house on tree-four-five acres of land, plus air conditioning and a car port.
And Voytek? Well, he got a life free of any trace of Polish Remover and of course, his prized CD collection of Poland’s musical giants, da Fabian Polski Trio….which by the way, consists of five members.