Falcon Recruit

by Leonard Stefanski (Arthur L. Waldo's true Polish name)

Immediately after coming from Poland to Pittsburgh in the year 1913 I went to the headquarters of the Polish Falcons and found Witold Rylski, the Head of the Falcons. I found him at a long conference with my friend, Mr. Litwin, with whom I made the passage on the ship, and who came to America from Krakow on matters concerning the Falcons. They spoke about many things, mainly about cooperation between the Falcons in Poland and America. In Rylski I had found a patriot, unlike any that I had ever met in my life. He was simply burning, aflame [in his patriotic fervor]. He spoke in such away that I was swept up. He would "stoke the spirit." It seemed to me that all the young Falcons, whom I saw in the offices of this organization led by Rylski, had their heads aflame [with fervor] and wings had grown from their shoulders. Rylski knew how to pour patriotic oil onto the flame of Polish spirit, like a real master.

"Here in Pittsburgh we are able to manage, but just go out to the provinces, visit the border emigrant areas and spread the Falcon idea there, inspire the youth, put them in uniform, arm them, create a Polish army in America," Rylski said to me finally after a long initial conversation. "We need young, intelligent, strong [men], and the Polish fist is hard and their chests are hardy. You will find them here for service and sacrifice, and you will perform miracles!"

What more could I need? In a few words he explained the entire program for my activity. I did not have to listen any more and I paid no attention as to what was going on in Pittsburgh. I did not even remember where Rylski sent Mr. Litwin, but he assigned me to work in the coal fields of Wilkes-Barre, PA for which I departed a few days later. I never saw Mr. Litwin again, despite the fact that I spent many pleasant moments with him on the ship and had a strong [feeling of] friendship for him. Perhaps he did not stay in America, because I never met him again.

Wilkes Barre had at least 60,000 inhabitants, thus it was a city in the full meaning of the word, though after New York and even Pittsburgh it gave the impression of a town [settlement] rather than a city.

All the Polonians were in mining, hard working and unspoiled. They were tremendously patriotic and ready for much sacrifice.

Through the first month I had to think about my own skin. I had to find a place [to stay], start work, as to have something for my own upkeep. After all my financial reserves would one day run out and then I'd be standing there, looking at tomorrow asking "How to go on?"

Because I came right out of school, having but seventeen years, I had no profession so there was no chance of getting light work in the trades. Working in the mines was out, for I had never been in a mine and had no strength for such hard work. Not every city dweller is suited for such hard labor. After all, I really did not have to resort to it. A man who "could do arithmetic" was needed in the Polish businesses as a counter man and bookkeeper -- two-in-one. One of the biggest troubles the early Polish merchants encountered was bookkeeping. For a while I worked in a colonial shop, or in the American tongue, a "grocery" and I did not do badly.

I found a place to stay in a Polish house, where, in addition to myself there were three other strangers living, along with the grown children of our hosts. Together this was a large bunch of people. In such way I became a "boarder" -- one of many about whom I had later heard many amusing and critical stories. Boarding in a private home was then one of the cheapest ways of living in America.

I will admit that in that long period I would switch work quite often. Where I could earn more money -- there I would go. Thus, in this way, I worked in a men's clothing store, then in a soap and perfume factory, then in an apothecary store, and in a billiard room, for a longer time. Billiard [rooms] were one of the first major Polish business enterprises in America. Unfortunately they attracted toughs. There were fights, and once I got beaten without giving cause, so I soon had to gave up on this type of work.

At the time the Polish generation born in America did not belong to the aristocracy. Boys from simple village families finished elementary school, studied no longer, but went to work in the mines. They were motivated by the desire to have money, to "earn" as soon as possible. The youth was hungry for "spending money" -- cash for their personal needs. Of course they would help their parents, who for this reason would prefer to send their children to work rather than to school. The same could be said about the girls. The work they did was lighter and often in shops, restaurants or factories.

My earnings soon totalled 15 dollars per week. For those times this was equivalent to 30 dollars that you would earn weekly in today's [1938] America. A suit of clothes that then went for 16 dollars now will be sold for 28 or even 30. For my room with complete board I paid 5 dollars per week. One would say I was paying "well." Single miners mostly paid 12 or even 15 dollars per month for a room and board in a private home. Today you cannot even get a room alone for 5 dollars per week, not to mention the board. The conditions today have totally changed. We don't have so much youth coming from Poland and the grown-up children of the American Poles live with the parents. When they leave home they stay in small hotels, or take furnished rooms, but do not room with other families in private homes like in the past. It happens also that several young men would rent a multi-room apartment and live the "bachelor life," having at their disposal a small kitchen or "kitchenette" where they can prepare breakfast or even cook dinners for themselves.

Under the old conditions of life, almost all the evenings were given over to the Falcon mission. The more able were the instructors, those less so became the "gray falcons" [rank and file] who came for exercises and to take their military instruction. Every one had to work and from his own money pay Falcon dues, buy his uniform and military equipment. The Falcons was an ideological organization that, at the time, gave nothing to its members. It roused their patriotism, for which the patriots had to pay themselves. Travel to the larger gatherings, regional congresses, maneuvers out of town, meetings and conferences were paid for by the members from their own funds and done with enthusiasm and joy. Each happy that in their own small way they were serving a great cause.

It was in this time that I learned about another unavoidable duty of the boarding house women [operators] in the coal fields. No matter how many miner-boarders there were in the house, their duties included ... washing everyone's back. Naturally this honor was conferred upon many Falcons, who plied the miner's trade, and there were many miners among them.

In the old homes at that time there were no bathrooms, these were only introduced in recent times. In this matter America of 1913 was not as progressive as now. People would have in their homes a metal, iron or rather tin tubs which served for the washing of laundry and people.

The kitchen stoves in all of America were iron, made of many cast parts fastened together with bolts. They were akin to a chest-of-drawers on bent legs and only the stovepipe that led to the chimney indicated that this was a kitchen stove fueled with coal, or with wood where forests were plentiful and wood was cheaper than coal. The color of the stove was totally black. Every Saturday the lady of the house would "polish" the stove using a special black paste, similar to shoe polish. The final step was to give a final brush to the stove and it looked like a mirror on Sunday.

Today there still are such stoves in use, but not many. Coal is no longer used for kitchen stoves, because the old stoves are gone, replaced by nicer white enamelled and light stoves made to use gas and the modern American housewife uses gas for cooking. Some of these kitchen stoves are very fine in appearance, being a decoration in the home and passing for furniture rather than a stove.

The kitchen stove in America is really furniture. Regardless of its weight each family then and now had its own stove and took it along when moving to another house. In Poland such things are not even considered.

In those old, "Falcon" years, each family had to own two stoves. One for the kitchen for cooking, and a second -- round, like a barrel -- that stood on fancy legs, for heating the other rooms of the dwelling. The reader will in a moment learn that in the Falcon life they played a certain role, a very unpleasant one, mainly because they did not heat many Falcons.

These stoves for heating were of various dimensions, small and large when one had a bigger dwelling. But if there was a house with rooms on the top floor then there were no stoves upstairs. Upstairs were bedrooms heated with ... cold. The arrangement was such, that when the house was built a hole would be made in the ceiling and fitted with a metal grate so that the hot air from downstairs would drift upstairs. These openings were often round and about the size of a child's head. Sometimes the opening would be square, somewhat larger. But the service they gave was slight and they might not have been there at all. In any case the honor was given only to one bedroom and several others had no such opening at all. My bedroom belonged to this second category, so during the winter I froze a lot. My neighbor who had the opening got as much comfort as a censer would give to a dead man. During a biting frost when the panes in my only window were so frosted over I could not see the God's world outside, I had in addition quantities of snow coming in from the outside through a gap. Sleeping was good, because I was young, and had a thick padded coverlet, but when it was time to get up in the morning here was a moment that was extremely unpleasant. To exit a warm bed onto the floor of such room was equivalent to going directly outside in one's underwear. One would take a while to consider then concentrate all of one's willpower to jump out, get dressed quickly, as not to freeze over like the said window. It was a combination of courage and acrobatics. First I would rip off the covers in one violent motion, then jump from the bed as if some invisible arm had thrown me out onto my head. Then it was necessary to find the patience to put on shoes and pull on trousers, then throwing on a jacket, not a robe, run downstairs from where the warmth was drifting pleasantly upstairs. Then one could wash in at the kitchen sink. Water from the tap was cold, of course. It was not like today when the house is supplied with cold and hot water. As in those old houses there were no bathrooms, there also were no toilets. Such conveniences stood in the "yard" as one would call the area in back of the house, fitted out in the European manner, where people also wished for something batter.

Of course all this was much better than what we experienced later during the war, but it shows how well the Falcon was hardened during his civilian life and how well he was prepared for the labor of war even before leaving America.

During this time I felt a need to expressed myself in rhymed language. The water may freeze, but not the brain. Or maybe it did freeze a little since this mania took over. These compositions were far from real poetry but since I wrote them and the weekly "Zorza" [Dawn] in Wilkes-Barre, PA, decided to print them, then I can repeat them here as to share the emotions I then experienced. [rendered in blank verse]

To Freedom!

Fate chased me to foreign lands
From the occupier it drives me
I leave the land of my fathers
May God keep it in His care.

Here in Washington's land
Where the free spirit rises
My soul is torn with longing
The bell of freedom calls me

I had already left behind me
The curse of suffering, Tsarist bondage
Enough of wearing mourning clothes
Comes the day to strike back like a storm

Oh, you free foreign land
How pleasant, dear are you to us
I feel as if I'm in paradise
At last standing at the wished-for gates

Like a man who from slavery
After sufferings tore himself free
I must pinch myself, and loudly ask:
"Is this real, or am I dreaming?"

I am a slave by birth
Laughter was forbidden to me
It was a crime for me to sigh
The thought of freedom -- mortal sin.

O, dear land beyond the sea
Here wishes I turn to deeds
Today I cross your threshold
As a free son of Poland

Oh, freedom! Your very name
To the nations a miracle of miracles;
Thanks to you, their aims
The Polish people will realize.

So to action, in God's name!
We are urged by voices from the scaffold
We will return over the sea
to regain our dear homeland!

May the reader kindly recognize the fact that this was written by a 17 year old boy, who was no "child prodigy" with God's spark for poetry and who never wrote any poetry before. I unloaded onto paper the things I felt. At the time I thought I had created a masterpiece. Today, I see between this poem and modern Polish poetry as big a change as has happened in America during the last 25 years.

But this was not the end. Regardless if one has talent or not, the excitement of war drives one to compose rhymes. I had lived a moment in America which impressed itself on me very powerfully. So I seized a pen and expressed my inner experiences.

Fighting Unit

What's this? Is sight playing me false?
In wonder I look, as if in fog.
Could these be Poles?
Or is my errant vision fooling me?

I stood at the window on Sunday,
To learn of America from there,
to date I know but little,
Just recently I landed here

I see a marching army,
An echo repeats their stomp,
Each face seems familiar,
From their brows there shines a light.

Their uniforms were yellow
and each had a hat
With its rim turned up,
and devilsh twinkle in their eyes

On first sight they were unfamiliar,
And foreign were their clothes,
And how bravely these boys marched
As if each of them was one of our own.

Each clutched a carbine in his hands,
You'd say -- that is his greatest treasure
Living in freedom, not in suffering
Not a curse came from their lips.

Then up to the heaven rose
A truly fiery hymn
That was not hidden to us
By the nation's slavish corruption.

I recognized it! They were singing:
"Sleepy and lazy is this world..."
These were -- Polish Falcons --
The flower of youth from among the exiles!

This also was printed in "Zorza." Probably it was because there were but a few poets. To those that were around, this work presented no competition at all, and I am sure that they slept soundly having such a poet around.

Before I start to describe my first meeting with the Falcons on "active duty" I must return to the matter of ... the Falcons having their backs washed. I had digressed from the natural progression of the story. The boarders were mostly miners, and the youth among them were Falcons. They would come from the mines as black as negroes. Only their eyes were shining and when they smiled the teeth would flash white. In that condition you might well not call them Falcons but black eagles.

On the way back each stopped in a saloon to drink a few glasses, or "sips" of beer, because that was accepted as the only way to clear the coal dust from their throats. No other drink or fluid could take the place of beer. Therefore, this stop on the way home every day was considered a necessity.

When they returned, the kitchen stove already had a large kettle full of boiling water on it, and on the floor, upon a rug, stood the iron tub.

The kitchen therefore became a bath.

All knew this important moment and discretely cleared the kitchen. The door was closed and the "first" was left alone to wash the lower parts, that is from the toes to the midsection. After this was done, still with a black face, he would put on his lower undergarments and trousers. He would knock on the door and the lady of the house would come and wash the "boarder's" back. By then he would have washed his head face and chest.

And the second person would follow in a similar manner. So that there would be hot water for the third, more water was poured into the kettle on the stove so that while one bathed water was warmed for the next one. This procedure was repeated daily -- winter and summer -- without any changes in the routine.

The supper had been earlier prepared by the hostess and then warmed up for the banquet that followed. It cannot be called anything else. First a pail was sent out to be filled with beer. Beer had to be present at the supper. Then there was a delicious soup, followed by a platter stacked with pork or sometimes veal cutlets. Among the miners pork was most popular. To eat 5 or 6 such cutlets after working in the mine, a pile of potatoes, much white bread, including a plate or bowl of soup beforehand and wash it down with a mug of coffee, them cake, that was nothing for each one of them. I looked with admiration on these dragon-like appetites. These man were such carnivores, like cannibals. In Poland they did not eat much meat. In the Polish villages meat was a garnish [luxury]. If it was eaten then not in the quantities like here in America.

It seemed to me that the miners went bald quickly. I don't know if it was because of the coal, or from the daily head scrubbing. Even though they may have the thickest of beards -- on the miners' heads there were a few hairs or totally smooth like one's knee. Thus we had many young but bald Falcons.

Among these noble and hard working miners in Pennsylvania came the earliest Falcon recruits. Fate had also placed me among them.

I quickly joined one of the Falcon Nests and the work began. From the first I realized that I was a recruit of the most raw caliber. Aside from a double barrelled shotgun I had never held a gun of any kind in my hands. The only carbine I saw was in the hands of a Muscovite soldier. Now I grabbed one with true joy, thinking that this was heaven in my hands, but what a disappointment when I found I was not able to operate it. So followed many evenings of exercises, full of intense military work.

I had divided my life into 3 goals. One - to work for a living. Two -- to train as a Falcon. Three -- to learn. One had to resume one's interrupted education. To this purpose I signed up for courses at the Business College. My evenings were parcelled out, so that I could keep up.

I had to stay the course.

And I managed.

Most pleasant were the meetings with the Falcons, where the recruit was turned into a soldier. These were days full of joy and had etched themselves deeply in my memory.

Chicago, Illinois, September 1937.

From: Czyn Zbrojny Polonii Amerykanskiej [The Armed Effort of American Polonia], edited by Artur. L. Waldo; "Dziennik Zjednoczenia," Chicago, IL, 1938, pages 32-42

Translation by: Peter J. Obst, for The Poles in America Foundation, April 2011.