My personality was formed by two different worlds I inhabited before I was 20 when I set out to earn a living as a writer and professor.
I lived then in tough Buffalo, New York, neighborhoods during the week and on my two grandparents’ bucolic farms on weekends and summers.
My boyhood was spent in two cultures, Polish on my mother’s side, German-speaking Alsatian on my father’s. My blood kin taught me the world was a fierce, dangerous place and you were safer if you stayed between your own fence posts.
I used to tell my father I longed to see Europe, Alaska and Hawaii. Places I have visited with my wife Gosia, an immigrant from Poland herself. “What do you got lost there?” he invariably replied.
Grandfather Henry, my dad’s dad, crippled his back in a farm accident. He never walked unaided again.
Uncle Norman, my dad’s kid brother, died trying to get Henry’s stalled car off train tracks after a celebration intended to send the uncle I never met into war. Another uncle of mine, just a kid then and ready too to serve the nation, bailed and watched the tragedy explode before his eyes.
My dad’s young sister Rose fell from a barn loft and perished in front of him as he mucked out the horse stalls.
During the week I fought future felons from a local gang with fists, rocks and ice chunks. On weekends, I accompanied my parents to the family farms, places of refuge where the thugs of the city dare not enter.
My grandfather’s dog Rover, mostly collie but like me a mixed-breed, sniffed the tracks of deer in Josef’s back woods. Now and then he surprised a red fox and ran with tongue panting as if he had a chance of catching it.
While Rover barked in worry, I shinnied up apple, plum, and cherry trees, certain that the tastiest fruit was found in the treetops. We came back to the farmhouse from the fields with jars of butterflies. Always there were cockleburs buried in Rover’s coat, causing Grandfather to say Polish words that might have scared me had I understood them while brushing the dog.
For entertainment I read Jim Kjelgaard novels about hunting, fishing and adventurous heroes. In the city I read them sitting in an unfinished attic. In the country I read in the barn, the smell of plowhorses always in my nostrils, and Rover’s white-and-gold head asleep on my Keds.
To me, Rover was as magnificent as Kjelgaard’s Chiri, the valiant staghound-Husky mix who saves his master in “Snow Dog.” Rover used to grab my shorts with his teeth if I ventured too near a road that split Grandfather Josef’s farmland into two sides.
Recently, I began writing the sequel to my historical novel titled “Sons of the Dawn: A Basque Odyssey.” It stars two boys who escaped from Spain in the 1890s when that country shipped conscripts to Spain to be cannon fodder against the likes of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.
There is a lot of my spunky, hard-working grandfather in one of the brothers. It also has a heroic dog named Lazarus who saves the younger brother after a snowslide buried him.
My inspiration for the heroic dog was Rover and my main literary influence Kjelgaard. From him I learned that coming-of-age books can show (not teach) lessons about outdoor survival, fair play, and individual responsibility. Kjelgaard heroes invariably made the right moral choice instead of choosing compromise. The author showed his readers that the way to a peaceful heart is to act decently.
I hope my novels help young readers endure life’s hardships and to celebrate its joys and mysteries. Every writer that steps into the writing ring takes a pounding, but no other calling offers such satisfaction and challenges.
I loved Rover to the end.
Nearly blind and deaf, he stepped in front of a car on the highway he forbade me to cross. Neither Grandfather Josef nor I saw it happen.
I hope he died under the illusion that he was chasing his last fox.