I found him. He was not so far away after all. He once told me that he felt he had peaked at the age of seventeen. So I knew where to look. In the parks, the schoolyards, the ball fields, the elementary and high schools, his home, all those places that gave joy to his youth. And that’s where I found him.
He’s from Chicago, the southwest side. As a kid he lived in Brighton Park between what had once been the largest railroad yard in the world and the Union Stockyards two miles away. It was the Chicago of Carl Sandburg, “Hog Butcher for the World” the “Stormy, husky, brawling, city of the Big Shoulders” and of Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle. Joe could tell you about this.
He lived in a three storey frame house on 40th Place with a storefront on the ground floor. His mother ran a candy store there. No wonder Joe had so many friends. The house suited him. I see light in the top floor window late into the night. Everyone knew that he worked his lessons hard and well. Everyone knew that he would later work his life in like manner. As a boy he likes to work with puzzles and games. That, too, prepared him well.
It’s a nice, tidy, welcoming neighborhood, Brighton Park. Go out Joe’s front door, look to the left and there’s St. Pancratius Church diagonally across South Sacramento Avenue. That’s where he served mass. The elementary school’s a bit farther down. The good Franciscan sisters loved the quiet, quick-minded boy with the nice manners. “Ah, yes,” one of them once told his parents, “young Joseph is a fine boy. He will make you proud indeed.” At Holy Trinity High School, or perhaps at St Pancratius, one of the nuns had the class memorize the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem, Richard Corey. To read the poem now is to realize how profound a teacher was that nun, and why Joe thrived in Brighton Park, and thereafter.
In the false, early spring at Kelly Park, just three blocks from home, I can see him. The snow has gone. It’s time for baseball. Spikes polished, he carves neat cuts in the damp infield dirt, making long throw after long throw from deep in the hole. The fresh breeze off the lake, grass greening with envy, the smell of linseed oil, the hope of it all.
In the quiet winter dawn he runs across Sacramento into the sacristy to serve the 6 am mass. How profound to cross Sacramento every day.
His father takes him to ballgames and to the races at Arlington Park. And bowling, his father loved bowling. Joe still has his dad’s shirt with ‘WOJCIK’ on the back. Joe saves everything. He even writes down his memories.
I first met him at West Point, “Hi, I’m Joe Wojcik,” he said. And that was enough for me. I see him there still, a serious young man, sincere, motivated, but thankfully open to subversive thoughts, and friendly, and funny. He bore his glittering military achievements well and with incredible lightness, the lightness of humanity.
I see him at LaGuardia Airport. His father has just died. Joe is flying back from the funeral in Chicago and the Lockheed Electras are regularly falling from the sky. My mother is praying for Joe at home. It must be 1960. I know it was March for we were on Spring Leave. It was a Friday. My father and I drove out to the airport to meet Joe’s flight. He will stay with us in the Bronx that weekend. I see him walking briskly down the corridor in the terminal. He is in uniform and carries his B-4 bag, the cadet valise. We wave and smile. My father shakes his hand, says his regrets, perhaps thinking of his own mortality, and of ours. I remember being so proud to know Joe then, a feeling that has never waned, though we have been separated by years and continents. He stayed that weekend and my parents drove us back to West Point on Sunday. But I can remember nothing else, no other details. And now I wonder, did Joe write any of this in his diary?
I see him in Am’s, a Puerto Rican bar we loved near the old Madison Square Garden on 8th Avenue. It’s the spring of 1961 and we are on a weekend leave from West Point. There is a Miller High Life Beer clock on the shelf beside the row of Scotch bottles. We are discussing whether there is a pattern to the clock’s flashing colored lights. It is very late. We are also discussing the historical sequence of Boston Red Sox third basemen. Someone else is there, my roommate, another Jim. And Bill is there, too. I don’t remember the result of our research. Perhaps Joe recorded that too?
Joe and I stand together in full dress cadet uniforms. We are singing in Latin. No, it is not a nightmare. We are in the Cadet Catholic Choir. We get extra weekend leave for singing at gigs in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and other first-class religious venues. With ample time for holy water, other spiritual essences and games of leisure, we fully, yet discreetly, indulge the arts and culture of our faith.
I see him in Germany, he in the air force, I, the army. We are stationed near each other. These were hectic, uncertain days, tumultuous days of new marriages, new children, new responsibilities. We helped each other survive.
I see him in New Jersey, working at Johnson & Johnson. Band-Aids abounded. Every time we visited we departed with boxes of them, fully able to handle any laceration that life would deal us…almost. “Mr. Wojcik makes them,” I told my kids. “All of them?” they asked. “Yes, all of them. He has very quick hands.”
And then I didn’t see him. Opportunity had moved him west to Las Vegas. He prospered there and ran, ran, ran. I remember he had told me that he was afraid of dying young like his father. Then he joked about being a moving target. Moving indeed. For forty years he was a fulltime athlete, in addition to his normal life. Running every day. Training every day. Running in countless marathons, in countless places, but his favorite seemed to be to run in Boston.
It must have been 1997, our thirty-fifth year out of West Point. There was a reunion at a nearby hotel. I was in the bar waiting for him. I hadn’t seen Joe in ages. I heard a yell, “Where’s Ryan?” And I saw Joe. He had become a genuine runner in my prolonged absence. And in that manner everything began again. Soon thereafter we enlisted the services of cyber space and became the e-mail equivalent of pen-pals. We exchanged ideas, some crackpot, some sane, but all important, for fifteen years. I cherished this correspondence. He was indeed my daily wake-up call. In June my computer inhaled a virus and I lost all my e-mail messages, including Joe’s. And two weeks later I lost Joe.
Six years ago, fed up with all the lying and dying caused by the Bush cabal, I started an anti-war group for equally fed up West Pointers. I simply thought that West Point’s motto of “duty, honor, country” and the related honor code were being dangerously abused by reckless politicians. But more importantly, because of the war’s dubious legality, there was a risk of our military being charged with war crimes. So I made my case and designed a website. I knew it would be controversial. But the rampant lying was so opposed to what West Point had taught that I didn’t care. The group then had but one member, me. I sent the material to Joe, asked him what he thought. And I waited. I got his reply within minutes. “Count me in,” he said. Such was the essence of Joe. Honor and integrity trumped everything.
He visited me in Turkey. I still see him in Istanbul, by the gate that leads to the azure waters of the Bosphorus. I see him in the flower gardens of Topkapı Palace and at the New Galata Restaurant under the bridge by the Golden Horn—I know the table. And I see where he ran those early mornings in Istiklal Avenue along the trolley tracks, thus keeping his 35-year daily running streak intact.
He was a true marathon man and particularly loved the one in Boston. He told me of his unfailing exhilaration during the uphill finish at so-called Heartbreak Hill. But it was never a heartbreak for him. He hated clichés like this. He lived his life by burying them.
I will not describe his absence. I will not describe his silence or my inability to ever write to him again, to ever receive another message from my beloved “Perati.” I will not describe it except in one word. It is merely excruciating. And Joe would know well the Latin roots of my pain, excruciare.
Joe loved sports and good sportswriters, particularly their one-liners. Here’s one for Joe, and indeed for us all, from Red Smith, a long ago sportswriter for the New York Times and the Herald Tribune. “Dying is no big deal,” he said, “the least of us will manage that. Living is the trick.”
My dear Joe had mastered that trick. His full, energetic life speaks for itself, shouting out loud to us all how precious are these days.
James Ryan 18 September 2012 Istanbul, Turkey
JOSEPH WOJCIK, Flower Garden,