He Took a Shining to Shining


In 1939, with the Nazi occupation of Poland imminent, Leopold Stowski, the brilliant and famous chemist, tried to flee to the United States, but the U.S. had recently enacted strict immigration laws, taking in only individuals who could claim physical or economic hardship.  Fearful for his life and desperate to get out, Stowski  posed as a crippled polio victim, confined to a wheelchair, and assumed the identity  Joseph Paski.   Friends at the State department helped him produce the required documentation, and soon Stowski was on a steamer to New York as Paski.

Once in New York, life was difficult for a crippled immigrant, and times were hard.  The only work he could find was shining shoes in the street.  Never the less, thankful for having saved his life, he enthusiastically embraced his situation, and went about shining shoes with great zeal.   As the days went by, he found that, after a good rain, he was shining the same shoes he had just shined before it rained.   The commercial shoe polishes he was using didn’t hold up to moisture.   Being the brilliant chemist he was, he went to work, in his dingy one room apartment, and soon he was able to invent a shoe polish that was completely resistant to moisture, and, in fact, came out of the rain shinier than before.  He quickly patented the invention, and sold the technology to the U.S. military.  Dwight Eisenhower, in fact, attributed a great deal of the success of the Normandy Beach landing to the polish, saying “Without the worry of our combat boots losing their luster on the amphibious landing, our soldiers were able to focus on the task at hand and ultimately triumph.  The whole nation owes the inventor of this substance a great deal of gratitude.”  So it was that the crippled polish immigrant Joseph Paski  became rich and famous, the inventor of what was now known as the “Polish Polish.”

Paski was suddenly wealthy and a national hero.   He moved into a palatial estate in Hollywood, his secret still undiscovered.  No one had ever seen him out of his wheelchair.   Then, one day, the FBI received an anonymous tip that Paski was really Stowski, and was in fact a fraud.  This taped conversation from the FBI archives shows agents Ham and Cheese discussing the tip while undercover at the local Tastee Freeze:

HAM:   So Paski isn’t really Paski?

CHEESE:  That’s right, Paski is Stowski.

HAM:  Pask is Stowski?

CHEESE:   You got it.

HAM:  And he’s not really a cripple?

CHEESE:  Nope, that’s all an act.  He’s a fraud, he’s not valid.

HAM:  He’s not valid?

CHEESE:  Nope, he’s invalid.

HAM:  So he’s an invalid invalid.

CHEESE:  That’s right.

HAM:   Then we’d better arrest him.  Make sure he gets his just desserts.  Done with your ice cream?

CHEESE:  Yeah, but I’m still hungry.  Do they sell lunch here?

HAM:  No lunch, just desserts.

Time went on and Ham and Cheese moved in on Paski, monitoring his every move, giving him no breathing room, on his back night and day.   The stress was wearing Paski down, until one very hot day, while visiting the circus, he turned to the men and asked, “Why you no leave Paski alone?   Why must you be so pesky to Paski?  What are your names, anyway?”

“We’re federal agents Sam Ham and Jack Cheese,” Cheese replied.

“Sam Ham?”  Paski asked.

“That’s right,” Cheese replied.

“And Jack Cheese?”

“That’s enough,” Ham interrupted.  “It’ll do no good to pepper Jack Cheese with questions.”

Paski couldn’t take the stress and lashed out.  “I’m so sick of you two, I can’t stand it.  It’s always with one of you on each side of me.  It’s as if I was in a Ham and Cheese sandwich.  Please, leave me to my Polish Polish.”

“We will, if you confess that you aren’t really crippled, that you are in fact an invalid invalid, and that you aren’t Paski, you are Stowski, we’ll try and go light on you.”  Cheese said.

Ham, who suffered from a nervous stomach, asked to be excused.

“Why?” Cheese asked.

“It’s so hot here at the circus,” he said, sweat pouring off his brow.

“You do look like you’re baked, Ham,” Cheese observed.

“I am.  In tents, the heat gets really intense, and my stomach feels just like that time on the flight to Chicago.”

“You mean when you …”

“That’s right, “ Ham replied.  “ Like that time I flew with the flu.”

Cheese excused Ham, but Ham fainted.  Cheese grabbed him, and Paski got out of his wheelchair and helped him lean Ham against the wall.

“Thanks,” Cheese said, then said, “hey wait a minute.  You helped me lean Ham.”

“Yes, so whatski?”  Paski was standing next to Ham.

“You’re out of your wheelchair!   You are an invalid invalid!”

“Oh,” Paski said, realizing the jig was up.

Paski was arrested, and the story became big news.   The press grilled Ham and Cheese.  Paski was exposed to be Stowski, and his reputation was ruined, his fortunes squandered.  He was no longer a national hero.  In the lowest depths of shame, he went to Niagara Falls, intent on jumping over and ending his own life.  Once he got there, though, he was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the rock formations and was unable to go through with it.

You might say that it was the gorgeous gorges that saved the invalid invalid, the inventor of the polish polish.

Home Team


My house stands on a dead end street on land that was once part of a large farm.  In the late 1940s, a chunk of the farm was divided into two and a half acre parcels and sold off.  One of the parcels, just south of the original farm house, part of an enormous apple orchard, was purchased by a young married couple.   He was an electrician, and in 1948 they built a small home, no bigger than a one bedroom cottage, less than 700 square feet, and started a family.

They quickly outgrew the original structure and added on three bedrooms, converting the cottage to a 1,200 square foot ranch.   They also added an attached single car garage, and later, an additional unattached two car garage.  They had three children.   The handprints of each family member along with their names and the date are still visible in the hardened cement of the unattached garage’s floor.

They lived in the house for 36 years, raised their children and finished their careers.   Ready for retirement, they sold the house in 1984 and moved to Arizona.  On Saturday, November 3rd, 1984, my wife and I moved in to the house.

We’d been married for three years.  Having lived through the inflation of the late 70s and the recession of the early 80s, buying a home of our own was a dream we never expected to come true.  But it did, and the house was perfect for us, it fit us like a glove.   I remember that first night, I slept so sound.  It immediately felt like home.

Soon we started a family, our first son born in 1985, our second in 1989, and our daughter in 1994.  When our first son started kindergarten, he was the only child waiting at the bus stop where the dead end street began.   The rest of the street was occupied by older people who had already raised their children.   We were the young couple.  Soon, they began moving out, and gradually more and more young families moved in, and more and more kids would show up at the bus stop.

In 1996, we decided we’d outgrown the house, too, and built an addition of our own, a second floor, essentially doubling our living space.  The street had changed, as more and more of the 2 ½ acre parcels were split up and additional homes were added.

Then, as our kids grew and started college, the number of kids at the bus stop started to dwindle.  Soon a subsequent generation of kids started to show up at the corner.   We were no longer the young couple on the street.  Now, 28 years after moving in, we are one of the oldest couples.

It was 64 years ago that the original structure was built.  Only two families have lived here in all that time.  I look at the date the hand prints in the cement of the second garage were made.  Without revealing the year, it was October 8th, exactly two days before my wife was born in a naval hospital in Norfolk, Virginia.  So my garage is essentially the same age as my wife.  What that means I’m not sure, and I’ll resist the temptation to remark how well built both are.

But I know this much:  I’m an excellent builder.   Right now, those who know me well, who have witnessed my ridiculously limited carpentry skills, are laughing hysterically.   But it takes more than a hammer and nails to build things like a marriage, a family, a home, and a lifetime.  It takes work and love and commitment, and, more than anything, to do it right, it takes a partner, a soul mate, someone who is willing to stand beside you in the rain and snow and the heat and cold.  The world my wife and I built has been strong enough to weather the storms of time, and our love remains unchanged by the corrosive forces of fate and circumstance.