Thomas John Henek: Memorial Day Thoughts on the Complexity of a Life

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Though a courageous man, you won’t find Tom Henek’s name in a history book. He represents the “the greatest generation” who fought in World War II (so named by Tom Brokaw), along with some of the deficiencies of mankind — especially those men who lived in mid-twentieth century America. Regarding history books, he would be in any autobiographical one I might write because I married one of his children.

I never met Thomas Henek. He died two years before I fell in love with his daughter, Aleta, who is still my wife. Yet, as I have come to hear stories about him, I think he is worth describing because of the complexity he represents to those of us who might prefer black or white, good or bad, without the grays of human experience. So, if you’d like to know what being a “man’s man” meant back in the day, I invite you to observe one such individual of personal integrity but clear deficits. If you recognize both of these qualities, I hope it will lead you to witness the convolutions in all those around you, including one of the people you know best and perhaps least: yourself.

Born in Chicago in 1910, Tom Henek’s parents emigrated here from Poland. The City of Chicago once claimed the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw. Tom’s father was a well-to-do business man who purchased two empty lots, upon one of which he built his home. Mr. Henek owned two cars when most people didn’t even have one. Prosperity, however, can be a fleeting thing, as the family discovered after their father’s fatal pneumonia in the 1920s, well before the Great Depression.

Tom was the third of seven children, six boys and a girl. Their father’s death pushed the three oldest, all male, to quit school and go to work. Thirteen or so at the time, Tom completed only seven-and-a-half years of formal education. He worked for the same company most of his life, becoming a lithographer with a specialty in embossing fine leather book covers, a demanding job requiring attention to detail.

The family’s original name was Heineck or Hynek, German or German-sounding despite the family’s Polish identity. Tom’s parents changed their surname when anti-German sentiment swept the USA during World War I. Yet the father was not one to hide from predicaments. The parish priest and one of his married parishioners were having an affair and some in his flock, like Mr. Henek, knew it.

Tom’s dad confronted this fake holy man, who warned him to mind his own business. Mr. Henek didn’t. He removed all his children from Catholic schools and placed them in the public school system because the same priest taught them weekly lessons in morality. Tom’s father couldn’t reconcile the idea of this immoral man lecturing his kids about Godly conduct.

His next step further alienated him from the church institution. Tom’s dad went up the chain of religious command, at each stage told he should keep his mouth shut “or else.” Undeterred, he continued his attempt to remove the priest until the church excommunicated this “trouble maker,” not the guilty party. When Tom’s father died the church refused burial in the consecrated ground of a Catholic cemetery.

Henek’s mom had not been a supporter of what she claimed to be her husband’s attack on her faith. The emotional tone of family life changed dramatically after the dad’s demise. The mother continued to believe in the absolute virtue of the church.

Her third born son, Tom, did not. Young T.H. learned his father’s lesson of trying to be just and, though he believed in God, viewed any place of worship organized by men to be a flawed entity. He eventually stopped attending services, putting himself at odds with his mom. “I believe religion and faith in God are good, it’s just too bad people don’t live by the rules. God knows whether you are a good person or not,” he told his older daughter years later.

This youth became a defender of the underdog. He did not hold to his mom’s belief that all things Polish or Catholic were, by definition, the best. Born in America, he said he was American first. He judged no one by the color of his skin, his national origin, his faith or lack thereof. When he saw a fight, especially one person bullying another, Tom would try to break it up. This short (5’6″), stocky (170 pounds,) powerfully built, black-haired man didn’t leave such things to someone else. He took responsibility.

Ironically, the parish priest who had been his father’s nemesis gave a deathbed confession to the priest administering last rites. The latter, a genuinely holy man, reported the injustice done to Tom’s progenitor. The church reburied the elder Henek’s body in the consecrated ground of a Catholic cemetery.

Tom’s working life was not all sweetness and light. The factory’s environment was dangerous and the unhappy men of the factory attempted to unionize.

Although Tom didn’t lead the movement, he joined in, believing the cause just. The bosses alerted the Chicago Police and paid some off in order to get them to break up the picketing that occurred. For his participation, Tom, more than once, earned a billy club to the head and a night or two in jail. Nonetheless, the union prevailed and working conditions improved.

The USA entered World War II in December of 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan. Many young Americans volunteered to serve, Mr. Henek among them, entering the US Army on March 27, 1942. Thirty-one-years-old, he would not have been drafted at that point in the conflict. Indeed, excluded from the infantry, he took the job of “heavy truck driver” transporting supplies and ammunition needed at the front. He married the love of his life, a red-haired beauty named Helen Grigalunas, before being sent to Europe.

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Tom Henek and his best friend in the service took turns driving their truck. One day, with Tom at the wheel, a sniper fired a bullet through the head of the buddy sitting just beside him. Tom kept going. He had drawn the lucky card of survival, the same card whose opposite face pictured horror, loss, and perhaps survivor guilt. His children say he never talked about the War, but his wife told them he had nightmares, as do many who endure battle. Though discharged from the Army on November 25, 1945, those memories lived inside of him for the rest of his days.

My wife’s father smoked cigarettes from an early age, as a large part of his generation did, and enjoyed an occasional drink with his buddies. His other major vice was gambling. Like most gamblers, losing trumped winning, but the young family subsisted and bought a tiny house in Franklin Park, IL where his wife lived for many years after her husband died. Siblings helped to pay off his debts. Yet when confronted about betting and smoking by his spouse he said that since they didn’t hurt anyone else he believed it permissible to enjoy them. Clearly, the face he put on his gambling ignored the family’s modest living circumstances and the imposition on his siblings. Addiction? Entitlement? Denial? Perhaps.

Back then, of course, second-hand smoke effects hadn’t been investigated, but on January 11, 1964 the government issued the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health based on more than 7000 research articles accumulated over the years. Moreover, as early as 1957, Surgeon General Leroy E. Burney authorized the official position of the U.S. Public Health Service recognizing a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer. Thus, Mr. Henek effectively dismissed the danger to himself and the potential for emotional and financial suffering to his family.

Blind spots. We all have them. Some are big, others tiny, but one usually needs an outside perspective to see them clearly, as Tom Henek did not. Look in the mirror and perhaps you will view someone else with a few.

My wife and her sister Tomi remember Henek’s response to the predicament of a neighbor and schoolmate. Let’s call her Polly. This young woman “got in trouble,” a euphemism for out-of-wedlock pregnancy. The lover was the girl’s former teacher, who waited until the 18-year-old graduated to have the affair. Her father (one of Tom’s drinking buddies), told her to get out of the house and never return.

Tom Henek became incensed by his friend’s behavior. He walked over to his buddy’s abode and “chewed him out,” another old expression like “giving him hell.” T.H. told him not to throw Polly out of the home, but rather to embrace and help her in the moment of her greatest need. Tom pointed out the imperfections of his friend and lectured him on judging this teenager in light of his own defects. And, he said, “If you don’t allow her to live with you, I’ll bring her into my place and support her.” The lecture worked and the father of the pregnant girl permitted her to continue to stay with her own family.

That was the kind of person Mr. Henek was. A man who got off a long, late night train ride to downtown Chicago in a winter blizzard with my wife-yet-to-be when she was 13 or 14. Aleta’s mom and slightly younger sister Tomi were there too, returning from a family visit to Helen’s relatives in LaSalle, IL. Cabs were scarce and it took him about an hour before he found one. Just then a young woman with an infant in her arms turned up, a slightly older daughter following behind in the snow drifts, while the mom dragged her luggage with a hand only partially free. She too needed a taxi. Tom offered the ride to the young mother for fear the cold would harm her newborn. No other cab could be expected any time soon. Again, nothing to put on a monument, but something that counts for a lot, at least to my wife and her sister. By the way, my sister-in-law, Tomacine, was named after her dad.

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The father-in-law I never met was the rare person who changed his political thinking based on evidence. A veteran of “the good war,” as Studs Terkel called WWII, Tom instinctively sided with the US intervention in Vietnam. But as the body count mounted growing numbers of protesters doubted the “domino theory” predicting the loss of  S.E. Asia to Communism — the rationale for U.S. military involvement in a small country over 7000 miles from San Francisco. The Gulf of Tonkin incident that justified our military escalation proved as questionable as “Weapons of Mass Destruction” would later be in Iraq. Tom Henek began to change his mind. My wife remembers political conversations in which T.H. no longer defended the aggression. He was a person who knew, too well, the real cost of wartime. Over 58,000 American men and many more Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, died in a conflict that continued long after Mr. Henek’s death.

Like many males in Tom’s day and even today, doctors are scary people. A man who faced enemy fire did not want to face a friendly M.D. Perhaps he believed “real men” didn’t go to physicians. Tom would not have been alone in such thinking. In the mid-1960s Mr. Henek started to cough frequently and all three women in the home spotted blood stains on his underwear when they did laundry. He ignored his family’s pleas to get checked out. Increased alcohol use did not kill the growing pain. Finally, a man who never missed work was so depleted that he collapsed at home and called in sick. Testing led to the diagnosis of metastatic lung cancer: treatment might delay, but not prevent his death.

It was Christmas time, 1967, and Tom told the doctors who recommended immediate radiation of his desire to spend his last Christmas with his family and be hospitalized thereafter. I will spare you most of the details. He rallied for a time in the approximately six months remaining to him and spent several weeks at home. During the last three weeks, however, while not unconscious, Thomas was bleary-eyed and unable to speak or move. Whether he knew the date or understood what was said to him is unknown. Death came on June 15, 1968 at age 57, the day after his wife’s birthday. His widow Helen cried herself to sleep every night for over a year.

My wife describes her dad as “the kind of man whom everyone wished to have as a friend, the salt of the earth.” Thomas Henek’s funeral drew hundreds, rather remarkable for a man who attended church only if he had been invited to a wedding there, especially in those days when weekly attendance was expected. Nor have I mentioned his sense of humor. For all his flaws, he raised two daughters who became fine and accomplished women and never but once laid a hand on either of them in anger, so horrified was he at the single (non-injurious) spank he gave to his first born’s diapered bottom.

There you have the life of Thomas John Henek: soldier, father, hero, husband, gambler, craftsman, smoker, defender of the underdog, and friend. A man much-loved. Complicated, isn’t it? We are imperfect and human, which is certainly redundant. Care to judge Tom Henek? I’m just grateful to know his story and regret I never had the chance to thank this man for his part in bringing my wife (and, therefore, also my children) into the world.

The top image is the confirmation photo of Thomas John Henek. The next picture is his wife, Helen. The final photo shows Downtown West, Minneapolis, MN, USA, 12/12/2010. The author is Nic McPhee. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

It’s Not Going to Happen to Me

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It’s not going to happen to me.

“Why?”

Well, because I’m young. Sure I smoke, but so did my grandfather and he lived to be 97. Sure I eat a lot and I’m overweight, but so does my mom, and she can still do cartwheels. Besides, I’m a good person — bad things don’t happen to really good people. And, I have a strong relationship to God. He wouldn’t let anything bad happen. He’s on my side.

OK, I don’t know if it is a He or She, but I’m goddamn sure about God being on my side. I’m a spiritual guy. No, not the kind that has to go to church all the time, but God knows my heart is in the right place. I even gave 50 cents to a homeless guy a couple of years ago. Besides, I’ve been lucky all my life. And I’m careful, I have very good judgment. I look both ways before I cross the street. I plan in advance. Not to  mention, I’m really smart. I always got good grades in school. And before anything bad happens, I’ll see it coming and get out-of-the-way.

OK, sometimes I lie to the boss, sometimes I do a side job for cash so I can avoid paying taxes, but who doesn’t do that? The government would waste it anyway. I’m clever. I’ll never get caught.

Sure, there are some things I haven’t taken care of yet, some stuff I need to start, some projects I need to finish. But, crap, I’ve got time, plenty of time. There’s always tomorrow or next week. What’s the rush?

If I really wanted to stop smoking I could stop, but I enjoy it. And even if I do trip myself up somehow or some way, there will always be other chances. What’s more, I’ve got people looking out for me. If I were in trouble, they’d warn me and I’d change course.

The bad things that have happened to me have been someone else’s fault. I’ve recovered. See! I’m as good as new!

What’d you say? You said I drive too fast? Heck, I’ve got terrific reflexes, great hand-eye coordination. I’ve never had an accident, not even a traffic violation. I know what I’m doing.

Yeah, I drink, sometimes too much, but I never drive when I’m tipsy. How do I know? Well, I can just tell. I know myself. I don’t make dumb choices. OK, sometimes I have unprotected sex with people I have just met, but I don’t have sex with those kinds of people who would have AIDS or herpes or something. I guess I wasn’t always faithful to my last girlfriend either, but, I mean, who is? Jeez, I’m a man, I have needs, I have urges. I just do what other men do. What’s wrong with that?

I’m smart. I’m good. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be OK.

It’s not going to happen to me.

What you’ve just read is an imaginary conversation, not intended to resemble the words or attitudes of anyone living or dead, and certainly not the gentleman pictured. The top image is called Smug Santa, taken in 2008 at the New York Santacon by istolethetv and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Princess Merida.

Teenagers, Chicago Parking Meters, and Left Fielders

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The “Windy City” — the “City of Big Shoulders” — has a way of making some big mistakes.

Recently, they’ve come in the form of some fiscal short-sightedness affecting both baseball and government. Just over four years ago, the Chicago Cubs signed Alfonso Soriano to an eight year contract, all for the measly sum of $136 million dollars. Alfonso was 31 before he ever played for the team. They will “own” his contract (although the words “owe” and “ouch” come to mind) for three more seasons beyond this one.

After only the first three, he demonstrated that his sunny personality, million dollar smile, and ability to hit home runs when no one is on base don’t make up for declining offensive production and an attitude toward playing left field that suggests, according to Baseball Prospectus 2010, that Soriano believes the outfield wall at Wrigley is actually covered with poison ivy.

Not to be outdone, the local city fathers decided to lease every last parking meter in the city for a term of 75 years to an independent company that agreed to pay 1.15 billion in up-front dollars for the privilege. They doubtless wished to out-do the Cubs in boondoggles, since it is reported that the money is already spent. It has also been said that the city could have negotiated a better deal, and certainly one that didn’t so offend the parking populace by the inflation of parking fees to multiples of their previous size.

In both instances, there is more to come — more parking fee increases and further productivity decline from the Cubs left-fielder. And, long before the end of either contracted term, we will be saddled, metaphorically speaking, with the back-end of an animal that didn’t even look too great from the front-end.

When I think about this sort of short-sightedness in clinical terms, the behavior of teenagers inevitably comes to mind. Teenagers are stereotyped for taking risks, acting on impulse, and using poor judgment. Some of them tend to allow tomorrow to take care of itself, not fully grasping that tomorrow will indeed arrive soon enough and claim payment for the errors of today.

Now, I’m not talking about all teenagers, but rather those prone to vices like smoking, drinking and drugging to excess, blowing off academics, etc. And, it is not as if adults are free from this “live for today” approach, even adults not employed in management by the City of Chicago and the Cubs.

In a just world, all such folks would pay for their indiscretions somewhere down the line.

But, of course, the world isn’t just. And sometimes this works out quite well for the impulsive and heedless joy-seekers in our midst.

I recall one woman who ate and smoked and drank and had unprotected sex as if there would be no tomorrow. When I reminded her that tomorrow would likely come, she assured me that she would be dead by then, and so it didn’t matter. Even as she entered middle-age, she ignored the pain in her joints and her diabetes, continuing to indulge herself well beyond the bounds of medical advice and good sense. This lady believed in the motto uttered by John Derek in the old Humphrey Bogart film, Knock On Any Door:  “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.”

I doubted the wisdom of this, but she turned out to be right, dying of a cancer unrelated to her excesses in her late-40s. I guess if you know with certainty that your time is relatively short, then indulgence might become the preferred path, although it can also create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Of course, most of us don’t know the appointed day of our departure with the prescience that characterized my acquaintance. Many decisions depend upon just such an estimate of the future: whether to go to college, how much to save for retirement, the care and feeding of your body, the need to exercise, and so forth. In a way, we all are gamblers, those of us who imbibe and those who abstain, those who are profligate and those who save for a rainy day.

We place our bets on what “feels” right now, how we expect to feel in the future, and how long that future might last, if there is one.

Let’s just hope that our bets are wiser than those practiced by the City of Chicago and the Cubs.

The photo above taken by Scott Ableman at RFK Stadium on May 5, 2006 is of Alfonso Soriano in his days as a Washington National. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Cigarette Smoking, Bull-Fighting, and the NFL

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What connects the words that make up the title you’ve just read? More than you might think. And they represent a dark-side to daily life in the USA and around the world.

Yet we tend not to think about them and it (that dark-side) very much.

The main link among the three is that they involve varying degrees of destructive behavior; indeed, they all risk a needless acceleration of death; an increase in the chance of an early demise for those who participate in the activities in question.

Smoke cigarettes and you roll the dice on emphysema, heart disease, cancer, and more; fight a bull and you just might not leave the stadium still breathing; play in the NFL (National Football League) and you increase your risk of dementia and a shortened life expectancy. All while the promoters of these actions and events make money.

Football, smoking, bull fighting, and (one might add) boxing have another thing in common. They are activities performed (or at least begun) when one is young; when one is in full leaf and flower, like a tree on a mid-spring day. And just as the tree cannot imagine (having no consciousness) that it will turn brown and dormant before the year ends, young people have difficulty really believing that they are mortal, and imagining a time when they could be enfeebled or worse.

Tears and strains, bumps and bruises, broken bones, and bouncing brains; bodies busted and bent.

That is what I am talking about.

According to the NFL players association, the average professional career lasts 3.5 years. No wonder that some say the letters NFL actually mean “Not For Long.” Certainly, many players are cut from the team for under-performance in an enormously competitive environment, but many leave because of injury. The average life-span of an ex-NFL player is 55 overall and only 52 for linemen. No doubt, this is partially due to factors beyond the punishment done to their bodies by the violence of contact, particularly weight and diet-related problems.

But do not dismiss the direct effect of that punishment on producing life that is diminished and shortened. A recent University of Michigan study of 1063 retired NFL players found dementia-related conditions at a rate five times higher than the national average for men 50 or older; in ex-NFL players 30 to 49, the rate of dementia-type conditions is 19 times higher than for other men in the same age group.

And what is the reaction of most of us to this? Perhaps we say, “that’s interesting, but it’s a free country and the smokers and the football players are free to take their chances.” And on Saturday or Sunday we cheer for the football teams and the young players, just as you might yell “ole'” at a bull-fight. No one does pep-rallies for smokers, of course, but we do not prevent their slow self-injury, even if we limit it to certain places and conditions.

Somehow, the bull fights seem a bit more honest to me. The injuries are plain to see. And, the bull will spill blood and die while we watch, unless it first injures the matador to the point of his own bloody and usually visible injury.

By comparison, we won’t see, for the most part, the smokers wheezing, or lying gray in ICU, holding on, if they can, to dear life; or the ex-football lineman (unless he is as famous as the boxer Muhammad Ali), rendered almost mute by the effects of repeated head injuries. We won’t be there for the knee and hip replacements; we won’t spell the over-taxed spouse who married the daring young athlete-hero in his prime, and now must change his diapers.

It’s only a short step from this to war, don’t you think? Again, it is the young who fight for us and who suffer for us, mostly out of our sight in a place far away.

Are we really so far removed from the days of gladiatorial combat in the Roman Coliseum? Dig not too far below the surface of civilization and you will find more than a little brutality. And, too often, if you look a bit more closely, there we are, the two of us, preparing a tail-gating party to witness the carnage, bundling up to sit in the stands, cheering it on.

Bull Fighter, the above image, is the work of Montyne. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons, where it was authored by Sterling Evans, originally from http://www.montyne.com/