I was named after some guy named Julian.
Seventy years ago, when my father was in a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II, Julian was the camp’s soccer star. He was one of the oldest players there, quick and powerful. Dazzled with his footwork. Commanded the field. He was part of the reason my father fell in love with soccer, and part of the reason sports played such a big role in my father’s life.
Sports were one of the things he could count on in a life that was so hard.
My father, Zbigniew Macur, whom Americans called Ziggy and Polish friends called Zbyszek, was born in Wilno, Poland, which is now Vilnius, Lithuania. His mother died when he was 2. His older brother, who was his hero, fought with the Polish Underground during World War II and was murdered by Russian Communists because he refused to join their cause. His father died when he was 19. He had three headstrong sisters.
My father was 10 when, in September 1943, his family — which was Catholic — was stuffed into a train car and shipped to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. They were processed there and, after five months, sent to work in a Bavarian Nazi labor camp that made furniture.
My father’s job was to carry heavy wood up six flights of stairs from sunrise to past sunset. For sustenance, the internees were given small amounts of turnip or cabbage soup, or rotten bread in which they had to pick around the maggots. That’s if they were given any food at all.
When American soldiers entered the camp to liberate it in 1945, my father saw them and was overwhelmed with gratitude. In the days before, he was so hungry and depleted that he was sure he would die within a week.
One of those American soldiers gave my father a bicycle. My father let a Ukrainian kid take it out for a spin, but that rotten kid rode the bike down a hill and never came back.
The Macur family later came to the United States by ship in late 1949, after an American family in Louisiana sponsored their trip, with my father vomiting the entire way. They docked in Baton Rouge and took a train to the rural town of Ville Platte. They arrived in Cajun Country without knowing a word of English, with only small suitcases and the clothes on their back.
My father, a teenager by then, was put into school with children his age. But because of the war, he had missed too much formal education to catch up. The last official school year he had completed was second grade.
That never stopped him from learning: He was the smartest person I knew, a self-taught marvel with a nearly photographic memory.
Could recite countless passages from the Bible by heart. Could play the accordion, without lessons. He also was exceptionally mechanically inclined, someone who could fix anything and build anything.
After moving to a blue-collar New Jersey town, Manville, he worked as a maintenance man and rose to be a top diesel mechanic at the nearby Houdaille Quarry. Later, he worked at Foley Machinery, in Piscataway, New Jersey, and was a transmission specialist on Caterpillar heavy machinery. He toiled long hours, sometimes outdoors in harsh weather. My mother swears that he did not miss a day of work.
Outside of work, my father — athletic, strong and matinee-idol handsome, with sparkling emerald eyes and thick, wavy black hair — adored sports.
As a young man, he was a soccer star, a formidable and dangerous striker on the Vistula soccer team in New Jersey, a successful semiprofessional squad filled with Polish immigrants. When he once scored with a searing shot from midfield, a green-eyed Polish brunette beauty named Leokadia Busz took notice. In that moment, he won her over, and she eventually became his wife. They were married for 57 years. Together, they drove in his fast, fancy cars, danced the tango and went to the Jersey Shore almost every summer weekend.
They bought their first house at the western edge of Manville, a predominantly Polish community. My father loved it because it was his very own. But it also abutted Vinnie’s Auto Salvage and was in an area dominated by the Johns Manville asbestos factory. So my father put his aluminum lunch box to much use, logging daily overtime to get us out of there.
In 1978, my father, who put his three children through college and never had a penny of debt, paid cash for a plot of land in nearby Bridgewater, a township known for its good schools. He and his Polish buddies built the house with their own hands.
The yellow raised ranch rose from an empty, wooded lot. It represented his life, which was a success built from nothing.
As a father, the man I called Tata — the Polish word for father — was unmatched. I was the youngest of three, with a brother and sister who were about 10 years older. So for many years, I was lucky to have him all to myself.
We were a team.
He was the rebounder when I shot basketballs, the pitcher when I took batting practice, the coach who measured my long jumps and taught me to throw a baseball like a rocket. On our epic road trip around the country when I was 10 — which we took in our old, red Volkswagen bus with an engine he had to rebuild along the route — he was the timekeeper for my mile runs in 22 states. He was my ski instructor who never fell on the slopes and my Trivial Pursuit partner who never lost.
He didn’t miss a single one of my high school basketball games, a perk of his starting work before dawn and ending early. Every time I looked in the stands, he was there, quiet and smiling. When I rowed for Columbia, he and my mother were at every regatta, too.
He never cared if I won. What mattered was that I had tried my best and — what a concept — that I had fun. So I grew to love sports because of his love of sports.
If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be a sportswriter.
Early last Tuesday morning, I was at his bedside, heartbroken, when he took his last breaths.
Complications of Parkinson’s disease overtook him after his long, brave battle, and doctors said colon cancer had most likely dealt him a final blow.
His eyes were closed, and all of us, his whole family, surrounded him and held him. We told him how much we loved him, and how thankful we were for the good life he had given us. We said his work, after 82 years, was done here, and that it was OK for him to go.
I repeated what my daughter always said to him: “I love you, Dziadek,” which means, “I love you, Grandpa,” again and again.
Then he exhaled one final time. A beautiful life, during which he had sacrificed so much for his family and suffered so much, was done.
He expected this ending.
Before he headed to the emergency room the previous Friday, he had told me in a phone call: “I will always love you. I will always watch over you. I’m going to beat you to heaven.”
My Tata. Always right.
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