June 1, 2010 -- Journalist Rita Cosby's father had refused to speak about his past. He grew up in Poland during the period before World War II. But after Cosby found some of her father's old belongings, she convinced him to tell his story and discovered her family's history.
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I first noticed my dad's scars when I was eight years old during our annual family camping trip to Mount Desert Island in Maine. "Noticed" is not quite the right word, as his scars, dashed about his body like cracks in dried mud, are hard to miss. Rather, it was while camping that I first consciously comprehended that a scar was an indication that something bad had happened, something we weren't supposed to talk about.
Camping was my family's vacation tradition and remains one of my happiest and most vivid childhood memories. We made the eight-hour trip from our driveway in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, to our regular campsite at Somes Sound View Campground in Maine so many times that every part of it became a ritual. Each summer, shortly after my dad got home for his annual two weeks off, he and my mother would load up our old white Chrysler station wagon and we'd make for the coast for two weeks of adventure. The "American-made" Chrysler was a family fixture — its influence on my life extends far beyond our excursions to the campground. Later on, it would become my first car.
I never remember it being new. My father said it had "character." What it had was a lot of rust, more than a few dents, and an engine that rumbled like a freight train. It seemed like it had always been beaten up, but by the time I inherited it, it was known around town as "The Bomb." My friends gave it the nickname as a tribute to a popular lyric of the time — "You dropped the bomb on me" — and because of the hole it had in the passenger-side floor. It began as aged white, but after I had driven it for a year or so, it had attained its share of war wounds, including a yellow-parking-barrier stripe down one side and a fire-hydrant-red stripe down the other. An excited teenage girl with a wagon full of equally excited teenage friends does not, honestly, make for a very good driver.
Though most of my friends had more expensive cars with German pedigrees, everyone loved to ride in The Bomb. In fact, it became a popular Greenwich fixture. It was so big that half the neighborhood could fit inside, making it a favorite party spot. It was a club no matter where it was, even when its broken gas gauge left us stranded on the side of the road. Several friends still recall that once while we were driving, something large and dark fell out of the engine and began smoldering in the road. But since The Bomb still kept going, so did we. The car eventually got so bad that my mother drove it to the dump and called a cab to take her home.
My family was certainly a little bit unusual living amongst the white picket fences and storied wealth of Greenwich. Everyone knew my folks were from a different country, even if they didn't know which one. You could tell from their heavy accents that the Cosbys, Richard and Adda on Halsey Drive, were from "somewhere else."
There is a distinctive melody to the way the Polish people sound, accenting words Americans typically don't. While my dad spent time actively working to lose his accent, my Danish mother defiantly refused to let go of her. She never got the hang of the English "th" no matter how many times I demonstrated the correct placement of the tongue beneath the front teeth. Regardless of intentions, my parents' heavy accents remained with them, throughout their lives, putting me often in the role of translator. I would dutifully explain to perplexed friends and puzzled store cashiers what exactly it was my parents were saying. Growing up, it was admittedly embarrassing for a young girl facing the harsh judgments of her peers, but today, I'd be overjoyed if I could hear my mother say "tink" or "tank you" just one more time.
Even though they stood out amid the Connecticut Yankees, Richard and Adda quickly became well liked around the neighborhood. My father was the handsome, dark-haired European, often spotted running the streets of Greenwich. Tall and thin, with high cheekbones and chiseled features, he was very fit. Every morning, whether he was at home in Greenwich or away working on engineering projects, he'd wake up at six o'clock and go for a run. It always amazed me that he remained committed to doing so even in pouring rain or a half-foot of snow on the ground.
My father enjoyed the outdoors. Whether coming back from a run or doing yard work, he was always willing to strike up lively conversations with the neighbors. My mother became a neighborhood fixture in her own way thanks to her daily walks with a revered series of dogs. She'd zip down the street, a streak of short-cropped blonde hair, greeting neighbors with a wave and a smile as her sneakers trekked quickly behind her furry friend. In the early days, we always had German shepherds, starting with Nicky, my Dad's favorite. In later years, we had smaller, more lap-friendly dogs. My favorite was Lucky the Shetland sheepdog, who loved my room most, falling asleep many nights to the ticking of my little red leather alarm clock. (One day, for reasons we never understood, Lucky ate the clock.)
My parents always lived modest lives. Our furniture wasn't fancy, our decor was very simple, with European accents. My father never had an expensive suit, or my mom a costly dress. Neither of my parents ever wore anything flashy, reluctant to draw attention to themselves.
My dad's favorite things to wear were T-shirts, with slogans like "USA" or "Marine Corps Marathon." Dad liked old clothes and old shoes and always told me, "New clothes make me feel uncomfortable." Even at his busiest time at work, he never had more than three suits, always purchased at modest prices from places like JC Penney. Whenever I commented about the holes in his clothes, especially the T-shirts he'd run in, he'd say, "They really worked hard for me." Even the clothes had to live up to his expectations. The only new item he'd allow in his wardrobe was a pair of New Balance running shoes every six months, bought loyally from the same sports store in Old Greenwich. Running shoes were his only splurge.
My parents never sprang for luxuries. Thinking about it now, I believe that their frugality taught me a lot of basic values, but as a young girl in a community of bankers' and advertising execs' children, I found my dad's insistence on living modestly exasperating. My yard, however, was a popular spot thanks to its size and my dad's love of the outdoors. In the summer, kids would come over to play on the rope ladder Dad built or to shoot some baskets in the hoop he'd put up on a tree. My dad would come out and judge our performance. He'd score our flips off the rope ladder, and even my friends knew to wait until he wasn't around to horse around on it or they'd leave feeling as if they'd trained for the Olympics. Most fun days with Dad in the backyard left me with skinned knees and huge calluses on my hands. My dad would tell me they were "signs of a successful day. Success at anything takes hard work."
Dad also managed to keep a garden growing even when work kept him away for weeks at a time. He'd plant it during a quick weekend trip home in May, tend to it on his two-week vacation in July, and otherwise leave my mom in charge of weeding, pruning, and watering. It always grew. For winter, Dad would create an ice-skating rink in the backyard out of snow and a water hose. It was a popular neighborhood attraction, and I used to charge kids a quarter to come skate. I consider it my first "job."
My dad also thought I should join the Girl Scouts, and I began early on as a Brownie. At the time I didn't give much thought to it, but as I've delved deeper into his history, I began to realize that my father's insistence that I join the Scouts might have had something to do with the events of his own youth in Poland. Even though he always spoke of Poland as the forbidden land and said that he would never go back there because it was like "hell on earth," he did mention that he was in something similar to the Scouts in Poland and considered it the best part of his childhood. I knew that being a Scout was something my dad honored. I kept my uniform neatly pressed and proudly displayed my many badges, consumed with checking off the activities to earn them. "Sewing" must have seemed silly to my dad when his Scouting experience had trained him to stay alive. I was, however, a particularly talented cookie salesperson, specializing in Samoas and Thin Mints. My sales strategy consisted of a charm offensive, and I often moved more boxes than anyone else in my troop.
However, we never kept the cookies in our own house. My mother, always concerned with our well-being, liked us to eat nutritiously, even if she wasn't the world's greatest cook. Every summer before we left for our family camping trip, she would pack healthy snacks for the ride: apples and turkey sandwiches on rye. And as we made our way up the coast, my brother and I would always get restless. I'd pass the time playing cards and answering geography questions as we passed various highway signs. My father always quizzed me about cities in New England and would often throw in locations in Europe to test my international skills. We'd also listen to whichever station en route was playing the classics, my dad's favorites. He loved listening to the easily identifiable songs sung by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Dean Martin. Looking back, I suppose those singers served as great English tutors for my parents, a virtual Berlitz songbook of standard American English. Our drive would often be interrupted by the frightening metallic creak of the old seventeen-foot aluminum Grumman canoe peeling loose from the roof of the car, punctuated by my father huffing, pulling the car over to the side of the highway, and tightening the ropes across the old boat.
The excitement was palpable when we pulled into Bar Harbor, Maine, and soon headed through the gates into Somes Sound View Campground by the Atlantic Ocean. My brother and I couldn't wait to get out of the car, and neither could Nicky, who would immediately set out to meet and greet the other inhabitants of the campground. It was the early years of Somes's designation as a campground and it was therefore rather primitive, but it was an ideal vacation spot — surrounded by forest and mountains, yet also right next to the ocean. It had the picture-perfect place to pitch a tent.
Every year, we'd arrive at the same campsite and we'd all help my father unload the car — sleeping bags, the camp stove, Coleman lanterns, a big, sturdy, cooler, and of course, the tent. Our tent wasn't in much better shape than the car. It was itself a family heirloom — just as much a part of our Somes ritual as the drive and the music. It was very old, and had been patched so many times that it had begun to resemble a quilt stretched over the frame of the poles. Inside we'd set up house: our sleeping bags on cots, a place to leave our shoes, and a spot for the dog. We slept lengthwise in the tent, with Nicky right inside the zippered door. Nicky hated the darkness and was the first in the tent every night.
When night fell, my mom would spritz the crisp air with insect repellent and we'd bring out our lanterns to cook dinner and roast marshmallows at a campfire. My dad would include my brother and me in all camping tasks, teaching us how to build a fire, put up the tent, and find food — everything about how to survive in the woods. He'd craft us walking sticks and we'd go for long, steep, treacherous hikes. Dad knew all the different plants and would point out the ones to avoid and the ones that were edible. If we were hiking to the top of a mountain and wanted to take a break, he'd say "gotta keep going all the way to the top." Skinned knees and scratched arms were no excuse.
He taught Alan to fish, and almost every day the two of them would set out for the water returning in the evening with a fish to fry over the campfire. Later, I would also be dragged along, taught to hunt for bait. My dad always said, "It doesn't make sense to buy worms when all we have to do is lift some stones." I'd wield the old fishing pole, gingerly dangling its rudimentary hook into the ocean. Catching a fish mortified me. I found it traumatic looking into its glassy eyeballs as my father put the flapping creature in the bottom of the canoe and on occasion when we had one in a plastic bucket. Later, Dad would filet the fish with the same knife he used to peel fruit, jabbing slices of apple and not hesitating to take a bite right off the blade.
Dad would often take us canoeing, even on the occasional weekends he was home in Greenwich. He'd drag the rickety old metal boat out into the river and beckon for us to hop in behind him. He taught us how to handle the canoe and use the anchor, which was shaped like a disk. On hot days he would climb out and swim beside us, sometimes disappearing under the surface only to pop back up and upend the canoe, sending Alan and me laughing and shrieking into the water. The only thing that could keep him out of the water was a serious lightning storm, and even then, the bolts would have to be striking all around for him to quit. I have a clear memory of one winter afternoon when we took a family walk along the river.
Lucky, the Shetland sheepdog, was with us, and as he tried to climb the riverbank, he slipped and fell into the frigid, fast-moving water. Frantically, he splashed about, desperately trying to keep his head above the surface. "Swim to me!" my father shouted at Lucky, but the dog was too frightened and disoriented to obey. In an instant, my dad simultaneously pulled his shoes off and jumped into the river, powerful arms throwing up sheets of water as he raced toward the dog. He quickly towed Lucky back to shore. My father never made a big deal about it. But I remember it vividly. The brief but harrowing experience it made me keenly aware that he could save me if I needed saving. A shivering Lucky, however, was scarred for life, and never went in the water again.
My father was indeed rugged. After their divorce, my mother told me she always loved knowing that he could protect her and take care of the family. She never worried about anything bad happening when he was around. But I realized that my father's vacation activities were all dedicated to teaching us how to do things that he felt might help us get through life, just in case he wasn't there when we needed him. Dad also taught me never to take no for an answer. He and my mom always told the story of the time we were camping in upstate New York when I was little more than two years old. I developed a dangerously high fever, and Dad marched through the thick forest at night, with me in his arms, my brother and Mom in tow, with only a small, flickering storm lamp to guide us to our car. When we arrived at a nearby doctor's office in the middle of the night, the doctor said, "Office hours are over, we are closed." Dad said, "Then give me the address of a real doctor who'll save my daughter." The doctor opened his doors and took care of me.
Though I know my dad cared about me, he was by his own admission absent more than he was present. He had little involvement in my life. My closest high school friends barely knew him. I don't remember him ever giving me advice about boys. Besides my wonderful love of more than ten years, Tomaczek, I can't recall him ever meeting any of my boyfriends. Even when Dad was home with us, he often seemed far away. He wasn't overtly affectionate. I never remember him saying "I love you," and hugs were few and far between.
Even though he had a great sense of humor and could be gregarious when he wanted to be, he also had a short fuse, and always seemed to be carrying around a weight of anger and frustration. While we were camping, my brother and Dad often went out on expeditions of their own, and my mother and I stayed at the campsite, or went out to gather blueberries, filling large paper cups with the sweet wild fruit. I also spent a lot of time along the craggy coastline, wandering up and down the water's edge collecting artifacts and shells and other castoffs from the sea. It was on that shoreline that I first learned the cruel lesson of life and death. Starfish were a favorite of mine. They seemed so beautiful, these rubbery little stars clinging to the rocks under the water. Once I pulled one out of the ocean, lifting its five legs carefully off the rock it had attached itself to. I wanted to keep it, so I brought it out onto the rocks and watched as it dried in the sun. My mother was horrified when she saw what I'd done.
"It was a living thing!" she said. "You killed it." My mother valued the life of every plant and animal she happened across. Whenever she found a spider in the house she would carefully coax it onto some other surface, and then dart outside to find a suitable shrub or a vacant spot of dirt. She'd set each thing free and wish it well. When she saw the sun-crisped starfish, she couldn't believe that I could be so careless with an animal's life. But my father defended me.
"All things have to die," he said, brusquely. "It's part of life. Some survive and some don't. Sometimes it's the strong and sometimes it's luck, but some make it and some don't. That's life. And Rita needs to understand that." I vividly remember his words to this day, as they seemed like heavy words for a dried-out starfish.
In his own life, my father was always careful to take good care of himself. He was passionate about his health, and an avid runner, jogging ten, fifteen, or twenty miles at a time. At his encouragement, I became an athlete too, but I was more interested in ballet, or team sports, such as tennis and gymnastics — things that involved teamwork and interaction with others. He was always prodding me to be faster, stronger, better, saying those were important qualities for life.
Even though he often wanted me to run with him, running was too quiet for me, too solitary. But not for my father, who seemed to thrive on the isolation it allowed him. It was almost an addiction. When we went camping he adhered to his strict regimen, running every day, sometimes twice. And it was when he was returning from one of these runs that his scars finally became, for a young girl, profoundly intriguing and impossible to ignore. That day they became a question that could no longer go unasked.
It was a hot day, and the midday sun was beating down on us. He came back to the campsite breathing hard and drenched with sweat, and pulled off his white T-shirt. As he peeled off the wet shirt, my eyes locked on the large scar on his right shoulder: a messy, painful-looking hole surrounded by ragged, discolored marks. My eyes jumped to the various other parts of his body and its strangely punctured and puckered skin: a hole near his right wrist, a hole in his left forearm, a criss-cross of slashes up and down his legs. It was my sudden realization that my dad's skin was unlike other people's skin. It's a vivid snapshot, indelibly etched into my memory. I remember being immediately overcome by the feeling that there was something strange about it. It looked wrong. I wondered if someone had shot him in a fight or cut him with something, and the curiosity of an eight-year-old girl could not let it go.
That afternoon, when my father was out fishing with Alan, I finally broached the subject with my mom. She was sitting outside by the tent, soaking up the bright Maine sun. I walked over and, as nonchalantly as I could, asked, "Was Dad in a fight?" My mother suddenly looked up. She was agitated, noticeably uncomfortable, caught off guard by my bold question. She answered me simply, "Your dad went through some tough times when he was growing up." She then added with finality, "We don't talk about it." That was the end of the conversation.
And for thirty-five years I did not mention his scars again. But the subject had begun to bother me. After spending my career asking tough questions of the world's newsmakers, it felt odd being scared to ask my dad the most basic questions about his past. And with the memorabilia I'd unearthed from my mother's house, I had more questions than ever.
Determined to decipher his past and finally uncover his secrets, I packed a suitcase and boarded a train to Alexandria, Virginia, the town outside Washington, D.C., where he now lives with his wife, Judy, whom I've always liked, and their son, Eric, my kind and hardworking half-brother.
I made myself comfortable as the train headed south, surrounded by my initial arsenal of books on Poland and World War II history. The rhythmic click-clack of the train moving over the rails lulled me into personal reflection. While covering stories I've been threatened, detained, and even shot at, but I've never been injured. In fact, the only physical wound I've ever sustained is the scar that runs across my left knee. I quickly looked down at my knee, as I sometimes do, as if checking to see if my scar is still there.
Scars are interesting things. They seem to be with us for life, quiet statements of our experiences that don't go away. Sometimes they are badges of honor, but more often, they are tales of careless "shouldn't-haves." Every time I tell the story of how I got my one and only scar, I squirm a bit, remembering the pain. I also think of my father — of what he said and what he didn't say.
My own scar is the result of a "shouldn't-have." One morning, in eighth grade, in an effort to be stronger, I was practicing gymnastics on my bed, diligently doing handstands using the wall as a spot. Things were going well until I attempted a one-armed pushup. I toppled sideways, falling onto my nightstand and knocking over a glass container of lotion. The bottle fell and shattered into a minefield of jagged pieces, and my knee came down directly atop the largest of them.
My scream brought my mother running. Blood gushed from a gash in my leg. The cut was long and deep. When my mother saw it, she became just as hysterical as I was. My father was away, so it was up to her to deal with the crisis. She grabbed a towel and wrapped it around my leg, trying to stop the stream of blood. It was unbelievably painful as she helped me into the Chrysler, and I was teenage girl dramatic. I shivered with fear in the backseat of the car, but as my mother instructed, I kept pressure on the cut and tried to keep my leg straight. When we arrived at the hospital, I was immediately rushed to the emergency room, where I promptly cried to the doctor, "Will you be able to save my leg?" It seemed so dire; certainly, it was the worst wound I'd ever seen. The doctor laughed and said he thought it would not require amputation. As hard as I tried, I couldn't stop the tears as he stitched my split flesh back together.
I left Greenwich Hospital with a lollipop in my mouth and my knee in a brace, a brace I was shackled in for two months. At first it seemed like a terrible handicap, but when I figured out that I could parlay this misfortune into extra attention from cute guys at school, I completely took advantage of it. The injury forced me to stay off my leg as much as I could. On a positive note, running was definitely out. On the negative side, I knew I would end up with some kind of scar. I was secretly sure, however, that it would impress my father.
When he returned from his business trip, I called him quickly to the living room. I was eager to show him my wound, to show him that I, too, finally had a scar of my own.
I remember the morbid fascination I felt as I peeled off the bandages, excitedly anticipating his empathy for my new badge of honor. When I lifted off the gauze, the scar was very apparent; a jagged red line with stitch marks at its edges. It still had the moist plumpness of a fresh wound. I looked to my father for his reaction, hoping for compassion and perhaps even some anecdote about the injuries in his own past.
My expectations were quickly squashed. He didn't mention his own scars. He didn't even commiserate.
"Oh, that's nothing," he said, giving me a pat on the back.