The Cottage

In the end, the combined muscles of my father and his fourteen-year-old son were no match for gravity.  The towering sycamore easily snapped our rope's pitiful attempt at intervention and dutifully followed the earth's pull.  The huge tree slowly leaned, gave out a mournful groan, then gathered strength in its final plunge.  It hit an eternity later and the shrieks of shattering glass and splintering wood sent echoes bounded throughout the Fox River Valley.  The chilling sounds that pierced my heart that day signaled more than the crushing of our nearly completed summer cottage, they sounded the death knell of my father's dream.

In the deafening silence that followed, my father's shoulders sagged, as if he too he had resigned himself to gravity's pull.  Then quickly he straightened, turned and put his hand on my shoulder.  "We go home.  Do enough today."

Stefan M. Pribish was born in Hutawa, Russia in 1911.  His date of birth was May twenty-second by the old Russian calendar and June fourth by the new.  Either way, a bad date.  Before my father's second summer his father, Massey Pribish, went to America leaving behind his wife Akulina, Stefan and a soon to be born second son, John.  Whether my grandfather was to start a new life for his family in America or return quickly became academic.  History, like gravity, cared little for individual efforts.

War broke out in August of 1914 and soon pulled most of the civilized world into its vortex of grief.  Hutawa, sitting on Russia's western border, was one of the first to feel the crushing fist of war.  It came not from the dreaded German Hun, but from her own Russian army.  Like a scene wrenched from Tolstoy's "War and Peace," Hutawa was burned to the ground and its inhabitants herded east to Siberia.  The villagers suffered as tragedy begot tragedy.  World War One spawned the Russian revolution; the revolution turned into civil war, and the civil war became war with Poland.  Peace only brought new miseries to the Hutawa exiles - first as a Poles in Stalin's Russia, then as Russians repatriated in Pilsudski's newly formed Poland.  By 1928 Akulina was dead from starvation and Stefan and John were gaunt serfs working the estate of Polish noble.  Only their father's American address, hastily scratched on the back of an old picture frame, snatched the brothers from a lifetime of servitude.

My father never told me of those days or those that followed.  He said nothing of his rescue by the American consulate in Poland, his reunion with his dimly remembered father, or his absorption into American society.  Old records show he graduated from a Chicago barber college and started his business in Rockdale, Illinois during the depth of the Depression.  He was married forty years to a women he knew only one day, served as a gunner's mate aboard a cruiser in the South Pacific, and fathered one boy and three girls.  However, my father did share with me of his dream - a dream that sustained him as he warmed himself near his fire on sub-zero Siberian nights - a dream of a summer home, an aristocrat's retreat, his very own dacha.

After Japan's surrender, my father returned to barbering.  Steve the Barber was, as he it put it, the workingman's barber.  His clientele consisted mainly of veterans.  The victorious warriors returned home to become the carpenters, bricklayers, and electricians of the post-war construction boom.  Airman who traded their machine guns for plumber's tools and tankers who now drove bulldozers frequented his shop.  While my father clipped he talked, living up to his Navy nickname, Polly.  His talk, however, was never idle.  He always talked shop.  Not barbershop shop, but construction shop and he when didn't talk, he listened.  By the mid-1950's, he had listened enough to build two houses and a barbershop.  He was now ready to build his dacha.

The site of my father's dream was on the banks of the Fox River in Northern Illinois.  Every Wednesday and Sunday that first summer he and I rose before dawn and drove thirty miles to the river.  While my father cut brush for a dacha; I helped Teddy Roosevelt clear the isthmus for the Panama Canal.  In mid-July my father dug the massive footers for a dacha; I helped General Lee dig the breastworks around Richmond.  In the fall, my father whistled a Russian folk tune while he erected the mighty timbers for the dacha's foundation.  My trusses spanned the River Kwai to the accompaniment of the "Colonel Boggy March."

Winter slowed our labor to one day, Sunday.  Each Sunday for me was another lifetime at the gulag; hauling wood and driving nails with numbed, reddened hands.  I was sure somewhere in his demonic past my father knew Stalin personally.  Summer brought respite from the cold, but not the labor.  Father was in the home stretch.  Since his customers were mostly construction workers, barbering was sparse on clear, bright days. Heavy rain, however, brought a deluge of business.  My father's creed was simple, "Build on good days and barber on bad."  That summer I nailed a sign on the sycamore that read Stalag 17 and prayed daily for rain.

When I started high school in the fall, the dacha was under roof.  It smelled of newly hewn lumber and stale sweat and was by far the largest structure on our part of the river.  The rear of the dacha was anchored into a hill and the front stood on stone pillars, ten feet above flood level.  It boasted two bedrooms, a kitchen and large party room, all constructed from the very best material and labor.  "No short cut," my father would constantly admonish.  Every board was above specification, every nail driven straight and deep, and every screw countersunk and turned down completely.  His dream was designed to last the ages and shrug off any evils of water or ice flows the Fox could send its way.

That winter my father slept warmed by dreams of soft summer breezes and ten pound catfish.  "This Forth of July," he told me as spring approached, "we celebrate twice - birth of country and finish of dacha."  Only the sycamore leaning precariously above his dream caused concern.  That was the summer it had to go.

We did not return to the ruined dacha for a week.  My heart quietly insisted that somehow the damage wasn't fatal, not as bad as I remembered it.  My mind, however, shouted otherwise.  All week images of the flaming Hindenburg and the torn Titanic filled my thoughts.  The dacha was a disaster, said my mind, from which there was no return.

My mind was right.  The dacha was a flattened M.  The sycamore had hit it square center, crushing in the roof and bulging the walls.  Broken window shutters dangled from the outer walls like gun ports of a listing man-o-war.  Inside twisted masses of splintered wood, electrical wire and plasterboard were scattered in disarray like flotsam from an old Errol Flynn pirate movie.  Only the dacha's floor and its stone column supports escaped destruction.  As for the tree, it was gone.  The farmers from the valley had labored through the week to cut and remove it.  They came, they later said, to help the city barber with the funny accent.

My father and I spent all day inspecting the ruin.  He explored every inch of the dacha he could and sent me into those he could not.  We pushed on broken beams, tugged against ruptured walls, and peered behind chunks of frayed siding.  The expression on my father's face did not change whether the material wobbled or held fast.  I could not tell from his eyes if our task was hopeless or not.  I was certain, however, my father was not going to let go of his dream easily.

The next week, while my father barbered, he allowed only one subject - repair.  "Stan, again tell," he would ask in his special way, "how you keep Franklin from sinking."  "Hank, when big storm hit Normandy, how you repair docks?"  "Jake, you were Seabee, no?  How you fix airfield from bomb?"  Clip by clip, sentence by sentence my father's plan formed.  Within weeks he was again ready to tackle the dacha.

My father and I never went to the river alone again.  My mother and younger sisters were now always there. The five of us were the homeless refugees rebuilding London, Berlin, and Leningrad.  Relatives and friends dropped by regularly and pitched in for an hour or a day.  Their only reward was a hot cup of coffee or a cold bottle of beer to go with the sandwiches my mother always served.  On every special days my private heroes came to help.  My father, Stan and I worked feverishly to shore up broken sections of roof and wall.  We prevented further damage to the dacha and kept a ship with heart from sinking.  Hank arrived with his jacks and pulleys and together we raised the roof to its former position and pulled the walls back in tight.  My muscles ached with them as MULBERRY was rescued from the storm.  Jake gave up his Fourth of July to make sure the dacha's walls were sound and we sweat in the jungles of Guadalcanal until Henderson Field was again in operation.

The river road was busy on Labor Day for a twin celebration - one for the workingman, the other for the dacha. My father's dream gleamed like the jeweled cottage inside a Faberge egg.  Its freshly painted coat of white stood out in stark contrast to the still green foliage of lingering summer.  Red and blue gingerbread trim set it off from any competing structure and proclaimed to everyone its Russian soul.  Nearly one hundred people joined us in celebration.  Aunts, uncles, and cousins arrived early, followed closely by those distant relatives normally seen only at weddings and funerals.  Later, station wagon loads of friends and neighbors cautiously negotiated the road to the dacha and squeezed into the remaining parking places between battered pickup trucks with faded lettering that read "Hank Whalen's Towing and Body Service," "Stan Westerfield - Roofing and Siding," and "Jake Bottino - Contractor."

Ten long tables, constructed from saw horses and sheets of plywood were placed under the shade trees surrounding the dacha.  Quickly, under my mother's direction, the tables filled with an assortment of breads, salads, and meat dishes.  An old watering trough, dragged down from the flat land by a farm tractor, was filled with chunks of ice, pop and beer.  No one would go home hungry or thirsty.  By mid-day an all-ages-welcome softball game was going full force, the badminton court and horseshoe pits were filled, and the river shallows upstream were awash with waders.

All the day, my father played the role of host and tour guide.  As each new group arrived, he shook hands like a Democrat on Election Day and began weaving the story of his dacha.  Once he judged the size of the assembly worthy, he led it up the hill to the sycamore stump.  There he would tell of the tree, shooting his arm high above his head to indicate its immensity.  Then with an ear splitting slap, he would bring his hand down hatchet like into the palm of his other hand.  Before his audience could recover he made a low sweep to show the extent of the tree's havoc and almost wept at the hopelessness of his task.  Finally like the Phoenix, his arms would rise up and behold, the dacha was again whole.  I watched him repeat his performance throughout the day.  With every telling the sycamore grew taller, the devastation more pronounced, the triumph greater.

As the sunset, my father tossed a flaming taper into the fire pit and within seconds the flames caught hold. Sparks from splintered lumber and sycamore logs leapt into the autumn sky and cast a yellow-orange glow on the circled crowd.  Cousin Ribba began to strum his Red Cross guitar and soon the familiar strains of "Wabash Cannonball" wafted though the trees.  For just a moment I saw those gathered as early American pioneers resting after a long day on the western prairie.  I then knew we were the pioneers.  The same blood flowed in our veins and the same spirit burned in our souls.  Our daily triumphs and tragedies were no different than those I had so admired in the history books.

Steve the Barber died just shy of his seventieth summer.  Like most common people, he left behind a simple, but complex legacy.  His life proved that all of us have the power to overcome adversity; that heroes are a common but precious commodity and yesterday's disaster are the seeds of today's triumph.  He showed that not all great deeds make the history books, but rather most get tucked away in corners of our memories ready to be recalled fondly at distant family reunions or the chance meeting of old friends.  By his actions he taught me the bridge on Cass Street holds the same marvel as the Bridge on the River Kwai; that a simple gravel road is just as dramatic as the Burma Road, and that a humble cottage on a quiet Illinois river can be as beautiful as the Taj Mahal and as inspiring as the pyramids of Egypt.

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