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Being Polish


How do you get a Polack into a bathtub? Simple, throw in a nickel.
These and about another hundred jokes survive from my childhood growing up in the Chicago area. Later, I would run into many of the same in Iowa, only recycled as “Bohemie” jokes.
In my youth, long before the age of political correctness, I told the jokes in ignorant innocence of the terrible discrimination the Poles faced from the German and Russian empires. There was nothing funny, for example, about the ethnic slurs guised in the form of humor Nazi Germany perpetuated to make ethnic cleansing more palatable.
In my defense I point out that WWII was ancient history by the time I came of age in the 1960s. Besides, I felt I was laughing with, not at, the ethnic group. I was part Polish. My grandmother Agnes, my father’s mother, immigrated to America from Poland as a child. And finally, the jokes could not be cruel in my mind because they were so obviously not true. Grandma was the cleanest person I ever met, and my father one of the smartest. That put two categories of the jokes, one that the Polish are stupid and the other that they are dirty, into the realm of fantasy.
An eye doctor asks a Polack if he can read the chart that has the letters CZYNQSTASZ. “Read it?” the Polack replies, “that’s my last name.”
So what’s the harm of poking a little fun at ourselves?
I especially like the jokes that get to the heart of what it is to be Polish. To me that means being able to think outside the box, sometimes to the point of absurdity to the non-Polish viewer. To wit: A Polack settles into a dentist’s chair and says, “Doc, you got to help me, I think I’m a moth.” The dentist replies, “but sir I think you need to see a psychiatrist for that.” The man replies, “I know, but your light was on.”
As a kid, it was great to have parents who could think outside the box. While other kids were limited to normal, socially accepted activities, my siblings and I were free to do things other kids couldn’t even think about. When we wanted to dig a tiger pit in the back yard we were given shovels. When I got a notion to build an Indian Sweat Lodge under the picnic table Dad loaned me a tarp. When my brother built a crossbow in metals class, Dad set up a backstop by the garage so he could shoot it (and there’s still a hole in the wall made when the backstop proved to be hugely ineffective).
Being Polish also means looking past the aesthetic and traditional to what works. It’s one of the reasons I wear an orange hat. It’s not about looks or what people expect but about what works.
Twenty-odd years ago I had a sinus infection that would not go away, and the doctors recommended surgery. Loathe to get the old schnozzle Roto-Rootered, I read “The Sinus Survival Guide,” which suggested that keeping the head warm by wearing a hat was often enough to cure my malady. I marched down to Solon Hardware and came across the first of many orange hats. Do I look good in it? Who cares, my malady abated a couple days later and I’ve been breathing easy ever since.
How do you get a Polack out of a bathtub? Throw in a bar of soap.