Writer David McGrath Remembers A Special Veteran From His Life
Eddie Cichowski had big dreams. He was good looking and well built, resembling a youthful Charles Bronson. His father owned a gas station on 30th and LaSalle, where Al Capone's bootleggers reportedly fueled some of their trucks every week.
A student at DeLaSalle High School, Eddie was a standout defensive end on their highly ranked football team. More than one Catholic League coach thought he might have a future in George Halas's National Football League.
But Eddie's future was yanked into a different direction after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Eddie was drafted into the army and trained as an infantryman before he was shipped to an American base in Great Britain. He kept hope alive as a member of a traveling all star football squad made up of American G.I.'s Following D-Day, the football squad got their marching orders, and Eddie joined the brigade that stormed into Germany to force Adolf Hitler's surrender and end the war.
Eddie was anticipating resuming pursuit of his dream deferred. But in 1945 during a routine night patrol despite the armistice, he was ambushed by a Nazi sniper. Eddie was shot in the legs with a high caliber bolt action rifle.
He sailed home to return to normal living. But never again to football. Back in Chicago, Eddie met a girl and discovered that love is the greatest healer of them all. He got a job at a manufacturing plant on south Western Ave., where it didn't take long before he was promoted to the front office as sales manager.
His was a different dream now, the one he had fought to preserve for all Americans: to build a home, settle in, and start his own family Eddie bought a diamond ring, his mother ironed his best white shirt, and he walked out the door to go and ask for the hand of the woman he loved.
My mother, who is Eddie's big sister, said he was back home, within an hour. Alone.
She remembered his incredulous laugh while bravely admitting that the woman he loved would not take the ring. How she said that he was a fine boy, but that she could never marry a Catholic and the son of a gas station owner. Her family would disown her.
Eddie never asked another woman to marry him. Each day after work, he'd sit at the same stool at Shaw's tavern. Some nights the bartender would phone my Uncle Don, his younger brother, to come and take him home.
Weekends, he would arrive at our house early. He'd pass the time briefly with my mother, but he seemed more comfortable with me and my 5 brothers, watching TV or tossing a football.
He never talked about the war. Rather, he seemed to enjoy our fatuous banter and bravado: Jimmy and Kevin's schemes to get rich. Pat's bragging about the Green Bay Packers. Kenneth's high scoring exploits on St. Bernadette's basketball team. Charlie and I would argue over who was best at arm wrestling, and Uncle Eddie would take out his cigarettes, light one, and get very quiet. Likely transported elsewhere, where there was roar of a crowd, or the face of a girl.
When he retired, he moved to Florida, but kept in touch and was generous till the end, helping my parents through hard times, and me and all my brothers through school.
We saw him a month before he died, gray and huffing, grimacing from the pain in his back and his legs.
I think of Uncle Eddie every Veteran's Day. I pull out the faded British news photo of him and his fellow all stars. Some never came back. Others, like Eddie, survived to see their dreams shattered, their flames extinguished. Embracing the hurt in silence and dignity, so that the rest of us can continue to dream.