It was not supposed to be this way. I was supposed to grow up in San Antonio, Texas, where my dad was stationed at Fort Sam Houston. But when my mom was hospitalized in critical condition, emergency measures kicked in. The steps in that journey are an adventure story for another telling, but when the dust had settled, my dad had come back from Korea and helped us resettle in the house my mom grew up in, in McCandless Township, Pennsylvania.
And so I spent one of my Wonder Years on what was then a country road in Pennsylvania, and my brother learned the fight song of “North Allegheny Joint Schools,” a name which does not have quite the same ring as “Granby High.”
Memories, and especially early childhood memories, can be chaotic, random things. Why do we remember this, and not that? Why is the smell of the dirt under that one house preserved dark and deep in memory, while the face of that one teacher has evaporated? One of my quirkily-saved memories of Grampa Michalko is the biceps game. He would “make a muscle,” and my job was to try to squish it. I always failed. I also remember the movements of his Adam’s apple and the feel of his whiskers. It was fascinating: in a place where my skin was smooth, his was like sandpaper.
His story, decades before I came along, is a story of two worlds and hard work. Sometime around 1909, his father, Jan Michalko, a shepherd in what is now Slovakia, came to the States to earn some money. Later he returned and paid back everyone who had lent him money for the journey. (In 1973, when my family visited the ancestral village of Liptovsky Mikulas, people still spoke highly of this unexpected act of integrity.) A few years later, he undertook a second sea-voyage to the States with his wife and four sons, the eldest of whom was my Grampa Michalko.
Grampa’s dad settled in Coraopolis, a town west of Pittsburgh. Many of my fond childhood memories are of visits with them and the extended family there in Coraopolis. There were not only aunts and uncles and cousins, but Grampa’s four siblings and their kids. And over the years, especially at large picnics, even more distant relatives were added to the circle. And mountains of food would appear, including potato dumplings called halušky, filled sweet buns (buchty), round rolls with filling (kolače), stuffed dumplings (knedle), Slovak crepes (palacinky), and one of my favorites, rhubarb pie. As my dad soon discovered, it was dangerous to eat freely at one house, because you would be invited to another house, and then another house—and wonderful delicacies would be pressed on you at each one.
Many strong memories of my grandfather are related to his home. At one time I felt guilty about how much of my connection with the man was shaped by my connection to the place. But as I think about it, this was an important way that my grandfather blessed me. For all of us grandparents, our grandblessing includes this act of opening up to the grandchild a different world. We enrich the grandchild by being the portal to a place that is (hopefully) safe, yet distinct from the home they spend most of their time in. We are the stepping stone to the broader world where they will encounter even more outlandish things, such as (in my childhood) one friend chatting with a sibling in a private baby-language, another being comfortable with the smell of garlic, and a third eating pancakes at night.
So in my memory, I tour my grandfather’s house. Just as I remember his biceps, I remember his sledgehammers. I accompanied him once on a trip to his shed. I have never been in another building in my life that smelled quite like it, a smell of moisture, mildew, wood and oil. And right outside the door, the smell of spruce needles. Against one wall stood a set of hammers, arranged from small to large, including some I could barely lift off the floor with both hands. And here was a thing called a vice, a machine of miraculous import: a device designed by adults, apparently for the express purpose of crushing.
Outside the garage stretched a stone wall that was always full of chipmunks. Grampa Michalko’s house was a haven of furry creatures: the chipmunks that popped out from their burrows in the driveway-wall, the raccoons that mined in the trash cans at night, the deer that left their prints in the snow near the garden.
Grampa’s house was where I first grew curious about gardens and how they worked. There I first tasted a crabapple— a couple seconds before spitting. There I swung on a swing that hung from the branch of a tree that bore actual plums. There I saw the airy antennae of asparagus. There I could break off and suck on a stalk of puckering pink rhubarb. There I could step out the door, from the living branch pluck raspberries and blueberries, feel them in my fingers warmed by the summer sun, and crush them into happiness on my tongue. But in living among the berries—not just buying them in a store—along with the sweet rush of flavor came the awareness that berries meant struggle. The raspberries were spreading not only their magical smell; they were always straining to fill in the pathways and take over the yard. The blueberries, bright under their netting, were always being invaded by the hungry birds. My pleasure in this paradise was possible through Grampa’s vigilance.
Some of the things most vividly imprinted in memory from our time in Grampa’s house involved the element of danger: specifically, Front Yard Danger.
The front yard fell steeply to a two-lane highway called Ingomar Road. One winter night there was a severe ice storm, and the snow in the front yard turned to a shiny, hard sheet of ice. You could bash through the glaze to the soft snow underneath, to make a handhold or toehold. But to boys deprived of snow-axes, whether you did this with gloves or with rubber boots, it hurt. Nevertheless, to the truly determined explorer, an expedition was possible. (After five minutes, my brother and I imagined we were on the side of Everest.) And yet, if at any point you lost your grip, you were a dead man—doomed to slide all the way down, and then right into the middle of the highway, where a Mack truck would finish you off.
I think we did a little cautious sliding, accidentally at first, and I think one of us slipped halfway down, and had a slow and uncertain climb back up. Someone may have had the brilliant idea of inching sideways to the driveway, which was well-sprinkled with salt and cinders. But for sure it was high adventure on Ingomar Road that day.
On another occasion, this time in the fall, we started bowling fallen apples down the lawn to the highway. Someone (probably me) had the idea of timing the apples to come up underneath passing cars. Wouldn’t those drivers get a surprise! We had a couple of successes, and then, after the third delicious chassis-bonk, the driver pulled over onto the shoulder and got out of the car. By the time his door opened we were already hidden in a ditch. Would he sprint up the hill and beat the daylights out of us? Of course we didn’t dare look. After a few seconds he yelled some threats, starting with, “I know you’re up there…” After a moment, we heard him drive off. The emotion this triggered was a strange blend of “I am the victor” and “I am the villain.”
But on to the house itself. It had a basement. Our little house in San Antonio didn’t, so this was almost as good as a magic wardrobe. One of the treasures in the basement was a stash of vinyl floor-tile: stacks of squares for which a kid could find all kinds of recreational uses. There were mysteries down there so fascinating that, not long after our arrival, a portion of the basement was fenced off. This security project of Grampa’s was for the benefit of grandchildren who had been showing symptoms of Untoward Curiosity.
The house possessed yet another magical wardrobe: the attic. At that young age Grampa Michalko’s attic was the mustiest space I had ever entered and inhaled. It was full of mysteries, but the greatest of all was an enormous, indestructible-looking steamer trunk, complete with hangers and drawers—a kind of portable palace. I’ve never seen a piece of luggage to compare with it. Did it make the 1909 ocean voyage from Slovakia, along with my grandfather?
In that house, we encountered new adventures even in the daily offices of eating and drinking. The water smelled and tasted powerfully of sulfur. (This was true of a number of homes in the Pittsburgh area, as I recall.) I remember that smell in the bathtub, in the sink, in the cup. I think my grandparents sometimes used a citrus concentrate called Lemon Blennd to mask that all-pervasive flavor.
Other taste-memories are joyful. Grandma made her own blueberry ice-cream from our own blueberries. At a tender age, I was imprinted with this insight: Wonderful gifts can come from the soil, through the work of people you know and love.
In 1971, we did an extraordinary thing: My nuclear family (six of us) drove in a grand circle through North America: Virginia to Mississippi to California to British Columbia and back. It was the adventure of a lifetime, and we did it with Grandma and Grampa Michalko. As we made our way through campground after campground, state park after state park, Grampa would help with driving and making camp, and would normally buy the meat for supper. Since he was a butcher, his standards were high.
Every family that has (as the cop shows say) means and opportunity, should consider a three-generation family trip.
When I was in high school, in response to one of my many questions about Slovak language and culture, Grampa said this to me: “Keith, there’s something you need to know. When I was growing up, it was not cool to be ethnic.”
That is the struggle my grandfather faced as a boy and a young man growing up in the America that I took for granted as a place of easy welcome. For his courage, which laid the foundation for my boyhood security, I feel admiration. For that, and for all the ways he let me be with him, and for enabling me, during 18 years in Russia, to frequently pass as a local, I say: Ďakujem. Thank you.
Grampa Michalko and
me trying to look as cool as him
 Mail delivery was from Wexford, PA. Thanks to my Aunt Marilyn for correcting the geography here.
 The longer, older form of the village’s name meant ‘Saint Nicholas.’ The first word, Liptovsky, set it apart from other Saint Nick towns: it was the one in the Liptov region.
 Another one of the dangers of the place involved the neighbor boy, who was the first bully I ever met (not counting a lonely short-term kidnapper in San Antonio who inflicted no physical pain). The Ingomar bully came over one day with his friend—both of them three or four years older than us—and fairly soon had me pinned, giving me my very first noogy.
 What word did he actually use there? Could it possibly have been “cool”? Maybe with his lips scrunched in the visible equivalent of scarequotes? Or did he say “fashionable”? Was it “popular”?
 A struggle I understood a little better when I read a novel tracing three generations of Slovak immigrants, called Out of This Furnace.