Today was “All Saint’s” day at church. This is the communion service remembering those who’ve died in the past year. I want to pay homage to three people, Michael Kobek, Betty Anderson and Nana Ginn. Tonight I’ll tell you about Michael Kobek.
In September I received notice that my Uncle Mike died. I thought my Aunt Jan and Uncle Mike were most glamorous people in our family. Uncle Mike was my Aunt Jan’s second husband, and my Aunt Jan was my Dad’s youngest sister. They led a colorful life which enthralled me but left my dad cold and unimpressed.
Mike was a big guy in height and personality, but not as big as the dreams he envisioned. The “next thing” he and Aunt Jan were involved in was always going to, “pay off big”, whether it was selling patchwork leather purses from Mexico at Lake Tahoe or learning the secrets to beating the house at Caesar’s. It was always just a matter of time until they “hit it big”.
I saw Jan and Mike as they frequently drove from (the then sleepy little town) San Jose to the weekend get-away cabin between Clipper Mills and La Porte in the Sierra Nevada’s; or on their way to Lake Tahoe and the casinos. I was dazzled by the fact they lived in San Francisco, worked for companies that made digital watches and calculators, by their clothes, their alcohol, and their jokes.
My Uncle Mike. He was SO funny. He was quick with the one liners and always poking fun at himself because he was a Pollack. Only he wasn’t really one. Back in the 70’s a common way to slam someone was to call them a “Pollock”. He turned that ethnic slam around every chance he got. I’m not sure which was funnier, this clearly brilliant man claiming to be impaired by his heritage or the way he’d deliver his lines and the look on his face. Even more funny was when his sister Paulene, and her husband Ken, were at the cabin too. Without fail, Paulene would say, “Michael Kobek! We are not Polish and you know it! Stop saying that!” Then everyone would laugh.
Mike was also wicked smart at playing Cribbage. Of course, anyone who knows how to play a hand and mark points on the Cribbage board is a genius to me since it is well documented I cannot count to 15. Or 21. Or 31. Much less figure out what the hell a “go” is. He was always so amazed that I didn’t want to join in the game with all of them. Everyone, including my cousins, knew how to play. “Come on Mit, you can do this,” he’d say. “We’ll play one hand for practice, then you’ll beat me.” Without fail, he’d spot every 15, 21, and 31 combination in my hand and patiently try to help me discover them. After the practice hand, he’d beat me soundly. I always felt it pained him to take advantage of my inability to count to 15 (which was a complete mystery to him). You’d think after the first time or two he’d give up. But he never did. He always offered to let me sit in on any game.
My Aunt Jan and Uncle Mike claimed to be avid fishermen too. I remember them having rods and reels but I don’t ever remember them landing a fish or bringing one back to the cabin. What I do remember the sound the ’32 Wiley’s Jeep made as Uncle Mike drove it. “Ying-ying-ying” the engine would sing as it slowly crawled up and down steep canyon trails towards the creeks where the fishing was best.
As I look back on it now, I think fishing was just an excuse for Uncle Mike to have Happy Hour and an audience gathered around to hear his outlandish stories and jokes. We’d gather off the back of the cabin on the screened-in porch, warming ourselves with the last rays of afternoon sun before the cool evening mountain air made long pants and jackets mandatory. The porch railing looked out over a dense stand of Ponderosa pines which hid the mountain road below. Occasionally over the laughter and jokes we could hear the whine of a big rig down-shifting as it approached the Gold Cup Restaurant and Lounge.
I’m not sure why I was allowed to stay out there with the men while the women were inside gossiping and getting dinner ready, but I was. My guess is because even back then, everyone knew how much I loved to hear a good story and would ask for specific ones to be repeated again and again until I could tell them myself.
Mike always drank … something … amber colored with three ice-cubes. Although I don’t remember what his drink of choice was, I can, with absolute clarity, describe the glass for you. It was a clear insulated tumbler, with a brilliant salt-water fly suspended between double layers of plastic. It always had three ice cubes in it. When his drink would get low, he’d hold the glass out and clink the ice-cubes together. Then he’d wait a minute. If the laughter in the kitchen didn’t stop, he’d rattle them a little louder. Sometimes the ice wasn’t noisy enough and he’d have to call Jan’s attention to the sound.
“Ya hear that Jan?” clink, clink, clink went the ice cubes.
“Jan! There’s a problem! I can hear the ice clinking in my glass!” he holler.
Good naturedly Aunt Jan would yell out to the porch, “What’s that you said Michael Kobek? I can’t hear you over your ice cubes!”
“Clearly that’s the problem! If my glass HAD.A.DRINK.IN.IT, you couldn’t hear them!” Amid much laughter the glass was retrieved by Jan, replenished with “the nectar of life” and for a while the ice cubes did not interrupt the story-telling.
I always suspected my Uncle Mike had a temper. But I never saw it. I knew he was not someone you’d want to make mad. And it seemed to me no one would ever “mess” with him. But I never thought about that aspect of his personality. To me, he was just this big guy, full of laughter, silly one-liner jokes, and a flirtatious line for the little girl with the big blue eyes.
It wasn’t until I read his obituary that I learned there was a whole ‘nother person out there.
“Michael proudly served as a Marine in both WW II with the 2nd Marine Division and in the Korean War. He participated in five actions during WW II including Tarawa, Saipan, where he was wounded in action, Tinian, Okinawa and Nagasaki, Japan. He ended his active duty as a drill instructor at Camp Lejeune in 1950.”
With these sentences a new Uncle Mike stepped into my life. A Drill Instructor! I don’t think any of us knew about that. It’s true – he had a tattoo on his arm. But I don’t recall him ever once mentioning the service or the time he served in it. Looking back I appreciate how gentle and careful he was to make sure his size and demeanor never scared me. How he never once snapped at me even though I was the youngest of the cousins and always underfoot. I feel a little closer to him knowing he too lived here in North Carolina before returning to California.
There are other fond stories and memories I have of my Uncle Mike. The “To-do-do” tubes, the round-to-its, and going to, “The Clup because it was too late to go to the Cleek”. But really – those stories are best heard over a glass of Scotch with three ice cubes.
March 18, 1925 - July 28, 2008
SOUTH BEND - Michael Kobek, 83, of South Bend, IN, passed away July 28, 2008. He was born March 18, 1925, in South Bend, IN, to Michael and Helen Kobek. They preceded him in death along with two brothers, Alex and Walter; and three sisters, Mary, Paulene and Jenny Kobek. Mike was a proud graduate of South Bend Washington High School where he played football for the Washington Panther State Champions under Coach Bernie Witucki. He is survived by one sister, Helen Toth of South Bend, and an extended loving family. Michael proudly served as a Marine in both WW II with the 2nd Marine Division and in the Korean War. He participated in five actions during WW II including Tarawa, Saipan, where he was wounded in action, Tinian, Okinawa and Nagasaki, Japan. He ended his active duty as a drill instructor at Camp Lejeune in 1950. Known for being an "outdoorsman," Michael owned and operated a tour and fishing guide service on the Klamath River in Klamath, CA, until his return to South Bend.