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A Shout From The Attic: White Eagles

Ronnie Bray tells of a Polish exile who sought a better life in England after World War II - and of the night when two callow youths had an embarrassing encounter with White Eagle cigarettes.

For more chapters in Ronnie's life story please click on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page.

" Since the early 1800's when nicotine was first discovered, smoking has been considered a socially acceptable way of slowly killing one self, often in public. For many years it was considered perfectly normal for smokers to not only indulge
in a habit that slowly turned their lungs to carbon but to openly inflict the same fate on others by polluting the air with deadly nicotine poison...."


Michael was one of the Polish exiles after World War II who felt it safer to be in England than return to live under Communist rule in his native land. He was a nice man, generous with his time who enjoyed a good sense of humour. He was engaged, so he believed, to a girl who worked as a burler in the mending department. I don’t recall her name but she had long red hair and a temper to match, which she unleashed with regular ferocity on poor Michael. Little wonder, then, that Michael sought alternative diversion.

He lived at Halifax near Halifax General Hospital, in a stone built bay windowed terrace house as a lodger, and upset his landlady by storing a coffin in his bedroom. Apparently buying one’s coffin in anticipation of the inevitable visit of the grim reaper is an ancient Polish custom.

His landlady was obviously not Polish and saw something bizarre in the custom of this man from a far country that she had only heard of because of the depredations that country suffered during the War.

Thus it was, that when Peter and I accepted Michael’s invitation to accompany him to the pictures in Halifax one night that we had to wait outside in the dark and cold of a cheerless Halifax suburb after Michael appeared at the door at our sounding the door bell. His landlady did not like strangers waiting in her house, not even for a man who had his coffin stored upstairs.

Michael was just a little bit embarrassed at asking us to wait outside because he knew that in Poland the custom was to bring visitors and friends into the house, especially on cold, dark nights in inner city suburbs. Not that Halifax is a city, but you get the point.

To ameliorate our potential discomfort, which was swiftly realised, he handed each of us a cigarette and saying he would not be very long, disappeared back into the warm, light house. We looked at the slim cylinders under the flickering gas lamp and saw the splendid insignia of the Polish White Eagle in shimmering silver line on the paper sleeve. Somehow, the cigarettes in our hands eased our discomfort by elevating us into the ranks of adulthood, even manly adulthood.

Finding our matches from somewhere, we lit up, inhaling deeply in the damp street, and immediately and in concert erupting into fits of coughing.

“These are strong,” said Peter. I agreed as best I cold manage in between paroxysms of coughing alternating with very short and painful periods of breathing. They were not only very strong, as we persisted drawing on them under the street lamp, but they burned quite differently from English cigarettes. I had to fight for breath to get air through them and it was a losing battle.

Then, we noticed that the lit ends were glowing for about an inch instead of being glow-red only at the burning tip. A few more puffs and like lightning from the heavens we realised that in the dark and in our ignorance and in our efforts to look manly, we had put the wrong ends in our mouths and lit the hitherto unknown to us filter tips.

Hiding our ill-lit cigarettes under someone’s privet hedge, we became at least temporarily non-smokers. When Michael appeared we explained to him how much we had enjoyed his Polish cigarettes. Even though we were young and neither of us brought up with any great sense of formal social etiquette, we understood that Michael’s engagement to the ginger-haired girl was a burden that he could neither enjoy nor abandon, and so we had tender feelings for our kind friend.

His was a world of incomparable displacement from the world he knew when he entered the war as a young soldier in his Polish homeland. He could not return to his home, nor could he write, telephone, or otherwise contact his family for fear that the Communist government bring pressure to bear on his family because he was living free in the land of liberty.

He had a home, with a landlady who thought him odd, which he was not, well, not very, and a fiancée who expressed her love for him by berating him and demeaning him at every verse end. He needed a couple of friends even if they were half his age. Well, he had us and we treated him right. That is, except in regards to the gramophone records.

He very kindly lent me his few 78-rpm gramophone records including one by Teresa Brewer, Music, Music, Music! During the short time I had them to play on my magnificent three-part gramophone, I sat on one on the bed in the small attic. The brittle platter cracked and gave up the ghost. When I returned the records to him, I was too embarrassed to tell him. I had not yet learned that mistakes could be confessed, compensation made, and forgiveness obtained.

My childhood was characterised by a blame culture in which even the smallest error was met with condign chastisement. Michael was puzzled but did not press the loss. I am sure that he had suffered greater disappointments in his life and was not about to fuss over a record, even a hit record.

My time at Sykes and Tunnicliffe was short, lasting only three short months. Boredom with the job had set in, as it would with most of the many jobs I had, and it was time to move on. Moving on meant leaving Michael behind. We said an uncomfortable goodbye and I never heard anything of him since that day.

If he is still alive, he will be in his early eighties. I hope he found someone to love him better than did the red-haired burler with the irascible and explosive temper. Someone to treat him well, understand his darkness when he remembered his past, weep with him when he thought of home and his refugee flight that separated him from his family, and I hope that he managed to see them when things improved.

I wonder if he had children, perhaps a son called Michael who inherited his father’s gentle ways and simple trust, and who would smile to remember the coffin balancing on top of the wardrobe and laugh out loud at the thought of two of his father’s youthful friends lighting White Eagles from the wrong end one misty wet night under the guttering gaslight of a Northern street far from the lights of his beloved home.

If such a one there chance to be, “Here’s looking at you kid!” You had a great dad!


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