Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.
U.S. Army, World War II, Battle of the Bulge
Medals and Awards: World War II Victory medal, European Theater Campaign, African American Medal, Good Conduct
Married: Delphine (Polasik) at St. Hedwig's Catholic Parish
Children: Robert, presently a television announcer in Idaho; and Donald, a medical physician
Al Przytula was born the son of Steven and Marie Przytula on Feb. 27, 1919, at Dunkirk's Brooks Memorial Hospital. The Przytula family made their home in Dunkirk's Fourth Ward, which is located on the south side of the main railroad tracks that divide Dunkirk in half. They resided in a large home at 309 Nevins St. Still, things were crowded, with 10 people living at home. Things were hectic with everyone trying to get ready for school or work in the mornings at the same time. Przytula was never alone in their home: sisters Julia, Helen, Genevieve, Shirley, and Lilian, along with brothers Peter and John, all rushed to be the next ones in or out the door.
Przytula's father Steven worked for the American Locomotive Co. as a hammer smith, whose duties included pounding various newly-poured molds into devices used for running locomotive engines. Working for the ALCO company was a good job. For the time, working conditions were relatively safe, and most employees could claim fair wages. The pay there was better than that of many other surrounding companies, and workers felt they had job security. For the Przytula family, there was food on the table, the house was warm and dry in the winter months, and each year, Przytula remembers that he got a new set of clothes to wear to church on Easter Sunday.
Easter was one of Przytula's favorite seasons. It meant going to Fredonia to gather all the new apples from the trees at his uncle's that had fallen in the wind, later to be made into juice and applesauce. Easter time also meant going in the woods to find segments of apple, cherry and hickory wood. On Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, this wood would be used to smoke Polish and Italian sausage, along with ham quarters cut to fit the smoking racks. In those days, smoking houses were common. They were built of brick with wooden doors and had iron racks or hooks for hanging meat or fish. These were often fired up during hunting season and for special occasions.
Easter also meant that Przytula could eat candy again - it was his favorite, and he would give it up for Lent every years, going without it for 40 days. On Easter morning, Przytula would look in the back of his sock drawer to find three Hershey bars.
After Easter, the days steadily got warmer, and the spring mud began to dry up in the ball fields. The grass turned from brown to yellow to green. Przytula could smell summer in the air.
And even though school may have been out for the year, church was not. The Przytulas were a devout family, and Sundays saw them sitting in a pew at St. Hedwig's. The 7 a.m. mass was always full, because the sermon was given in Polish. For most parishioners, their mass was only complete when spoken in Polish.
Przytula grew up with friends Andrew Serifan, Stanley Zblock, and Felix Pitwiesr. The group was often seen at the WMCA field off of Nevins Street, playing baseball. They would also spend time at the fish hut located behind the old Loblaw's Store. They swam at the NMP swamp, a body of water where the steam station was later built. In the fall, there was football and small game hunting.
During this time, kids like Przytula often got up to mischief. One common activity was greasing the railroad tracks so the trains would have to come to a complete stop, reverse off the grease, and start back up slowly in order to get through the city at legal speeds. This gave kids the time to jump on the trains, knock coal out of the cars, and come back later with burlap bags to collect it. For some kids, this was fun, but for others, the coal provided much-needed heat for needy families in the winter.
More troublemaking was accomplished with used rye. This was leftover from making moonshine. The boys would gather the used rye, climb up on rooftops, and line the chimney with it. This would cause harmless smoke to back up into homes. There was no real damage, and this prank brought a lot of laughs when done at friends' homes during parties.
When Przytula was a teenager, the rule was that no factory work should be taken away from the married men or men over age 18. This wasn't an official law; it was a social law, and most followed it. Przytula respected this, and started work as a farm helper picking fruits and vegetables. He did this mostly on Berry Road, a half mile from Van Buren Road. Przytula worked all he could at the farms, and when his time came, he started putting in applications on his 18th birthday.
Przytula's first job meant traveling each day to Angola, where he landed a position with the bicycle factory. His friend Stan Serifan was also employed there. They were in luck when they found that two other men from Dunkirk worked at the bicycle factory. The four teamed up to carpool, taking turns driving to Angola. When the group figured their expenses for the week, it turned out that it would cost them a total of $1 in gas, enough for 6 gallons. This is just what they needed to get to Angola and back five days a week. This may sound cheap compared to prices of today, but at the time the men were making only 15 cents an hour for eight hours a day. That's a total of $1.20 per day and $6 per week - before taxes. The bicycles the men made were sold by the Sears and Roebuck company.
Przytula found out that Alleghany Ludlum was looking for floor laborers, a job that was designed to fill the spots of people who did not show up for work. It was a great way to get more work experience. Przytula ended his bicycle career and now was in the steel production business.
At that time, Saturday nights meant barn dances. The guys would hitch rides to get to Pete's barn dance out in Arkwright. Admission was 25 cents; it helped chip in for the band. Dancers brought their own drinks, and homemade wine could be purchased for 25 cents a quart. While you were at Pete's, you behaved like a gentleman. Girls always came in by the carful, and they always left in the same cars they came in. The nights were beautiful, the barns were clean and the music was real. The men's room was behind the barn near the big old oak tree!
On Dec. 7, 1941, life changed for the United States and its young men. Like all American males, Przytula rolled up his sleeves and got ready to pick up a rifle and start shooting Japanese soldiers. This 22 year-old was told to go home and wait to be called, we the United States were not ready to jump into battles yet.
We were not prepared for war; we were making refrigerators and televisions while Japan and Germany were making tanks and battleships. We needed time.
NEXT WEEK: Part two.