Shaping A Fighter

By Drew Curran

When I was fifteen I went to Poland for a month-long physical therapy program. Most weekends we went on a trip somewhere because I only had therapy at the center on Saturday mornings. Sometimes the center took us to other cities in Poland. We went to Berlin by ourselves. It was only about five hours by train over the border into Germany. When we went to Gdansk, a city in Poland, I remember it was pretty commonplace. We went on a tour bus and the translators from the center were showing us around. At the time, the current Catholic Pope was John Paul II, who used to be the Archbishop of Krakow, so the whole country seemed to be very proud of him. 

The first thing we did on the tour was go to admire The Royal Chapel in Gdansk. As we were looking around, a mass began. I asked my mom what language they were speaking and she said she thought it was Latin and when they switched over to Polish she said I think they’re speaking Polish now. I remember this particular moment because it was the first time I had ever heard a mass in Latin before. This would become important to me when I became a leader of the youth group years later. The other thing that I remember about that trip was that we had dinner at McDonalds. This was significant because it was the first thing I liked to eat from home in many weeks.

The next weekend after our trip to Gdansk, we went by ourselves on the train to Berlin. I remember the train car was old and dirty, but to tell you the truth, the Long Island Railroad used to be the same way. Shortly after we got on this train, an old man, about eighty, came up to me, grabbed my hand, and put his forehead on my hand and started praying in Polish. My mother, who was right next to me, was very alarmed by this because she knew how much I hated people doing this to me. People usually didn’t touch me as much as this man was now doing. My mother then frantically shooed him away and said “Thank you, thank you but we don’t do that”. I looked at his face and I could tell he was annoyed. This was one of the most memorable times, when someone thought that if they prayed for me, something was going to happen.

This uncomfortable situation still occurs with random people. Frequently, the older generation come up to me at a restaurant or train station and want to pray for me. Now I approach it a little differently than I did back then. I try to explain that I’m a Christian as well and if they want to pray for me I would welcome it. I would rather pray with them and not just be a passive recipient of their prayers. I also tell them about my work in the Catholic church with high school kids. They are usually shocked and amazed by this. Some of them are even shocked and amazed when I open my mouth to speak. I have to admit, I get a little kick out of how shocked they are. While I believe very strongly in the power of prayer, I think it works best when you do it with people you know in a somewhat private setting, which is also the Catholic Church’s belief. However, I have read about some miracles that have happened in public forums, like Lourdes and other places around the world. When older people come up to me, I feel that this is just a necessary thing I have to go through from time to time. If I felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to go up and pray with somebody, I wouldn’t want the person to stop me either. However, I must say, I would never do that. To this day, it is still annoying for me.

When we were returning on the train from Berlin, we decided to go on the night train. We had done this one time before without incident, however, this time we upgraded our tickets to a sleeping car. The train left at one o’clock in the morning and would arrive into Koszalin at five a.m. It was only a short ride to the rehab center where we were staying. On that night my mom decided to sleep on one seat and I decided to sleep on the other with my manual chair in the middle, as there was nobody else in the compartment with us.

I slept soundly that night which is a rarity for me. When my mom woke me up, I could tell she was a little frazzled. I didn’t know why. She was hurrying to get me into my chair and out of the compartment as the train was pulling into the station. I saw her go over to a trash can and throw out two of her sweaters. I thought this was very odd because she was only wearing a tee shirt. I said to her when she came back, “Why did you do that? Won’t you be very cold?” She said, “Don’t worry about it, honey.” We proceeded to get into the taxi. She told me weeks later, on the plane home from Poland, that someone had broken into the compartment that night and tried stealing the money belt that my mother wore around her waist. She said that the person must have used sleeping gas on us because they had taken a knife to the two layers of her clothing to get to her money belt. It was a clean slice through bulky sweaters and yet, not through the skin- colored money belt or her stomach. Despite this, she didn’t wake up. Understandably, she didn’t want to scare me by telling me at that time.

When I was a young teenager, I had a fear of the Nazis. I was so horrified by the Holocaust and all the terrible things they did. When we were coming out of the church in Poland there was a swastika spray painted onto the stone on the side of the church. Being a kid, I didn’t realize that there are people that still agree with the Nazis. Of course, I was fearful for the rest of the day. That night, my mom sat down with me and explained there were some that still were supporting Nazi ideas. She reassured me that most Germans were kind and generous.

The next weekend was when we went to Berlin. We stayed in the Hilton Hotel, I had never stayed in such a fancy hotel before. My mom didn’t care for the part of Poland where I had therapy, but she loved staying at the Hilton Hotel. That night in Berlin was very cold. We traveled around to see the city a bit. The next day we went to the National German History Museum. A large section of the museum was dedicated to the original Checkpoint Charlie. I enjoyed this very much because I’ve always loved history. Now that I’m older, I appreciate it even more. I remember the museum exhibited a car that was used in the 60’s and 70’s to smuggle people into West Germany. The car, a Volkswagen Bug, had a regular cab in the front. The engine was in the rear and there appeared to be a usual storage compartment in the front. However, when you opened the trunk and pulled up the floor, there was a somewhat spacious compartment where a person could lay while being transported to freedom. The secret compartment was, of course, for when the cars would be inspected by the border guards at the checkpoint. There were people that got caught because if the person moved or coughed while the guard was inspecting the car, he would catch and arrest the person who was in the trunk and the driver.

The actual Checkpoint Charlie was unremarkable to me. It is in the middle of the Berlin Wall and it looked like a toll booth. What it consisted of is just a booth with a bar across the road so that drivers would have to stop at the checkpoint before proceeding. When I saw it, I remember telling my mom that it was surprising that a whole section of the museum was dedicated to such a small booth.

We took a tram to get back to our hotel. It had blue seats and big windows all around the compartment. It had three cars that were very clean and was the longest tram I had ever been on. An elegant blonde girl wearing a beret and a black outfit and a guy with a mohawk and a leather jacket sat right across from us. They seemed like any other couple sitting on the tram, but they weren’t. Right after we entered the compartment, the man started speaking loudly to his girlfriend in German. I couldn’t understand them. The girl started arguing with the man soon after. At this point, the man was looking directly at me and yelling. I didn’t have any clue what was happening but thankfully the tram stopped and we got off. Unfortunately, so did the angry man and his girlfriend. I looked back and saw he made a face and then turned around. Only then did I notice his brown military pants and boots. After two or three minutes my mom calmed down. I then asked her what the heck just happened. Mom said the man was a neo-Nazi and from what she could gather he didn’t like that I was on the tram. He must have felt strongly about it because the girlfriend was arguing with him to not do anything to me. When I saw them get off the tram, she was trying to lead him away by the arm.

Later, when I was in eleventh grade, I was still fascinated and horrified by the Nazis and how they were able to accomplish their atrocities. I no longer had an irrational fear that they were going to come and do something to me. In May of that year a Holocaust survivor spoke at my school. He said that the disabled people were the first group that the Nazis perfected the gas chambers on. He also told us of other unspeakable experiments they performed on disabled people. Thank God I didn’t know this piece of information when I had the encounter with the Neo-Nazi in Berlin, because that incident might have scarred me for life.

This is part of the reason I always try to remain politically active and stand up for everybody’s individual rights. I want to live in a world where our society is as peaceful as it can be. I know this is a lofty goal, but I think I have a responsibility to spend my life helping to work towards it.

5 January, 2023