Charlie Ignas

On this Labor Day I remember Charlie (Chollie) Ignas, who worked for SEPTA for a very long time and raised eight children in a cramped rowhouse with his wife Janie. At least two of his children served their nation; some married and bought homes and raised children of their own; some are probably wanderers. During WWII, Chollie worked in the naval shipyard, pushing asbestos into the crannies of submarines and destroyers, which led to his death from mesothelioma in the ’80’s, within two years of his retirement.

I saw him the week before he died, lying in a bed set up in the livingroom. He was one of the most social men I’ve ever known; loved his wife, loved his kids, tons of friends, a union man. His daughter told me that, when the union went on strike, it was hot dogs and beans and bread every night for the duration of the strike. A union pension provided for his wife Janie after his death that was comfortable enough for her to take up living again and traveling to see her children who had pushed out from their east coast origins. As I remember them, they were a volatile, curious, opinionated, inventive bunch. They were half-russian, half-irish.

Chollie was wiry and jumpy and laughed a lot and talked a lot. Lying there, his appearance was shocking. I had never seen a person so close to dying from cancer. His hair was a halo of shocking white above his face which was little more than bone covered with skin. His eyes were the most amazing, intense blue and Chollie was alive.

This man and his family, for me, are what the United States is about. Both Chollie and Janie were first generation. They had kids, served their nation, worked in jobs that paid a wage that provided for a home (even if it was modest) and a pension to provide for illness and retirement. This is the backbone of the U.S.

He gave me a harmonica. It’s one of my most treasured possessions.

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