Workers, workaholics and why we must remember the reason for leisure this Labor Day and every weekend.
By Joseph Serwach
Flashback Cinema brings classics to theaters. A voice kept telling we needed to see “Top Gun.” You notice something new on the big screen even if you’ve seen it many times on video.
We were reminded the (now rare) combination of action, romance and patriotism made “Top Gun” the biggest film of 1986 and sent military recruitment numbers soaring to new records. As I watched the credits, I was reminded that two Michigan State men (Jim Cash and Jack Epps) wrote this beautiful story.
But then it hit me, something I’d never once noticed before: Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) gets all the attention (he is by far the quintessential American rebel character), breaking the rules, grabbing the glory and getting the girl. John McCain and Sarah Palin reveled in calling themselves “Mavericks,” going for that same pure patriotic rebel feeling.
But the best pilot and hardest worker (the hidden star of “Top Gun”) is his rival, Iceman.
And if you pay attention, you learn Iceman’s real name is Tom Kaczynski. Oh sure, it’s spelled and pronounced different ways online (Poles hide their original Polish names and non-Poles are happy to pretend we aren’t Polish) but it was obvious to a fresh review (if you really watch for it) that the best pilot and the true star and winner of “Top Gun” is the cocky blond-haired flyer, who just works and works.
Even if it’s left unsaid, the Iceman character truly is the quintessential Polish American worker.
Decades ago, at a Pennsylvania conference on ethnicity, we were taught that Poles are the ones who are always happy to work, who will climb down into a dark coal mine and silently pick at rocks all day or sweat in an auto factory (my Great Grandpa Alex Jamiolkowski did both). A disproportionate number of Poles have also been engineers, making rockets, whatever we need, they just work and work and work.
And here we see the Iceman, called “Iceman” cause he’s cold as ice, makes no mistakes and just gets you as soon as you slip up. During this exact same era, another blond Slavic character, Ivan Drago, was (by far) the most powerful boxer in the Rocky franchise, crushing all comers (killing Apollo Creed and causing irreparable damage to Rocky).
Sure, they were cast as the bad guys, but these blond Slavic men never, ever quit working. They were completely driven and mission focused, doing their job again and again without fail. They ate, breathed and slept their mission and kept going and going and going.
We all loved true Americans Maverick and Rocky but who would you rather hire as your top performer? Your guaranteed work horse to grow your organization? The guy who will just say “Will do’’ and get it done every time you assign him a task.
Iceman and Drago are your “go to’’ guys. Maverick and Rocky were great guys but they were also a little more maintenance, show horses more than workhorses. The blond Slavic guys are the ones who will labor their lives away for you.
The Drago character reappeared with a hard-fighting son in the latest Rocky aka “Creed II’’ film. Oh, and by the way, when they announced the latest sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick,” they announced that Iceman aka Val Kilmer will be back and guess who is directing? Joseph Kosinski. Yep, another Polish guy.
Poles pride themselves on working and working. Earlier this year, retired Michigan U.S. Rep. John Dingell (Dingell is an “Americanized’’ version of Dzieglewicz, meaning blacksmith) died after serving a record 59 years and 21 days in Congress. He succeeded his father and was succeeded by his wife so his immediate family has continuously held the seat since 1932. Meanwhile, Elmer Zurakowski of nearby Warren, set his own record: retiring from General Motors after a record 67 years, the highest seniority hourly employee in GM history.
Poor Iceman gets no girl, gets less glory but he wins the “Top Gun” trophy and, in fact, is the leader for most of the film, the guy to beat. The best of the best. And he befriends and aligns with Maverick at the end, again that Catholic Polish teaching of praying for enemies and those who persecute you.
What thanks did he get? Val Kilmer, who played Iceman, is universally derided as the worst Batman in the history of Batman films while Tom Cruise has remained a mega star ever since coming to fame in “Risky Business” in 1983.
Soon after/watch, I heard the news of Peter Strzok trying to get his job back with the FBI. If you watch “Hannity” or “Fox and Friends” or listen to “Rush Limbaugh,” you’ve heard Strzok portrayed as the “crooked cop” as someone who managed to be at the heart of every major FBI investigation making major news. Almost as if he was the main “go to guy’’ on every big case?
Strzok’s constant texts with his girlfriend (a lot of texts but mostly about their thoughts about work) dominated the news for month after month. Finally, he was pushed out and how does he respond? By retiring? No, he wants to get back to work! My parents (both 76) still work every day so working and working seems to be a Polish thing.
I remember inviting my daughter Jenny the lawyer to Poland for World Youth day and she looked at me like I was a fool and said “Dad, I can’t go anywhere. I have to work.” She is her firm’s top producing associate. Why do Poles like working so much?
“Our work helps complete God’s work,’’ Venerable Stefan Wyszyński explained. “God has assigned to us a certain section of work… that we might go and bring back fruit… Tiny and insignificant achievements can make us great, while great ones, if they are badly performed, can degrade us… The lowest work can, through love, raise one to the heights of holiness…’’
So it is fitting for us to remember the meaning and value of work as we approach Labor Day and to keep this in mind when we return to our work.
But it is equally important to remember why holidays — and other breaks from work — are times of leisure. Josef Pieper argued we work in order to enjoy our times of leisure, whose spiritual focus on God made this time the “basis of culture.’’ Workaholics, including many of the Catholic clergy and religious we serve, can lose their sense of culture, their roots and purpose.
A good shared meal, Pieper argued, offers “a spiritual or even a religious character… the heart of leisure consists in ‘festival’… celebration and festival are the heart of leisure… And this is worship… If someone needs the ‘unusual’ to be moved to astonishment, that person has lost the ability to respond rightly to the wondrous, the mirandum, of being.’’