Southern People

Author’s Note: I wrote this feature as a tribute to my Uncle Joe. Today he is 93 and suffers moments when his memory isn’t quite what it once was. He’s the smartest man I ever met and also a gentleman of impeccable manners. I wrote this profile of sorts in hopes that seeing it in my hometown newspaper might bring him a bright moment. Joe lived and worked in Atlanta for a long time. Perhaps some readers will recognize his name.

My Uncle Joe Blonsky

Joseph E. Blonsky, U.S. Air Force
Joseph E. Blonsky, U.S. Air Force

There’s an advertisement on TV that features quite a character, “the world’s most interesting man.” This intriguing fellow promotes Dos Equis beer, and he’s done just about anything you can think of. He’s fictitious, of course, the creation of an ad agency. You’ve seen the guy. “Stay thirsty, my friend.”

Well, real life serves up unforgettable people who quietly accomplish great things and it’s my privilege to know a most interesting man who’s always a gentleman, my Uncle Joe Blonsky.

Joe would become a first-generation American, inventor, and pilot. Those deeds alone represent a world of change spanning two continents; change the likes of which few people see.

Son Of A Warrior

Joseph Edward Blonsky was born March 11, 1918, in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, to Paul and Mary Pronckevage Blonsky. His parents had immigrated to Pennsylvania from the Old World. He had three brothers, John, August, and Anthony, and two sisters, Helen and Alberta. Only Alberta survives.

His father, a Cossack, served in the light cavalry in the army of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Uncle Joe’s family came from Lithuania, the largest of the Baltic States, a state situated along the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea.

The Blonskys joined a large influx of Italians, Poles, and Lithuanians who came to Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, in the late 1890s and early 1900s. The Lithuanians who immigrated to this country missed the eventual occupation of their country by the Soviet Union and then Nazi Germany before the Soviet Union reclaimed it.

A Life Of Mining Coal

You can search the world over and you will not find another community named Tamaqua. It’s singular, this town in the Appalachian Mountains set in Pennsylvania’s coal region. Anthracite coal is plentiful here.

In 1978, when I saw the movie, The Deer Hunter, I thought of Tamaqua. In The Deer Hunter, working-class men with East European bloodlines in Clairton, Pennsylvania, went off to war. They left two other wars behind: mining coal and steel working.

Uncle Joe knows what the coal mining war is like. His brother, John, was in a coal mining accident that broke both his legs. Another brother, Anthony, worked in the coal mines and was in coal mine accident that disfigured him. He had to have what amounted to plastic surgery in those days.

Joe’s older sister, Helen, and older brother, Augie, didn’t want Joe to suffer a coal mine accident. They wanted him to have another life. Thanks to their influence, Joe enlisted in the Air Force November 18, 1939, in Pottsville, Pennsylvania.

From Snow & Ice To Sand & Sun

The year 1939 was not just any year. In September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. Joe had joined the Air Force as the world’s biggest war erupted. He would serve in the North Pacific, principally Alaska. It was so cold in Alaska, he told me, you could throw a glass of water into the air, and lumps of ice would fall into the snow.

He served, too, in the Aleutian Islands, a string of volcanic islands that stretch from Alaska to Russia. These islands help form the Pacific Ring of Fire. Here military men went about their duties in a land of fire and ice.

During World War II Japan held small parts of the Aleutians, but Uncle Joe saw no action that I am aware of. He would spend 21 months in the North Pacific, serving as a technical supply officer. Back on the mainland, he performed the duties of a staff supply and evacuation officer and adjutant at a personnel replacement depot. He performed squadron and group administrative duties, including those of a warrant officer before attending Officers Candidate School in Miami Beach, Florida.

Service life took him from the frozen Land of the Midnight Sun to a land of brilliant sunshine with a tropical monsoon climate. And it would bring him to Georgia.

He met my Aunt Vivian while serving at Augusta’s Daniel Field. They married June 3, 1942, in Bennettsville, South Carolina. He remained in the 9985th Air Force Reserve Squadron 19 more years until he received an honorable discharge May 13, 1961. He had served close to 22 years and had attained the rank of captain.

An Inventor

Using the GI Bill, Joe enrolled at Southern Technical Institute in Chamblee, Georgia, in the early 1950s. On January 1, 1954, he began working with WESTVACO near Georgetown, South Carolina.

In his early years with WESTVACO, he worked extensively in the research and development of equipment used in forestry management and harvesting. Later, he would undertake assignments with the American Pulpwood Association’s Harvesting Research Project. He traveled constantly, providing expertise on every conceivable engineering problem. The name “Joe Blonsky” was widely known in the forestry industry and among equipment manufacturers.

His work with the Harvesting Research Project led to nine patents for inventions that helped modernize the logging and timber industry. Since he was a WESTVACO employee during this time, the patents were assigned to WESTVACO. After a distinguished career, he retired from WESTVACO’S Atlanta office June 30, 1979.

Back To Tamaqua

In 1964, Uncle Joe and Aunt Vivian took Brenda and me to the World Fair at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens. We stayed for several days in Tamaqua. I remember the homes were narrow, two-story buildings spaced close together. The people were friendly. We went to taverns that looked much like scenes from The Deer Hunter.

It was in his home in Summerville, South Carolina, where I spent two weeks each summer in the early 1960s. I recall stacks of Time and Popular Mechanics magazine. I remember reading in a 1964 issue of Popular Mechanics about a new kind of phone that would be developed some day, a cell phone. You’d expect an inventor to remain abreast of technological developments, and Joe did. He built projects based on designs in Popular Mechanics. Never far away were tools and projects.

He smoked a pipe back then and a magnetic Smokey the Bear ashtray sat atop his Ford’s unpadded metal dash. To this day, I smell the aromatic tobacco and see the brown-and-white Smokey the Bear ashtray sitting on his dash as we drive to Charleston.

When I ended up in Columbia, it gave Joe and me opportunities to go to dinner and if time was short, catch a cup of coffee at least. He came through often. There used to be a restaurant over here Joe favored, The Market, a seafood place with a large red lobster on its side. It was a Columbia landmark. I worked across the street at South Carolina Wildlife magazine. I’d meet him at The Market when his travels brought him through town. We’d drink coffee, talk about work and the farm, and catch up.

The Market no longer exists. They tore it down and made it into a parking lot but memories persist. Whenever I drive by the corner of Assembly and Gervais, I see Joe with a cup of coffee close at hand and a glint of light in his eyes. He’s ready to talk.

A Passion For Flight

His years in the Air Force gave him a love for flight. On September 30, 1967, he earned a pilot license rating him capable of flying single-engine airplanes.

Joe took me up for my first flight in his green-and-white Cessna 150. The family gathered at the grassy runway he had made with his bulldozer on the farm. It was a Sunday afternoon not long after lunch.

I was the first person to go up. We taxied to the end of the runway and took off, bouncing and humming along until we lifted off. I couldn’t believe it. I was flying! We cleared a distant edge of trees, and the earth fell away. Joe circled and landed. He was a bit pale. “We almost crashed,” he said.

He had underestimated my weight and took off with a tail wind. That distant edge of trees? We almost slammed into them. All flights for other family members were cancelled.

A few years later, he let me fly his airplane to Atlanta. He taught me to keep the wings level, fly to a spot on the horizon, and watch the craft’s nose. I had no fear whatsoever. If anyone could keep an airplane in perfect flying condition, it was Joe.

Farm Life

After he retired from WESTVACO, he returned to Lincoln County where Aunt Vivian was running a cattle farm. Uncle Joe assumed the role of farm mechanic. He maintained the farm equipment, did fencing, whatever the farm needed. In particular, he loved working with tractors and bulldozers.

In the early 1980s, he was working in a distant part of the farm when he stood by the tractor and turned it on. It was in gear and roared to life. The back wheel crushed him. He lay there a long time before he was found. It’s the only time I recall him being hard on himself. “The stupidest thing I’ve ever done,” he told me. He recovered, though, and continued to work with tractors, one of his passions.

Today, Uncle Joe is 93. He’s seen the world and he’s seen a world of change. In the photograph accompanying this column he’s wearing his Air Force uniform. Beneath his cap is a military haircut. To this day, Uncle Joe favors a military cut and keeps his thick white hair short. I find that most fitting. His life is one of discipline, service, and achievement, though he has never been one to boast. In fact, modesty is another quality endearing in him.

All too often, we come across people in life who find fault with others and thoughtlessly spew out negative things about others. I’ve never heard Joe Blonsky say one bad thing about another person. He provides an example for all of us. He’s devout and a gentleman, a self-made, polished, reserved man.

With parents from the Old World and patents in the New World, he is a most interesting man and he’s real. No ad agency on Earth could create a man with a life story such as his. The son of a Cossack escaped Pennsylvania’s coal mines to become a veteran, inventor, pilot, and an uncle like no other.

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Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at www.tompoland.net Email me at [email protected]