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Nothing But A Pulled Pork Sandwich For Christmas

December 19, 2011

Shuster family on the farm, 1940's. Milan is first on the left.

Pauline’s husband Jerry was an entrepreneur, always scheming up get rich quick ideas. Some worked; most didn’t.  Jerry was tall and handsome with a deep, commanding voice that always intimidated me growing up.  A Canadian immigrant from Yugoslavia, he spoke five languages, including English, Russian and his native Slovak, and was quite brilliant, if not completely dependable.   He was a gifted engineer, often inventing machines and other gizmos; one year he invented a contraption that dried and seeded peppers to make paprika from (one of his successes), and another time he built commercial meat grinders from scratch.  He sold several even though they never did quite work.  Jerry was also an excellent salesman.

One December in the late 1940’s, Jerry had another one of his brilliant ideas. He said to his sons, “They celebrate Christmas in Florida, don’t they?  Well, I bet they don’t have Christmas trees down there.”  The next thing the family knew, Jerry had spent their last dollars purchasing trees from the nearby Kubinec farm, arranged for a train from Windsor, Ontario to Miami, Florida and loaded up three boxcars full of freshly cut Canadian evergreens.

His son Milan, no older than 8 or 9 at the time, and Jerry then jumped into the old Buick and raced down to Florida to meet the train.  Along the way they stopped in Georgia at a roadside stand and bought a box of oranges and a pecan pie.  Milan soon ate nearly every orange in the box until he could eat no more, and to this day he cannot stand the sight of an orange. (However, he says pecan pie is still his favorite).

The Shuster family car parked in front of the farm house on the 5th Concession, Leamington, Ontario, 1940's. Milan is sitting on the running board with his sister, Diane, and my dad, also named Jerry, is in front.

Milan and Jerry greeted the train’s arrival a few days later, dollar signs dancing in their heads. With great anticipation they swung open the doors to the first boxcar. Inside were crisp, brown Christmas trees; Jerry had neglected to refrigerate the cars, and nearly all of the trees were now suited for not much more than kindle.  Shoulders sunk, they dragged themselves back to the car, dejected.

After a few moments of gloomy silence, Jerry perked up and started the car. He drove around until he found an empty lot beside a seedy real estate office and negotiated a deal with the rather shady manager. Renting a truck, father and son soon hauled the crispy trees from train to lot, placing the driest trees in the middle, and the greenest evergreens around in front.  And then Jerry left little Milan there alone to sell the trees, and off he went.

My grandparents, Jerry and Pauline, 1948

A little while later, Milan had to relieve himself and decided to go to the real estate office to find a toilet, leaving the trees unattended.  He entered the building, and not seeing anyone in the office, timidly walked towards a door where a leather jacket hung, thinking it was the bathroom.  Pushing the door open a bit, instead he found another office with a large desk, and upon the desk, the secretary. She was lying there, buck naked.  Above her stood the sleazy manager, pants down, lust filling his eyes.  Milan stared, motionless, and they both turned and stared back.  No one moved for what seemed like an eternity.   Finally, glaring,  the manager hitched up his pants and took a step towards the door; Milan took a few steps back and then ran as fast as he could.  It was a quick immersion in sex education.

My uncle Milan, around 1950

Jerry finally returned a few hours later, and was chagrined to find that few trees had been sold. With their meager earnings in hand, they abandoned the trees, jumped in the car and drove off.  The two soon arrived at the airport where they parked the car and Jerry strode purposely into the terminal, Milan following quickly behind, wondering what was going on.

Milan by the helicopter in Cuba

Moments later they were boarding a helicopter and heading off to Cuba where they would spend the next two weeks. In typical form, Jerry had decided that since they were all the way down to Miami, they might as well make the best of the situation, and since he had always wanted to see Cuba, now seemed as good a time as any.  On the first evening of their arrival in Cuba, Jerry headed out on the town for the evening (as he would do every night for the entire trip) leaving young Milan scared and alone in the dumpy hotel room, and saying, as his hand turned the knob on the door, that as long as Milan kept the door locked, he’d be safe.

Milan in Cuba

Milan doesn’t remember much more of the trip except for how tasty the roasted, pulled pork sandwiches were. The rest of the family, stuck back home in Canada for the holidays, remembers a very cold Christmas with no presents and little money.  But the story does get a good laugh today.

Milan by a pig roast in Cuba

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Stan permalink
    December 19, 2011 9:21 am

    Hilarious… what a great storyline for a Chevy Chase movie.
    I do want to know what happened to the rest of the trees though.

  2. Mary Milec permalink
    December 19, 2011 10:51 am

    Love those pictures!

  3. December 21, 2011 9:06 pm

    Great story. I loved the characters. Great photos as well. Thank you for sharing this Christmas story complete with the theme of immigrants trying to fit into their new surroundings.


  4. January 17, 2012 7:08 pm

    Oh my god, I never heard that crazy story about Uncle Milan and Grandpa. Does my mom know?!

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