Could everyone write one simple essay about something that once happened in Saltaire…that they saw or were a part of…and put it on one big website? Somebody should collect a lot of stories before we all forget. Otherwise it is like a line in “On The Beach” : The history of the war that now would never be written.” -(JO'H)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Remembering Uncle Pete

With the recent passing of Peter W. Kurachek, the last of the biggest shapers and movers of Saltaire in the 1950'- 1960's has gone.

The purpose of this blog is to not be forgotten. That is why we have posted so many Uncle Pete stories. But for space limitations, we even have more. JOH had wanted to do something for Uncle Pete for years but it never got off the ground. Then Patsy O'Shea got involved and made it happen. We collected essays from 20 people or so--- more than 10,000 words in fact-- written by people about this remarkable man that none of them have even seen for 44 years. If you want the rest of the stories, we will eventually post them when the blog changes its format. In the mean time, anyone who wants a PDF of all these U.P. stories, just e mail the request to JOH had wanted to do something for Uncle Pete for years but it somehow never got off the ground. Patsy O'Shea made it happen.

Me being an editor (for now) I get the final word in the Uncle Pete department: Here's my take and then Patsy's:

“Uncle Pete, Uncle Pete”

I have in my mind’s eye the playground in Saltaire. It is around 1960 or so. It is on towards evening, after dinnertime, when a lot of little kids would come to the playground.

There was constant activity. Kids on swings, kids climbing the monkey bars, kids running in the sand, sliding on the slides. All kinds of kids. Kids four of five years old. Kids ten and eleven years old. Boys. Girls. I could always see and hear this frenetic scene from my house, which was by the ball field and the playground.

So it just happens that Uncle Pete is walking by the playground, coming down Neptune Walk, to go home.

All of a sudden all the miscellaneous chatter becomes about 30 kids yelling out “Uncle Pete, Uncle Pete.”

They all want to see him. They all want him to wave to them. Kids are yelling from the swings. Kids hanging off the monkey bars are yelling “Uncle Pete, Uncle Pete.” They all want him to see them. Kids run up to him.

And he waves back, smiles, yells out a lot of names: “Hi Jenny,” “ Hi Pam,” “Hi Mike,” and so on.

Every kid in the village knew Uncle Pete and he knew every name.

So you thought they would have had enough of Uncle Pete that morning at class? And at swimming lessons? Forget about it. He was like a rock star to those little tykes. They couldn't get enough of him.

That’s an image I have always had in my mind, and I guess that’s how I see him now:

Wow, the kids really loved him.

Jim O’Hare
Richmond Hill, NY

From Patsy O'Shea:

Dear Kurachek Family,
I appreciated your father for the fun and challenging experiences he created for me and my friends in our athletic “classes.” Especially archery, swimming and lifesaving classes. Uncle Pete was the only serious coach I ever had. In those years before Title IX, few people took girl sports seriously and few girls got an opportunity to be rigorously trained. So I thrived with the routines that Uncle Pete demanded of me. Up and down those lanes in the Great South Bay. I spent the angst of my adolescence in that bay swimming up and down, up and down, no matter what hypersensitive hurt my teenage mind was seething with. As a result of his superb encouragement, I really became a strong swimmer and I’ve had some marvelous experiences in the sea all over this planet.

Uncle Pete’s lifeguard training was legendary. I had my check out underwater test having to “save” him, and I must admit I felt some trepidation as I approached this final test. He was really strong, a real gorilla under water, and I can still remember the feel of it. But I succeeded well and with it gained the confidence to tackle just about any situation. This arose in 1977.

I was a tourist in full clothing, except for my bare feet. I was out on a remote beach on the Hana Coast of Maui. A middle-aged woman, also a tourist, had gotten into a serious rip tide and she was drowning, quite a bit off shore. I took off like a shot, forgot about being fully dressed, forgot that my bare feet were running hard on coral and just kept my eyes fixed on where she was going up and under. It was Uncle Pete’s voice going off in my head in that raspy, militaristic voice he has. “Don’t take your eyes off your victim, no matter what!!” Another person, a man already swimming, reached the victim at exactly the same time I did, and together we saved her. Brought her to shore together, into the arms of her traumatized family. So traumatized in fact, that they just popped her into their rented car, and took off, never even thanking us. It took me years to understand this reaction. Because I was young and not very wise at the time, I thought they were trying to escape from any liability for the injury I had sustained in the rescue. But I think it was their trauma that made them drive away. I came to understand how trauma is not just an individual experience, but a familial one.

Another thing I learned from this was the efficacy of some native medicines and the medical wisdom in old traditional cultures. In this case, the native Hawaiian people who witnessed my saving this woman, came to my rescue. For in the course of running on the coral with my eyes fixed on the victim, I was unknowingly tearing up my feet. I had a large, deep gouge about 2 in. by 1½ in. in my left heel. A couple of Hawaiian men went down to the rocks, picked off some seaweed, chewed it and then stuffed it into my wound. Meantime a couple of women obtained a papaya,
sliced it and put the slices on top of the seaweed. Coral cuts in the tropics are notorious for problematic healing. Yet I developed no infection whatsoever, and gradually the whole area filled in just fine. I continued my fun in the sun with no need to travel back to civilization for medical care. More swimming in salt water hastened the healing too.

I also thank Uncle Pete for the exquisite times I’ve had snorkeling and scuba diving. Swimming between islands in the Aegean Sea, enjoying the turquoise water. Diving on the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, most especially my drift dive in Dynamite Pass and my other adventure down 125 ft. on a shark current by great gray underwater cliffs under sea. The freedom I felt swimming over miles of giant clam beds by Lizard Island. My swimming off the Mahukona Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii with the Perez family. I was the bag lady for this family of spear fishermen, ½ mile off shore, when a whole school of spinner dolphins appeared suddenly and went cavorting past me. So making me at home in the sea gave me some of my most glorious experiences.

Thank you Uncle Pete. I hope you can hear my words.

Patsy O’Shea
Portland, Oregon


Robin Wright on Uncle Pete Kurachek:

The year was 1954. My father, who was in charge of Parks and Recreation for Saltaire, hired Uncle Pete, and Pete in turn hired me as a counselor, Art Mol as head lifeguard, and Werner Ulricht, a German Exchange student from Fair Harbor, as assistant life guard.

The next summer, after Uncle Pete’s counseling, I became Art Mol’s Assistant lifeguard.

Pete Kurachek was a great football coach! I spent hours with him on the Saltaire field learning the hard way how to block and tackle. He liked to win.

Wishing the Kurachek family sympathy and all the best,

Robin Wright
Woodside, CA


Remembering Uncle Pete
By Duncan Dobie

In one way, he had that bulldog look of a tough, seasoned football coach with a whistle around his neck who could breathe fire or tear you in half if he wanted to, yet he was always a hero to us young boys. He always had a smile on his face and a special twinkle in his eye. Although (like Beaver once said) he appeared to be 10-feet tall and larger than life to most of the boys at Saltaire, he usually spoke softly with encouragement and that encouragement had a way of giving you confidence in whatever you were attempting to do.

People often talk about a special teacher or coach who influenced their early life in some special way. Uncle Pete was the epitome of that unforgettable teacher. He might as well have been a member of the family and I guess that’s why we called him Uncle Pete. He was family. He had that special gift for teaching and bringing out the best in people. He could be gruff and intimidating at times, but he always had our respect and he taught us how to do things and how to have confidence in ourselves. He had the gift for teaching you to believe in yourself.

One of my fondest memories of Uncle Pete goes back to the summer that he taught me how to swim. It must have been 1954 (it’s my understanding that ’54 was his first year at Saltaire) but it seems like it was a year or two earlier than that when I was five or six. At any rate, I was 7-years-old in 1954. Like a lot of kids, I could dog paddle around the shallow end of a swimming pool but I really hadn’t been around water that much and I couldn’t swim very well on my own.

My grandparents decided that if I was going to spend the summers with them at Saltaire, I’d better know how to swim. So Uncle Pete started giving me swimming lessons. We practiced in the bay off one of the swimming docks just west of the main dock. At first, the murky waters of the bay were quite intimidating, but Uncle Pete’s confidence-building style was contagious and he soon had me stroking and kicking and swimming out in water well over my head.

At last, the big day came for me to show everyone how well I could swim. My grandparents and my parents were both there on the dock along with Uncle Pete for the big event. I was to jump off the end of the dock and swim around to a ladder that was maybe 10 feet away. I had already practiced several times with Uncle Pete and it should have been an easy task. But something went wildly wrong as soon as I jumped in. My mind went blank and apparently I forgot everything that Uncle Pete had been teaching me. I thrashed around for a few seconds and Uncle Pete finally had to jump in – shoes, shorts, shirt and all -- and pull me over to the ladder.

I was very embarrassed. A dripping wet Uncle Pete acted as though nothing had happened. He immediately began encouraging me to try again. “It’s okay,” he said. “You can do it.” Finally I did it. I jumped off the end of the dock, floated up to the surface and calmly swam over to the ladder. Then I did it two or three more times. It was easy. Uncle Pete kept saying, “I knew you could do it!”

Uncle Pete gave me the confidence I needed to be totally at home in the water. It wasn’t long before I was a virtual “fish” in both the bay and the ocean like most of the other boys at Saltaire. In fact, those early swimming skills I learned at Saltaire paved the way for me to be a very strong swimmer in later life. I’ve always been at home in the water, and time and again those skills learned so long ago have helped me through some potentially dangerous situations.

I later became a certified lifeguard while volunteering at a children’s cancer camp in Georgia. Over the past 25 years, I’ve taught many youngsters from seven to 17 how to swim. I’ve never really even thought about it until this very moment, but in many ways, that is Uncle Pete’s legacy to me. He gave me the confidence to know I could do it, and I’ve been able to pass it on to others.

I spent every summer at Saltaire with my grandparents until I was 12 years old in 1959. For all of those years, Uncle Pete was always a much-loved permanent fixture – leading us boys and coaching us in baseball, archery, swimming and other activities. He might have been a little tougher with the older boys, but I don’t ever remember him putting me down or putting down any of my friends in any way. Instead he always built us up. He was my first and only great coach. As I grew older and started playing football and other sports in high school, he was always the yardstick by which I measured other coaches. None of them ever lived up to his ideal. None of them ever had the kind of influence on my life that he had. Truly Uncle Pete was 10 feet tall! Thank you, Uncle Pete, for the amazing gift that you have given to so many others!

Duncan Dobie
Atlanta, Ga.

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1 comment:

Jeff Weinlandt said...

As Duncan said, Uncle Pete "was my first and only great coach." I wonder how many coaches today could find adults referring to a "coach" while they were in grammar school in a similar vein. What a great legacy to leave behind!