Rip in time

June 09, 2007

He got conked on the noggin in Communist Poland and woke up 19 years later. Jan Grzebski, who went under at the age of 46 and is now 65, appeared on Polish TV last week, marveling at all that has changed since the grim days of the Warsaw Pact. Why, there's food in the stores! Imagine that. And cell phones. But all those people, free of the Soviet yoke (and also untroubled by head batterings) - why, he wonders, do they moan into their phones all day long? "I've got nothing," said Mr. Grzebski, "to complain about."

The first thought that comes to mind is Rip Van Winkle. A bit obvious, maybe? Well, hold on; it might be a good idea to go back and actually read Washington Irving's deadpan tale of oblivion in the Catskills. And what do you know - similarities so startling that it makes you wonder whether "Grzebski" might simply be the Polish word for "Winkle."

Old Rip, of course, slept for 20 years, and not 19. But he, too, missed a revolution. He lay down a subject of King George III, and got up a citizen of the United States, though it took him a while to figure that out.

He was a fellow who enjoyed life, except for work. Irving (who claimed to be passing on a posthumous story as written by the purported historian Diedrich Knickerbocker) put it this way: "The great error in Rip's composition was an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor."

Mr. Grzebski's own professional diligence aside, that sounds like a pretty fair description of the sort of work ethic that communism fostered wherever it took root.

As a young man, Rip hung out at a sleepy little inn, swapping long pointless stories. When he reappeared, the inn had been replaced by a gimcrack hotel, owned by someone, obviously not from those parts, named Jonathan Doolittle.

This sort of development sounds more than a bit like Poland today. "The very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquillity." All those people, moaning on their cell phones.

Rip eventually got used to it all - even the bewildering politicians who had appeared in the wake of the revolution, jabbing at him and barking about one party or another - and presumably Mr. Grzebski will, too.

They came to unconsciousness by different paths. When the young Rip wandered up into the mountains, he came upon Henry Hudson and his men, still dressed in doublets and jerkins and that sort of thing. Some contend that Hudson had died 160 years or so earlier, but here he was, playing at ninepins with his crew in a high meadow; the sound of their bowling was like thunder. Rip helped himself to their liquor, and the next thing he knew he had a foot-long beard and a gun gone to rust. Mr. Grzebski was hit on the head as he was coupling freight cars together. Prosaic, maybe, though if you listen to the trains even today you might just hear the sound of thunder, mightn't you?

Rip was sent roaming by his wife's nagging (and was comforted to hear upon his return that she had died). Not so with the Grzebskis - and here's an important difference. Doctors told Gertruda that Jan wouldn't recover and hadn't long to live, but she devoted 19 years to his constant care and was rewarded with the return of her husband to consciousness. It's a sweet story, for a sentimental age.

But is there a credibility gap between the Grzebski and Van Winkle stories? Diedrich Knickerbocker's account does raise the suspicion that it might have been embroidered a bit. Not at all - in an accompanying note, Irving himself informs us that its "scrupulous accuracy" has been completely established. That would seem to settle it.

And in fact, Mr. Grzebski's well-documented case - of a man making a leap beyond imagining, from a mind-deadening society directly to another, more vivid one; arising from an oblivion that seems to be an emblematic extension of the old way of life, a metaphor made real; and then looking with puzzlement and some delight through old eyes at a new world - why, surely this lends more credence, not less, to the Knickerbocker tale of Rip Van Winkle.

- Will Englund

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