From Behind the Iron Curtain to the Ironing Board
COLD WAR MEETS HOT IRON
When Grzegorz (or Grześ, as his pals call him) Zdzieszkocziewninski was growing up behind the iron curtain in Poland, he witnessed a tumultuous time to say the least. Coming of age in the waning years of the Cold War, surrounded by political and social upheaval, one is no doubt to be forged in a certain manner.
Born the fifth of seven children to Hugo and Eugenia Zdzieszkocziewninski, Grzegorz grew up in the city of Łódź. Famously documented in both Władysław Reymont’s novel The Promised Land, and also used as the setting for the Polish version of the critically-acclaimed sit-com series The Fresh Comrade of Litzmannstadt, his family had settled there following the Nazi occupation. His hard-working parents rose from the Łódź Ghetto to make a name for themselves in the burgeoning field of off-season outerwear storage and garment pressing. “Iron is in my blood,” quipped Grześ, quickly turning angry when Alex and I had laughed. Following a twenty-three minute explanation of what made that statement so funny, it was clear that Zdzieszkocziewninski was all business. And he packs a mean left hook.
STEAMY RACING PASSION BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN
As a young man, Grześ would work three twenty-one hour shifts, manning the cabbage stem-powered steam presses. Making the most of his single ten minute break, he, like many Eastern European young men would smoke a half-dozen cigarettes. He’d wash them down with Wytrysksłoń (or “Elephant cum”), a vodka-like beverage distilled from cottage cheese, beets, and the collected condensation from the steam presses, gathered on the leaded-glass windows of the shop.
During these breaks, he’d pour over his single issue of Stock Car Racing Magazine and a program from the 1973 Belgian Grand Prix, smuggled into the country by the family’s starch salesman. On his day off, he’d work on a scale model of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway he had been constructing using lint from the shop floor, the discarded beet mash and swizzle sticks he’d scavenge from behind the local pub.
“There simply was no racing in my hometown,” Grześ shared, “and as our family were too poor to own a vehicle, I had no way of learning mechanical skills.”
Yet the young man’s steamy passion for racing only grew hotter. “I was looking for a way to become involved, but could not imagine that any team would take on someone lacking driving or technical skill.”
AN EYE ON A DREAM
One day, while folding uniforms to be stored for a client, his eye became fixed upon something familiar. “It was magical! I was holding Helmut Marko’s driving suit! There I sat like a stone, and couldn’t take my eye off of it! I hung around the shop for days, waiting for him to pick it up,” continued Zdzieszkocziewninski, “and then, on a Tuesday at near closing time, some three weeks later, Marko walks up and and bumps into the front counter. His eye patch was even more glorious in person.”
Helmut Marko spent nearly three minutes with the young, excited Grześ, and shared with him that all of his firesuits were tailored by a young, reclusive Romanian woman named Mariutza. In this instant, Zdzieszkocziewninski knew what he had to do. “I needed to meet this girl.”
However, it was not meant to be for many years.
The young Zdzieszkocziewninski began learning all he could about sewing, tailoring and clothing design, in the hopes of making his mark on the racing world via that road. However, it was a sewing machine accident one night that would hem the dream short on him. “I hadn’t slept in weeks. As I was sewing a cuff onto a sleeve, my hands were drawn through the machine. The tremendous pressure required to draw the needle through triple-layered canvas, two layers of tin foil and 3/4 of an inch of asbestos is incredible, and the resulting injuries left me with a fraction of my dexterity. It was curtains for my dream.”
SOLIDARITY AND SEMAPHORE
However, fate would step in. The now cripplingly-depressed racing fanatic would be rescued in a remarkable manner. The obvious waved before him. “The local chapter of the Solidarity movement had asked my father if he could help them with their makeshift flag for a protest march. What they brought in was crudely crafted from some old pizzaria tablecloths, and the checkerboard pattern resonated in me. It looked like a giant start/finish flag, but was terribly wrinkled. I worked tirelessly for two days to make it flat, crisp and beautiful,” he recalls.
When the protesters came to claim their flag, fate intervened once more, as the mythical Mariutza was among them. Impressed by Zdzieszkocziewninski’s skill, the two hit it off instantly, spending hours talking and drinking much Wytrysksłoń . “She was incredible, and told me of her experiences at the races. She then mentioned how the race flags would get so wrinkly between events, but that no one had the skill to keep them looking fresh. I had found my calling!”
THE ROAD TO LEMANS AND INDIANAPOLIS. AND KANSAS. EVENTUALLY.
Packing only an iron, twenty bottles of Wytrysksłoń and some starch, Grześ had snuck out of the country one night. He made his way into France within a month. “I’d have been there sooner, but I caught mono from Mariutza, and didn’t have the energy to press on.”
He found work at a local dry cleaner. He would become the go-to guy for the staff of LeMans to have their flags ironed.
“Thee was opportunity to travel to the United States. I made a point to go to Indianapolis and show my skills. I was hired on the spot!”
Having ironed the flags for the famed Speedway since 1980, he’s now looking to retire. He plans live out his days in the flatlands of Kansas. “It just seems natural that I go there,” he says with a brow wrinkled in deep thought.
The next time you see the Grand Marshall of the Indianapolis 500 wave the checkered flag, take note of how it flows with each motion, wrinkle-free and majestic. Give thought to Grzegorz Zdzieszkocziewninski, a man with iron(ing) in his blood.
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