The year is 1921. The average income of a man providing for his family is about $2,000 a year. The life expectancy in the U.S. is around 60 years of age. The slang phrase for a young boy from a poor Jewish immigrant family is “greenhorn.”
This is the world that my grandfather, William Popoff, was brought into. He worked odd jobs to help his widowed mother make ends meet. He found escape as an athlete, a long distance runner. He made his way into the old Madison Square Garden, competing in the mile for James Madison High School in Brooklyn. To ensure a college education past what an athletic scholarship could provide, he’d volunteer for the war.
He’d find himself in Air Force training in Texas, and then in Italy, as part of the 96th Squadron in the Second Bomb Group. He would find himself sitting inside the fiberglass enclosed nose of a B-17 flying fortress christened “Catherine the Great” as a bombardier, and on his 52nd mission, he and his crewman, would be shot down by enemy gunfire.
He’d survive that plane crash, slamming nose-first into the Mediterranean Sea, but he would take with him the memory of that night, as he watched his plane sink, hearing the screams of his brothers in pitch black night. He’d carry the guilt of that experience with him like a weight that alone would have been too burdensome. His wife Edna became his foundation, who would help shoulder it all. He’d start a family with her, graduate from Brooklyn Law School, and would begin a career at the Federal Trade Commission as an attorney. Day in, day out, for 30 years, he’d commute from queens to Manhattan to support his family. That could be the end of the story, but his battles were not over.
After he retired, he would face down cancer. Not once or twice, but four times he was diagnosed and found his way through into remission — but not without the scars of radiation therapy, of losing a kidney. And not without the trauma of seeing his own son fight a similar battle with lymphoma.
This was my grandfather. A survivor. A courageous and dedicated husband, who after 65 years of marriage and of waking up to say good morning to his wife, had to face his final battle. When Edna passed away, five years ago, my grandfather decided it was time to give up. He couldn’t go on living in a world where she died before him.
And yet he did go on, surviving, living five more years. Those last few years were wrought with physical and emotional pain, and he was sustained only by the devotion of his son and daughter. After all that he battled with and survived, I know that after 95 years he can now rest in peace, by Edna’s side. I will remember him as my surrogate father, as my buddy, and as a brave man dedicated to his family.