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The Important Things

Thoughts, 15 Years On

By Christopher "Ski" GanczewskiPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 9 min read
2
Steve, Kirby, Makayla, Rachel, and Sage

An Endeavor to Uphold

Fifteen years ago today, on 16 November, 2007, I started behaving a little less like “Chris” and more like “Ski.”

While I wouldn’t assume the namesake officially for another eight months when a frustrated Master Sergeant at the Academy realized my name was far too long and complicated to yell across a drill pad, it was that November night during my senior year of High School that I started to shuck away all the bullshit and focus on the important things.

It's still a conscious effort. Thankfully, I get a reminder, at least annually.

The call came on a Friday night. I was a high school senior without plans after wrestling practice, and found myself upstairs in my room playing some video game on the Xbox gifted me by my brother, Steve. When the phone rang, I gave pause, both on the controller and to the ether.

A phone call at 11 pm was almost certainly Steve. He was on his sixth rotation to Iraq, and seventh deployment overall, with 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. With the 8-hour time difference, it made sense that he’d call in the morning on his end; while it was late in Niagara Falls, it guaranteed his call wouldn’t go unanswered. Both my parents worked, precluding an evening call on his end during the week and at the time, my dad was driving truck, but home on the weekends. Friday nights were the highest likelihood of everyone being home.

Yielding to the formalities that were to follow, I heard my dad pick up the phone downstairs. Only, there were none of the normal formalities, but instead, my dad’s “Hello” and a foreboding “Yes” followed by silence on his end. He was in what I have come to refer to as “receive mode.” And the list of possible messages to be received was not long.

Upon hanging up, I heard my dad say something to my mom, then proceed to the bottom of the steps. He called me with a “Chris,” and eschewing the usual teenage annoyance at parental beckoning, I moved swiftly to the top of the stairs to make eye contact, readying myself for the same “receive mode.”

“Your brother fell out of a helicopter.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“Fuck.”

What followed was a blur of tears alone on my bed, and some staring at the ceiling thinking about the next step to take. Going downstairs, my mom bawled on the couch, screaming at the heavens for a loss unimaginable, and my dad face down at the kitchen table, crying for perhaps the only time I’ve ever seen him do so.

Sitting down on the couch and staring blankly at the worthless bullshit that flashed on the TV, my mother, eyes bloodshot and filled with tears, reached out to me and asked “What are you going to do?”

While I elected not to respond, there was but one thought on my mind.

Get back to work.

Of His Own Accord

Steven C. Ganczewski was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on 7 April 1985, while my dad was on the tail end of an Air Force Career at Kirtland Air Force Base.

Being five years my senior, he was someone I always looked up to; even as a teenager, his 5’8”-5’9” stature was something 5’6” me was jealous of.

To me, he was the athlete, and I was the fat little brother. While neither of us could catch nor throw to save our lives, he could run like a horse and found a certain aggressive success on the wrestling mat that I wouldn’t find until much later, after high school.

9/11 came when I was in 6th grade and Steve was a High School Junior, and likely cemented a path that he had already been contemplating. When asked why he joined the Army despite coming from a very heavily Air Force-focused family, he would joke that 1997’s cinematic masterpiece Starship Troopers made him realize that he wanted to shoot shit far more than he wanted to fly or fix shit.

Fifteen years on, I don’t think he was kidding.

Steve’s Senior yearbook quote was from Homer’s Odyssey: “And what he greatly thought, he nobly dared.” The quote’s simplicity succinctly captured the “why” of Steve.

I think all of us believe that there’s something worth dying for. Whether it’s Mill-esque patriotism, or Shakespearean love for brother, or that incredible bond guys seem to discuss the first time they hold their child, the belief that your life is worth sacrificing for someone or something else is admirable but, fortunately, common. Even if people choose to minimize the need to act on it, I believe most people acknowledge that there are things worth sacrificing for when their back is against the wall. Perhaps that’s overly optimistic, but it’s what I believe. This was not the “great thought” that Steve “nobly dared.”

Steve believed there were things worth killing for. Steve believed the American way of life was paramount on this list of things. And Steve believed you may as well be good at killing, then.

It was this mentality that led Steve, most fittingly, to the 75th Ranger Regiment, a place he aimed for relentlessly and fit in perfectly. I remember looking at him with a bit of awe and jealousy when my family visited after he had graduated Ranger School, post-Cherry deployment. The way he stared at the setting sun on some restaurant’s deck, his best friend at his side doing the same, told me that he had found a place where he belonged and a thing he believed in. He had greatly thought, and proceeded to nobly dare.

As I settle in to my 4th decade of processing oxygen and philosophy, part of me thinks Steve fell prey to the same folly of your Seeger’s and Zirnheld’s; that for the young, brave man, the allure of violence for a cause is noble and virtuous. Talking to his widow, Rachel, one starts to gather that when he died, he was beginning to shake off such pursuits for the journey of fatherhood and family, which seems to be the progression of things.

And yet, part of me believes that the aggression was Steve’s gift. When shit hit the fan, Steve wanted to get in the fray, not out, without hesitation. Not for glory, maybe for honor, but mostly, because he knew he was capable of turning the tide.

The night it happened, Steve was Team Lead aboard a Blackhawk for an aerial insertion for a High Value Target; he’d be first out of the bird to rush a compound in pursuit of a bad dude who America had decided would be coming with us in flex cuffs or a body bag, depending on their fateful choices.

It was a night insertion, under NODs, in brown-out conditions. While I like to think Steve’s team was wearing PVS-14s at a minimum, even the best night vision out there makes ground and fog look like one blurry mess; the kick-up of sand in a desert hell hole exacerbated by the helicopter’s downwash likely made it a shitshow.

I think often about that first step into the unknown we’ve all taken; the first time you jump out of a plane, or when you finally quit your job to pursue your own enterprise, or when you see a wrongdoing and choose “fight” in the name of what’s right versus “flight” in the name of your own comfort and safety.

And I think about how, particularly as TL that day, taking that step was something Steve had probably grown most accustomed to. He unhooked and stepped out of the helicopter, likely into what I imagine was nothing but a green wash, eager to set the example to follow and likely just as eager to get to a position where he could actually see what was happening. Had the teammates to his left and right not been grabbed, they would’ve followed, a testament to both their training and their faith in Steve.

Steve, thinking the helicopter was but a few feet off the ground, fell some 30 feet and landed on his neck; the reports said SGT Steven C. Ganczewski died on impact.

Some days I find the apparent tenacity inspiring.

Some days I find the apparent aggression idiotic.

Most days, it still fills me with pride.

All of the days, it just sucks.

And still there are things worth killing for.

Readily Will I Display

At some point, when all the sobs had turned into deep sighs and those slow, cold tears that seem to drag upon your cheek rather than falling to the surface below, my dad said “Chris, go to bed. We’ve gotta get to Rochester in the morning.”

The morning after Steve’s death was the first of two interviews for a Congressional appointment to the Air Force Academy, the singular goal I had been pursuing through Middle and High School. The house representative office was an hour’s drive, and last night’s tragedy would not stop my engine.

Upon arriving at the office, a weird, quiet numbness took over, incensed by the pomp and circumstance of the situation. I sat there, son of a truck driver and a teacher’s aide, in khakis and a polo, waiting for my interview while silently acknowledging this was all unimportant bullshit. Watching a kid in a new, well-fitting suit nervously pace back and forth reviewing flash cards, I realized that this was important to him; failure would likely result in a bad day.

I struggled to empathize with what he likely perceived as a bad day. I still struggle with such efforts.

The interview was a resounding success, and I prided myself that at no point did I bring up the previous night’s events. In the same way Steve did it of his own accord, I wouldn’t use coincidence and tragedy as a crutch to achieve my aims. Only after, when talking to my dad, did the interviewers put two and two together in so far as my “why.” And so, it was with Steve’s last steps that I took my first toward the same pursuit; fighting for what was worth fighting for, and killing those who needed killing.

Acknowledging the Fact

A decade and a half later, I’m still not sure of the lesson to be learned here. I like to think that giving my brother, not losing him, but giving him to some grander power helped me become who I am, a paradox in that I wish he was here to see but there would be nothing to see were he. But, after so much time and rubbing faded scars, I think there are things to be universally gained.

Fuck the bullshit and the pomp and circumstance. Focus on what matters. For me, that’s staying lethal and effective and making others so; little else. It’s something I should probably focus on more. Don’t get distracted by the world’s inconveniences nor the demands of those who fail to realize their own insignificance. Focus on what matters.

Remember before you forget. Steve had mental issues when he got back, and probably before he even went, but he proved to be a loving father who held family to a level I can only hope to one day comprehend. Steve could be an asshole, but turn around and offer you the shirt off his back in the same breath. Steve and I were never particularly close, but he always answered the messages that mattered, and I remember being floored at realizing how much he talked to others about me, with both pride and sibling ridicule. Remembering people for their whole and still avoiding overromanticizing is critical. Honor what’s to be honored.

And finally, greatly think and nobly dare. Take those first steps. Find something you’re willing to die for. Be willing to kill for it. Acknowledge someone else out there is ready to do both for the same.

Acknowledge the important things. The truly important.

Or at least, raise a glass to them and the day you finally do.

armyfamily
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About the Creator

Christopher "Ski" Ganczewski

I write things. Sometimes they matter.

Active Duty USAF TACP Officer.

Mountain biker. Board gamer. Imbibement appreciator.

Niagara Falls, NY born and raised.

Often found with a dog attached to my hip, near either a trailhead or a brewery.

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  • Judey Kalchik 7 months ago

    I wanted to read another one of your stories, and want you to know that, on this anniversary date: I, too, am thinking about Steve. You have made him real, to me- a person that had never met him. Greatly think and nobly dare." Thank you, Steve. Thank you, Ski. You are a good brother.

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