Robbinsdale postal clerk Ed Zieba's 29th birthday was his lucky day. It was in the cards.
Playing cribbage on his birthday in 1950 with his wife, brother and sister-in-law, Zieba scored an extremely rare 29 hand — the highest possible in cribbage.
Odds of such a feat, estimated at one in 217,000, prompted a brief in the Minneapolis Tribune on March 2, 1950. It wouldn't be the first stroke of good fortune for Ed Zieba.
A child of Polish immigrants in northeast Minneapolis, Zieba was a waist and tail gunner on a B-17 bomber during World War II, surviving 30 missions over Nazi Germany. Fewer than half the B-17 bomber crews made it back.
On an April day in 1944, Zieba's B-17 was among 23 bombers on a mission to blow up a Nazi ball-bearing and weapons plant in Schweinfurt, Germany. Nine of the 23 bombers that left Zieba's base in England never returned.
"He'd been through hell, and suffered with nightmares," said John Zieba, 73, of Robbinsdale, one of Ed's four sons.
By 1945, Ed was back from the war and working as a bouncer and maintenance man at a roller rink in northeast Minneapolis when he noticed one of the skaters, Jean Bolinder, looking sad. She'd just learned that her steady boyfriend had been killed on a European battlefield. Ed walked her home. A 1945 engagement, a 1946 wedding and the four boys followed.
For several decades during their 53 years of marriage, Ed and Jean worked at the Salem Lutheran Church Dining Hall at the Minnesota State Fair. Jean was known as the "Egg Lady," frying up thousands of eggs near Machinery Hill, while Ed poured cups of Swedish egg coffee.
Starting in the early 1960s, Ed painted his face and became "Dr. Ben Crazy," an Aqua Jester clown driving a fire truck for the Aquatennial parade and other events. "It wasn't unusual for Dad to load the fire jeep up with kids and go tearing up and down Victory Memorial Drive," John said.
Ed also spent his postwar years playing the tuba in a polka band with his brothers Harry (on the concertina) and Raymond (on violin).
"When he grew older, and the tuba became too heavy, he started playing the electric bass," said his grandson, Andy Zieba, 40, of Brooklyn Park. "He was the quintessential grandfather. He wouldn't just buy me a pack of baseball cards but a whole box and then we'd spend hours in his basement sorting them."
Ed's sons said he wasn't overtly affectionate with them but turned into a teddy bear once his seven grandkids arrived. He retired from the Postal Service in 1979 after 33 years, rising from clerk to area manager.
Like many WWII veterans, he was reluctant to talk about the war. His youngest son, Jeff, finally got him to open up and share his stories.
"He wasn't a big partier or drinker, so when his fellow crew members in England headed out, he'd go the other way," said Jeff, 64, of Cottage Grove. One night, his dad watched a couple — the Walpoles of Geddington, England — nursing a single beer at a pub, so he sent over another. A friendship began that lasted for years.
Ed became friends with the Walpoles' children and visited them often in England while attending Army Air Corps reunions. In 1999, his English friends dropped him off at the reunion hotel in Kettering after spending a week together. Ed collapsed in the lobby and died from a massive heart attack at 78.
"It was kind of fitting that he died in England because he'd made such good friends over there during the war," said his eldest son, Jim, 76, who lives in the Robbinsdale home Ed and Jean bought in 1949 for $11,500. "He survived 30 bombing raids over there but died going to his reunion."
Jim served as organist for 27 years at the family's church, Salem Lutheran, and still helps make the eggs and egg coffee at the State Fair dining hall. Jim and John both joined the Navy, while John and another son, Jerry, of Maple Grove, had Postal Service careers like their father and grandpa Andrew.
When I shared the 1950 cribbage story from the Tribune with the Zieba boys, most of them said they had never played cribbage with their dad. "But our mom would kick the crap out of us on her old beat-up board," Jeff said.
Jean outlasted Ed by 21 years, dying at 99 in 2020 during the COVID-19 lockdown at her senior housing complex. "She was super spry, but she became so isolated without interaction with her friends, so COVID kind of indirectly killed her," Jeff said.
Ed and Jean were buried, side by side, at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear every other Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.