Sunday, January 25, 2015

Black Sheep Sunday: Remembering Bruce

Lately I’ve been thinking about my only brother, Bruce.  He would have been 57 this week, had he not died of alcohol-related heart failure thirteen years ago.

Bruce and our sister and I grew up in a typical middle-class home of the 1950s and 1960s.  But Bruce was especially gifted in many ways.  He was big and strong from the time he was very young—75 pounds of brawn by the time he started first grade!  The first college football scout to notice him said to my father, when Bruce was just five, “If your boy plays football, I’d love to see that kid when he’s eighteen.”

And Bruce was athletic.  As he grew older, he excelled in every sport he tried—baseball, basketball, track and field…  But when it came time to choose one sport, it was football.  By his senior year in high school, he was a star.

Bruce was also very smart.  And good-looking.  And he lived in a stable Christian home, where college was a ‘given’ and the money was there to make it happen.  But he fell in with a wild crowd, where drinking and smoking and drugs were the norm, and he was the leader of the pack.  Bruce was also what would have been called “high strung”—and I think he inherited the tendency towards depression that runs in the males of our family.  And like many before him, substance abuse was his form of self-medicating.  At least, that’s what my sister and I theorized in long, late-night conversations, years later, on the topic of “what on earth happened to Bruce?”

So he grew up, married, had two daughters…  He somehow finished college (with honors), but drifted from job to job.  His marriage fell apart.  He tried to raise his two daughters, but their grandparents did most of the heavy lifting, while Bruce drifted along in a fog…  But as the years went by, the fog was much preferable to the loud, obnoxious, domineering, hot-tempered person he was when he was sober.  All of us spent less and less time with him.  Towards the end, I felt his hatred enough that I often felt unsafe, and looked over my shoulder when I walked from my garage to my back door.  (Later, after his death, more than one relative told me that my fears for my life were not unfounded.)

So the week of his funeral, we cried.  Not because we would miss him—but because our hearts broke for his wasted potential…  for the two daughters he had failed in many ways…  for what he could have been.

And the years went by—his grave unmarked and his life mostly unmourned.  Thinking about him, remembering him, was painful... 

But lately, I’ve begun to remember the boy I grew up with.  I recall the little guy who had a bit of a temper even then…  If any of us aggravated him to the point of retaliation, he would use the worst bad word he knew—he would call the offender (get ready for it) a “poo poo pie.”

I remember the little brother who, big and strong as he was, was never a bully—but rather, always stood up for the weak.  One time when he was about twelve, he was sent to the principal’s office for fighting, and our dad was called.  It turned out that one of the other boys in his class had a mother who regularly had “nervous breakdowns” and spent time in the local mental hospital.  The other boys were making fun of the kid on the playground, and Bruce stepped in to make sure that didn’t happen any more.

When he was in eighth grade, I came home after school one day and Bruce was in bed—his face beaten to a pulp, almost unrecognizable.  It turned out some gangbanger-wannabes were hassling a girl at his school.  He faced them down and told them to leave her alone.  A few moments later they jumped him from behind and knocked him down and out…  But I don’t think he ever had regrets for standing up for the helpless, no matter what the cost.

I remember the outstanding scholar he was.  Schoolwork was nearly effortless for him.  (I’m pretty sure he had a photographic memory like our father did, and like one of his daughters.)  His seventh grade math teacher put it well, in a parent-teacher conference:  “It really bugs me that I have to give Bruce A’s, when I know perfectly well that he does his homework leaned up against a locker five minutes before class!”

Everyone remembers the outstanding athlete he was.  The week he died, we got a note from Neal Ormond, who announced the West Aurora football games on the radio during the years Bruce played (three years of varsity).  Twenty years later, Mr. Ormond still remembered his pleasure in announcing Bruce’s plays on the field. 

I was away at college all three years that Bruce played varsity football, and I’d never seen him play.  So for his last game, the great crosstown rivalry of East Aurora vs. West Aurora in the fall of 1975, I flew home in a small chartered plane to see him play—and it was worth it.  West Aurora had lost every single game of Bruce’s senior year, in spite of his heroic efforts every Friday night.  But that night, Bruce ran the only touchdown of the game into the end zone—and then scored the extra points.  West Aurora won, 8 to 3. 
Bruce never played college football—he was too troubled by then, and burned out, and he became a father not long after high school.  But oh, the memories!…  Our dad kept a scrapbook of it all.

So now I choose to remember not the rude, abrasive, menacing alcoholic of the later years—but the boy I grew up with.  The person he could have been.  The person God meant for him to be.  I think it’s time I had a grave marker made for my little brother—he deserves that.  Bruce, I hope you found peace.  I think I finally have.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday Funny: Stories About Grandpa

The other day I rediscovered some stories about my grandpa, Sture Nels Wallin, that my father wrote down many years ago.  I don’t remember much about Grandpa Wallin; he mostly watched baseball with my dad when we visited them.  So it’s nice to get to know him better through these stories, written down by his oldest son...

“Dad got a job as a hired hand when he was young, and was considered a very good one.  He was not big—about  5’8” and 160 pounds—but he was very strong and a great athlete.

The youthful pranks of his day were funnier and less destructive than now.  Once he and a friend named Freeman Larson made a big batch of pancake batter and fried several about half an inch thick and the size of the frying pan.  They used them with frosting to make a layer cake and sneaked it into the kitchen of the church party.  They found a vantage point to watch as a lady cut the cake, looked puzzled, tasted it, and called a friend over.  More women gathered, and he said the ladies ate almost the whole cake as each of them tasted it and tried to find out who had brought it.

(Pictured:  Jack Phelps, Carl Peterson, Sture Wallin)

Sara Elizabeth Peterson (his future wife) came to Hordeville to work in the bank, which is how they came to meet at a church social.  Must have been love at first sight, as on the way home Mom asked a girlfriend, “Who was that smart-aleck with Agdie Samuelson?” 

Once when we were small one of us asked Dad if Mom could run fast when she was young.  “I'll say she could,” Dad answered.  “I chased her for seven years before I caught her.”  Much of this was caused by WWI, as Dad enlisted the day after war was declared in 1917 and did not get back from Europe until late 1919.

In the summer of 1942 the hired man and I were struggling to load 100-pound sacks of fertilizer into a box wagon whose top was about 6 feet above the ground.  Dad came over, picked a bag off the ground with one hand, and in one motion one-armed it straight over his head and handed it to Butch, who was in the wagon.  He would have been 49 years old at that time.  He walked away without a word, and we quit griping.

Dad really abhorred pettiness and tiny revenges for fancied wrongs.  On the other hand, he took no abuse.  Once in 1913 when the railroad was being built, he took exception to a remark some lout on the crew made as he was escorting Mom past the drug store. He took her to her rooming house, came back and decked the guy—rendering him unconscious and knocking out some teeth in the process.  The next day the sheriff phoned and said he had a warrant for him and he could save some fees if he went to the courthouse in Aurora without being fetched—so he did.  The judge heard all the testimony and arrived at his decision:  “Guilty.  That will be a dollar and costs, and there won't be any costs.”   

Grandpa, I feel like I know you a little better now!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Black Sheep Sunday: Philip Wyatt and His Three Elizabeths

My sister-in-law Susie has some interesting ancestors.  I’ve written about two of them before—sisters Anna Grimm Wyatt and Eva Grimm Wyatt.  Going back further in time, I discovered Philip Paul Wyatt—Susie’s great-great grandfather—who had three wives named Elizabeth, and seems to have been something of a wanderer.

Philip was born in Somerset, England, in 1821.  His father was a successful farmer who had eight children with his first wife, Susanna:  James (we’ll get back to him later), our boy Philip, Mary, Susanna, William, Joan, Rhoda (who kept a diary that survived), and Elizabeth. 

Philip was first married in England in 1844, to Elizabeth Quick.  The marriage record lists him as a “bachelor” and her as a “spinster”—in other words, first marriage for both.  Philip was a butcher by trade.  Soon they had a son named Mark John Quick Wyatt, born in 1845. 

Philip and his first Elizabeth were separated by 1848, and Philip was on his way to America.  What caused Philip to abandon his family—or did Elizabeth flee her husband?  Or perhaps she didn’t want to go to America?  In the 1851 English census, Elizabeth and her five-year-old son are living as lodgers in someone else’s home.  Her son Mark later emigrated to Australia, where his descendants can still be found.   (I’ve corresponded with one.)

Anyway, in July 1848 Philip’s name is found on a ship passenger list, arriving in New York City on the ship “Robert Peel.”  On the same ship, listed right after Philip, are George and Elizabeth Towils and their young son John—the same Elizabeth who would become Philip’s second wife. 

Philip and Elizabeth Rockett Towils were married two years later, in 1850.  (I wonder if Philip had a legal divorce from his first wife?)  They had four sons in the 1850s—Edward, Albert, Walter, and Adolphus—and also raised Betsy’s son John.   

The family didn’t stay in one place for long…  In the 1850 census their residence is Albion, New York, where Philip worked as a butcher.  By 1860 they lived in Terre Haute, Indiana with their sons—but seven-year-old Albert was born in Kentucky, so they most likely lived there after they left New York but before they came to Indiana, where their younger sons were born.

They didn’t tarry long in Indiana.  The 1866 Oshkosh City Directory lists Philip as a butcher on Ferry Street.  The 1868 Oshkosh directory lists him, surprisingly, as a “hop grower.”  What happened to the butcher shop?

In 1870 the family appears in the census records twice!  In January they were enumerated with all five sons in St. Joseph, Missouri—a popular layover point for those planning to head west in the spring.  Then in August they were enumerated in San Jose, California.  Philip is now a “brewer” and their oldest two boys are farm laborers.  (Stepson John had struck out on his own by then.)

But they must not have stayed long in California.  An 1875 newspaper ad which ran in the Terre Haute “Saturday Evening Mail” said this:  “For the finest roasts—the tenderest steaks—the juiciest chops—the nicest cutlets—the best breakfast bacon—the choicest meat of all kinds, go to Phil Wyatt, the well known English Butcher, who makes a specialty of this business.”

Philip’s second wife Elizabeth died in Indiana in 1877, of “chronic inflammation of the stomach,” according to her obituary, after being quite ill for three years.  Her obituary also contains this startling information:  “In accordance with the English custom Mrs. Wyatt requested that her body be kept for some time.  Her mother’s corpse was not interred until 16 days after death.”  The obit also says, “During all of her terrible sickness, Mrs. Wyatt displayed rare womanly fortitude.”  (Apparently fortitude was rare in women at that time.)

Philip soon moved on to Chicago.  In the 1880 census he is a widower aged sixty who lives with his son Albert and family (as do Philip’s other three sons).  Ten people in a Chicago apartment—it must have been tight quarters!  Philip is a butcher, and all four of his sons work in a butcher shop. 

Philip didn’t remain a widower for long.  His brother James, an attorney back in Somerset, England, had a fiancĂ© there—a wealthy spinster named Elizabeth Paull.  By 1881 Philip was living back in Somerset and he married his brother’s sweetheart there—making her Philip’s third Elizabeth.  On the marriage record, Philip states that he is a “cattle seller.”

Somehow, Philip ended up separated from this third Elizabeth, back in America, and living in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, perhaps to be closer to his sisters.  Philip died of “brain paralysis” in 1892 in Oshkosh.  His obituary in the Oshkosh “Daily Northwestern” says that he “ran a meat market on Main Street for some time but subsequently sold it.”  There must have been bad blood between Elizabeth the Third and Philip’s four sons, because there were legal squabbles over land and property that went on at least through 1895.

So let’s summarize:  Philip lived in England, New York, Kentucky, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, California, Indiana, Chicago, England, and Wisconsin… that I know of.

English author Patricia Wendorf wrote a historical novel entitled “Double Wedding Ring” about Philip’s sister, Rhoda, based on Rhoda’s diaries.  The author changed the last name of the family to Graypaull, but kept the first names of all of the Wyatt siblings—except for Philip, whom she renamed “Mark” in her book.  Rhoda’s diary had much to say about her brother’s money problems and irresponsible, wandering ways.  Perhaps the author was afraid of Philip’s offended descendants sending hate mail…  But what fun is a family without a few black sheep in it?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sentimental Sunday: A Very Special Wedding

Not all family history is ancient history.  Once in a while an event takes place that makes me think, “This story should be told.  This story should be written down and remembered.”  One such story in our family is that of Frank and Nancy’s wedding.

Shortly after my mid-life wedding in 2007, my sister met a man named Frank.  Both had been previously married (and had their hearts broken).  It was true love, and they got engaged in 2008. 
Nancy had been living in California for decades by then and had deep roots there, as did Frank.  But as they planned their wedding, she was continually saddened by the thought that our bedridden mother would not be able to attend. 

Mom lived in Illinois, as I do.  She had missed my wedding the previous year, being too frail to attend (as well as being legally blind and nearly deaf).  When I got married in 2007, I went over to her house in my wedding dress, along with Nancy in her maid-of-honor dress.  “Mom, I’m getting married today!” I told her.  Her face lit up with a smile as she touched the fabric of my dress.  I wasn’t sure if she would remember that day, but I wanted to give her what I could.

As Nancy sadly planned her motherless wedding, it was Frank who came up with the idea.  He said to his beloved that if her mother couldn’t come to the wedding—they would move the wedding to her mother.  Mom lived in a large, bright room with our sister-in-law Susie by this time.  When presented with the idea of hosting the wedding, Susie said that she would be delighted.

 And so it was…  On December 26, 2008, we all gathered in Mom’s large room at Susie’s house.  The room had been festooned with lots of white netting, white lights, and white candles.  There were about 20 chairs set up at one end of the room.  At the other end, next to the fireplace, there was a ivy-covered arch.  And just a few steps away was my mother, tucked in under an afghan in her special chair, which was turned towards the arch for the ceremony.  She was wearing a wrist corsage of red roses that matched her daughter’s wedding bouquet.

Five of Frank and Nancy’s six children were able to attend.  Rather than a best man and maid of honor, the five children stood on each side of the couple as they were wed.  My friend Karen, an ordained minister, officiated the ceremony, and our niece Sarah and her husband Russ read the scripture.  It was beautiful and magical and just perfect.

This may not be an old story, but it’s a story that should be remembered and passed down in the family... my family.  Well done, Frank and Nancy—and happy sixth anniversary!


Monday, December 8, 2014

Military Monday: A Young Soldier's "Personal Affairs"

After my father’s death in 1993, my sister and I sat on the floor of the living room one evening, going through boxes and drawers of his military papers, deciding what to keep.  We found a booklet entitled “Personal Affairs of Military Personnel and Dependents”—this is the front cover.  There are some notes in my father’s handwriting, which read as follows:

“Note:  In [the] event of my untimely demise, Be sure to collect these 4:

1.  Insurance,

2.  6 months gratuity ($900) lump sum;

3.  My back accrued pay.  (2. and 3. Not automatic—action must be initiated by you.  See inside of book for details.)

4.  Grab my money out of the bank (using enclosed power of attorney) before they freeze it.  The enclosed Power of Attorney lasts no longer than I do, but if you get it out before they know I’m gone, it will save trouble.  Otherwise file my will and they will come across.

This book will answer a lot of questions.”

I guess this is consistent with the fact that Dad was a business major in college before the war!  

The booklet had three pages of information about his final wishes and was meant to be left with his next of kin—in his case, his mother.  In my imagination I am picturing a roomful of recruits, headed for overseas, sitting at tables and filling in this booklet, thinking about their own deaths possibly for the first time, as it sunk in that yes, they were headed for the front lines of what we now call World War Two and might never return.

Page 1 gives basic information, including that he is 21 years old.  He carries $10,000 of life insurance, payable to his mother Sara, with his father as Contingent Beneficiary.  (That’s the equivalent of about $133,000 today.)  This optional insurance cost him $6.50 a month out of his pay—but his parents were not well off financially, and that money would have meant a lot to them—a chance to buy their own farm instead of renting, for example.

From his army pay of $150 per month (about $2,000 today), he had $50 a month sent to his bank at home, and another $18.75 taken out to buy War Bonds.  The booklet said, “If I am reported missing, missing in action, interned in a neutral country, or captured or besieged by enemy forces, the allotments out of my pay for insurance and support of my relatives will be paid by the government for 12 months.”

Page 1 of the form goes on to say that Dad had executed a will and Power of Attorney and mailed them to his father in Big Rock, Illinois.

Page 2 has blanks to fill in where he might have a Safe Deposit Box, where he left personal papers, and what debts he owed (none).  Then it says, “If I die in the line of duty, from wounds, or illness, or other causes, I have designated [here he filled in his mother’s name] as a dependent to receive  the six months’ gratuity pay awarded by the government.”  Dad hand-write off to the side, “$900.”  It then had a place for the soldier to list where they had bank accounts. 

Page 3 gets even more “real.”  It says, “I desire that my permanent place of burial be at ________.”  (Dad wrote in, “No Preference.”)  It goes on to say, “If I die abroad, my remains will be returned to the United States by the Government after the War, but not earlier.”  It goes on to give other instructions to the family as to how to retrieve the body and receive funds for burial expenses and a possible pension.  Copies of any marriage records and birth certificates of children are then asked for.

In the photo, taken at his parents’ new home in Big Rock, Illinois before he went overseas, Dad (far right) is posing with his father, little brother Richard, little sister Janet, and mother.   Perhaps his sister Helen is the one taking the picture.  He was just twenty years old when he was drafted—barely out of his teens—but forced to think about “the event of his untimely demise.”

Monday, December 1, 2014

Military Monday: Forgiveness and Friendship

I have written quite a bit about my father and his service in the U.S. Army in World War II.  This story took place a few years later.

After the war, my father was required to be in the U.S. Army Reserves for a number of years, and go to training camp for a few weeks in the summer.  In fact, he once told me that he very nearly ended up in the Korean War—but his card didn’t get chosen during the random drawing of one in three cards in the file. 

In the late 1940s he met my mother, Adra, and they were married in 1950.  They moved into an apartment at 620 Archer Avenue in Aurora—the downstairs of an old white frame house which has since been torn down.  (The first photo shows Robert and Adra on the front porch.)  Both had jobs within walking distance—Dad at a steel storage company called Equipto, and Mom at another steel storage company down the street called All-Steel.  

Into the upstairs apartment moved a young married couple very much like themselves—but yet so different.  Hartwig and Frieda were recent immigrants; they had arrived in the U.S. from Austria in 1952.  The 1930s had been a bad time to be a young man in Austria.  Hartwig, being five years younger than my father and therefore too young to be drafted into Hitler’s Army, ended up in an organization called the Hitler Youth.  He would have been 15 years old when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.

I wanted to find out more about being a young person in Nazi Germany and Austria.  I found this quote from Adolf Hitler on the History Learning Site.  He said this of German schoolchildren:  “The weak must be chiselled away.  I want young men and women who can suffer pain.  A young German must be as swift as a greyhound, as tough as leather, and as hard as Krupp's steel.”

The U.S. Holocaust Museum website had this quote: 

“These boys and girls enter our organizations at ten years of age, and often for the first time get a little fresh air; after four years of the Young Folk they go on to the Hitler Youth, where we have them for another four years… And even if they are still not complete National Socialists [Nazis], they go to Labor Service and are smoothed out there for another six, seven months…  And whatever class consciousness or social status might still be left…  the Wehrmacht [German armed forces] will take care of that.”—Adolf Hitler (1938)

But back to my story:  Hartwig and Frieda moved into the apartment above my parents.  This would have been in the early 1950s.  Even in my childhood in the 1960s, my father still referred to the Germans as “Krauts”—an old habit that died hard, after spending a year of his life on the front lines shooting Germans at every opportunity and in nearly continual fear for his life.  Dad continued to have nightmares about the war for twenty years after he came home.

But somehow, the two couples ended up friends.  I wonder if they ever talked about the war, or Hitler, or what it was like in Austria in the 1940s?  I don’t know.  I do know that Hartwig worked as a night watchman in a nearby factory, while he taught himself English and studied engineering books.  Eventually he got a better job there as a spot welder, then a maintenance electrician, then a mechanic, and then an engineer.  He and Frieda had four children and had a good life in America.

But more importantly to this story—Hartwig and Frieda wanted to put their past behind them and become American citizens.  To do that, they needed American citizens to be their sponsors.  And who were the sponsors for Hartwig and Frieda?  My parents.

I remember, even after each couple purchased their own home in the later 1950s, my father and I dropping by their home or Hartwig dropping by ours.  I am so very glad that those two young couples, in their own small way, were a part of the healing, friendship, and forgiveness that needed to take place after one of the worst wars in modern history. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Remembering Norman

It was on the day before Thanksgiving in 2008 that something happened that, a few years later, inspired my very first blog post...  Read about it here -

"For the Love of Norman."