Family Background and the Gray Period - Part 3
My parents, Robert and Patricia (Merrick) Burgdorf, were ill-equipped to handle poverty and other problems their young family faced – they were largely unprepared to be married and have children at all. High school sweethearts, they married just months after they graduated in 1947, when they both were 19. This meant that my mother was married even below the average age for first marriages of women, which that year had fallen to an historic low of 20 years, and my father was well beneath the average age of nearly 24 for men. My mother later admitted that she had been quite unprepared when she got married and was expected to take on the domestic chores that went with the role of wife at that time. She had lacked any knowledge and experience of cooking skills, and described how the first time that she boiled water for cooking something she had failed to pay attention and left the water to boil until the metal pan melted down. She had to learn how to prepare foods dish-by-dish, by trial-and-error, until she eventually mastered the rudiments and, over time, ultimately became quite a good cook. She also had to learn how to do laundry (with a big metal washtub, handwringer, and clotheslines), iron clothes, clean floors, wash dishes, do the sewing, and all the other tasks included on the job description of a housewife (except for the well-to-do) in the forties and fifties.
Nor was my father any readier to “bring home the bacon,” and fulfill the traditional role of breadwinner, than my mother was to be a homemaker. When they married, he had not decided what trade or career path he wanted to pursue, and did not have a steady job. While in high school and during summers, he had jobs as a golf caddie, as a lifeguard, and on an “ice wagon” delivering blocks of ice. He had thoughts of going on to college, but his parents refused to pay for it, calling it “a waste of money” (Some relatives told another version that had it that his parents wanted dad to go to college but that he refused). Probably as an act of rebellion or revenge, upon graduation from high school, he decided to get married, a decision that earned considerable displeasure from my paternal grandparents (this family discord was never acknowledged or discussed with us kids by Mom or Dad). After their marriage, perhaps in an attempt to repair some of the rift with his father, a successful tool-and-die maker, Dad announced his intention to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter into the same profession.
Tool-and-die makers are skilled artisans who make the tools that are used to make industrial products: operating with incredible precision within tolerances of less than one thousandth of an inch, they develop and craft the devices and equipment (such as lathes, cutters, form tools, punches, and dies) that produce manufactured products. My grandfather, John “Jack” Burgdorf (after whom my brother Jack was named), had for some years been a proficient tool-and-die maker. He was a master craftsman who could, almost literally, make anything that could be made out of metal, wood, and most other manufacturing materials. As my Dad made plans to pursue his father’s line of work, Grandpa Burgdorf was instrumental in getting him a key accoutrement of the tool-and-die-making profession – a large, polished wood toolbox, with a few of the basic tools he would need. Nearly six decades later when my father passed away, I inherited this toolbox. It was still beautiful, shiny, and brand new, and contained only a few never-used tools. The reason was that before he actually began any tool-and-die training or work, Dad changed his mind and, for reasons he never explained to us, abandoned his plans to join that profession. This obviously represented another breach with his father. Mom sometimes said that her new in-laws blamed her for my Dad’s career choices after he married her. I wish I knew what actually led him to take a slow and somewhat erratic path toward the choice of an occupation with which he could support his family.
After rejecting tool-and-die making, Dad had stints working in a bread-baking plant and as a mechanic in a garage, along with periods of unemployment. He eventually decided to become an electrician – a field that suited his mechanical deftness and involved interesting challenges that would make use of his more analytical and cerebral aptitudes. In the long run, being an electrician would prove to be a fine way for Dad to make a living. The only problem was that before would-be electricians can reach full electrician status (Journeyman Electrician) they must serve an extended apprenticeship lasting up to 5 years. At that time, apprentices were paid a minimal, almost token, salary and required to work hard, both in classroom sessions on electrical theory and such things as the nuances of electrical building codes, and also in on-the-job training under the supervision of a journeyman. The pay during apprenticeship, hardly enough to support a couple, was nowhere near enough to support a family of five. Added to prior years of floundering and false starts in finding and staying with a job, Dad’s apprenticeship meant a lengthy extension of our impoverishment – another 5 years of being have-nots, of living from hand to mouth, and of always wondering whether there would be enough for tomorrow.
The young ages at which my parents got married, their lack of preparation for taking on their assumed marital roles – she as housewife and he as wage-earner – and their having three children in a little over five years, explain a great deal about the difficult beginnings of our family. But there was much more to it than that. Mom and Dad each brought some admirable and lovable qualities to their couple, and also some significant weaknesses, including, particularly in his case, some that were very destructive, even tragic. They met in high school and soon became inseparable. They seemingly had a lot going for them. Both of them were quite good-looking, fun-loving, and generally well-liked. My Dad was athletic, smart, and handsome. Mom was pretty (with naturally curly brown hair that she was proud of), friendly, and considered “popular,” perhaps what she, as a teen-age girl of her generation, considered the ultimate accolade at that time of her life. They doted on one another, and waited only a few months after receiving their high school diplomas before they tied the knot.
Mom was a wonderful woman – warm, loving, and fun-loving. Beneath her outward warmth, sparkle, affectionate nature, and chatty gregariousness, however, she was highly self-deprecating, frequently referring, almost as a mantra, to how “dumb” she was. Often she put herself down and put herself last, acting as if she simply deserved less than the rest of us. She never learned to drive a car, partly because she lacked the confidence to do it, and partly because of the limitations she mapped out for herself in the role of housewife.
Mom once explained to me that she thought her lack of confidence regarding her intelligence stemmed from her father’s doing much of her homework for her because he considered it too difficult for her. And her mother, who married at 13, did not view “book-learning” as having much value for a girl.
What was particularly maddening for those who knew her well, was that she was not a dumb bunny at all, but actually had considerable native intelligence. In spheres she considered within her domain and areas of interest, such as nursery rhymes, medical remedies, games, cooking, people and personalities, toys, holidays, old songs, and many others, she demonstrated that she was quite sharp and could absorb and retain great quantities of knowledge. In our early childhood days when there was no money for children’s books, she recited (and repeated pretty much word for word) the full stories of standard fairy tales, including Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Jack and the Beanstalk, the Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Hansel and Gretel, and Rumpelstiltskin. She also once spoke with considerable pride about a story called “Leo the Lion” that she had written when she was in school – a story that her teacher praised and graded as an “A.”
After her children had grown up a bit, Mom became an avid, though not voracious, reader; her tastes tended toward humor and domestic themes, e.g., Erma Bombeck. She loved to play Scrabble and was a pretty good player, especially given limitations on her vocabulary. She was a person to whom other people tended to turn to for advice and practical information; she was known as someone with limited book-learning but considerable common sense. I will always wonder what would have happened if Mom had developed a positive image of her mental powers, and had made the most of her intellectual abilities. Unfortunately, however, despite the many wonderful qualities my mother had, including an indomitable spirit to make the best of whatever came her way, she lacked the maturity and self-confidence that might have helped her to handle better the challenges she and her young family faced.
My father’s makeup and disposition are more difficult for me to characterize, largely because I was and am baffled by the conflicts and contradictions he embodied. Many children idealize their fathers. “My dad could beat up your dad,” went the old playground taunt. Well, my Dad most probably really could have beaten up most of the other kids’ dads; he was quite an imposing figure – big, solid, and muscular. He used to describe himself as “a ninth of a ton” – 222 pounds. He was impressively strong. His work as an ice wagon deliveryman had caused him to bulk up his naturally big musculature. He sometimes mentioned with pride how the work had required him to lift and carry large blocks of ice (these were the days when many homes still had real “ice boxes” for keeping their perishable food cooled), to the point that he could ultimately take two pairs of ice tongs and use his arms to raise a 50-pound block of ice straight out horizontally on each side of his body and hold them there. The oversize shoulder muscles he developed stayed with him the rest of his life, even after he developed a rather sizeable beer-belly later on (at his funeral, at least two people came up to me and mentioned that my father had the broadest shoulders they had ever seen).
And despite his bulk and muscularity, before he became older and fatter, Dad was quite dexterous and agile. As youngsters, we were impressed and surprised whenever we saw the big man run fast, or make a quick basketball move. He had worked as a lifeguard, and was an adroit, elegant swimmer and diver. He developed and perfected his own unique horseshoe-pitching style, and became an outstanding horseshoes player. He could hit a softball a mile, although he had a tendency to pop the ball up, so that he often hit long-and-high fly balls that were either colossal homeruns or very long outs. He was a skillful player of various other types of games, including checkers, poker, black-jack, throwing washers, and Evansville’s local card game – Clabber.
In areas of interest to him, he showed a sharp and retentive intellect. He could be discerning and exact regarding the meaning and usage of words; he completed the crossword puzzle in the newspaper every day (a tradition he carried on from his father). He was very good with numbers and could easily make computations in his head. He knew a lot about different kinds of tools, the names of and how to tie various types of knots in ropes, makes and models of cars, hunting dogs and guns, the Ohio River in the area surrounding Evansville, how to tie one’s necktie in a Double Windsor Knot, and an impressive variety of other things. He had extraordinary penmanship, clear and artistic, almost calligraphic.
He had remarkable mechanical skills. He knew just about everything one could know about the internal combustion engines of his day, and could do almost any repair needed on a car or truck. From childhood he showed an appetite for taking mechanical things apart, figuring out how they worked, and reassembling them in working order. He could perform this magic on simple devices or more complicated ones such as clocks, lawnmowers, or cash registers. In shop class in high school, he made, among other impressive creations, a beautifully crafted hunting knife; and an exquisite, artistically carved and highly accurate, archery bow, that have been handed down as family treasures.
Dad could be very brave, even heroic, and did not panic in a crisis. When the engine on our car once burst into flames, he kept a cool head, got all of us out of the car, threw open the hood, and grabbed handfuls of dirt to throw on the fire and smother it (I got to help in what was for me as a young kid a scary, exciting firefighting mission); he then methodically cleaned the dirt off the engine, repaired the trouble spots, and got the car started again. Even more impressive was his well-timed action during an incident at an electricians’ picnic. This was an annual party sponsored by the local union of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The event – a family picnic held at a local outdoor facility – was one that my family looked forward to each year. On this particular day, attendees’ cars were parked, as usual, on a grassy knoll not far from the shelter house where food and drinks were kept. Apparently someone had parked without leaving the car in gear or setting the parking brake, because all of a sudden a car started rolling down the hill without a driver, picking up speed, and heading toward the clusters of people relaxing nearby. While everyone else stood with their mouths agape, my dad ran toward the car, then beside it, and managed to open the driver’s side door, and, holding onto the top of the door frame, leapt into the car far enough to get his foot on the brake, and brought the car to a halt. His quick-thinking and action turned a potentially lethal incident into relief and an occasion for pats on his back. Dad’s pluck could border on recklessness at times. We once watched in fear and horror as he and a friend, on a mutual dare, jumped from the top of a stripper pit some fifty feet down into the water below. The friend went feet first, while my dad did a perfect swan dive.
Dad also had a fine sense of humor. He liked to sing humorous songs or parodies, and was fond of practical jokes, such as filling the kitchen sink with green jello and letting it gel, or setting all the clocks in the house ahead an hour. He had a quick wit, and enjoyed puns, wisecracks, and jokes – both dirty and otherwise. He also had musical talent and was apparently something of a trumpet prodigy during his high school years, when he played in both a school orchestra and a jazz band.
On the whole, I can say (I believe without father-worship) that with his physical gifts, intellect, talents, and aptitudes, I have never known, met, or seen a person with more potential than my father. He could have done almost anything and been successful at it. But during the early days of my youth, his energies were devoted almost exclusively to finishing up his apprenticeship and becoming a journeyman electrician. And this path offered the promise, after some desperately impecunious years of apprenticing, of eventual advancement and solvency for my Dad and our family.
Continue to Part 4: Alcoholism