Like many people my age my parents were children of the Great Depression. My father was born in May, 1927 a few years before the great stock market crash of 1929. Although common for the time dad’s life started out rougher than some. My grandmother Melinda, dad’s mom, died giving birth to him. Melinda was barely twenty-years-old and dad would have been my grandparents first child.
My grandfather remarried when dad was around three or four-years-old and the new side of the family, especially my grandfather’s new wife referred to my dad as “the steifkind.”
Stiefkind is a German word with various meanings. Dad explained to me that in his world it meant “orphan” although I think the primary meaning is “step-child.” Given the mortality rate of the 1920’s and 30’s having a stiefkind as part of the family was probably common but common does not necessarily mean healthy and loving and so the word “stiefkind” came to mean “not my child” when dad’s new mom spoke it.
My dad told me he lived in terror of his new mom who from what he says resented him as not her own. I don’t doubt this because my sister and I did not have much of relationship with our step-grandmother. We thought her to be mean. Apparently my grandfather was of the passive sort or ignorant of the way my dad’s step-mom treated him because he tolerated it.
Dad told me that when he was sick as a child he always imagined that his real mom was comforting him by putting a cool cloth on his forehead or stroking his hair like moms do with their little ones when they are ill.
My grandfather was more fortunate than most during the Depression because he kept his job at a Milwaukee box/paper factory. That didn’t mean times were not tough though. Dad got a paper route when he was nine or ten and part of what he earned went to the family budget. When I talked to my dad about these pre-World War Two days I had the feeling kids had to grow up quicker than they do now. They were given responsibilities at a young age and expected to fulfill them along with the schooling they received. I remember dad telling me the story of how excited he was to get a crystal radio set. No X-Box or Play Station in those days!
There is little doubt in my mind that growing up when he did prepared my dad and his generation to endure what was to come in the Second World War.
Because dad was born in 1927 he wasn’t drafted until 1945. The war with Germany was over by the time he was drafted so he was being trained for the invasion of Japan. The dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan ended that part of the war much to the relief of the men who were being trained to invade the Japanese home islands. They had been told that the US would probably take 1,000,000 casualties invading Japan and given the fanaticism of Japan at the time the number is probably not far off the mark.
Anyway, dad was relieved the war was over. The Army still needed soldiers to replace the guys coming home so they made dad’s rifle company into a military police unit and sent them to police post-war western Germany. Dad’s unit was in the British zone of occupation and from what he told me that was because one of their main jobs was hunting down American deserters and black-marketeers, two terms that often meant the same. After a year and half of military police duty dad came home along with millions of other veterans.
He returned to his parents home in Milwaukee and not much had changed. He was still the stiefkind to his step-mom although he and my grandfather seemed to be close.
Dad had an interest in cars and got a job as an auto-mechanic after his discharge in 1946. He wanted to go to school as well and take advantage of the GI Bill. Not working full-time was not an option so he tried to do both by going to night classes which were hard to get, sporadic and over crowded once you could get into them.
After two years of trying to balance all that he dropped out of school and got a job as a draftsman.
Dad was technically minded and eventually he marketed his auto-mechanic experience and draftsman skills into a technician’s job at AC Electronics. I am uncertain as to what AC Electronics manufactured in 1951 but that’s where he met my mom who worked on a production line. They were married in 1952 and in 1953 I was born. My sister would follow in 1957.
My dad must have done all right at AC Electronics because he bought a house on Milwaukee’s northwest side near Timmerman Airport. I have vague memories of that house and many years later when taking my son to baseball practice in that area managed to find it.
By 1960 AC Electronics was involved in the space program. The Russians launching Sputnik in 1957 had caused the US to jump-start our own space program in what would be a race to the moon. Dad’s company thought enough of dad’s abilities to send him to M.I.T. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in 1959-61 so off we went to Winchester, Massachusetts (suburb of Boston) for about 1 1/2 years.
By 1961 we were back in Wisconsin and we lived first in South Milwaukee, then West Allis and finally in Milwaukee itself while my sister and I grew up.
My dad was a generous man. My mom, who had a far worse Great Depression experience than my dad used to say that if my dad had a nickel in his pocket it would burn a hole in it. And that’s one of the things I remember about dad. He always had a nickel for one of his kids. I’d use mine for candy at school or I’d save it for baseball cards.
So for most of my childhood I remember a happy family. Mom and dad worked hard to provide for my sister and I the kind of life they did not have growing up during the war and the Depression. I remember fondly my dad teaching me baseball, taking me to Milwaukee Brave’s games and taking me fishing. He always had time for us and we never felt like the “stiefkinds” We were his kids and that meant a great deal to him.
By 1970 our home life had started to change. Mom had been showing signs of depression for a number of years and my sister came down with an incurable muscle wasting disease. And then to top it off the US had won the race to the moon and the space program was cut back. Dad lost his job after 18 years and my mom went into severe depression. She was hospitalized and received shock therapy and while she came around a bit my dad always said she was not the girl he married.
Dad was not unemployed long but he had his hands full with my mom and sister, who fought a lot, even as my sister’s disease grew worse and mom would slip in and out of depressive moods.
By 1974 I was married and out of the house so I watched dad cope with family problems for the rest of his life. He coped well.
He never wavered as far as I know. He never thought of divorce even though my parents’ marriage in those years was anything but happy. He did what he could for my sister and she lived with them until it became impossible for my mom and him to care for her. Even after she moved out dad did whatever he could to help my sister’s standard of living while she received help from our county in independent living (she had a full-time live in aide). Many a time my sister called him to help her in her conflicts with the live-in aide who was male and who supposedly my sister had married on the sly. To this day, I’m not sure about all that.
Words are inadequate to describe the challenges my dad had with my mom and my sister. Yet, he consistently did what he could in playing the hand life had given him.
I saw in my dad the same love he had for me and my sister manifest itself in his love for his grandson. He was so very proud of his grandson and spent a lot of time with him showing the same kind of attention he had showed me. In fact, I have in my attic a number of wooden ships dad built for his grandson when he was about six-years-old. My son can’t stand the thought of getting rid of them because of the built-in memories they contain of his time with grandpa. He plans to pass them on to my grandson from the great-grandfather he’ll never know.
Dad grew up a Lutheran. This was common among Milwaukee’s German community back in the 30’s because many of them had immigrated from the northern parts of Germany which was Protestant. By dad’s own words it never meant much to him and I’m guessing it didn’t mean much to my grand-parents either. Perhaps their faith was more cultural than real.
In any event dad married a Catholic, a taboo at the time, especially for the Catholics. Dad would later become a Catholic himself. I remember it well. It was the mid-sixties and both my sister and I went to Catholic school. At the time, they still taught that all Protestants went automatically to hell so my sister and I did our best to nag dad into Catholicism to keep him out.
It would be wrong to say that dad became a Catholic because of us nagging him though. Dad was a reader. Some of my earliest memories are of dad taking me to the library and coming home with an arm load of books. His interests were all over the place; religion, astronomy, fishing, cars, whatever interested him at the moment. So, when it became time to become a Catholic he attended Catholic Catechism class and read whatever he could about the religion.
Apparently, he was convinced and was confirmed a Catholic the same day I was. I was about ten at the time.
Later in life I would leave the Catholic Church of my birth and become an evangelical Protestant. It was not a happy transition with my family and a large part of that was due to my jerkiness. However, after a few years when reality set in I had many talks with my father about faith. I’m convinced that his faith had much to do with how he coped with all the unpleasantness going on with mom and my sister. He had character before he had faith, but I believe his faith honed his character.
On a human level my father was my hero. Although I was frequently a jackass in my teen years and he and I fought at times I never doubted he loved me and would do anything within reason for me. As I grew older, married and had a family of my own I came to admire him more and more as he weathered storm after storm with my sister and mom who became harder and harder to deal with.
After mom died in 2004 probably from complications from a depression type med I got to spend more time with dad. By then he was 77 and had cancer, although he did not know it. The Army taught him to smoke and it’s a habit he could not kick although he had periods when seemingly he did.
Every week dad and I met for breakfast or lunch. These were some of most precious memories I have of him. We talked about everything, the past, the future and how he wanted me to handle his will.
I never thought of dad as being sick although it became clear he had Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Dad would minimize his problems but secretly I think he knew his time was short.
And so being all about his family dad bought a condo on a lake north of our city. He said he wanted to spend time there but wanted his family there too so he made me co-owner. Sadly, he would spend little time there before he passed away two years after my mom did.
Dad had gone to the doctor for a bladder problem and the doctors ended up doing a surgery. They expected a full recovery and it seemed dad was doing fine in the days after the surgery. We even made plans to go fishing at our place when he was out of the hospital.
I was working late in my ministry when he called from the hospital. He told me he wanted me to stop by when I finished. I was surprised because I stopped everyday to see him on my way to work. But dad said it couldn’t wait because he was having troubles.
When I got to the hospital I discovered dad in a lot of pain because he could not urinate. The pain was bad and it seemed like forever before they could get a doctor’s order to use a catheter. During that time I talked to dad about many things including his faith. He had become accustomed to me asking him questions about the gospel. I’m not going to surprise anyone by saying that many Catholics and Conservative Protestants do not see the gospel in quite the same way and this I was concerned about.
So, as we talked I noticed that my dad had his little Bible on his bed stand so I picked it up and turned to this passage:
Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” (John 11:17-27 ESV)
I asked dad if he believed it and somewhat annoyed at his evangelical son, said, “yes, of course I believe it.”
I shared that passage with him because I was worried given the pain he was in. The doctors seemed perplexed that he had it all. Eventually though they gave him a catheter and the pain eased although dad was exhausted. The passage I shared with dad and the words, good-bye dad, I’ll see you tomorrow, were the last words I spoke to him.
The hospital called me around 1:30 a.m. asking me if dad wanted to be resuscitated. They had his written declaration but maybe they wanted to be sure. I restated what I knew dad wanted and they muttered something like “okay we’ll try, but come quickly” It was all such a blur as my wife and I bolted out of bed and rushed to the hospital. Although the nurse did not say so I knew dad was dead. I don’t know how I knew, I just knew they had already tried to bring him back but it had not worked.
We arrived at the hospital and found the nurse in tears and that just confirmed my suspicions. Dad had died about two hours after I left him. To this day I regret leaving and not spending his last moments with him. They asked if they could do an autopsy and that’s when they found the cancer. Dad did not die from it but rather from a sudden aneurysm.
My dad was not a great-man, nor a well-known man, nor a rich man. He was a man who loved his country, loved his family and his God. I miss him so very, very much.