John Brotzman, November 15, 2003
In Memorium for Elston S. Brotzman, 11-1-1917, 11-10-2003
He was my dad.
Him and me, we go way back.
I used to say to him, “You know, dad, we go way back.”
But he went way back with all of you.
You all knew him.
He was the oldest man living in the oldest house under the oldest tree in Silvara.
You all knew him real well.
But did you know what he weighed when he was born? He weighed three pounds. His mother kept him warm in a box with warm bricks covered with swaddling clothes. A makeshift incubator put together to help a baby survive. He was premature. He was born the first born of William McKinley Brotzman and Geneva Smith Brotzman.
They nurtured him and he grew. And more babies came. They had eight children, four boys and four girls. Gramma Bill had trouble with the births. With the second or the third child Gramma got really sick. To help out, Grampa Bill’s parents took dad home with them, to take some of the burden off Gramma, make it easier for her. It wasn’t uncommon in those days. The child was just as well off living with one family as the other. He was cared for. And over time, he just stayed with them. It gave them a baby to care for and someone to raise on the farm, to help out.
Dad told me about living on the farm with them. It was a spare existence. They didn’t have much. I know that because I asked him.
If you wanted to know much about dad, you had to ask. The stories didn’t just fall out of him. If you wanted them, you had to go get them, you had to ask.
Well, I asked him about life on the farm. I used to pump him for stories.
He told me that they used to go to town and they’d buy a little sugar and some flour, maybe a yard or two of cloth and that was about it. Anything else they needed they raised themselves or made. They had to. They didn’t have much.
He told me that when he used to go to the store he used to look at the penny candy and, oh, he wanted some. But he hardly ever got any because they didn’t have the money. That was what he remembered about that.
He cleared virgin forest to make fields with his grandfather. They worked hard to make a farm from forest land. I know that because I asked him. I remember once I had bought a scythe and I was struggling to use it. He took it from me and showed me how to use it. He could lay a windrow right in a line, lay all the grain in a row. He showed me how to use it, how to sharpen it. He told me about his grandfather, how the old man could go around a field swinging a scythe. Oh, he could swing it all day long, that old man, just going around the field. I know that because I asked him.
Dad loved living on the farm. He used to go to the city. Grandad lived in the city and dad would go and visit them and all the other kids. But he couldn’t take the noise. The noise and raucousness of the city and all those other kids. He liked to go visit but he always liked to get back to the farm where it was quiet. He loved the quiet of the farm.
He remembered (dad was born during World War 1 and grew up then) he remembered hearing planes go overhead. Once in a great while he’s hear a plane. And he told himself, ‘Someday I’d like to fly one of them’. I know that because I asked him about living on the farm.
Did you know that he was an athlete? He was. If you think of Elston Brotzman you don’t think basketball player. But he was one. And a pretty good one, so I’m told. I heard that.
And did you know that he was a musician? He was. He played the flugelhorn in the Silvara town band. I know that because Tina went to an auction and bought a drum with Silvara on it and a band hat. Mom let it drop that ‘Your dad used to play in the band’. Never knew that before, but she told us and he said yes, he had done that.
Well, he grew up. And he married mom; he won her heart from among her suitors, and there were a few, so I hear. But she liked his quiet strength and the sparkle he brought to the marriage matched the energy that she brought. And the settled down together.
Dad took a job in a store. He was a butcher for a while. And he managed the store. In the store there was all the candy that he had never had as a kid and he ate it until he couldn’t hold another piece. I know that because I noticed that he never ate candy once and I asked him why he never ate candy. He told me the story of working in the store, how he had eaten his fill of candy there and never wanted any any more. I wondered why he never ate candy and he told me.
Well, time went on and the war began. He saw a chance to make his childhood dream come true and he signed up for the Army Air Corps. He was 26 years old, as old as you could be and still be a pilot.
He went in weighing 175 pounds. He came out of boot camp weighing 140. The worked the devil right out of him, he said. But he made it. And a lot of people didn’t. Being a pilot was a glory job. Everyone wanted to be a pilot and they knew it. They didn’t take anything from you there, one mistake and you were out. A lot of people washed out, but not dad. He was a rock solid, good, hard working man and he made it.
He trained in North Carolina and Kentucky. In North Carolina at the hands of a mad Irishman who would take the plane and slap you with the control stick and turn the thing upside down if you made a mistake. Scare the living devil right out of you. But he made it. He worked hard.
After training he was assigned to Florida training Chinese gunners. At the time the government was outfitting China with equipment and training Chinese men to use the equipment to help them in their fight against the Japanese. They would bring the men over and we would train them to use the guns. Dad took them up in the planes and they practiced firing them at other planes to learn how to use them.
Dad thought it was a ‘milk run’. He had it made. He got to fly every day and he loved flying. He thought that was great. And even when he got KP duty, he was a country boy. So when he got KP they’d send him out fishing in the Florida swamps, ‘Go catch something for dinner.’ And he’d go get something for dinner the next day. That was his KP duty. Pretty easy KP. Mom came and joined him there.
Time passed and his orders came to ship out. Mom came home and he went to Denver. He took those orders, knowing it was a death sentence. Denver was the last place a pilot went before going to the Pacific theater of war. Pilots didn’t come back from there. Once assigned to combat duty a pilot flew 50 missions before he was rotated out again. The attrition rate on any mission was 10%. The odds of flying 50 missions without your number coming up was nil. And the Japanese weren’t taking any prisoners if you crashed on land. And if you didn’t crash on land you drowned in the sea. No one came back. But he took the orders and he went. It was his duty.
The war ended while he was there, which saved his life, and, I suppose, making mine possible. He spent a year and a half in Denver.
I know that because once I came down to visit dad. We were waiting for my brother Steve to come in. He lives in New Mexico and he was flying in. When he arrived he was crabbing about the flight. He said he had had to come through Denver and it was snowing or slow or they lost the baggage or something.
Dad was sitting on the couch reading a newspaper. He heard ‘Denver’ and he looked up. ‘Denver?’ he said. ‘I lived there for a year and a half.’
And he went back to reading the newspaper.
I was in my forties and I had never known this before. ‘All right, dad. Let’s go. Let’s have the story’ I said. And he told us the story.
At the war’s end he was in Denver with nowhere to go any more. He was kept on duty as they brought the troops home from overseas, putting things away as the army was standing down after the war. They found out that he had been a butcher so they made him the officer in charge of a cold storage facility for whatever reason. It had nothing to do with anything and he had nothing to do, the place was run by a non-com. He spent most of his time playing pinochle and he hated it. He had been flying every day and now he had to beg to get four hours of flight time a month to get his flight pay. There was nothing to do at the warehouse and he hated it, he was bored.
I found out later that at the end, when his discharge came through, he was approached by a fellow who said, ‘You know, we are starting a cargo airline out here. We’re going to fly cargo around and we need some good pilots. You’re a good man and we’d like you to come work for us. What do you say?’
He said no. Mom urged him to take it, but he said no. He’d been away from home for a long time and he wanted to come home. Home to this town. To this people. To his people. He wanted to come home.
I know this because I asked him. I had to ask him. I wanted to hear the story and I asked him.
After he told me this I thought how different our lives would have been had he said yes. We would have lived I a major urban center. He was a perfect man for the job. Rock solid, sober, hard working, rules oriented kind of guy, very bright. And in time he would have progressed to be a pilot of a commercial passenger airline. He was perfect for it. . He would surely have succeeded had he tried this. It would have meant lots of money. International travel available on a whim; pilots get free passes. Our lives would have been completely different. But he said no.
He wanted to come home.
So he came home. And he made a life with the wife he had left behind. He bought the house here in Silvara that he lived in until now. He built on and improved it. And more children came. I came along.
My earliest memories of dad were of being little enough to sit on his lap. I remember being little enough to sit on his lap. I remember trying to be careful how I sat on his lap, to make it comfortable for him. I wanted to be sure it was comfortable for him because someday I’d be a dad and I’d like it if my son were careful to make it comfortable for me. I used to like to hold his ear, I remember. I’d reach up to hold his ear as I sat there.
I remember being little enough that riding on his shoulders was scary! It was a long way up! I was scared up there. But I got used to it and it became an adventure, riding up on dad’s shoulders. I used to think it was an adventure to ride up on dad’s big strong shoulders.
He used to work at the lumber mill in Laceyville. I remember he used to bring home reject millwork sometimes. And he used to work for Joe Siegel delivering oil and repairing furnaces. Oh, he’d come home black with soot from cleaning and repairing furnaces.
Then he went to work for Bendix as a machinist. He worked there for a long time.
I remember being a little kid, about up to my mother’s belt buckle and him coming home from work there and sitting in the car for a half hour before he came into the house. He would do this every day, just sit in the car before he came into the house. I remember asking her, ‘Why doesn’t he just come in? Why does he sit out in the car like that?’
‘He can’t come in,’ she said. ‘His back hurts him too much to get out of the car. He has to sit and rest before he can swing his legs around and get his feet out of the car,’ she said.
And if I hadn’t asked her, I would never have known. Do you think he’s ever miss a day of work? Nope. Not a day. And never a word of complaint from him. I would never have known if I hadn’t asked. He never said a word. He was a strong man.
And work, he worked hard. He got on second shift and then he’d work until 11, get home around midnight, get to bed around one after relaxing a bit and he’d be back up at five or six and at work in the stone quarry during the day. He’s cut stone all day then go home and wash up and go to work at night. He did that for years.
I remember going to the stone quarry with him, I was just a little kid, and some ‘guy from Jersey’ came along and wanted to buy some stone. I don’t know where he was from. Anyone from away was called a ‘guy from Jersey’ by me then. The guy wanted to buy some stone and he looked it over and did. Dad worked out a price and he bought $5.00 worth of stone.
Well, the next day, when we went to the quarry, dad stopped at the owner of the property’s house. The usual arrangement was that the owner of the property got 10% of the money from the sale of the stone and dad stopped, chatted with the guy for a while and gave him his fifty cents. We talked a while longer and went up to the quarry. I was like, ‘Jeez dad. It was only fifty cents, it was hardly worth stopping over’.
Dad said, ‘It was his money. I wouldn’t want him cheating me and I stopped to give him his money.’
That is the sort of thing, the little act of integrity that makes a life like dad’s. If you can trust a guy over the little things, the fifty cent things, you can trust him with anything and that’s the kind of guy my dad was. He was a real honest guy.
Well, time went on and we grew up. Dad worked in his garden and raised his roses. When you think of Elston Brotzman, you don’t think of flowers, but he loved his roses. He raised the roses. They were his flowers. And he did it really well. He raised some beautiful roses.
Dad was always there for us. He was always there. And we grew up and went away. We went about our lives. And dad always helped us. He was always there to help. We’d come back to see him.
I remember once, on his birthday, I wrote him a letter. I brought up the story of the fifty cents and a few other incidents. I told him how much I respected him. I told him how much it meant to have a father like him and how much I respected him and that I loved him.
I know he got the letter because I asked him. I asked him, ‘Well, did you get the letter?’
‘Yeah,’ he said.
‘Well did you like it,’ I asked.
‘Jeez, you made me feel like Abraham Lincoln,’ he said.
‘Well, I meant it,’ I said. ‘I meant every word of it, and I love you, dad.’
‘I love you, too, son,’ he said.
Yeah, we moved away, and time went on. We came back sometimes.
It was me that taught him how to hug. I started it after I went away to school. I’d come home and give him a hug. Oh, he was awkward at it at first. He wasn’t used to that. He didn’t know what to do with that. But he got used to it. I guess it was like me learning to ride up on his strong shoulders. I taught him something. And then he got to enjoy it. Whenever you came home he’d give you a big hug. A big old hug and he liked it.
I loved him and he knew it because I told him so. The last time I talked to him he was in the hospital. I talked to him and when I was done I said, ‘Goodbye, dad. I love you.’
He said, ‘Good by son. I love you, too.’
So I’m going to tell you all right now. You parents that have your children, you put your arms around them and you tell them you love them today. And you children that have your parents, you put your arms around their necks and you tell them you love them and you do it today. Because you don’t have all the time in the world. And someday you’re going to only be able to say what I’m going to say today.
‘Goodbye dad, I love you.’