Death of a Salesman

(I have been absent from this blog because of unpleasantness that required my attention.  From October into December my wife required a great deal of my time because of debilitating weakness brought on by a hyperthyroid and very low blood pressure, and on 29 October my father died of cancer, requiring trips to California.  My spouse unit is now recovering and affairs out west are mostly settled, but before returning to my usual topics I would like to post a piece on my old man.  With virtually all his old friends dead and with no grandchildren my mother decided there would be no funeral or memorial service.  But I cannot let this fine man check out with absolutely no notice of his passing, and I consequently am posting this piece on his life.  I expect no one to read this, but it is something I must do.)

My father, Earl Woodrow (easy to see whom my grandmother admired) Berthold, first saw the light in San Francisco on 22 December 1918, unaware that the world had changed dramatically in the four years before his birth.  Of course he was also unaware how much it would change during his lifetime.  He was to be part of the “Greatest Generation,” which might be more accurately styled the “Unluckiest Generation,” inasmuch as they got to enjoy the Depression and World War II during their early years.   He and his future wife were excellent students at Mission High in San Francisco, but in the late thirties only the wealthy could go on to college.  Most of the Greatest Generation had to find work.

He was the last of five children – four brothers and a sister – and as the youngest, Earl got to dodge the attention of his older brothers, two of whom would die of drink and another who was an enforcer for a San Francisco mob.  He was in fact a skinny nerd, who built model airplanes and was one of the very rare men of his generation who never smoked.  But he could make people laugh and man, could he dance.  I imagine this is why he could possibly win the attention of an attractive classmate, Mary Klotovich, the daughter of Croatian immigrants.  She had three sisters and four brothers, all of whom were athletes, who wondered why their little sister was dating this distinctly non-athletic guy.  On the other hand, her mother was delighted to feed this thin but smart young man.

He graduated from high school in 1936, the year Hitler was reoccupying the Rhineland and sending troops to Franco and the Japanese were about to invade China.  Those events across the Pacific and Atlantic of course meant that Earl, like millions of other young Americans, would soon have to put his long term plans on hold.  He was able to find work, though the precise nature of his jobs eludes me, and despite the desperate Depression and lack of money, to judge from their stories he and his friends (including my aunts and uncles) seemed to have had a great time.  Unlike today there seemed to be an attitude of we’re-all-in-this-together and things will get better, a sense of community that would only be strengthened by the war.

With the approach of war Earl had the rare, possibly unique, experience of being drafted three times.  In the fall before Pearl Harbor he was called up, but rejected because of his poor eyesight, a condition that ruined his dream of becoming a pilot.  He was summoned again in early 1942, but rejected once again.  The third time was the charm: by the summer of 1942 the perception was that we were losing the war (in hindsight an utter impossibility, given our industrial capacity), and the military was ready to take pretty much any male who had all his limbs.  My father duly became a private in the Army Air Corps and spent his war flying a typewriter in South Dakota, where the wooden barracks dated from almost the time of the Great War.  While he was in basic training in Texas, he was tapped for officer candidate school, inasmuch as he had a high school diploma and was a clever guy.  In his interview the first question was something to the effect of What do you think of the Army? and my father answered honestly.  He spent the rest of the war as an enlisted man.

In 1942 Earl wedded Mary, having obliged his new Croatian mother-in-law by converting to Catholicism, which made little difference to his rather casual Christianity.  He was discharged in 1943, since the Allies were now clearly winning the war and the physically marginal men were no longer needed.  As a young man in civilian clothes in San Francisco he had to be careful to wear his “ruptured duck” pin, which indicated an honorable discharge from the Air Corps, or risk being beat up as a shirker.  He and his spouse, always careful, waited until the war was ending to begin their family, and I was born in January of 1946.  My brother, Dave, saw the light six years later, and that was it for progeny.

The GI Bill allowed my parents to come up with the $600 down payment and purchase a row house in the Visitacion Valley in the south-eastern quadrant of San Francisco.  Earl ultimately took a sales job with Garwood, which made truck bodies, and his honesty, responsibility and very outgoing personality moved him up the ladder until he was in charge of northern California.  He probably logged enough driving miles to go to the moon and back and developed the tanned left forearm characteristic of traveling salesmen before cheap air conditioning.  By 1956 (I think) the happy couple had become upwardly mobile and moved about eight miles down the San Francisco Peninsula to the new bedroom community of Millbrae Meadows, purchasing a new ranch style home for $17,000.  They never moved again, and a half century later that house – or at least the lot it sits on – is worth some $800,000, even in the current depressed market.

Earl Berthold was a man who spoke his mind, and after some twenty-odd years he suddenly quit Garwood because of an incompetent new boss he simply could not work with.  He was promptly hired by another truck body company (whose name escapes me), and he retired, I think, in the eighties, after which he could stay at home and drive my mother crazy.  The two celebrated their seventieth wedding anniversary in June of 2012, and while in better physical shape than some of my contemporaries, Earl developed a facial cancer and died on 29 October 2012, two months short of his ninety-fourth birthday.  He went mercifully quick and died in his own bed with my mother and brother by his side; I was compelled to remain in Albuquerque to care for my wife.

I always considered my father to be an extraordinary man.  Yes, he was my old man, but I truly believe that he was possibly the finest man I have ever met.  This was a man without guile, who possessed an incredible sense of responsibility and a fine sense of humor and who was denying himself for his family down to his last days.  He could drive me crazy as an adult, because having spent a lifetime dealing with people who did not listen or were incompetent, out of habit he constantly repeated things to us.  For all my regard for him, however, I was nevertheless astounded – and knowing my limitations shamed – by the courage with which he confronted his death.  I was with him when the doctor essentially told him he was doomed, and while I began bawling, he took it completely calmly and continued to joke with the physician.  There is nothing I can do about it, he said to me.  I will certainly be unable to face death with such equanimity and nobility.

And this is why I have posted this.  I cannot bear the thought of such a wonderful human being leaving without any notice.  It is the least I can do.