(This post is part of a serial blog. Please see previous post – Generation Two, Maternal: Donna).
My dad was a big baby, in purely the literal sense of the term. He was over 10 pounds at birth, probably overdue by at least a week or two. I think he was stalling entering this life, trying to put off for as long as possible the turmoil that awaited him.
William Pape, Jr., as he was assumed to be, was actually not. His father’s full name was William Otto Pape, and my father’s full name was William August Pape, presumably after the month in which he was born. Nor did my father take after his father in any trait of personality as far as I can surmise (I never met my grandfather). Nor did he take much after his mother, either (again, as far as I can surmise, as I never met her either).
Both his parents had recently emigrated from Germany, separately, then married and settled on a small farm on the outskirts of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Nine months later, on August 26, 1923 my father reluctantly emerged into the chaos of life. German was his first language. When he began kindergarten, a friend of the family accompanied him and acted as his translator. By this time, a brother and a sister had joined the family. The Great Depression had also begun.
Each of my father’s parents was as stubborn as the other. My father remembers that whenever they were together under the same roof there was nothing but bickering and arguing and physical violence.
William Otto was shell-shocked, as was the term at the time. Now they would say he had post-traumatic stress disorder. He was also jealous, argumentative, wanted no friends, and had a short fuse. We will learn more about him in Generation Three, Paternal: William and Charlotte. But to understand my father’s childhood, you have to know these facts.
My grandfather would have flashbacks and/or get so angry about something, that at dinner once he took an entire pot of boiling potatoes and threw them against the wall. He also threw his wife against the wall. And he threw the three children against the wall. He threw chairs and furniture around until they visibly busted apart. The busting apart that the people in the household endured was mostly on the inside where it could not be easily seen.
He got so angry at the whole miserable lot of his family and his life that he just up and took off. No one had any idea where he went. He stayed away for months, but eventually turned up again. This was when my dad was about ten years old.
During this time, his mother’s sewing machine was in his younger sister’s room, in front of the window. His mother was in there sewing one evening, and it was dusk outside. Being out in the country with no one around for acres and acres, the shades had not been drawn. My father was in the living room reading a Zane Gray novel when he noticed the sewing machine had stopped suddenly, followed by a long period of silence. He got up to investigate, only to discover his mother sitting absolutely frozen in front of the idle machine.
He shook her.
“Ma! What’s wrong?” he asked.
She looked at him, bewildered and perhaps frightened, and said, “Sonny, there was a man looking at me!”
My dad ran outside and checked around the open areas of the farm, but he saw no one. He suspects it could have been Max Behringer, whom his parents had met at a dance and who had taken a shine to my grandmother, who was quite pretty in her youth. Max was married, but according to my father his wife was big and heavy and looked more like a man than a woman.
When his father returned to the family, the fighting and violence was worse than ever; the marriage was clearly in shambles. Could they have been fighting about the fact that Max Behringer was riding his bicycle over to the farm during the day while my grandfather was at work? Could it have been about the social worker who repeatedly came to the property that my grandmother refused to let in the house?
The social worker must have seen enough to conclude that this environment was neither suitable nor safe for three children. One day the sheriff arrived at the door and all three of the children were taken. They were driven into town and installed in the inauspicious House of the Friendless (yes, it really was called that!), where they would remain for the next several months.
Next they went to live at the home of some friends of their father, Edwin and Olga Puls. Their father was also living there at the time. He’d left their mother again, but at least this time they knew where he was. My father said it was so miserable living with the Pulses and his father – – maybe it was even worse than living at The House of the Friendless. He got blamed for everything the Puls’ children did, and he was hollered at and whipped for things he had no idea about.
His only escape was to the baseball diamond behind the house. This is where the Sheboygan Indians team practiced. They would let my dad field balls for them, and other little things (as he was much younger than these big boys). His mother knew he did this and one day appeared at the diamond with a friend. My father ran away with her, back to the farm.
It wasn’t long before the sheriff showed up again. But for some reason he wasn’t made to go back to the Puls’. He does remember having to go to court. It was the Pulses that tried to coach my father testifying against his mother, saying she was an unfit mother with no means of supporting three children. He did appear in court, but he didn’t testify. His dad was mad at him for that; who knows what violence my father suffered at his hands as a result. But he didn’t have to leave his mother or the farm.
Eventually, his father and his brother and sister also returned to the farm. At one point there were seventeen people living there, in the little two-bedroom farmhouse with a full attic. During the Depression, when jobs and money were so scarce, a farm was the best place to survive. They grew all their own vegetables, which they stored in sand-layered crates in the basement, and had food all winter. The basement walls were lined with wooden racks on which they stored hundreds of eggs from their chickens, which they also sold. They also had geese, ducks, rabbits, and goats. My father never remembers his parents ever visiting a grocery store – – except for one time. He was sick, and really wanted some graham crackers. So his mother walked through a snowstorm to the neighborhood grocery to get him some.
Perhaps my father was sick that time due to his harsh walk to Pigeon River School and back. No, it wasn’t ten miles, uphill both ways. My father reports it was about a four mile walk through the fields. In the wintertime, this could mean snow up to his hips. He often arrived at school with his pants soaking wet from his snowy trek. He was always sent down to the basement of the schoolhouse, to the boiler room, to dry out. He often joked that he spent more time in the boiler room than he did in the classroom! He wasn’t alone down there, though; he remembers having the company of at least a half dozen other kids in the same plight. The teacher would give them their assignments, and they would just work in the basement instead of at their desks upstairs.
The janitor would come in and out and always ask, “You dry yet?” Nope. They would be down there all morning. “Why don’t your parents send you with an extra set of clothes? Then you could just come and change down here instead of having to sit down here all morning.”
An extra set of clothes during the Depression? Most people didn’t have one. My father only owned one pair of pants all through high school. They were corduroys, and they got washed once a week on Saturdays (the one day of the week when they also got a bath, if they were lucky). He reports, “The material got so thin in the crotch that my jewels were hanging out.” He remembers girls wearing the same dresses every day, too; so at least he wasn’t alone. Poverty is not quite as miserable when everyone is in the same listing, half-sinking boat.
When my father was around twelve years old, his father left the family for good and was never seen again. No one knew where he went.
The work of being “the man of the house” and doing many of the chores (caring for all the chickens, ducks, rabbits, etc). fell to my father. I imagine his brother, who was not quite two years younger than him, could not help much. He had muscular dystrophy, and I surmise by this time the symptoms would have presented and he would have been deteriorating. There is a photo of him in a wheelchair as a young teen at Camp Wawbeek in Wisconsin Dells for kids with disabilities. (How it was afforded to send him I will never know. I can only guess he had a benefactor. Perhaps it was my grandmother’s good friend, neighbor, and kindergarten translator, Christina – – who also left a dime on the refrigerator almost every Saturday so the kids could go to the movies.)
At any rate, in addition to having to take over many of the household chores, my father was also a caregiver for his brother. My father talked about having to carry him places, and even having to shave him when his beard came in. He probably would have done these chores gladly, had he known that soon they would lose everything.
Area farmers came in and took all the chickens, ducks, goats, and rabbits. The bank foreclosed on the farm and it went up for auction. With no means of support, the Pape family was now at the mercy of what was then called The Relief Department. They were moved into the city of Sheboygan into rental properties – – different ones every few months, depending on the cheapest rent that could be obtained. The children were shuffled from school to school. It seemed like they would almost up to speed on what was going on in the classroom when they were yanked out and sent somewhere else.
Maybe this is why my grandmother always called my father a dummkopf. But he was far from it; he admitted to me later in life that he just acted that way so people wouldn’t expect much from him. I think he earned that right, with all that was expected of him so early in his life.
On December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, leading to the United States entering World War II, my father was 18 years old. He saw the war as an escape from his home front responsibilities. The thought of marching on a battlefield or a beach somewhere and being shot at didn’t even frighten him. He didn’t recall ever really being afraid of anything growing up.
So, soon after he graduated from high school in June of 1942, he told his mother he was catching a bus to Milwaukee to enlist in the Marine Corps. She didn’t believe him. When she got up one morning and he was gone (and didn’t return), she still didn’t believe him. She had the police out looking for him!
They didn’t find him, of course. He really had enlisted. He said the years in “The Corps” were the best of his life. For once, he wasn’t responsible for everyone and everything. The only person he had to get ready in the morning was himself, and he was often one of the first ones up before reveille. Out of his $50/month pay, he sent all but $5 home to his mother. He served as a cook in the Southwest Pacific area, the Philippines, and during the consolidation of the Solomon Islands.
I have two favorite stories from his years in “The Corps.”
The first is rather spiritual, or supernatural. My father was in his tent, writing a letter, when he heard a voice frantically calling, “Bill! Bill! Bill!” He ran out of the tent to see what was wrong, but there was nobody around. While he stood there, a tree fell right on his tent! Had he been inside, he would have been killed.
The second involves the conditions surrounding his promotion from Private to Corporal. An officer’s wife was throwing a fancy party for officers one night. Shortly before the military official guests were scheduled to arrive, she burst into the mess hall in a panic. It seems she had burnt the gravy for whatever dish she was making, and she begged my father to give her a batch of his giblet gravy. He obliged, of course. The next day he was suddenly and mysteriously promoted. If the proof is in the pudding, the promotion must be in the gravy.
After my father was honorably discharged from the Marines after the end of the war in 1946, he returned to Sheboygan and began the work-a-day life. When he was 25, he was hired to drive bus for the city. Upon arriving home after his first day on the job, he discovered his brother had died. I think it was from pneumonia, which his muscular dystrophy did not allow him to fight off.
In June of 1951, at the age of 27, he and my mother got married. The traumas my mother suffered in Generation Two, Maternal: Donna were shared ones with my father.
It seems his life came full circle regarding caregiving and keeping house. I felt particularly sorry for my father during those years after my mother took to the couch. He had to do everything; he did the grocery shopping, he fixed the meals, he paid the bills, he fetched her whatever she wanted, he did all the outside work, he ran all the errands. Alone. Always alone. He longed for companionship, and he longed to get out of the house – – to go on a bus trip to one of the many fascinating sites in the state, or even just for a simple walk around the neighborhood. He had friends, but he never wanted to leave my mother for very long. He was devoted to her, albeit it somewhat resentfully.
Eventually his body and mind slowly gave out. He frequently complained of being so tired, and that every place in his body hurt (“even my hair hurts!”). When he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, the reason for this became clear. He also got a bit senile and started having auditory and visual hallucinations, as well as memory problems. The hallucinations were so real he even called the police a couple of times, because people were coming right into his house and taking things!
It wasn’t the cancer that got him in the end, though. Like his brother, he died of pneumonia; more specifically, he contracted a MRSA infection in his lungs (see Cheesy Smile). This was after less than a year of living unhappily in a nursing home. As the doctor who attended him when we made the decision to unhook him from the ventilator and to cease dialysis said, “Pneumonia can be an old man’s best friend.” He died on April 7, 2007 at the age of 83.
Relating all this has made me wonder for the first time about the true cause of the terrible anxiety I had as a child surrounding being away from home. It started in nursery school when I was four; when my mom dropped me off and left, I did not cry for a bit and then get engrossed in the fun activities with the other children. I cried the whole time. What a disruption I must have been! I had a hard time starting kindergarten as well, sometimes being so anxious as to say I was sick in order to be able to stay home. Sleeping over at a friend’s house invariably led to having to go home in the middle of the night. I was terrified to go to 6th grade camp for 3 nights, but at least I made it one whole night before I had to come home.
I always believed I suffered from mother separation anxiety. I thought it may have stemmed from my mom being away at the hospital for bladder surgery when I was a baby (see Once Upon a Bedroom, Parts Two and Three). However, after reflecting upon this just now, I realize it wasn’t specifically my mother I was anxious about being separated from (although that was certainly part of it). It was home. I didn’t want to be away from home. Upon relating my father’s story, I realize a lot of his childhood trauma centered around losing his home and being shunted from place to place. Perhaps it was this trauma that imprinted upon my DNA and caused the somewhat agoraphobic gene to switch on in me?
I am happy to report that I no longer suffer from anxiety related to being away from home, although I do not crave to move as often as some people seem to. This is only the fifth place I’ve ever lived, and we’ve been in this house since December of 1997. I’ve now lived in this house almost as long as I lived in the house in which I grew up.
What other answers to the puzzle await in the pieces of stories from the next generations back?