April 11, 1953

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Sixty years ago today: My future mom and dad smooch in full view of their wedding party at the Windermere Hotel, down on the South Side near the Museum of Science and Industry and the University of Chicago. The Windermere: My mom’s family, the Hogans, had a history there. I believe my mom’s parents, Edward Daniel Hogan and Anne Louise O’Malley, had their wedding reception there, back around 1925. My Uncle Dick’s ordination party was held there in 1965. I think I read that the U of C owns it now and has converted it to a residence for students.

Anyway, the picture: It’s one of a couple of color snapshots I’ve seen of the event. There are lots of formal black-and-white wedding pictures, too, showing the wedding party and important family members in various configurations. To me, Dad looks nervous in most of those pictures and Mom looks something I interpret as close to ecstatic. My dad’s mother, Otilia Sieverson Brekke, a Norwegian Lutheran, shows a steady lack of warmth for the proceedings. After all, she’d been forced to endure attendance at the Hogans’ Irish Catholic parish, St. Kilian’s, at 87th and May streets.

On the left margin of this picture is Dad’s friend (and best man?) John Lacognata, a fellow musician. I know he and my dad and another guy–who was the other guy?–once drove out to the West Coast from Chicago in a Hudson my dad had bought. I remember Dad showing slides of that trip, complete with a shot showing the car with water bags slung across the front to aid the crossing of one of the Southern California deserts.

On the right of the picture is a woman named Kay, whose last name I can’t remember, but whom I think went to Loretto High School with Mom; they would have graduated about 1947. Kay and her husband, Norbert–again, I don’t recall a last name–lived out in the south suburbs when we were growing up there; I remember visiting them and not getting along with their kids.

In the center of the picture: Mary Alice Hogan and Stephen Daniel Brekke. She was all of 23; he was 31. What were they thinking? I never talked to them much about their courtship, and uncharacteristically, Mom didn’t give me the inside story during some long, wandering, late-night talk. My Dad volunteered after Mom died in 2003 that it was she who asked him out on their first date when they were both working at the Chicago Land Clearance Commission. They went to Schrafft’s downtown. There was also the story of how Steve took Mary on a date to Uno’s, the original location at Ohio and Wabash. Mary Alice reportedly told Steve she’d never been to Uno’s, a pizzeria that allowed patrons to scrawl their names on the walls. Anyway, they get there and are seated. On the wall adjacent to their table, “Mary Alice Hogan” is written in red lipstick. I don’t know how Mary Alice explained that.

Anyway, there they are: Norwegian minister’s son and the daughter of an Irish-American bank clerk and schoolteacher, getting ready to set sail into joys and sorrows unimaginable, right after they cut the cake.

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Portrait: Mom, 1964

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My sister Ann reminded me, by way of a Facebook post, that yesterday, the 26th, was Mom’s birthday. She would have been 83. That’s her in a shot my dad took in May 1964, when she was 34. She’s posing in our Park Forest living room, and I think the occasion was that Dad was trying out a camera he had bought recently, a Minolta twin-lens reflex model. There’s a series of other shots taken the same time; my brother Chris scanned them after Dad died earlier this years.

So much of this scene is evocative and immediate: The painting, by a family friend, was a fixture in every place we lived (and now hangs in Ann’s house). I know Mom was sitting on a slat bench that also made it from house to house through our infrequent relocations (it’s at Ann’s or Chris’s now). The vase of pussy willows over Mom’s right shoulder–I don’t know where that came from. But I can see the living room, with a black linoleum floor, half-paneled in redwood, a set of bookshelves Dad had installed, the closet where his stereo system resided, the Danish modern chairs and love seat and round coffee table, the doorway into the kitchen, the hallway back to our bedrooms, the picture window looking out onto the lawn, which sloped down to the street, bordered on the far side by a field and woods.

And part of this scene feels odd and distant, almost false: There’s a tension in Mom’s pose, for one thing. She had a way of putting on a face sometimes in a way that I don’t see in photos taken much earlier or much later in her life. I might be seeing something that’s not really there, but I know what she and my dad had been through at this point: raising five kids, for one thing, and the death of one of them, and other troubles that I feel are barely contained beneath this serene-looking scene.

And also I know what’s to come for her. She’s about to go into psychoanalysis, get a driver’s license, join Operation Head Start, move out to the woods into a new home, become a foster parent to untold numbers of stray dogs and cats, and help organize a campaign to save the forest from an ambitious local developer. She’s going to use her considerable intellect and talents as a newspaper reporter, go back to school, and work in several other challenging jobs. She’s also about to confront deep and lingering depression, the reality of a husband and brother sinking deep into alcoholism, several angry adolescent boys and a daughter who was pushed into the background by all of the above.

It feels like all that is hiding inside the frame here, somewhere behind that composed smile.

An Election Day Tale: Dewey Defeats Truman

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Election Day, 1948, Chicago.

This was a few years before my dad met my mom–by his account, she asked him out to dinner at Schrafft’s when they were both working at a Chicago urban renewal agency. He was at home on Nashville Avenue, a business student at Northwestern, a year and a half or so after his short hitch with the Army was over. By his account, he was lying on the living-room couch in the dark, listening to election returns on the radio. It seemed the vote might be going for Truman over his Republican challenger, Thomas Dewey of New York. But an announcer mentioned the Chicago Tribune was already calling the race and that an early edition declaring Dewey the winner was on the street. Dad said he went out to a newsstand and bought a copy just as as a Tribune delivery driver was trying to retrieve the early edition. (That’s the copy pictured above.)

One of the things I noticed when I was a kid looking at that front page was how little evidence the Tribune had to declare a winner. Much of the South looked like a lock for States’ Rights candidate Strom Thurmond. The Trib’s front-page copy mentioned polls were still open in most of the country, and where voting was over, the count was so preliminary–well, you just have to admire the power of wishful thinking. Of course the Tribune had to be first with the news: its owner, Colonel Robert R. McCormick, was an arch-anti-Democrat and sworn foe of FDR and everything he stood for. A 1936 story on the Democratic National Convention was headlined, “The Soviets Gather at Philadelphia.” A subhead in this 1948 edition’s lead election story reads, “New Deal Repudiated.”

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What also got my attention, and still does, are signs the front page had been prepared in great haste. Several lines of type in the lead story’s second paragraph were inserted upside down. Also, the first three pages seem to be cast in a “typewriter” Courier typeface that appears slapdash and irregular, with some lines askew and poorly spaced; the type is different from the interior pages, which are set in what I assume was the paper’s regular type. (After some accidental research, the explanation for the appearance of those pages appears to be that the paper’s typesetters were on strike and that the copy in question was indeed typed, then cut and pasted somehow, then photographed for reproduction on the press. (See “Dewey Defeats Truman: The Rarely Told Story of Chicago Tribune’s Most Famous Issue” and “The Eleven Editions of the November 3, 1948, Chicago Tribune” — the latter a fascinating breakdown of what the paper published and when that day.)

Perhaps what I admire most about this journalistic exercise is the reporting on display in the lead story. In perhaps the only story he’s remembered for, the Trib’s Washington bureau chief, Arthur Sears Henning, declared the outcome of the vote:

“Dewey and Warren won a sweeping victory in the Presidential election yesterday.

“The early returns showed the Republican ticket leading Truman and Barkley pretty consistently in northern and western states. The indications were that the complete returns would disclose that Dewey won the Presidency by an overwhelming majority of electoral votes.”

Since the numbers didn’t bear out the tale, what was the source of that intelligence? Herbert Brownell, Dewey’s campaign manager.

Brownell, wrote Henning, “claimed that on the basis of the complete returns ‘we will wind up sweeping two-thirds of the states for the Republican ticket.’ ”

“As states definitely in the Republican column in the light of the fragmentary returns Brownell named Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, Vermont, and South Dakota. Four years ago the Republicans carried only five of these states.

” ‘At this moment,’ said Brownell, ‘the polls have closed in 12 of the 48 states outside the solid south. These states have a total of 120 votes in the electoral college.

” ‘On the basis of reports which I have been receiving from organization leaders thruout the country, I am confident that the Dewey-Warren ticket has already carried 10 of these 12 states with a total of 101 of the 120 electoral votes.

” ‘In the other two states–Kentucky and West Virginia–returns are not yet conclusive but the trend to the Dewey-Warren ticket is heartening.’ “

Brownell wasn’t completely off-base, though Illinois, Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky all went for Truman. Still, the paper went out on that limb on the basis of 12 states and hearsay about “reports from organizers.”

Henning’s eventual successor as head of the Tribune Washington bureau, Walter Trohan, was in Chicago that night covering congressional elections for the paper. He recorded an account of parts of his bureau tenure for the Harry S Truman Library in 1970. He said an election evening phone call with Ohio Senator Robert Taft, who had lost the Republican nomination to Dewey, led him to believe the Trib’s story and banner headline were wrong. About the 72-year-old Henning’s insistence that Dewey was winning, Trohan said, “Why he became so stubborn I don’t know; I guess age.” Trohan was eventually called on to write a new version of the story for later editions, with Truman the victor. But before that happened, he was asked to appear on a local TV show to discuss the returns:

“… And that night it was terrible, about 10 o’clock, before — we were still carrying the headline, I was called to go on TV to discuss the congressional election. And I went up and there was Henning, and there was the wife of the publisher, and some very important people, a dozen people or so. The announcer was a fellow with a charming voice, but no sense, in a very nice pearl-shaped tone, said, ‘Well, Walter,’ and I had never met him before in my life, ‘how is Mr. Dewey going to get along with majority Congress?’

“I said, ‘He isn’t going to have a majority Congress, the Democrats have won the Congress.’

“He said, ‘You mean that Dewey will have to work with a hostile Congress?’

“And I said, ‘No, I don’t mean anything of the kind. Mr. Dewey ain’t going to be there either.’ “

But Henning and the Trib were already committed to a different version not only of the story, but of history. Henning’s rather brief piece ended with this bit of context under the previously mentioned subhead, “New Deal Repudiated”:

“The Republican victory brought to a close the 16 year reign of the New Deal which began in the country’s most devastating depression, introduced a collectivist economy, produced a four-term President, embraced a disastrous war and left the nation a 250 billion dollar debt and heritage of foreign policy containing the seeds of another war.”

Family Group

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When I was back in Chicago following my dad’s passing in late July, I went for a couple long walks from my sister Ann’s house to local cemeteries. It’s amazing how quickly you can cover six or seven or eight miles after you’ve set out for a stroll up there.

One day I wound up in Rosehill Cemetery, one of Chicago’s oldest, between Western and Ravenswood south of Peterson. Another day I walked up to Calvary Cemetery, a Roman Catholic establishment on the southern edge of Evanston that stretches between Lake Michigan on the east to Chicago Road on the west.

The Calvary visit was late in the day. On the way up there, I walked past a railroad viaduct that had some attractive sunlight shining through it. I stopped to see if I could get a picture that captured the light and shadows (I didn’t get anything worth keeping). What I didn’t spot when I first started shooting was a group of people on the sidewalk on the other side of the passage–two women, a man, and a girl of about 10. “You want to take my picture?” one of the women asked. I didn’t understand what she was saying and didn’t respond, so she repeated the question. “Sure, I’ll take your picture.” The man hung back, but the women and the girl posed briefly. I took a total of four or five shots.

I got an email address from one of the women; I sent these pictures there, though I never heard anything back. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any names, even first names.

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Journal of Airliner Seat Photography 2

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Further notes on my occasional hobby/obsession with snapping pictures while strapped into an airliner seat: The scene above shows the Byron Generating Station (a nuclear power plant) in Ogle County, Illinois, about 70 miles west of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. The view here was taken July 26, 2012, from American Airlines Flight 1661, to San Francisco, about 12 and a half minutes after takeoff (we lifted off the runway at 6:43 p.m. CDT, about two hours late). The view here is north/northeast. The Rock River is at the left, and the town of Byron is at the upper right, about three miles from the plant; the town of Oregon, Illinois, is just out of the frame at the lower left.

As it happens, Kate and I were driving in this area last week, and when I saw the plant’s cooling towers in the distance I started looking for a place to stop and take a picture. We found Razorville Road, which runs north-south about a mile west of the plant, and pulled off. The roadside was studded with “No Trespassing” signs, and I was careful not to stray beyond them. I half expected armed guards to show up, but none did. I got my pictures, and we drove off to another local attraction, the Black Hawk statue at Lowden State Park.

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Dad: 2011-2012

Steve Brekke, 2011.

Since I always seem to be taking pictures, it seems natural that I started taking pictures of my dad on most of our visits the last few years. It wasn’t until late July, the week he died, that I looked back on what I had taken over the last year or so. I made several visits last summer, and then there was a long hiatus–from his 90th birthday weekend all the way until this past May. Over that time, his situation had changed. After a couple of episodes of pneumonia, his advancing dementia, loss of mobility, incontinence, and other issues, he needed round-the-clock nursing care. That meant he had to leave the home of my sister, Ann, and her husband, Dan, with whom he’d lived since the end of 2008, and enter a nursing home Evanston.

When he went into the facility, called Dobson Plaza, he was in pretty rough shape. He’d been there a couple of weeks by the time I visited in May and by then he seemed to have bounced back a little. I say a little: He was quite weak, confined to a wheelchair, and needed assistance for virtually every daily chore beyond feeding himself. He undertook that task with competence but little enthusiasm–maybe because his intake was reduced to pureed meals because he was having difficulty swallowing and was in danger of aspirating food and triggering another lung infection. There wasn’t much of a question that we–Dad, my siblings and I–were now waiting for the next turn, and the next turn would not be for the better.

He was losing weight, and by early July that prompted a discussion with his doctor of what kind of intervention might be appropriate (they could give him a drug of some kind to stimulate appetite). Before that conversation could reach a conclusion, I think, he suffered another bout of pneumonia and was taken up to Evanston Hospital (from my impression not a bad place to wind up if you’re in that part of the world and need medical attention). By coincidence, my brother John and I had arranged to visit at this time–he from New York, I from California–and got into town a couple days after he was hospitalized.

The news turned out to be worse than pneumonia. He was suffering congestive heart failure and tests detected the presence of fluid in the chest cavity around his lungs, signaling some other infection or even a malignancy. John and I got to Chicago late on a Saturday night, and Sunday we had a family meeting with Ann and our other brother, Chris. Since Dad had been suffering dementia, Ann had power of attorney, and among us we agreed that the course of action Dad would have pursued, or that our mom would have pursued if she’d been around, was hospice care. In essence, that meant ending aggressive attempts to fight the infections and other issues Dad was suffering from and focusing instead on taking what measures we could to make him comfortable in his remaining time. And that time? Well, he was about five weeks short of his 91st birthday and his body had kept going through a lot of hard stuff. We didn’t know whether we were looking at a day, a week, a month, or more.

Then Chris, John, and I went to see him in the hospital. Since I’d seen him in May, I felt I was prepared for what we’d see. And I wasn’t shocked to see that he was gaunter than he had been or that he looked really knocked out. But it also struck me for the first time that I was in the presence of someone who was dying, and that the death was not some abstract thing out there somewhere in the future. It was near.

Although you can fool yourself. You see someone that you’ve known your whole life, someone who has kept going through some pretty rough stuff, and anything positive–an alert look, a quick response to a question, a willingness to eat–becomes an encouraging sign. We spent about eight hours with Dad in his room, and I think we all were constantly aware of the monitors keeping track of his heart rate, his oxygen levels, his respiration. He dozed a lot, and a couple of times he seemed agitated as he started awake. His heart rate and breathing seemed to fluctuate, and I thought, “Is this it?” Then he ate a decent portion of the pureed chicken and mashed potato dinner that was on the lunch menu. I said after he finished, “It’s time to say ‘Takk for maten’ “–Norwegian for “thanks for the meal.” He glanced my way and said, “Not really.” It sounded like a dry Nordic reply.

The hospital sent him back to Dobson, the nursing home, for the hospice care we had set up. We visited each day, starting on the Monday he returned there. Dad seemed to be holding his own despite what we knew, or had been told, or suspected, was happening beneath the surface. He ate a little. He seemed to like his coffee. He seemed to like our being there. He seemed to respond when we played him some of what we remembered as his favorite classical recordings. He seemed absorbed when I began reading aloud a tale of the Norse in Greenland (I thought he’d identify with a Viking story).

And then, several days later, I headed back to California. I had an idea I’d ask for a leave to come back to Chicago and see out Dad’s last days. But things moved fast after I departed, and he died the next day. As I said several weeks ago, I missed him already. I still do. The best memory I have of that last week, though, is the time we all spent together as a family, and the best thing that happened was that we all worked together at least in those few days.

I only meant to write enough to provide some context for the pictures that follow, which in a small way record his passing. There’s still a lot left to say. Sometime. Soon.

Chicago: 2011

Carved in Stone: Epitaphs, Actual and Proposed

With my dad’s recent passing, and having made several (unrelated, except for my mood) recent visits to Chicago cemeteries, I’ve been thinking about epitaphs. Webster’s defines epitaph as “1. an inscription on or at a tomb or a grave in memory of the one buried there. 2.: a brief statement commemorating or epitomizing a deceased person or something past.”

Most of what’s carved on graveyard monuments is pretty simple: names, dates, and relationships. Beyond that, most of the common people buy at most a brief fragment of a sentiment. In Catholic cemeteries, I’ve seen a lot of “My Jesus Mercy.” On my dad’s parents’ grave, In largely Scandinavian-American (and Lutheran) ground, the message is “Christ My Hope.”

But except for the expense involved–I think we’re paying $150 to have “2012” carved on my dad’s headstone–I think a secular message might be reflect more the concerns of today’s future deceased Americans. I’m thinking of phrases that reflect the preoccupations of most of us for most of our waking life: Phrases like:

Has anyone seen my keys?

Do you mind getting me another beer?

It’s time to get up already?

Turn here. No–here!

Have change for a 20?

Hey–there’s no toilet paper in here!

Sorry I’m late–traffic was terrible!

I meant to get in touch.

Don’t blame me.

What time is it?

Yeah–I’ll send that check tomorrow.

Later–we’ll discuss it later.

‘A Private in Uncle Sam’s Army’

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It’s my last night in Chicago for a while–now early morning, actually. I’ve stayed up way too late looking through a collection of letters Dad wrote when he was in Army basic training. That was in 1946, after World War II ended. The story we heard growing up, and I’ve got no reason to doubt it, is that Dad tried to enlist at the outset of the war but was rejected because he had a punctured eardrum. That condition gradually healed, and he was rated fit to serve and drafted in late 1945 and inducted into the Army in January 1946.

Part of his parents’ legacy that I heard about growing up was a collection of more than 100 letters my grandfather, Sjur Brekke, wrote my grandmother, Otilia Sieverson, during their courtship and early marriage in the first decade of the last century. (The courtship started at a Lutheran parish in Chicago, where he was a visiting minister in training and my grandmother’s family were charter members. Sjur was a smooth operator. We have a note he wrote to Otilia on the back of a business card; the subject was a couple of volumes of commentary on scripture he had “taken the liberty” of loaning her. He also offered to hook her up with more such volumes if she liked the first two.)

Sjur died in 1932, when Dad was 10, and he said his mother not only hung onto all those letters, but read and re-read them. She numbered them and kept each one in its original envelope; she wrote key phrases from each letter on the envelopes, apparently her way of prompting herself as to the contents. When she died in 1975, the letters passed on to my dad. They’re among the papers he left behind. (If you’re wondering about my grandmother’s letters to my grandfather, well, so do we. She destroyed them at some point after he died.)sdb1946-2.jpg

What I didn’t know, though, was that my grandmother kept a second letter archive. She saved all the correspondence Dad wrote during his year-plus in the Army, starting with a postcard from Fort Sheridan, north of Chicago, the day he arrived for processing.

“Dear Mother: Here I am, a private in Uncle Sam’s Army,” he began. I’m guessing the postcard was something the Army had its new inductees do to reassure the home folks they were OK.

There are about 75 of these letters in all–20 or so from his time in basic training, which took him to Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas, and another 50-some from his time serving in the occupation of Germany.

Leafing through the basic-training letters the other day, I felt like I was getting to know a person about whom I had only heard vague accounts. One thing comes through very clearly: the Army wasn’t really for him. He was interested in learning what he could in the ranks–he was being trained in a field anti-aircraft battery–but he had his own agenda, which always seemed to come back to music and whether he could finagle a way into an Army band (he didn’t). He also loved the opportunity to see a part of the country, dry, desolate West Texas, that was completely new to him.

I read a few of the letters aloud the other day to my siblings. One in particular delighted us. Dad describes a trip up to an artillery range to fire anti-aircraft and machine guns at aerial targets. It sounds like he enjoyed that somewhat. But he also liked the chance to camp out:

“Monday nite we slept under the stars on the New Mexican sand. The sand retains the heat pretty well and I had warm blankets along, so slept very comfortably. In fact it was a lot of fun. 4 or 5 of us slept near each other and sang songs and ate cookies and candy far after dark.”

Sounds like a kid at camp. He was also thrilled to go without shaving or bathing and said the grime made him “look as dark as a negro” (of whom there were none in his unit, of course). I’m not sure he ever really had any significant outdoors adventures before this. His parents were older and given to recreations like attending revival meetings. During an extended stay in Los Angeles in the early ’30s, they took Dad to see Amy Semple McPherson preach at her Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

The scan of the full letter is below.

Dad: The Archive

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We will be some time going through the archive of pictures and other effects our dad left behind. There’s a lot there I don’t remember having seen before. For instance, my brother Chris brought out a binder of transparencies last night that included some stunning shots of our mom during their engagement and of my dad in the years before that. I’m posting a couple of my favorites from other times here.

Above is a shot that surfaced in the last decade or so. That’s Dad, at almost four months old, on December 26, 1921, which happened to be his saint’s day. His parents lived in Alvarado, Minnesota, a village just up the Red River of the North from Grand Forks, North Dakota. There’s something in the way my grandmother is bent over him, showing him that little ball, that seems almost profoundly gentle, attentive, and caring. (I think this is partly because she’s the one in focus here, not my dad). That short northern Minnesota winter daylight that just barely plays across her forehead also gives a feeling of a fleeting moment captured.

The picture below is one of Dad with my son Eamon, his first grandchild. I think Eamon was about eight months old when my brother Chris took this during a brief visit. I’ve always been struck by how serious they both look. It’s a beautiful picture of the two of them.

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For Dad: Three Readings

“…When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me. …”

Stanley Kunitz

* * *

“I sauntered about from rock to rock, from grove to grove, from stream to stream, and whenever I met a new plant I would sit down beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance, hear what it had to tell. I asked the boulders where they had been and whither they were going, and when night found me, there I camped. I took no more heed to save time or to make haste than did the trees or the stars. This is true freedom, a good, practical sort of immortality.”

John Muir

* * *
“The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me—he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable;
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me;
It flings my likeness after the rest, and true as any, on the shadow’d wilds;
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air—I shake my white locks at the runaway sun;
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeathe myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.”

Walt Whitman