Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Grandfather Trilogy (Pt. I): William Robert Metzger

Bob Metzger circa 1966
William Robert Metzger was born May 22nd, 1916 in Gresham, Oregon.  He was a 2nd generation native of the state, the seventh of eleven children born to Frank and Josie Metzger.  He had a namesake uncle who had already laid claim to "Bill" so my grandfather was known throughout his life as "Bob."

He was born at the height of the War Over There.  Back then, ethnic and racial Germans were sometimes subjected to nativist animus, just as Muslims and Latinos are today.  Grandpa told me that, even in little Gresham, Oregon, which in those days numbered less than 2000 souls, the Metzger family endured the slur "Kraut."

Grandpa grew up a farm boy in the Willamette Valley.  Back then, Portland was half a day's journey from Gresham, and Salem was hell-and-gone.  Very different from today, where there is no clear delineation between Portland and Gresham, and Salem is but a 45 minute jaunt south on Interstate 5.

It was a different world, back then.  And, being a farm boy, Grandpa had an adventurous spirit.  More than once, he told me how, one day on the family farm, after he had graduated high school, some friends came by and told him they were on their way to Pasadena, California, to attend college.  On the spur of the moment, he ran inside the house, told his mother, Josie, that he was leaving, packed a bag, and set out with his friends.  Just like that. 

Bob was graduated from Oregon State College and newly-married to his sweetheart, Gertrude Baldwin-Metzger when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, in December of 1941.  Bob and Gertrude had an infant daughter at the time, Roberta (or "Bobbie").

In the national effort to defeat fascism that followed, several of Bob's brothers (including Dick, Ed and Herb) served in the US Army, but although Bob tried to enlist, he was rejected because of scar tissue on his lungs from a childhood bout with tuberculosis.  The Great Depression was only just starting to ebb away, and there was a great sense of patriotism and civic duty, and years later, Grandpa expressed a sense of disappointment to me, that perhaps he had not done his part.

Bob spent much of his life teaching mathematics to high school students in Salem, Oregon.  He and Gertrude had two children besides Bobbie:  Jenifer, born in 1944, and Wayne, born in 1945.  Bob and Gertrude lived in Salem up until the year before Gertrude died in 1984. When Gertrude was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, they moved to California, where Gertrude had lived as a child.  Gertrude's death was a terrible blow to Bob. Although he would live another fifteen years after Gertrude passed, he longed for her always.

Grandpa returned to Salem, after Grandma passed, to live in a house just a few blocks from South Salem High School, where he had taught for many years.

Grandpa and me, 1988
After I moved to Portland, in 1988, one Saturday per month I would drive to Salem to spend time with him.  Ostensibly, I was there to help him with his yard work and his endless projects (he had a good dose of that German ingenuity), but most often my visits consisted of just hanging out, cooking and eating, and watching political shows on television.  Grandpa and I loved to talk politics.

Grandpa always named FDR as his favorite president. Grandpa may have been a lifelong Republican, but he was an Oregon Republican. That was back in the days when being a Republican did not require falling into lockstep with the party line.  Grandpa was a Republican in the model of Oregon's late great, much-beloved Governor Tom McCall.  The last Republican presidential candidate that Grandpa ever in his life voted for was Gerald Ford in 1976.  He cared not at all for Ronald Reagan nor for any of those who came after.  I am thankful he did not live to see George W. Bush installed in the Oval Office.  (As the old joke goes:  it would have killed him!)

In my childhood, Grandpa was a stern, noble figure.  But he was always quick with a joke, and his eyes often twinkled with merriment.  To me, he was the wisest man in the world.  As I grew up,  I judged the morality of my activities by whether or not Grandpa would approve.  This was especially true in the time when my mother, two closest siblings and I lived in Salem, in the years after my parents divorced.  (Of course, much of my behavior in those years would hardly have met with Grandpa's approval had he known.  But let's not go there.)

I learned a lot about patience and tolerance from Grandpa.  He never lost his temper; I never heard him raise his voice in anger.  Never once.

I learned about honor from him, too, although that's not a word I ever heard him use to describe his ethos.  He was utterly honest in all things.  He was always courteous toward others, always respectful. Grandpa was also very out-going, very friendly.  He never failed to extend his hand to anyone who came into his life.

Granpda and Aunt Jenifer, 1993
In his last few years, Grandpa's mental faculties started to break down.  There were disturbing incidents:  he sometimes forgot where he was driving, or forgot to turn off the burner of his gas stove, or, most painfully, came to suspect that his grandchildren were stealing from him.

He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease in the mid-90s.  Although he never deteriorated to the point that he did not recognize his family, he nonetheless suffered from cloudy, befuddled and sometimes paranoid thinking.  In moments of lucidity, he recognized the decline and it frightened him.  Physical decrepitude was one thing, but to lose one's mind...

In 1999, while I was traveling on my Grand European Tour, my family finally convinced Grandpa that the time had come for him to enter an assisted living facility.  He was not happy to lose his independence, but he recognized the need.

That Christmas, my family gathered in Eugene, at my brother Eric's house.  My Uncle Wayne picked up Grandpa at his new home and the two of them drove down to join us.  At the gathering Grandpa was more quiet than usual.  Only later did we learn that he wasn't feeling well; it wasn't like him to complain.  Six days later, on December 31, 1999, Grandpa succumbed to pneumonia.  He was 83 years old.

About a year before he passed, Grandpa told me rather soberly that he had already lived to a greater age than any other male in his family.  I can still see him, sitting in the recliner in his living room, shrugging as he said it, as if it were some unfathomable mystery.

I've always suspected that Grandpa made a conscious decision when his time came.  His older sister, Maude, had passed earlier in the year, and I think Grandpa felt that with her passing, he had accomplished all that could be expected of him regarding familial duty.  His children were all on solid footing, his grandchildren were adults.  He had no reason to linger.

He was not a religious man.  He never expressed a belief in an afterlife or a Heaven.  Regardless, I know that when he passed through the Veil, he reunited with Gertrude and with Frank and Josie and all his brothers and sisters who had gone before.

I figure that now, he's sitting back watching, waiting for the rest of us.

To be continued...

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