A History of the Burns Family
Home About Contents Biographies Photo Galleries Memoirs

PART EIGHT: The Burns Disapora  

Chapter Four: The Prodigals

Cleveland and Seattle
June, 1942 [2]

1 - Rugs to RIches
2 - Ebba Ties Knot
3 - Love and War
4 - The Prodigals
5 - Trick or Treat
6 - Star-Crossed

More Information

My Dear Family: I guess you are all still alive, having heard nothing to the contrary. We are quite busy getting things sorted and labeled as per the A.E.B. method, and tomorrow I will start to crate furniture and Evelyn to pack trunks….It’s unsafe to go across the living room, with 4 trunks, 10 grips, 20 packing cases, etc. I brought the trunks up from the basement today to fill, and I find they are already filled. Ain’t that something? Personally, I am ready to start back anytime, sooner the quicker….With all my love, Dad [1]                                                        


Description: dodge panel trick
           1937 Dodge panel truck
It’s hot and sticky in Ebba’s little apartment off Euclid, and Guy surveys the chaos before him with no little alarm. He and Ebba have been hard at the packing for three straight days, but the progress they’ve made is scarcely detectable. And his ear’s a mess. Despite the sulphanimide prescribed by Ebba’s ear, nose, and throat man, Dr. Jackson, it’s draining just as copiously as ever, which just adds to the misery of the heat and the dust. Guy is not a person who is easily discouraged, but he’s worried now. How will they squeeze all this stuff into a truck? For that matter, where is he going to find the truck? That 1937 Dodge panel truck over across town seemed like a good value, especially with five new tires, but first he’s going to look around down in Warren with Barney Gillem. Maybe by then Ada will have sent the requested auto classified ads from the Seattle PI, so he can compare prices.

Description: DAB arrives on train
Telegram from Ada to Ebba announcing Guy’s arrival at Union Station on June 21, 1942 [2]

Well, there’s nothing for it but to get started, and so he takes the Plain Dealers into the kitchen, stacks them on the counter, and starts to wrap the cookware that Evelyn has cleared for packing.

He’s been alone in the apartment all day. Evelyn’s workload is crushing, with shrinking pay and no vacation, because a large contingent of Lakeside doctors and nurses has gone to Australia to join the war effort. And she has endless details to attend to if they are to leave here by the first of July, the official date of her resignation. Lakeside does not want to lose her. In fact, just the other day, her superiors had offered to grant her a doctoral degree if she agreed to stay, with only one final project to complete. But she is raring to go west, has been for years. And Guy’s here to make sure it happens.

It’s not as though Gerry is holding her back any more. After losing his battle with the draft board, he was classified 1-A and ordered to report for induction to Camp Perry 80 miles west of Cleveland on May 15.[3] Later he was shipped to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, dressed in an Army uniform he grumbled made him “look like a damn fool." [4] Guy’s inclined to agree with Ada’s assessment that the military will be good for Gerry, because he’ll “be forced to make human contacts…and have more understanding and tolerance of other people.” For her part, dear Evelyn seems blind to his faults, and is still in acute grief at their parting.

Mes Miserum!  I had meant to make last night as gay and warm and intimate as possible. The house shone after my day’s efforts, windows gleamed, clean curtains fluttered in the spring air, the plants reached out soft tendrils in the shadow of the great maple across the way. Everything was in spotless order for the night. I had planned a gala meal of the things my dearest liked best, but we ate hurriedly and with little attention to the colorful meal, each doing his best, I presume, to seem to enjoy it….Gerry was restless and awake until very late, but long after he slept I lay spent and crushed watching the dear face so close to my own, impressing its every line and angle indelibly upon my heart….The parting kiss was brief and hard to trembling lips. No backward glance. As if one moment you were whole, the next torn asunder.   

-- From Ebba’s diary – May 15, 1942 [there were only a few other entries]

There’s no accounting for love, that’s for sure, Guy shrugs. Which reminds him, he must ask Ada to send his fishing gear soon, so that he’ll have something to do when the two lovebirds meet at the Fort on the way west. He certainly doesn’t want to be a third wheel in that reunion! 

The counter now cleared, Guy checks the cupboard next to the sink, where he finds the pressure cooker they’d sent to Ebba as a gift, scrubbed to a fare-thee-well, and ready to wrap. Next to them are the colorful bowls they’d given her one Christmas, with the paint that chipped off so readily. And look here if it isn't Grandmother Mason’s old jug! 
         Ebba's Valentine to Gerry

He must wrap that very carefully indeed; heaven forbid he should break it! But what about all these knickknacks in the drawer? And Ebba’s silver? Will it be safe in the case? Guy straightens the pile of Plain Dealers with a tentative air, and cautiously starts to wrap. If only Ada were here, she would know just what to do!

And yet maybe it’s as well she is not. She would not want to go the Falls with him. Or have dinner with Mr. Hackett, his old boss from the Miller. She might even balk at a visit to cousin Ola. And she certainly wouldn’t want to see Minnie Roethig! [5]  Following his successful call in St. Paul to his high-school classmate Katherine Howland, he’d written teasingly to Ada of his plans to call Minnie, his “dark-haired sweetheart of long ago.” Then, worried that Ada might be jealous Description: DAB Visit Listof her “old rival,” he softened the jest by admitting that “if she is as unresponsive as she was then…the quest would be quite hopeless.” But of course Ada will not be jealous; he has loved her too long and too well for that. Still, she would have taken one look at his little list of people to visit and run in the other direction!

Guy has not seen his mother and sister for seven years, so this trip is a chance to kill two birds with one stone. He will help Ebba move west, and he will be able to visit Cuyahoga Falls and mend fences with Mary Rebecca and the Mellingers. Rumors that civilian rail traffic will be severely curtailed and gasoline rationing imposed by July 15th had made this a now-or-never opportunity.

Description: http://www.executedtoday.com/images/Lafcadio_Hearn.jpg
Lafcadio Hearn

The afternoon heat intensifies as Guy fills box after box with pots and pans, plates and cups, teapots and pitchers, napkins and trivets. After the cupboards and drawers have been emptied, he weaves his way through the living-room labyrinth to the bedroom. A faint breeze stirs here. Outside the open windows, the big maple rustles, stirring memories of the scorching summer afternoons of childhood. Riding the train through the Indiana countryside, flying by the backyard flower gardens and the familiar trees of old – the walnuts, butternuts, elms, and buckeyes – an unexpected nostalgia had hit him hard. Even the grim cityscape that followed – a “coal yard full of good old-fashioned Kentucky lump [coal]…and the belching stacks, crowded and crumbling buildings, closely herded freight cars, filth and stench and a pall of black smoke” – reminded him powerfully of his Ohio youth, when it seemed impossible that you couldn’t succeed if you were willing to work hard enough.

With a sign, Guy shakes off the memories, and turns to Ebba’s bookcase. Here’s the coveted Lafcadio Hearn [6] first edition they’d found for her, right next to the little copper clock. Honestly, he can’t understand her fascination with Hearn, and wonders if it is wavering in the face of the war with Japan. And here are How Green Was My Valley and Anna Karenina, which makes Guy grin, remembering Ebba’s letter this spring.

I’m trying to read and take notes on Anna Karenina for Gerry while keeping an eye on the pot roast and pudding, and it sounds as if there was a slip somewhere. I don’t know whether I’ve thrown Vronsky into the soup by mistake and left the carrots to make love to Anna, or whether all the Muscovites are in the rice pudding instead of the raisins, and you know how Gerry hates any foreign matter in his food! 

April 16, 1942

How wonderful it will be to have Ebba, the Silent Partner, back in the family circle! Her intelligence and sense of humor will be just the ticket to balance out all the strong-willed males at D.A. Burns. God knows Ada and Helen could use an ally. How are they all doing without him, he wonders? Why haven’t they written? Business has been awfully brisk, despite all the shortages – gasoline, tires, copper, machinery, even soap! – but surely one of them could find a moment to drop a line to the Chief! 

Ah, well, he will not fret. He has faith in the family to carry on without him. In addition to Bill and Fred, Binks is home for the summer and helping with the books and the driving, so there’s plenty of brain and muscle to apply to the tasks at hand. If Fred can just stay sober, they’ll be all right. As Ada is fond of pointing out, for 40 cents an hour he works as fast and thoroughly as Guy himself, but without all the cussing. And now that the merry game of “musical houses” is resolved – with Dave and Wilma living in the house next to the shop, a renter in the corner house, and Don and Helen wallpapering and painting in the little brown house up the hill – things are settling into a more predictable routine. 

Description: National Draft Order Detail
Lottery numbers from
Spokane paper
March 19, 1942

His eyes stray to the stack of letters on the lower bookshelf, and spot Ada’s round penciled handwriting. He stoops to collect the top one, dated March 5th. He remembers it well, for it was written in the middle of all that to-do about Binks. They'd both been worried about him then – about his restlessness and lack of direction. Ada chalked it up to his “infatuation and the uncertainty of life’s program on account of the war.” And it was true; Bob, their quiet Wee, has been on an emotional rollercoaster this year.

On February 16, 1942, two months after war was declared, his youngest son had registered for the draft at a public school in Walla Walla, and been assigned a serial number by the local draft board. But Ada's 56th birthday had been the really big day, for that was the day the Third National Draft Lottery had been held back in Washington D.C. He'd seen the pictures in the paper. Over the course of 13 hours, green capsules containing 7000 serial numbers were drawn from a goldfish bowl in the Labor Department auditorium, a curiously bland tallying of this all-too-human score.

As he now knows, because Binks has explained it at length, the sequence in which the serial numbers were drawn determined the order in which the registrant would be called for examination and classification. Because Bob’s poor eyesight precluded assignment to the Naval V-7 program or the Air Corps, a high number had been his only hope for postponing a seemingly inevitable Army assignment. Even though a college boy would probably enter the Enlisted Reserve Corps (ERC) or the ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program), there would still be basic training to go through and the risk of being shipped overseas would remain.   

As it happened, Binks had lucked out in the lottery, with a local serial number of 563 and a national order number of 5312 out of 7000, so if he's called to serve, it won't be soon, barring some disaster. Which relieved their minds no end on St. Paddy's Day, and allowed Ada the luxury of a good night's sleep on her birthday. Time will deliver its verdict for the two older ones too. Don, whose isolationist bent has only grown since Pearl Harbor, has been slaving away in the shipyards intent on earning a mechanic’s rating. He's been classified 2-B [7]. Dave’s status as a husband and father makes him 3-A. And if D.A. Burns & Sons is ever declared essential to the national defense, his sons will be protected by 3-B status. For a while in the spring, he and Ada sometimes allowed themselves to hope that all their sons would be spared.   

The Third Draft Lottery was held on March 17, 1942

But that was before Binks dropped out of school. He’d been floundering even before the war began – all on account of the “Little Puss,” as Guy likes to call Miss Virginia Barton from Spokane.[8] Since their meeting on October 2, 1941, as Binks had later explained, he had been “wandering around in an aimless fog 90% of the time.” His living conditions – sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a closet-sized room belonging to Harold Piper, a fraternity brother who lived in town – were not exactly ideal. He started skipping classes, and even though he always mastered the material, his professors marked him down for poor attendance. The result was that after the first semester, his cumulative GPA dropped to 3.2. Then came the Lottery, after which school seemed even more pointless and dull. 

Excerpt from a discouraged letter Bob sent sophomore year after Pearl Harbor
Click for full letter: Page One, Page Two

Guy winces involuntarily at the memory of Bob's hopeless letter, for he felt so powerless to provide a father's wise counsel. No one in his family had ever experienced war directly, although God knows Father had bravely shouldered its consequences after his father died at Wilderness. What would it feel like to be at the mercy of forces so completely outside your control? To risk your life for a cause the family is not even sure it believes in?

The whole family reeled when Bobby dropped out of Whitman and showed up suddenly one night after hitchiking home. Hadn't wanted to trouble anyone, he said, which they all know is a pattern with him. With 5¢ in his pocket, he got as far as Cle Elum, sat in a phone booth to get warm, and fell asleep. His slumbers were interrupted when two policemen, guns drawn, arrested him for vagrancy and jailed him overnight without giving him anything to eat. When they released him they told him to get home without hitchhiking, but he simply walked up the road a piece and hitchhiked anyway, having no money to get a bus ticket or even to call home.

     Virginia Barton, the cause of all the trouble
At least he'd had the good sense to enroll at the University for spring quarter, and for a time he was his old self, working hard and enthusiastic about learning. Guy and Ada assumed he would regroup and get back on his academic feet without delay. But the war and his floundering long-distance romance combined to defeat even this modest campaign. 

Guy still cannot quite credit the magnitude of Bob's collapse, but there it was. Carrying straight A’s into the final 2 weeks of the quarter, his son dropped out once again, claiming it had been a mistake to go to college right after high school. Now he wants to experience the real world! 

Guy cannot blame his son, but he wonders about what this means for his classification status. Perhaps it will come out all right if Binks follows through with his plan to get a job necessary to the national defense. He’s a teamster now, driving deliveries for the Pantorium, so there’s hope that will shield him.

For her part, Evelyn is aghast at this turn of events, and has been rattling on about it ever since he arrived in Cleveland! She registered her disapproval with all the authority she could muster in a dictated postscript to Guy’s most recent letter home, telling Binks to “get the hell back to school and catch up so he can have 4 semesters before he is called up or she will give him a hell of a swift kick in his bucket when she gets there!”  

Guy replaces Ada’s letter now, leaving the pile for Ebba to sort through. There is a mountain of correspondence here, dating back to the summer of 1926, when Ebba went off to Mitiwanga. How faithfully his wife and daughter have written throughout the years!  He is ashamed of his feeble efforts to write to his own mother. Mother told Ebba it had been three years since his last letter, and that’s too long by any measuring stick. 

But he will make up for it when he goes to the Falls this weekend. From Ebba’s account, Mother is as hard-charging as ever. Last fall, a cracked rib and aching knees “hadn’t kept her from canning several thousand cans of this and that in addition to her regular household duties.” He smiles to think of his 79-year-old mother’s unquenchable thirst for work, a trait he inherited and has passed on, to varying degrees, to his own children.

On the shelf below the letters are Ebba’s yearbooks from Akron and Western Reserve, and he puts these and the other books into a box. Just then, he hears the rattle of a key in the lock announcing Ebba’s return. She staggers in with an armload of files – more of those infernal reports to write! – and sinks into Mrs. Burke’s sky-blue chair with a sign of relief. Guy watches her register the lack of visible progress, and feels chagrined. They are getting nowhere fast…

Author’s Note

Guy and Ebba left Cleveland on July 5th, the day before he turned 58 years old. They drove a 1937 Dodge panel truck Guy bought for $360 from a macaroni-factory owner who had been drafted. The drive to Fort Leonard Wood was described as uneventful, with a brief but unsuccessful sidetrip to Webster Grove, Missouri to try to see Ada’s Aunt Alida.   

Guy did visit his mother and sister in the Falls and had a surprisingly good time. Mary Rebecca was overjoyed to see him; his brother-in-law Clyde, the previously skeletal hypochondriac-in-residence, was working again and treated him “fine”; Guy’s nephews were very nice (all except Harold); and May outdid herself with a Sunday chicken dinner with all the trimmings. Guy saw about 50 old friends while he was there, including everyone on his list and all the old neighbors except for Minnie Porter, the widow of Lorenzo’s old fishing buddy Johnny.  

At Fort Leonard Wood

Guy lived his life assuming people would like him, and they did. He was a huge hit with Ebba’s nursing buddies in Cleveland, who were almost as sorry to see him go as they were to lose their old friend. He even called Minnie Roethig, who invited him over after a pleasant telephone chat, although there’s no indication he actually went. 

At Fort Leonard Wood, Guy did everything he could to stay out of the lovebirds’ way and amuse himself. But mostly he noticed how dispirited the soldiers were, and felt he would have handled the situation quite differently – by putting “his whole heart and soul into the game in order to forget self and home.” If he is indirectly criticizing his red-faced and choleric son-in-law, who complained and railed against the army repeatedly during their visit, the cut is well-disguised.

When they left the Fort on July 12, Ebba bought a Heddon rod and Pfleuger single-action reel for “herself” and Guy was in heaven. They fished their way across Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, and Utah. 

Don’t you think he’s worrying half so much about you as he is about my fishing tackle. From now on, I’m not responsible for any loss of time. I have to blindfold him at every creek.

-- [P. S. from Ebba, 7-13-1942]

It’s clear that Ebba’s openly-expressed concerns about her youngest brother, along with Guy’s own observations of conditions at Fort Leonard Wood, had a powerful effect on her father. Increasingly, his letters home advised Bob not to”do anything rash like enlisting,” but rather to get into a program that would allow him to continue with his studies “even if not in an orthodox line.” This way he might be able to delay military service for 2 or 3 years until he could get a commission. 

Ebba and Guy arrived in Seattle on July 15th, the very day that gas rationing had been rumored to commence.[9] Around that time, Bob decided to hie himself back to Whitman, determined to make another go of it, perhaps in a medical course (which was what his sister had been advising for months).

But for a brief time that July, and for the first time since Ebba had left Cuyahoga Falls for Western Reserve University in the fall of 1926, the family of six – Guy, Ada, Ebba, Don, Dave, and Bob – were all living in the same place.


[1] All details taken from contemporaneous letters, later letters, and Bob's recollections.

[2] Guy departed from Seattle from King Street Station on June 18, 1942, with coach shades drawn to observe the blackout, and arrived in Cleveland, minus one hat, three days later.

[3] When Gerry came home for an unexpected leave a few days later, Ebba literally fainted when she answered the door.

[4] Along with Fort Benning, GA and Fort Jackson, SC, and a few bases, Fort Leonard Wood was one of the Army’s major basic training locations.

[5] Minnie was the daughter of Edward Roethig (the Front Street provisioner who gave Ebba extra treats when they came to the store for groceries). The family lived near the old church. Guy did call her!

[6] Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850 –1904), also known as Koizumi Yakumo after gaining Japanese citizenship, was an author, best known for his books about Japan, especially his collections of Japanese legends and ghost stories. Ebba collected several of his works, and particularly prized them.

[7] A 2-B deferment was granted to men working in an occupation necessary to the national defense. A 3-A deferment was granted to men with dependents working in a non-essential industry; a 3-B deferment, to men with dependents working in an essential industry.

[8] Bob says his romantic problems stemmed from not understanding what girlfriends required in the way of attention and gestures of love. One can only imagine what Mr. and Mrs Guy Barton thought when he hitchhiked to their Spokane house over spring break and slept under the pool table.

[9] In fact, it did not begin on a national scale until December 1, 1942.