A History of the Burns Family
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PART EIGHT: The Burns Disapora  

Chapter Six: Star-Crossed

Seattle and Walla Walla
June, 1943

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

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Ada’s got her ration book out, War Ration Book Three, calculating how much coffee, meat, and sugar they can get this week. [1] Everything is in short supply these days, from fuel to nylons. And their stamps for meat are especially low, with all these male mouths to feed  If D.A. Burns were considered an “essential” business, they’d be eligible for more, but for now they’ll just have to scrape by somehow. [2]

Still, she’s been through worse, on the South Dakota prairie and in Buffalo with Zoe and her mother. Not to mention the drought years on the farm, when they had to slaughter Jake and Lena just to get some meat onto her sons’ bony frames! The current situation is nowhere near as dire, and like the privations of the Depression, there is at least the comfort of knowing that the sacrifice is shared. Everyone is doing without these days. 

It has not been Ada’s pleasantest spring. She’d been so happy for Ebba, whose joyful anticipation of Gerry’s homecoming filled the house for days back in March. He’d arrived at King Street Station on Saturday the 13th (was that an ill omen, she wonders now?), and things hadn’t been the same since.

Description: Gerald Telegram 

Instructions for the War Ration Book No. 3

It was no surprise that Gerry was not the easiest person to get along with; Ebba had always been very open about it. But in her letters, his flaws seemed more like loveable quirks, like Don’s or Dave’s or Bob’s  In real life, they Description: posterare fundamental defects. If he were a nicer person, they would be tragic flaws. But the truth is, Gerald Burke is simply not very nice.

The polite veneer soon wore off, leaving him exposed for what he is: A loud and ill-tempered and demanding man who thinks nothing of how his behavior mortifies his wife. He chastises the children for being children – yelling at them if they disturb him. He chafes at the Burns standard of cleanliness, opening doors with his elbows to avoid imaginary contamination by lurking bacteria. He constantly disrupts the easy geniality and banter of the household with his intolerant glare. Ebba knows this and they are looking for apartments, where he can get the peace and quiet he demands. But every time they search, he finds a reason the place will not do. 

Ada tries to be forgiving, recognizing that he was cooped up in an Army barracks for almost a year. And after starting a course at the University, hoping to advance toward graduate school, he became ill and had to drop out. He also works hard at the Associated Shipyards every day, fulfilling the terms of his release from military service by working in the defense-related job that Guy helped arrange through Mr. Cain and the union. But why must he be so thoroughly nasty to everyone, especially to Patty Lou, who is the most delightful four-year-old in the world, or little Linda Lee, who is not even 18 months old! She can forgive the personal rudeness to herself, or his combative sparring with Don, but she cannot overlook his cruelty to the children. Imagine screaming at Patty and Ardella just for playing out back as any two little girls might!  If he were her own son, she would….

But she must not think this way, for it will only make things harder for her daughter.  Gerry and Ebba must simply redouble their efforts to find a home for themselves, for as Ebba says, he is so much nicer when the two of them are off by themselves….

Description: War ration book three
War Ration Stamps

Walla Walla

Tomorrow the students will be heading home for summer vacation, but tonight, warm and fragrant under starry skies, the Phi Delt boys are having one last spontaneous get-together to celebrate the end of the year. In the wide grassy field behind the fraternity house on Estrella Street, Mattie is waiting for Burns to return with their
                    Phi Delta Theta House -- scene of first "date"
Cokes. It’s been a confusing day.  Freshmen Preston Macy, Sam Haguewood, and Bob O’Dell have been lurking around the perimeter, but thankfully have not approached. She feels guilty, since she’d agreed to spend time with each of them on this last day of her first year at Whitman College. She’s not sure what she thinks about Burns, their elder fraternity brother, having forcefully elbowed them out of the way of this rather odd first date. 

If you can call it a date. Mostly they’ve stood out under the stars talking, Cokes in hand. Burns has wowed her with his vocabulary (who uses words like “unbeknownst” and “behemoth” in everyday conversation?) and his knowledge of the constellations. There's something so different about him, a quality of character that sets him apart from the other boys. He’s cute, that’s undeniable. Dreamy, really. But also this elusive something more. She’s thought so ever since that first encounter last fall.

She and Betty Falkenhagen, a junior and fellow member of Alpha Chi Omega sorority, had been strolling toward The Cabin to get a little treat, when Betty jabbed her and said, “Don’t look now, but here’s Burns. He’s a BMOC, [3] so try to make a good impression.” For her part, Mattie couldn’t see at first what was so impressive about this undeniably tall and good-looking but also disheveled and unshaven young man. The brown curls might or might may not have been combed in a while; his jacket hung from a lanky frame that belied his reputation for skill on the basketball court, boxing ring, and football field. [4]  She did notice his nice eyes and a sweet smile, though.

The Cabin, where they first met on the street


A = The Cabin;  B = Prentiss Hall (Mattie’s dorm);  C = Lakum Duckum (engagement site)
D = Phi Delt House;  E = Lyman House (Bob’s first-year dorm)

(click to enlarge)


                Dance program from the fall of '42

The meeting was friendly, but nothing came of it. He’d asked for a dance at the Delta Gamma Jailbird Jamboree last fall, [5] but at that time Burns’s old flame Virginia Barton was still in the picture despite being in remote Antioch, and Liz Smith and other girls were in hot pursuit as well. Mattie instinctively did the opposite, dashing off in the other direction whenever Burns came into view. So she had not actually seen much of him this year, and he apparently found that attractive!

There's a little breeze blowing through the yard now, and Mattie turns to see what's become of Burns, only to catch a glimpse of Liz Smith slipping back into the house. Following him again? Poor Liz. She still has it bad.

Mattie looks up at the stretched W of Cassiopeia’s Chair , thinking about all Burns has told her about stars and their brightness classifications. The sky is so vast out here, the air so clear!  There's so much more to know than anyone can possibly know!

Which makes her think with a sudden stab of anxiety about where she'll be heading, much too soon. How she dreads it, her aunt and uncle’s dreary place in Tacoma! With its small-minded occupants, the house on Warner Street will seem more claustrophobic than ever after this thrilling first year at Whitman. She doesn’t know how she’ll last the summer without her studies and her new friends.

Aunt Lona had never wanted her to come to college in the first place. So Mattie’s pretty sure she’s not going to be welcomed back to the Wattenbargers with open arms. The bad blood about the money lingered on. It had taken every ounce of courage to go to Mr. Callahan, the guardian of her father’s estate, and plead that some of the money she had inherited be used for her education. Lona kept insisting that she and Uncle Herb should be additionally compensated for taking Mattie in after her father died in 1928 (even though they'd been paid a generous stipend throughout). Mattie thanks her lucky stars for Mr. Callahan, who denied Lona’s claim. A night like tonight, with a successful year behind her [6] and the attentions of a fine young man under a starry sky, are just what John Matlock would have wanted for his youngest child. Mattie is sure of that.

The Losers: Sam Haguewood, Preston Macy, Robert O'Dell

The Winner

[1] Few family letters were written in 1943, because the correspondence workhorses, Ebba and Ada, were living at long last under one roof.  A few letters were written to Bob in Walla Walla, and from Gerald Burke to Ebba before he moved to Seattle in mid-March. This chapter is based on those letters, perspective gained from later letters, and Patty’s and my parents’ reminiscences.

[2] The third in a series of War Ration Books was issued in October, 1943. 

[3] The following year, even though he was in the Army after November, Bob was one of seven men elected by the faculty and the junior class to the order of Waiilatpu, an honorary that recognized students for leadership, scholarship, and activities. 

[4] The Phi Delts were undefeated in intramural basketball that year, and Bob Burns was named one of its top four players in the annual; he was also named as tackle to the all-intramural football team. He boxed (without a helmet) the guy who went on to become the SW Washington AAU middleweight champ, Dennis Donahue. He won the first round, tied the second, lost the third. He boxed in 3 intra-fraternity bouts in all – won 1, lost 1, tied 1. He also played baseball, and ran intercollegiate track.

[5] See dance card. The Cowans and Bothwells were lifelong friends, the Turners were good friends. Kath Burns Vaughan served as college counselor to the grandson of James Kuhl. Small world!

[6] Mattie was recognized for scholarship, activities, and leadership her freshman year. She was one of 11 women named to the sophomore Arrows after an outstanding freshman year.