To Be Honest
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TO THY HAPPY
OF THE FUTURE
THOSE OF THE PAST
reads the inscription on the Alma Mater statue at the University of Illinois. Eighth-largest in enrollment among American campuses in 1937, Illinois was perhaps the archetypical Midwestern university; not even the eruption of a volcano, it was said, would be able to hide its identity from future archaeologists.
As an Illinois resident, Martha had to pay a tuition of no more than forty dollars a semester. Her real expenses went to textbooks and supplies, and to housing. This was a far more formidable cost, around $350, to be paid each semester as one lump sum; and each time the Ehrlichs would struggle to come up with the money for Martha’s room and board. She lived at Busey Hall, one of the women’s dormitories, rooming at first with Ruthie Schnitzler who “sang like a bird.” Joseph and Mathilda and George would go down to see Martha once or twice a year, usually on a Sunday, leaving Chicago fairly early since it was a four-and-a-half-hour trip to Champaign-Urbana. Busey residents could arrange for their families to lunch in the dorm dining room, where the girls would sing “college-type songs” waiting for meals to be served. After lunch the families were allowed to go upstairs and see their coed’s room, with shouts of “Man on second!” “Man on third!” going up too to warn shower-exiters. The Ehrlichs never stayed for long, nor did much at the University other than visit Martha. She in turn would come back to Chicago via the Illinois Central Railroad, which had student specials at holiday times. During her visits she seldom had much to say about school.
Martha was in fact dreadfully homesick her first year away at college, and doing poorly there as well. She started out uncertain whether to major in mathematics or biology, but her first math class was Spherical Trigonometry and Navigation—“and there were forty-nine engineering students and Martha,” she would recall. “I got through with a D- out of the kindness of the teacher’s heart, and that ended that... Ohhhhhhh, was I miserable!!” It was not the sort of thing to hurry home and tell Joseph.
She did better her sophomore year, figuring out the best ways to study: some subjects were strictly memorization, while in lab work you could see things happen instead of merely reading about them. And Martha became involved in Orchesis, an extracurricular dance group which presented a Mother’s Day pageant in May 1939. Martha’s numbers included two parts of Cecil Burleigh’s Leaders of Men: The Fanatic (“Unbalanced and fiery, the fanatic leads the masses to that same state”) and Savagery (“I heard the boom of a blood-lust song /And a thigh-bone beating on a tin—pan gong”).
The following summer, Martha’s cross-eyed strabismus was corrected at last by surgery. Both eyes had tended to cross, particularly when strained or fatigued, but following the operation she was better able to face the world head-on. At times this seemed of little comfort: although she was working at a Walgreen’s again that summer to help pay her college expenses, when the time came for Martha to begin her junior year, the necessary $350 was simply not available. Three days before school started, a customer came to Ehrlich Furs needing her coat repaired. Normally the job would have cost at least six hundred dollars, but Joseph agreed to do it for $350 if paid in cash that day. He was; Martha was able to continue college; and Joseph doubtless attributed it all to Fate.
Back in Urbana, Martha continued head-on economizing. At Busey Hall she breakfasted on a slice of toast with coffee, and for dinner had another cup of coffee or glass of milk with a bowl of chili. (Crackers were free.) And that was it, mealwise, for the day.
By her senior year Martha had
improved to the point of getting a letter of commendation for superior work from
the Dean of Education. Among her accomplishments in the fall of 1940 was
student-teaching at an Urbana senior high school. She enjoyed this, her
first chance to teach, and in the Spring 1941 semester she student-taught at
Thornburn Junior High in Urbana. Her supervisor or critic teacher there
was Joyce Faber, who every once in awhile called in Principal A. H. Lauchner to
be impressed by Martha’s performance.
1941 Apr. 6. College, Busey Hall, coking and smoking, men, Orchesis, Phi Alpha Chi, God! what a five years. I’ve just discovered diaries aren’t for the present—they’re for the future. In reading back over the past dozen years or so, I’ve realized what a mess of a kid I must have been (hm!). But them days are gone forever. Seven more weeks and graduation. Then what? I don’t know... Practice teaching, home for vacations, and soon home for good. How can one summarize five such years as have gone by? Graduating from H.S.; starting college, maladjustments, homesickness, unhappiness... Stacks of letters written home in four years—more than any diary could say, yet less too. But now, home for Easter in four days, registration with the appts. committee, the kids home for the weekend—me here grading sky-high stacks of papers. Oh, what’s the use. I’ll never catch up with myself anyway. Continue later as though I had never left off. About the only way to do it. [Martha]
But Martha’s Diary came to a final end eight days later, after “a wonderfully perfect Easter” with the family in Chicago and Racine. She practiced the piano “till I thought my back would break in two,” hemmed hems “till I couldn’t see straight,” danced in Racine “till I could barely stagger out to the car, but it was worth it,” and “ate like a refugee from a famine all vacation. Now back to Busey, and back to famine...
In June Martha graduated from the University of Illinois with a Bachelor of Science degree, and struck a Statue of Liberty pose in her cap and gown to note her academic liberation. Three months later she had a teaching job—not at the Sorbonne, but in Sanborn, North Dakota, an agricultural town with a population of 350. “I had been applying all over everyplace,” she would recall, “and of course everybody asked ‘What religion? What church?’ And I would get letters back saying, ‘Sorry, the teacherage was for this particular religion, or that particular religion.’ And ostensibly what they were saying was, ‘We don’t want Jews.’” So when Martha wrote to Sanborn she said she was a Unitarian. “Well, it was such an innocuous church, it wasn’t way-out in any sense, no gung-ho religion about it.”
She was hired to teach high school English, biology, and general science for a monthly salary of $100. The high school had a faculty of three: besides Martha there was Ernest A. Hornbacher, who also served as Principal and Superintendent; and a young woman named Dugalda Langdon, who taught history and music, directed the band and played trumpet. For thirty dollars a month Martha got room-breakfast-and-laundry at Tom and Olga McCormick’s house, the only place in Sanborn other than the school that had indoor plumbing. To an extent: “They had a cistern up on top of the roof, and when it rained the cistern was full, and when it didn’t rain—boy, you saved water no matter what. We’d get about half a cup of water, and we brushed our teeth, and that was all the water there was, so you kept dipping your toothbrush in the cup, and then you’d rinse with that. And that to me was HORRIBLE. My water runs when I brush my teeth! and I get it from under the faucet!”
There was not a great deal of entertainment to be found in Sanborn, North Dakota. Once (and only once) Martha went out as a beater in a pheasant hunt. Occasionally she and Dugalda Langdon went to the Royal Neighbors of America lodge, where Dugalda—daughter of a Methodist minister—would not play cards, so she and Martha indulged themselves instead in Chinese checkers. There never seemed to be enough for Martha to eat; “I didn’t feel I had enough money to go to a restaurant—I was being fed by pillars of the town, and you couldn’t admit to being hungry.” And during the winter of 1941-42 it was not warm in Sanborn, North Dakota. “My lord, it got forty below—but real dry, so you could freeze to death and not even feel cold.”
As Miss Ehrlich the Teacher, Martha found a role to play and compensate for her self-styled lack of identity. “As a teacher, I could meet people—I could meet the parents of my students, and I could be among strange people at meetings, because I was a teacher. But leave me as a stranger at a gathering, a social gathering for just people, and back to the wallflower days of dancing school. I didn’t dare talk to anybody, I was afraid—well, I couldn’t talk to anybody, I had nothing to talk about, I was afraid that anything I would say would be not worth hearing... I didn’t feel there that I was a good teacher. So in addition to the normal shyness that I had as a basic part of my personality, there was the shyness that I felt too that I wasn’t as good. My father taught me to be perfect. You know: you had to be perfect to be anything. And since perfection was lacking in that first year of teaching, I felt so inept, and so negative about myself there, that really I had almost no identity there at all... See, here I am, twenty-two years old, my first teaching job, I was teaching everything from ninth grade through twelfth, and some of my students were nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one-year-old farmboys who hadn’t been in school long enough each year to be graduated, ‘cause they’d have to leave to do crops, and all the rest of it. And I had troubles. I had discipline problems. I remember one day... after the kids had finally gone and I had had a day to end all days, I was standing in the cloakroom crying and debating to myself: do I want to jump out of this window and end it all? or can I make it to the end of the year? or how am I going to handle it? All these thoughts going through my mind—and then as usual I got stubborn and said, ‘The hell with it, I am going to finish.’”
The year at Sanborn, that is, and not herself.
When George was about twelve, he hauled out his parents’s box of European memorabilia and started going through it, organizing the old postcard photos brought from Kolozsvár. Many of these were of wartime couples with the man in uniform, or of soldiers out on the Eastern front, and George laboriously dated the photos and identified the people pictured in them by asking Joseph and Mathilda. His parents might say, “That’s my brother Dezső,” or “That’s your cousin and her husband,” but they would provide few stories or anecdotes. When George pressed Joseph for tales of the war or about his father’s boyhood, Joseph gave him bits and fragments—the beautiful books behind glass doors in Győr; having to study by moonlight; a shell that came into the dugout but did not explode. And there would be no elaboration.
Eventually George put his notes in order and tried to lay out family trees for the Ehrlichs and the Kuns; he ended up thoroughly confused, and had to give it up. But occasionally the past would make itself present in little unexpected ways: George slept on one of the goosefeather pillows brought from Kolozsvár, and one night he found a Hungarian coin in it. Or when Martha read Jack London’s novels, and George began collecting the works of Mark Twain, Joseph might let them know he had read these too (in translation) when he had been a schoolboy their age. The books he talked about were always the ones he had read in his youth.
In January 1938 George turned thirteen.* Perhaps this stirred some memory for Joseph, because soon afterwards—and completely out of the blue—he took his son to a synagogue or temple. George would recall their having to don yarmulkes, and for many years would wonder what had suddenly motivated his father to take this most uncharacteristic step. Was it to see what George’s reaction might be? or for Joseph to find out how he himself would react? There was no discussion of the adventure, and it was not repeated.
The following September George began high school (Joseph calling this “The Coming of New Horizons” ) and among his first classes at Senn was algebra—an easy subject, since Joseph had already given him lessons during the summer, having patiently waited till George got out of grammar school. Around now Joseph also began assembling George’s Scrapbook. This was not a running account as Martha’s Diary had been, but consisted mostly of recollections and carefully-saved keepsakes. Another notable feature of the Scrapbook was Joseph’s writing its captions and commentaries in English rather than Hungarian.
George took his first art class during his sophomore year at Senn in 1939. “That’s probably when I began drawing,” he was to say. “Chances are if I did any interesting drawings before then, my father would have saved them, because that would have appealed to him.” Joseph himself had some skill and imagination when it came to art, though by the 1930’s it surfaced only in such projects as making the occasional SPECIAL canvas banner. When George wanted better-quality (and more expensive) paint and materials, his father told him, “First show me what you can do.” George sketched his customary live subject, Patsy the shepherd (“Probably I was sitting there, and the dog was on the floor, and I thought: ‘Well, you know—draw it’”) and Joseph was impressed. He placed several of George’s sketches and paintings in the Scrapbook, captioning them: “Favorite Indoor Sport.”
George got his first “real job” in the summer of 1940, working on the assembly line at a fluorescent lamp company where family friend Florence Kan was bookkeeper. He worked for thirty cents an hour, making $13.80 a week; ten dollars of this went to his parents. A couple of summers later he would get his second real job, as a Walgreen’s soda jerk, and in the Scrapbook Joseph would write: “I'll have a chocolate-banana-double-flip-super-colossal ‘Ehrlich Special.’”†
On December 5, 1941, George attended a seminar at the University of Chicago and “heard a very lucid and clever fellow tell us why there would be no war between Japan and the United States for at least three months.” Two days later Pearl Harbor was bombed. George was already in the Senn ROTC (“It wasn’t mandatory,” Mathilda was to say, “but he liked the uniform... it was prestigious, you know”) and the following February he and other cadets worked fourteen straight hours helping teachers with draft registration.
In the spring of 1942 George and Don Friedlen (a fellow member of the Glenn Miller Club) presented a research project to their History class: “From Bar to Bar—Musical and Otherwise,” which covered ragtime, jazz, blues, boogie-woogie, swing, and precisionism. Many years later George would comment that this was “my first exposure to historical research... I assembled a body of notes which I still have in a box somewhere, and we organized this. Don Friedlen was the musical expert, he had the phonograph records and he could play the piano, and I did the sort of historical narrative; and this wowed everyone... There weren't any of these History of Jazz kinds of things [at that time], and it smacked of New Orleans, red-light district, and things of that sort. Yeah: that was when I discovered it was fun to do research.”
George graduated from Senn High School‡ in June 1942, not yet eighteen and therefore not yet eligible for the draft. He had been admitted to both the University of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology, but neither gave him a scholarship and without one he wound up heading to Champaign-Urbana and the University of Illinois. Since George had never regained his senses regarding the violin, Joseph had begun thinking of him as a future engineer. “You went off to college to become something or somebody in the professional sense,” George would remark. “An engineer was clearly the sort of thing that young men did become and I’m sure my father had suggested this, either directly or indirectly.” But what kind of engineer—civil, electrical, mechanical, or chemical?
“I had a vague idea that mechanical engineers were not as high up the status scale, because my father always muttered about the fact that when Bill Hoyer had become a mechanical engineer, he had to wear coveralls at his work... I had had what I would consider a very bad physics course in high school, and that would have been the lead-in to electrical engineering. And civil engineering was really roads, bridges, and things like that—that didn’t seem anything I could relate to. So that’s probably why I picked chemical engineering when I looked down the list: it seemed closest to something I understood, what they did. Which was not true at all.”
In April 1942 Martha received a letter from Joyce Faber, her teaching supervisor the year before at Thornburn Junior High. “It seems that I must retire to raise a family,” Joyce wrote, so Mr. Lauchner the Principal had asked her to get in touch with Martha and see if she would like a try at Thornburn, for $1100 per school year. “You know the advantages of Urbana, Illinois—and there’s promise (almost definite) of a demonstration table complete with H2O and CH4!!!”
Joyce’s pregnancy was Martha’s ticket out of Sanborn, North Dakota. Having lived a frugal life there, she had saved a fair amount of her $900 earnings, and when she stopped by 1553 Devon for a post-Sanborn visit “I had two hundred dollars in cash bills. I stood in the middle of the living room and just WHOOPS like that, tossed them up into the air, and it just trickled down like leaves falling. And that’s my master’s [degree]—that started my master's money.”
So the fall of 1942 saw both the Ehrlich children living in Champaign-Urbana, Martha preparing to teach and begin work on her graduate degree, George moving into the Granada Club dormitory and starting college life. He would go to her apartment for Sunday dinners, and Joseph and Mathilda would come down from Chicago at times to visit them. When Martha showed Joseph her classroom at Thornburn Junior High, on Saturday afternoons when no one else was in the school building, he always took off his hat and walked softly and spoke in a whisper. Joseph’s home might have been his church, but to him the classroom was a truly sacred place, and in Martha’s he looked at everything—the textbooks, the pictures on the walls, and the inevitable small animals which he would be allowed to feed.
As for Mathilda, she exercised her maternal prerogative and wrote her son a farewell letter:
1942 Sept. 9. Dear George: I’m writing these few lines so Dad could put it in your scrapbook. Yesterday was the big day for you, as well as for us too. The day of your college entrance. It was wonderful to watch you George dear, you seemed so happy, really it was your biggest day as far as I could tell. But no matter how glad I felt for you myself, I had such a funny feeling right there while we were waiting for you... I wanted to cry, and I believe if I was alone in the car, I would of cried just thinking that I haven’t any little boy to spoil anymore. You are so grown up dear with your seventeen years, and it takes time to get used to the idea that you are old enough to be at college and that Dad and I have been left all by ourselves at home. The only consolation is that you and Martha live close together in Champaign. This thought only, that keeps me going here at home, and that I am sure you are satisfied and contented to be at the University. We two old people are terribly lonesome for you and Martha. Good luck my dear, and may your dream come true for ever.
Proceed to Chapter 14 of To Be Honest
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* A month later he was
promoted half a grade from 7A to 8A, skipping 8B.
† “My father did have a sense of humor, that occasionally was allowed to show forth,” George would say. “It was just that he had so often so little to laugh about or joke about.”
‡ George tied with Etta Fine for 35th in a class of 606 students (but spent the next forty years thinking he'd graduated 85th).
Last updated August 22, 2009
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