Friday, May 30, 2014

Frank and Helen, Part II

Frank and Helen (Timmons) Strukel, 1950s
Elkhart, Indiana

With the birth of their child, Carol Sue Miller, on 31 December 1946, the last forty posts of this blog have come full circle to where we started our journey (see Hoosier Daddy?: In the beginning...). But what became of Frank and Helen Strukel while their daughter was being raised by Ray and Rita DePrato just twelve miles to the west in neighboring Osceola, Indiana?

After their marriage in 1947, Frank and Helen moved into their first house together at 1418 Perkins Avenue, just a little over two miles south of where Helen had lived with her first husband, Eldon Miller. The home was a modest bungalow, a one-bedroom single story house built in 1930, but its 1300 square feet of space was enough for the newlyweds and Helen's young daughter, Sandy. Frank continued his factory work at the Northern Indiana Brass Company, and for a short time, Helen worked as a waitress at Boris Micoff's lunch diner on Main Street in downtown Elkhart. Just as a decade before, Helen was again a new bride, scrimping and saving to make her new house a comfortable and cheery home, and ensuring her husband was happy and content. But this marriage was not one entered into with misgivings and parental prodding like her first. This was a marriage forged on sacrifice and heartbreak, and its happiness was almost guaranteed after weathering its stormy beginnings.

It was not long after settling into her new home as Mrs. Frank Strukel that Helen became pregnant again. Shortly after her thirty-second birthday in 1949, Helen's awareness of a new baby on the way probably stirred up recently buried emotions and memories that her previous pregnancies had not. Somewhere, her daughter Carol had just passed her second birthday. Was she happy? Who did she look like? Looking around at her circumstances in her small but tidy home in Elkhart, did she wonder if giving her little girl up two years previously was the right thing to do? Did envisioning what might have been bring sadness or relief? Was she more overjoyed to tell Frank they were expecting a baby together, or saddened that there would be no older sister to greet her new sibling?

Upon discussing baby names, Frank had suggested naming their baby Carol if it were a girl, to honor the daughter he had lost. Helen quickly quashed the idea by reminding him that Carol was not gone from this world, only gone from their lives, and they still had a daughter named Carol out there somewhere. Having two daughters by the same name would just be silly. In the fall of 1949 they did welcome a new baby into the world - another daughter whom they named Dianne. Well into Dianne's childhood, Frank called her his "Little Duck," which was likely a reference to how she looked walking in her diaper.

The early 1950s brought a series of upheavals to the family. Helen had sent her daughter Sandy to California to visit with her father and two older brothers, Ted and Jerry. Eldon Miller, still using his daughter as a pawn against his ex-wife, refused to send her home. Helen immediately appealed to the county courts and local law enforcement, who readily recognized her legal custody. She was informed that they would promptly send county officials to California to retrieve Sandy and bring her home - and that the bill for such services and transportation would accompany her. Unable to pay an astronomical amount of money to recognize her legal rights, Helen lost the daughter she "bargained" for when she gave up her infant in 1946. Even though having two older brother and two older sisters - one of which remained unbeknownst to her - Dianne spent her early years as an only child.

Frank and Helen (Timmons) Strukel and daughter, Dianne
Elkhart, Indiana, mid-1950s

The Perkins Avenue home was also becoming too small for the family, and after a short stay with Frank's widowed mother, Rose Strukel, at 716 West Garfield Avenue in 1953, Frank and Helen embarked on a series of rental residences centered much closer to downtown Elkhart. Until 1957, they lived at 670½ Strong Avenue, a duplex house built in 1926 and split into four apartments. It was during this time that Frank took a job as a laborer with the Smith & Johnson, Inc., a construction company based in Indianapolis, where from 1955 to 1957 he worked on a construction crew building the Benham Avenue Railroad Underpass near Third Street in downtown Elkhart. He was familiar with the railroads, as his father and brothers had worked for them in some capacity for decades, and he also spent time working in the Robert Young railroad yards. In 1957, Frank took a job as a factory worker at Adams & Westlake, Ltd., a manufacturer of various products for the railroad and transportation industry. He eventually ended up in the maintenance department, where he was employed until the time he died.

Frank never shied away from hard work. He was frugal and resourceful, and he saw value where others saw garbage. He burnt the furring strips from some discarded aluminum windows so that he could sell them for scrap metal. He demolished an old home slated to be torn down, and he gutted it for any scrap value that could be found within it. He made arrangements with local factories to pick up their left over wood scraps that he would use in the home coal furnace for winter warmth. But when he had time away from work, he could always be found with a beer in his hand, and he enjoyed playing shuffleboard and poker, as well as a day out mushroom hunting.

Frank and Helen (Timmons) Strukel
at Ted Miller's wedding,
Elkhart, Indiana, 1961

After a very brief stay at 419 East Jackson Boulevard, the Strukel family had moved to 169 North Sixth Street in Elkhart by 1959. Although an older home built in 1900, it had considerable more space and three bedrooms, as by this time Helen's daughter, Sandy, had returned home. After a few years held hostage in California by her father, Eldon had allowed Ted and Sandy to return to Indiana to visit their mother. Eldon's sister was driving from Indiana to California, and she was instructed to pick up the children and bring them back with her. When the sister arrived to retrieve her niece and nephew, both steadfastly refused to return with her to Monrovia, California. They remained in the maternal home, where Sandy Miller enrolled in Elkhart High School in 1956, and from whence she graduated in 1960. In 1962, the family moved down the street to 161 North Sixth Street into a similarly built, but more spacious house. Frank and Helen would live there until 1967.

As with all marriages, there were bumps in the road. In the early 1960s, Frank Strukel turned to alcohol more and more readily to cope with his problems. It wasn't until 1964 or 1965 that a psychiatrist explained to Helen that Frank was relying on alcohol to continue dulling the horrible memories of his war experiences. Little was known at that time about the chronic psychological manifestations of post-traumatic stress, and many veterans like Frank found substances that allowed them to cope or to wipe their minds of war atrocities, even for short periods of time. It was not until the 1960s that any information of his experiences in war was learned, of his hiding overnight behind a rock formation in the bitter cold of northern France with his dead buddy, or of his persistent teetering on death from starvation. He buried these memories, he shared them with no one, and they tortured him. But he found strength to successfully complete a detoxification program and never drink thereafter. He was one of the lucky ones, and his focus on his family was his motivation.

When we had first identified and located my mother's birth family, but before we met them and learned the details of their lives, the paper trail for Frank Strukel went surprisingly cold after 1967, and Helen did not resurface until 1974 (see Hoosier Daddy?: My Cup Runneth Over). 

I was finally to discover why.


  1. Thanks,a very interesting read.

  2. I am thrilled to have found this - my Great Grandfather was Anton Strukel.