Friday, July 25, 2014

Helen, Part VII: Another Strukel

Helen Strukel, c1980, Elkhart, Indiana

With the Elkins marital debacle behind her, Helen Strukel settled into her routine life in her little bungalow home on Jay Dee Street on the outskirts of Elkhart, Indiana.

I did not have the fortune to meet my grandmother in the 1970s and to know her while I was growing up, but this was apparently a decade of routine. Helen continued to work at Long's Lock Shop in Elkhart, Indiana, and she maintained the same residence she bought with her late husband, Frank Strukel, prior to his death in 1968. There were no more husbands and no more relationship fiascos, and the "man of the house" duties fell to Helen's brother-in-law, Charles Strukel, who took up residence at the Jay Dee Street address in the late 1970s.

Charles John Strukel went by the nickname "Bars." It was a nickname that he carried as early as his teenage years while working for C. J. Conn in Elkhart and playing on the city baseball leagues. In a 1939 newspaper article from the Elkhart Truth praising his ball-playing prowess, even Charlie stated he was unsure exactly why the nickname had stuck, but it was likely due to his insatiable habit for munching candy bars while out on the baseball field.

"Bars" Strukel was born 15 August 1919 in Coal Creek, Colorado, a mining town very near to where his brother Frank would be born three years later. The two youngest boys of John and Rose (Stupica) Strukel, they were just children when the family moved to Elkhart, Indiana. Although not native Hoosiers, Elkhart would be the only home they would remember. Like Frank, Bars was drafted into service during World War II. But unlike his little brother, his life circumstances were quite different. 

In March 1942, Charles Strukel had married his teenage pregnant bride. Five months later he was a father to a baby boy. And two months after that, he was inducted into the United States Army from Toledo, Ohio, and sent away from home and his young family for training. Although like his brother Frank, Charles was sent overseas, much of his active duty was done in England, and he did not see combat like his brother. Back in Elkhart, Indiana, by 1946, Charles's military service had ended. So had his marriage. He remarried in 1950, and became a father again in 1956 and 1962, but that marriage too ended when his children were young. His ex-wives both remarried quickly after their divorces, and Charles's children were raised by stepfathers. He unfortunately failed to forge a strong paternal bond with any of his children and like Helen, he entered into the 1970s unmarried with the full intention of remaining that way.

I do not know how the living arrangements came to be that Charles moved into the Jay Dee Street address, but in "Bars" Strukel, Helen was able to gain the companionship she needed with the perks of additional household income, maintenance help with the house, and a reminder of the husband she had lost too early in life. And although the relationship was platonic, they were well suited for each other. My relationship with Helen and Bars began in 1982: she was 65; he was 63. And I was a mere child of fifteen. But it was easy to see that they both had a similar sense of humor: teasing and blunt with a deadpan delivery so that often you were left wondering if they were being serious or not. Had I been older, I am sure I would have appreciated their humor more, as it certainly bordered on bawdy and crude. It is not surprising then that the only picture I have of "Bars" as a younger man is in knickers and bows posing with a man in drag. The story behind it is unknown, but nothing regarding the circumstances would seem shocking or surprising. Neither of them would fit the mold of a prim and proper cookie-baking Grandma, nor of a scholarly gentleman quietly studying the Sunday paper. They were real people. They were fun. They were relatable, reachable, and down-to-earth, and for me it made slipping into this family without the benefit of a childhood spent knowing them as easy as slipping on a pair of well-worn, comfortable slippers. 

Charles John "Bars" Strukel (right)

A perfect example of Charles Strukel's sense of humor involved a brief tale he would tell of his military service in World War II. He would relate how the Nazis cut off his tongue because he refused to speak after they had captured him. He would illustrate this by just barely sticking out his tongue to indicate the stub they had left behind. Of course, this was all foolishness, as he never fought in Germany, and his tongue was totally intact. But he said it seriously enough that my 43-year-old cousin asked me if I was also going to write in this blog about Bars' torture at the hands of the Nazis after I had discussed the military service of his brother Frank. His delivery was flawless enough to keep a great-niece believing his tall tales long after his death.

But for Helen Strukel, this time of her life was dedicated to home, work, and family. In her youngest daughter, Dianne, she had a best friend, and she adored the grandchildren she had provided her: John in 1966, and Lisa in 1970. Her older daughter, Sandy, who also lived in Elkhart was surprised by the birth of her only daughter, Michelle, in 1979, after seventeen years of marriage, thus giving Helen another grandchild to care for locally. 

Helen's sons, Ted and Jerry Miller, had left California and had settled in Portland, Oregon, where they together ran a marine with their father, Eldon. No less important were the three grandchildren she had by her sons on the west coast, but her ability to be much of an influence in their lives was minimal.  Ted had a daughter, Laura, in 1968. Her son, Jerry, adopted two children: a daughter, Karen, in 1964, and a son, Robert, in 1966. It would be interesting to know what went through Helen's mind at this time. Did she think about discussing the other side to adoption with her son, feeling the torment of not knowing what happened to the daughter she gave up for adoption two decades before? 

This was the life that Helen (Timmons) Miller Strukel was living when her missing daughter surfaced in 1982. After a miserably failed first marriage, a second marriage cut short by death, and a third marriage that was an enormous mistake, Helen had finally found the peace and happiness that had often eluded her in the past. 

The final piece of the puzzle that would make this happiness whole was soon to be found. 

Or should I say it was to find her? 

1 comment:

  1. I was worried you were going to leave us hanging. Love your writing. And how you bring a name to life. Glad you are back.