My paternal grandfather, William Earl Merklee Sr., died six years before I was born. I only “know” him via stories and some recently acquired photographs. I am not named after him. I am named after his son, William Earl Merklee, Jr. My father had his reasons.
William Earl Merklee was born in 1891 in what was then West Englewood, New Jersey. He was the oldest of the six children of William Henry Merklee and the former Susan Hoyt Tremper. His father was a news agent whose family had been in New York City for less than a hundred years, having come over from Germany via Holland. His mother’s family was largely Dutch, and had roots that reached up and down the Hudson valley and back several centuries. Mount Tremper, New York, is named for one of her ancestors.
This is the earliest story I know about my grandfather, an event that I believe colored everything that came after: When he was six years old, he shot and killed his younger brother Harry with a pistol they found while playing in their parents’ bedroom.
A small newspaper article about the incident says more about the sorry state of journalism at the time than is does about what happened. Somehow, the writer was magically present in the bedroom, so he could quote my grandfather as having said, “Harry, I am going to shoot you.” I do know the family moved to Dumont shortly thereafter. In a time before the telephone and the widespread ownership of cars, one could conceivably make a fresh start just moving across the county. I also know my grandfather’s parents eventually divorced. It’s not difficult to imagine the pressures that this kind of tragedy produced, and how ill-equipped they were — by today’s standards — to deal with them.
When my grandfather was about twelve years old, he took a rifle from the house for some shooting practice. This was not unusual; at the turn of the last century, you could hunt rabbits and squirrels in the wilds of Haworth, Harrington Park and Closter. On this day, however, he decided he would try and hit the weather vane atop the steeple of Dumont’s Old North Church. The story goes he hit it on the first shot, sending it spinning wildly, and he soon caught hell from his father, who had become a prominent member of that church as well as a member of the school board.
In the summer of 1969, the Old North Church was having its steeple restored. The weather vane, shaped like a multi-pointed shooting star, was taken down and displayed in the lobby of the bank across the street. My dad took me to see it. One of the star’s lower points was splayed open; my grandfathers’ shot had not been a bull’s eye. Onlookers wondered what had happened, saying it must have been a lightning strike. Dad knew exactly what had happened, but no one seemed particularly interested in the truth.
William Earl Merklee married Adele Fox of Dumont in 1910. They were both nineteen years old. They named their first child, a son, Harry Root Merklee, after the brother William had accidentally killed and after Adele’s maternal grandfather, Edward Root, a veteran of the Civil War with whom she and her mother had been living in a house on Niagara Street since Adele’s father had walked out on them.
Another son, William Earl Merklee, Jr., arrived in 1917. My dad, Norman Harold Merklee, was born on August 19, 1919. His middle name comes from one of his uncles. No one knows where his first name came from. He never liked it. A fourth son, Warren Fox Merklee, was born the next day. It was a surprise to everyone when Adele, who had just given birth to Norman, went into labor again just after midnight. They named this son after the physician in attendance, Dr. Warren, who would later become mayor of Bergenfield. The twins were born in a house on Quackenbush Avenue in Dumont.
It’s not clear when my grandfather’s drinking became a problem. According to my dad, it was a problem for as long as he could remember. The pastor of the Old North Church was apparently criticized by his congregation for socializing and playing checkers with my grandfather. The pastor explained he was simply taking the battle to the devil, when really he just enjoyed my grandfather’s company. I was told he could be quite charming.
That charm enabled him to find work during the Great Depression. He could find work, but he couldn’t hang on to it. His alcoholism would always make him unreliable. And he would squander much of his earnings on drink. In the early 1930s he landed a job as the superintendent of an apartment building in Weehawken. It was an ideal situation: A paid position plus a rent-free apartment for his family. He was also put in charge of collecting the rent from the other tenants. When it was discovered my grandfather was using some of the collected rent money to buy booze, he had to pack up his family and move out in the middle of the night.
It fell to his oldest son, Harry, to provide for the family. Even then, they sometimes could only afford to eat cornflakes three times a day. My grandmother made her boys’ shoes last longer by using the cardboard from the cornflakes boxes to line the worn-through soles. She even turned burlap flour bags into underwear for them. When there was a little extra money, my grandmother would buy supplies to bake extra loaves of bread. She would wrap them in wax paper and then have her sons sell them around the neighborhood. They could occasionally feast on fish, rabbit or squirrel when the boys were able to go hunting or fishing.
When my grandfather was desperate for booze money, he was not above pawning some of Harry’s fishing or hunting gear.
Home life became unbearable for my father. When my grandfather wasn’t out getting bombed, he was home listening to baseball on the radio. The shouting, over-the-top announcers grated on my father’s nerves so much that he completely soured on the sport. (When I was growing up, no one watched or listened to baseball in my house until 1969, when it seemed everybody in the neighborhood was a Mets fan. Everybody except my father.) And when my grandfather wasn’t doing that, he was having dish-throwing brawls with his wife. It’s one of the main reasons my dad joined the Navy in the summer of 1941 — just to get the hell away from it all.
Ten years later, William Earl Merklee Sr. was dead, in a sanitarium in Newark, New Jersey. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Brooklyn, with his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Just Dad and my grandmother attended. Dad told me he was simply providing transportation for his mom and that he never shed a tear.
Only twice did I hear my father speak of his father with anything close to admiration. The first instance was when sixteen-year-old William Earl Merklee Jr. lay dying in a hospital. He was suffering the complications of bronchiectasis, a fatal lung infection in the time just before antibiotics. One of the complications was the swelling of his face from an accumulation of fluid under the skin. My grandfather was at that hospital every day, massaging and pushing fluid out through small incisions to relieve the pressure, and doing whatever else he could to make his son comfortable. My Uncle Billy, my namesake, was laid to rest near his grandmother at the Old South Church in Bergenfield in 1933.
The other instance involved the family dog. My grandfather was sitting on the front porch of his house, letting the dog roam around the yard and the immediate vicinity. It was a common practice; there were no leash laws. The dog wandered across the street to do some of his business in a neighbor’s yard. The neighbor, a strapping Polish fellow, took exception to this and gave the dog a swift kick in the groin. The dog howled and collapsed in agony. My grandfather flew off the porch and laid the guy out with one punch.
In the late 1970s I was working as a driver for Betty Lee Pharmacy in Bergenfield. I made a delivery to an elderly gentleman named John Holmes. He was in a wheelchair. While a woman who was also there (she could have been a home health aid or perhaps his daughter) was taking care of the payment, Mr. Holmes starting telling me how he had lived in Bergenfield all his life and once owned a construction company that had built most of the houses in the northwest corner of town. Then he asked me my name.
“Bill Merklee,” I said. His face brightened.
“Young Bill Merklee’s boy?” he said. I immediately knew who he meant.
“I’m his grandson,” I said, and told him how young Bill Merklee had married Adele Fox and had four sons. Mr. Holmes was happy to hear this; Adele was “quite a looker” he said.
“Your grandfather was some ball player,” he said, and he proceeded to tell me all about it, how all the towns had baseball teams and how they traveled by train to play other towns and about the crowds that always turned out to watch. Here I was, listening to a guy who knew nothing of my grandfather’s early tragedy and nothing of what was to come. For him, Bill Merklee was a good-looking kid who could play any position and almost always got a hit. Mr. Holmes couldn’t know he was providing a warm, sepia-toned coda to what was the otherwise sad song of my grandfather’s life. And of course, I got in trouble with the boss for getting back to the store so late.
Flash forward to 2014. A kind stranger tracked me down via the Internet and told me he had a photo album that might belong to me. It turned out to be my father’s. I don’t know how this gentleman came across it, but I’m grateful he did.
It’s the photographic companion to all the stories my dad ever told me. Except that they don’t tell the whole story. Nobody was photographing the fights, or sneaking shots of my grandfather passed out drunk, or recording the sadness. Everyone was on their best behavior, usually smiling, and they generally seemed to be enjoying themselves.
There are pictures of my grandfather in his declining years, fishing in Harrington Park and down the shore. Even with everything that had happened, family bonds, however strained, were still there. For all the pain and misery my father talked about, he still kept the pictures.