Wednesday, April 17, 2013 11:08 AM
I'd like to tell you a little about my friend Burt. Burt and I worked together for more than 13 years, and he was an expert at keeping antiquated radio station equipment going. I remember a time we had to replace a part that required several hours in a reclined position, like an astronaut, inside a transmitter. After a while, when my back really started to hurt, Burt came up with putting one of those low-boy reclining beach chairs in the transmitter where I could lay in "relative comfort" and work. Being that we had to discharge some components that had about 25,000 volts on them, and I would be in a metal-framed chair, I was all but eager to get to it. Of course we made it safe to do and it was that kind of ingenuity that made Burt so indispensable that even after he tried to retire, at age 80, the companies he worked for insisted he stay on as a consultant engineer.
Burt's calm and patient demeanor, his positive attitude, and his super-practical way of solving problems continues to be an inspiration to all of us who were lucky enough to have him in our lives.
I learned from his grandson the other day that he passed away about three weeks ago. We kept in touch by phone about every three months or so and now I know why I was getting no answer the last few times I called. I last talked to him over the Christmas/New Year holidays and he never mentioned that he was ill. Burt was a man who just didn't complain and burden others with his troubles. His family didn't know he had been fighting cancer since 2007 until they couldn't help but notice, last summer, that he wasn't well.
I will always cherish those times we worked together, our visits on the phone, and the stories he told me. Here's one in particular I'd like to share. Burt didn't just up and talk about such things but he didn't mind when he was asked. It was nearly 70 years ago when he was sent to Germany in World War 2, and a handful of days after landing, was captured and spent the rest of the war in a Nazi POW camp.
To show how he always would rather keep a positive look on things, he told me of the time he, another prisoner, and a guard all needed some dental work. There was a dentist in the nearest town and the guard was assigned to take Burt and the other prisoner there, on foot of course. He said the guard was quite humane and even allowed them to trade some of their Red Cross chocolate bars to some local farmers for some pieces of fruit and vegetables. At one point they were stopped by the SS and the guard was reprimanded for not keeping behind them with his gun pointed at them while they hiked to the town.
The dentist they were going to was also the town butcher/grocer. The dentist's chair was a plain wooden kitchen-type chair in the back room of the store. The guard went first. In German, the dentist asked the guard if he wanted to tooth fixed or pulled. "Raus," the guard said. The dentist took his pliers and with two large men holding the guard down, pulled the tooth. Burt said he was sure they could hear the guard scream all the way back to camp. When the dentist asked him what Burt wanted, he quickly and loudly proclaimed, "Füllen Sie es! Füllen Sie es!"
The way he laughed when telling the story made me forget about how bad it must have been for him to be in that POW camp. I did ask him if some of the things I'd heard were true and he said it really was that bad. But then he quickly said there were others who had it much worse than he did and downplayed his own suffering. That was Burt - then, and right to his last day on Earth.
I will miss my friend Burt. He will always be a major influence on me and a standard to live up to. And I know I am just one of many who is grateful for knowing him and whose lives are better because he was here.