The Man Who Wasn’t There
I never really knew my father, who died when I was four, but I’d always heard he was a prominent businessman and a loyal and loving husband—the kind of person, my cousin often told me, who could have been president. When I finally found out the truth about him, I came to love him for who he really was.
This is a Father’s Day story. It is not a story about the good times my father and I shared while I was growing up in Galveston, or the times that we went fishing together, or attended ball games, or the lessons that he taught me. None of these things ever happened. They might have, but two months before my fifth birthday, in March 1947, Zeke Burka suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 46. He lived for about a week. I remember the strange interlude, because my infant sister and I were sent to stay with my mother’s closest friend, but I was unaware of the tragedy that had enveloped us. My mother’s wish was that her children not attend the funeral. After it was over and we had returned home, she summoned me into the playroom at the top of the stairs. I recall that I was lying facedown on a sofa, kicking my legs in the air, when she told me that my father had died. For the first time in my life, I felt the unwelcome press of male responsibility descend on my shoulders. I told myself, “I mustn’t cry.”
I have but a few wispy memories of Zeke. Standing in front of a building on the Strand while he pointed to a grimy waterline, high above my head, left by the 1900 hurricane. Relaxing in the living room in front of a radio-phonograph console while he listened to classical music. Getting a major talking-to after going into the bathroom with the six-year-old girl who lived down the street. My mother—her name was Natalie, but he called her Nats—told me that Zeke took me out on Sunday mornings, down to the wharves, where his company made burlap for wrapping cotton bales, and then to the vast warehouses where strings of boxcars waited to be loaded. At age two, supposedly, I could identify every railroad logo. I still have a vague recollection of the musty smell of compressed cotton. And a weird flash of déjà vu: After I was old enough to drive, I was exploring a recently reopened road that ran along the wharves. As I approached a railroad track that emerged from behind a long pier and crossed the road, I thought, I’ve been here before. Zeke was driving, and a steam locomotive had come puffing out from behind the sheds, unannounced by a whistle, and almost hit us.
At this point, the reader may be wondering whether the story of a man he never knew or heard of has relevance for anyone not named Burka. I have only this rationale to offer: Every family has its myths. Some myths are intended to reveal, and some myths are intended to conceal, and sometimes the intentions can get confused. The problem with myth is that it can overpower history, the story of what was real. That is what happened in my family, and, I suspect, it happens in many families who become vested in their myths and use them to bury their secrets. But it is often the case, and it was certainly the case with me, that the secrets were the very things that I needed to know, because when I finally learned about them, I could integrate them with the myth and come to appreciate my father as a real person.
Because I was so young when Zeke died, almost everything that I learned about him was transmitted through myth—by my mother, by his relatives in New Orleans, by his friends in Galveston. In death, he became a figure that was larger than life, a paragon of everything that was upstanding and decent. My mother saved a condolence letter from Zeke’s sister, Augusta, which I did not know existed until I was cleaning out her desk after her death, in 1995. There was the myth, spelled out: “I do find great consolation in the thought that he lived the life of a great man,” wrote Gussie (as she was known), “for he was noble and good and always true to himself. Better to have lived a short life thus and to leave to you and his children and to us a memory untarnished by anything untrue and unkind. Were that all men were as fine as he!” These were not just feel-good words; even today, the earnestness leaps off the page. Zeke’s nephew, Morris Burka Jr., now 88, has told me on more than one occasion, “Your father could have been president of the United States.”
I should have appreciated the respect and admiration and love people showed for my father, but the truth is, I didn’t—at least, not for a very long time. The praise had the opposite effect: The more I heard about the myth, the more elusive and inaccessible a figure he became and the less I wanted to know about him. Implicit in the myth was the message that his was a legacy that I was expected to live up to, but at some fairly young age, I knew I wanted no part of that competition.
Zeke was born in 1900 to Jacob and Pauline Burka in Union Springs, Alabama, a county-seat town in the red-dirt country east of Montgomery. There were four siblings: Morris Senior, Louis, Gussie, and Israel Ernest, who came to be called Zeke. A few years ago, my family went to Alabama for a niece’s marriage in a town about an hour’s drive from Union Springs. On the morning of the wedding, I enticed my daughter to join me, and we set out to see the ancestral hometown. A sign on the outskirts said, “Welcome to Union Springs, the Field Trial Capital of the World.” Field trial? What’s a field trial? The answer was revealed by the next sign, which consisted of an arrow pointing to the right and the words “Bird Dog Statue.” Except for the statue—a life-size bronze of a pointing canine situated on an eight-foot granite pillar at the main intersection—Union Springs was an unremarkable town with little evidence of economic prosperity.
So it was in Jacob’s day, evidently, because the story is that he had a store that failed, and he suffered what was then known as a nervous breakdown. He had to be institutionalized, and the only option was in Montgomery, the state capital. Pauline made the move, but she couldn’t work and take care of four children. In 1902 she decided to relocate to New Orleans, where she could put them in a home for Jewish children during the week while she scraped out a living, then bring them to her house for weekends. On her way to the depot, she stopped to tell Jacob goodbye. Distraught over her departure, he ran after her carriage, fell, and was trampled to death. Almost a century later, when Gussie’s daughter died, I went to Montgomery for the funeral. Her husband, who had found a clipping about the carriage accident in the Montgomery paper, took me to the Jewish cemetery to show me Jacob’s grave. It was in the pauper’s section. Jacob was 32 years old when he died. Failed businesses, premature deaths: History would repeat itself in the next generation.
The Burka siblings grew up in New Orleans. Pauline kept Zeke, the youngest, with her, while the older children resided at the Jewish Widows and Orphans Home. As soon as the brothers finished school, they went to work—Zeke after one year of college at Tulane. The Burkas had a connection with a family named Feitel, who operated several businesses, and all three of the brothers went to work for the family. Zeke and Morris Senior went into the Feitel’s burlap bag business, which was part of the cotton industry, the mainstay of the economy of the South.
In 1927 representatives of the Sealy family in Galveston, who along with the Moodys and the Kempners were the influential clans who dominated the local economy, contacted Morris Senior and Zeke about opening a similar plant in Galveston, and they moved to the port city. The arrangement was that the brothers would provide about $60,000 in capital and own the majority of the stock in Burka Bag. The Sealys would invest another $30,000. The Sealys’ private bank agreed to lend money as needed to buy machinery and raw materials, and their cotton warehouse operation would buy the burlap that would be used to bale cotton. Morris Senior was president of the corporation and Zeke was the vice president.
I know these details because my mother kept the files of Burka Bag in the attic of the home where I grew up. I discovered them when I prepared the house for sale after her death. I got rid of a lot of old stuff, but I kept the files. I just couldn’t bring myself to throw away such a trove. Nor, apparently, could she. I put the files in a mover’s box, brought them to Austin, and stored them in another attic. When I finally opened the box before beginning to write this story, no human eye had seen the contents since Burka Bag shut down 63 years earlier.
The bagging business was a tough line of work, “one of the lousiest businesses a fellow can be in,” an associate of Zeke’s would write to him in 1944. It was totally dependent on a single crop, which, of course, was cotton. The bagging company took all the risk. It estimated the amount of business it expected to do in the next year, determined how much bagging it would need to wrap the five-hundred-pound bales, and borrowed large sums of money, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, to acquire the jute from India that was the raw material for burlap. Any number of things could go wrong: weather conditions or government interference in the marketplace or shipping problems. Seven months a year, the company manufactured the bagging, waiting for the crop (and the money) to come in. Another source of income was used bags, which Burka Bag provided to firms that produced animal feed from cottonseed cake and soybean meal. Cotton truly was king. It determined whether the company prospered or failed.
In the beginning, Burka Bag prospered. “For the first six years of our business in Galveston it thrived and grew substantially,” Zeke wrote in a history of the company he prepared for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 1940, in an application for a government-backed loan, “until at the end of our fiscal year March 31st, 1934 we had a surplus account of about $60,000, in addition to our capital stock of $75,000, totaling $135,000, and at the same time we had declared dividends on an average of 10% of our capital stock for six years, or a total of $45,000.” But the good times did not last. “In the year ending March 31st, 1935, we suffered our first loss,” Zeke continued, “and again in the year ending March 31st, 1936, while prices were still cheap we restocked heavily, hoping for another crop of cotton to wrap in good volume, but again suffered another loss due to the lack of spread between buying and selling prices.”
Two developments that were beyond the brothers’ control had wrecked their hopes. One was the passage of a major New Deal initiative, the Agricultural Adjustment Act. So much cotton was going to be produced in 1933 that prices threatened to “sink out of sight,” in the words of historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. The only way to prevent this was to take acreage out of production. The government paid farmers to plow up their cotton. Schlesinger wrote approvingly of the diminution of the cotton crop: “In mid-November the President remarked that conditions were much improved in the West. By winter, the atmosphere was clearing, and AAA was coming into its own.” But far away, in Galveston, a certain company was, so to speak, left holding the bags.
The second unfavorable development was that the Sealys changed their private bank to a national bank. As private bankers, the Sealys could determine their own lending policies; as owners of a national bank subject to federal regulations, they could not. “In the spring of 1937,” Zeke related, “we were told by the banking interests that unless fresh capital was put into the business, they, as a national bank, could not continue to carry our account.” But they had no capital. The business was busted. The bank demanded that they give up their stock and control of the company.
At this point, Zeke could have walked away and left the business, with its debts, to the Sealys. Morris Senior had been in poor health for some time and would not live out the year. Louis had predeceased him. Zeke had no ties to Galveston. Home was a suite in the Hotel Galvez. He loved New Orleans but felt no special affinity for Texas; he once told my mother, who did, “We had Mardi Gras in New Orleans when you were still shooting bears in Texas.” But he stayed because he felt obligated to pay off the bank loans. Corrupt business leaders today run their companies into the ground and leave with golden parachutes, but in that era, to walk away from debt was considered a blot on one’s name. And so he continued to run Burka Bag for the benefit of the bank until he had repaid the loans. After three years, he could write in the RFC letter, “We started the fiscal year beginning March 31st, 1939 with a capital and surplus deficit of approximately $108,000, and are at last happy to be able to say that with inventories taken at conservative figures we have overcome this deficit in the eleven months period ending February 29, 1940.”
When the debts were paid in full, the story is that he went to New Orleans, to Morris Senior’s grave, and he said, “You can rest easy now. There is no shame to the name.” The myth was born.
On January 28, 2002, I received an e-mail from a woman named Dianne Sattinger, of Madison, Wisconsin, who was completely unknown to me. “Are you the son of Ernest ‘Zeke’ Burka?” she asked. “Just wondering, since Zeke looms large in our family history as the tall, handsome young man from Galveston who was engaged to my mother, Marian Diamond, in Syracuse, New York in approx. 1934. Engagement was broken off—by Zeke, we think.” She had done a Web search for “Burka” and “Galveston” and come up with my name. “I thought I’d pursue this,” she continued, “no reason, except ‘for the record’—and to give an update to my 82-year-old aunt, who was the kid sister at the time, and was telling me on the phone just yesterday how frightened she was when her older sister was about to marry Zeke and move to Galveston.” I remember my reaction vividly. It was as if the dam holding back all my avoidance of the past had collapsed, and I was swept along by a current of curiosity. I responded with an immediate acknowledgement that I was Zeke’s son and promised to write more that evening. It turned out to be a lot more. I sat down and banged out a seven-page, single-spaced e-mail of the family history. When I got to the trip to Union Springs, I wrote, “We all have our pretensions, and the Burkas have always felt that they are, if not rich and not famous, at least quite civilized folk. Well, we come from the bird dog capital of the world.”
I referred to him as “Zeke” in my e-mail, as I have in this piece. As I wrote Dianne, “Even now it feels awkward to write the word ‘Daddy.’” He fathered me, but “Daddy” implies a familiarity that I cannot access. As I wrote, I realized that the unexpected e-mail had had unexpected consequences. For the first time, I wanted to delve into the past. Who was Marian? How did she and Zeke meet? What caused the breakup?
I did know something about this episode in my father’s life. But not from my own family. My sister, Jane, had gotten married in 1975, and her husband had run up against the myth on their subsequent trips to Galveston. “I feel as if I am competing against this person I don’t know,” he said to Jane. “The perfect man named Zeke. Let’s find out something about him.” So they posed a question to an older couple in Galveston, part of my mother’s circle, with whom they had forged a friendship: What were Zeke’s faults? It wasn’t easy coming up with any, Jane remembers, but finally one of them said, “Zeke was impulsive about women.” As they told the story, there was somebody in New York whom he was going to marry, but he decided that he couldn’t go through with it, and he got off the train and sent a telegram canceling the wedding. Then he paid all the wedding expenses.
“Somebody in New York” was Marian. The Diamonds of Syracuse were related to the Coplands of New Orleans, and according to Dianne, the Diamonds had gone to New Orleans for a “gala social visit,” only to arrive on the day after one of the Coplands had died in an automobile accident. I found the obituary in the files of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The year was 1932. A member of Gussie’s husband’s family had married a Copland, and it is a reasonable assumption that the two women got the couple together.
But Zeke did not get off the train and send a telegram. He went to Syracuse, and he and Marian disappeared into a room for a long time. When they came out, the engagement was off. Zeke did pay all the wedding expenses. The person who told me this was Dianne’s aunt and Marian’s younger sister, Faye, who lived in New York City. I went to the city on magazine business later that year, and Dianne helped arrange a meeting. I have no eye for family resemblances, and I can’t tell whether I favor Zeke, but Faye must have thought so, for she staggered backward when she saw me. As was the case with Dianne, I had an instant rapport with her. It was eerie. My sister had previously met Faye, and Jane had had the same sense of instant familiarity. We all had the feeling that we were practically family; we even talked about having a “nonfamily reunion.” And we did have something that linked us. Except for Faye, none of the Sattingers or Burkas would exist if the wedding had gone through.
Why did the engagement blow up? Perhaps it was because Zeke had previously been married. Did I forget to mention this? Well, so did my mother.
This family secret was the first crack in the facade of the myth. It occurred when I was a freshman at Rice University. I had a girlfriend back in Galveston, whose mother didn’t care for me much. One weekend, I found myself drawn into an unpleasant conversation with her. Suddenly, she blurted out that my father had been married and divorced before he married my mother. I was stunned. Of course, I confronted my mother with this information when I got home. It was true. His first wife’s name was Susan Gymer. Her father and Zeke were business associates and personal friends. George Gymer owned a cottonseed cake mill and bought bags for the animal feed. He had a retreat on Dickinson Bayou where he and his friends would assemble to play poker and go canoeing. Zeke must have met Susan there. I have seen her engagement photograph in the Galveston Daily News. She was a knockout, with dark hair, but her eyes glittered with calculation. He was 33, she just 21 when they married in May 1933. The marriage officially lasted three and a half years, almost all of which spanned the down years at Burka Bag; a separation must have come long before that. No marriage could have been without strains in such circumstances, and this one certainly was not. Susan filed for divorce in January 1935, and the decree became final in December 1936. All my mother ever said about it was that Susan didn’t like living at the Galvez. She wanted to go dancing at night and he wanted to relax. She also felt poorly when he wanted her to go out with his Jewish friends. There were no children, and she went back to her maiden name. A cousin on my mother’s side told me that Susan was a devotee of contract bridge, and on most afternoons, she hosted a foursome at the Galvez that included my cousin and the mother of my future high school girlfriend. No wonder she didn’t like me: She had heard all of Susan’s complaints about my father.
As I talked to relatives, two versions of the Zeke and Marian courtship emerged. My bridge-playing cousin told me that Zeke and Marian were engaged in 1932, but Susan appeared on the scene and broke up the long—distance engagement. But Morris Junior remembered that he and his father went to New York in 1936 for the wedding. The trouble with this version is that, legally, Zeke still would have been married to Susan Gymer until December of that year. When I e-mailed Dianne what I had found out about the dates of Zeke’s marriage and a potential overlap with their courtship, she responded, “My mother was quite prim, innocent, judgmental, and conscious of respectability (in other words—a woman of her class and time)… . I think she would never have agreed to marry him if she had known about [his marriage], and if she had found out sometime during their courtship, she would have broken everything off immediately. Marrying a divorced man was something that wasn’t done.” Substitute “intellectually formidable” for “innocent” and the description would apply equally to my own mother—except, of course, that she did marry a divorced man. Did Zeke put off telling Marian about his failed marriage until the last moment? It’s not consistent with the type of upfront man everyone said he was. Or were conditions in the bagging business so bad that he felt he couldn’t support her or bring her to Galveston under the circumstances? Sometimes the past refuses to yield its secrets.
I never did solve the mystery of Zeke and Marian, except to get the confirmation by Marian’s family that he indeed paid for the wedding that never took place. But the experience enabled me to penetrate the myth and regard him as a real person. I could visualize him in his suite in the Galvez, a lonely man amid the wreckage of a foolish marriage. I could see him on that train to New York, facing up to what he felt he had to do. I had finally begun to know him, not through his achievements, but through his mistakes.
What do I actually know of Zeke Burka’s personality? “He was an elegant gentleman,” Ann Burka, Morris Junior’s wife, told me recently. “He could walk into a room and he just stood apart.” The elegance was one aspect of the myth that was utterly foreign to me. I regard “gentleman” as an ambiguous word. It can mean anything from someone who treats other people with kindness and respect, which from all accounts Zeke did, to the archetypal reader of men’s fashion magazines who relentlessly pursues the finer things of life, which apparently he did as well. There is a memory that confirms Ann’s description. Zeke brought back from a business trip to New York a wooden rocking horse from Georg Jensen when I was young. It is the first toy I can remember. So here is what I wonder: How did Zeke get from the bird dog capital to Georg Jensen in one generation? Somewhere between Zeke and me, that gene got lost. My mother told my sister that Zeke ordered socks from England. I get mine at the outlet mall.
The one piece of tangible evidence of Zeke in our house was his book collection. The smaller of the two sitting rooms downstairs was meant to be a den, but we always called it the library. It was my favorite room. The available wall space was entirely occupied by three floor-to-ceiling bookcases. My mother was an avid reader—a library volunteer, she had her choice of books to check out—but these books were his. Every volume had a bookplate pasted inside the cover—“Ex Libris Zeke Burka”—and on the opposite leaf, he had scrawled his name and the month of purchase. Porgy, the DuBose Heyward novel that was the inspiration for the Gershwin opera, read “November 1928.” Occasionally, my mother’s handwriting appears in a faint pencil mark: “1st edition,” lest her uncultivated son fail to notice that this was an item of value. Almost all of these works had appeared in his coming-of-age years, the twenties. The great authors of the decade were represented there: Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Fitzgerald, and lesser lights. He must have appreciated irony, and the more bitter the better, because he owned three volumes of Dorothy Parker’s poetry and short stories. These books, and an accompanying record collection, helped flesh out the definition of “gentleman” as it applied to Zeke—that it not only referred to an attitude toward consumer goods but also included an appreciation of literature and music. Even though he had come from a background of poverty and failure and missed educational opportunities, he was determined to become an educated, cultured man of affairs.
I confess to wondering whether he actually read all those books—until I came across a passage in a letter he wrote to Natalie while he was traveling on business in New York in 1942. “This morning’s Times carries the story of the death of Will Percy (Lanterns on the Levee) at Greenville, Miss. I feel like I lost a good friend. That’s what reading his book did to me.” Sorry for doubting you, Zeke. I should have known better.
Long before I read any of these books, I coveted them. Today, many of his purchases occupy shelf space in a case in my home office that is reserved only for his books, and the dictionary I use is an ancient Webster’s that has a leather cover with his name embossed in gold. I cannot imagine a better legacy than the love of reading.
Another side of his personality was the love of business. I don’t mean his own business. I mean the world of business generally. It influenced his thinking process. My mother said that when he wanted to have a serious conversation with her, he would say, “Let’s have a meeting of the board.” He read the Wall Street Journal every day, along with the Journal of Commerce. I found an old clipping in one of his books, which he had used as a bookmark. It was from the Wall Street Journal of March 2, 1939. The paper had a column called the Inquiring Investor to which readers could write for investment advice. The column began with Thomas M. Foristall, the author, quoting from the investor’s letter: “‘I have read with much interest your several perspectives on diversified lists of investments and would appreciate very much your comments on the one that I have,’ writes an investor from Galveston, Texas.” The portfolio that Zeke listed included 41 stocks. Only 9 had declined in value, none by more than $4 per share. All the rest showed gains, many of them in double digits.
Above all, though, the myth was grounded in his character. He was the man who had paid his debts and met his obligations. In one letter, he described himself with this epithet: “He took what he bought and he shipped what he sold.” When Morris Senior died, in 1937, his son, Morris Junior, was sixteen and without a living parent. Zeke became the de facto head of the family. He sent money to Gussie, whose husband needed constant medical attention, and to Louis’s widow, with whom Morris Junior boarded, and became a surrogate father to Morris. They corresponded several times a week, especially during World War II, when Morris Junior was stationed in San Angelo. After Zeke’s death, he reciprocated by keeping in contact with Natalie, guiding her through the terrible weeks after the funeral with advice on how to deal with lawyers and insurance companies, who were dragging their feet about getting Zeke’s funds released. As Jane and I grew older, he made sure that Zeke’s children remained part of the family, which we have, and indeed, unto the next generation: My children are buddies with Morris’s grandchildren, and since all are in their twenties, I hope this tradition will continue for a long time.
In 1959 Morris sent Natalie copies of two letters Zeke had written to him, for Jane and me to read when we were older. They speak for him. The first was written when Morris was a restless twenty-year-old. It was dated October 17, 1940, about a month after Zeke and Natalie had married. He was writing about “something that has been on my mind since we talked last together in New Orleans, and it is this: Most of the people that we know and know about are composed of two groups, the haves and the have-nots forming one, and contents and the malcontents forming the other. I would classify you as a have-malcontent, and I would like to see you change to a have-content, because in that group lies the most happiness and least heartaches and headaches… I want you to change in disposition, attitude, and perspective from being discontented with your present lot, and which, expressed in another way, would be called over-ambitious, to a contentment and peace of mind, and a decision conclusive to work slowly at advancement… and be happy about doing it… Forget that lean and hungry look (and feeling) and also look to the conservative side of things. Be satisfied that you are a ‘have’ and then you will be a ‘content’ too.”
The second letter was written in 1944, the year that Morris married. He and his fiancée had had an argument by mail, and Morris had written Zeke that he had given Ann hell about something. “Don’t give Ann hell about anything anymore,” Zeke responded, “now or after [marriage]. Cherish and encourage her love for you and help her to make your lives together and separately something she holds dearly and you will be a happy and contented couple. By no means must you want and have your own way about things—the time for that is ended even now. Remember you are a team, pulling together and you must consider her feelings and wants and reactions as well as your own. Be kind, considerate, and thoughtful of Ann, look out for her welfare, and you will see both a mutual feeling of trust, and one of care for each other’s welfare grow into a beautiful spirit that nothing can displace in your lives… Remember, don’t kill something in a sweet, sensitive nature—and now I hope you feel better by writing her a sweet letter to make her feel that way too.”
This part of the story has a happy ending. Morris and Ann Burka have always been, and remain in their eighties, the most inseparable couple I have ever known.
This part does not have a happy ending.
Burka Bag had reorganized after Zeke paid off the debts. Originally formed as a Louisiana company, it became a Texas company. Zeke was president, but his share of the company was only one fourth. The rest belonged to M.M. “Mose” Feld, of Houston, whose Lone Star Bagging Company was a much bigger operation than the one in Galveston. He provided the capital to keep Burka Bag going. Zeke and Mose had been friends for some time. They had bought Houston-area real estate together as early as 1937, although the Feld acreage was much larger than Zeke’s. They had some good years; from 1941 to 1943, everything went well. Burka Bag made money. In December 1943, Mose wrote Zeke a glowing letter: “Looking back on the progress made by the Burka Bag Company since its reorganization, and bearing in mind fully the events leading up to our affiliation, I want to tell you it has been a real source of gratification to our associates here in Houston, and myself, to have been able to work in such close harmony as we have during these trying times. I only hope that as time goes on this spirit of cooperation and understanding between us will come as close as possible to perfection… . I hope that our business relationship will continue for many years to come, and you can depend on me to support you to the fullest extent, realizing that I, likewise, can depend on your support. We want to congratulate you on the fine showing you have made.”
In fact, Mose Feld was thinking about closing Burka Bag. By May 1944, he was showing his cards: “To express myself best, I will use the words of your brother, Morris. He used them on me many times, and I have never forgotten them. ‘The bagging business is subject to dangers of practically anything you can think of, such as, curtailed or short crops, freight differentials, price cutting, a war between sugar and jute …’” He wanted out, and especially out of Galveston. “My idea is this—why buck a proposition that doesn’t deserve to be bucked? Why not try to make money in an industry where money can be made without all these hazards. There is no use in our being ‘shnooks’ about this. I am sure there are several things we can do.”
By November, it was over. Mose gave Zeke two options: Liquidate and buy the plant himself on favorable terms or come to work for Lone Star in Houston. The choice was excruciating. Neither Zeke nor Natalie wanted to leave Galveston. They had married in 1940, both at rather advanced ages for the day, and they had built a life together that included a home and a child and many friends. Zeke had never been so rooted. Natalie’s mother, aunt, and uncle, all of them aging, lived in an old Victorian on Broadway. Her mother especially was in declining health; Natalie felt that she needed to be nearby. She told me once that she thought Zeke would never be happy at Lone Star. He had always been the boss, but at Lone Star he would be number two, at most, and Mose would own him. Mose had made that clear: “If you come to work for Lone Star it will be on the basis of you being 100% Lone Star, forgetting everything else as far as the bag business is concerned.” That meant no reading the Wall Street Journal, no calling his broker about the market. Buying the company was not within reach. Zeke received $19,000 for his stake in Burka Bag from Lone Star—a handsome sum in those days, but not enough to restart Burka Bag, even on a smaller scale. In any case, he must have known that Mose and Morris Senior were right: Bagging was a lousy business.
What am I to make of my father—and my relationship to him—all these years later? I have come to realize that a child who loses a parent at an early age looks at the world in a different way than a child with two living parents does. Silently, I noted on my forty-seventh birthday that I had lived longer than he had. Silently, I noticed on my seventh wedding anniversary that I had been married longer than he had. I could understand what he had lost, and in his loss I found a gain. The absence of a father made me a better father to my own children, I think—more aware of their needs and of my own mistakes.
Some of the wisdom Zeke conveyed I have incorporated in my life. Dianne Sattinger wrote that Marian was judgmental. So was Natalie—so much so that Zeke told her, “Judge people on averages.” I like that. I also took to heart his advice to Morris about how to treat his future wife. I have been married for thirty years, and I have never raised my voice to my wife in anger.
It is hard to say how growing up without a father affected me. My mother was a strong woman and was able to raise my sister and me alone—she was never interested in another man—but I think that the biggest loss for me was in not being able to observe a marriage. Let’s just say that it took me a longer time to grow up than most of my contemporaries. I think the myth had something to do with that. But there are no shrinks in this story.
Stepping out of the role of being his son and trying to look at Zeke’s life objectively, I think that he should have gotten out of Galveston when the Sealys pulled the plug on Burka Bag. He could have returned to New Orleans. He had friends and family and connections there, and his financial abilities and personality were such that he would have been in demand. Had he been born a generation later—say, when I was—he would have had opportunities that did not exist in his time. He would have graduated from college and gone to business school at Harvard (which he tried, unsuccessfully, to get Morris Junior to do) and probably to Wall Street. His real calling, and true love, was investment. He paid off the two-story brick house he and Natalie bought in Galveston in six months with a plunge in Cuban sugar.
Instead, he stayed in Galveston. He went to work as a broker for Merrill Lynch almost immediately after the bagging plant shut down, putting his genius at the market to work to make other people rich. In the Burka Bag files was a letter dated April 29, 1945, to Lone Star Bag in which Zeke acknowledges that he and Mose had parted “in an amicable and friendly manner.” And then, remarkably, he offers some advice for Mose on how to handle a financing problem. It was a detailed plan involving the issue of some nonvoting preferred stock and had many other steps, and I didn’t understand a word of it. “The above is given to you for what it is worth,” Zeke concludes, “and if the firm of Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, & Beane can be of any assistance in helping underwrite this issue, please let us know, and we will go into it with New York via Houston.”
Zeke’s New Orleans relatives tended to blame Mose Feld for Zeke’s heart attack. Morris Junior told me that when Zeke and Natalie came to his wedding, in the fall of 1944, as things were coming apart at Burka Bag, Zeke, normally a robust man, looked drawn and gaunt, and there was visible space between his shirt collar and his neck. The files reveal that as part of the settlement with the Feld interests, he paid Lone Star for the life insurance policy Burka Bag had provided him and made it his own. His estate included around $90,000 in life insurance. He must have had intimations of his own mortality; there was not only the family history of early death but also the tuberculosis he had had in his youth—another detail I was never told but found in the files. Whenever he got a good report from the doctors, he would rush out and buy another policy. Indeed, his last such purchase was in February 1947, just a couple of weeks before his heart attack. After the funeral, Morris Junior saw some of the letters Zeke had sent his attorney and wrote Natalie: “I want to show you one of them to get your reaction on same… . I’ve read and reread it and just wondered if he could possibly have known he was ill . . . . It seems to me that there is a great deal of evidence that he did.” Mose came to the hospital, but Gussie, fiercely loyal, would not let him see Zeke. She had some harsh words for him. Mose was to write, years later, to Natalie, “I felt like a knife had been stuck into my heart.”
At this point the story might end, but there was to be one more transaction between the Burkas and the Felds. When my mother died, most of the real estate Zeke had owned with Mose had long ago been partitioned and sold. There was one exception, however: A 2.3875-acre lot in a subdivision called Bluebonnet Acres was still in her estate. It was in a sparsely populated area of southwest Houston, off Almeda Road and a lane whose street sign reads “Feld,” near Beltway 8 and the Brazoria County line. I had no idea what to do with it, and so I looked up the address of Mose’s son, with whom my mother had occasionally corresponded, and wrote him a letter offering to sell it to him at the value on the tax rolls: $26,000. He responded with a nice letter, but no, he didn’t want to own any more property in that area, and by the way, I should have the appraisal lowered. (He was right.) He also paid the estate for a number of years of grazing rights. I hired an appraiser to get the value for estate tax purposes, and it came to $17,000. I tried to give the land to Rice. The university didn’t want it. In fact, nobody wanted it, and if you had seen it, you wouldn’t have either. Potential donees were worried about oil pipelines in the area that might have contaminated the groundwater and could expose them to liability.
A few years ago, I received a call from the Feld interests. They were packaging their land for, as I recall, a chemical plant. They offered to buy the lot—for an absurdly low $3,000. I was noncommittal, but I called Jane immediately. “I’m not going to sell it to them,” I said. “The Felds are not going to screw this generation of Burkas.”
Last December I sold the land—not to the Felds. A couple of buyers had expressed interest in the property, one of them being a landfill operator who eventually bought it. When Jane came to Austin to visit over the Christmas holidays, I asked her if she wanted to see the land, which she had never done. We drove from Austin to Houston, and what greeted our eyes was the worst piece of land in Harris County. A gun range (very loud) adjoined it on one side, earthmoving machines were digging the landfill on the back side, and there were a few uninhabitable shacks across the street. The other buildings on the street were small industrial operations. A chemical plant was indeed about 150 yards away. The lot was overgrown with brush. We had gotten a very good price for the land, more than ten times what the Felds had offered. I could not resist the myth. “Thanks, Zeke,” I said. “You can rest easy now.”