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 peopleshowed 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

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