I was born at the end of the so-called “summer of love” on September 6, 1967, in the seemingly idyllic rural town of Great Bend, Kansas. In actuality, there was probably next to no “summer of love” in west-central Kansas, as there were would have been next to no counter-cultural elements present to promoted such a well-themed summer. If they had existed, the local farmers would probably have beaten them to a pulp, and the local police would have looked the other way. On an off day, the police might very well have gleefully added to the beatings. A few Beatniks still lurked around western Kansas, such as the great and now famous sculptor, Pete Felton, but I’m sure no real hippies or yippies existed in that little middle-class farming and oil community sitting on the Arkansas (pronounced the “Our-Kansas” by natives and locals) River.
In 1967, my father, Harold “Harry” Louis Birzer, was a 33-year old insurance sales man, former fourth-string college football player for Kansas State University as well as a deeply Conservative and Roman Catholic man; he had a passion for arguing politics, and he loved Barry Goldwater. By all accounts, Harry was a remarkable man—dedicated, intelligent, passionate, and gregarious beyond my abilities at written description. Much to my mother’s chagrin, he helped everyone who needed it—with his time, his money, and his various mechanical skills—and everybody loved “Harry Birzer.” While few people willingly speak ill of the dead in even the best of circumstances, enough people have told me about everyone loving Harry, that I would have to set aside every ounce of my historical training to doubt the full truth of this. From what I’ve been told repeatedly throughout my life he sounds as though in all conversations and in all social situations, he served as the life and the soul of that moment. He and my mother met at college in the mid 1950s, and they were married toward the end of the decade. Somewhat of a scandal in German Kansas, my mother was fully of Volga German (what was called a “Roosian” in Kansas in the 1950s) stock, while my father’s family was mostly of southern German (Cologne and eastern Bavaria) origin. Each family, however, had remained fully committed to the Roman Catholic faith. Still, many considered this a “mixed marriage.” After a honeymoon in Las Vegas, my mom became pregnant with my oldest brother, Harold Kevin Birzer. Three years later came my older brother, Todd Allen Birzer. Certainly, from every recollection of my mother and my brothers, Harry was a loving and dedicated husband and father. Harry and my mom had a strong marriage. Though my mom admits to being rather spoiled and selfish in their early years together, she remembers the years of their marriage as “golden ones.” Indeed, when she speaks of those years, her voice and her eyes take on a different tone and cast. Some of the stories about him have been told many times, and I certainly grew up with strong image of this wonderful man, absent from my own life.
As noted above, Harry was also deeply conservative and libertarian in his politics. He frequently debated my mom’s father, an Ellis County Democrat and politician. From the recollections I’ve heard, they sound like two great men heatedly arguing in only the way those who respect each other can. As mentioned earlier, I was born that first week of September, 1967, and baptized later in the month. A few weeks later, my dad and my grandfather saw Goldwater speak at Fort Hays State University, a highlight in the life of my father.
God’s ways can be strange and unpredictable, at least from any viewpoint this side of heaven, and He decided to take my dad for His own into eternity, two months after I was born. In some darkly ironic way, my father died inside of one of his own creations. His hobby, aside from politics and political debate, was rebuilding and selling older cars. On November 17, 1967, Harry collided with a drunk driver in the middle of the night, just west of Dodge City, Kansas, somewhere in K56. Thirty-three years on this earth seems too short of a time for anyone, but it was good enough for Jesus, so it must be good enough for my dad. Somehow, this strange coincidence of age has always given me a bit of hope about my father’s death.
I’ve often wondered what my mom and brothers must have gone through losing my dad. Each of them talks frequently about his greatness and his magnanimity, but neither of my brothers willingly talks about hearing the news of his death or the months that followed it. Indeed, the first three years of my life, from 1967 to 1970, when my brothers and I were fatherless, seem to be a void in family history. Admittedly, though, I’ve asked them about this time period only very infrequently, not wanting to trample on the good memories they carry with them regarding his life and how alive he had always seemed to be. Every memory recounted to me indicates that Harry lived life to the fullest extent possible. My oldest brother Kevin remembers how loving he was, how social he was, and how he hated snakes (a hatred Kevin carries with him to this day). Kevin especially remembers a day when he and Harry walked out of Harry’s parent’s farm house, only to confront a rattlesnake resting on the sidewalk leading to the driveway. My dad immediately placed Kevin, then a little boy, on a car roof and proceeded to whack the snake. The snake didn’t have a chance. Amen. Too bad Eve hadn’t responded in the same manner. Todd remembers my dad’s love of cars, and buying him Hot Wheel toy cars down at the local drugstore (very much against my mother’s wishes).
When on the rare occasion that courage overcomes prudence and I push either of my brothers about his death, they only remember how sad mom was throughout the following winter. I’m sure they remember more than this, but they don’t willingly share their memories of him. I understand; death is a hard thing, especially, I’m sure, when a boy loses his father. Somehow, the loss of a parent for a child seems to violate the natural order of things. I would guess the memories they keep, they keep as closely guarded treasures, brought out and caressed only in certain very private moments, moments during which the glow of a missing father returns and gives comfort to a restless soul.
I, of course, have no memory of my father, and I think this has always been a small barrier between my two brothers and me, though we are very close one with another. Still, they share something—memories of him that I don’t and can’t have—and I assume they think my questions regarding him as though from an uncouth stranger. I don’t have the same precious treasures to pull out in times of great sorrow or great joy. I’m sure my lack of having a father has affected me in ways I’ll never understand.
But, I certainly know him to have existed. I don’t think I have his personality, his athletic ability, or his looks, but I do have his love of intensity and finding the most important things, to be, well, important. I also know that despite being a fierce conservative, he would fight for the weak and the poor wherever and whenever he found them. From what I know of him, he carried a profound sense of Justice. And, of course, I see each one of these traits—the ones I carry and the ones I don’t—in my brothers, two of the closest friends a person could ever want.
In them, especially, filled with loving memory, the legacy of my father, Harold Louis Birzer continues.
May God bless His servant, Harry, and embrace him today and all days, November 17, 2011, forty-four years after he departed this City of Man. And, may God bless my mother, Rita, and my brothers, Kevin and Todd, who endured so much the following fall, winter, and spring and all the seasons of their lives.