Saturday, June 14, 2014

52 Ancestors: #24, Father's Day Special: Roger Marchant Kirk

Roger M. Kirk, March 1942
Having profiled my mother, Kathleen Murphy, for Mother's Day, it's only reasonable that I should do the same for my father on Father's Day.1

Roger Marchant Kirk was born on the 11th of May, 1919, at the family home in Lewiston, Maine.2 He was the last child of Chester Frank Kirk and Mary Milliken Hodsdon, two years younger than his sister Geneva, and the apple of his mother's eye. I can't quite imagine what it would have been like to grow up with a father old enough to be your grandfather and a half-brother old enough to be your father (Chester was 62 and Kenneth was 30 when Roger was born).

Roger's first "wheels," date unknown
I can't say I know a whole lot about my father's childhood, though I get a few glimpses from his baby book and grade school report cards. He said his first word ("Sister") at 8 months; was taken on his first train trip at the age of 13 months, to Rumford and Roxbury, Maine;3 and memorized the Lord's Prayer at the age of 3.

He had most of the typical childhood diseases of the day, surviving diphtheria at the tender age of 8 months, followed by measles, whooping cough, and German measles, all between the ages of 7 and 8 years. He managed to avoid chicken pox until his sophomore year of high school, and somehow escaped mumps entirely.4 But the most intriguing "medical" notation in his baby book is this: "Accidentally shot in the leg on July 8, 1934." I wish I knew the story behind that!

He attended the Lewiston public schools – a total of four different grade and grammar schools, skipping the third grade entirely (despite a sketchy attendance record: he missed a total of 73 days during first grade, and 48 days during second grade) and ending with his eighth grade year at the Jordan Platoon School.5 According to his report cards, his penmanship was atrocious.

Six-year-old Roger Kirk (right), with his half-brother Kenneth (left) and father Chester, 1925,
at the house where Chester was born in Warren, Maine
Roger graduated from Lewiston High School in 1936. His class yearbook characterized him as "a scientist by nature and a whiz at Physics," noting his only extracurricular activity as "Outing Club" and naming him "most bashful boy." And although he was listed as being in the "Technical" curriculum rather than "College," his sketch says, "He plans to attend college next year, but hasn't made up his mind which one it will be."

But as it turned out, Roger never attended college; cars were his first love. Already a budding mechanic, in 1937 he was employed at a local gas station (presaging his own future as a gas station proprieter), and in 1939 at Woodworth's Machine Shop in Lewiston. By 1940, he was working as a mechanic at Wade & Dunton Motors, a local Ford dealer, and in October he registered for the draft.

Roger's first motorized vehicle, ca 1938
Roger with Kathleen, the day he left for active duty
Not quite two years later, war was declared, and like so many other young men, Roger enlisted in the Army. On Aug 24 he reported to the Recruit Reception Center at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, and two weeks later was assigned to the Military Police at Fort Adams in Rhode Island.

I was taken quite by surprise when I discovered, among my mother's personal papers, a true treasure: a box containing more than 70 letters that Roger wrote to her while he was in the Army. I never suspected that my father was the type to write letters, but there they were: handwritten (often by flashlight at a guard post), lengthy, frequent, heartfelt, funny, and sometimes even a bit mushy.6

From those letters I gleaned a detailed picture of his Army life. His schedule during training included "Revellie" at 5:45, "Chow" at 6:30, 12:00, and 5:30, rifle practice, and five-mile hikes. He stood guard duty (over prisoners, ammunition dumps, and the company payroll), broke up fights in the town, and transported prisoners to and from points as widespread as Canada to the north and Camp Shelby in Mississippi to the south (the farthest he had ever been from home). He played ping-pong, went rollerskating, and went to lots of movies.

Roger in uniform, 27 Mar 1943
His love of cars continued unabated, as he bought vehicles, rented them out to other soldiers, and sold them at a profit. Once he brought a Packard back from Lewiston, sold it only days later for $200, then bought a 1937 Lincoln Zephyr in Providence for $150 and promptly tore it apart to overhaul the engine. Before it was even repaired, he sold it to the mechanic who was helping him work on it.

And always, he ended his letters by telling Kathleen how much he loved her and missed her. He headed home to see his love every chance he got on short passes, and while home on a three-day Christmas pass, he got her an engagement ring. Unable to get a furlough from either Fort Adams or Fort Getty in Jamestown, Rhode Island (where was transferred in June 1943), he finally settled for a three-day pass. On July 22, having just got back to Jamestown from Lewiston, he wrote his first letter addressed to "Mrs. Kathleen Kirk," which, he allowed, looked "pretty snappy" on the envelope. They had been married just two days before in a civil ceremony that was, Roger wrote, "the happiest moment of my life."

Almost immediately, he was transferred to a military police detachment stationed at the Buckminster Hotel, in Boston's Kenmore Square.7 He was now so much closer to home that he could visit practically every weekend. Around March 1944, he was transferred to Fort Banks in Winthrop, Massachusetts, where he was finally assigned as a mechanic. Kathleen moved to furnished rooms in Winthrop, but no sooner had she taken the civil service exam and gotten a job in the Ordnance Department at Fort Banks, than Roger was transferred again, back to Fort Devens, 40 miles away. Still, that was the closest together they had been since he enlisted, and he could come "home" to her at least every weekend, and usually more often; he even worked part-time at a garage in Winthrop on his days off.

Roger's '37 Packard – probably the one he sold at the base for $200 before spending the proceeds on a '37 Lincoln Zephyr
Roger, not quite used to holding his firstborn
There were no more letters until September 1945, when Roger was admitted to the hospital at Fort Devens, with fever, bronchial problems, and stomach trouble. There he remained for over two months while his symptoms ebbed and returned, the doctors ran numerous tests and X-rays, and they considered a medical discharge for him. Kathleen drove to Fort Devens almost every evening, bringing him ice cream and candy, and as his symptoms subsided, eventually he was able to go home with her on weekends while remaining a patient. They never did figure out exactly what was wrong with him, and in the end he did not get a medical discharge.

He did, however, get his final discharge papers on 26 February 1946, about six months after V-J Day, and they finally went home to Lewiston, where Roger went back to work at Wade & Dunton's. They got an apartment in Auburn, and Kathleen was soon pregnant with their first child, a son born in April of 1947. In September 1948, they purchased a home in the nearby town of Mechanic Falls, where they spent the rest of their lives.

Roger Kirk at the wheel of his circa 1939 Crosley convertible coupe, fall 1950, with his son, age 3-1/2
Roger continued to work for car dealers as an auto mechanic for several years, but he wanted to be his own boss, and around 1957 he opened his own Sunoco gas station and garage at the corner of Main and Marston Streets in Norway. Those were the days of 25-cent-a-gallon gas, "filling stations" that stayed open on Sundays and late every evening, and long before anyone dreamed of self-service gas pumps.8

Gas at 25.9 cents a gallon, Kirk's Sunoco Station, Norway, Maine, May 1957
He hired a succession of assistants for the repair work and the gas pumping, but they tended to be unreliable, and more often than not he was the one "on duty" on Sunday and at least every other evening. In addition to the repair business and the gas sales, he bought and sold used cars and pickups on the side, and like so many Mainers, mounted a snowplow on his pickup each fall and plowed driveways as a sideline during the long, snowy Maine winters.

Roger taking a break at the garage, December 1973
Because of the long hours he put in at the garage, I didn't see much of my father during those years. He'd come home for supper, read the newspaper, and either go back to the station for the evening or doze off on the living room couch while watching TV. He'd rouse about 9 PM and go down to the local coffee shop9 to shoot the bull with the other guys. He built a plywood desk/workbench for my older brother and one for me, and a little playhouse with large windows in the back yard that we called "the clubhouse".

Aside from that he didn't engage in much activity with us older kids; my memories are mainly of the odor of gasoline and grease on his work uniforms, and the occasional trip to the town dump I got to go on with my Daddy.10 In later years, after he closed Kirk's Sunoco and opened a new garage/gas station/tire dealership in 1968 with a partner, he had a little more free time. He bought a pair of dirt bikes for himself and his youngest son so they could go riding together, and before long he moved up to a full-size motorcycle.

Roger Kirk on his motorcycle, Memorial Day Weekend, 1975
Beyond that he didn't have any hobbies that I know of, and only one recreational activity I can recall during my childhood: he was an avid fan of the weekly summer stock car races at Oxford Plains Speedway. Sadly, he would not live long enough to see his dirt-biker son take up first drag racing, and then stock car racing, at that same speedway. How he would have loved to watch his son race!

Early in 1979, Daddy started feeling fatigued and generally unwell – enough so that Mama got him to a doctor (no small feat in itself). The diagnosis was lung cancer.11 He was unable to continue working, and as he was Paris Tire Company's only mechanic, the business was closed. Chemotherapy followed, but did little good.

Late in August, he went to the hospital with chest pains: he was having a heart attack. He rested in the hospital for just a week before the doctors sent him home. A few days later, Mama drove him to a local ice cream stand for one of his favorite treats. On returning home, he said, "I think maybe I tried to do too much," and lay down on the car seat to rest. He never got up. Mama knew he was already gone, but called the rescue squad – thank goodness, their youngest son, a member of the squad, was at his after-school job and not on call – and they took him to the hospital, where he was officially pronounced dead from another heart attack.

That was a Friday. The following Monday, all of his children came home for the funeral. He was buried in Gracelawn Memorial Park in Auburn, where his wife would join him a little more than thirteen years later.

Gracelawn Memorial Park, Auburn, Maine
What I wouldn't give for one last trip to the town dump with Daddy...

(Note: This post is in response to Amy Johnson Crow's "52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks" challenge at No Story Too Small.)

  1. And for this holiday I finished it on time!
  2. As I did for my mother's profile, I'm going to dispense with formal source citations. My information comes from personal knowledge; family photos, memorabilia, and lore; and the letters from Roger that Kathleen so carefully preserved.
  3. No doubt to visit his Hodsdon relatives.
  4. I well remember him avoiding me like the plague for a least a week after I was exposed to mumps as a 10-year-old (fortunately, I didn't come down with them).
  5. His future wife would have been in the fifth grade at Jordan Platoon School at the time.
  6. I only wish that he had saved her letters as she did his.
  7. Part of the hotel was turned over to the military police for holding Italian prisoners of war.
  8. While he usually kept his own gas tank topped off at his own garage, on rare occasions he would stop to get gas at someone else's gas station. I remember being mortally embarrassed when he would get out of the car and blithely start to pump his own gas, as the astonished proprietor came racing out to stop this mad customer from his unprecedented (and possibly illegal) act of self-service.
  9. Although I never was in this coffee shop myself, I am confident that it had nothing in common with a Starbucks beyond the bare fact that it served coffee.
  10. This was in the days of open-burning dumps, before "sanitary landfills" were even a glimmer on the horizon. Getting to ride with Daddy in his truck when he took the trash to the dump was quite the highlight of a child's weekend.
  11. His oncologist automatically assumed that he must be a heavy smoker, but in reality his smoking was limited to only a cigarette or two on his nightly coffee shop visits; my mother didn't want cigarette smoke in the house, and he knew better than to smoke around the gas pumps. (In fact, I never knew he smoked at all – I was astounded when my mother mentioned it after his death.) We suspected that the roots of his cancer lay in the years he spent relining brakes and blowing loose asbestos out of the linings with compressed air, not to mention the constant heavy exposure to gasoline fumes for over forty years.

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