Gallery Index

Ervin Brindowski

Ervin Brindowski, an electrician and family man who makes his home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is of the exact same generation as David Amram. Introduced to us here by his granddaughter, sociologist Valerie Chepp, she warns us to be a little wary of his tendency to tell tall tales and then undermines her own warning with a short digital audio clip of him regaling her, (as well as two of her uncles, Jimmy and Ratty, and her brother, Andy), with some questionable anecdote, catching her grandfather's voice and mischief-making in complete full sail.

By documenting both herself and her subject in words and on audio tape, complete with an annotated transcript, Chepp follows traditional ethnographic rules. However, much in the same way playwright, novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston wrote about and recorded her family and community in the early 1930s, Chepp deliberately compromises her social scientific objectivity by fading the voices she recorded as ethnographic data into a song she closely associates with her grandfather, making her sentiment and love for her subject quite plain.

He coughs. He’s always tired. "That’s the chemo,” he tells me. "The doctor said I have …" he thinks, then yells to his wife in the other room. “Alice, what did the doctor say I have?" She yells back, "Fatigue." "Yeah, fatigue. That’s what I have." Alice responds unsympathetically, "We all have fatigue." He laughs, "Oh, you think your fatigue is like my fatigue?" They take a minute to argue over who suffers from more fatigue, an earnest banter I’m well familiar with. I wait patiently for my grandparents to finish. 
In January 2009, my grandfather, Ervin Brindowski, was diagnosed with mesothelioma: lung cancer resulting from exposure to asbestos. He remembers being surrounded by the carcinogen during the decades he worked as an electrician in a Milwaukee factory. "Nobody knew any better back then," he tells me matter-a-factly. 
My grandfather is fiercely loyal to his former employer, a loyalty surpassed only by his allegiance to his country and family. The second son of two Polish immigrants, Ervin sees his time in the Navy during World War II, and subsequent years mastering his trade on the factory floor, as once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that provided for his seven children and wife, together in a small bungalow in an all-Polish neighborhood on Milwaukee’s Southside. 
Dziadek (pronunced: JAH-jah) means grandfather in Polish. Ervin deviated from tradition and named himself Grampy. He has sixteen grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and a remarkable gift for storytelling. His own biography makes up his stories, which themselves are often made up. But, like any skilled storyteller, it’s difficult to determine his fact from fiction. Skepticism usually sets in about mid-story, when the momentum is building, Grampy’s eyes get twinkly, his smile becomes wily and he pushes the story’s climax just to the limits of believability. "Nooo way," a Southside Milwaukee accent will call out. But Grampy always stands by his truth. 
I remember summers at his house as a little girl. At night after dinner he drank black coffee and sat outside for hours on the big wooden swing he built in his backyard. Sometimes he swung with his wife; other times he swung with a small portable radio, listening to the thrill of Bob Uecker’s voice broadcast Brewer’s games.  When his grandchildren visited, they piled together on the swing and sang songs, some in Polish -- probably an unintelligible dialect, a product of three generations lived in America -- and others in English.  His grandchildren were particularly fond of a song he wrote years before called The Lamplighter’s Serenade. It was almost my twenty-seventh birthday before I learned Grampy didn’t write this song -- it was written by Paul Francis Webster and Hoagy Carmichael, recorded by Glenn Miller’s Orchestra and later by Sinatra, Crosby, and others. When confronted about it today, Grampy simply smiles, as if the joke is (still) on us. 
Several years ago my grandparents moved from their bungalow; it became difficult to navigate the steps. "Besides," they say, "the neighborhood has changed" -- from Polish to increasingly Mexican.  Their local parish now delivers more masses in Spanish than English. They live in a small apartment, no backyard, only a narrow balcony that awkwardly fits two chairs, rarely used. Their children and grandchildren continue to visit. They feel loved. Grampy still follows every Brewer’s game.  Every third week, chemo drugs are pumped through his 85-year-old body. Grampy courageously struggles to adjust to his changing life and changing country. With every breath he agrees to hope, yet is haunted by uncertainty. He copes by remembering a fictionalized and real past, believes in the possibility of a secure future, and prays for a peaceful ending. 

Digital Audio Recording, Valerie Chepp

Transcript to Digital Audio Recording Above
Voice 1, Uncle Jimmy:  Tell these guys the story about the arrow in your leg.  This is another good story. 
Voice 2, Andy:  Is it true? 
Voice 3, Uncle Ratty:  Yeah, it's true. 
Grampy:  I was eleven years old and I had a buddy that lived two doors away from us.  Of course at this time my brother was like seventeen years old already, you know.  So I was like, about twelve.  So I didn’t have to take care of him anymore now because he drove the car and everything, you know, my dad used to give him keys to the car  (because Grampy's brother Joe had polio).  And, well, one day I was going hunting in Austin Woods, bow and arrow, with my buddy -- 
Andy:  Hunting for what? 
Grampy:  Rabbits.  And, we (laughing), I went over to his house to pick him up and he wasn't quite ready so I sat on one of the swings going back and forth -- 
Ratty:  With his sister! 
Grampy:  With his sister, she was a little bit older than I. 
Ratty:  There's nothing wrong with that. 
Grampy:  And I was sitting there and I was talking to her and then he came out of the house and said, "Let’s go," and he starts to walk towards the alley and he got by the alley and I just kept on talking to her, you know.  My legs were going out like this, you know (making the motion of legs on a swing), and --  I think I stayed too long, I guess, because all of a sudden -- 
Andy:  Now I know why Nanny left she didn’t want to hear this story again. 
Grampy:  All of a sudden (laughing) --  All of a sudden, "Ow!  What the hell is?"  And I look and here, sticking out of my leg, was this arrow. 
Ratty:    He shot an arrow at him. 
Grampy:  And luckily he didn't kill me! 
Jimmy:  We wouldn't be here! 
Voice 4, Valerie:  Did he shoot it because you were talking to his sister or he wanted you to? 
Both Jimmy and Ratty:  He wanted to go hunting! 
Jimmy:  And this guy was sitting there with his sister talking. 
Valerie:  That's payback. 
Jimmy:  What did you do then? 
Grampy:  Well, I pulled the arrow out of my leg. 
Ratty:  It wasn't like this (inaudible). 
Grampy:  Yeah, it wasn’t one of those (inaudible), but it's got a point on it.  And, uh, so I pulled it out and, well, naturally it was bleeding, it was right between my knee and my ankle, you know.  And, what the hell am I going to do?  I can't go home and tell my folks.  So, I went home and of course, my mother and dad were both gone, and so was Joey and, I wanted to stop the bleeding -- 
Andy:  Wait, wait, wait, back up a second.  Did you like say, "What the hell are you doing shooting an arrow at me?" 
Grampy:  No, no, no.  I pulled it out and went home.  I knew I was hurt. 
Ratty:  He was trying  to show off.  There was a girl there. 
Andy:  And what did he do?  Did he go hunt rabbits? 
Jimmy:  (Mimicking the friend) --  Now are you coming or not? 
Grampy:  I went home and I’m going to stop this bleeding -- I got to do something -- and so I opened up the medicine cabinet and of course at that time peroxide was the best thing for everything.  I mean it, it  -- 
Andy:  Kind of like Neosporin today. 
Grampy:  And so, I just put my leg over the bathtub and I took this bottle of peroxide and I poured it right in the hole. 
Andy:  How did that feel? 
Grampy:  Oh, (laughing) --   
Ratty:  So it must've hit a meaty area or -- 
Grampy:  Yeah, yeah, it did.  But then the peroxide must have -- Then I wrapped it, you know, bandaged it, and it must’ve did something because -- 
Andy:  And your parents never knew? 
Grampy:  No.  I never told them, nope, no, no. 
Voices fade into a song -- The Lamplighter's Serenade. Lyrics follow: A moment after dark around the park/ An old-fashion gent comes parading/ Dressed in funny clothes but singing as he goes/ The Lamplighter's Serenade/   Bridge:  The old boy loves to talk with couples on the walk/  But when it's half after love time/  He reaches for his sticks and from his bag of tricks/  He lights every star in the sky/ And if a lady or a beau should answer No/  He sprinkles their hearts with his magic/ Then he steals away to sing another day/ The Lamplighter's Serenade.  
Valerie Chepp is currently working on her doctorate in sociology at the University of Maryland specializing in ethnographic methods, audio production and theories of knowledge, critical race and feminist/queer studies.