Why do I say that a letter from the fourteen-year-old Ira Milton Kaser to my father, Paul Kaser makes me sad? The letter itself is cheerful and full of life.
For my father, the year 1926 was “the best of years, the worst of years.” (Apologies to Charles Dickens). The 17-year-old graduated from Millersburg High School in Ohio in June that year and in September he set off for college. The gregarious dark-eyed boy with a shock of dark hair and a flare for dressing well, made friends easily and had an endless curiosity. His mother had instilled a love of reading.
His strict father would only allow attendance at the WashingtonMissionary College run by the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Takoma Park, a suburb of Washington D.C. Although Paul secretly had no plans to become a minister or a missionary, he was eager to learn and happy to board the train for the trip east.
The family in 1926.
When he went to college, Paul left behind his doting mother (looking much older than her 54 years in this picture), task-master father, and beloved younger brother, Milton Kaser. Their sister Irene was working as a maid in other people’s homes. Their much older brother Keith was married and farming nearby. Milton would have been fourteen in this picture and when he wrote a letter to his older brother, Paul, away at college. Ira Milton Kaser looks and sounds (in his letter) more mature than 14, although the letter is unmistakably that of a young teenage boy.
Milton spends two pages describing the latest high school football game, a description full of details and nicknames. The description is also notable for his use of a derogative term for the quarterback of the other team, which reflects a time less concerned with tolerance than our own time.
Milton Kaser then says “I’m doing fine in school” which is an understatement, as he gives his grades of A’s and B’s in subjects that sound advanced for a fourteen-year-old–at least the Algebra and Latin. Later we learn that he is a Freshman in High School.
He then moves on to the family. “Everybody fine here. Irene just went to Kenmore and “dad” and “Mom” just returned from Glenmont. Since Irene is gone we get bigger pieces of pie. Keith was to Mt. Vernon today and brought some Cero (?) meat home.”
“We’re sending you your overcoat and a comfort[er].”
“Darned Freshman class had a party Friday night.”
These passages take some explaining.
- Irene may have been going to serve as a live-in maid with a family in Kenmore, a neighborhood of nearby city of Akron.
- Glenmont is a town in the same county as Millersburg, where many of Mary (Mamie) Butts Kaser’s relatives lived.
- Why are “Dad” and “Mom” in quotes? In the 1920’s these words would probably still qualify as slang–not the kind of words you use in formal writing. However, later Paul’s father signs himself ‘dad.’
- I’m still giggling at the fact that his older sister’s absence mainly means Milton gets a bigger piece of pie. Wish I had recipes for Mamie’s pie.
- The word that is missing in the sentence about older brother Keith looks like Cero. Milton’s writing is quite clear, so I’m really puzzled by this one. However, since Seventh Day Adventists manufactured vegetarian meat substitutes, and Mt. Vernon was a center for the church in that part of Ohio, I’m guessing that is what it refers to. Perhaps a brand that disappeared so thoroughly that even Google can’t find it.
- “sending your overcoat” Apparently the D.C. area had some early winter weather that my father was not prepared for. He might have preferred to get some of that pie!
- And why would a 14-year-old say “Darn” about a class party? Probably because of religion again. His father was very strict about keeping the Sabbath. No work between Sundown on Friday and Sundown on Saturday. And that would no doubt include no parties. So Milton would have preferred that the party be scheduled at another time.
On the fourth page, Milton Kaser closes the letter, and their father adds a note. This is a rare–in fact unique relic of Cliff Kaser. When my sister read it, she felt it reflected his concern for his far away son (sending the overcoat) combined with his practical side (weather report). It seems to me to reflect, the rather cold man, unable to express emotions, that was reflected in my father’s stories about Cliff Kaser.
“Rained from Saturday midnight to Sunday midnight then snowed about 1 1/2 “. Sloppy snow on ground this a.m. your overcoat and comfort to forward today. dad.
To return to the question at the beginning–why does this letter make me sad?
Because just five months after the lively letter, Milton Kaser was stricken with pneumonia. Three weeks later he died in his brother Paul’s arms. He had not yet reached his 15th birthday, which would have come in September. My father, Paul, never entirely got over Milton’s death, and we had heard the story from him many times. But this week I finally saw the death certificate, and could more clearly understand the tragedy of this young man’s life and death.
Milton Kaser is buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Millersburg, beside his parents and other members of the Kaser family.
And why was my father, Paul Kaser, at home with Milton instead of in the spring semester of college in Washington D.C.? That will be the subject of my next post, when I continue with Paul Kaser’s year 1926–the best of years, the worst of years.
Wow. What a tragic loss that I did not see coming (even though you warned us at the start) for the gaiety of the letter home.
I understand entirely. Even though I knew the “rest of the story”, it still hit me hard when I read this letter.