The Boilermaker

Bridget Flynn and Michael Burke were born somewhere in the west of Ireland during the Great Famine of 1845-1849. They may have married in Ireland and emigrated to Earlington, Kentucky, or they may have emigrated with their families, met and married later. Or they may never have married at all. I’ve found birth records for two children, Wiliam A. Burke, my grandfather born in 1882 and Mary Agnes Burke, my great-aunt who was a nun at St. Ceceilia’s Academy in Nashville for her entire adult life. 

The next generation of the Burkes, Flynns and other Irish immigrants moved up and out of the mines to work for the railroad.

My grandfather listed “boilermaker, RR” on all official documents, even when he registered for the WWII draft at age 59. He married Katherine Kilroy in 1916, moved to Terre Haute, Indiana where she died in a car accident leaving him with three children under the age of four. 

The motherless Burke children, including my father, moved into the Kilroy family home with their maternal grandparents, seven aunts, and two uncles. In the early twentieth century, Terre Haute, a railroad town on the Wabash River, sat in the largest coal-producing county in the US. The crossroads entertainment included beer halls full of hustlers, alcoholics, floozies, grifters, drifters, desperadoes, and high-stakes gamblers. 

Will Burke 1950s

My grandfather worked up and down the Louisiana and Nashville line and often arrived at dawn to visit his children in Terre Haute, for a few hours before hopping back on the afternoon train. It’s been said he was a railroad union organizer and had to be constantly on the move for fear of reprisals from the L & N Railroad’s anti-union thugs. These were the years leading up to the passage of the Railway Labor Act of 1926, which required railroad companies to allow collective bargaining, making it illegal to wage war against their union-organizing employees.

Terre Haute’s most famous citizen, Eugene V. Debs, five-time American presidential candidate, and leader of the Socialist Party of America, had worked on the railroad in the 1870s and became active in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman. Debs led the Brotherhood in a major strike in1888 before founding the American Railway Union. 

I have a hunch the family lore about my grandfather’s underground union organizing was greatly influenced by hometown hero Eugene Debs. I met my grandfather once or twice but hardly remember him. The death certificate says he died of a heart attack, “In Penn. RR car somewhere between Indianapolis and Richmond Indiana.”

My father’s generation anglicized their Irishness to fit into white middle class America. He was ashamed of his working-class immigrant heritage. But he took care of those family coal miners and railroad workers—as a young lawyer he worked for John L. Lewis, president of the United Mineworkers and wrote the first pension plan ever negotiated for American labor.

Someone’s Living In The Attic?

Someone’s Living In The Attic?

Two of my sisters and I were born in Annapolis immediately after World War II. My father, stationed at the Naval Academy, defended Naval personnel on trial for war-time petty thefts and black market racketeering. At night he drove the hour-long commute back and forth to Georgetown Law School in Washington to complete his final year. Upon entering the District of Columbia Bar, he moved us to a Georgetown townhouse and began his civilian law career. Powerful union boss John L. Lewis hired him as general counsel to the United Mineworkers. They held the same liberal political views but Lewis, a devout Mormon, and my father, a binge-drinker already in the first stage of alcoholism, had battling temperaments. Lewis suspended his zero-alcohol intolerance long enough for my father to write and implement the landmark UMWA 1950 Pension Plan, the first retirement benefits ever negotiated for American labor.

The backyard of our Georgetown townhouse abutted the garden of a young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. After my father’s few successful years, we moved to a five-bedroom brick colonial at the corner of Fox Hall Road and Edmunds Street in Northwest Washington. Both of my parents had friends and relatives living, working and matriculating in the District. They all found an open door at our house. I never knew who would be joining my sisters and me at the breakfast table or who’d be passed out on the living room couch from all-night parties. No one ever cared where their cigarette ashes landed or bothered to clean up their spilled drinks. 

One of my parents’ friends lived in the attic. I know he came out at night because all the adults told morning-after stories and he was a prominent source of laughs. I finally came EdmundsStupon him once in the kitchen. He was guzzling a bottle of orange juice standing in front of the open ice box wearing a buttoned up wrinkled trench coat and loafers, no socks, bare legs. 

“Hi, I’m Ted,” he said.

“Hi. I’m Regan. It’s from Shakespeare.”

My mother taught me to tell everyone that so she wouldn’t have to answer how I got my name.

“Well, what’s your favorite thing to do, Regan?”

“I like monkeys,” I said.

“Want to go to the zoo?”


“Ok, get your sisters and get in the car.”

Ted had no car. He meant my mother’s car. The keys were always in the ignition.

We drove down Fox Hall Road toward the Washington National Zoo and crashed into a telephone pole. No one was hurt. My father represented Ted in court and got the charges dismissed but Ted had to pay for the telephone pole. 

“Your honor, I have no funds and no income. I live off the bounty of my friends,” he proclaimed.

Ted would have gone to jail had my father not forked over the cash. My parents howled over this incident for all the rest of their days. All their friends loved re-telling the story. 

There was never mention of the danger his drunken driving posed to the three little girls in the back seat.

Watch It! There Are Thorns in Those Roses

Watch It! There Are Thorns in Those Roses

My mother woke me very early one morning on my fourth or fifth birthday. Men were waiting downstairs to wallpaper and paint. This was my birthday present—new wallpaper. I had to quickly dress and stay out of my room until they were finished at the end of the day.

“C’mon, we’ll get your sisters and go visit Joanne!”

It may have been that day or another that my mother took my two sisters and I to see her youngest sister, Joanne, who was in the Maryland countryside about an hour from our home in Washington. Joanne was 10 years younger than my mother so she would have been about 20. She attended Georgetown Visitation high school and junior college with the Smith girls who lived at an 18th century Maryland estate, Mt. Airy. During her school breaks Joanne stayed with the Smiths and in mid-June they would have been lounging around the pool with their cigarettes and tanning lotion.

We all got our hair washed and were set out in the sunshine to dry while my mother, Joanne and the Smith girls painted their nails, gossiped and laughed over beer in the estate’s coach house.

My mother directed me to sit in an oversized lounge chair near the shade of a mighty Southern Magnolia.

“Lay down there, Regan,” she said, “Don’t get up until your hair is dry.”

The old-growth evergreen burst with sturdy white flowers that looked like folded linen, sweet-smelling like the Smith girls. This is the first time I remember birds flying in and out of tree branches. The sun fell through the breeze into the dark fleshy leaves and lulled me into a meditative reverie that I can easily reconstruct whenever I’m under a summer tree or feel the whiff of magnolias or their cousin gardenias drift past me.

At the close of day we returned home and I ran upstairs to my new room. Everything was covered in red roses—the walls, the ceiling, the bedspread and pillows. It was the best birthday present I’ve ever received and indeed, the only one I can remember as a child.

My sisters and I were born one after another in the Naval Academy Hospital in Annapolis where we lived in the years immediately following World War II. After myth father left the Navy, we moved to a red brick colonial on Fox Hall Road in Washington and my father started his first job as a labor lawyer for John L. Lewis, founder of the United Mine Workers. They held the same liberal political views but Lewis, a devout, moralistic Mormon and my father, in the early stage of his alcoholism had battling temperaments. 
By the time I was in the first grade, the job, the house and the rose-filled room had all gone south.

My father picked up work in law firms and corporations throughout the Midwest, and my family started moving around the country with him.