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Albert Bolke

Albert F. Bolke

Albert Frank Bolke

Albert Frank Bolke was born May 6, 1923, in Chicago. He grew up there on the South Side.

His father was a steelworker, a native Chicagoan of Polish descent. Albert’s mother, Anna (maiden name Extejt), was the second of his three wives. He had two children by his first wife and eight more—four boys and four girls—with Anna, who was of Croatian descent, from Pittsburgh, and 15 or 16 years old when they got married. The two children of Albert’s father’s first marriage lived elsewhere after their mother died. The family Albert grew up in included just Anna’s eight children. Of the ten of them, children and parents, Albert was the only one with the name Bolke. For everyone else it was Bolka. His father is said to have been drunk when he filled out Albert’s birth papers.

Life in the Bolka/Bolke household was not easy. Albert’s father was an alcoholic. They moved a lot. Family lore has it that they were in the habit of moving out the night before the rent was due. They didn’t have enough to eat. Albert was scrawny from malnutrition. They were poor.

When Albert was 10, Anna died at age 33 in childbirth. She was taken in a patrol wagon to a hospital in downtown Chicago and died there. It was her tenth pregnancy—she had had one miscarriage. When she died, her last baby died too.

Albert Bolke (squatting, middle row, right) and CCC friends, Wisconsin, ca. 1940

Albert Bolke (squatting, middle row, right) and CCC friends, Wisconsin, ca. 1940. The young man on Bolke’s right is wearing a baseball glove. (Click photos to enlarge.)

Two weeks later, Albert’s father was married again, to a woman named Julia he had hired, poverty notwithstanding, to take care of the kids. Albert and Julia did not get along. Albert would hide out at his aunt’s place when Julia called the cops on him, which she did repeatedly. One day he intervened when Julia was beating up one of his sisters. She had him arrested. A policewoman investigated, figured out what was going on, and encouraged Albert to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era federal jobs program for unemployed, unmarried men. He did. He spent one day shy of a year—from April 2, 1940, to March 31, 1941—doing manual labor and driving a tractor on a road crew in Wisconsin, then went to work briefly back in Chicago for R.R. Donnelly, the paper company and publisher of phone books. He thrived in the CCC but hated the Donnelly job, and in particular he hated the ink he worked around, much of which ended up on him instead of in the phone books. He spent half a year or so at Donnelly, then enlisted in the Navy on Monday, December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. His official enlistment date is December 20, but only because the initial processing took about two weeks. He signed up for six years.

In the Civilian Conservation Corps, ca. 1941

In the Civilian Conservation Corps, ca. 1941

His three brothers, Bill, Junior and Benny, all served in the Army.

Albert did his basic training at Great Lakes. In the CCC and the Navy he ate better and started putting on weight. He boxed in the Navy. He claimed to be 5-9, but that was a modest exaggeration. He was more like 5-7, if that.

He was one of the 22 men aboard the Macaw the night she sank and, given his limited swimming ability, perhaps the unlikeliest of the seventeen survivors. By one account, when asked how he made it to shore, he said he hit bottom and just started walking. After the Macaw, he served aboard the USS Towhee (AM-388) and the USS Peregrine (AM-373), both minesweepers.

He met his future wife, Martha, in December 1945. She worked with Albert’s sister Connie at Ritchie’s box factory (one of two W.C. Ritchie & Co. paper box factories in Chicago at the time). One day that month, when Albert was home on leave, Connie told Martha, “You’ve got a date with my brother.” They had four dates in four days. On the first date they went bowling. On one date they went out for drinks. On the fourth date they went to a family movie with Maureen O’Hara at the Avalon Theatre on East 79th Street. (This was probably The Spanish Main, an adventure film set in the Caribbean in the 1700s starring O’Hara and Paul Henreid.) That evening he told her, “I’m shipping out tomorrow. Will you marry me?” She said yes.

Albert and Martha, ca. July 1946

Albert and Martha, ca. July 1946

The two of them had much in common. Martha too was born in Chicago in 1923 and had grown up on the Southside in a family of four boys and four girls. Her father, like Albert’s, was a steelworker of Polish ancestry. In fact, he was from Poland. He had immigrated as a teenager by himself, unaccompanied by relatives, as had his wife, Martha’s mother, who came from Germany and settled first in Hammond, Indiana. The two of them met at a wedding.

But for all their similarities, Albert and Martha apparently experienced childhood very differently. Martha’s recollections of hers seem basically positive. She and her friend Sylvia Loferski would go to a bar across the street from Sylvia’s home and buy five-cent cigars for the barber who rented a shop downstairs in Sylvia’s building, and pitchers of beer for 25 cents for Sylvia’s dad. They would bring a pitcher to the bar and get it filled.

After his fateful leave in 1945, the Navy sent Albert to Sasebo, Japan, then Hawaii, then Charleston, South Carolina, where he and Martha were married July 6, 1946, in St. Mary’s Church. Albert made all the arrangements. There were a couple of witnesses. It was a Saturday. No one else was in the church. The priest declined Albert’s offer of payment, telling him, “You’re a sailor, you’ll need that”—or something to that effect. They were out the door in ten minutes. It was, in Martha’s words, the quickest and cheapest wedding ever—ten minutes and free.

St. Mary's Church, Charleston, South Carolina

St. Mary’s Church, Charleston, SC

They stayed two weeks at a boarding house in Charleston. As Martha said 67 years later, “Why go anywhere?” They were already in Charleston.

Then Martha went back to Chicago. Albert got assigned to Newport News, Virginia. He loved the Navy—he planned on making a career of it but reconsidered after he met Martha. The Navy gave men like him who had signed up for six years the option of mustering out after five. He did, on December 3, 1946.

They lived in the attic of her mother’s place at 8412 S. Mannistee. Shortly after they were married, they stopped in for a drink at Bishops’ Tavern on 84th Street, which was owned and operated by the policewoman who had steered Albert to the CCC and her husband. She recognized Albert and exclaimed over him. Martha had known her years before. The name Bishop was an Americanized version of Biskupski.

Albert worked in a steel mill, then became a sheet metal worker, installing heating and air-conditioning systems. He became a supervisor for Deslauriers, which supplies services and equipment to the construction industry. He traveled a lot—he was home on average only two days a month. He worked in New York, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio and Illinois, on the Sears Tower in Chicago and the state capitol in Indianapolis. He took great pride in providing for his family.

He was a Bears and White Sox fan, but not a rabid one on either count. He preferred going on a drive with Martha to going to a game, but he liked to check the score of any game in progress at the time on the radio.

Albert died of lung cancer December 27, 1993. A lifelong smoker, he had quit after being diagnosed two years before, but too late. He was seventy years old.

He is survived, as of 2017, by Martha, still going strong in her 90s, and their five children—Ann Marie, Albert Jr. (who goes by “Butch”), Marsha, Penny and Carl—and assorted grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

With CCC broom brigade, ca. 1940. Bolke in back row on left.

With CCC broom brigade, ca. 1940. Albert Bolke wearing tie in back row on left.

 

With CCC buddies, ca. 1940. Albert in front row, far right.

With CCC buddies, ca. 1940. Albert in front row, far right.

 

Albert Bolke on CCC work crew, Wisconsin, 1940

On CCC work crew, Wisconsin, 1940. The marginal notation notwithstanding, Bolke appears to be at the far right of the front group of workers, right leg bent at the knee, driving his shovel into the dirt.

 

Albert Bolke with CCC buddies at Camp Rusk, Glen Flora, Wisconsin, winter 1940-41

With CCC buddies at Camp Rusk, Glen Flora, Wisconsin, winter 1940-41

 

Albert Bolke with unidentified CCC friend, Camp Rusk, Glen Flora, Wisconsin, ca. 1940

With unidentified CCC friend, Camp Rusk, Glen Flora, Wisconsin, ca. 1940

 

Albert Bolke's CCC service record

Albert Bolke’s CCC service record. His superintendent judged him “A good worker — obedient, likeable …”

 

Albert Bolke's CCC discharge form

Albert Bolke’s CCC discharge form, which misstates his age at time of enrollment—he was sixteen, one month and four days shy of the minimum legal enrollment age.

 

Albert Bolke's Navy discharge form

Albert Bolke’s Navy discharge form