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'Eddie Bird's seen a lot in his life'



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July 11, 2012 - "Who am I? I am just a poor boy from Lake Orion. Most of the kids around here from high school just call me Uncle Eddie. My family name is Mark Edward Bird. And my bill collectors don't know who to send things to."

I was in Lake Orion with Eddie, to listen, ask a few question and listen again. The interview took place in his living room, with him and two of his three children, Nan Sue and Phyllis (son Fred died in 2011). I didn't know what to expect, never having talked to somebody who's over 100 years old. Soon I was laughing and enjoying myself more than I probably should have, as I was working.

When Eddie was born, it was one of the chillier Junes on record. The day before, June 13, 1907, was the coldest June day all across the Continental United States. When I interviewed Eddie it was hot, hot, hot. Fans were whirling and the power flickered a few times.

Eddie is one of only 64 General Motors Corp retirees who is over 100. ("But how many of them are 105," he asks smiling?). He's lived through two world wars, the Great Depression the ups and downs of life -- his wife Catherine died in 1993. Through it all, or maybe in spite of it, Eddie laughs a lot.

He makes jokes. He lives in the same Orion Township house he moved his young family to (from Oxford) in 1940. What follows are his recollections to questions I posed. So maybe we should have headlined this story, "Eddie On . . ."

* * *

"I was born in Pontiac, and I lived on the asylum grounds until I was about two. My dad was a milker for the cows in those days. We lived in one of the three houses on the grounds. Families took care of the gardens and the cattle and the grounds. We moved to Clarkston -- actually four different farms -- we moved around there on the west side of Orion and Oxford. Four different farms, for let me see, for about 12 to 14 years.

"My address was Oxford, Michigan. But for my first two years of high school, I went to my grandparents to live. The last two years, I went back to Oxford. Dad had a truck and we'd drive the truck to the milk station and then to school and then back home again. I graduated from Oxford High School in '26.

"Two weeks before I graduated why I got a job at the depot there as a billing clerk. I started to work a week before I graduated and I had my first paycheck when I graduated. So, I had money for to go my trip to Nigra Falls. I was getting 40 cents an hour.

"My agent asked for a raise, they gave him a half cent hour more, and heck, that'd buy a half a loaf of bread every week.."

Oxford back then was surrounded by four gravel pits, Eddie said. I asked if he knew Stub Robinson, who like his father and his father before, operated a barbershop on Oxford's N. Washington Street (before Stub died, it was the longest running family barbershop in the state of Michigan).

"Stub? Oh yeah I knew Stub, he cut my hair all the time. He was a member of my football team. I played left end. I was the lightest member of the team. I weighed about 95 pounds. But one day, when our coach he was in the back field playing with us and he thought he could get around me and I tackled him -- he weighed about 200 pounds. I tripped him up and he went down on his nose. I thought that was gonna' be bad. He gave a job on the line then, on the regular football team."

I asked about Oxford's Opera House/movie theatre, which was operated by Ray Foreman.

"Oh there was always serials on Saturday nights. I liked them. A man would get tied to the rail road tracks and the train was coming about to cut him in half. The trains brakes were smoking. You'd think you'd see him dead the next week and the story continued. He got away. I liked those Tarzan pictures, and the funny pictures. Charlie Chaplin and Ben Turpin -- those guys were really comical, they didn't have to act comical."

Did you take your girlfriends there?

"Well, Helen's mother let us go there to the show. But, we had to get right back home right after the show. I remember that, so she didn't have to worry about us."

Helen, I learned was the love of his life back then, until one bad day, in the worst year of his life.

"1930 was the saddest year of my ol' life. Lost my job, I lost my car, lost my money in the bank, oh -- I got about 10 cents on the dollar, I got about $90 when it was all said and done -- and I lost my girl friend. It was a bad year from me . . . I don't want to see another one of them."

Back then Eddie worked two jobs -- as a clerk for Grand Trunk in the morning and then at the post office. His route was "North of Oxford and all of Burdick Street." He would start at 7 a.m. and wrap up around 8 p.m.

How Eddie lost Helen . . .

"She and her mother were walking around the block one day, on a Sunday. There was this girl who lived next door to where I was staying and she wanted to learn how to dance. I was there dancing with her, right there in the door, and you could see right out there on the street and on the sidewalk. All of sudden, Helen and her mother showed up right there on the sidewalk and they stopped and watched, I didn't see them. Well, there were a couple of songs I wish I would have sung to Helen then."

Eddie broke into song.

"I am sorry dear, I'm sorry dear. I'm sorry I made you cry. Won't you forget. Wont you forgive, don't let us say good-bye . . .One little word, one little smile. One little kiss, won't you try it breaks my heart to see you cry. I'm sorry I made you cry."

"If I woulda sung that to her, why her mother may not have made me pack up the things Helen had given me. I had to take them back to her house. She had all her things wrapped up for me and I had to bring that home. That was a sad day. I don't think I ever got over her."

Which led me to ask Eddie about the Great Depression.

"I worked there until 1929. Grand Trunk didn't have work for me. And then I went back the rail road in 1933 or ' 34. They had a different yard office then, about a, mile from the depot. I was billing out cars -- weigh bills, one for each car. . . . We'd make up the trains right there in the yard. I only made one mistake there. Well, I was up in the yard office and I went to check a car. I came back and I thought the light on the track was the wrong way, so I swings it around. They were pushing a string of cars up that track and when they got to the depot they got separated and it went off the track. Why, I guess they probably blamed the brakeman for it. I was never even asked about it. Here I thought I was helping them out -- so the brakeman wouldn't have to run up there and turn that switch. But I turned it the wrong way. I never told them it was me -- don't write that down. Grand Trunk will come back on me and say, "that guy owes us $50,000!' That was quite a hold up for a day or two, getting that popper back up on the track."

I asked Eddie what he would tell folks about today's economic woes.

"People now are going through a depression and they don't know if it will end. What would I tell them today is, don't give up and it can't get any worse. I went through the same thing for three or four years. People were selling apples in the city for 5 cents a piece and there were bread lines -- I wish my grandparents would have had what I have now. The government has made it easier for me over the last 40 or 50 years. I tell you what, I am making more money here right now, retired than you are sitting there interviewing me.

"I remember after the last day of work; I took a rocking chair I had and put it under the little tree out there -- well it was little then. Guys would drive by at 6 in the morning and I'd wave to them as they went by to work. I was pretty happy."

His last day working at GM was his birthday, 1975. He retired "as it was policy" when he turned 68, having worked for the automobile giant "since before the war (WWII) ended."

* * *

Up until a few years ago, Eddie used to ride his three-wheeled bike up to the Lake Orion Burger King every day. He'd order a Junior Whopper Meal. He eat half of it there and then take the rest home for dinner. As survivor of the Great Depression there are reminders around his house -- like the thousands of Burger King cups, washed and rinsed and stacked neatly.

In the hot humid weather we talked for about an hour and a half and when we finished and I was leaving he remembered one final thing he wanted to say in regards to the extreme temperature.

"Tell the kids, 'before you go to school, make sure you water your pets.'"

Don is Assistant Publisher for Sherman Publications, Inc. He has worked for the company since 1985. He has won numerous awards for column, editorial and feature writing as well as for photography. He has two, sons Shamus and Sean and resides in the area. To read archived copies of his columns, click on his name, just under his picture up top . . . He can be e-mailed at: don@dontrushmedon.com
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