Eric, my companion of eight years and good friend for 18 years, died on June 14, 2015, of pneumonia and complications from stage IV non-Hodgkin’s disease. He died peacefully, full of gratitude for a life richly lived. His ashes were buried with military honors at the Miramar National Cemetery in San Diego on Friday, August 21st.
People who knew Eric will remember him for the love he showed to those he held dear, for his determination and independence, and for his wry sense of humor. He was also a man of many talents with a remarkable life story.
Born on June 8, 1923, in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, he was the older of two brothers. The younger one, John (“Jack”), came along two years later. Their early life was quite comfortable – both their parents’ families were well to do. But when the Nazis came to power and began to march across Europe, conditions changed from one day to the next. It became urgent to leave. With the family’s possessions reduced to what would fit in a steamer trunk, they crossed the Atlantic and settled in Hudson, New York, where Eric’s uncle Adolph had a factory that made engineered textile products.
Eric, by then 16, attended high school and worked in the office of his uncle’s factory, Textile By-Products Corporation, after classes. He also had a flair for drawing and lettering, so he earned some extra money painting signs. Jack had a paper route.
In school, he excelled in math and English, winning a school-wide spelling bee. He had a passion for models and built an entire miniature naval base from scratch in the attic of their home, including ships, docks, and cranes; a replica of his uncle’s factory buildings; and a large airplane that hung in the high school’s entrance hall and was still there when he went back many years later. He was musical as well: he loved to play the piano. Though his family couldn’t afford to pay for lessons, a teacher in the town was so impressed with his talent that he taught him for free and wanted to help him get a scholarship to Juilliard. But the country was at war. Shortly after graduating from high school, on February 5, 1943, Eric joined the Army.
After training, he ended up in the 82nd Airborne Division and saw combat in two battles in Europe, landing behind the lines. People tend to forget that some of the deadliest battles of the war in Europe were fought in the months that followed D-Day. In September 1944, he was dropped into the Netherlands, where he fought in Operation Market Garden. The operation is known particularly for the disastrous Battle of Arnhem, chronicled in the movie A Bridge Too Far. It was a crushing Allied defeat that postponed the end of the war. Eric fought for 11 days. On one of those days, he and his unit found themselves surrounded. He used his understanding of German to figure out where the enemy was located and was able to save his unit. On October 3, he was hit in the head with a grenade, which took him out of commission for nearly three months. He passed the time drawing detailed sketches of military aircraft and other subjects that interested him.
Returning to combat just before Christmas, this time he was dropped into Belgium and the Battle of the Bulge—where the Americans suffered the most casualties of any operation in the war. Eric recalled that on Christmas Eve they were bivouacked at a farm where he and his buddies had been given permission to shower and spend the night in the barn. They had cleaned up and settled in for the evening. They were listening to carols on the radio when they were called to the front. As they marched into the battle, Allied troops passed them going in the opposite direction—in retreat. Chills ran through him; he felt as if he was walking straight into the line of fire. He fought in the trenches for 10 days, until he was struck with shrapnel in his upper right leg. The wound left a hole large enough to put his fist in. He underwent two surgeries and was kept in the hospital for six weeks. He was unable to return to the front and remained Stateside until his discharge in January 1946. In all, he served nearly a year and a half in Europe and came home with two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star.
On his return to the States he was able to take advantage of the GI Bill and apply for a college education. He was accepted at three schools and decided on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he completed his studies in civil engineering in three years. During that time, his mother died of an infection. He was shattered; he felt that his whole world had fallen apart. Soon afterwards he met his future wife, Beverly Strout.
Eric and Bev got married immediately after his graduation from MIT. He quickly found a job in his field with the Central Vermont Railroad in St. Albans, Vermont. Their first child, Sherry, was born.
In his spare time he continued to pursue his passion for models, always building them from scratch (as opposed to kits). Often the details were so intricate that he worked with a magnifying glass. He wrote a series of articles on scratch-built railroad cars for Model Railroader magazine, which he called “Dollar Cars” because they could be made for a dollar. They became very popular. Fifty years later the magazine marked the anniversary of his Dollar Cars. He also collected brass train cars and engines. Most of them never ran on a track, as he didn’t have much interest in “toy railroads,” though later he had a pricey LGB train that came out of storage every Christmas and chugged around the tree.
According to his son Jim, Eric’s love of trains was, in reality, “a love of the turn of the century and a love of the history of this country. He saw the Steam Age as his connection to what made this country a great world power”—much in the spirit of Ayn Rand. Like Rand, Eric was a rugged individualist, but his brand of individualism was tempered with wisdom and gentleness.
Over the years that followed, Eric gravitated to mechanical engineering and worked for a number of companies, accumulating more than 30 patents for the devices he invented, from blenders for Oster to a hand-held snow blower for Toro. He told me that he once looked out over a railroad yard filled with boxcars that used his patented latching system. He had made the process much more efficient. Also, the seals were leak-proof, saving cargo which in the past might have been ruined by mold. He felt he was making a difference in the world. The family grew with the birth of son Jim and, finally, Bob.
In 1973, he came to San Diego to work for Rohr Industries, who were building cars for the Metro in Washington, D.C. With his knowledge of rolling stock, it was a perfect fit. When the project ended, he briefly took a job in Colorado. By that time, Bev and he were divorced. He returned to San Diego to work for local companies. His last job, where he stayed the longest, was with Proxima, a firm that made computer accessories.
In June 1980, Bob was killed in a car accident. Everyone loved Bob. His brother Jim says that “Bob was the most unassuming, genuine, and accepting person I ever knew.” He would light up the room wherever he went. The loss lived with Eric constantly.
Eric became an excellent cook and took pride in his garden, especially his fruit trees, which he meticulously pollinated with a paint brush, and his large collection of roses. He was fond of animals, both domestic and wild. Playing cards came naturally to him and he enjoyed both party and duplicate Bridge. He loved music, especially jazz, and ballroom, square, and round dancing. An avid reader, he studied history and many other subjects. When he retired, he continued to pursue his interests. His last “serious” model was a 2-foot-long three-masted schooner.
I met Eric shortly after he retired. He had just fulfilled his dream of going on safari in Africa. Together we explored the Peruvian Amazon, Italy, Malta, Greece, Turkey, and France. His French was pretty good; he sounded like a native. His brother Jack joined us on a trip to Brazil, where we were royally welcomed by my family and friends.
On special occasions he would make little models for me. One year he created a Christmas ornament that was a perfect replica of the “Delta Queen” river boat, to which he attached a ticket for a cruise on the Mississippi, one of the last of the Queen’s voyages. It was a special event for jazz aficionados and we both enjoyed it thoroughly. Unfortunately, it was on that trip that his symptoms of lymphoma first became evident. We learned on our return that he was very ill. Nevertheless, he recovered with treatment and we resumed our adventures.
Jack was a big part of my life, too. We were both Unitarians and shared many “causes” in common. Eric gave us space to form a separate friendship. It was a great loss for Eric, and for me as well, when Jack died in 2010.
Eric had a quick wit up until the very end. His cracks would zip past you; you had to be on your toes to catch them in mid-flight. His Army dog tag was discovered in the Netherlands in 2012 by a World War II historian named Rick de Jong and Eric started to exchange e-mails with him. He ended his first message with one of his typical remarks:
“I understand that retrieving lost war items is a hobby of yours. Good luck to you. Oh, if you find anything of real value, it’s mine, of course.”
Eric was fiercely loyal and protective of the people he loved. He will be dearly remembered by his family: daughter Sherry and her husband Dave Smith; son Jim and his wife Ana; and Sherry’s daughter Erica, her husband Matt Bertsch, and their son Hunter Eric. He is also survived by his former wife, Beverly Cook; his sister-in-law Amy Strout and her children; and Jack’s children—Lorraine, John David, William “Jim” Arthur, and Eric James—and their families.