Like Any Normal Day
It was hard ever to know what Bert was thinking. From the day he began working at Exide Battery in 1941 until he retired forty-three years later—other than the three years he served in the air force in World War II—each day was a replay of the day before and the day before that. In a pressed business suit, clean white shirt, and plain tie, he would report each morning at Exide at 8:00 A.M., clock eight hours as a personnel manager, and appear in his driveway back home at 6:00 P.M. with the punctuality of the tides. Though he would never be an avid churchgoer, he would always think of himself as a “good-living person,” a by-the-book Republican who voted the party line because his parents had done so before him. But when it came to talking politics or world events or even what happened that day at work, Bert evinced no interest in even a passing conversation. Within his household he would come to be viewed by some as aloof, yet a part of him softened in the presence of his daughters.
“No look-see,” he would remind them as he changed into his leisure attire in his bedroom at the end of the day.
Giggling, the children would turn away until he was done dressing.
“Okay,” he would then say. “Look-see!”
Even as he ate dinner, he had one foot out the door to Barness Field, where he coached football in autumn and baseball through the spring and summer at the Warrington Athletic Association. Bob and then Buddy and Jimmy played for him. In these twilight hours each day he seemed to fall in stride with the man he longed to be, a person whose authority was unquestioned and whose presence commanded attention. “It became an integral part of his life,” says Bob. Bert even had a hand in building the dugouts at the field, where he always seemed to have winning teams. But while he had a keen eye for the finer points of play, whatever praise he doled out to his players would be followed by a but and some small correction. “Good going on that double play but…,” he would shout out at his shortstop and second baseman, yet never with even a trace of profanity. Stationed behind the counter at the snack stand on game days, Rosemarie watched her seven children grow up at Barness Field: As the three boys moved up in age groups, the four girls paraded up and down the sidelines with pom-poms.
With blond hair and blue eyes, Bert had been an exceptionally fine athlete during his youth, better in football than in baseball. The son of a milkman and former textile-mill worker who weathered the Great Depression better than others in his family—an unemployed uncle was forced to sell apples on the corner to scrape together a few dollars—the six-foot, 160-pound Bert excelled as an end in football at Germantown High School, where as a junior and senior in 1939 and 1940 he was selected to the All-Public League team. In an era during which the protective equipment consisted of leather helmets without face guards and a scarcely adequate layer of padding beneath the uniform, Bert found himself in a pickup one day when he carried the ball on an end around and “went down and stayed down.” Dazed, he wobbled off the field but was fine. “It could have been a concussion,” Bert says. He also had a propensity for bloody noses, usually the consequence of an elbow thrown by an opponent at the bottom of a pileup. “Football is football,” Bert says with a shrug. “It is a game of hit and be hit.”
Even then football held a claim on something deep within young men such as Bert. Symbolically, as an adult he would look upon it as a bridge that ushered boys into manhood, a teaching vehicle that endowed them with an understanding of competitiveness, teamwork, and resiliency. He would have agreed with the observation of General Douglas MacArthur, who once said the game endeavored “to build courage when courage seems to die, to restore faith when there seems to be little cause for faith, to create hope as hope becomes forlorn.” Whatever truth was in that grandiose assertion, it was also true that the sport has forever embraced a level of barbarism that once alarmed even “the Rough Rider” himself, President Theodore Roosevelt, a football advocate who in 1905 called for sweeping reforms to curb an escalating death toll. While the sport would never be entirely free of peril, the dangers that remained embedded in it called upon young men to prove themselves in ways that no other sport could ask of them. In the crucible of action that unfolded on the fields of his boyhood, Bert learned life lessons that he would carry into old age. And it was perhaps one of the few periods that he could look back on and say that he ever truly had fun.
Bert admits he would have liked to go to college. But his grades were just average and that held him back from a chance at playing at the University of Delaware, where a coach recommended that he attend a year of prep school. Instead, he played sandlot ball, found that job in the employment office at Exide, and in the fall of 1942 began dating Rosemarie. Within a few weeks, he heard from his draft board and was off to serve. Waving good-bye from the platform to his parents, Albert and Florence, and his sister Florence—Rosemarie did not join them, saying now “it was an occasion for family”—he boarded a special train for new inductees in Philadelphia and headed off to New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, where he was issued his GI gear and began a hitch that eventually deployed him to Tinian Island as the radio operator of the B-29 bomber. From the bomb-bay window of the Lady Jane, he saw the war unfold in a way that seemed surreal to him, far removed from the bloodletting that ensnared the troops below in the hot sands of the Pacific theater. While he says he never reached his breaking point in battle, he would remember a mission one hellish night over Japan.
“We dropped our bombs over some city and these huge fires flared up,” Bert says. “I remember thinking they reminded me of the Sunoco refineries in South Philadelphia, how they used to catch fire and shoot flames into the sky. Well, we got caught up in the lights, and the Japs began shooting their ack-ack at us. I could hear it exploding outside our ship. And there was a Jap Zero shooting at us from behind. We got out of the lights and got caught up in a violent updraft, which lasted thirty seconds or more. We went up eighteen hundred feet just like that. The way we were being tossed around, I was just hoping the wings would stay on the damn airplane. We finally got out of that when suddenly the bombardier, who was in the nose of the ship, shouted, ‘Pull up, Red! Pull up, Red! Pull up, Red!’ We almost hit another B-29.”
Bert shakes his head as he remembers seeing that city on fire and says, “There was no way in hell anyone could have lived through that inferno.”
Whatever impression that apocalyptic scene left on him, it became just another thing Bert kept locked inside himself. But as Rosemarie later concluded, that was just the way men were when they came back from the war, less inclined to discuss the particulars of combat than to just get on with life. Within hours of stepping off the train back in Philadelphia in December 1945, Bert got out of his uniform, donned his civvies, and—as Rosemarie says with a laugh—sent her a telegram that asked, “Can we go out on a date Saturday night?” Bert had announced his ardent intentions toward her in his letters, of which Rosemarie received four or five each week, and before long he was on bended knee. To celebrate their engagement, the couple boarded a bus to the Pocono Mountains, only to discover a problem with their reservation upon their arrival at their hotel. Only one room had been set aside for them instead of the two that had been requested. Sweetly Rosemarie says, “So we got back on the bus and came home. Good girls know where to draw the line!” Grimly Bert adds, “I remember.”
Housing was scarce in Philadelphia due to the reentry of the servicemen into the community. But in the early days of their marriage, the Mileys found an apartment on the third floor of a house in Germantown. Under the impression that he was incapable of fathering children, Bert had not even considered the possibility of parenthood until Rosemarie announced that she was pregnant. It surprised yet tickled him: A boy—if it was a boy—would allow him an opportunity to indulge his passion for sports, perhaps even to add an ending to his own unfinished story as an athlete. Given the handicap that her brother Frankie had come into the world with, Rosemarie was just relieved that Bob was healthy when they placed him in her arms in March 1949. Secretly, she had hoped for a girl and two years later got her wish when Joanne was born. Bert says, “I said, ‘Well, fine, that’s a nice family. Let’s stop here’. That didn’t happen.” Overhearing that, Rosemarie observes, “Well, he had something to do with it!” But the increasing pressure of keeping up on a small income would get to Bert. In a reflective mood he admits, “I just wish I could have given the kids more.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Material things.”
Larger quarters had to be found with the arrival of Joanne, so the Mileys purchased a three-bedroom house in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia that had gladiolas planted at the base of a white picket fence. Child number three—young Rosemarie, later called Mimi—was born there in 1953. But within a few years the white exodus to the suburbs was in full swing, and Bert and Rosemarie found a three-bedroom rancher on a three-quarter-acre lot for $14,000 in Warminster, then a community of wide-open fields that had come into the hands of developers. As the moving truck backed up to the house with their belongings in September 1955, Rosemarie was showing with their fourth child.
Albert George Miley, Jr., was born the following January. Concerned she would not be able to get to the delivery room in time from so far out in the country, Rosemarie stayed overnight in the city with her parents and, on the day that labor would be induced, took a subway by herself to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. In the bundle the nurses later handed her was an eight-pound, twelve-ounce boy that Rosemarie remembered as being “perfect—a really good-looking baby.” Though she thought it was a good idea to name the boy after his father—which would be something of an irony, given the friction that would develop between the two in the years to come—Rosemarie was not sold on calling him Bert or even Al. Her sister-in-law Florence came up with an alternative. Off the top of her head, Aunt Floss said, “Call him Buddy.” Bert looked down at the baby in his crib and placed a football next to him.
Excerpted from Like Any Normal Day by Mark Kram, Jr. ©2012 by Mark Kram, Jr. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved.