|Bruce, Keith, Allen, David, 1959?|
Bruce sailed through engineering school and undertook a master’s. That’s where he ran into his first roadblock: his adviser left for a year, and Bruce could not complete his master’s project. I’m sure he didn’t make an issue of it; instead he found an engineering job at a paper mill in Michigan.
He was never one to stay in close touch with the family, but after a while he went incommunicado. Unable to reach him, my mother finally called the paper mill. She was told he no longer worked there. They connected her with the personnel department, where a woman did her a great kindness. “I can’t talk about confidential information,” the woman said, “but let me tell you what I can.” She said people had liked my brother, and that he wasn’t fired for misbehavior. The bosses were all engineers, she said, and engineers are not known for communication skills. Bruce was not the first bright new hire to need more help and guidance than he was given.
|Uncle Bruce with Lisa and Chris|
Then one day he got hired at a startup company making PUR water filters. They had a great story. Their new technology was more effective than anything on the market at the time. It could convert sea water to potable water; it could even pull a drink out of a mud puddle for someone in a remote location. Their first customers included the US Navy. One day a news story broke; a couple had been stranded at sea aboard their boat and had survived by cleansing sea water through their PUR filter. With the help of that story, the company’s founders talked their way into the household market. Business took off. The company grew. My brother was loving it. He received awards for developing new approaches to inventory control and distribution. He made friends, bought a little house, bowled in a league with brother Keith, enjoyed the occasional visit to the local racetrack, and happily joined the family three or four times a year for holiday gatherings.
|Me (left) and Lynne with Al, Dave, Keith, Bruce 1985|
Everything changed when the founders sold the business to Proctor and Gamble. Oh, the company survived for a few years, during which Bruce shook his head about various changes made by the “suits” from P&G. Then came word that the plant would close. All the jobs were exported to Mexico. My brother tried to be stoic about it, but I know it broke his heart. He was one of the last to leave; he was the one who knew how to disassemble the lines and ship everything out.
He looked for another job, without much hope of finding one. When funds ran out, he began to take small weekly withdrawals from his retirement funds. He stopped paying his utilities and began to live off the grid, using a windup flashlight and a sometimes cooking on a small charcoal grill. He was probably sitting around in his underwear, but he was no longer watching television. Except we didn’t know it.
On Friday, September 15, 2006, he went to his bank to withdraw a few dollars for the weekend. He dropped to the floor, dead of a heart attack at 55. When we got his keys and entered his house, we learned the truth of his existence. That’s when we discovered that he had no electricity and no heat (we don’t know for how long). About three years of unopened mail was tossed on the floor near and under his bed. Books overflowed their shelves. There was a lot of dust, but no animals and no filth – it was not a garbage house. But it had problems, including the fact that the cold water in the kitchen sink was running full blast and couldn’t be turned off. Clearly it had spilled over at some point; floor tiles were lifted out and there was still the smell of mold.
Emptying Bruce’s house after his death, it didn’t take us long to find the very pills he’d brought home from the hospital 15 years earlier, plus the prescriptions, never filled. We also found cigarettes, and his reading spot reeked of cigarette smoke. We found bags of empty Mountain Dew cans, and new cartons in the kitchen. And a large bottle of aspirin.
Clearly (to me, at least) he knew the risks. He was having pains, had no interest in being medicated, and stocked up on caffeine and nicotine, two things that could help send him on his way.
|Al, Kay, me, Dad, Keith, Dave, Bruce 1993?|
How could we not have known?
Having been stunned by finding the hidden sad and dysfunctional part of his life, it was wonderful to discover the equally well-hidden happy and successful part. It makes me smile to think of it now. Except that I am angry – very angry – that an American company shipped my brother’s job across the border. Of course he’s just one among hundreds of thousands. This exporting of jobs is not good for the country or for the people to whom it happens. I wish I believed that all the other people’s stories turned out happier.
It has taken me a long time to write this, and to decide whether to publish it. The time has come. Bruce, I thought about you all this week. We miss you. Rest in peace.