Berger’s Burg: Pop made taking care of family his life’s main goal

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As Father’s Day approaches, it is time once again to reflect upon the second parental person: our dads. Especially at this time, my thoughts race to memories of my Dad by the emotional song “Oh My Pa-Pa” written by Paul Burkhard and sung by Eddie Fisher. It was popular when my father died in 1956. Its lyrics follow intermittently.

Oh, my pa-pa, to me he was so wonderful/Oh, my pa-pa, to me he was so good/No one could be, so gentle and so lovable/Oh, my pa-pa, he always understood.

Father’s Day does not receive the same attention as Mother’s Day, but on this day children squeeze in 24 hours to honor their other parent. For many, this gesture does not stem from the fact that the gleam in his eye helped to create them but to the love and guidance he bestowed upon them. In my father’s case, the gleam, love and guidance were apparent. He had eight children to love.

My gratitude to Pop lies in the wonderful parenting he did to prepare his children to become decent human beings. And Pop did it with style. He was always there, despite the necessity of working two jobs to support his large family. Pop’s sage advice, encouragement and man-to-man tete-à-tetes with me, the seventh of his eight children, will last a lifetime. With no formal education but oodles of innate intelligence, he knew more about life’s problems than does Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz or Oprah Winfrey.

His name was William Berger and he emigrated to the United States as a 17-year-old from Europe. He was young, strong, handsome and penniless, but he was besieged by many young women with marriage on their minds. He resisted until he reached 23, when beautiful Bella, 17, came into his life.

He decided it was time to settle down. Times were hard for the young couple and, although an accomplished tailor, Pop opted to work for the city Sanitation Department as a garbage collector. It paid only $36 per week — overtime included — but it offered needed security.

Gone are the days when he would take me on his knee/And with a smile he’d changed my tears to laughter/Oh, my pa-pa, so funny, so adorable./Always the clown so funny in his way.

The handling of garbage was particularly stressful for Pop, who possessed the world’s most squeamish stomach. We all watched in sympathy as Pop tried to placate his irritable stomach. We would conjure up images of what garbage he handled that day to cause such misery, but he never complained. Still, he was up every morning at 4 a.m. and I don’t remember a day when he missed work.

Pop never learned to read or write and I still am amazed at his resourcefulness. He was upgraded to chauffeur and was sent, alone, delivering sanitation trucks to the four corners of the city. Despite his inability to read street signs, he always found his destination. Pop also moonlighted as a tailor, the trade he did best. Both jobs required that he put in as many as 16 hours a day. Since this secondary income was necessary to supplement his low city wages, he did it religiously. I never saw him when he was not weary. But through it all, he never complained.

In addition to his long working hours, Pop spent large portions of sleep time administering “bonkes” (cupping) to sickly neighbors. This is an old European remedy for healing a multitude of illnesses. Several thick glass cups are used and into each a vacuum would be created by inserting a flamed applicator to “burn out” the air. Then the cups are applied to the discomforted areas of the body. This procedure supposedly draws out the bad blood.

Although primitive, the warm cupping did help many sufferers. For this, Pop was regaled for possessing magical healing powers. He never accepted money because “helping the sick is my payment.”

Pop also had a great sense of humor. He was the Jay Leno of his time. One day, the children asked him why he had so much hair on his chest. He explained that men with hairy chests either have lots of money or lots of children. “Thank God, I was blessed with lots of children,” he winked. Pop believed in the old adage that “the greatest treasure a man can have in his life is family.”

There are many memories about Pop which all his children can recount, but space has run out. Suffice to say, one of the two most beautiful phrases in the English language for us are still “Hi, Pop!” Can you guess what the other one is?

Oh, my pa-pa, to me he was so wonderful/Deep in my heart I miss him so today.

Sleep well, Pop.

Contact Alex Berger at

Updated 5:55 pm, October 10, 2011
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