One hundred years is a long time, unless you’ve lived to be 100 years old.
“It went so fast,” says Pernina Burke, of St. Cloud, who turned 100 years old on Tuesday.
She is surrounded in her apartment by the physical proof of her memories, and laments that she doesn’t think anyone will want her pictures and typewritten essays of her life. Since she downsized from her house, she’s thrown a few things out but makes no apologies if you think the place is cluttered.
When her house, in which she raised six kids, was cleaned out, 4,000 books were removed. “Every day I think of another book I shouldn’t have let go,” she said, before declaring “that’s enough of complaining about things.” And it was, for the entire length of our recent three-hour visit.
Spending an afternoon with a 100-year-old person is an invitation to examine how we square the daily reality that life alternates trying to kill us and trying to soothe us.
How do you survive the sawmill death of a father six weeks before you’re born, a telegram from the War Department that says your husband is missing in action in the Philippines in World War II, the incessant grief of the war years, the cancer that claimed your husband too young, the funerals of your own children?
For Pernina Burke — nicknamed “Perky” — the answer comes in the form of a question. “What else can you do?”
She met her love in 1935 in Brainerd, Minn., when working in the Farm Credit Administration office, where farmers who ran out of money “came in and got huge amounts of money. I think it was $20 or $30 a month.”
Edward Burke, who ran the office, was a man of honor. “He never asked me for a date while we worked together. He didn’t think that was good politics,” she recalls. “He was much more mature than I was.”
It was unlikely the two would have even met had Edward, who already had two years of law school in Minneapolis, not dropped out and returned to Brainerd because his older brother had gotten married and his new wife refused to give their mother any money on which to live. “I knew I was falling for that guy and he was Catholic, so I quit going out with him, but the next fall we just happen to run into each other,” she said.
“Father Hogan called and said, ‘you will come and take instruction next Thursday,'” she said. And her own parents — her mother had remarried — didn’t mind. “They liked Ed. And he was a good, good man,” she said.
A few years later, the war would prove it true.
The tank company from Brainerd was the first mechanized unit sent to the Philippines, just a few months before Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese attacked on Dec. 7 and Ed was shot when his jeep was strafed. That could have earned him some recuperation time in Australia, but he was a company commander and he didn’t want to leave his men.
Another encounter with the Japanese was just ahead only three weeks into the war.
He was ahead of his men looking over where his tanks could go when he met a column of Japanese soldiers whom he mistook for Filipino. “He said, ‘Halt, American officer,'” Burke said. They shot him four times. A tank driver and another officer were killed.
“He laid there the rest of the night because the wound in his neck prevented him from speaking,” she said. “The Japanese came and shot all the wounded, but not Ed because he was a captain and they thought he might know something they could use.”
He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war. Pernina moved back to Brainerd from the military base in Washington state, rolled bandage material for the Red Cross in Brainerd on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights, worked at a factory making aircraft bolts, ran a daycare and, like other “war wives,” served as a hostess at Camp Ripley’s dances for German POWs.
She joined the Brainerd Drum and Bugle Corps (filing reports back to the Brainerd Dispatch during their travels ) even though she didn’t know how to play a drum. Because what else can you do?
“Sometimes, we’d work 45 days without a day off,” she says, still getting excited when she remembers she worked her way up to 75 cents an hour making bolts.
It would be a year before she found out Ed was alive, and years more — 1945 — before she saw him again.
Like many soldiers, he brought the war home with him when they were reunited in October. He had periods of insobriety before Alcoholics Anonymous. There was always someone willing to buy a drink for an ex-POW.
But “blessings outweigh problems,” she said. “I’m so glad I married that man.”
She was a chaplain to ex-POWs for many years but stopped a few years ago when her service unit was disbanded because there weren’t many of them left. As far as she knows, there’s only one ex-POW still living in the Brainerd area.
She was in the Brainerd Ladies Drum & Bugle Corps, a teacher of medical terminology, and an actress in local theater, retiring at age 79 after one last performance as Ethel in On Golden Pond.
For more than 25 years, she worked at St. Cloud Hospital and was a secretary in the hospital’s pathology department the day a man’s test results came through her office. They were Ed’s. Cancer. And she knew there wasn’t much time left. He was only 56 when he died in 1970.
She thinks one of the atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on Japan is to blame because the prison camp in which Ed was confined was covered with gray ash shortly after the explosion.
When you’re 100 years old, stories tend to end with the same postscript: “He/she’s dead now.”
“I’ve had six kids, and three of them are dead. They smoked themselves to death. The first 90 years of my life I lived with smokers. I try to tell myself, not to forget it, but forget about it. People have it much worse. Most people who are young don’t know how precious life really is.”
“I’ve done so much,” she says in appreciation of her century, “and there’s so much more I want to do.”
What she’d really like to do is get her fingers on a keyboard again, but she laments that she’s never been able to figure out how to use the computer she got when she was 95.
Her essays are vintage commentaries on the life of the members of the Greatest Generation as one — called “Write or Weep” — describes the unshakable lifetime bonds that the war years forged among those at home.
“Can I read it to you?” she asked. “It’s the theater in me.”
Aside from a community birthday party for her over the weekend, she “sits in my do-nothing chair and runs the world,” while catching up on all the things that happened while she was busy living our history.
“I’ve been learning so much these last few years,” she says of watching historical documentaries on Public TV. “I worked ’til I was 80. But I’ve learned so much of what went on when I was young because I was working one or two jobs, a half dozen kids, a husband who needed attention, and I never heard of some of this stuff.”
Even over the span of 100 years, life comes at you fast, and passes quickly.