Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Murvin Breest: A Simple Life

The following is an excerpt from a work-in progress called The Town I Live In: A History of Fullerton.

“Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place.”

--Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)

In researching and writing about local history, I have tended to focus on large social, political, and cultural problems. One might get the impression from my writings that the history of Fullerton was full of conflict and calamity. However, as historian Barbara Tuchman reminds us, there were ordinary, good, decent, even boring things happening right alongside the bad stuff. The “ordinary” does not often make the news or make it into history books, because it is not sensational. But real life is full of ordinary things: people going to work, eating with their families, taking vacations, buying houses, playing basketball. I feel I would be doing an injustice to history if I did not at least discuss some of the more ordinary aspects of the history of this town.

I was reminded of this as I read an interview conducted in 1978 with a man named Murvin Breest, who lived most of his life in Fullerton. Murvin led a simple, quiet life. Reading his recollections and reflections, I was reminded that a simple life is not necessarily an insignificant one.

Murvin Breest was born in Stillwater, Minnesota in 1905. His father was a conductor for the Pacific Electric railroad, and was transferred to Fullerton in 1918, when Murvin was in the seventh grade. Murvin’s father would let him ride on the trains sometimes. “I would sit up on his seat and toot the whistle, and things like that,” he recalls, “I really got a kick out of that.”

Because of his lack of interest in school, Murvin flunked his freshman year of high school. “I liked the outdoors,” he said, “and had heard about the spiders and things you have around here, so I spent my first year playing hooky, and consequently I flunked.” It took him five years to graduate high school.

Like many folks of the “Builder Generation,” Murvin took pride in building and fixing things. “I didn’t go to the Junior College,” he said, “I went to work.” His view of work was very different from people of my generation. When asked what his favorite kind of work was, he replied, “Well, it didn’t matter, just so I could work and get some money. I wasn’t particular. I’d take any kind of menial job.” From this statement, one might get the impression that Murvin did not enjoy his jobs, but he clearly did, based on the enthusiasm and pride with which he described his work, first as a mechanic/electrician for McCoy Mills Ford on Commonwealth in Fullerton, and then as a repairman and bus driver for the Fullerton School District. He spoke of the bus garage as “my garage.” He said, “I helped them design it in a way. I told them what we needed, and how big it should be.” Murvin also helped organize the Orange County Bus Rodeo, which was a training/recreation event for potential bus drivers, held at the Los Alamitos race track. “We won our share of trophys,” he said.

He recalls with fondness his years as a bus driver: “I got the biggest kick out of the little kindergarten kids. They’d see me in the mirror…and, if I’d smile, why, they would smile. I’d toot the horn, and they’d look up at me…Some of them, if you went a foot past the place where they were supposed to get off, why, they’d cry, and think they weren’t going to get off at the right place.” His way of calming down restless or troublesome kids was to tell them jokes from a joke book he kept on hand.

Murvin did not get married until he was 35. He met his wife Edith at church: “Edith came out from New York, and she went to the Christian Church, and I got acquainted with her. The Lord told me she was the one I was going to marry, and I thought, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ Then, one day I came along, and she had her car stuck in the street by the Christian Church and she couldn’t get it started. So, I helped her get it started, and she was so nice about it and everything, and one thing led to another, and pretty soon we started dating.”

Edith turned down Murvin’s first proposal. But one night as they were dancing in Balboa, Edith said, “I’ll take you up on the proposition you made me.” Murvin recalls, “I couldn’t figure out what she was saying, because usually when someone says no to me, I take no for an answer.” He asked her, “You don’t mean when I proposed to you, do you?” She said, “Yes I do.” They were engaged, and got married in 1941.

Even after his retirement, Murvin still worked on a lot of building and fixing projects, much like my grandfather Glenn. He helped a friend build a cabin in Canada. He built an addition to his house on Fern Drive. He built a workshop for himself in his back yard. He took care of his father when he was in declining health, and repaired wheelchairs for the rest home where his father stayed.

Toward the end of the interview, the interviewer said to Murvin, “It sounds like you have had a pretty interesting life with all your different jobs.”

“Yes, well you could get that from just about everyone,” he replied.

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