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Lowell Brueckner

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"What Our Hands Have Handled", chapter one


“The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was brooding over the surface of the waters.” God begins His mighty works with less than nothing. He takes disorder and darkness and moves in love to create that, which will bring glory to His name. So He does in individual human lives, moving sovereignly, where there seems to be no potential for anything positive, nothing moving in His direction.

Among our relatives, He started with one 30-year-old man, who worked in his father’s tavern and played his violin in his dance hall. This is the story of my father’s conversion and how He then cracked the hard heart of my grandfather. Read and marvel at the powerful invasion of God in human affairs…



Grandpa Was a Bartender

     Otto Brueckner, along with his parents, eight brothers and a sister, immigrated to America from Germany a few years before the turn of the 20th century. He was 16-years-old. It must have been shortly thereafter that he found a job at the Fuller Warren Stove Company in Milwaukee, for he was employed in the factory almost forty years. He worked his way up the ladder and became one of the foremen. Fuller Warren was hit by the depression in the early 1930’s and went out of business. Otto, along with millions of others across America, found himself unemployed. Otto Brueckner was my grandfather.
He married another German immigrant, Bertha Braun, and had a family of eight children. Grandpa, for all practical purposes, had no religion. He said, “Ven a dog dies, it lies on the shtrreet and dat’s da end of him. Dat’s vat vill become of all of us.” He had no time for God, though strangely, he insisted his family go to church and drove them back and forth. Perhaps he was thinking of social status—what would people think of a man, who provided no religious training for his family? He himself never darkened a church door. He even refused to go to church to give his daughter, Edna, in marriage.
     Besides requiring that his children attend religious service, my Grandpa saw to it that each one would learn to play a musical instrument. This came in handy after losing his job, when he invested his life’s savings in a tavern and dance hall in North Milwaukee. The whole family became involved. The sons organized an orchestra and on weekend evenings played for the dancing customers. They also tended bar and the daughters served tables.
     It is probably more correct to say that the business prospered because of hard times, rather than in spite of them. Jobless people attempted to escape the reality of the country’s economic instability and their own woes by drowning themselves in alcohol and laughing their cares away in the dance. All day long, they filed into the tavern and ordered drinks. Among them were some of North Milwaukee’s prominent citizens, including the chief-of-police and the mayor. Grandpa himself was not on the lowest rung of the social ladder.   He drove two cars  (a rarity in those days), was a 23rd-degree Mason, and drank with the best of his customers. He drank too much. Night after night, he crawled up the stairs to the family apartment above the tavern. Grandpa was an affluent alcoholic.
In spite of the formality of Sunday morning church attendance, the reader can understand that the Brueckner family had little spiritual potential. They were a carousing, partying, beer-drinking, moneymaking bunch—the kind for which Milwaukee is particularly famous. So, it came as a total surprise when one of the sons, Erwin, was awakened one night by a shining light! Fully alert, he saw the light beaming through the ceiling of his bedroom. He shook his wife, shouting, “Alice, look at that light!” only to hear a disgruntled, “Go back to sleep. You’re dreaming.” How could he sleep after experiencing such startling reality? However, he decided not to share it with anyone else. If his wife doubted the truth of his experience, what would others conclude? Probably, that he needed to see a psychiatrist.
     From that point on Erwin, my father, became dissatisfied with the life he and his family had been living. There was born in him a hunger for God. He often would pick up a Bible and read from it. During one New Year’s Eve, the entire family was together, bringing in the New Year with a raucous party. The scene nauseated Dad. He rushed out the door, down the stairs to the cellar, fell on his knees and cried out to God.
     For seven years, he walked in a kind of spiritual limbo, disgusted with his lifestyle, yet unable to conceive of any other. Then Mother and he made plans to move with their three children into another home. Under the guiding hand of Providence, they moved next door to Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Cristin. It was the first encounter my parents had ever had with true Christianity. There was something special about these neighbors—Mom and Dad would talk about it. It was something more than what they said or what they did. It was something deeper; something in their very persons and character. Curiosity got the best of my Dad.
“Where do you go to church?” he asked Mr. Cristin one day.
“Why don’t you come along and see for yourself?” Mr. Cristin suggested. “We are having special meetings.” Dad agreed to go with them.
  It was the night before Thanksgiving, 1935. My dad sat in the back of a large auditorium. Unfortunately, there was a ventilator fan from a heater nearby, so he could not hear most of what was being said nor grasp what was taking place. At the close of the service, everyone stood to sing a hymn:
Just as I am without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
Oh, Lamb of God, I come.

     In his heart, Erwin Brueckner came. He did not realize an invitation was being given to go to the front for prayer. He could not understand the strange moving inside of him, but he was convinced that this was the reality he sought. He knew that he was having an encounter with a living God and he surrendered totally to Him. He trembled noticeably under the impact of the Presence that he felt in the place. He hated to leave.
     His wife was the first to know Erwin was a changed man. It radiated from his whole being. It was so powerful that she made her decision the very next day—Thanksgiving Day—to follow the Christ, who had so wonderfully transformed her husband. Dad immediately became an insistent witness, telling everyone in his immediate family, as well as uncles and aunts, of his conversion and new-birth.
    On Thanksgiving Day, Dad was in the tavern relating to his parents what had happened to him. His sister, Lydia, and her husband, Richard, listened and accepted the invitation to attend a gospel service that night. After the meeting, lying in bed, Lydia could not sleep. Verses of scripture raced through her mind. She soon surrendered to the workings of God within her and her husband also came to Christ.

     Erwin’s brother, Gilbert, confided to his wife, Agnes that something must have snapped in Erv’s mind. He would not leave them alone. They had to go with him to the “Tabernacle”, as he called the large auditorium. They finally decided that the only way to pacify him was to agree to go for one service. They determined, as they walked into the building, that they were not there to listen. They had made it clear that Erwin should leave them alone, after they had fulfilled this one request. The sermon, therefore, went unheeded, but again a call was given to pass to the front for prayer. A mysterious attraction gripped my uncle and aunt and they found themselves arising from their seats and moving forward down the aisle. That night, the same amazing transformation occurred in them.

  Uncle Gilbert, Grandpa
      and two cousins.              Within weeks, not only the entire Brueckner clan, but also my mother’s family, the Pollnow’s, were in an upheaval. Many of them found new life in Jesus Christ, including Grandma and Grandpa Pollnow and Grandma Brueckner. Mighty prayer arose to heaven for my Grandpa Otto. He was a stubborn holdout. Religion held nothing for him. Faithful churchgoers, who acted the part of well-dressed saints on Sunday morning, drank themselves into a stupor in his tavern on Saturday night. He was disappointed in his boys, who no longer helped him tend bar and refused now to play in the orchestra. Some of the women left off serving the tables. To add to his disgust, prayer meetings and Bible studies were being conducted in his own apartment above the tavern. The voices drifted down into the bar room, much to the amusement of the customers.
“What is this,” they taunted my grandpa, “a tavern or a church?”
      Of course, my dad went often to speak with him. A crisis took place one morning outside the bathroom, as Grandpa was shaving. Again, my dad attempted to reason with him.
“Pa,” he said, “This is not religion. This is Christ coming into your life. This is real!”
“Boy!” Grandpa retorted. “If you’re going to come arround here mit dat shtuff, den you shtay out of my house!”
Erwin was not easily discouraged. He dropped to his knees by the bathroom door and begged God to have mercy on his father.
    The prayers for Grandpa increased. “Do what you must, Lord,” they cried, “but get Pa out of this business and save his soul!” Grandpa’s foot became very sore. He went to the doctor and he treated and bandaged it, but the soreness became more pronounced.
“I can’t tend bar anymore,” he complained to his wife, Bertha, “you’re prraying me out of business.”
“Prraise God!” she exclaimed, “Den you finally belief in prrayer!”
     He decided to sell the tavern and dance hall and with the money, Otto and Bertha bought a nice, new house. Bertha wanted it dedicated to the Lord. Otto said that she could do what she wanted, as long as he would not be involved. She went to her son, Erwin, with the request for a dedication service. Erwin, in turn, went to his pa to tell him that the only thing required of him during the service was an “amen” at the end of the prayer. Surprisingly, Otto consented. At this point, he was telling no one that when he disappeared into his bedroom during the Bible studies, he would listen through the keyhole.
     The dedication took place, the prayer was uttered, and Grandpa said, “Amen.” That night in a dream, he saw himself singing a little chorus that was sung during the Bible studies, I’m Walking Arm in Arm with Jesus. The dream changed and the devil appeared to him. Grandpa kicked at him and soon was awakened by his wife.
“Vat are you doing!” she cried.
“I’m kicking da deffil out of bett!” he replied.
Grandma was offended. “Vell, you’re kicking me!” she exclaimed.
     After selling his tavern, Grandpa began to frequent another bar in the neighborhood. The day after the dedication of his house, Grandpa wandered into the bar and ordered a drink. After the first sip, he returned it to the bartender.
“You can haf dis vun back,” he said, “it doesn’t taste rright.”
He demanded another, this time directing the man in preparing it, but it tasted the same. He huffed out of the bar and walked down the street into another. The same scene was repeated.
     At the door of the third bar, he was arrested by an inner voice: “Don’t you remember last night? You are now walking arm in arm with Jesus and Jesus doesn’t want you drunk. That’s why you have no more taste for liquor.” He got rid of the devil, all right. From that day (he was 60-years-old) until the day he died at eighty-nine, Grandpa never touched another drop of alcohol.
      Instead, he felt it his duty to go to his former customers and ask forgiveness for having contributed to their sin. With a Bible under his arm, he knocked on the doors of the chief-of-police, as well as the mayor of North Milwaukee.
“Do you rremember me? I used to sell you drrinks. Now I come to gif you something dat von’t cost you nutting.” Then, he opened his Bible and proceeded to share the gospel with them.
      It wasn’t long after his conversion that the doctors found my grandpa was a diabetic. The sore foot, in fact, was infested with gangrene. It had spread up his leg and they would have to remove it just below the knee. In the 1930’s, this was a dangerous operation, particularly for an elderly man, but there was no other recourse. Dad and Uncle Gilbert worried, not only about the physical danger, but the spiritual repercussions that might result from such trauma. Grandpa was a novice in the things of God. Would he blame God for the amputation? Would he become embittered?
  The operation was successful. Dad and Uncle Gilbert were in the recovery room with Grandpa Otto, when the effects of the anesthesia wore off. They heard Otto Brueckner’s first waking words: “Prraise da Lord! Da deffil got my leg, but Cheesus got my hearrt!”


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