In the last years of his life, Raymond Brenner would sometimes mix up his kids’ names and forget he’d spent a lifetime selling Chevys, Cadillacs and Toyotas.
But dementia couldn’t cloud the memory of something that happened in 1943, when, at the age of 13, he scribbled a note to his mama, hopped on a train in Chicago and — fooling pretty much everyone — enrolled in the Navy boot camp 1,800 miles away in Idaho.
“That was his claim to fame,” said one of three children, Steven Brenner. “It’s a gutsy thing.”
A gutsy thing Mr. Brenner repeated twice more — joining the Merchant Marine and the Army — all before he was 17.
“I learned more in the seven months in the Navy than I did in all my years in school,” a 13-year-old Raymond told one of several newspaper reporters who interviewed him after his mother dragged him back home the first time. “I was going to be trained as an aviation machinist’s mate, until the Navy found out about my age.”
Mr. Brenner died April 26 at Evanston Hospital after contracting the coronavirus, Steven Brenner said. He was 89.
Born Sept. 10, 1930, Mr. Brenner grew up in a cramped West Side apartment, the son of Russian immigrants. His mother stayed home, and his father was a shipping clerk in a sausage factory. He had two siblings, including an older brother who, during World War II, was a sergeant in the Army Air Forces. Envy coupled with youthful patriotism perhaps fueled the younger brother’s desire to also join the war effort.
“He was very strong willed,” said his son, who lives in Palm Desert, California. “I think of the song Frank Sinatra sang, ‘I Did It My Way.’ My dad did it his way.”
The 13-year-old enlisted the help of a 17-year-old buddy, trekking to City Hall to get a copy of his birth certificate that he used to enroll, according to newspaper stories from the day. It helped that he was big for his age and strong-jawed. Mr. Brenner dashed off a note to his mother, telling her he’d joined the Navy and would write soon.
“My grandmother was frantic,” Steven Brenner said. “She had no way of knowing what name he was under, who to call.”
Mr. Brenner returned home three months later, a couple of weeks after he’d completed basic training. The newspapers of the day printed photographs of the boy in his Navy uniform and surrounded by a doting family. He bragged about how he’d kept up a pen pal relationship with a girl in Chicago, while he also “went out with girls in Spokane, Washington.”
There’s no mention of what his parents said to him upon his return. His mother, rifling through his trouser pockets, discovered documentation with his fake name. But it would be another four months before the Navy finally discharged him. A year later, he enlisted in the Merchant Marine and was shipped off to Long Island, New York, with his mother again having to play detective to get him home. By the time he joined the Army at 16, the war was over, and there was little need of recruits.
Still, he kept a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings of his short-lived life in the military, his son said.
Mr. Brenner spent his working life selling cars, something he did exceptionally well.
“My dad could sell you ice in the winter time,” his son said.
His buddies in the car business would remain his friends for life, and you could often find Mr. Brenner digging into a plate of pasta or chicken vesuvio at one of the city’s old-school restaurants.
Mr. Brenner wed Marsha Golden in 1959, and they were married for 60 years, his son said. They lived together in Highland Park.
Mrs. Brenner died last year. The day before his wife’s funeral, Mr. Brenner fell and fractured a hip, and with the determination that characterized so much of his life, he yanked his IVs out of his arms because he wanted to be there to say goodbye to his wife.
“He missed my mom’s funeral, which was very heartbreaking,” his son said.
Mr. Brenner displayed some of that same devotion the day before he died, when his son was at his bedside at the hospital.
“I held both his hands, and he grabbed onto me really tight,” Steven Brenner said. “For 20 minutes, he wouldn’t let go. I kissed him on the forehead. I said to him: ‘Dad, you were a good father. It’s OK to go. Go on your journey. I love you very much.’”
In addition to his son Steven, survivors include two other sons, Scott Brenner, who lives in Tel Aviv, Israel, and William Brenner, who lives Highland Park; a sister, Barbara Gunther of Carbondale, Colorado; five grandchildren; and five nieces and nephews.
Private services were held.