GILBERTINE & THE EXCHANGE (Volume One) – Chapter 7: The Zeller Family Saga (Part 1)

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I needn’t have worried about putting Charlie off that Disneyland weekend – it turned out he was largely unavailable on weekends, in any event.

I hadn’t realized the Zellers had a “mixed marriage” when it came to religion, and it punched quite a hole in Charlie’s free time.

“Zeller” was, as it turned out, Avice’s “maiden name,” which Fritz had taken when they married, largely, as Charlie later told me, “to avoid any more hassles.”

Fritz had been born in Chicago on 29 March 1911 to Eidel and Zelig Lipinsky, a pair of Russian-Jewish, working-class Democratic, generation 1.5 immigrants.


She was the first woman in her family to read, write or vote; while he kept a handsome mustache, he was the first man in his to refuse to wear a beard. They named Fritz “Avram.”



After high school, he’d been apprenticed as a cabinetmaker to his Great Uncle Shimmel. He’d continued as a journeyman while also going to night school, finally getting an A.S. degree. He’d joined the Army in 1934 to, in his words, “Let Uncle Sam pony up for the rest of my education.”


This, Uncle Sam had done over the ensuing eight years, Fritz at last getting a Master’s degree in electrical engineering. That, OCS and the war ultimately saw him promoted to First Lieutenant.



Avice, meanwhile, had been born on 27 September 1924, growing up Lutheran and German-American in Racine, Wisconsin.

Among her ancestors were Racine residents who’d resisted the Fugitive Slave Law and refused to have it enforced within the city limits. They were among the crowd who had demanded freedom and release of fugitive slave Joshua Glover, and part of the movement that had spearheaded the drive to declare the Fugitive Slave Law unconstitutional (which the Wisconsin Supreme Court ultimately did, even though it was the only court to do so).

From Fort Henry through Sherman’s March to the Sea, they’d fought for the Union in the Civil War. Later, they joined Teddy Roosevelt’s Bullmoose Party before becoming affiliated with the Republican Party’s Progressive (La Follette) wing, and supporting Bob La Follette’s independent 1924 Progressive run against Calvin Coolege.

For reasons unclear, they’d endured government persecution during World War I;  the French, Scandinavian and Black communities had closed ranks around them, and the harassment, later said to have been instigated by a 21-year-old J. Edgar Hoover, had come to a precipitous end.

She’d been a chorus girl and sometime actress, on hiatus from both in 1944 to perform in a USO revue when she met First Lieutenant Avram Lipinsky.

Initially, it had been “Avram & Avice,” as if it were a comedy team – two goofily mismatched buddies palling round, having misadventures together, with Avice  as the comedienne, Avram as her straight man.

Then, almost overnight, it became something else – something sweet, tender, starry-eyed – and they were married within weeks. He legally changed his name to “Abraham Lincoln Zeller” (after briefly considering, then rejecting, “James Madison Zeller” as some sort of tribute to him and Avice),

Apparently believing a modicum of explanation was in order as to why they’d fallen in love and married when they were such a looks and age mismatch, Avice would often add “I’m sapiosexual.”

By the time I learned what it meant, I’d opted out of pursuing the matter further.


Neither had been willing to convert, leading to a civil marriage and to Fritz being granted a postwar transfer out of the U.S., away from a pair of meddlesome families, to a base in West Germany – in time for Fritz to work till all hours on the Berlin Airlift.

Somewhere along the line, he’d been given “Fritz” as a nickname (as many men thought to be of German ancestry were) and it stuck. Even Avice called him “Fritz.”

They’d still been in Germany when Benjamin Franklin (Binyamin) Zeller (“Ben”) was born on 30 August, 1949, though they returned to the U.S. soon thereafter.

By that time, Fritz had  risen to the rank of Captain in the new U.S. Air Force,













becoming a liaison between the new armed forces branch and defense contractors by the time Charles Evans Hughes (Chaim) Zeller (“Charlie”) had been born on 27 April, 1952.[1]


Fritz left the Air Force two years later, basically doing little more than “moving to the other side of the table” – though his employers changed, his function remained largely the same.

The Zellers had moved to the west coast to get away from the same two meddlesome Midwestern families, still making no effort to understand what Fritz and Avice had done for love. Ultimately – after two false starts in El Segundo, California  and Everett, Washington – they settled in the new Gas Hills tract in 1956, as Fritz went from liaison to “troubleshooter” throughout company locations in the San Fernando Valley, Burbank, Long Beach, Los Angeles and Orange County.[2]

They joined Temple Beth-El, a Reform congregation, which had been known as the Leighton Causeway Temple before changing its name in 1961. It was located in a mission style building it had acquired in 1946.

They also joined St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, a grand, venerable yet homey Victorian stone church (its cornerstone dated 1904) in Old Town. It was a mainstream congregation, perhaps a few degrees left of center, the church located a few blocks north and east of St. Cyprian’s, and not to be confused with Calvary Lutheran, the 1950s Missouri Synod church of wood, stucco and thick, frosted, colored  glass (not stained – more like what might be found in a perfume or pop bottle or a cocktail glass) on Signal Way, near the mall.

They celebrated Easter and Passover, Christmas and Chanukah. Both boys had had a christening and a bris, Ben, both confirmation and bar-mitzvah. It was shortly after both that Ben had put his foot down, saying he’d go to church and shul on alternate weekends, but not both each week. Charlie, however, with confirmation and bar-mitzvah coming up, remained obliged to go with Fritz and Avice to both Saturday and Sunday morning services. He’d only afternoons left over—and, with his current religious instruction, precious little of them, more often than not.

But, weekdays were another matter.


[1] The name was a concession to Avice in exchange for naming the next child either Frankln Delano Roosevelt Zeller or Eleanor Roosevelt Zeller, as its gender might dictate. One more son was born in February 1955, while they still lived in Everett, but was very sickly, and died within 36 hours. They named him Daniel Webster Zeller.

[2]  He got a bang out of the Anglia, sometimes riding to work with Dad.


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