CHILDHOOD IN WHEELING, 1930s

Introduction

Until I was nine, I lived in Wheeling, West Virginia, as the youngest member of a household of seven – the others being my maternal grandparents, one aunt, one uncle, and my parents.  As one might think, this arrangement involved some financial support, but not in the usual direction.  My father made a good living in a contracting firm, Engstrom and Wynn, which built commercial and industrial facilities and public buildings such as schools and post offices.  My grandfather owned the house, but his health had failed and he had to quit work at a time when there was no Social Security and no Medicare.

The following photo shows our house at 608 North Huron Street on Wheeling Island.   It was built about 1916 and purchased by my grandfather about 1921.

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The two small pin oaks, planted by my uncle soon after the purchase, had reached about seven inches dbh (diameter at breast height) in my early childhood.   In 2011, they had reached between two and three feet dbh.

The shades across the porch were later replaced by awnings of the kind shown above the steps, creating a beautiful, softly  illuminated sitting area for summer evenings.

At that time Wheeling Island was a pleasant suburb of about 10,000 people, in the middle of the Ohio River and just a short walk or streetcar ride across the bridge from downtown Wheeling.  At the south end of the island, “the fairgrounds” were a site often used by circuses and carnivals.  The fairgrounds came to include a track for horse races, later converted to dog racing, and also a football stadium. Much later, the Casino was built there. On the western shore near the middle of the island, Bridge Park included a baseball field and a public swimming pool.  At the north end of the island, which we called “the Point,” there was a wilderness of low-lying land that got flooded every year.  I had many wonderful experiences as a jungle explorer at the Point.  I occasionally swam there in the “back river” on the western side, long after swimming had been prohibited in the fast-moving main river, where gravel dredging had set up treacherous eddies.

Our house was less than 150 feet north of the streetcar stop on Georgia Street.  The conductor is shown throwing the switch to direct the car, “Route 70–North Island,” southward onto North Huron Street and back to downtown Wheeling. The fare was five cents.  The other switch position sent cars of “Route 71– Martins Ferry” straight across the Aetnaville Bridge into Ohio, then northward to Martins Ferry.  The fare for points in Ohio was ten cents.

Rt. 70 North Island Car, Georgia Street nr N. Huron St 6/26/47

This car stop* made our house very convenient for the commuter into downtown Wheeling.  I also found it useful as a place to have pennies flattened on the track.

Streetcars were a comfortable and inexpensive means of travel in the city and also for surprisingly great distances into the countryside.  In daytime, one car usually passed this point in each direction every fifteen minutes. The cars themselves were non-polluting, although the same cannot be said for generating the electric power that drove them.

 I loved my extended family, the house, the island, and Wheeling, and it hurt to leave.  When I was six we spent a year at Ocean View near Norfolk, Virginia, which offered cheaper and more relaxed living than Wheeling.  The Depression had slowed down construction until my father only occasionally had a week or two of work to do, and he would go back to Wheeling on those occasions.

After the year in Ocean View, my father was employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and was chiefly involved in construction at the Warwood water works.  When I was nine, he decided to leave Wheeling permanently and seek work along the east coast.  He looked in a number of places and found employment in New York City, where he had connections with people from his childhood in a Catholic orphanage.  He was the superintendent of construction for a number of Catholic schools and churches, and that kept him busy until the war came and stopped all such activity.

After the move to New York, I spent many vacations back in Wheeling.  When I graduated from high school, not yet seventeen, I spent a year there with my aunt and grandmother, who were then the only people still living in the house. The war was on, housing was tight, and my parents and I had been reduced to living in furnished rooms in New Jersey as my dad moved from one wartime construction project to another.  We all agreed that my move to Wheeling made sense.  During that year (1944) I took my first full-time job, as an apprentice repairman for National Cash Register, at a rate of $0.4125 per hour, 48 hours per week.  (Gross weekly pay $21.45, take-home $19.14.)  There were other more lucrative job openings, but most employers were not interested in a young boy who would soon be “draft bait.”

I once had many relatives in Wheeling.  My grandfather was one of six children, all immigrants from England, and five of them spent their lives in Wheeling.  The family home was sold in 1946. My last close relative there was my mother, who died in 1990.  My last connection of all was Susan, a younger second cousin by adoption, who died in 2005 as a result of a collapsing staircase.

Even without these connections, Wheeling remains a lovely place to visit and it stirs fond memories.  Two of my sons and I have enjoyed returning there annually during nearly every one of the past seven years.

This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)


* 3:18 p.m., July 26, 1947 – Car 38 at North Island – Norman Peabody, Operator
Rt. 70 North Island Car on Georgia Street near N. Huron St. on the island
with Norm Peabody throwing the switch turning off Rt. 71. 
(Photo from William J. B. Gwinn collection – provided by Linda Fluharty)

ARRIVING IN STYLE: WEST GERMANY, 1955

When I left the meeting at the Pentagon in late June, 1955, I had everything I needed to proceed to Norway, where I would take part in an intelligence operation aboard a Norwegian sealing vessel, operating in Svalbard, a far northern island group belonging to Norway.  (The operation itself is described in my posting “Spy Ship” dated August 9, 2013.)

“Everything” included military travel orders, a security checklist defining procedures to follow and people to contact, a travel advance check, and a passport of the kind normally issued to tourists, not to government employees on official business.  “Everything” did not include an airline ticket to Europe.  We would be flying on the Military Air Transport Service (MATS).

I had met Bruce, a civilian contractor with the Office of Naval Intelligence.  While I would be investigating potential sites for large military airbases, he would study navigation conditions, harbors, and sites for ports or beach landings to supply these bases.

I had also met the other three Americans who would be joining us – all experts in electronic intelligence:  Fred, a captain in the Army Signal Corps; Doug, an Air Force captain; and Fritz, a civilian technician skilled at installing electronic devices and keeping them running.  Fritz never identified his employer; I suspected either the National Security Agency or the Central Intelligence Agency.  The mission of these three men would be to record signals from radars in the Russian mining settlements in Svalbard and along the nearby shores of the Soviet Union.

Once again, we had been warned of the need to maintain tight security on this mission.  If the Russians suspected our mission at all, particularly its electronic aspects, they could easily board our ship and send us all to Siberia, or worse.  We must appear at all times to be tourists.

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The Rhein-Main airport at Frankfurt, West Germany was our point of entry into Europe.  At that time there were two terminals on opposite sides of the main runway.  The German civilian terminal handled commercial flights.  The other terminal, operated by the U.S. Air Force, handled military flights.  It was proudly labeled “Rhein-Main Airbase, Gateway to Europe.”  The five of us were to assemble in Frankfurt and travel together by train to Norway.

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As Bruce and I were waiting to board our flight at Washington National Airport, one of our project officers came by and asked me to join him on the aircraft parking apron for a confidential chat.

Word had just been received that Fred, Doug, and Fritz had a disastrous arrival in Frankfurt two days earlier.  The passports of the first two had been stamped ENTERED – U.S. AIR FORCE EUROPE, a brand that would expose their U.S. Government affiliation at every border crossing – including the crossings into Communist East Germany — and hotel check-ins for the rest of their time in Europe.  Perhaps even worse, Fritz avoided the stamp, but only by bolting from the immigration line and disappearing from the terminal.  He was now being sought by the German police.  (As I learned soon afterward, Fritz had dashed across the runway to the German civil terminal, melted into an immigration queue to get the needed entry stamp, and then slipped quickly out of the country and on up to Norway.)

After all this bad news, the project officer was pleased to announce that measures had been taken to make sure there would be no repetition of the fiasco for Bruce and me.  An agent of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) would board our plane in Frankfurt to escort us off and make sure that our passports got the proper entry stamps by German civil authorities.

What had happened was perfectly predictable, except that nobody had thought of it.  The bosses in Washington hadn’t foreseen that a MATS flight would arrive at the military terminal, where the military stamp would be applied to all passports.

I was getting the sinking feeling that there would be no end of installments to this one continuing lesson:  Make your own travel arrangements, or beware!  After all the rigid secrecy and expense involved in mounting this expedition, we couldn’t manage to get five commercial airline tickets to Frankfurt that would have allowed our team to travel like the private citizens we were pretending to be.

And now I was further concerned that an electronic spy ship had been selected as my means of transport to Svalbard.  My own work, related to airbase construction, would not pose any imminent threat to Soviet security, but the electronics intelligence most certainly would.  If the Soviets found out what we were up to, they might take drastic measures.

Our flight to Frankfurt lasted 20 hours, including a refueling stop at Lajos airbase in the Azores.  After touching down at Rhein-Main, the aircraft taxied up to the military terminal.  As soon as the portable steps were in place, a man in civilian dress climbed to the top.  When the cabin door was opened, he stepped inside and asked for Bruce and me by name.  We came forward.  He flashed his OSI identification and asked us to follow him.  We moved quickly into the empty special lounge for VIPs (Very Important Persons).  He was curt and appeared tense.  “Give me your passports and baggage tickets.  I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

As we waited, I considered the attractive surroundings and the service being rendered, and reflected that we had “arrived in style.”  Our man returned on the dot of ten minutes.  We checked our baggage and it was all there.  We checked our passports and, yes, they had been stamped.  Stamped ENTERED – U.S. AIR FORCE EUROPE.

I voiced the obvious:  “These passports have an Air Force stamp in them.”

“That’s right.”

“But that’s just what you were here to prevent.”

“No one said anything about that.  I was told to expedite your passage through the terminal.”

We thanked him for his kind efforts and pondered our situation after he left.  It was clearly time to call Mr. Sylvester.  This code name identified us and our mission.  Bill, an Army intelligence agent in Frankfurt, answered our call.  He picked us up within the hour, and together we began a three-day process of figuring out how to resolve this latest fiasco.  Bill decided immediately that we would have to take up residence in the bachelor officers’ quarters at the airbase; any hotel in town would want to see our passports.

This unwelcome confinement was relieved by daily outings with Bill, mostly to the U.S. Consulate where we had repeated interviews and saw much shaking of heads.  We visited the basement room where documents were forged and altered, but even there the man shook his head, saying U.S. passports were too difficult to alter.  An elderly, corpulent German lady at the reception desk quizzed us daily about our evening exploits.  As we shook our heads, she shook hers too in disappointment, admonishing with a twinkle in her eye that Frankfurt was a great place to have a ball; we needed only to name our pleasures.

On one occasion, Bill took us to his office at the I. G. Farben building, the Nazi-era headquarters of the huge chemical concern, and still the largest office building in Europe.  The Allies had spared it during the wartime bombings, earmarking it as a postwar military headquarters and administration building.  In familiar Nazi style, the building dwarfed individual humans and incorporated the latest mechanical efficiencies.

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One of these was the use, instead of elevators, of endless conveyor chains in constant motion.  I have read of the “Paternoster” cabs mounted on these chains, but my experience was more primitive:  no cabs, only exposed foot-perches and handholds at regular intervals along the chains.  Regular users were rather graceful on these gadgets, but I had to make a nervous leap when a perch arrived, hold on for dear life, and leap off at the desired floor.  I had a nagging fear that this technology had been adapted from the abattoir, and that there could be a meat grinder at the roof or basement level.

On the second afternoon of our stay, Al Nicol came in from a field office of the U.S. Geological Survey near Heidelberg, some 60 miles distant.  Al was an engineering geologist of wide experience, great abilities, and highly acclaimed reputation.  As previously arranged, he would stay overnight to give me an extended tutorial on geologic field procedures that could be useful in my assignment.  But first, Al’s presence with an auto gave Bruce and me our first chance to sample the Frankfurt nightlife.  So Al kindly escorted us through a night on the town that lasted till two in the morning.  In the downtown area surrounding the main railway station, the U.S. forces had commandeered all the hotels and public buildings, and among them had sprung up a string of night clubs, beer halls, snack stands, and assorted dives that catered mainly to Allied military people.  It was a throbbing Times Square atmosphere 24 hours per day.

Frankfurt hauptbahnhof(1)         Frankfurt hauptbahnhof(2)

 Next morning, my first act was to hold my head beyond the edge of the bed as I threw up on the floor.  After a failing try at breakfast, I spent the next three hours flat on my back as Al patiently delivered his tutorial.  I would frequently grunt and occasionally even ask a question to assure him that I was still conscious.  I took in and remembered a lot more of his points than I ever expected.

Shortly after Al left, Bill returned with great news.  The passport dilemma had been solved!  The consulate would issue us new passports and keep our present ones in a safe.  After the expedition, we would exchange passports again and return home on the original ones.  I admired the beauty and simplicity of the solution, and wondered how many high-powered government officials had been needed to think of it.  If it were an option at all, this solution would have seemed obvious from the start, before we wasted several days seeking other means of solving the problem.

Before the day was out, Bruce and I moved to the luxurious Frankfurter Hof hotel where Fred and Doug had been waiting for us.  The tab of 16 dollars per day was way over my per diem travel allowance, but well worth the experience for a short time.  As we stood on the roof garden surveying the city, it really did seem fair now to say that we had arrived in style.  Frankfurt, a sprawling city of perhaps 600,000 inhabitants at that time, was fast rebuilding from the war.  Nevertheless, from our rooftop we could see in nearly every block at least one burned-out building shell or cratered vacant lot.

But we still had lots more arriving to do, specifically in Norway, and there now seemed no reason for any further stay in Frankfurt.  Correction!  Doug had a reason.  Far from his wife and small children, he had named his pleasure in the person of a female roommate whom he was not anxious to leave just yet.  And Fred, the senior member of our group, always seemed most anxious to please Doug.  So we all agreed to round out the week in Frankfurt.  During the remaining days, Bruce was mostly with a flight attendant friend he had met on the MATS flight.  Doug stayed in his hotel room.  Fred and I became tourists and sightseers for real.

Frankfurt was full of fascinating sights and sounds.  Aside from the sideshows around the main railway station, the real spectacle was the German people, endlessly energetic, working long hours six days a week.  Their average personal income was about 100 dollars per month, I was told.  Thanks to a favorable exchange rate of 4 marks to the dollar, Americans could order steak dinner for about a dollar and a half.  But it was obvious that here was an economy on the rise, and that these people would soon work their way up from such low estate.

There was one untoward effect of all this energy and ambition that I found astonishing.  This was the apparently reckless abandon with which German drivers plied the roads.  Bill had introduced me to this on the autobahn, a rambunctious scene of weaving, bumper-riding, and split-second maneuvers at breathtaking speeds.  Bill pointed out that one could easily tell the maximum speed of each vehicle, for that was precisely the speed it was going.  His explanation for this was that an entire generation nearing middle age was now experiencing its first car, hence was only in the teen-age of driving maturity.  (Maybe so, but I didn’t note much change when I came back in 1960.)  The auto accident rate in mid-fifties West Germany was about four times that of the United States, and one motorcycle owner in ten did not live to make the final payment.

One week after Bruce and I landed at Rhein-Main, we gathered with Fred and Doug in the railway station before dawn to board the express to Copenhagen and Oslo.  The trip was roughly a thousand miles and would take somewhat under 30 hours.

Shortly before reaching Grossenbrode, where we would take the ferry to Denmark, we crossed a corner of East Germany with all the train’s window blinds tightly closed.  The conductor warned that peeking could cause nasty problems with the local authorities.  Our second ferry, from Denmark to Sweden, embarked from Helsingør, Shakespeare’s Elsinore.  From the ferry we saw “Hamlet’s Castle”, appearing by its style to be several centuries too young for the sweet prince, but nevertheless picturesque.  The central wharf area of the town was overshadowed by a decidedly un-picturesque ESSO sign, the largest I had ever seen.  We slept through Sweden, and arrived in Oslo the next morning.

This posting is a selection from my book, The Cold Coasts (Kindle, Paperback, and Hard Cover)

TOURING IRAN, 1967 (II)

KERMAN

As Fritz and I flew to Kerman, we were cheered to put the miseries of Bandar Abbas behind us.  Yet we didn’t imagine how enjoyable, indeed how much of a compensation, the next adventure would be.

In 1967, Kerman had a population of about 140,000.  It is located on a broad plain near the higher margins of the Lut Desert.  At an elevation of about 5,800 feet above sea level, it presents a moderate climate of low humidity.  It is widely known for its creation of Kerman carpets, and the surrounding province of Kerman is one of the world’s leading producers of pistachio nuts.

As we arrived, the first welcome was the vast improvement in the weather over that of Bandar Abbas.  The daily temperature cycle seemed at least 20 degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler, and we were far removed from the oppressive humidity of the Persian Gulf shores.

The next welcome was in the friendly hospitality of the Colonel commanding the local regiment of the Gendarmerie.  He knew not a word of English, it seemed, nor did Fritz or I know any Farsi.  We somehow communicated, and he treated us to delicious snacks while we all waited for an interpreter to arrive.  Highlights of the snacks were a juicy melon, and pistachios from the trees growing right outside his office – slightly unripe, but already tasty and a matter of great pride to him.

Kerman-12

Of course, we didn’t mention the diarrhea that had been afflicting Fritz and me for nearly a month.  It seemed better to enjoy the snacks and worry later about the consequences.

Aside from the usual project work we did while in Kerman, the highlight of the visit was a tour of the local carpet factory.

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As we approached it, we passed through a very narrow street, an alley, barely wide enough for our auto.   Here we came upon an elderly man guiding his donkey, laden with bags that seemed to contain sheep’s wool.  Fortunately, there was an alcove where the two of them could escape from our path.

This man and his beast were definitely photogenic, but we were aware of sensitivities among Iranians regarding picture-taking.  In some cases this was a religious scruple having to do with graven images, in others it involved a wish to be paid for posing.  I felt that I could get a picture unobtrusively from the inside of the car, viewing through the windshield as shown below.

Kerman-02

Fritz, however, was far more aggressive.  He wanted to get an extreme close-up picture of the man.  He prepared his camera and leaned far out of the window as we came close.  At the moment of passing the man, Fritz screamed out “I can’t see!  I can’t see!”  My first thought was that the man had resisted Fritz’s aggression by somehow attacking his eyes.  But then I saw that the lens of the camera was missing.  We quickly stopped the car to search for it

Looking backward down the street, we saw the old man running toward us, smiling broadly, and holding the lens up high for us to see.  He brought it to us and seemed overjoyed at the opportunity to be of help.  We thanked him profusely and quickly assembled a cash gift – by now, we were feeling guilt over the bother of the lens and also over the picture I had taken surreptitiously.  All of us – except the donkey – parted in cheerful spirits.

Our first stop at the carpet factory was in the drafting shop, where an artist was preparing a new design.  He worked on a sheet of quad ruled paper, each tiny square the size of one hand-tied knot.  He started with black lines outlining the boundaries within the design, as shown in the portion near his left hand.  As shown in the remaining portions, he then proceeded to color each square, showing the color of the woolen knot that would be applied there.

Kerman-01

The sheet covered one corner of the design.  This would be sufficient for a small rug, since the one corner would be repeated symmetrically on the loom to produce the other three. In the case of larger carpets, he would also need to design the straight zones along each  side and end, between the corners.

Our next stop was in the dyeing area, where a series of large stone vats contained sheep’s wool immersed in boiling hot water, each vat containing a different dye. From here, the dyed wool was hauled out into the open air for drying.

Kerman-04    Kerman-05

The dried wool was then carded.  This was a combing process consisting of drawing two wooden paddles, each studded with numerous small nails, across each other with the wool in between. This would align the wool into straight, parallel fibers that could be pinched off by hand in bunches, each of exactly the right size to make one knot in the design.  This was the first of many tests of the weaver’s skill. The fiber bunches were approximately three to four inches long.  They were now ready for the loom.  There was no spinning for the ordinary knots – the wool was spun only to make threads or yarns for specific applications, such as the fringe or borders of the carpet or the warp threads on the loom.

We next proceeded to the weaving area, where we saw an elderly weaver studying the design charts.  He would commit the design to memory, because during the weaving his eyes would be on the knots themselves.

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He then pinched off the individual bunches – exact size critical as mentioned above –wrapped each bunch around two of the warp threads, and tied a knot.  The excess length of these bunches would produce a shaggy effect on the top surface of the carpet.

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As he wove, he chanted a song, somewhat tuneless and repetitive.  We were told that he was describing the placement and color of each knot.

We soon learned that he had an assistant, a very young girl who followed his chanted instructions to produce the symmetrical image of the design on the opposite corner of the carpet.

When my camera came out, she hid bashfully behind the loom.  I would not invade that privacy, but I did get a picture of the loom, revealing along its right edge the toes of one bare foot, one hand and forearm, and the outline of her head appearing as a vague shadow through the warp threads (to enlarge the picture, click on it once).

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After a carpet was completed on the loom, it was taken outside where a worker sheared off the shaggy wool to produce a perfectly level surface, revealing the design in all its beauty and fine detail.  A mark of skill, that merely by eye he could avoid hills and gouged valleys in that surface.  He used shears about a foot long.

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At this point, the carpet was likely to be slightly off-square and wrinkled along the edges.  A stretching machine corrected these problems in the last operation I saw of the manufacturing process.

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This entire visit had been a fascinating learning process for me.  The main point of what I learned was the extreme skill that was applied at each step of producing a carpet – even the steps that seemed simple and commonplace.

As we departed, I was reminded of one more fact:  In the year 1967, the Shah was still reigning, and his subjects often went out of their way to demonstrate loyalty to him, whether truthfully or not. In the foyer near the front entrance of the factory, a small rug hung high on the wall, an excellent portrait of the Shah himself.

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This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)

WORKING-CLASS HERO (III)

JIM IN ARGENTINA, 1903 – 1905

(Adapted from the book Working-Class Hero)

This is the period in which Jim learned his one and only foreign language, and also learned the extreme importance of pronouncing it properly.

Jim had spent a total of two years in South Africa, leaving about 1903.  From there, either directly or via a brief stay back in the United States, he proceeded to Argentina where he remained for two years.  His livelihood in Argentina was never mentioned, but it seems reasonable to assume that he continued to be involved in construction.  He mentioned two particular recollections from that period.

One was that, while being transported with a number of people in an open wagon, he was admiring a young lady seated across from him.   A large fellow got aboard and found no vacant seat except a narrow one next to Jim.  But the fellow also noted that the young lady was occupying more space than she needed, so he hauled her up and plopped her unceremoniously into the place next to Jim, saying, “Her little butt will fit in here better than mine.”  Jim was so taken aback by this behavior, not to mention the sudden extreme closeness of the young lady, that he wasted the entire opportunity in a blushing and tongue-tied condition.

His second recollection was of an evening open-air dance.  An Englishman came to join the festivity, fresh from horseback riding and wearing knee-high boots with spurs.  He started to dance and quickly got his feet entangled in his partner’s dress.  He apologized profusely in his minimal Spanish, and unfortunately added a brief explanation: “No soy acostumbrado á bailar con botas.”  (“I am not accustomed to dancing with boots.”)  His specific misfortune was in letting the English equivalent influence his pronunciation of the last word, saying bootasinstead of “botas.”  The word was understood as “putas” (“whores”), and a brother of the young lady immediately stabbed him – non-fatally, it was understood.

During his two years in the Argentine, Jim acquired an excellent command of the Spanish language, not from books but from close association with the people.  In the mid-1930’s he demonstrated this before his family on the occasion of visiting an Argentinian grocery in New York City.  Through an hour-long conversation in Spanish with the storekeeper, his speech was rapid-fire and fluent, the storekeeper understood him immediately, and his pronunciation seemed to lack any vestige of American accent, seeming quite identical in sound with that of the native speaker he was engaged with.

Jim-for-blog-WCH-III

By about 1905, the year he turned 21, Jim returned to the United States.  There is no indication that he ever left this country again.  The picture shown above is the earliest one we have of him.  It was taken in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, about seven years after he left Argentina.  He is the young fellow seated on the wagon at far left.