(Marking the publication just yesterday of my latest book, Working-Class Hero)

Tom Brokaw applied the term The Greatest Generation to those who “came of age during the Depression and the Second World War, and went on to build modern America – men and women whose everyday lives of duty, honor, achievement, and courage gave us the world we have today.”

Without detracting one iota from the illustrious record of that generation, I want to draw attention to the preceding generation, that of the parents who raised these people and instilled in them the qualities and values that were so essential to their later performance.  That earlier generation, too, faced a major war in its youth, the First World War.  With far less education than their children, and college degrees a rarity, this generation faced economic boom and bust, and made career adjustments through changing times.  During the Great Depression, the greatest bust of all, they continued to earn a livelihood and to “bring home the bacon” for the fledglings of the Greatest Generation.  Many endured major career disruptions again with the onset of the Second World War, yet found themselves too old, or with too many responsibilities, to enter new career fields that opened in the postwar years of a booming economy.  Recognizing that many past generations have made enormous contributions, I will avoid superlatives and any claim to uniqueness.  I will refer to this generation simply as A Stalwart Generation.

To represent this generation, I will focus on one man, of working class background, who had a diverse experience touching many aspects of that period’s history.  His name was Jim, and he lived from 1884 to 1954.  Fig01JBca25c-copy

When Jim was about 6 or 7 years old, he accompanied his mother and father to the courthouse where they obtained a divorce.  As they left the courthouse, on the front sidewalk there was a scene in which he was asked, “Well, who do you want to go with?”   The parents started walking apart, so that he had to make up his mind quickly.  He chose his mother, but not long afterward she entered him into St. John’s Home, a Roman Catholic orphanage in Brooklyn.  Her reason appears to have been that she could not manage to raise three children alone.  Jim’s father died within a couple of years, and his mother died not long afterward, both apparently of tuberculosis.

At the age of fourteen, Jim left St. John’s Home.  This marked the end of his formal education.  In the Home’s words, he was “discharged 5/2/1899” – in his words, he “ran away”.  He took a job as copy boy with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper and supported himself in this way for the next couple of years.  He appreciated his freedom and wanted to see more of the world than just Brooklyn.  To this end he got a job as cabin boy on an ocean-going vessel.

Jim arrived in South Africa in 1900 or 1901.  He found employment in the construction of railroad bridges.  He spent much of his time living in construction camps out in the countryside.  Jim spent a total of two years in South Africa.  From there, 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 acquired an excellent command of the Spanish language

Fig14JB17b-copyAfter the United States entered the First World War, Jim enlisted in the Army.  He was above draft age at the time, but explained that enlisting was no great sacrifice for him as a single fellow, and it might spare a married man from having to go.

After the war, like many veterans returning to civilian life, he wanted to make a start on a new career better than the one he had before service.  He set his sights on becoming a lawyer.  He enrolled in night school courses leading to a law degree.  In his class were many veterans with similar ambitions.  None of them could afford to go to college as full-time students, but night school gave them the opportunity to work and earn a living by day.  As this wave of veterans neared their goals, the established law community became alarmed at the impending competition.  The state bar association managed to get a law passed requiring at least one year of full-time student residence before a lawyer could be licensed to practice.  A year as a full-time student was a luxury that few returning veterans could afford, so that was the end of that for Jim and most of his colleagues.  He then decided to turn back to work he already knew something about – the construction business.

He found employment with Stone and Webster, a huge engineering firm located in many places.  He made a significant contact with one Roy Victor (“R.V.”) Engstrom, an engineering professor at the University of Illinois,who worked part-time as a consultant with the local office of Stone and Webster.  R.V. took a strong interest in Jim.

In 1922, R.V. set up his own contracting firm, known as Engstrom and Company, in Wheeling, West Virginia.  The firm would be concerned with the construction of commercial, industrial, and governmental buildings chiefly in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and adjoining states.  R.V. invited Jim to join him as Office Manager and Secretary and Treasurer of the company, and Jim accepted.    Soon a partner was added, an engineering professor from the University of Wisconsin.  Three young engineering graduates from Wisconsin were also added, and the company was on its way riding the wave of prosperity of the 1920s.

Among this highly educated staff, Jim held his own as the most senior staff member after the partners themselves.  Given his abilities and leading performance, he might well have become a partner, but that was not in the cards because he lacked an engineering degree.  As office manager, he handled office accounts and various business transactions, and he took a leading role in contract and subcontract negotiations, cost estimating, and preparing and submitting bids.  Jim demonstrated not only competence as an estimator and bidder, but also originality – something we today would probably call “thinking outside the box.”

As the Great Depression deepened its hold on the nation, work for the Engstrom firm dwindled to essentially nothing.  One by one, the young engineers left and returned to their hometowns.  By the spring of 1933, things had gotten to the point that R.V. was foreseeing no further work at all for the rest of that year.  With hard times continuing in 1935, the firm launched a new strategy of retaining staff while cutting back salaries drastically.  By the end of the 1935-1936 school year, Jim – now married since 1925 and with one child – was ready to leave Wheeling.  It simply did not hold decent job prospects for him any longer.  By the end of August, 1936, Jim had found employment in New York City, thanks to connections and references supplied by his friends from the early days at the orphanage.

Jim’s first assignment in the new jFig25JBcnstr3ob was to oversee the construction of the Catholic church Our Lady of Mercy in Forest Hills, New York.  The duties of a superintendent were complex and, for such projects as these, a graduate engineer normally filled the position.  Jim was acutely aware of his lack of the required education.  Some examples of how this became evident:

*     *     *

 (1) When he first met with Monsignor Pendelton, head of the Brooklyn Diocesan Building Commission and a former classmate of Jim’s in the orphanage, Pendleton said,  “We’re building a church now in Forest Hills, and you can …”

Quickly catching the drift, Jim interjected, “Oh, no, I’ve never put up a building.  I’ve never even used a transit.”

 “Then it’s a good time to learn.”

Apparently Pendleton remembered or had been made aware of Jim’s extraordinary abilities to learn quickly and to do well at whatever he tried. Cov60JBcnstrEmailB

 (2) Ultimately, the superintendent was responsible for seeing that the plans and specifications on the blueprints were translated into reality on the site.  And of course there were times when the best laid plans simply could not be made real, and he then had to use his judgment on how best to resolve the problem.

The foremen and subcontractors would often come to him with questions of this nature, and he would usually say, “I’ll let you know in fifteen minutes.”   He would go into his shanty and close the door, and would reason from basic principles to decide what the answer had to be.  Then he would come out and give them the response they were waiting for.

After a long time, one of the men said, “You know, I always thought you went in and called Fig26JB37-8a-copysomebody on the telephone to get the answers to these questions.  But then the other day I was walking around the shanty and saw that there isn’t a telephone line in there.  What is it you do?”

The conclusion Jim drew from this experience was, “There’s no substitute for having a good education.”  He was sure that the graduate engineers would have known the answer right off, or would have known how to get it quickly, whereas he had to reason it out slowly and laboriously from scratch.

For the next five years, Jim was fully employed as superintendent of construction on a number of churches and schools.  This came to a sudden halt as the United States entered World War II.

 (3)Jim’s first opportunity for wartime employment was in cost accounting for the government on various defense construction operations.  He needed employment quickly because personal savings were negligible.

He had extensive previous experience in this kind of work but, once again, he lacked the required educational credentials.  As we say, “All’s fair in love and war,” and since his family’s livelihood was immediately at stake, let us briefly summarize what happened next: Jim supplied the necessary credentials and he got the job.

*     *     *

After the end of World War II, Jim returned to his work as superintendent of construction.  Before long, however, his declining health forced him to find new, more sedentary employment as office manager for a construction firm, at a reduced salary.  He had reverted to the function he had held thirty years earlier in the Engstrom firm.

After these lessons in the importance of education, Jim was determined tFig58JB53ahat his son would have the best and fullest education possible.  He started on this early, as high-school years approached.  Attempting to get the boy entered into the Horace Mann school, a pre-eminent preparatory school, he learned the importance of wealth, which he did not have.  Nevertheless, the boy attended and graduated from one of the best high schools that the public system offered – Stuyvesant High School in New York City.

Jim was also determined that the boy would receive all the higher education available, through the Doctor of Philosophy degree.  His hopes were realized as far as the Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees were concerned, but then the boy himself drew the line.

His son had grown restless to move from a learning career to an earning career.  Also, the boy considered Jim’s financial situation, supporting two in-laws and paying exorbitant life insurance premiums, all on a relatively small income in his declining years.  This situation pretty well canceled any hopes for Jim’s retirement, ever.  His son was intent on relieving Jim of any further educational expenses.  And the education already completed was sufficient to insure that the young man would never have to endure the kinds of problems that Jim had faced.


The River

People living on Wheeling Island quickly learned that the Ohio River shaped their lives in many ways, and on a daily basis.

It was their source of water, and it took their sewage.  It brought huge barges of iron ore and coal to make steel at the plants where the people worked.  It provided transport, out to the nation and the world, for the many products of the local industries.   DSC00127b2

In summer, many boaters used the river – mostly motorboats, because the currents were swift.  A beach at the north end of the Island, complete with a stand selling hot dogs and cold drinks, was once a favored site for swimmers.  The beach was strewn with flat pebbles, ideal for many “skips” off the water’s surface when thrown in just the right way.  I was a generation too late to see the dance pavilion that had once been located there, within my mother’s memory.   About 1934, the beach was closed and never reopened.  Pits in the river bottom, where gravel had been dredged, set up treacherous eddies that led to the drowning of a number of swimmers.  Swimming in the river was forbidden from then on.

This dredging was one more example of a tragic theme that characterizes West Virginia’s history and, as far as I know, continues today:  Where the extractive industries conflicted with the interests of the common people, those industries won, whatever the commodity involved – coal, oil, gas, chemicals, timber, glass sand, gravel, you name it – and whatever the cost to the people.  What industry wanted from West Virginia, it usually took.  Studying the state’s history is a painful ordeal for one who cares about its people.

Winter brought occasional ice jams on the river, sometimes rising to monumental proportions.  I could look out the kitchen window and see the piles of ice reaching well above the highest land elevations on the Island itself.  Surely they must have been scraping the undersides of the Suspension and Steel bridges.  Not a good time to walk to town.

Spring was noteworthy because of the floods that it brought.  From early times through the 1930s, there were long intervals between destructive floods, intervals in which the people of the Island repeatedly showed their resilience, determination, and stamina by repairing the damage and renewing the beauty of their homes and neighborhoods.

I was present for the granddaddy of those floods, in March of 1936.  That flood crested in Wheeling at 55.2 feet, the highest on record, and one of only five floods that have exceeded 50 feet since the year 1763.  On the first floor of our house, 6 feet above ground level, the water was 4 feet deep.  Most of the Island was at lower elevations, and some houses were completely submerged.

As the floodwaters rose, I looked forward to sailing on them in a galvanized laundry tub, but my parents had other ideas, involving a move to visit friends who lived on higher ground “out the pike.” (eastward on U.S. Route 40).  While all hands were busy carrying 36Flood95MdSt2furniture upstairs to escape the water, I sulked over their plan, retreated to write poetry in the bedroom that I shared with them, and avoided helping – at least for the short time that such behavior was tolerated.  Of course I had no concept of how the fury and power of floodwaters would affect the sailing of a little laundry tub.

The house of my great-aunts at 95 Maryland Street
on the Island.  The first floor is almost totally submerged.

My grandfather, too, had ideas of staying at home during the flood.  Taking a seat near the front door on the only dining chair that remained downstairs, he asserted, “This house is the only thing I have.  If it goes, I’m going with it.”  But he shared my fate, for my uncle and my father had other ideas.  They lifted him bodily and carried him out the door, down the porch steps, and into my uncle’s waiting car.  Grandpa, too, visited friends on higher ground.  His house did not “go.”  But the steps of the front porch did go, and his beautiful golden oak upright piano, too heavy to be taken upstairs, was a casualty of the flood.  It was dumped off the front edge of the porch for cleanup crews to haul away.  It turned out that almost every house in the block had a piano, for they all ended up dumped into the flood mud.  The back yard, now raised by six inches of flood mud, had to be completely regraded, limed, and reseeded, and the concrete walkway had to be reset at the higher elevation.  The attractive concrete steps, connecting two former “terrace” levels of the yard, no longer had any function, and had to be carted away.

A year or two before this flood, an evangelist named Lehman had built the Wheeling Gospel Tabernacle, a large one-story frame structure, on high ground near the north end of the island.  Contrary to local custom, the building was not bolted to its foundation, but depended on gravity for staying in place.  As the flood rose, the tabernacle sailed like a mighty vessel down Erie Street, clipping several houses off their foundations as it moved, and all the structures ended up as debris at the foot of the embankment to the Aetnaville Bridge.  It seems that Mr. Lehman never appeared in Wheeling again, probably a wise decision.

Cleanup after the 1942 flood

42FloodCleanupAs of 1936, there hadn’t been a serious flood on Wheeling Island since 1913.  Most of the people were willing to tolerate such infrequent flooding.  But during the early 1940s, destructive floods became essentially annual events, poorly predicted, and during wartime when few men were available for the labor of preparing for a flood, or of cleaning up afterward.  This led to a collapse of real estate values and an exodus of those who could afford to move, changes from which the Island has never recovered.

As fish returned and again disappeared with the successes and failures of pollution control efforts, the river was never devoid of life.  In the absence of fish, swarms of little black tadpoles moved along the shores, turning in summer into hordes of toads that overran the entire island.  Children – at least the boys – enjoyed catching the baby toads and trying to make pets of them.  This usually ended badly for the toads.

Through the age of seventeen, I was much at home on the banks of that river.  I walked its shores and waded in its shallows.  I blazed trail in the wilderness of the northern “Point” of the Island, as we called it – the low-lying upstream tip that was flooded every spring.  In early childhood I often swam at the beach – though memories of that involve mainly an itchy coarse wool swimsuit, unendurable until wetted.  In my teen years, I swam with friends in the calmer “Back River” (west of the Island), which was free of dangerous eddies.  River swimming was a “no-no,” and the family was not to hear of it.

Another note on wildlife: While exploring the Point, I once came across a small group of younger children enjoying a picnic.  As I passed by, they suddenly screamed.  I looked and saw an animal approaching them.  I first thought it was a rabbit, but the ears were short.
Then I thought of a small dog, but the tail was very long.  It was the most enormous rat I have ever seen!  As the children fled, the rat moved in to enjoy the feast.

Despite my enjoyment of the river by day, by night it became a fearsome thing, sending shivers through my body.  This was true whether I actually saw the river at night, with the city lights shimmering on its surface, or whether I merely pictured its daytime appearance in my mind while lying awake in a dark bedroom.  I was a grown man before I ever realized the likely cause of this reaction, which was:

One summer evening when I was about seven years old, I saw large numbers of people walking past our house toward the north end of the Island.  Without hesitation, not even telling the family, I joined the march.  Such was our feeling of safety in public in those days.  The march ended in a large assemblage of people on the former beach at the “Point,” facing the city.  As darkness fell and the city lights began to reflect from the water’s surface, I noted two men in a rowboat, equipped with a bright floodlight, rowing back and forth in front of us.  I soon learned that they were dragging a hook, attempting to find the body of a drowned swimmer.  It was a young man, a strong swimmer, who had confidently disregarded the prohibition against swimming.  He was accompanied by a friend who watched, helpless, as he got caught in a whirlpool created by one of the many dredged gravel pits in the river bottom.  The friend rushed to notify the authorities.

I thoughtlessly took a position by the tailgate of an ambulance to watch the proceedings.  “Thoughtlessly” because I hadn’t foreseen what was bound to happen.  When the body was finally recovered it was brought, completely exposed, to the ambulance where it brushed by me as I watched in horror.  At my tender age, I wasn’t ready for an experience like that.  And I believe that is why I feared the river in the darkness, a fear that I never fully outgrew.

(Photo courtesy of Frank Saporito)

Through all its changes, the river has continued to be a spectacular and powerful force.  It has remained beautiful even when mining and industrial wastes drove out the fish, and in recent years it seems more beautiful than ever.  Though the State of Ohio has adopted “Beautiful Ohio” as its official song, in my mind that song with its original lyrics will always refer not to the state, but to the river.

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


Hairstyles for a young man

Even before I was born, my father was already enthusiastic and conscientious about his forthcoming role as a parent.  Without benefit of ultrasound imaging, he pressed his intuition to the limit and ascertained that I would be a boy.  With amazing foresight, he also pictured exactly what I would look like as a child.  Armed with this knowledge, he toured the galleries until he found a portrait of me, and he bought it.  DSC00546BoyPortr2aw2

When I came into the world, the prospects were not good that I would ever become as handsome as the boy in the portrait.  For starters, I seemed to be cross-eyed, and my left foot was deformed to the extent that, as an infant, I often fell and then had to learn to walk all over again.

As the first few years went by, I quickly came to understand that this portrait represented what was a major expectation of me.  But I also realized that I didn’t have the features needed to match it.  In compensation, the one thing I could do was to accept the hairstyle.  And so I did.

This worked well until I reached the age of about five.  My whole family enjoyed my long hairstyle, and my father was well pleased with me, and terribly proud of me, for which he claimed many reasons beyond the hairstyle itself.

JRBca1932xThen, the day came when I started Sunday school.  Next to me sat a sweet little girl, who kept studying me closely.  Finally, she asked the big question: “Are you a boy or a girl?”  I appeared to ignore her, never answering her question, even though she repeated it a couple of times.  I was both mortified and furious.  Fortunately, I had been taught never to hit a girl.  So I stored the fury away until I got home, and then I let it out on the family.  I had to have a proper haircut.  Immediately.

The clippers, comb, and scissors came out quickly, wielded by my aunt, whom I called Ann, a person of 1906 vintage whom I loved as if she were the favorite sister I never had.  Soon the problem was solved, and I had a hairstyle worthy of a rising young man of the early 1930s.

But Ann then informed me that this hairstyle carried with it certain responsibilities.  The hair had to be “trained” so that it would lie flat on the head.  Bushy, spiky manes were not in style that year.  Also, I had to select a place for the part (the line from which the hair departed in opposite directions) – left, middle, or right side of the head.  And the hair had to learn to revert to that part no matter how much it was tousled.

Training was a bedtime operation requiring the use of hairbrush, comb, a strange liquid known as brilliantine, and a skullcap made from a woman’s stocking.

First, the hair was thoroughly soaked in brilliantine. This thick, green liquid apparently consisted of very long molecules, evidenced by its property of pulling back into the bottle any stream of the liquid that was hanging outside when the pouring was finished.  These molecules did an excellent job of binding the hair together in a rigid mass.  When they dried out, the hair was as stiff as if it had been run through starch in the laundry.

After careful and thorough brushing while still wet, the hair was touched up with a comb, primarily to make sure that the part was straight and sharp.  And the tightly fitting stocking cap was then applied to make sure that nothing moved during the night.  Next morning, the cap was removed and the hair combed out to face yet another rough-and-tumble day without being mussed up the slightest bit.  I’m not sure how long the training took; maybe a month.   JRBca1933x

At last, I had achieved a hairstyle that would last a lifetime. In the next few years, I would see men with long hair, but they were artists in Greenwich Village, and they really didn’t matter.  It was more than twenty years before I saw any real threat to my style, first by the ducktails and then by the incredibly long tresses of the rock-and-rollers.  But by then I had become a stubborn old cuss with no intention of changing.  And so I’ve remained till the age of 86, and am still counting.  It seems that I inherited some very stubborn genes, but not to worry – it’s clear that I passed them on intact to the next generation.  They, too, would have hairstyle issues, but mostly in a sequence the reverse of mine.

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