This account of my life describes, among other things, the many jobs and interests I pursued in my eighty years of life so far. I saved the best till last. In the last three years I have produced five books.
I always liked to write and indeed in college I belonged to a group called "The Writer's Club." But like most people I never thought seriously about writing beyond maintaining an extensive correspondence with family and friends.
At age seventy-five I joined a writing class for senior citizens and began to write short stories, reminiscences, poems and essays as my contributions to the work of the class. The class rekindled my interest in writing more broadly and retirement provided the leisure to pursue it. I used my wide correspondence and began to collect family letters, the earliest dated 1887. I talked of publishing these letters with enough family history to place each letter in its proper perspective.
Bad fortune was turned to good use when my son Leo became ill in December of 1978 and his house bound recovery period left him bored and at loose ends. His wife suggested that he act as editor to help me produce the collection of family letters and a new partnership was forged.
We imaginatively entitled this book "Family History as Told in Letters." Leo and I then took many of the short pieces I had written as assignments in my senior citizen's class and titled the book "Diamond Jubilee" since I was aged seventy-five when I began the course. There followed a book about my sister Johanna, my husband Frank and another sister, Matilda. Since both they and this volume describe parts of my family history I will quote from them where convenient and indicate this by indenting the passage borrowed and add the title of the volume.
As I begin this volume I am reminded of a practice observed in my World War II stint in a navy shipyard producing minesweepers. When a ship was ready for launching, a ceremony was held to mark the occasion. As soon as the hull was water borne another keel was lowered into its former place, not so much for practical work purposes but to indicate that the war work was to continue with unabated enthusiasm. Now that the fifth book about the family has been launched, I lay the keel of this new one about myself, Laura Larson Rooney.
The family of Sarah Jane Curtis and Olaf Larson into which I was born was the result of unlikely circumstances first set in motion by hunger. Sarah Jane, my mother, was born in the industrial heart of England after her mother's family had fled the potato famine in Ireland. Olaf, my father, was forced to leave his home in rural Sweden when the land could not support his father's growing family. These two souls were destined to leave their birthplaces in England and Sweden and migrate to the United States in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and ultimately to merge to form a new family in the anthracite coal mining town of Larksville, Pennsylvania.
They were part of the massive migration to this country at this time from northern and western Europe. In 1900, the year before I was born, the population of the United States was almost seventy-five million people with about a third of this total being first generation immigrants and their children.
As in so many families, the particular circumstances of their origin and passage are lost in the mists of history but the general outline of their story as transmitted orally to their descendants is to the best of my recall as follows.
My mother's mother was Mary Gerrity and to the best of my knowledge that family
. . . had emigrated from Ireland to Leeds, England some time prior to 1860, perhaps in the wake of the terrible potato famines of the mid-eighteen forties.
In the early eighteen forties there were about eight million people living in Ireland. The major portion of these were small farmers whose food staple was potatoes. Beginning in 1845 a deadly blight struck this crop destroying half of it that year and all of it in the two succeeding years. It is estimated that 750,000 people starved or died of fever in the epidemic that swept the country. Those that could manage it left, an estimated one million refugees. By June, 1847 alone, an estimated 300,000 Irish had landed in Liverpool, England, the largest single destination for these destitute victims, probably because of its proximity on the western shore of England across the Irish sea almost in a direct line from Dublin, Ireland's greatest port.
Leeds is quite near Liverpool. It was one of the new centers of population spawned by the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution in England where coal fields provided the source of cheap power that fueled the growth of manufacturing.
It is interesting but speculative that the . . . Gerritys were part of this famine induced exodus and traveled from Dublin to Liverpool in the eighteen forties and found employment in the Leeds coal fields.
Thomas Gerrity and his wife, the former Mary Munley . . . raised three sons and three daughters: John, Thomas, Peter, Winnie, Annie and Mary. All of these children married and migrated to the United States with the exception of Mary.
(Quoted from "Frank" book)
The three sons had all followed their father Thomas into the coal mines near Leeds and the husbands of Winnie and Annie were also coal miners. It was natural that when they came to America they sought to employ these skills to make a living in the new country and so they gravitated to the anthracite coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania. Immigrants to a new country often join enclaves of members from their country of origin and indeed the costs of their passage and of making a new start in life are often financed by relatives and friends who have preceded them.
So it was with the five Gerrity children. They located in the Rockwell's Hill section of Scranton, a tight little coal mining community of Irish immigrants, some from Leeds. They began to save money to bring their mother and father to this country but this passage was delayed by tragic circumstances that developed in the life of the sixth Gerrity child.
Mary Gerrity, my grandmother, defied the strong conventions of the time when she chose a mate. She, an Irish Catholic, chose to marry an English Protestant, shredding the biased convictions of both groups. She married an English miner, James Curtis and lived near her parents in Leeds. They had three children, William, Mary and Thomas and were expecting a fourth when tragic fortune unleashed the first blow; James was killed in the mines.
The second blow landed just two weeks after the violent death of James; Mary died while giving birth to Sarah Jane on September 15, 1863. Sarah Jane Curtis was later to become my mother.
The grandparents, Thomas and Mary Gerrity postponed their intended move to America and took care of their four orphaned grandchildren. Tragedy still stalked the Curtis family and the third blow came in the form of diphtheria that took away William and Mary.
It was not until 1866, shortly after the American Civil War, that the Gerrity parents were able to take Thomas and Sarah Jane with them to join the rest of the family on Rockwell's Hill in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
If the history of my mother's family is vague, that of my father's is more obscure. Oral tradition has it that he arrived in this country from Sweden shortly after the Civil War ended as my mother did. The year of his sailing is not recorded as precisely as my mother's, 1866. It is unlikely that they arrived in the same year but the general time period was the same.
Other differences were more profound. She arrived as a young child under the care of her grandparents to be greeted by a large family of uncles and aunts and their children. Olaf was thirteen years older than Sarah Jane, being born November 7, 1849, and so made the voyage as a young man accompanied by his brother Benjamin and his sister Bengta who were twins. No family greeted them on these shores and the presence of friends were never mentioned. As a result of their separate emigrations Olaf and Sarah Jane were now citizens of a common country but geographically they were farther apart than before, for while Sarah Jane came to Pennsylvania, Olaf came to Texas.
I clearly remember Dad saying that the place his family lived in Sweden was hemmed in by the sea in front and forested mountains in back, leaving very little farm land in between in which to raise food for the family. Thus as the older children reached maturity they had to leave home to allow the sparse crops available to be used to feed the younger members of the family.
Since I never heard the circumstances of the arrival of the three Larsons or what determined that they go to Texas, I asked my much older brother Tom if he knew.
". . . Tom said no but he thought that in those days, when immigrants came to this country, agents for different work outfits met them and arranged transportation and jobs for them. Tom was sure that that was true in the case of the three Larsons and it explained their jobs on a Texas ranch. Ma always said that Olaf didn't like Texas nor the ranch work there. He and Benjamin worked out on a prairie with the cattle, and their food consisted mainly of mutton. He could smell it roasting from miles away and he hated it. They slept on haystacks and sometimes a snake slithered out from where they had been sleeping. Olaf decided to leave Texas but Benjamin and Bengta stayed. He left and went to the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania to work in the mines. Tom thought that probably men were needed in the mines and an agent appeared in Texas looking for workers. Olaf responded, his fare was paid to Pennsylvania, and a boarding house procured for him. The cost of all this would come out of his wages later.
It must have been that way, as Olaf didn't know anyone in Larksville who could have arranged for him to come. Mr. John Rock and his wife Susannah kept a boarding house for miners and it was to this establishment that Olaf came as a stranger."
(Quoted from "Matilda" book)
Olaf and Sarah Jane had now greatly diminished the geographical barrier between them; they lived within twenty miles of each other. They were not to meet until Sarah Jane in her early teens began to work as a domestic.
Sarah Jane grew to maturity during a turbulent period of American history. It encompassed the entire reconstruction period from 1865-1876; the scandals that pockmarked the two Grant administrations from 1869-1877; the rise of the robber barons; the expansion of our railroads from coast to coast and the laying of the great base of our industrial system. Like most children she was unaware of such events and never alluded to them later when speaking to us children of her history. But she did give us some details of how she met Dad, a subject of much more practical and romantic interest to all of us.
She was working as a domestic in the Scranton home of a family named Dougherty.
". . . Another young girl named Nellie McAndrew worked in a house nearby and the two girls became friends. This new friend told of an aunt that she had in Larksville, Susannah Rock, who kept a boarding house for mine workers. She and Sarah Jane planned that on their next day off together, they'd travel to Larksville to see the aunt and incidentally the boarders.
It all came to pass as the girls had planned. They took the Laurel Line train from Scranton to Wilkes Barre one Sunday and from Wilkes Barre got a street car to Larksville. The aunt was glad to see them. After dinner at mid-day, all assembled in the living room and had a party of sorts. There was accordion playing and dancing and lots of laughter and fun.
Sarah Jane noticed one of the boarders, particularly. He was tall and good looking, very reserved and holding himself aloof from all the gaiety in the room. He stood in the doorway looking on, but he did seem to be enjoying it. His name was Olaf Larson.
Nellie and Sarah Jane couldn't get to Larksville again for several months after the first visit, but one weekend they did get there again. Again the accordion played in the evening and a party began. In the midst of all the chatter and laughing, an itinerant peddler with his pack on his back came to the door. Mrs. Rock admitted him and allowed him to open his pack in the middle of the floor to display his wares.
Sarah Jane could see Olaf standing in the doorway, as he had done on her first visit, quietly enjoying the proceedings. When the peddler displayed some change purses, Olaf left his doorway, bought a purse and went on to present it to Sarah Jane. She knew then that he was interested in her and she had known for a long time that she was interested in him. They began a conversation in which Olaf learned where Sarah Jane lived and worked and asked permission to call on her there.
He came quite often to the Scranton home of the Doughertys and they became quite fond of this quiet, Swedish immigrant and encouraged the developing relationship. When Mrs. Dougherty advised Sarah Jane to, "Say yes, if he asks you to marry him. You'll never meet a better man." Sarah Jane revealed that she was troubled about the difference in their religions. She was Roman Catholic and he Lutheran and her church forbade such "mixed" marriages at that time. Olaf solved the problem by saying, "There is only one step to take, and I'll take it." He began to take instruction in the Roman Catholic faith and in time was baptized. He and Sarah Jane were married shortly afterward and began to raise their family in Larksville, Pennsylvania.
(Quoted from the "Matilda" book)
At the time of their marriage in 1881 he was thirty one years of age and she eighteen. They proceeded to steadily acquire a large brood of children, a common phenomena of the time.
Beginning in 1882 they produced three sons in quick succession; William followed by Lawrence in 1885 and Thomas in 1886. The chain of sons was interrupted by the birth of Johanna in 1887 but then resumed with Joseph in 1891 and Olaf in 1893. They then began to balance this concentration on boys by producing four more daughters at three year intervals; Matilda in 1895; Mary in 1898, me in1901 and Ella in 1904. Of these ten children produced over a twenty two year span eight were to live to maturity; Olaf, Junior died at four of pneumonia and Ella at nine months of age of the same affliction which was the number two killer of the time.
So at the time of my birth into the family on November 12, 1901, I had four older brothers and three older sisters. Ma later told me that I was born at home in the bedroom that later came to be called "John Burke's room" after a later long time boarder. She said that Dad had wanted a boy because he thought males had a better chance to earn a living in the harsh circumstances current in the mining district where we lived. When he heard my first lusty cry, he was sure that he had his wish for a boy. When he entered the bedroom and Ma announced his fourth daughter, Ma said he tried to hide his disappointment, but she could see by his face that he was surprised and a little sorry at the news that I was a girl. Nevertheless I was welcomed and loved just the same, so it didn't matter.
Religion, as interpreted at the time, intruded its all inclusive influence when it came time for my christening. Dad wanted to name me Laura after a favorite sister in Sweden. Consultation with the parish priest at St. Ignatius Church in Kingston revealed that he found Laura unacceptable since he knew of no saint by that name and he decreed that a child must be named after a saint. He insisted on baptizing me Loretta after a saint of his acquaintance. It was too bad that that happened as Dad was deprived of having the name he wanted, and he alone, possibly because of his convert's conviction, always called me Loretta. Everyone else called me Laura, his original choice, and Laura has been my name to this day.
Catholics always choose a second set of parents for their children, called godparents, who are charged with the responsibility of looking after the spiritual health of the child if the parents die.
For my godmother, Ma invited her first cousin Mary Ann McNulty to come down from Scranton. She and her family later ran a grocery store about two blocks from where I came to live as a young married person in the High Works. She stayed close to me for the rest of her life.
My godfather was Joe Gibbons from Larksville, a close friend of my brother Lawrence. (Photo at right is of Joe and Lawrence). Joe was a light hearted fellow full of songs and stories and always ready to encourage laughter. Dad didn't think Joe was serious enough and was particularly upset when Joe insisted on carrying me the two miles to St. Ignatius Church in Kingston for the christening. Ma told me years later that Dad walked close behind Joe to watch him and to catch me if he dropped me.
He did not, and I was as successfully launched into my religious life as I had been into the Larson family
Life in a Pennsylvania coal mining town at the turn of the century has gotten a poor press. The homes of the miners and their families seem to be invariably described as dingy, dilapidated, and depressing. On the contrary, I remember my home and those of our neighbors as bright, neat and cheerful.
At the time of my parents' betrothal, Dad was living in a boarding house in Larksville and she in the Dougherty home as a domestic in Scranton. His first thought was to purchase a home to which he could bring his bride and house his hoped for family. He often said later that for three hundred dollars he could have bought any acre in Larksville including those that later became known as Larksville Corners at the center of the town. He chose to spend his three hundred dollars to buy an acre of land that was set at least two to three hundred feet back from the main street, Luzerne Avenue and closer to the mountains that border the town.
This land was reached from Luzerne Avenue by a lane that went beyond Olaf's purchase to end at a farm house which had previously been owned by a family named McGinnis who had given their name to the lane, McGinnis Street. A creek ran all the way across the rear end of Olaf's lot parallel to the lane and made a right turn to run along the boundary of his land nearest the main street. A bridge spanned this creek where it crossed the lane and Olaf made plank bridges to get across the fields and woods behind his property.
There was an old house on the lot, one of the first built in Larksville. Like most homes of this vintage it had had a large fireplace for heating and cooking purposes, but when Dad purchased it the fireplace had been torn down and its parts used to construct steps leading to the front door. There were three huge granite steps each about six feet long and two feet wide. Below these were smaller, smooth steps which had been the fireplace floor.
When I was young, I often did my homework on these steps, studying my times tables, spelling words or other assignments. Too, I often played jacks there. In the center of one of the stones there was a hole, and this was a perfect place to place the ball when playing jacks.
The front door opened on a large room which served as the main living room of the house. To the right of this room was a smaller room used for dining.
Upstairs, there were two connecting bedrooms. The steps leading up to these rooms had a huge closet enclosed under them. It had large hand made hinges on its door and an oversize lock opened by a big brass key. I always imagined it as an ideal place to hide any valuables when the early occupants suffered the Indian raids of my youthful imagination. Later Dad was to add a kitchen and a lean to shanty as well as a bedroom downstairs but it still became too small to house our burgeoning family.
In front of the house there was the largest apple tree that I have ever seen. Its trunk was easily three feet in diameter. The apples were Ramblers, a fine tasting variety good for eating or cooking or making pies. The tree was so high that many of the apples broke or were smashed as they fell to the ground from its great height. Many fell into the lane and there was always some town child out there gathering them up to take home, or eat on the spot. Many years later, a particularly hard pressed family used to send two of its youngsters each morning to gather the night's fall of apples or edible parts. When berry season came the two children appeared at our door with a generous offer of berries they had picked. My sister Mary, mistaking their motives, offered to pay for the berries. They were shocked by this and said, "The berries are for your apples."
Besides the large rambler tree, the property contained a winter apple tree, a black walnut, plum, pear and cherry tree. The bounty from these trees was always gathered carefully, enjoyed in season and the fruits canned for winter use.
We gained further sustenance from a large vegetable garden behind the house and in the rear corner of the lot a barn housed the family cow and was adjoined by a fenced in chicken run.
By 1900 my parents had five sons and three daughters crowded into this original house, and Sarah Jane was wishing that they could build a larger house on the same lot and she longed for a place with "high ceilings." Willie, Lawrence and Thomas were working in the breaker and Dad in the mines and Willie, especially, backed Ma up in her hope that a newer, larger house could be built. Work was good at the time and everything looked promising, so the new house was built in 1900 and the family moved into it and rented the "old house" to Ralph and Sadie Simoson, newlyweds. Sadie's foster parents, Muz and Jim Casmore, moved in with them
I was the first baby to be born in the new house and it was my home for the first twenty-five years of my life until I left it in 1926 to get married. I grew up happily in this house and it is the focal point for many pleasant childhood memories. It was a lovely, large house with four light and airy bedrooms upstairs connected by a "Z" shaped hall, as Elaine Law, a cousin and childhood playmate of my daughter Mary, once described it. The front bedroom had a large closet running the whole length of it and even this had a window in it. The large cherry tree in the front yard lent its shade to these front windows and its fragrant blossoms and luscious fruit enhanced the spring and summer air. Under this room was the parlor, a room used for formal occasions and its doors kept closed at other times.
The next bedroom was what we always referred to as the "bay window room," as it was atop the downstairs living room which had a bay window which it shared.
The hall which ran from the front bedroom to the "bay window room," now took a left turn to another bedroom which was my parents room and it sat over our dining room.
Now, the hall took a right turn to a smaller room at the hea d of the stairs which was over the kitchen. All of these rooms had high ceilings which Ma loved and had stipulated. There was no central heat in the house, so we spent very little time upstairs in winter. We'd undress behind the heating stove in the dining room, don warm nightgowns, and run up the stairs to bed, but not before we had knelt at the bed and said our prayers. Again in the morning when we arose, before we did anything, we knelt at the bed and said our morning prayers.
The steps leading downstairs were very steep and long because of the high ceilings but I don't remember anyone ever falling down them. When Ma wasn't around to stop us, we'd take a quilt from the bed, sit on it at the head of the stairs, tuck all the ends up around us, and make believe it was a sled going down a hill until we'd crash into the closed door at the bottom. Ma wasn't afraid of us getting hurt; she didn't want her quilts used in this way. But it was fun and every once in awhile we got away with it.
There was a kitchen in the basement of the house for use each summer. It was cooler down there and there was an entrance to it from the yard. This basement kitchen was adjacent to the cellar and was complete with stove and a tap for running water but no sink. The cellar walls of stone were whitewashed each year and I was particularly interested in the wall over the table where we ate. In my imagination, one of the stones was in the formation of what to me looked like a frog. I watched this frog as I ate, talked to him when no one was around to laugh, and shared my innermost thoughts with him. Ma didn't encourage this kind of nonsense. When I'd try to show her where he was, she'd fail to see any semblance of a frog. To her it was just a stone, or maybe she didn't want me to get carried away by imagination. My sisters couldn't see the frog either so there was no help from that quarter.
Matilda and Mary did believe, or pretended to believe, that unseen hands lurked in back of the backless cellar steps that led down from the upper kitchen and that these hands would grab the legs of the unwary as they walked down the steps. To avoid this happening, we jumped down or otherwise scrambled to keep out of reach of the hands.
There was a water boiler in this cellar kitchen, used only for cooking. My father would bring in beets, potatoes, sweet corn, or whatever was plentiful at the time, and he'd put whatever it was on the stove to boil. He'd say to my mother, "Now, Sarah, when the children ask for a piece of bread for a snack tomorrow, give them a beet or an ear of corn instead, and save the flour for bread this winter." He never wanted any of his children to be hungry. I have a feeling that he was often hungry in Sweden while growing up.
He worked all day in the mines and then he worked in the garden when he got home. He insisted on all of the youngsters in the family helping him, even I, who was something of a nuisance, according to my sister, Mary. Dad would say, "We are doing family work and Lauretta is part of the family, so she must help."
I remember being given a can with kerosene oil in it. I was to go down the row of potato plants and shake potato bugs into the can of kerosene. At the end of the work, a fire was built and the kerosene with the bugs, thrown into it. I thought that this was pretty darn mean, but I didn't say it.
In the cellar adjoining the basement kitchen, there was a big, long swinging shelf hanging from the ceiling. One time when we had company from Scranton, either Matilda or Johanna baked a layer cake for the weekend. Mary and I knew that we wouldn't be allowed to cut it, but we took it down from the shelf to look at it and admire it. We were so careful in putting it back that we pushed it too far in and it fell off the other side. We stood there aghast for a second but quickly recovered and picked the broken and crushed cake back together again. It was still warm from the baking so it went back together much easier than you'd think. When it was cut next day, no one noticed anything wrong with it, and Mary and I certainly didn't tell.
The bay window part of the cellar was used for storage. Coal was stored for the winter, wood to start the fires and vegetable bins filled with straw to hold the potatoes, cabbage and other long lasting vegetables that would be eaten in that season.
At the back corner of the house, near the cellar door, was a huge rain barrel which collected water from the rain spouts on the house. Polliwogs were usually swimming in it. From this barrel, we watered the garden and the flower beds in the dry season. A dipper was placed nearby and sometimes, when it was hot, we'd gleefully throw dipperfulls of water on each other.
Ma loved to work in the yard and kept it beautifully. Our whole lot, like our neighbors, was fenced in, and lilies were planted all along the fence and around a pump that was in the front yard. This pump actually pumped water and the family used it for different purposes. Joseph cleaned his fish there after he came from a trip to Cummings Pond; Ruth Larson, Willie's daughter, and I washed our feet there when we ran barefoot in the summer, and Ma was always watering her lovely flowers and bushes. There were wooden walks all around the house and a large front porch with a swing and chairs inviting one to sit down and rest or visit. White towels were on the backs of the chairs and swing.
In the backyard, in addition to the vegetable garden, there was a long grapevine which led down to the outhouse.
The tenants who lived in our old house next door longest in my childhood were the Simosons and I remember them and their daughter, Evaline best. When they built their own house over on the main road and moved out, my brother Willie, his wife Mame and children, Ruth and Thomas, moved in for awhile. They too moved out to a house on Luzerne Avenue.
Evaline wasn't allowed to roam the town as much as I was, but we played together a lot and I was right to home with her mother and family. If they were eating dinner when I came around, Mrs. Simoson, or Sadie as my mother called her, would butter a whole slice of bread from her home made loaf and then put sugar on it, just the way I liked it. I'd sit on the step that led from the kitchen to the shanty, and I wouldn't drop a crumb of that good bread.
My relations with Ruth Larson were more stormy.
I remember that one day she and I made a playhouse under our front porch and we got into an argument about something. We weren't aware of anyone around so were startled when we heard Dad's voice from up on the porch asking, "What's going on down there?" He was sitting in a rocking chair studying Joseph's geography book and never left the chair.
Ruth and I ran out of there fast, and Ruth ran home crying that Dad had hit her. Her mother Mame came over to our house very angry about the alleged hitting. I remember Dad being horrified that Ruth would tell such a lie and that her mother would believe her. Ruth was his first grandchild and he was very much concerned that she lied and he thought that she should be punished. I didn't get to play with Ruth for a long time after that.
Dad was very strict about the truth. One time when I had the measles, our house was under quarantine, as was the custom in those days. Mary and Matilda had to stay home from school although they didn't have the measles and Joseph, who was a senior in high school was supposed to stay home, also. But Ma told the health officer that Joseph would stay at Willies and go to school. After he left, she said that Joseph would stay home and go to school. She was sure that he wouldn't carry any germs to the senior class. But when Dad came home from work and heard about it, he said that if the health officer was told that Joseph would stay with Willie and Mame, that's where he'd stay, and he did.
In looking back on my childhood, I know that it was a happy one. I was never slapped nor hollered at and I was well cared for. Being the youngest of eight living children helped. I had three older sisters to help Ma with the chores around the house and I believe this gave me more time to play than I otherwise would have had. Also, my mother said that she learned from raising the older children that love and understanding was the better way to bring up a child. She was sorry that she had been so hard on Willie, the oldest, and had often said in his hearing that "All Willies were bad boys." This is not uncommon in families. The first born seem to bear the brunt of the inexperience and high standards of new parents but the younger ones reap the benefits of knowledge gained by experience and more realistic expectations.
Too, as is often the custom in large families, the older children are assigned to mind the younger ones, there being too much care to be borne by the mother alone.
My next older sister, Mary, often said that she had raised me, and there was a lot of truth in it. I wanted to be with her wherever she went and if I got hurt, she was blamed. She and her best friend, Aggie Muldowney, were together a lot, and of course I was with them, along with Aggie's young sister, Margaret. Mary watched over me and I depended on her helping me in any situation. I was alert to run when she did. In fact, I'd hold on to her dress while we were standing, just in case she and her friend Aggie Muldowney tried to get away. The skirts of her dresses were usually torn from the upper part of the dress and she complained bitterly.
We spent a lot of time in the woods. There were only children in the woods during the day, in those times. We were looking for berries, chestnuts, crabapples, mushrooms and even wild flowers to plant in our yard. Particularly valued in early fall were the wild grapes that grew in vines overhanging a creek of which we knew. We would bring these home, and Ma would make jelly from them. Nothing compared with the wild grape flavor, a rare delicacy.
To get to the woods from our house we had to go out the back way, cross the creek on the planks provided for that purpose, and then cross a wide field before we came to the "first woods." Then there was a "second woods" an eerie dark place of huge ancient trees. Cows grazed in the field, often watched over by youthful shepherds.
When the mines were working, all the men and boys of the town were working and were not in the woods. Ma told us that if we saw a man there, to run away fast, as he would kill us. We believed this firmly and did as Ma said. I remember seeing a man sitting on a tree stump one time, calm and relaxed and quiet. Of course, we changed direction and got out of there fast, believing what Ma said about him killing us. As we ran, I wondered to myself, why that restful looking man would kill us, but there was no doubt in my mind that he would, just as Ma had said.
When I was still quite small, three or four years old, an unforgettable thing happened in that wide spreading field, that came before the woods. There were always cracks in it leading down to the mines, but we were accustomed to them, and jumped merrily over them whenever we encountered them.
But one day, those ominous, innocent looking cracks took on a hostile threat, when they began to widen and move. We knew enough to get out of there fast and run home. Soon the whole town was alerted that a mammoth cave-in was taking place. People hastily drew water from their taps, filling tea kettle and pots, as when there was a cave-in, the water pipes might break and there would be no water. Ma quickly gathered us children together and we all ran out to Luzerne Avenue and stood on Muldowney's high porch to watch the damage. The cave-in was approaching the Larson property and we didn't want to be in the house if it was dislodged from its foundation and possible toppled into the cave. This looked probable as the hole widened and deepened.
I can still feel in my mind the terror of seeing that familiar field topple, not all at once, but in huge slices that broke off and went one by one into the awful hole. Bushes and sod slowed the break-off, but finally brute nature prevailed, and each slice disappeared slowly and relentlessly in a cloud of dust.
When the field in back of our house began to cave-in, the cows who had been grazing peacefully on the grass felt the tremor of the earth and began to run in circles. The boys who were there all day watching over the cows tried to chase the cows out of the danger zone and into the deep woods further up the hill. They had sticks and were whacking the cows, turning them in the direction of the hill, shouting at them and throwing stones and sticks when they could.
By the time the whole field was gone down, the cows were safe in the nearby woods, all except one. That was Fogarty's cow and no one seemed to be in charge of it. Their house adjoined the field and they probably kept an eye on it from the house. So Fogarty's cow went down into the mines and more remarkable, came up again.
Incredibly, she wasn't killed but her head penetrated a mine shaft while her shoulders held the rest of her body from entering. Though she was spared, the vision of a horned, wild-eyed cow's head peering into the mine shaft almost scared a miner working there to death. He had not led a blameless life, so we heard that he resolved forthwith to reform if this embodiment of the devil would not take him.
Before darkness, the caving stopped and it was deemed safe for us to return to our home. Luckily, it was untouched by the cave. But, outside our back fence, loomed a monstrous hole, about 60 feet in diameter and extending downward to the mines. Trespass signs were posted and the whole area restricted and fenced in. It stood this way for a long time, but finally, the coal company began to bring loads of culm and slate to fill in the hole. They lay tracks up to the rim of the hole and proceeded to haul loads to be dumped inside. As the work progressed, they extended the tracks toward the center, filling in as they went. They must have been running short of material to dump, because very often, good coal was spotted in the fill.
It didn't take the townspeople long to discover this, and soon the whole area was filled by people picking coal. Surprisingly, no one stopped them. As the fill dwindled, they filled it in again with more good slate and coal mixture.
Johanna was working in the silk mill at the time, so she didn't participate in the coal picking. Joseph was still in school and had a part time job with Tuck's Drugstore so he didn't pick. But Matilda, Mary and I were out there picking every day as it was summertime. We'd pile what we picked at a certain spot on the far side of the creek, and Dad would haul it to our cellar in a wheel barrow. Even Ma came out and picked at times, and Dad also.
I can't truthfully say that I was much of a picker, but I was out there every day with my tomato can which I never filled. I was attracted to what looked like the better, shinier coal adjacent to the engine tracks. When Mary would hear the toot-toot of the little donkey engine, she'd know the I was on the tracks again and come get me. There was a little boy named Stanley who was usually with me; neither of us of much help to anyone. His sister who had charge of him would beg, "Stanley, pick coal!" This became sort of a by-word among the other pickers, "Stanley, pick coal" they would say laughingly to anyone thought to be slow in their picking. It didn't take much to amuse us in those days.
Fogarty's cow was located, unhurt, and brought up on the cage, none the worse for her experience. But this part of our bucolic environment was gone never to be restored to its pristine beauty.
This was the first but not the last example I was to see of the town's coal mines, not being content to dominate life and death below ground, reach above ground too to show their power. Coal mines were the very reason for the existence of Larksville and the other small mining towns in the area. Veins of hard coal or anthracite, preferred for home heating because it produced less ash and smoke than soft or bituminous coal, was discovered near Wilkes-Barre as early as 1760. Though the town itself did not allow mining beneath its boundaries, companies began developing deposits nearby about 1810. Until about 1880 these mines were manned largely by immigrants from northern and western Europe with the Irish predominating. Then the mine operators sent representatives to central and southern Europe to induce peasants to come to the American coal fields.
Thus while I was growing up in Larksville large numbers of newcomers came to work in the mines and settle in our town. They came in largest numbers from Austria-Hungary, Russia, Italy, Poland and the Slavic countries of southern Europe plus smaller delegations from other countries.
On arrival they had the appearance of having previously lived on farms or of working out of doors. Their cheeks were rosy and pink, eyes bright and most of them were young.
As a child at that time, I saw the new arrivals as they came. They'd get off the street car, loaded down with bundles and bags and sometimes even a trunk. They were accompanied by their future "boarding mister" who had presumably met them at the boat. There seemed to be an arrangement about their coming and where they'd stay. There was usually a house where a man and his wife took boarders. The woman was called the "boarding Mrs."
. . . Leaving home and coming to a strange new country must be traumatic at the least, but to come to a mining town to work in the mines, must be doubly so. The mines, dark and dangerous, surely could not be very pleasant at best.
My father had come from Sweden earlier in much the same way and he felt sorry for these youths. When occasionally in the evening after work, one of them would sit up on the hillside above our house, playing sadly on his accordion or flute, my father would say, "That boy is lonesome."
As "children about town," we participated vicariously and from a distance in all of the doings of the new townspeople. We admired the brides in their wedding finery, saw the babies being carried to their christenings in their long, lacy dresses and shawls, and even attended funerals at times.
Very often, a professional photographer took pictures of the deceased in the coffin out in the yard and the funeral cortege as it left the house. Someone told us that it was to send pictures back home to loved ones in the native land who would want to know all about the death. We children were probably on the outskirts in some of those pictures. We were always respectful and awed by these sorrowful occurrences and I hope that our presence brought comfort to someone in a faraway land.
Most of the immigrants stayed on to raise families and became responsible and valuable members of the community.
After years of working in the mines their pink cheeks paled and their straight young bodies became stooped from rheumatism caused by working in the dampness underground and lifting heavy burdens of coal.
Some who came so hopefully to work and live in our town met with accidents in the mines or succumbed to illnesses nurtured there and that was the end for them. It must have been hard for their folks and friends in the native land to receive the sad news from so far away.
(Quoted from "Diamond Jubilee")
Many of these new immigrants boarded in a home that since it was painted white we called the "white house."
. . . . The men who lived there got a job laboring in the coal mines and saved money to pay the passage of their sweethearts so they could get married. When the girl arrived she was taken to town next day by the boarding Mrs. and a wedding outfit was bought.
The wedding took place at the "white house" and we children were interested spectators to the whole proceeding. There was music and dancing in the basement of the house and we children watched from the small windows above, looking down on the dancers and enjoying the music.
Men paid to dance with the bride. A plate was placed on a table and the men threw silver dollars on it, trying their best to break the plate. When this happened, everyone cheered and a new plate was brought out.
We never interfered nor made noise, afraid we'd be chased home. At one wedding that I remember, my older sister Matilda was asked to come in and dance and she did. We didn't know what to make of that and got so excited wondering what our mother would say if she knew, but no one ever told.
When it got late in the day and the weddeners or wedding party thought we had seen enough, the party was getting rougher and louder, the best man would line us all up on the back porch and treat us to a bologna sandwich and a bottle of soda pop.
Then he's say, "Now, all you kids go home," and we did.
Most immigrants were industrious and clean, and in time became home owners and helped build churches and schools. Their children, as they came of age, defended this country in time of war and many of their names are on the town's Honor List of war veterans posted on a well cared for structure in front of the high school.
The first to come, made a big sacrifice so that those who came after would profit. The sacrifice was not made in vain; America gained by their coming.
(Quoted from "Diamond Jubilee")
The building of our new home was to have signaled a renewed life for the unified Larson family. Instead, within two years the three oldest boys were out of the house and we were immersed in a struggle to maintain ourselves.
No sooner had we vacated the old house and moved into the new one than Willie, Ma's chief supporter for the building of the house, got married to Mame Healy and moved to a place on Luzerne Avenue. His earnings thus were subtracted from those necessary to pay the building costs of the new home. Those same costs were partly to blame for the loss of the next two boys.
The national average wage in 1900 was $12.74 for a work week of fifty-nine hours. Even this subsistence wage was not earned by the anthracite miners who in 1902 were averaging $10.09 for a sixty hour week. In May of 1902 the miners struck for a twenty percent increase in wages, a nine hour day and recognition of their union. It came to be called, "The Great Anthracite Coal Strike," and lasted almost six months from May 11 to October 23.
The mine owners refused even to meet with John Mitchell and the other leaders of this coal strike and closed the mines. The strike was finally settled when President Theodore Roosevelt, worried about the heating of so many homes in the approaching winter, threatened governmental operation of the mines in the public interest. The miners got a ten percent increase in wages and a nine hour day but not recognition of their union.
Meanwhile hard times were with the Larsons and other families of the miners. Dad, Thomas and Lawrence were out of work and there was no money to pay the ordinary living costs of a large family let alone to pay the costs of the new home. Ma's sole living brother, Thomas Curtis, was by this time a boss in the copper mines in Butte, Montana. He was married to Ella McCann and they had no children. Thomas wrote to his sister to send the two older boys out to him, and he's get them a job in the copper mines and they could send money home to help the family. Lawrence was seventeen and Thomas fifteen and they loved their home and were reluctant to leave it. But their duty was plain and so they went. Each was able to send home thirty-five dollars a month to meet the mortgage and help the family. They did this every month from 1902 to 1911 when they left to take up homestead land in Oregon.
Since I was only an infant of less than a year when all this happened my childhood memories of the three older boys are not those of one living and growing up together in the same house. I was to know Willie as a man and father of my childhood playmate, Ruth Larson. Thomas and Lawrence were my distant older brothers who had passed into manhood in faraway Montana and Oregon. I saw them only in 1910 as an eight year old when Ma took me to Butte to see them off into the vastness of Oregon and the shores of the Pacific Ocean and later on their infrequent trips home.
My views of many other relatives are also sketchy. I had never known any grandparents since Ma had been orphaned at birth and Dad's parents were in Sweden. He seldom talked about his parents but once in awhile he'd tell something about his brother Benjamin or sister Bengta who had accompanied him to Texas, or his sister Laura, for whom I had been named.
I imagine a large part of his reticence can be explained by what happened after his marriage. Previously, he had maintained a correspondence in Swedish with his family both in Sweden and Texas, but when he wrote to say that he was marrying an Irish Catholic girl and was converting to that faith, all correspondence stopped. I would guess that his hurt at this severance of ties was profound and inhibited his remembrance of scenes now tinged with bitterness.
In 1911 after thirty-one years of silence, Dad received a form letter from a home for the poor in Muskegon, Michigan. One Bengta Larson Hansen had applied for support from them and as part of their routine they had asked her if she had any living relative who could supply such aid. She had listed Dad and her last knowledge of his whereabouts in Larksville, Pennsylvania.
Correspondence between brother and sister at last resumed. Here is a copy of the only one saved:
We received your letter yesterday and are pleased to hear you are comeing to live with us. the children are delighted to know they have got Aunty. Johanna our daughter rote the other letter and I thought I would write those few lines to you myself. Olof, your brothers eye site is very poor. he has had the rhumatic so bad but he will try and write a few lines and will meet you if we knowed what way you are comeing and what times we would like to have you for Christmass.
Mrs. Olof Larson
Our girls names and age
Johanna 22 years
Matelda 16 years
Mary 12 years
Laura 10 years
and our boys names
William 28 years old - married
Lawrence 26 years away
Thomas 24 years away
Joseph 20 years at home
Little Olof died when 4 years old
(Sarah Jane, characteristically, felt so bad about Ella's death that she does not mention her in this letter and always refused to discuss it.)
Olaf Larson's letter to his sister was written on the back of letter three. He wrote it partly in Swedish and partly in English.
Askade syster Bengta
jag war glad att hora fram dig vi har pyra _____ odi en. one boy at home and one is married and living the negst house. and there is tow in Oregon. they took up Goverment land last sumer. I am not just to writing so I will conclude by wiching you to come as soon as you can. I remain your brother Olaf Larson.
(Above are letters #3 and #4 in the "Blue Book")
In contrast to my father's reticence, my mother talked a great deal about relatives on her side of the family and I felt that I knew them. Johanna told me once that she was three years old when Ma's grandmother Gerrity died, she remember seeing Grandmother on the side porch of the old house, peeling apples. This would have been about nine years before my birth.
Ma told me that she used to visit her Grandparents and aunts in Scranton and they visited her in Larksville but that was when Willie, Lawrence and Thomas and Johanna were small and before my time. Ma said that one time when she went to Scranton to see them, she had a baby with her who had a bad cold. Her grandmother told her not to worry about them as they were old and getting along all right, but Ma's children were small and it was better that she not travel with them and that grandmother would come to visit in Larksville, instead.
Not long after that, before she could make that promised visit, Dad had gone out someplace and Ma was expecting him back. Willie was with her, but the smaller children were in bed. They heard steps coming up the front stone steps of the "old house" and Willie said, "Here comes Dad." But instead, a knock came to the door; Ma opened it, but no one was there. She closed it, and then the knock came again. She didn't open it the second time but said to Willie, "I hope the knock comes a third time, and that will knock the harm out of it." The knock did come the third time and next morning they got word that Grandma Gerrity had died the night before. Ma always thought that her grandmother had come for a visit one last time.
I knew at least one of the Gerrity sisters, Annie Coursey. She was Ma's mother's sister and the only one alive of that family generation, but there were grandchildren of course. We used to visit Aunt Annie often in Scranton in the High Works section, where she lived with her two sons, Steve and Mike. They worked in the mines, neither married, and both died before their mother. She came to live with us in Larksville for three years before she died, and she willed her house to Ma, the same house that I later lived in.
To Aunt Annie, we Larsons were always "Sarah's children." She'd buy material for us to sew and she'd tell Steve and Mike to give us change for the movie down on Providence Square about a mile away. The "boys" as she called them, slept upstairs and there were no stairs to get up there, just a ladder. She'd call them to get up for work by hitting the ladder, bang, bang, with a big club. Two railroads ran through that section and she knew the time of all the trains. I'd hear her telling them that such and such a train was long gone, and they'd better get up. Before they left for work, they'd stand at the door with their caps in their hands while she gave them her blessing.
When we visited, she would take us calling to have us meet her friends and Ma would worry about how we were dressed or how we looked, hair combed and wearing our own clothes. This latter requirement was caused by a peculiarity of Aunt Annie. She had the habit of taking the dresses in which we had arrived and carefully storing them for us to wear again when we went home. She would put one of her large blouses on us and pin it up all around.
This peculiarity of hers was matched by one we Larson girls shared. Inexplicably, to her, we wouldn't eat bread, the staple food of most homes. We preferred instead to eat crackers. She would tell all her friends that Sarah's children loved soda crackers, and she had to get them in from the store when we visited. Our eccentricity was not that we liked soda crackers but that we didn't like the way she made bread. We preferred our own mother's bread to all others.
In those days baker's bread was a rarity. When a family ran out of bread, they'd borrow a loaf from a neighbor and then return a loaf when they baked. Ma used to get so mad at us when we wouldn't eat bread from certain homes and she'd have to feed it to the chickens. We didn't say much, but we had our own preferences and reasons.
In 1900 the average life span was 46.3 years for men and 48.3 years for women. These figures were greatly reduced by the high number of children who died at childbirth, sixteen percent did not survive their first year alone. The nutrition, medicines and medical knowledge was not nearly as advanced as today and children were particularly vulnerable. Pneumonia is not a widespread threat today but at that time it was the second greatest cause of death. It felled two of the Larson ten children, Olaf at age four and Ella at nine months.
I was particularly fortunate then to escape the many diseases of childhood whose consequences could at that time be far more serious than today. The only such disease I remember contracting was measles and my case was severe. Ma thought I was dying and her Irish superstition bubbled to the surface. She believed that if she bought something new with four legs and could get me to accept it the spell of death would be overcome. She dispatched Johanna to the store to buy a small table about half the size of a breadbox. She wanted me to grasp it with both hands but in my fever, weakness and semi-delirium it was quite a struggle to accomplish. At last she succeeded and later traced my recovery to this intervention.
Ma came by her superstition honestly, having been raised by her grandparents both of whom believed in ghosts, fairies and a wide variety of magic. Great Grandfather Gerrity had a habit of sweeping around the hearth of his home, arranging the chairs and leaving the door open at night before he went to bed so that if any poor soul should be passing through the night, it might come in and rest at the hearth.
With my health restored I became quite fond of this little table and its final disposition illustrates another characteristic of my mother. When another young child became severely ill in the neighborhood, she gave it to his family to take advantage of its mystical properties without even a by your leave to me. She gave freely of anything there was around the house regardless of whether it was hers or it had been given to her as a gift. The fact that the child died did not disturb her belief in the superstition but was probably explained by another nugget of magical information tucked into another recess of her mind.
My suffering with measles was only a short term illness but perhaps my greatest affliction in childhood was culturally determined and lasted longer. I was the only one in the family to be born left-handed. Ma called me the "Kithoger" which in Irish means left-hander and at first she didn't worry too much about it. But Dad thought that it would be a handicap when I got old enough to work in a mill, as most daughters of miners had to do when it came time to earn a living. Ma said that Dad would tie my left hand up so I couldn't use it when eating. I'd drop the spoon and try to pick it up with my left hand, so he finally gave in and allowed me to use my left hand freely.
As I got old enough to understand, Ma would tell and retell the story of the left handed girl who was fired from her job in the silk mill and told to go home until they got in some left handed looms.
When I started school, the first grade teacher, Miss Buskirk made me write with my right hand by hitting me with a ruler when I didn't. To this day, I write with my right hand but I have never forgotten Miss Buskirk's mean treatment of a child not yet five years old. I'm glad that left-handedness is accepted in the schools today.
The first job I remember having was one of baby-sitting in reverse.
When I was about three years old, an old lady, Mrs. Loftus, and her daughter, who was called Miss Delia, lived at the end of our lane. The mother was blind and she smoked a clay pipe.
When Miss Delia had to be away from the house for an hour or two, she'd ask my mother to send me over to stay with her mother. I had instructions to run home and tell my mother if anything went amiss.
Mrs. Loftus and I had worked out a routine for these occasions when we'd be together. In the Loftus house there was an old wooden door nailed to the floor so it wouldn't slip. I'd lead Mrs. Loftus to this door and she'd get on it and dance an Irish jig for me. She knew the dimensions of the door, and could stay on it and also hear her feet tapping out the steps of the dance. I'd stand next to the door while she danced and sing my version of an Irish "Come All Ye" or rhythmic beat and clap my hands.
Then it would be my turn to dance while Mrs. Loftus would sing and clap the rhythm for me. When I was finished I'd take her back to her rocking chair and she'd light up her pipe and smoke while she rested. She'd let me take a few puffs on the pipe also.
We enjoyed being together. When Miss Delia returned from her errand, I'd go home. My mother would ask, "What did you do over at Loftus'?"
I'd reply, "Sing, dance, and 'moke a pipe." I couldn't yet say "smoke." My mother knew what I'd say; she just liked to hear me say it.
In later years, after I had learned to read, I often read lurid dime novels to Mrs. Loftus from Miss Delia's big supply of them. I didn't always know what I was reading about, but Mrs. Loftus loved to hear the stories. But I don't think we ever recaptured the unrestrained joy of that earlier time when I sang, danced, and 'moked a pipe with her.
I was never paid for this reverse baby-sitting and did not expect be so. Children did a lot of tasks then just as their contribution to the general welfare and did not expect compensation. However, we younger Larson children did have a source of enormous riches. When it was payday at the mines, we each received a whole penny for ourselves.
My father indulged in a little ritual at the time of our receipt of this penny. He . . . .
would talk quietly to us on the wisdom of saving and not running out to spend money as fast as we got it. We'd look at him solemnly and in agreement and ask him to put our penny up on top of the door jam, our bank in those days. We would then sit in seats around him while he read the daily paper and nod our solemn agreement with this wisdom as we watched him.
After a short interval, Dad would put the paper down, get the penny down for us with a smile and off we'd run to the candy store down the street.
There on display was a case full of dishes of penny candy, some one cent each, or two for a penny or even more, depending on the kind of candy.
We would stand on a box put there so we could see into the case and then endure the agony of making a choice.
Mrs. Poland, the candy store lady, would stand there patiently waiting for us to decide. It was so hard and took so long.
I liked root beer barrels and they were four for a cent, a good buy, but no, licorice straps were tempting.
In the end, after looking the whole case over, I chose coconut blocks as Mrs. Poland knew that I did every pay day. But it was fun to prolong the pleasure of spending a whole penny.
(Quoted from "Diamond Jubilee")
This candy store was run by a Polish immigrant family appropriately named Poland. Much later when Ma told Mrs. Poland that I was getting married she gave Ma a candy dish from her store as a wedding gift for me; she knew that it would be significant for me. My son Leo still uses it for its original purpose in his home.
When adults search their mind for childhood memories, holidays with their customs and treats seem often to stand out clearly.
I remember most vividly out of many Christmases, the one when I was five years old. It was snowy and cold that year, but that didn't stop our family from carrying out all the old traditions of other years. My father had come from a large family in Sweden and he continued the custom of that family in the raising of his family in this country.
Each year we all went together to the woods to cut a Christmas tree and bring home ground pine to decorate the house. Dad would take us all to the woods further on than we usually went to a place called the falls. Dad said the Swedish custom was to gather a tree and greens to decorate the house. He said that they didn't decorate the tree in Sweden, but he allowed us to do so.
We always sang when coming home with the tree. In fact, we sang no matter what we were doing. Ours was a small mining town where many miners had emigrated from Wales, and they brought with them their love of music and singing. We joined them in this custom of young and old singing together.
Another tradition that my father carried over from Sweden was that of the whole family going to early church on Christmas morning It was still dark when se set out for five o'clock mass that Christmas morning that I remember so well. We had to walk the two miles to the church, as no street cars ran that early in the morning. The snow was deep and it continued to snow.
There were five children at home that year and I was the youngest. My father took the lead to break a path for us to follow in line according to age. My mother was second in line and I being the youngest and the smallest, was on the end.
When we were about a quarter of a mile from the house, plodding along in Indian file, three drunken men appeared walking from the opposite direction. They had probably been out celebrating all night and were just getting home. They spoke to my parents in a foreign language, seemingly wishing them a Merry Christmas, and then stood aside to let us pass.
When I came floundering along at the end of the line, the three men, in a spirit of mischievousness or malice, kicked snow all over me. I was surprised and frightened but made no outcry. I put my head down, hunched my shoulders and tried harder to keep going and not lose those in the procession ahead of me. The snow was deep and all of them had a hard time to plod along. I managed to keep going and it wasn't until we reached the church that I told my parents what had happened to me. I was covered with snow and some of it had seeped down my neck and back. I was cold and wet and tears had frozen on my face.
I was asked by everyone, "Why didn't you call us?" The indignation and concern of my family over what had happened compensated a little to me for the experience I had suffered. The attention I got then and later in the day more than restored my good Christmas spirits.
When we got home from church and had had breakfast, my mother lit the candles on the Christmas tree, and under it, I discovered a doll and carriage for me from Santa Claus. I forgot about the cold and the snow and the bad men who had kicked snow on me and I had a very happy day with my family.
It's interesting to see how habits of mind get formed. Dad has said he knew the man who had kicked snow on me and that he would speak to them about it at work the next day. He said they were Russian miners who boarded at a place we called the "White House" because of its paint color.
From then on, any time I heard of something bad being done in the town, I'd tell my playmate, Evaline Simoson, that the Russians had done it. I don't remember telling any one else that, probably knew in my heart that it wasn't so. But it was fun pretending, and Evaline entered into the spirit of the thing. I recall a murder in town at the "White House," blood all over the white paint on the side of the house, and Evaline and I looking at it, and saying that the Russians had done it.
If childhood is that time of your youth when you are carefree and the struggles and sorrows of the world do not impinge on your consciousness, then I recall the last day of my childhood quite clearly. It was September 10, 1912. I was ten years old and my oldest sister Johanna was twenty three. Our age difference at the time created a gulf, with her pursuing her adult interests and me playing and going to school. Our interest merged that day because she was going to Dushore, Pennsylvania and I was to accompany her. She was engaged to George Saxe who lived on his family's farm near there. Johanna was to go to the county fair in Wyalusing with him while I stayed with his mother. In all, we planned to be there several days.
Dushore was a three hour train ride from Kingston and we would take a trolley to Kingston. Trains and trolley cars provided for most public land transportation in those days. In 1900 there were only 8,000 automobiles registered in the entire country and since their average cost was $1551 dollars, or more than three times the average man's yearly salary, they would remain a novelty for some years to come.
Friends of Johanna, another branch of the Saxes, lived across the road from George's parents. These friends also went to the fair, taking their two youngest children with them, and leaving two older children home to play with me. They were Kathleen, ten, and Allie May, nine.
Supposedly, Mrs. Saxe was in charge of us but Kathleen, Allie May and I had a wild day of unsupervised play. Kathleen took charge - a rare opportunity to show me, a miner's daughter, how farm children lived.
Kathleen showed me the barn, lit a lantern so we could see it better, disregarding all that loose hay and flammable materials. Then we climbed up into the haymow and jumped until exhausted, scattering hay all over the place. Then we chased and corralled a cow so Kathleen could show me how she could milk it. Tiring of all that activity, we walked slowly up the road so she could show me the house where Johanna and George would live after they were married.
We sat on the porch there and ate apples after we chased the bees away from them. While sitting there enjoying the apples, we spied a horse and buggy approaching going in the direction of the Saxe house. We ran out and hitched a ride on the back of the buggy. This was fun for the young man driver so he got the horse to run fast and threw us off.
I had the wind knocked out of me and lay where I had been thrown until I could catch my breath and get up. Kathleen was way ahead of me. She was running down the road shaking her fist at the driver.
We finally walked to her house and sat quietly recuperating, but not for long. Allie May was there waiting for us and threatening to tell their mother on Kathleen. But soon she joined into the spirit of the day and came with us while Kathleen showed me all over the house. We played the piano and ended up powdering ourselves at her mother's bureau. We even powdered our bare feet and legs.
After this hectic day, we reported to George's mother who gave us supper and put us to bed in a small room adjoining the kitchen in her house. She had been busy all day making apple pies and probably making things look nice for the eyes of Johanna, her future daughter-in-law.
I was asleep when Johanna and George returned from the fair that night. I was awakened early the next morning to be told that our father had been injured in the coal mines where he worked. We were to get the early morning train home and George would take us to the railroad station.
Evidently a lot had happened while I slept. The Saxes had no phone but a call had come to a neighbor with a message for Johanna. Her father had met with an accident in the mines and she and Laura should come home immediately. The neighbor rode his horse over to Saxe's and the message was waiting there for Johanna when she returned from the fair. Plans were made then for our return next morning but I knew nothing of them until I was awakened and told to get ready to go home. I wondered why Johanna was crying.
Our brother Joseph met us in Kingston and told us that Dad was dead. Johanna was crying. Joseph leaned down to tell me. When he said that Dad was dead, I remember saying, "No, he isn't."
(Quoted from "Johanna")
But all my wishes couldn't change the fact that he had been killed by a runaway coal car in the mines the previous day. In retrospect my hectic activities of that day with the Saxe children had been a frantic explosion of youthful energy as if I unconsciously knew that I would never be so happy and carefree again.
Johanna and I came home to a house full of preparations for Dad's funeral, relatives coming down from Scranton and the unaccustomed sight of sisters, Mary and Matilda, wearing new black dresses for the first time and black hair ribbons. Ma said that I'd wear my white dress, since I was only ten years old, but I wore black ribbons on my braids. The black ribbons were a slight symbol of my sadness which did not end with his funeral.
I remember how lonesome I felt when I heard the colliery whistles blowing and knew that Dad wasn't coming home with the other workers, but I can't recall ever mentioning it to anyone. I'd look at his place at the supper table, empty now, and suddenly the supper didn't taste so good to me.
I was very inarticulate in those days. When I returned to school after the funeral, Miss Jacobs, my teacher, took me aside and told me how sorry she was and that all my classmates were sorry also. I just stood there looking at her and had no answer.
The Kingston coal company gave the Larsons four things in compensation for Olaf's death. First, they delivered his unwashed body to the kitchen floor of our house. Second, they gave Joseph a job in the office of the coal company. Third, they brought a winter's supply of coal to heat his widow and orphans through that coming winter season and dumped it on Ma's flower beds. Lastly, they gave her four hundred dollars to bury her husband.
From 1900 to 1933 more than fifty thousand miners were killed in this country and more than a million were injured. Between 1880 and 1936 about forty three thousand miners were killed in Pennsylvania alone. At the time of Dad's death we had become the world's first industrial power. The key industries which fueled this growth were mining and steel making. Its workers, especially the immigrants, paid a heavy price for this pre-eminence.
Any industry that could employ boys as young as eight years old to work in the sooty screening room of a coal crushing plant, called a breaker, separating worthless slate from coal for twenty five cents a day, could not be expected to care much for its older workers.
In March of 1982, the Newark Star Ledger published a story about my friend, Ruth Hostler, and myself telling about the various books we have written and mistakenly describing mine as being about my childhood in Larksville. One result was to prompt Joseph A. Cherney, a former resident of Larksville, to begin a correspondence. He has an extensive collection of mining books and mining artifacts. He sent me a xerox copy of one of the pages from a report of the department of mines for 1912 which listed my father's death.
The page is numbered 356 of this report and is labeled Table 4 - continued. It lists information about the men killed in the mines in Luzerne County in the six month period from July to December, 1912. In this superficially drab form it reveals that on September 10, Olaf Lawson (sic) was killed, he was Swedish, aged 63, married, left a widow with 3 (sic) orphans, worked in the Kingston No. 2 colliery and was fatally injured by cars on gangway in the last part of the table calling for the "Nature and Cause of Accident in Brief."
A closer study of this page reveals that twenty men were killed in the mines in Luzerne County in that six month period. The column that calls for "Nationality" lists only one American so presumably it identifies their country of birth. Eight were listed as Polish, two as Lithuanian, two as Russian and single representatives listed as Irish, Swedish, English, Austrian, Slovakian, Italian and Welch. This cross section of nationalities suggests the composition of the miners at the time, heavily immigrant, especially from central and southern Europe. At the time of Dad's death, the company attributed his accident to his age which was sixty-three, saying that a younger man would have jumped out of the way of the runaway coal cars. Their case is weakened by the fact that the cars left the track and pinned him to the wall, a nineteen year old died in the same manner in same colliery on July 16 as reported in the table. Seven of the twenty men listed were killed by coal cars and five of the dead worked in their mine (of the nine mines listed in the report). Fourteen of the dead were listed in one column as being married and in another as having left one widow each. Unless bigamy was rampant a not unexpected result unless they were widowers. Thirty three orphans listed, an underestimate in Dad's case, unless they were talking of those under age eighteen, but the figure does give some indication of the wider effects of the fatalities in stark tables.
In our case, our life style changed in many ways after Dad's death. Ma "took in" boarders, two young men from Ireland, John Burke and Dan Prendergast. They had been boarding in nearby Pringle Hill and worked in the mines with our brother, Willie.
It was rumored in those days that the people in Pringle Hill burned their houses down for the insurance. Sure enough, when John and Dan were boarding there they came home one morning from working on the night shift and found all of their belongings were neatly saved outside, but their boarding house was burned to the ground.
Willie asked Ma to take them in as boarders and she did. It brought a little life into the house which had been quenched when Dad was killed, and also their board money put food on the table, enough for all. John Burke was to stay with us for almost twenty years, but Dan moved on to Chicago after several years with us.
My mother was determined to hold on to her home, pay the taxes, and get her winter's coal in each year. The way to do that was for everyone to work, and that's what we did. That doesn't mean that it was all work and no play. We still had a happy home, lots of fun and cheerfulness, but each one contributed in some way to the maintenance of the home.
Being the youngest, my part in this effort wasn't equal to what the older ones were doing, but I feel that I did my share as well as I could. At home at this time were Johanna, Joseph, Matilda, Mary, Ma and me.
Joseph worked in the office of the Kingston Coal Company while Johanna, Matilda and Mary worked in the silk mill. I went to school but worked in the summer. Ma worked when she could and there was always someone coming or going to some job. That's when a neighbor, Jammers Rowland, made his remark about the Larsons always going in and out the lane with their bloody suitcases.
That first summer after Dad died, I picked strawberries up at Dare's farm for one cent a quart. My daily stint was twenty five quarts, no more no less, and I'd proudly take the quarter home to Ma.
My friend, Evaline, also picked strawberries and we talked our usual nonsense together. There was one special patch where we were not allowed to pick. The berries were larger there, and we grumbled about it. Evaline told me that the Dares had dynamited that section so the berries would be larger. We never wondered how dynamiting would accomplish this feat.
The next summer, that of 1914, while the leading nations of Europe drifted into World War One, I went with Ma to a resort hotel in the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania where she was to work in the kitchen. I had just finished grade seven and was twelve years old so was too young to qualify as a waitress. But I was allowed to accompany Ma and earn my room and board by doing light but numerous odd jobs. Miss Minnie Hooker was in charge of the help at the hotel called the Mountain House, and she found plenty for me to do. Every morning I swept the three tiers of porches which surrounded the hotel. Very often Miss Minnie stood on the top tier and called to me to do this and that, pick beans in the garden, take something over to the cottage, or go over there and get something, or go to the laundry room and iron some napkins. Her frequently shouted orders prompted guests to ask, "Who is this Laura, anyway?"
(Photo at right is Miss Minnie. At left, John the night watchman, Ma, Patrick the fruit man, Bridget the laundress. Is there a little girl standing on the third tier porch? Click on the thumbnail to see.)
Ma worked in the kitchen with Tony, the Spanish chef, and the kitchen help and waitressed were all afraid of him. I ate my meals in the kitchen with Ma, and Tony would heap my plate up with good meat. I didn't care for much meat but ate it because I was afraid not to.
There was a trio of musicians, two fiddlers and a piano player who played for the diners each evening. They were from New York City, I believe, and were excellent at their craft. They considered themselves a cut above the rest of the hired help and wold not mingle with nor even deign to speak to us. Every night after dinner this trio adjourned to a large adjoining recreational hall where they played music to dance by for the guests. Though uninvited, I with Beatrice, the head laundress and a few of the waitresses, would huddle in the adjoining darkened laundry and enjoy the festivities from there. The Hookers knew that we were there but didn't mind as we kept very still. It always gave me great pleasure to hear Mr. Ed Hooker sing "Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny" which he did every night.
The Hookers utilized this nightly entertainment to further their campaign to find a suitable husband for their niece Ruth. She had reached the advanced years of her early thirties which was old at that time for a girl who was still unmarried. Failing to find a mate for her among the guests they frequently invited eligible army officers who were stationed in nearby Tobyhanna. I think we semi-secret observers of these nightly revels were smuggly pleased to note her lack of success with either the guests nor the officers. She was universally disliked by the help. She kept herself aloof from any contact with them and from the work of the hotel. Her snobbery drew a tight circle around those she thought good enough to associate with until finally it included only her.
I had the feeling of one entering the larger outside world the next summer and my whole being was taken up the the thrill of new experience.
My mother had a chance to work as housekeeper for a private family at the shore in Belmar, New Jersey, that summer and she was allowed to take me with her. A Wilkes Barre judge whom Ma knew had a daughter named Wirtz who was spending the summer at the shore and needed a housekeeper and someone to care for her two children, William six and Louise three. Johanna was left in charge at home to take care of our boarders while she and Matilda continued their jobs as weavers in a mill.
My sister Mary was sixteen years old that summer and she got a job as waitress in a nearby hotel. I remember how surprised I was to see her "put her hair up," no longer a braid down her back. She told us tales of fights and knife fights among the blacks who worked in the kitchen, police raids, and excitement, but she personally never became involved. This was all very new to us small towners.
That summer in Belmar marked the first time that Mary and I had seen the ocean. I can still recall my delight at my first view of it. The waves that day were large, high and dashed for the beach with white foamed tops.
Too, I learned how tasty fresh caught fish from the sea could be. Even now, I enjoy stuffed flounder and order it whenever I dine out.
Nearly every day, I took the Wirtz's children to the beach where we played in the sand, watched the waves come in, collected sea shells or just sat doing nothing, possessing our souls, as it seemed to me.
There were other pleasures not connected with the sea but equally new to me. On some days we walked to a nearby lake to feed the swans who swam there. I had never seen swans before, and it was a treat to me to see these beautiful, white creatures who moved so gracefully. Each evening at the dinner hour German band came and played at a grandstand on our street corner. I loved the music that they played and eagerly awaited their arrival each evening. A nice boy delivered our groceries each day. I never spoke to him, nor did he speak to me, just a smile and a nod, but I was aware of him and liked to see him. This was a pleasant step in my growing up process.
I find it remarkable that my store of new and delightful memories of that summer are marred by two unkept promises by Mrs. Wirtz. It underlines the disproportional disappointment adults can cause young people by making thoughtless promises. When unfulfilled by the short memory of the adult can be long remembered by the child. Though I was to receive no wages for my care of William and Star, only room and board, Mrs. Wirtz promised to reimburse me for my fare to Belmar and return, but she never did. She also promised to give me a lot of middies, blouses and shirts culled from her two sisters large wardrobes. I planned how nice I would look wearing them when I began my freshman year in high school in September, but the never materialized either.
When it came time for us to return home, I found I had one last disappointment and it wasn't caused by Mrs. Wirtz. It would be no trouble for Ma and Mary to return but the entire state of Pennsylvania put up a barrier to me. That summer an epidemic of poliomyelitis had raged throughout Pennsylvania. Seeking to curb its spread, any youngster under fourteen years of age had to product a certificate of good health to enter the state. That way new cases wouldn't enter their borders. We saw guards patrolling the trains from the New Jersey short going to Pennsylvania. With some delay, I got such a certificate and once more my home state embraced me within its bounds.
By the summer of 1916 I was fourteen and ready to enter the adult world of work. I wanted a job beyond picking strawberries in their short season and beyond jobs that only produced bed and board such as at Hookers or Wirtz. Margaret Muldowney was quitting school that year though I wasn't. We both swore we weren't returning to school in the fall, though one of us lied, and we were given jobs at a cotton mill in Wilkes Barre.
Each of us was put to work on a spinning machine. This had sixty ends that we had to keep "tied" when they broke. This tying was accomplished by a quick rub of the two ends between the hands because the raw cotton coming from large cans in the back of the machine was reduced in size from about an inch in diameter to a stronger thread while in the machine but they were still too weak to be put under strain.
It was hard work and I hated it. I was never forced or told to get a job in the summer but once I had one I was expected to keep it until time for school again, and I always did this.
I improved my lowly status in the work world that next summer but only somewhat. Ma left me with her friend, Mrs. Dougherty in Wilkes Bare to work for three dollars a week and to be in the charge of Mrs. Dougherty. This was better than the mill but I missed Ma and Mary and Matilda who had gone to the Poconos to work for the summer. I was too young to accompany them yet.
Additional compensation on the job came to me in the form of a natural fringe benefit generated by the job.
Mrs. Dougherty's son was a dentist and he fixed all my teeth that summer. One of my chores each morning was to wash up the floor in his office and dust and get the place in order for the day. I washed the towels he used and put them on the line to dry in back of the house. He had a picture on the wall in his office that I liked to look at and wonder about. It was a woman's head in profile, and her hair fell to her shoulders in the shape of a question mark. A curl at the end formed the dot at the base of the query. The doctor was "up in years" but had never married. I thought maybe women were an enigma to him. I couldn't understand why that would be so. I was a woman and in no way felt enigmatic.
In the years following World War One, many Americans came to see our entry into that conflict as folly. But it was not an unpopular war when it was going on. The disillusionment came with hindsight.
Most people believed in the vast delusion that it was, "The war to end all wars." Therefore, they could face its sacrifices and hardships with exhuberance.
My high school years were played out against the backdrop of World War One. The Guns of August 1914 were not heard so clearly on our side of the Atlantic. A virulent war fever grew as the trench warfare dragged on year after year and American shipping losses to German submarines were dramatized in the press.
In early 1917 Germany announced that they would sink without warning all neutral vessels approaching the British Isles. Congress responded by passing, by large majorities in both houses, a declaration of war against Germany on April 6, 1917.
The war was to color all of my high school years and influence most of my memories of it. We marched and sang at numerous flag raisings and bond drives. We avidly attended classes in knitting so that we could knit socks for the millions of troops being called to the colors. It was common to see my girlfriends arrive at school, red-eyed and tearful, after bidding an older brother goodbye as he left for war.
When we entered World War One in the spring of 1917 the very first one to volunteer in the Wilkes Barre area was our perennial boarder, John Burke, who enlisted in the US Cavalry. He had been taunted by the other miners at work that day who said that since he was a bachelor only a lack of courage or patriotism could prevent him from joining the armed services. He immediately left the mine during the work day and came home to our house to clean up and dress, announcing that he was going to "lisht." He joked that he'd have himself a horse to ride when the order came to retreat. His outfit was sent to France and John was trained to be a blacksmith, making and shoeing horses. He served in France during the whole war and when he finally came home, he brought a dog with him from France. The dog was a German Shepherd and his name was Rummy. Our whole family became fond of Rummy.
There was food rationing and white flour was practically nonexistent. Housewives used all kinds of substitutes for it. My next two older sisters, Mary and Matilda, worked in an ammunition factory in Forty Fort for the duration.
Mixed in with the patriotic parades, troop sendoffs and other wartime rhythms was the more basic rhythm of my youth, school and work. I had always loved going to school and was always glad to return after working for the summer. I took part in all the activities and was a good student. We had excellent teachers who gave us a wide background in all the basic subjects. These teachers came mostly from New England. They boarded in Wilkes Barre during the school year. When I went to the East Stroudsburg State Normal School after graduation in1919, I had an opportunity to be in class with students from many high schools and was amazed at how poorly some of them were prepared for college work.
School was my first love but in the spring of 1919, when I was looking forward to graduation from high school in June, I thought that this would be the finish of my formal education. Joseph was the only child of my family allowed to finish high school. He had contracted a severe case of poliomyelitis, or infantile paralysis, as it was called then, when young and was crippled by it. To compensate for the physical loss of strength that he would need for most jobs in the local mines and factories, it was decided that the family would bear the cost of education him for jobs with lighter physical demands. Since I was the baby of the family, loved school and was a good student, I too was allowed to finish high school.
The other children of the family had to leave school after an elementary education to help support our home, the boys working in the mines and the girls in the mills. This was not uncommon in that era. Though 16.9 million children were enrolled in elementary school in 1900 only 90,000 were graduated from high school that year.
It had been a hard struggle for the family to keep me in school even this long and I knew that, after graduation, I'd have to get a job and help out at home, as my mother and three older sisters had carried us this far and now it was my turn to help.
There were forty five in our graduating class, six of whom were "honor students." My friend, Margaret Honor and I were in this group. Both of us came from poor families and even to get a graduation dress, class ring and all that went with graduating activities, was a struggle. There wasn't even a word of the possibility of further studies so that we could become teachers as was our secret wish.
Margaret and I were given a very faint hope of attaining our goal during the Christmas vacation of our last year in high school. Margaret called on a cousin of hers who was attending the East Stroudsburg State Normal School and was home on vacation when Margaret called. This cousin told Margaret that there was a girl named Una Bennett who was working her way through the Normal School by waiting on table. This was something that Margaret had never heard of and neither had I when she told me of it.
We wrote to the school in January inquiring about it and received a very favorable reply. They planned to accept six students for the 1919-1920 term to work for their board and room by waiting on table and we were the first to apply. We lost no time in getting the required information back to the school. Tuition was paid by the state as a subsidy for its needed teachers if you would agree to teach in the public schools for three years after graduation.
Now we need only accumulate enough money for train fare to the college, books, gym clothes and whatever incidental costs we would incur. We planned to keep these additional costs minimal and operate on a budget that even a beggar wouldn't envy. Margaret and I with our older sisters, Theresa Honor and Mary Larson were able to get jobs as waitresses at the Mountain House Hotel in Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania. This resort was familiar to all of us as we had all worked there before, though this time I would not have the part owner, Minnie Hooker, calling me "Laura" all day long.
One measure of our resolve and frugality is that Margaret and I didn't draw our pay until the day that we were leaving for home. We gathered it in a lump sum and carefully guarded it. Our sisters stayed on after we left.
When we reached home, we got busy with preparations to leave for school. An old-fashioned trunk was resurrected from our large front closet and I began to pack. I wouldn't be home until Christmas vacation, so winter clothes had to go in along with end of summer clothes. Some students went home for Thanksgiving but most stayed as we did because train fare was an item to be considered.
When the day for leaving came, and the trunk was packed, my brother-in-law, Leo Gallagher, borrowed a horse and wagon from Mr. Louis Levenson to take me to the railroad station in Kingston. Mr. Levenson owned a big grocery store in town and he had a truck for deliveries, but he kept his old horse and wagon for sentimental reasons. He also had developed a non-sentimental system for getting his trash to the dump. Everything would be thrown into the wagon ready for the first one to borrow the horse. They had to take the filled wagon to the dump to empty before they could do their own piece of work. Louis was careful about letting only persons that he knew wouldn't misuse his horse, and Leo Gallagher was one of those trusted persons.
My pursuit of higher education had immediate and dramatic local effects. Ralph Simoson, our friend and neighbor who had formerly lived in our "old house" now lived on Luzerne Avenue, a main thoroughfare of Larksville. He told Ma that when Evaline saw Leo go by with Laura and her trunk bound for Normal School there was no living with Evaline anymore. She too had wanted to go to normal school but Ralph said that they couldn't afford it. But the sight of the old trunk, bound with rope, going so purposefully by their house caused such an upheaval on Evaline's part, that he went to Wilkes Barre and got a $2500 mortgage on his house, and Evaline got to school even though two weeks late. I met her at the train when she arrived. She later paid back every cent by teaching.
She had a room on the first floor with Camilla Barrett of the Larksville class of 1919, next to the one that Margaret Honor and I had. We put a sign on the door "Little Larksville."
We small town girls were ready for our great adventure.
I still retain a notebook which I completed at age nineteen as a college assignment. It is titled Outline of a Study of the Self by Yerbes and LaRue. It called for a great deal of autobiographical material as well as an elaborate self analysis. The process of developing the notebook was to aid in self understanding and in understanding and sympathizing with others, especially children. We were cautioned by the authors, to, "Be wholly honest with yourself. Write freely and fully of what you shrink from or are ashamed of as well as of the facts which seem to you as creditable. The contents of your report will be accepted in confidence by the instructor."
There were twenty four pages of instructions and I exceeded the authors production by compiling thirty pages of answers. I respected our professor and tried to complete it faithfully and honestly. He was Dr. Daniel W. LaRue, professor of psychology and a former teacher at Harvard University and co-author of the notebook. He was uniformly popular at East Stroudsburg State Normal School and I personally thought him to be our best professor.
Of course, my thoughts at that time will seem highly idealistic and unsophisticated to an older reader of today, especially me. The notebook does, however, provide an insight into my thoughts at that age and a view of my early life as seen by me at that time.
In the rest of this chapter when I quote from this college notebook the quote will be indented and single spaced.
If a youngster loves and respects her parents and feels comfortable in the home it can provide her with enough security and love to last a lifetime. Here's what I wrote of my parents and home in 1920.
I think my home and family were ideal and I cannot think of anything I would have had changed. Its spirit was harmonious. I was very confidential with both parents because being the youngest left me home with them while the others were out . . . . My parents have been my ideals.
My mother (was) . . . . social and friendly . . . . She was always cheerful, contented and optimistic but was careless in money matters. Her motto seemed to be, "Everything will come out right," and she depended on this without looking at the means.
Of all my relatives I admired my father most . . . . I thought that the mines were the best place in the world, the miners the best men in the world, and that my father was the best man of all the miners.
I have often thought since how wise Ma was to constantly praise our father to her children and how many women could benefit from such an example. Looking back I can see that miners were not high on the national social scale. But she had her own scale and she never tired of pointing out his good qualities and how deeply deserving of our highest respect he was. Her love and respect bred ours.
Of all my relatives I admire my father most. All his work was for the family and he spent all his free hours with the members of the family. He was truthful to an extreme, kind, thoughtful and religious. He was very hard working, neat and saving.
My father, being a convert, had a better appreciation and understanding of the Catholic faith. His faithfulness to the Church has had a good influence on all the family.
My mother (too) is a good Catholic and staunch supporter of the church.
My father and those who favor him of the family are not very social in a crowd. They prefer sitting back and watching a good time to making one or participating in it. Father never loafed on street corners or in public houses nor cared much to visit. The only time I ever saw him go out at night was one Saturday night when he and my sister went to town to buy my mother a gold pin.
I inherited my temperament from my father, also his character with some slight variations. My mother is Celtic, quick and impulsive, while my father is a slower Teuton or Swede. He had a wonderful memory, all of which I did not inherit.
(I am) . . . . not so very social, like father. I'm not so extremely good as my father was, religious in ways and actions. I think I am fitted for a teacher because I have inherited my father's love for and patience with children, also his fondness for books and reading.
In discussing my temperament and character I analyzed my occasional moodiness and seemed to take a slap at the college.
I often think of myself as a clock. When I am wound up I feel fine and am all good nature but when I get run down, sometimes for no reason that I am conscious of, I don't want to talk to anyone. I have resolved not to let myself do this and am succeeding already. I think when I get in a more pleasant and easier environment I will be able to overcome it all together.
I also acknowledged the great debt I owed to my older sister Mary. I didn't mention the pain her perpetual care of me had caused her only its good effects upon me.
My next older sister resembles my mother and our natures are widely different, still I have always felt attracted more to her than any other. . . . . this sister, Mary, influenced me most strongly. I like her and tried to imitate her in everything.
I was "bad" at times due to being spoiled as I was the youngest. My older sisters called me a "nightmare" as (I) wanted to follow them everywhere and if they made any attempt to stop me I would lay down in the road and kick.
I summed up my parents love and concern for all their children by saying:
. . . . they did the best they could with each child and gave up everything to raising the family. Dad was getting worn out with hard work and he used to look at the youngest child (Laura) and say that he would be satisfied if he could live to see her able to earn her own living.
Interestingly, my memories of Larksville and my childhood home and playmates reflect none of the bleaker aspects usually associated with a mining town at the turn of the century.
. . . . since they first married, my parents lived in Larksville, a small town then but now a borough. A house and large yard was bought back from the road so as to be better for the children and the only moving they ever did was to move from the first house into a bigger and new house built in the same lot. My mother loved flowers and music and made a comfortable, pleasant, home . . . .
A crowd of us often went off to the woods in the morning and wandered around there all day.
We used to love to play school and imitate the teacher or to dress in old clothes and imitate the grown ups.
I spent my leisure playing house and school and also the more active games . . . . in the spring our crowd counted every man's straw hat and the one who counted the most was a sort of heroine.
We used to quarrel and fight over the silliest things. For instance, one day my chum and I were sitting in our kitchen when my mother happened to remark that she had her ironing all done. My friend spoke up immediately and said that her mother had her ironing done too. I contradicted her and to settle the argument we went over to her house to see who was right. We saw some clothes there rolled up ready to iron and then followed an awful quarrel as to whether they were ironed or not although each of us knew that they were not.
I always had a chum but it was not always the same girl.
I spoke of school days and characterized myself as follows:
In school I was always a good reader, speller and memorizer but found mathematics very hard. I couldn't understand long division so used to work the problems and then I memorized them. I always told the teacher that I understood them perfectly and she believed me.
I then listed my teachers beginning with the infamous Miss Van Buskirk who made me write right handed in grade one up to those I had in high school and noted what influence they had had in my life. My favorite had been Miss Jacobs in grades 4 and 6 and I said this about her.
The best teacher I ever had in the grades. Strict, kind and the one I always think of when anyone speaks of a good teacher. She taught me that to learn you must work.
I described my arrival at the decision to become a teacher after discarding the advice of my mother and sister.
My mother did want me to be a nurse and for awhile I considered being one to please her. She never pressed me to enter the hospital but I knew that she would like me to enter. She herself is a good nurse but I did not inherit her character and am not of much good around sick people.
My sister suggested that I would make a librarian but I would rather read the books in the library than keep a record of them.
Teaching promises most because I am fond of all children and like to teach them. I always like school and hate to think of working anyplace not connected with school
. . . . (my) chief desire (is) to teach school and live home with my mother and sisters . . . . with enough means for us all to live comfortable and free from worry.
I shall finish this look at my life at age nineteen by giving my account then of my early sex education; why I was not thinking of marriage at that time; the criterion my future husband must meet and some claptrap about woman's role in setting standards between the sexes.
I was never taught concerning sex by my parents and consequently never knew of it. I think that was the proper thing to do as I never asked about nor thought of the sexes until after my twelfth birthday.
My father came from a cold country where the women mature later in life and so marry when older. I take after his people and have never thought seriously of marriage.
The way I think now, my future husband must be tall, strong, intelligent, a good provider and home man. He must not be a business man but have some kind of trade or profession.
I think a woman should be better than a man for "no man is as good as a good woman and no man is as bad as a bad woman." She should set the standard of purity and right.
In six years I would marry a man who was not tall nor unusually strong. My mother violently objected to him because she thought he would never be a good provider and home man. He had no trade nor profession but was a railroader. He was very intelligent though.
At last the day arrived that Margaret Honor and I were to enter the East Stroudsburg State Normal School. It was a beautiful September day, filled with sunshine, the day after Labor Day. We met at the Lackawanna Railroad Station in Kingston where we were to board the train. This was a familiar place to us. We had been working at the Mountain House Hotel in Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania all summer and the Lackawanna train had taken us there and at the end of summer, brought us home. East Stroudsburg was fifteen miles past Mount Pocono in the direction of New Jersey, three miles from the Delaware Water Gap.
We boarded the train much more excited this time than we had been when going to work in the Poconos. Leo Gallagher, my brother-in-law, had brought me and my trunk to the station in a horse and wagon. The trunk held all my possessions for the year at school as I didn't expect to get home again until Christmas. Train fares were too costly an item to be taken lightly. My trunk was an old fashioned one resurrected from the attic, its previous owner forgotten. It was secured by a rope, and as it stood on our front porch waiting for Leo to come with the wagon, Ma said it put her in mind of an immigrant leaving home. Indeed, it was something like that; a big venture for me into the unknown with loving, but tremulous backing from the family left behind.
I can still see my trunk as it was put off the train in East Stroudsburg and waited there with hundreds of other trunks and suitcases for transportation up to the school. Margaret and I walked the short distance to the entrance of the school. At the entrance there was a pleasing statue of a girl classically gowned. I didn't know then and don't remember now who the figure represented or her significance. To me at that time and apparently to many other graduates she represented a welcoming figure and has for years been called Celia. Once past Celia we traveled up a wide bench lined walk which bisected the campus and ended at the wooden steps which led to the entrance to the main building, largest and most important of the four buildings that comprised the college. This main building contained the offices, book store, parlors, library and chapel in its central parts. On either side of this central section were long halls, three stories high that housed the dormitories for girls.
The Model School was on your right as you walked up the central walk from the entrance. This facility was a kindergarten through eighth grade public school used by the college to train future teachers. The third floor of this building housed the dormitories for boys, who were far outnumbered by the girls.
On your left on this central walk was the Normal School building which housed all the classrooms. Behind the main building was the fourth main structure on campus, the gymnasium, surrounded by many athletic fields and a broad oval track.
In Pennsylvania in 1919 there were thirteen state normal schools scattered in different locations in the state and designed to produce the teachers needed to educate the children of the state. These were primarily elementary school teachers since only a fraction went on to high school. East Stroudsburg at this time had about three hundred students and thirty teachers.
The school nestled on Normal Hill in East Stroudsburg, a small town adjacent to the larger and more prominent Stroudsburg. Both towns contained churches, stores and other businesses all available to the students within walking distance.
Margaret and I entered a wild scene of frenetic activity that was new to us and mostly unintelligible on that day. The first thing we had to do was to register for our first term courses. Registration completed, we were then taken to our room on the first floor and were happy to see that our trunks had arrived and been placed in the room. We didn't have time to open them or to explore the room because we had orders to report downstairs immediately to the kitchen and dining room which were in this main building. We were to make ourselves known to a Mrs. Keyser, who presided over the dining room.
Margaret and I had eagerly sought the opportunity to work our way through college and we soon found out that working our way through was exactly what we were going to do, and we were going to do it under the stern eyes of Mrs. Keyser. I use the plural eyes because they were the most compelling feature of the woman. One was blue and one was brown. I later learned that Alexander the Great had such eyes but I had never seen this phenomena before and it jarred me. She sat at a desk in the dining room and ruled her dominion from this throne. I never saw her on her feet moving to do something or talking to someone. She bellowed orders to her subjects from this sitting position in stentorian tones that brooked no nonsense. She gave Margaret and me a formidable glance when we introduced ourselves. She did not waste time on a welcoming smile or any other social amenities but launched on a speech about the work we were to do and the standards of quality she expected us to meet with fail. We were introduced to the staffs of the kitchen, bake shop and dining room and were told that we would start work that day as all the students were arriving and had been assigned to tables. Throughout these instructions I studiously tried to avoid looking at her curious eyes. But they pulled my gaze inexorably as if by a powerful magnet and continued to do so as long as I knew her. I have the same trouble with toupees that people wear today.
Each of us were assigned two tables to serve, ten students and a teacher at each table. We would serve these tables three times daily and we would work a seven day week. At the end of each meal, we had to scrape the plates and put them over on the dishwasher. A nearby farmer used to collect the scrapings and left over food and he complained bitterly about silverware being found in it and feared that his cattle would choke on it. Of course, everyone blamed the student waitresses because we were always hurrying to fit the work in with our classes and studies.
There were two types of waitresses, six students and about ten regular waitresses who were not students but were recruited locally usually from the nearby farms. The regular waitresses served three tables and were given one day a week off and were paid in addition to receiving their bed and board. We, of course, received no pay. Any conflicts which developed between the two types of waitresses were always settled in favor of the regular ones. I suppose this was because the students were more transient and the regulars could be better relied upon. Some of the students found the work too demanding and quit, some within the first month.
Our jealousy of the regular waitresses was caused by the fact that they were paid and got a day off each week. On their part I suppose, some resented that we were getting an education for our pay. Nevertheless many close bonds grew between us. We would all sing together while clearing the tables and we often hiked to the Delaware Water Gap on Saturday mornings after the breakfast chores were done and before lunch. I maintained a correspondence with some of the regular waitresses after graduating from school and one of them, Emma Burger, came to visit me in Larksville.
Margaret and I found the friend we needed to restore our courage in all this hubbub by becoming friendly with Helen Garvey, a fellow junior and student waitress. Her older sister Irene had previously been a student waitress at the school and had briefed her on the practical ins and outs of the job. We felt that an older sister would not have let her younger sister assume the job if it was going to be too difficult of accomplishment, which at this point was what we suspected. Helen was a happy, cheerful girl and she gave us heart.
Unknowingly, as many students do, we were accumulating friendships that would last a lifetime. Sixty three years later Helen still will occasionally call me from Wanomie, Pennsylvania. She is still the happy, calm, everything will be all right person that she always was.
College Years 1919 - 1921
As with most jobs, our early fears of whether we could handle its complexities soon settled into a more relaxed routine. For instance, Dr. Kemp and his family had a table up front as he was the principal of the school. Each meal began with a lengthy prayer by him. After this prayer there usually followed a lot of dreary announcements. No eating began until after these rituals were completed. We waitresses were expected to stand quietly during all of this and we did until we got accustomed to the place and the routine. Then we six student waitresses would wait until all the diners were in place and then we would burst out the kitchen door, run a lap around the track in back and dash inside again, breathless. Our timing if not our motives were excellent and the school authorities never noticed our absence. Letty, the cook, and her helpers did notice but thought it a harmless expression of youthful insanity, not worthy of comment. The baker, with his white apron and high hat, used to laugh at us, and I'm sure with any encouragement, he would have liked to join us in the track run.
In addition to mastering the requirements of our waitressing jobs at the college, Margaret and I had to adjust to a full load of classes and find a way to juggle and make fit the responsibilities of both. It was always a rush, but we managed. We had some very good teachers and the emphasis was on learning and working hard. That first year away from home without some of the family with me was an eye opener in many ways. I'm glad that I had that experience in this good, old fashioned, quaintly run bastion of learning.
There was a built in advantage to attending a two year college. We voided the traumas and pitfalls of being freshmen or sophomores. The entering class members were called junior and the class destined to graduate in June was of course called seniors.
My primary impression was of constant rushing to get things done all in the context of elaborate rules. There were rules for everything and bells controlled the days, starting with a rising bell at 6 A.M. and ending at night at 10 P.M. when the lights went out. I mean that they really went out all together, pulled from a main switch. A warning bell sounded at 9:45 P.M. so we hurried to be in bed before darkness descended and a watchman came with clanging lantern and a bunch of keys to start his patrol of the halls and campus.
This required discipline if all the girls were to make their preparation for bed each night. The six long dormitory halls each had a common bathroom of six toilets, six sinks and two showers. The girls donned night dresses, robes and sometimes caps when they made their final visit to this lavatory each night. If we were caught up there after the final bell we'd have to grope our way down to our room in the dark.
One night, just as the lights went out at ten, a hideous, moaning sound arose from somewhere, loud and frightening. We jumped out of bed and ran out into the hall to ask each other what had happened, everyone scared and some crying. The lights came back on and teachers coursed through the halls telling everyone to get back to bed; nothing was wrong, just some group playing a joke.
We learned in the morning that the third hall north were the culprits and would be punished. Did they confess? No, but the observant watchman told that all the student halls ran out of their rooms to see what was the matter, but on the third hall north, they ran IN and closed their doors. The usual punishment was "campusing" for a definite period, during which you were not allowed to leave the campus for any reason. The sound that the third hall made, was created by a carefully prepared plan that each girl would stand in her doorway and at the precise moment that the lights went out would imitate some animal sound loudly. The total effort was weird and eerie.
Margaret and I got ourselves into a situation which would have been hard to explain if we had been caught in it. Each morning we arose at 6:00 A.M. fifteen minutes before first rising bell, as we had duty in the dining room and always ate our breakfast before serving the others. We had had a busy day and were tired, so retired at 9:00 P.M. I was sound asleep when Margaret shook me awake excitedly to say that we were late, the first breakfast bell had just rung.
I jumped up in a hurry and we both scrambled into our clothes and dashed quickly out the door and down the hall to the basement steps which led to the dining room. Just as we reached the dining room door, a bell rang, and the lights went out, leaving us standing there in total darkness. We realized immediately that we had confused the 9:45 P.M. bell, with the morning rising bell and rather sheepishly we felt our way back to our room, glad that we met no one on the way. It would have been difficult to explain why we were all the way down the basement in the dark of night.
I was introduced to another peril spawned by our rigid ten o'clock curfew early in the fall of 1919. Some fellow or fellows on a visiting football team had bragged that they had been out with some girls from the school after curfew on their trip there to play football the previous year. It was the custom for the team to stay overnight in those days of slower travel. They said that the girls had sneaked out to meet them.
Dr. Kemp proclaimed that they wouldn't be able to say that this year. We were told not to lock our bedroom doors that night as a teacher would come down the hall with a flashlight every hour on the hour and she'd look in each room to see that the occupants were in bed. I remember being so annoyed with the door opening and that flashlight shining in my face. Margaret and I certainly had no intentions of sneaking out.
Everything was so new to us that first year. There was a laundry in the basement of our dormitory on a level with the dining room. There student clothes were washed and ironed. The amount each week being limited and the schedule of getting the items to the laundry and later picked up rigorously enforced. There were several ironing boards where we could press something, but there were no facilities for washing it yourself. The manager of the place was a man, but all the workers were local women who came by the day. One thing that was very surprising to me was the openness with which the girls' menstruation cloths were washed, dried and returned. Before coming to the school each girl was instructed to bring her own cloths, hemmed, and with her name printed on each just as on all her other clothes. At home before this, we girls used clean cloths that could be washed and reused. It was all a hush-hush business but here at school the problem was faced openly and dealt with accordingly. This was in 1919, just after World War One and, unbeknownst to us, some nurses in the Army had begun to use dressings that were supplied for wounds in the hospital for their monthly menstruation. These dressings became Kotex. It was that that some enterprising soul devised and a boon to womankind.
My waitressing curbed my ability to join the many interest groups formed by the students. However, I did belong to the "Blue Pencil Club" a small group of would be writers, about fifteen in number, headed by Miss Edna Rosencrans, an English teacher. The idea of the club was to interest ourselves in literary work and to finally grow into an organization of writers. My interest in writing was limited to an extensive personal correspondence before the leisure of retirement allowed it to bloom again.
One special event of my junior year that stands out in memory is the visit of Cardinal Mercier of Belgium to New York in order to get help from the United States for the starving people of Belgium who had suffered greatly during the war.
The pastor of the Roman Catholic Church, St. Mathews, in East Stroudsburg, was Father Craft. He was a native Belgian doctor who had served on the battlefield in Europe in an earlier conflict and said it was his experience that Catholic soldiers seemed to die more comforted by their religion than others so he had converted to Catholicism and had become a priest. He was sent to the United States to serve. Father Craft became very excited when he learned of Cardinal Mercier's proposed visit to this country and he went to great trouble to discover the itinerary of the cardinal. To his great joy, Father Craft learned when the famed cardinal would be on a train passing through East Stroudsburg and he arranged that the train would stop for fifteen minutes to allow the two countrymen to meet.
Any student who wanted to see the cardinal had permission to skip class and be at the station. Nearly the whole student body wanted to be there, so there was a huge, happy group assembled. This, plus the parishioners and townspeople made a sizable welcoming delegation. People were still emotional about the war which had recently ended.
They admired the Belgian people and sympathized with their suffering after Germany ignored their neutrality and invaded their country in attacking France from an unexpected quarter.
There was a brass band to play the national anthem of both America and Belgium. When the train stopped and the cardinal came out on the rear platform with his retinue, the band started to play and many were in tears. Father Craft ascended to the platform and knelt for a blessing and an exchange of words. The cardinal thanked this country for its aid to Belgium and gave his blessing to all. I was so happy for Father Craft, because he was so pleased and joyous. He was a good, saintly man.
When we came back to school in the September of 1920, we learned that good Father Craft had died and a new pastor was being installed, Father Butler. He started right in to plan for a new, larger church, badly needed as all knew. He said that this was made necessary by the presence of the Catholic students and that each student was therefore assessed seven dollars a year dues. When we were about to graduate, and had received some gifts of money, Margaret and I went down to the rectory one June evening, each of us prepared to pay the fourteen dollars for our two years there. I remember thinking that the pastor probably had a list of all the Catholic students in residence and that our names now would be marked paid in full, but such was not the case. Father Butler took the fourteen dollars from each of us, threw it in a drawer and when we tried to tell him our names, he said, "I don't need them, I know its from the good girls from the normal school." That was a let down.
At that time, male students had a lot of privileges that were not available to the girls. In November of 1920 there was the usual excitement caused by the presidential election. On the Democratic ticket James Cox ran for President with Franklin Delano Roosevelt as his Vice Presidential running mate. We girls were never allowed out at night without a teacher in charge, so it was a real treat to go someplace if the opportunity arose. All of my family were Republicans, as Dad said that they controlled the money and the country had better times under them. I wasn't interested in either party in 1920, but when Dr. Trimble offered to take a group of girls to the Democratic rally in town, I jumped at the chance to go. At ten o'clock, just when things were getting interesting, Dr. Trimble got us all out to go back to the school. The normal school boys were furious at this interruption by the girls. They could stay until it was all over and next day some of them had plenty to say about how rude the girls were, causing a commotion and leaving in the middle of a most interesting speech. Oh for Women's Lib!!
The disparity in the way the college treated the sexes would not be tolerated today. Supervision of the girls who boarded at the school was very strict. We were not allowed out at night on school days and on weekend nights only for special occasions certainly not on dates. Dating was done on campus. If we did go out such as on the occasion of the political rally, we had to be accompanied by a teacher to act as chaperone and see that we returned by the regular ten o'clock curfew, unsullied by the experience.
On the other hand, the boys lived in their own dormitory and seemed to come and go as they pleased. Professor Maguire lived with them there and his main interest seemed to be sports not supervision. Many of the boys were veterans of World War One and were members of the varsity teams which he coached. Their privileges extended to special training tables in the dining room where they got better food and more of it than the others.
In the spring of our senior year the girls of the third floor north struck again. One day it was rumored all over campus that a group of them had sneaked out of the dormitory the previous night to show their defiance to the college authorities. Later in the day, a local policeman appeared at the school to tell the Dean of Women that Normal School girls had been at a dance in town on the previous night. The dean said that if he could identify the girls, they would be on the train for home that very day. So the girls thought most likely to be in that group were lined up for the policeman's scrutiny. Of course, by that time they were dressed differently and had an opportunity to change their hair style. He could not positively identify anyone except one bright red haired girl. Her hair was curly, flame colored, and stood out in a kinky sort of way. The policeman was positive that he had seen her at the dance along with four or five others that he couldn't identify.
She was a senior, ready to graduate in three months. When confronted with the identification, she confessed that she had been at the dance, but she wouldn't say who had been with her. The dean said that she had to pack her trunk and be on the afternoon train to Scranton and that the other girls would be with her on the train if she would tell who they were. She would not name them and she was on her way home that very day, a victim of high spirits.
Her mother and sister came to the school a few days later to intercede, but they were refused even an interview. The President of the school backed up the dean saying that, "Rules were rules and could not be broken."
A happy footnote to the history of this girl was that she got a teaching job in her home town anyway. She was allowed to earn the missing credits while teaching there.
The highlights of our senior year were not any of these minor scuffles for the liberation of women but student teaching and passing our examination by the state examiners. The town ran its own public school on campus comprised of students in grades kindergarten through eighth grade and drawn from its population. In our senior year we normal school students did our practice teaching there, one half of us in the fall term, the rest in the spring.
Each grade in this school had its regular public school teacher who served as a critic teacher and was responsible for the progress of that class and the student teachers assigned to it. The critic teachers knew the student teachers intimately as they had worked with them all term. They would have been the logical one to judge their student teacher's ability and accomplishments but that was not the system.
Each term a group of itinerant politicians, whose minds were kept clear by ignorance, descended upon the college to take up temporary residence and pass on whether the student teachers were adequate to be licensed after observing a class or two. When they were in residence the entire college was in turmoil. Both students and faculty were tense and upset waiting for their verdicts. The later abolishment of this system was a step in the right direction for preparing teachers.
Perhaps this step could only come after the college improved its faculty and the legislators were more sure of the college's ability to certify the state's teachers. There was no question that the faculty of the normal school was worked to full capacity. Not only did they teach their classes, but many lived on the hall with the students and were proctors. Many ate with them at each meal and were responsible for manners and good conduct at the table. They accompanied students on trips away from campus or to meetings after dark. But their quality in those days was uneven. They ran the gamut from excellent to just plain weirdos. The backbone of the group were dr. LaRue, Misses Rosencrans and Kurtz, and at the bottom were a music teacher who never really looked at anyone and seemed to float along in a world of her own, and a male teacher who had no polish nor manners. The main thing that I remember of him, was his constant preceding each remark of his with the use of the phrase, "I make mention of."
We didn't know it at the time, but the college was in the throes of change. Most of the teachers we knew were retained, but the weaker ones disappeared gradually.
Margaret and I both survived the ordeal of the examiners and in June of 1921 were graduated. I still retain a letter from me to Ma thanking her for a five dollar contribution to my twenty dollar senior class dues. That sum paid for my cap and gown, class ring, class yearbook, decorations for the graduation ceremonies and a banquet. Prices have risen since.
In retrospect both the state of Pennsylvania and we girls had made a good investment. We both taught longer than the minimum three year period in the state to absolve us of any costs for our tuition. Beyond that, teaching was to be our profession for many other years, Margaret as a nun and I as a widow. We traded two years of hard work for a lifetime skill and a much broader view of the world than when we entered. We felt we had mastered the theory of teaching and were now ready for a class of our own. We left East Stroudsburg as we had entered it two years earlier, full of hope.
When I graduated from East Stroudsburg Normal School in June of 1921, I had no trouble getting a job as a school teacher in my hometown, Larksville. Politics ruled the teacher hiring process with an iron hand in those days in Luzerne County. Even the most rudimentary qualifications were superfluous if you could muster the political clout that governed the selection of teachers. One girl I knew graduated high school one year in June and was a teacher in the system in September thought she had been a poor student and spoke only broken English. Her language and learning problems were overlooked as was her failure to attend the usual teacher training program at a two year normal school. Her fitness to guide the next generation was provided by the fact that her father owned a saloon and was very popular and politically influential in the Welch hill section of town.
My own lack of knowledge about how to progress through the local political morass was overcome by three relatives, each of whom took credit for landing me my job. There was an Irishman who was the political boss of Larksville. If you wanted a favor you saw him and consequently Ma laid siege to him. She reminded him that I was a semi-orphan, and more to the point, the many citizen voters she could influence. Leo Gallagher, husband of my sister Johanna, appealed on my behalf to a board of education member, who like him, came from the Welsh Hill section of the town. My oldest brother Willie had risen from digging coal below ground to cultivating politicians above ground and had been appointed chief of police. He assured me that the politicians owed him this and other favors for all the ballot boxes he had faithfully robbed for their benefit.
So, though I never traced whose influence had procured the job for me, I reported blithely to school ready to meet my first class on the opening day of school. (Photo at left shows Laura on her first day of teaching)
I had no idea of what grade I would be teaching. In my naivete, I thought that I would learn that on the first day of school, although admittedly it would have been nice to know beforehand so I could plan for it and get some materials ready.
In my attendance at the East Stroudsburg State Normal School, I had been trained particularly for the middle grades, although all students there received training in all the grades. We were imbued with a confidence that we knew how to teach and that our way was the best way to do it. That confidence or smugness was shaken later on as we encountered real teaching situations but on that first day of school, I didn't know that yet.
All was pandemonium that first day of school; a turmoil caused by the staff not the students. One would think that the opening day of school came upon them as a big surprise. The children were there seated quietly in the classrooms, dressed in their best and exuding an expectant air of readiness to begin the new school year, but the faculty was not. They and the principal were gathered in the teachers' room and were waging a fierce war over which teacher was going to teach which class.
There was a small group of older teachers there who had started to teach directly after graduation from high school. They formed a clique to guard their self appointed rights and prevent them from being infringed upon by the younger upstarts who had graduated from normal school. Their rights to certain classes amazingly paralleled their preferences. Most wanted the older children to teach, thinking that it was easier and carried more prestige. Others had become comfortable teaching a certain grade level and did not want the work entailed with teaching material and an age group new to them. These older teachers refused to take certain classes to which they had been assigned, and in some cases, where they did take a class, it was with the provision that certain pupils be transferred out of it. This was all new and disturbing to me. I naively thought that the principal would decide which students would form a class and then assign the teacher he thought best fit to teach it. I was later to observe the power wielded by the more experienced teachers but never so nakedly open and at cross purposes to sound education.
The new teachers like myself were not expected to join this fray nor allowed to do so. While the combatants bickered we were sent to take over classes until the issues of its composition and its permanent teacher could be determined.
So, I began my first teaching faced with a dilemma. I couldn't take attendance, distribute books or do anything constructive with the class because its members and permanent teacher had yet to be decided. My orders were to "hold the fort" until a regular teacher took over. My solution to the problem earned me a temporary nickname.
All that first day, as I temporarily substituted in different classes, I played "Buzz" with the children according to their ability. The game of "Buzz" was based on the times tables. We'd start with the two's at the beginning of the first row. Each pupil on his or her turn, would say either the next number, or, if the next number were a multiple of two, they'd say "BUZZ" or they were out of the game. In the higher grades we'd go as high as the 12 times tables, but I was usually moved to another class before we got that far. The aim of the game was to eliminate anyone who gave an incorrect answer or one out of order, until only one player was left and then we'd start all over again with a new multiplication table.
I covered a lot of classes that day playing "Buzz" with all of them. I'm surprised that I wasn't known as Miss Buzz after that, but "Buzz" followed me all that year, long after the first day.
I would be going to the store or church or whatever and some one would holler 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, BUZZ and run and hide. Or I'd be on the open streetcar in good weather, and someone would call "Buzz" as I rode along. Or, when I'd approach the door of the school to enter some boy would shout "Buzz" and run around the corner of the school. Strangely, it was always a boy who was so brave.
By the second day of school the battles in the teachers' room were all settled and I was finally assigned my own class and could stop buzzing and begin teaching. I was given a third grade group in the new annex that had been built next to the State Street School.
Student supervision was quite different in the early nineteen twenties from what I was to experience in the late forties. Teachers took no responsibility for supervising the children when they weren't in the building. In the morning, students gathered outside the school and waited until a bell was run at nine o'clock and the classes marched into the school together. At recess time all classes were dismissed simultaneously to shift for themselves on the playground. Of course older brothers and sisters often looked after the younger ones but the many accidents and injuries that regularly occurred didn't interrupt the recess break of the teachers. We had an hour for lunch and most students went home to lunch. Those who didn't sat in their own classroom to eat and then in good weather they went out on the playground, all unsupervised. Classes were dismissed at four o'clock.
There were few men in teaching and no married women. The practice of not having married women on teaching staffs was widespread at the time. I suppose it neatly dovetailed with the common belief that a woman should be supported by her husband and that her place was in the home. Coincidentally, this opened up a few jobs occasionally for the Larksville politicians to dispense. Under the theory that local tax money should be spend locally, teachers had to be residents of the town. Since this was true, most teachers walked to school and could walk home for lunch as I did. Some came from the more distant parts of the town and so elected to bring their lunch and eat in the teachers' room. This simple difference in lunch habits bred mischief.
Among the teachers eating at school was a young man who could imitate anyone's voice. He used this ability to harass the new teachers who ate at home and amuse his lunch mates at school. He noted when we new teachers were having difficulty with a particular student. He would then call us at home at lunch time and pretend to be the father of the troublesome student. He would accuse us of picking on his child, use strong language and threaten to come down to school and beat hell out of us if the persecution of his child did not cease immediately.
One day he called a very young new teacher as she and her father were sitting down to lunch at home. She got scared and began to cry when the man on the phone "lit into her" as she said later. Her father, seeing her distress, jumped up from the table, saying, "Let me handle this." He was a important official of a coal company and the coal companies were all powerful in Larksville. He contacted the school officials who in turn investigated the curious phone calls. No blame was ever established but the phone calls stopped.
There were other more pleasant sides to my fellow teachers than those illustrated so far. They had a large capacity for fun and we often got together for parties during the year. One party that stands out in my memory, is a Halloween party at one of the teacher's homes in the Welsh Hill section of town. It was my first year, and some of the teachers didn't know me yet. We were to come to the party in costume and mask and a game was played to guess who each one was.
Our family had received Aunt Bengta's trunk in 1912 when she had arranged to come from Michigan and live with us. Death intervened, and she never did arrive, but we had her trunk filled with her clothes, all typical of an old lady in Sweden, although she hadn't lived there in years. I chose a whole Sunday outfit, complete with hat and gloves. Even teachers who knew me well didn't associate me with that old lady and had a lot of fun trying to discover who I was under my mask.
The pervasiveness of politics in education in Larksville encompassed more than the hiring of teachers when I taught there. Principal and superintendt jobs were political plums and there was a vast overlay of county and state bureaucrats who all owed their jobs to politics. They had nebulous and often unidentified duties and responsibilities. Any of them could pop into your classroom at any time. Most of them had no background in education and lacked the wit to assess the learning taking place. Instead, they concentrated on searching for compliance with the many state promulgations regulating education.
One of my most treasured photos is of Miss Jacobs and her sixth grade class of which I was a part. It stirs warm nostalgic sentiments when I view it still today showing my favorite teacher and childhood friends. But I recall our local superintendent berated her for taking time from the school day to have this photo made since there was no provision for doing this in the state code.
The most direct and obtrusive supervision, in the opinion of the teachers, came from an assistant county superintendent. He took his job, whatever it was, very seriously and never had a smile or a pleasant comment to make to anyone. He never said anything to me except to ask if I had a copy of the state curriculum on my desk as required by state regulations. His nervousness created apprehensiveness which permeated the whole school when he visited and that was often. He lived in Edwardsville which borders Larksville. A single track ran between the two towns and on this miniature railroad an engine shuttled coal cars back and forth.
The back of our school faced this track and Miss Grimes had a classroom there with a view of the track. She always knew when the assistant county superintendent was coming to our school but would never tell us how she knew. Finally, she revealed that he came up on the colliery engine and scrambled up the bank and climbed the fence into our schoolyard. She said that her attention was attracted by his yellow shoes descending from the train engine and appearing over our fence.
He always wore light tan shoes which we all pretended were yellow and we nicknamed him yellow shoes. When Miss Grimes spotted him word was rapidly sent around that yellow shoes was in the building and we all came to attention and checked if our curriculum books were prominently displayed on our desks and that we were conforming to all the minutiae of the state dictums.
This vast political overlay of administrators held real power in the schools and neither they nor the teachers saw any need to share it with parents. This had both its good and bad effects.
We had a high percentage of pupils who had been born in this country but their parents had been immigrants just as my parents had been. In many homes no English was spoken but in school there were no language problems. The children learned to speak English very easily and no special classes were needed.
Perhaps if their parents had a bigger say in the education of these immigrant children we might have had something resembling the vast bilingual education programs current in parts of the country today. Children or adults forced to learn another language that leads to success in a society will choose to learn it to the measure of their ability and ambition. The opposite course weakens the need to be proficient in the main language and loosens the ties that make a nation unified.
But if the school employees joined forces against parental complaints there were occasional examples of attempts by citizens to break their ranks. One day a very belligerent and loud talking mother left her house to go to the school and, as she announced to everyone she met, she was going to beat up Miss Powell who was so unfair to her beloved son Theodore. On hearing this, one of Miss Powell's friends ran a short cut to the school to warn them of what was going to happen.
When the mother reached the school, the troops had massed. The five janitors from both the State Street School and the Annex were pushing brooms, and cleaning windows in the vicinity of the threatened teacher's room. Things were very quiet as the mother arrived, but she got the message. She aired her complaints in a loud voice standing there in the hall at the threatened teacher's door, and then left, and that was the end of it.
Another attack on teacher authority quite surprised me since it was directed at me. I was teaching a third grade and in my class was a boy whom I had known from the day he was born and was very fond of. He lived in a farmhouse not far from my home and his mother had died when he was born. A society in the father's church quite sensibly located a wife for the widower and she came to take care of the family and keep house.
She was a tall, thin woman, very erect, unsmiling and seemingly unfriendly. Every day she went past our house with a pail to get beer at the local saloon.
My mother took an interest in this family and helped them when she could but they kept her and all the other neighbors at a distance. Between our house and theirs, where formerly there had been a garden, it now was overgrown with high weeds. My mother would see the weeds moving in a path toward our house, and she'd know that the baby was creeping down to visit her. She'd rescue him from the weeds, afraid that a snake would bite him and after a while she'd carry him back home. No one there took much interest in him, but he thrived and was a healthy, happy baby.
By the time he had grown up enough to attend school, I had him in the first class that I taught. I took an interest in him and thought that I even favored him a little, until one day his big brother came to the school, "To stop me from picking on his little brother," as he told me in slurred speech.
He had been to a wedding and still wore his boutonniere and best suit and was quite drunk. He stood there at my door hollering all his grievances, while I stood silent in amazement, couldn't believe it was happening.
My friend and fellow teacher, Evaline Simoson, was coming down the hall with her second grade for recess and she had to literally push her class out the door. Naturally, they preferred to stand there with their mouths open, taking in all the histrionics.
I believe that all this could be traced to an incident years before when my older sisters, Mary and Matilda, used to stand and talk to this older brother as he walked home from school with them. He had to pass our house on his way home and it was pleasant for the three of them to dawdle at our gate instead of the girls coming into the house as Ma wished. Matilda had long braids down her back and one day this fellow student remarked that her hair was "down to her ass." That ended the lingering at the gate as far as Matilda and Mary were concerned, but the boy probably carried a hurt feeling, maybe not fully understanding that the girls considered his comment crude and embarrassing. Anyhow, Ma had no further problem getting the girls to come in promptly instead of standing talking at the gate; and the big brother probably felt a dislike of the Larson girls from that time on and took it out on me, who hadn't even been there.
Any teacher has students who stand out in their memory for any number of reasons. Michael Muldowney was one such for me. He was destined to attend school for one year only and that year was to be with me. Michael was the younger brother of one of my best friends, Margaret. He had been born with a heart defect and never attended school. His mother wanted him to go to school but he always refused, stating that he was afraid of the teachers. She always deferred to his delicate condition while the school authorities never examined his absence. When he was nine years old Mrs. Muldowney saw an opportunity to get Michael to go to school. I was teaching the third grade and Michael wasn't afraid of me having seen me about his house with Margaret since he was born. The same laxity of the school authorities in allowing his absence now worked in his favor as they allowed him to enter third grade though he couldn't read.
He learned to write beautifully and to read but he kept himself aloof from the other children, not participating, but sitting quietly and taking it all in. His mother told me that he particularly enjoyed the stories that I used to read to the children after lunch and he'd tell the whole story to his mother every night before he went to bed.
Michael lived to be thirty years old and as he became an adult in a wheel chair his greatest pleasure was reading the newspaper every night and I'm glad that I had a part in teaching him to read.
Another memorable student I had was Ignatz Ketchem. I was teaching sixth grade English and Reading in a departmental organization of classes and he became my cross to bear. Ignatz gave me a whole lot of trouble, not serious trouble like a life threatening illness but persistent trouble like a nagging toothache. For instance, he couldn't stand the confinement of a desk bolted to the floor as was the custom at that time. He sought the freedom of movable classroom furniture, anticipating school leaders by several decades.
His seat was always loose from the floor, no matter how many times the janitor fastened it down. Inch by inch, Ignatz would maneuver his seat around, liable to appear anyplace in the room, quickly and unobtrusively. I'd get notes signed, "From the fellow in the loose seat." He pretended that the seat moved by itself and that he had no control over it.
When the class did a project on Teddy Roosevelt and each one was to prepare one facet of Teddy's life to present in a program at the end of the unit, Ignatz had his friends help him bring three or four cages of rabbits, chickens and a pup which he said were for his "project." Teddy Roosevelt hunted wild animals and that's what Ignatz was going to portray. It certainly enlivened the program, though some of the older teachers wondered aloud about the "goings on of those young teachers."
I must have talked about Ignatz constantly at home, as all of my family knew of him and my problems with him. He used to come up to our house and help my mother in the garden. He'd never look at me on those occasions but would work with Ma very industriously. She used to pay him and I think she was trying to help me by thus strengthening our ties and hopefully improving his behavior. Years later when World War II came along, Ignatz was killed fighting in it and in his obituary in the local paper his heroism and fine deeds were lauded and his many medals listed. Among these was one for "good conduct" and my sister Johanna sent the clipping to me where I lived in Scranton and she had underlined good conduct.
Even his conduct in sixth grade was never bad; he was just lively and spirited and that's the stuff of which good soldiers are made. He was loving and kind and a tease. When he'd see Frank and me together on the Larksville streetcar going to Wilkes Barre, he'd call out, "Miss Larson and her fella" and run and hide His untimely death brought home to me forcefully the great price the nation had to pay for our success in that war.
In addition to teaching children who are unforgettable in your mind, long lived teachers find students upon whom they have made lasting impressions unknown to themselves. When I taught departmental Reading and English in the 6th and 7th grades, I very often had essay contests. These evoked a lot of interest among the better students and I was surprised fifty years later, that one of my pupils of that time who had won a book as a prize, still had the book and cherished it. The title of it was "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," and the winner of it was Natalie Shokowski who had gone on to become a lawyer.
There is a long standing problem in education that will probably never be solved to everyone's satisfaction though many experiments have been tried. That is how to provide the correct pace and challenge to students of widely varied abilities. It is particularly vexing in the middle years. In high school the students often group themselves by the choice of courses and curriculum followed. In the early years sufficient challenge can be managed by grouping within a class of reasonable size in those subjects where it seems necessary such as reading and mathematics. But in the middle years the complexity of the subject matter and the growing spread of student abilities often lead to the departmentalizing of subject matter with teachers specializing in the teaching of one or two subjects.
The consequent large numbers of students taught daily frequently then seems to call for dividing them into ability groupings. As early as 1922 in my second year of teaching I became involved in such an experiment. I was moved into the larger building to teach English and Reading in a departmental framework. We had one hundred and ten pupils in the three sixth grades that year. We decided to divide the group into three groups according to ability, the brightest in one group, the average in the middle group, and finally the poorer students.
The children caught on immediately to how they were divided. The top group became very superior acting, and the lower group called themselves the "Dummies." The only group that profited by the arrangement, in my opinion, was the middle group. Leaders came forward in it. They probably had been dominated by the presence of top students before and hadn't come through.
We who knew the children saw a big change in the pupils of the third or lower group. They seemed to give up and a few even became discipline problems. They walked through the halls with a defiant swing, as if to say, "We don't care."
One sweet little girl who was always dressed so clean and neatly previously, often appeared in class now with a dirty face, not that she had left home that way, but she had become careless about rubbing her face with hands which had ink stains, lead pencil marks and chalk dust on them and had not been washed. The next year we grouped children with a mixture of abilities and it worked out fine.
In the years that I taught in Larksville, 1921 to 1926, teaching was a central concern of mine but not the only one. It was during those years that I met Frank Rooney and our love and friendship grew.
Frank and I didn't go together regularly at first but I thought his interest in me was aroused because he often turned up where I was. For instance, he met me at Fernbrook Park one day when the Larksville Schools were having their annual picnic there. I taught grades six and seven and was there supervising my class members.
It was the custom for the borough of Larksville to designate a "Picnic Day" toward the end of the school year and all of the schools participated. Parents, baby brothers and sisters or any family members were allowed to join and it became a town festival. All rode the open summer streetcars to Fernbrook Park for the day, a distance of about ten or twelve miles. Each one brought a bag lunch and ice cream and soda pop were furnished free.
The street cars were the open, summer ones, long seats that extended from side to side, an added thrill to ride. It was quite a sight to see so many cars in line, filled with laughing, shouting children, besides themselves with the joy of it all.
At the end of the day, a large bell was rung as a signal for the different classes to report back to the cars for the return trip home. My whole class reported there, with the exception on one boy; when Frank and Ray McGrellis came to the park, I left my class in the care of another teacher and joined Frank and Ray in the search for the missing pupil. We found him further down in the park, sauntering along slowly toward the meeting place, loath to leave the pleasant park.
(Quoted from the "Frank" book)
So my two great interests had merged, teaching and Frank. I would have to sacrifice teaching to marry Frank under the hiring codes of the day. It was a sacrifice I was prepared to make.
I learned a lot in those five years, and they were mostly enjoyable. They were to help tremendously when I returned to teaching in 1945.
I have described my life with Frank Rooney in great detail in a book called "Frank, of Tender Memory." Rather than reconstruct that narrative, I am going quote extensively from it. Since the quotes are lengthy, I am not going to indent them as in other parts of this book.
I first met Frank toward the end of my second year of teaching.
On a beautiful spring evening in May 1923, my friend, Mary Connors, and I went to a dance in our parish church hall, St. Ignatius, in Kingston, Pennsylvania. We lived in Larksville, two miles from Kingston, and I was to sleep at Mary's house that night. She was "going steady" with Mike Shields, a veteran of World War I, who had been seriously injured by mustard gas while fighting in France.
In those days, the girls got themselves to the dance and met the fellows there, but the young men saw that all the girls got home safely by walking home with them. Cars were very scarce and very few of the young dancers owned one.
That night at the dance Mike Shields introduced me to Frank Rooney and Frank and I had a dance together. Frank was about five foot eight to my five foot one. He had a fair complexion with ruddy cheeks, very blue sharp eyes, topped by light blond very curly hair. He was thin and as I was to learn later, characteristically neat and well dressed. Besides his handsome, pleasant appearance I was most struck by his very extroverted, outgoing nature which contrasted greatly with my own more reserved and shy manner. He seemed to know the entire Kingston crowd at the dance and took the responsibility for their having a good time. While we danced around the floor he took time to encourage anyone not dancing to get a partner and join us on the floor.
We had danced but one dance that night and I hadn't expected to see this energetic, handsome blond man again but at the end of the dance he and Mike Shields were there waiting to accompany Mary Connors and me to Larksville.
They came into the Connors' house for a short rest and cold drink before starting back. Mary had embroidered a lovely pillow top to make a pillow for the living room. She didn't realize that an inner pillow was needed, so she had put the feather stuffing directly into the new pillow cover. It became a game between her and Mike to throw that pillow around at each other and to see the feathers fly. That night all four of us joined the pillow bombardment game.
When Frank and Mike got back to Kingston, Mike went directly home but Frank went to the diner for a snack before going home. The waiter at the diner said, "How come you were out with Mike Shields' girl tonight?" Frank replied, "What makes you think that?" The observant waiter rejoined, "Mike comes in here with those same feathers on him all the time."
On the way home, Frank had told me that he worked as a brakeman and flagman on the Lackawanna Railroad operating out of Kingston. He lived with his mother and younger brother Bill in Kingston. He expected to be called out to work before morning, but said he would call me when he returned from his trip. I didn't take him seriously, thought I'd probably not hear from him again.
I wasn't familiar with the way train crews worked on the railroad and didn't understand that they could be called to work at all hours and then work unpredictably long periods of time till they were done and once again "on call." At the time I thought his story contrived and that he made what I thought was a show of earnestness by leaving the dim parlor to use the stronger light in the dining room to write my phone number in a little black book. But after his trip, he did call and made a date for another time.
Frank and I didn't go together regularly at first but began to learn about each other. I learned that Frank's father had died in the terrible flu epidemic of 1918 when Frank was fifteen years old. He had a brother William, four years younger. Frank had to leave school and go to work to help support his mother so his Uncle Frank Law had gotten him a job on the railroad saying that he was eighteen years old, a common practice in those days. Children aged more quickly then when a job was needed.
When we met in May of 1923, Frank was nineteen years old and would be twenty that July fourteenth. I had turned twenty-one in the previous November. This slight difference in our ages didn't bother us. Frank had the responsibility of supporting his mother since he was fifteen and was a grown man, not typical of his age group.
We continued to attend the dances at the parish hall, go to picnics, and enjoy the usual social events of that day. I remember the first "hayride" trip we took. . . . . I discovered that Frank was very "straight laced" where I was concerned. He was careful of my "good name," as my mother would say. For instance, we used to go to dances at Fernbrook and during intermission many left the pavilion to wander around out in the dark park. But not us. Frank would find a seat for me on the pavilion, then he'd go out and bring back some refreshment for us.
Another time, we were in Dushore visiting Kathleen Saxe, my friend who was dating John Smith at that time. John and Frank came up to Dushore on the train from Kingston to go to the church picnic with us. They stayed at the hotel in town. They came up to the Saxe house to escort us to the picnic in the evening and I suggested that we take a short cut through an alley to the dance floor, but Frank said we'd go around the long way; it wouldn't look good to be seen coming out of that alley in the dark.
We met casually at first, no set pattern of dates each week, but gradually we drifted into seeing each other regularly and each of us stopped dating others. . . . . Our romance contained none of the cliches later so popularized by Hollywood. It was not love at first sight but rather a love that grew and deepened as we began to know each other better. My first impression of Frank was that of a handsome, gregarious man but on our later dates I came to appreciate his thoughtfulness for me, his deep religious convictions and his perceptive, wide-ranging intelligence. I found him intellectually curious and knowledgeable on a great many subjects and therefore a person with whom I found it always easy and interesting to talk.
Frank and I contrasted sharply in our styles and temperaments but perhaps it was these differences that made all the difference. What was on Frank's mind, he spoke. I was a typical Larson, quiet, reserved and tending to keep my thoughts to myself. If Frank harbored an opinion, on no matter how delicate or controversial a topic, he would immediately voice it. One time at a meeting of the railroad union, Frank was so singularly outspoken and argumentative that one of the officials asked a friend of Frank's, "Is that man drunk?" The friend retorted, "Frank Rooney doesn't need to be drunk to speak his mind."
He was that way in his relationship to me. He often chided me for being a"dirty fighter" for withholding any disagreements or grievances until they erupted in a torrent wherein I berated him with a litany of past complaints. He urged me to air any differences immediately, clear the air and wipe the slate clean. And so we learned from each other and developed a mutual respect that provided a solid foundation for our love.
It was fortunate that our love developed such deep roots for they were needed if it was to survive its first test.
In the spring of 1925, two years after we had first met, Frank and I were young and happy and planning to get married.
Up until that time Frank had been the main support of his mother, Minnie, since his father's death. The family survived by Minnie getting sewing jobs and taking in boarders while the two boys worked on the railroad at an early age. Frank was a brakeman and flagman and Bill was a "call boy," phoning or going to the homes of train crews calling them to work for the different jobs as they materialized.
By about 1923, Bill left his mother's home to marry his sweetheart, Ruth Schreiber. Ruth was from Wilkes Barre, across the Susquehanna River from Kingston and it was in that town that Bill and Ruth set up their first apartment and it was there that their first and only child, William Jr. or Billy was born in 1924. Bill left the employ of the railroad and worked in the mines to support his new family. I remember Bill and Ruth as a young and handsome couple, very pleasant and doing their best to get along.
In 1925 Frank's mother, Minnie and Floyd Landers were also planning to get married. Although Minnie never said it, I always had the feeling that a primary factor in her motivation to remarry was to give Frank a chance to get married without worrying about her. . . . .
But Minnie Rooney was not the only mother to be reckoned with. Sarah Jane Larson would now have her say. She marshaled her arguments against the marriage carefully and massively.
Her opening shot was easily deflected. She believed in the old fashioned rule of thumb that the groom should be at least two years older than the bride. Men matured more slowly and women aged faster she explained. She herself had been twelve years younger than her husband and they had always been happy. She warned that Frank was a year and half younger than I and would in later years be dissatisfied with an "older wife." I told her I found Frank more mature than many boys two or more years older than I and our respective ages were of no concern to us then nor were they ever likely to be.
Her next argument though unconvincing was ingenious. "Wasn't Frank handsome, interesting and fun loving?" There it was; he was too good looking and his looks and character led her to prophesy a marriage wherein I would be stuck at home with a dozen kids while he pursued his pleasures elsewhere. I pointed out that we had been going steady for over a year and in that time if he had a "roving eye" it had stayed remarkable steady in its socket. Interestingly, when I decided fourteen years later to take my three small children to Oregon to visit my sister Johanna Gallagher and her family and my brother Thomas and leave Frank at home to work she said, "You have a nerve to be taking that man's children across the country while he stays here to work."
Not daunted, she pointed out that it wasn't "my turn." My next oldest sister, Mary wasn't married yet and I shouldn't marry ahead of her. I reminded her that Mary was still having a high old time enjoying her single status and that she didn't lack for suitors to end this status whenever she chose. It was a good thing Ma's argument didn't carry the day for Mary married four years after I did and I would have had a long wait.
Ma had always prized education and bred respect for it in all her children. "Was I now going to throw away the fruits of my education?" Getting married was the same as resigning my teaching position because no married teachers were allowed in the schools at that time. I said that this end to my teaching career was inevitable unless I chose spinsterhood to marriage.
With the tide of the battle going against her she rolled up her biggest gun. Ma observed that when the Great Anthracite Coal Strike began in 1902 my father and brothers were out of their mining jobs. To keep the family of eight children alive, Thomas and Lawrence, two of the older boys had been found jobs mining copper in Butte, Montana by her brother Tom Curtis and had sent home most of their wages for eight years. When my father died in a mine accident in 1912 the three oldest girls Johanna, Matilda, and Mary had for years helped support the home by working in textile mills and at summer resorts. Ma admitted that I had been contributing to the home in my four years of teaching. Wily as always, she offered a compromise. If I would teach one more year she would consider my contributions to the family coffers fairly met. Besides it would enable her to save so that she could throw a big wedding. I considered this last thought a small sop since I was uninterested in the size of the wedding. Frank and I agreed to save money for our honeymoon, first apartment and marriage while waiting one more year and he put his mother's furniture in storage when she, Floyd, Bill and Ruth moved to New Jersey. He went to board with his Aunt Jennie and Uncle Frank Law in Kingston.
Years later my mother confessed that she had insisted on my waiting a year because she had hoped that by the end of a year the engagement would be broken. She always liked Frank personally but was sure in her heart that he would be a "womanizer" and bring me much later grief. Her fears were not allayed until after we were married and I was in the hospital having our first baby, Frances. Frank stayed at my mother's. There were two young girls staying there also. Their uncle, who had brought them over from Ireland, was John Burke, Ma's long time boarder. These girls paid a lot of attention to Frank, wanted to cook his eggs or wait on him in some way, but Ma said that he paid no attention to them.
His mind was on his wife and baby in the hospital and not on a flirtation. Ma liked that in Frank, and from then on she had a high opinion of him. He slept on the couch in her dining room and she often told of coming downstairs early in the morning and seeing Frank there asleep with the rosary in his hands. He had been praying for the life of his first born which was in hazard at the time.
This was in the future. When Ma and I settled our differences, both thought we had won. I was sure our love could survive a one year wait and perhaps be buttressed by this period of waiting by accumulating funds to launch our marriage on a more secure basis. She was sure the hidden Lothario would stand revealed. She lost."
The love Frank and I had for each other was strengthened, not weakened by this one year postponement of our marriage and ,
As spring approached in 1926 we started to talk about a honeymoon trip. Frank said that he could get passes for us to anywhere reached by rail that we liked and I said, "How about Prince Edward Island in Canada?"
I had read all of the L. M. Montgomery books of "Anne of the Island," "Anne of Green Gables" and every other book about Prince Edward Island that I could find and had a wish to someday visit the island if ever I had the opportunity.
We were married on June 29, 1926 with a mass in St. Ignatius Church in Kingston and a wedding reception in my home in Larksville. Joe Gibbons, my godfather, came to the door of our home on my wedding day, with his hat full of rose petals, and when I walked out to the car to ride to the church, he preceded me, scattering the petals in my path
We had been married on Wednesday and by the time we had arrived and were settled in the hotel in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, it was Saturday. So after breakfast, Frank said, "Let's take a walk and find out where the church is so we won't be looking for it on Sunday." We could also discover what time the masses were to be held.
We found the church nearby with no difficulty. It was a small church and the pastor was out mowing the lawn in front of the rectory. When we stopped and introduced ourselves and told him that we were on our honeymoon from Pennsylvania, U.S.A., he was so pleased and impressed by our searching out the church that he insisted that we come into the rectory and meet his curate. The three men had a drink together and I was served a glass of soda.
They wanted to know why we had come there and had a good laugh when I told them about the "Anne of Green Gables" books. I also told them that I was surprised to find the island much bigger than I had imagined. The curate said that they had horse races there and so far, no horse had run off the island into the ocean.
The pastor said that since we had come so far to see the island, he wanted to insure that we saw all of it. He told us to be at the high mass next day and to wait after mass and his car and a driver would be outside to take us for a ride. We demurred, but he insisted that that was what he wanted, so we went along with his plan.
Next day, we arrived at the church in time for mass, walking up the aisle, wondering where to sit as each pew had a closed gate and probably was privately leased or owned by someone. We hadn't gone far when a gentleman got up from his seat, opened the gate with a flourish and bowed us in to the seat. We learned later that he was the town druggist.
After mass, waiting outside, was Douglas McNeill with the pastor's car and he was the one who was to take us for a ride. We recognized him as being in charge of all the altar boys during the mass, seventeen of them, we counted. We learned that Douglas McNeill was home on vacation from Toronto, Canada, where he was studying for the priesthood.
We became great friends with him during our stay in Summerside. Every day, on order from the pastor, he was at our hotel with the car to take us in a different direction each time, so that we would go home feeling that we had seen the place from its nine mile width to its one hundred sixty-three mile length.
We always remember the idyllic days we spent on Prince Edward Island and the part played in that stay by Douglas McNeill. Our friendship with him was to continue long after the honeymoon.
Honeymoon in Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia,
When we returned from our honeymoon on Prince Edward Island, we like most newlyweds, set about the task of establishing our first home. Our first apartment was on the second floor of a nice house on Chestnut Street in Kingston owned by a widow named Connors who lived on the first floor with her three daughters. We had four light, airy rooms with bath and heat furnished, all for forty dollars a month.
The first year we were married work was good on the railroad but after that it slowed down. We had to economize and so moved from our forty dollar a month apartment in Kingston to a house renting for seventeen dollars a month in Edwardsville, a town adjoining Kingston on one side and Larksville on the other and so Frank could still walk to work and I was nearer my family. The house was in a section dubbed "Bladgetown" after a very talkative man who used to live there, called "Billy the Bladge." Bladge is an Irish word for blabbermouth. Later we moved to a larger house on the same lot which was much lighter and airier.
In 1928, the Bladgetown section or ward of Edwardsville, was inhabited mainly by Protestant, Republican people who were especially stirred because Alfred E. Smith was running for president of the United States and he was a Catholic. Bitter feeling was aroused.
There were very few Democrats in that ward, but it seemed to be the law that Republicans and Democrats would be represented equally at the voting place. The Democrats were hard put to find suitable persons to fill these jobs, but the Protestants, or Republicans had an overflow of willing workers. The most vociferous of these was a woman called "Janie," a fighter from Wales, originally.
Frank wasn't interested in politics except in a casual way, but this situation appealed to his fighting Irish spirit and he agreed to work on the election board on election day. This distressed me as work on the railroad was becoming slack again and I knew that many of the older railroaders "took off" on election day, making it certain that the young men would be called to work.
Anyhow, the day came, and much to "Janie's" chagrin, her daughter, who was expecting a baby, went into labor at 4 A.M. of that day and was taken to the hospital. There was a vote gone! Janie didn't give up. She stormed the voting place, wanting to cast a vote for her missing daughter. She might have gotten away with it with some election boards, but with Frank Rooney and his fellow Irish railroader friend, John Kelly, she didn't have a chance. Frank always enjoyed a good fight.
Meanwhile, I was having a rough day back at the house. The phone kept ringing calling Frank to work and at first I said that he was out, but that I would have him call the office as soon as he returned. As the hours went by I finally admitted that he was working on the election board. The "call boy" had evidently had a hard day also, finding crews for the different jobs. He asked me, "Does Frank work for the election board, or the Lackawanna Railroad?"
This scared me and I was in no mood to greet Frank pleasantly when he came in that night, all keyed up by the excitement of the day. He gave me ten dollars which calmed me down a little and then he took a call to work.
Next morning, a man came to the door and asked for Frank. I told him that Frank wasn't home. The man said, "This is his pay for working at the polls yesterday, please give it to him when he comes home."
"Oh, he got his pay last night," I said. The man laughed, and said, "Well, anyhow, give this to him."
When I told Frank about it, he said, "That's what I get for marrying an honest Swede."
My anxiety about Frank's work was a growing concern for many, but all of us talked of other things to mask the real worry that assailed all of us, the falling of the economy and no sign of anything being done about it.
A symbol of the deteriorating economy and its corrosive effects on the daily life of millions occurred when in 1930 we left Edwardsville to find more work in Scranton.
There was a pile of ashes in our backyard that I wanted removed before we moved, so that we'd leave everything "shipshape." Ashes were usually taken to the dump, or otherwise disposed. I asked a thirteen year old boy if he'd cart the ashes away for one dollar. He came back immediately, his mother with him, and together they got rid of that heap quickly. They needed that dollar very badly and jumped at the chance of earning it. The economy was winding down.
During the years 1926 to 1931, Frank and I had the children that would form our family.
In April of 1927, Frank and I became the parents of our first born, named Frances after her father. My sister, Johanna came to the hospital with Frank and me and stayed the long hours before Frances was born. The long labor was too much for Dr. Edwards, our family doctor, an older man. He collapsed and Dr. Agnes Flack, an intern in the hospital, was called to substitute for him in what was turning out to be a very difficult birth. Frances was finally born at 12:40 A.M. on April 16, 1927. Dr. Flack stood by her until 5 A.M. as a heart machine kept Frances alive. If she had been born at home, which was customary at the time, she would have died. When Johanna realized that Frances' frail life hung in a wavering balance she came into the delivery room and gave her niece conditional baptism. Johanna, though distressed at the possible consequences of this crisis, faced the problem squarely and did what she thought had to be done if her niece was to see heaven according to Roman Catholic doctrine, interpreted literally at that time. This belief held that an unbaptized child was destined for an after life in limbo, and would never enter heaven. A lay person could administer "conditional baptism" which would prevent this and if the child lived the baptism could be made regular by a priest at a church later. Johanna was ever a true believer in Roman Catholicism and she took the steps necessary in her belief to gain the benefits for her niece of that religious heritage.
(Quoted for the "Johanna" book)
When Frances was a month old, Charles Lindbergh crossed the ocean in a small plane and landed safely in France. He had taken off on the morning of May 20, 1927 from Long Island, New York in his monoplane, "The Spirit of St. Louis." This was not the first transatlantic flight but it was the first solo one. He landed the next day after a lonely flight of thirty-three and one-half hours at Le Bourget Airport near Paris where he was greeted by one-hundred-thousand wildly, tumultuous Frenchmen. His deed caused a worldwide sensation and made him an instant national hero. That evening, at the news of his safe arrival, all the people in Kingston were out on the streets rejoicing and Frank and I and Johanna and her daughter, Elizabeth, who happened to be with us, joined them. We wrapped baby Frances in a shawl and she was part of the celebration. Frank and I were happy for Lindy but we also celebrated the recovery of Frances.
We were expecting our second baby in July of 1928. Early in the evening of the 13th I called my doctor, Agnes Flack and she said that she'd come and get me and take me to the hospital, the Homeopathic, in Wilkes Barre.
Johanna came with us. I didn't call Frank as all was normal, no complications expected and I wanted to surprise Frank. He had been so upset at the time of Frances's birth that this time I thought to spare him all that and announce the birth as a "fait accompli."
The baby was born at 9:00 P.M. on July 13, 1928 and all was well. It was a fine, healthy boy, about nine pounds, and Dr. Flack said that she'd take Johanna home and for me to get a good night's rest. No thought or mention was given of a name that night.
Frank arrived at Ma's at 5:00 o'clock next morning. Ma heard the car and went out to meet him. She said to him, "You have a son," and she laughed. Frank thought she was joking as she knew that he wanted a son; so he didn't believe her until he came in to the house and saw that I wasn't there.
Later in the morning, Frank came to the hospital and Leo Gallagher was with him. Leo was a great kidder, pretending to Frank that he had been with Johanna and me when the baby was born and that I had said the baby's name was going to be Leo after him. Frank was surprised that I would make such a decision without consulting him because we differed about what we would name the baby if it was a boy. I preferred Lars but Frank said it was a Swedish name and didn't go with the surname Rooney.
While visiting me, Frank left the room to go downstairs to the business office to arrange the financing of my stay. Leo Gallagher told me that Frank had made him very happy by telling him that our new son was to be named Leo, after him. Of course, later that day I told Frank that Leo hadn't come with Johanna the night before and Frank explained that he hadn't talked about a name for the baby to Leo. But we decided to name the Baby Leo after Leo Gallagher. He and Johanna had always stood by us "through thick and thin," and we loved them. Leo even scrubbed my kitchen for me so I wouldn't be doing it so near the expectation of the baby.
Frances was only a baby, really, fifteen months old and the Gallaghers took over a great deal of her care. So Frank and I were happy to name our baby Leo as a token of our gratitude and love for both of them. Johanna always said that if she had a boy, she'd name his Leo, so here was our boy and the name came with him. Later when Leo married Alberta Maydock they named their first son, Lars, and so that name reentered the family genealogy.
Before Leo was a year and a half old and Frances nearly three, they had a new sister, Sarah Jane. She was born at home as I didn't want to leave the other two babies and go to the hospital. We were lucky to be able to get a girl named Kathryn to come to work for us days. She lived nearby with some relatives and had been looking for a job for a long time and this was a big help to me.
The day that Sarah Jane was born, Frank was home and Dr. Flack called him in to see the birth. She thought it was a miracle that everyone should witness, if possible. It was the first birth that Frank had seen and it made a big impression on him.
It was December 18, 1929 and the snow was beating against the windows as the baby entered life. The doctor discovered that her heart was very far to the right and was beating irregularly. We couldn't face losing her and asked God to let us keep her if only to summer so that she wouldn't have to be buried in all that snow. Our prayers were answered and she lived until the following August. Indeed she thrived and was a beautiful baby.
Added to our concern for Sarah Jane, now came the dread of no work at all on the railroad. Frank worked out of Scranton, as the Kingston office was closed. Sometimes, when he was "first out," he'd go up to Scranton so he'd be sure to be there for the call and many times he had to wait twenty-four hours or more at the Railroad YMCA having very little money for food or bed. He always had a large lunch pail with him, well filled, but he tried to save this for the actual trip on the road.
My mother knew all this and one day offered her house in Scranton to us. It was in a neighborhood called the High Works. It was called that, not because it was high, but because it was low, in a small valley between two hills. When the Lackawanna Railroad was being built years before, a huge trestle had been erected between the hills to support the rails which spanned the distance. People came from miles around to view the "high works," and so that section got its name.
Aunt Annie Coursey had lived there and we had often visited her. I was no stranger to the neighborhood but was spoken of as "one of Sarah Jane's girls," in reference to my mother whom they knew well. Frank and I liked children, and at times some of them would hang around our place, even though the Rooney children were too young to play with them. Mrs. Mary Ann McCrone who lived across the road from us, would say to me, "Chase those kids. I'll tell your mother on you."
Meanwhile, like all our neighbors in 1930, we were living very carefully, making every penny count. We rode the bus from the High Works to the central city, sometimes had a car and at other times didn't. I took baby Sarah Jane to the free baby clinic regularly and received many different diagnoses of what was wrong with her. I was warned that I might find her dead, a so called "crib death" that doctors didn't know too much about. I took her for x-ray treatments for an enlarged thymus gland, gave her medicine for helping to keep open the pylorus valve, leading from the stomach, and we were worried constantly, although she appeared to thrive and at nearly eight months was a beautiful big baby when she died on August 10, 1930.
Frank and I were grief-stricken, as was the whole family, but we differed in how we dealt with that grief. I kept it all to myself, which was bad for me, and I didn't want to talk about it with anyone. Frank wanted to tell everyone all about it, even a stranger who would be waiting the bus with him. He said it was hard on him that he couldn't talk about it with me, so he'd talk about it with his fellow workmen who were most sympathetic and anyone else who would listen. It took me several years before I could even discuss it.
In September, 1931, we were blessed by the birth of a baby girl whom we named Mary in honor of the Blessed Virgin. She was born in the Nesbitt Memorial Hospital in Kingston with Dr. Flack in attendance. She was a health, happy baby and gave us much joy during these hard years. The neighbors rejoiced with us; older women who had not been in the habit of coming to our house, came to see her and to tell us how happy they were to know that we had another girl to fill our hearts and minds, but not to replace the one we had lost. Ruth and Bill Rooney came up from New Jersey to be her godparents.
So in the five and a quarter years between June, 1926 and September, 1931, Frank and I had established our family of children who were to live to maturity; Frances, in April, 1927, Leo in July, 1928 and Mary in September, 1931. The ties we forged then and later still bind us despite the separating forces of geography and the pursuit of individual lives. They were years that began in economic prosperity and ended in economic disaster.
The great stock market crash of October 29, 1929 is often thought of by many to have signaled the start of the Great Depression which was to color every aspect of American life all through the nineteen thirties until finally solved by the massive upsurge in economic activity engendered by World War II. But it was not that simple. The farmers of this nation had been in the grip of economic stagnation through most of the nineteen twenties; their plight only worsened later by the collapse of the stock market. Most wage earners shared little of the dividends from the great industries represented on the rising stock market. In 1929, seventy-eight percent of these dividends went to three percent of the population or 363,000 people out of a population of 122,000,000. However most people did have jobs; but not even this blessing was spread evenly throughout the country. The anthracite coal region where we lived began to decline economically, as far as I could see, in 1927 and with other faltering parts of the economy would begin the traumatic slide of the entire nation to the nadir of 1932. By then, conservative estimates say that half the nation was close to starvation, many with their savings lost in the failure of thousands of banks, a quarter of the total. Their jobs were gone in a business shrinkage of fifty-percent between 1929 and 1932. There were 15,000,000 unemployed by that time and countless others underemployed. To have lived through this Great Depression was to share an experience with millions for whom it would sear their hopes and scar their lives for ever after.
During our first year of marriage from 1926 to 1927 things went well with us while Frank was steadily employed on the railroad. Work began to get slack after that and Frank was worried. Frank understood railroading, why freight moved in certain directions, what was going on at their point of origin, what freight was being generated and why it moved in the direction it did. Locally we always listened to the mine schedules on the radio even when later we had to do it on a neighbor's radio when we could no longer afford to replace our own. He knew that the spasmodic schedules of mines working each day foretold the railroad traffic. His interpretation of the national freight patterns he observed at this time was uncharacteristically pessimistic.
The homes we could afford to live in provided one index of the retrenchment forced on our family by the economic deterioration of the Great Depression. We had begun married life in 1926 living in an apartment for which we paid forty dollars monthly. In 1928 we were forced to move to cheaper lodgings for seventeen dollars a month. Lastly, we moved into a home owned by my mother for which we paid fifteen dollars monthly. The gracious landlord forgave us in those months when even this rent couldn't be met. Finally, like many other hard pressed families, we had to "double up" with other members of the family. Minnie and Floyd Landers came to live with us in our High Works home during the early thirties and by necessity, lived with us for two years.
This degeneration of living standards could be seen in many other manifestations of family life during the depths of the depression. In the early nineteen thirties, after our baby Sarah Jane died, Frank got laid off from work on the railroad. He had accumulated about thirteen years of seniority rights to his job but the knife cut that deeply and more. He was not to get back to work on the railroad for two years. I remember vividly the sense of fear felt by us and many others throughout the nation. It was as if we were descending into a deep pit with no bottom and no exit and therefore no hope.
Frank and I spent many restless nights. We would try to sleep but would toss and turn worrying how we were going to find food for our babies and discover ourselves meeting each other downstairs too disturbed to rest.
Frank was always a proud man and no matter how low our money got he refused to go on relief. He thought the acceptance of charity to be demeaning and I suppose the need of such help struck at his manhood. He felt strongly that it was his responsibility to provide for his family and was, I guess, bewildered by why he couldn't when he was so willing and able to work. We came to the point where we and the children had nothing to eat for three days but oatmeal and prunes. When the prunes gave out on the fourth day, Frank sacrificed his pride and went downtown to Scranton where a federal office had opened to feed the needy without the red tape of applying for relief status. They gave him a check for eleven dollars and seventy-five cents to purchase food and our worse experience was over; but there would be other times that Frank and I had to curb our appetites so that the children could have enough to eat.
A few years ago, I was visiting with my son Leo's family and was treated to a scene common in households today. One of his two sons stood staring into the open door of a refrigerator bulging with food and said, "Mom, there's nothing to eat." I laughed and told the boys that during the depression our refrigerator frequently contained nothing to eat. I meant it was empty, not that it contained no food that struck the fancy. They nodded politely and after I had left asked their parents if I were kidding; could I have meant that there was literally no food in the refrigerator. Yes, Leo explained.
During the depression years millions relearned the respect for food characteristic of simpler societies. Nothing was wasted. We gathered foods in season at their cheapest and when we couldn't eat all of them we canned them as hostages to leaner times. I even recall canning grapes when they ripened when we couldn't afford sugar and then opening them to make jelly when we could. In summer we picked the blueberries plentiful in the Pennsylvania hills and even lamb's quarter, a green similar to spinach and very edible, growing wild. It still grows in abundance but our affluent society would rather buy spinach at the supermarket.
Frank always loved children and young people. He had gathered around him a
group of younger men in the High Works, unmarried, no jobs, no money and just managing to
survive by living home and feeling guilty about eating food that others in the family
needed. They used to gather at our house occasionally to play cards in the
evening. One evening, they sat with the cards unnoticed, while they talked of what
to my mind was revolution. They planned an attack on the Acme warehouse where
supplies for the many Acme stores were stored. They didn't plan to do it immediately
but had the plan in case they or their families had no food at all. Luckily, this
didn't actually come to pass but it was close. Three of the young men who sat at the
table that night were later killed in World War II fighting for the life of a country whom
in the depths of the depression sometimes looked like their enemy.
Few periods of time in one's life are locked in unrelieved darkness like the far side of the moon. The hardships of even the worst years of the depression were compensated for by many of its brighter aspects. With Frank out of work we had the phone disconnected and no longer had to find money to keep that lifeline to his job open and there were no more calls to work in the middle of the night. We didn't have to worry about any bills that didn't have to do with survival. We began to take it all in stride and the the leisure to assess our impoverished circumstances and plan how to cope with them.
Hard times brought out the kindness in so many people. An impoverished neighbor of ours, John Kerrigan, was old and lived alone across the street from us. He had been receiving a fifty pound bag of flour and did so periodically from the Poor Board in Scranton all through the years of the depression. He didn't know what to do with all this flour so he'd bring it over to me and I'd bake bread for all of us with it. I kept him supplied and often baked pancakes and biscuits for him. He usually came over in the evening and sat down and smoked his pipe while he visited with us. The flour was a godsend for us and I don't know how we would have managed without it.
The flour had one drawback, but we didn't mind that; we were so glad to have it. The bread would rise beautifully in the pans but then, when I put it in the oven, it fell a little.
We called it Hoover flour. The president's last name was used as an adjective for everything that was bad or not up to standard. There were Hoover peaches, canned presumable without sugar, castor oil that wouldn't physic the kids, any number of things dubbed "Hoover," but not officially. I suppose it made us feel better to work off our frustrations on that poor man who knew nothing of it.
During the two years that Frank was laid off from work in the early nineteen thirties he developed a sort of business of his own. He took advantage of the fact that he had an outgoing personality and still had a pass on the Lackawanna Railroad. He could go to the wholesale section of New York to buy razor blades and different gadgets to sell at places where men were still working. He'd go to the place on payday as the men were coming out and try to sell them some of his wares. Even a few dollars were welcome and helped keep us going. He became a "pitchman" as they were called and worked hard at it. He would load a suitcase on "X" shaped supports, called a keyster, and full of products bought cheaply in New York. I'm sure that there were times of discouragement and even dislike of what he was doing, but he never complained. Sometimes, the company would have men or police to keep the pitchmen away from the gates as the workers came out. Men would say, "you better not hang around here, they'll chase you away." Frank used to say, "You are never being chased until someone is running after you."
Frank and I continued to be non-political persons but we considered it a bright spot when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in 1932. Most of the residents in the High Works were Democrats, but the Republicans were in power in Scranton and few jobs were given to residents in our section, menial jobs such as those on the ash and trash trucks. On election day, each section was given ten dollars to hire a car to get the vote out by the Republicans. This was easily done in the High Works section because there so few Republicans to get out; but Jimmy Foy had been given a job on an ash truck so he had to work for the Republicans on election day. He had no car and didn't drive so he asked Frank to drive his car that day and help. There was ten dollars in it for Frank. So, he and Jimmy, who at heart was also a Democrat, worked all day getting people to the polls. Jimmy was careful at first to get out all the Republican votes, but that was soon done. Then they got all out who wanted a ride, regardless of how they'd vote when they got in the booth. There was a lot of merriment at the polls when people saw those two Irish Democrats with a big Republican sign on the car, busily getting everyone there to vote.
We didn't have a radio, couldn't afford one, in March 1933 when Roosevelt was inaugurated. Steve Ruddy had a radio on which he turned up the volume so that everyone could hear the bands in the inaugural parade.
While I stayed at home with our three small children and listened to Ruddy's radio next door and the inaugural bands, Frank had gathered with others at a neighbor's house, that of Leo McCormack. That was the pattern that day in the High Works. People that could afford a radio served as hosts to larger groups that couldn't.
The author John Dos Passos had described Roosevelt's voice as he gave his inaugural address as one which, ". . . . after a moment's hoarseness was confident and full, carefully tuned to the microphones; the patroon voice, the headmaster's admonishing voice, the bedside doctor's voice that spoke to each man and to all of us." The new president's words were being carefully listened to by millions. His most memorable words were, "First of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning terror which paralyzes needed effort to convert retreat into advance." He, as our new leader, was not overwhelmed by the economic blight, but what would he do? He said, "I shall ask the congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis - broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency as great as the power that would be given me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe."
Frank told me about the speech and the feelings he had about it. Roosevelt offered hope and that was more than enough. The feeling the speech engendered had nothing to do with politics. Something was going to be done about the economic disease that was laying us waste. This is what appealed to so many.
I think that was why Roosevelt's First Inaugural Address is remembered by so many. It was one of those events in the national life that those old enough to recall can describe where they were when they heard it; much as they can vividly describe the circumstances of their hearing that Pearl Harbor was bombed or that John F. Kennedy was shot.
Things weren't going to be allowed to continually worsen. Positive action would be taken to solve our problems and the future once again promised hope.
Our domestic life gradually took a turn for the better as Frank and I survived the rigors of the depression and his long unemployment. His days as a pitchman, using huckster tactics foreign to his taste, to keep his family afloat, came to an end. He was called back to work on the railroad. He, like most unemployed in the depression era, asked nothing more of life than the chance to work to support his family. Now again he had that opportunity and he relished it.
Work on the railroad at his recall was sparse but began to gradually improve, and, of course, this made life easier to have more money coming in. I once suggested that maybe I should look for some kind of part-time job and Frank said, "You'll never work a day while I live." That ended that. He had the old belief against women working outside the home, prevalent at that time.
Another thing that I remember vividly about this time was that our many wedding presents of blankets, towels, dishes and so many other things were wearing out or had been broken and had to be replaced but during the lean years of the early thirties this had not been possible. Now as work on the railroad was picking up and things looked brighter economically, we began to refurbish our house and clothes. When Frank would bring home a good pay he'd often say, "Thank you Hitler." He read a lot and knew that Germany under Hitler was buying a lot of scrap metal from us and that the car loads of it going on down to New York for shipment overseas made work for the Lackawanna Railroad. He knew that the preparations for war both by the fascists and the democratic powers had the side effect of lifting our national economy and that he was benefiting from it.
Frank and I enjoyed our daily existence at home. We had many interests and joined into the life around us whenever we could. Frank loved his home and this normally conservative man defied the conventions of the time to take his part in it as he saw fit. His work schedule had him home at unpredictable times and he'd always tell me to wash clothes on a day that he was home so he could fill and empty the tubs for me. We didn't have stationary tubs that could be filled or emptied in place in those days. Further, Frank would even hang clothes on the line when I didn't feel well. The fact that I didn't wash our clothes on Monday bothered the women and the fact that Frank helped with this task, designated as woman's work, bothered the men, but what other people thought or said on the matter had no meaning to him.
He loved to be at home on Sundays when the whole family could be there. He'd help me prepare the Sunday dinner, the most elaborate of the week. He'd cut the cabbage for cole slaw, peel the potatoes or do whatever I found helpful. He felt such occasions drew the family closer and insisted that the children help too as their grew more able.
Frank never kept the family finances secret to himself as so many men do but always
shared with me our exact standing. One payday he was called to work.
Hurriedly he dressed for work and I packed his lunch pail, and he went down to the city,
got his paycheck, cashed it and then reported on the job on time. He had told me to
be down at my godmother's when the train came up out of Scranton, and he'd throw the pay
down to me. My godmother was Mary Ann McNulty and her back yard ran by the railroad
bank. She was so pleased that Frank would take all that trouble to make sure that I
had money for the weekend. "You have a good husband, Laura," she said.
Frank loved to play cards. The railroaders spent so much time at the railroad YMCA at the end of a trip, waiting for a job home, that they became very proficient with cards. After the first hand was played, Frank knew the location of most of the cards. He had no patience with the way we played cards at home, chatting, not paying attention, or asking what trump was and our games usually ended in an argument. Floyd Landers, when he and Minnie were staying with us, would say to Frank, "It's a pity you can't enjoy a simple game of cards with your wife and mother, without losing your temper over it." But the game would end and each of us would find something else to do. This was before we had radio and television so we read a lot or did odd jobs in the evening.
Nevertheless, we went to many card games together, usually at a church or school party. Pinochle was the popular game then and we usually came home with a prize.
We went to see a movie when a good one was in. Frank wanted to see all the movies that Barbara Stanwick was in and we usually did as she was his favorite star. Too, as the children grew, we sometimes used to divide along sex lines on family movie outings; Frank would drop me and the girls off to see the latest Shirley Temple offering while he and Leo would go elsewhere to see what they considered a less sugary movie starring Spencer Tracy or John Wayne.
Both of us were interested and active in the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen and its Women's Auxiliary. We'd never miss the annual banquet where invariably we were called on to sing "Little Annie Rooney" for the group. . . . . At these his high spirits made him the life of the party. I remember one banquet that the Brotherhood had in the Sterling Hotel in Wilkes-Barre and we had such a good time. As we were leaving and waiting in the lobby for our cars to be brought up, Frank organized a dance there in the lobby without any music. I heard someone say, "He's a heller but his wife is quiet."
Our primary domestic interest at this time was, of course, our children. When home, Frank was always willing to stay with the children and he enjoyed them. I was active in the P.T.A. and later on, in the Convent Guild, and Frank was pleased to have me do so. He'd tell the children that Mommy had gone to a "pot and pan" party, no matter where I had gone. I had gone to a pan demonstration party once and that settled it; from that time on, no matter where I went, it was to a "pot and pan" party to the children, probably sounded like fun to them. This eager baby sitter was the same man whom my mother had warned me before our marriage would leave me at home while he enjoyed the flesh pots outside the home.
Frank seemed to be greatly influenced by things he remembered his father saying and the advice his father gave him. Primary in this heritage was his deeply felt religious belief which he in turn wished to hand down untarnished to his children.
One day when Leo was a five month old baby, I was feeding him beef broth. Frank saw me doing this and asked if I didn't know that it was Friday. I knew it was Friday but said it made no difference to a baby, but Frank felt that it did, a baptized Catholic baby shouldn't have beef broth on Friday. I continued with the feeding, didn't take it at all seriously.
We always went to mass together on Sundays when he wasn't working and he was strict about the children going also. He had a mass said for his father every November except during the depths of the depression when we didn't have the money for the offering.
Though it added to our expenses Frank wanted the children transferred from the neighborhood public school when they completed the second grade so that eventually all three attended the parochial school of the Holy Rosary parish about a mile away.
There was always something going on at school which Frances, Leo and Mary attended and Frank was always glad when he was free to attend one of their plays, processions, meetings, or whatever. A white dress for Frances or Mary or both, had to be washed, ironed and ready for a procession at any time. Leo was serving on the altar and his white surplice also had to be ready at a moment's notice.
Frank always tried to have some kind of car that would run and he was most generous with it in seeing that the young people got around, others as well as his own. If he were home, he always went down to the Holy Rosary school to bring them home. In summer he took as many as would fit in the car, swimming at Lake Scranton or Nay Aug Park. Other fathers in the neighborhood didn't do these things and one of them once said, "You are spoiling it for all the men in the High Works. They'll come to expect rides." But that didn't bother Frank.
We indulged in one luxury not common to couples living in straightened circumstances. Since Frank worked on the railroad we had access to free passes which was an incentive to travel of which we took great advantage. In the spring of 1932, Douglas McNeill, now a priest serving a parish on Prince Edward Island, was to serve his first high mass and he invited Frank and me to attend. Notwithstanding the facts that this was at the lowest point of the nation's economic prostration and we had three small children, the youngest Mary, aged only seven months, we decided to go. Blithely, we counted our assets. Because of the railroad passes our transportation to the island would be free as it had been on our honeymoon. Frank was free to go since he was out of work. Besides, Grandma and Grandpa Landers were living with us and therefore instant baby sitters.
At the time of the trip, May of 1932, there was a wide search on for the baby of Charles and Ann Morrow Lindbergh. The baby's name was Charles, Junior and he was the first child and had been born to this famous aviator and his wife in 1930. He had been kidnapped in 1932 and there was some evidence to believe that he might be found on a boat near Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts.
As the train carried us north up the coast, planes flew overhead, dipping low over the water and the boats there. People on the train were saying that Lindbergh himself was piloting one of the planes, searching for a signal that would tell him where his son was.
It began to rain toward dark when we reached Boston. As we got off the train to change to another train going to Canada, newsboys were calling, "Lindbergh baby found dead."
This put a chill through me, as the horrible details emerged about the baby being found in the woods near the Lindbergh home in Hopewell, New Jersey, not anywhere near the water and the boats that we had been watching all afternoon. I felt like turning around and going back to my baby Mary and the youngsters, Leo and Frances at home.
Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a carpenter, was later tried and convicted for this crime and electrocuted in 1936.
Anyhow, we continued on our way. . . . We reached Prince Edward Island on schedule and got a room at the hotel in Summerside as we had done in 1926. We had dinner with the McNeill family and met all of them, the youngest being ten years of age. All of them spoke French when we weren't there and that seemed to be the language of the house.
That night Frank sent his suit out to be pressed and we prepared for the first high mass of Father McNeill next morning. It was a formal and touching occasion and the church was filled. The celebration went on all that day and we met many of the relatives and friends of the family.
Two days later, after some sight-seeing on the island we started home. Later, when Frank was called back to work and life resumed its normal tenor we began to travel more. We had been staying close to home, watching every penny so we'd have enough food for the children who were now growing out of babyhood and had more needs. Now, we felt that we could splurge a little, get Helen Viavada, a neighbor, to baby-sit, and Frank and I would go up to Binghamton on the train, about sixty miles away, get an oyster stew at a place there famous for them and come home again all in a couple of hours.
Our passes on the Lackawanna Railroad were also well used to maintain family contacts especially as there was a train from Scranton to Kingston, and Johanna or Lawrence could meet me and the children there.
In July 1937, Frank and I decided to go to Miami, Florida to see my sister Mary and her husband, Leonard (Fritz) Wirtz. We left the children in Larksville with my mother.
As our train neared the south, the civility of whites to blacks seemed to decline with the latitude. Frank was upset by the way that some southeners treated the blacks who worked on the train as waiters and porters. We hadn't seen such open hostility and contempt in the north, though probably some of it was there. For instance, while we sat in the dining car a man sat at the next table and with a deep Southern accent and a nasty, imperious tone demanded that butter be placed on his table immediately by the black waiter. Frank said to me in a loud voice, "He probably doesn't have butter at home." Frank was prepared to do battle but the man pretended not to hear him. Frank hated any display of bigotry against any people and was ahead of his time in demonstrating his disapproval of discrimination of any sort. He was not a militant in such causes but characteristically could not and would not hide his feelings.
Fritz was a yacht captain in Miami and he and Mary made sure our trip was full of memorable events such as fishing, swimming and sight-seeing.
Florida Vacation, 1937
The next trip that I will recount here was prompted by sister Johanna and her husband Leo Gallagher and daughter Elizabeth who had moved to Oregon in 1938. Johanna and Leo had decided to leave the chronically depressed coal regions and try to make a fresh start in the west. My brother Tom lived alone on a ranch in Oregon and he encouraged the Gallaghers to come seek a new life there. The nuns at Elizabeth's high school in Towanda upon her graduation helped her to get into a nurse's training program in Astoria, Oregon and so the move was made.
Johanna and Leo had always been close to Frank and me and the children and we missed them very much and kept up a voluminous exchange of mail between us.
By the time the next summer was approaching, a glimmer of a thought to go and see them in Oregon was beginning to grow in my mind. I talked it over with Frank and he was all for it. He could get passes for us and the trip would be educational for the children, Frances 12, Leo 11 and Mary, 8 years old. Frank stayed at the Railroad YMCA while we were gone but would check on the house occasionally. He also got a new hot water boiler put in while I was away.
When I told my mother about the proposed trip, she was aghast. I had a nerve to take "that man's children" so far away from him. Was he going to allow it? I told her that he was sending for the passes for us to go but she still wasn't reconciled to it. I'm sure that she thought she'd never see any of us again.
We had a wonderful trip to the ranch in Oregon and stayed about six weeks there. Frank accompanied us to Binghamton, New York to get us started on our way. We traveled by coach, couldn't afford sleepers. When we reached Butte, Montana where my Uncle Thomas Curtis and his wife, Ella, lived we stopped two nights and had a visit with them. Frank had arranged for this stopover when he got the passes for us.
Next day we continued on to Oregon on the train. We had a lay over in Marshfield, Oregon, and Mary and Frances started to play jacks on the steps outside the station. Soon a small crowd gathered to watch them; they hadn't seen jacks played in years one said. We were very tired by this time and Leo said that if his Daddy didn't figure out a shorter way back to Pennsylvania, he was going to stay out there in Oregon.
When we got to Myrtle Point, Oregon, we went to the Davenports, friends of Tom's, and they took us the sixteen miles up to the ranch.
Oregon Ranch, Summer 1939
After a glorious stay on the ranch with Tom and the Gallaghers, we started for home and Frank met us in Chicago. We stayed there overnight in a hotel near the railroad station. Frank wanted to see the stockyards next day, and of course, all the children wanted to go with him after being away from him all summer. Johanna had sent two jars of canned deer meat with me to take to the Vane Dares in Chicago on my way back. The Dares were good friends from Larksville.
So, after breakfast next day, Frank and the children left for the stockyards and I got a bus up to where the Dares lived and delivered the deer meat and had lunch with them.
Finally, I reached the hotel and Frank and the children. He said he was relieved to see me, the traffic was so fast, streets to cross so wide, that he was glad to get them all safely back to the hotel. I think his respect for my feat of taking the three all across the country was heightened by that experience confined to only one city.
Leo remembers hearing newsboys shouting excitedly on the streets below our hotel rooms and Frank sending him down to get a newspaper. It was Sunday, September 3, 1939 and the headline covered the front page with only two words, "War Declared." The Germans had marched into Poland and Great Britain had declared war. World War II had started.
That spring of 1939, the New York World's Fair had opened in Flushing Meadow with its symbol of the Trylon and perisphere. We joined the twenty-five million visitors that first year of the fair, after we returned from Oregon and before school started. Frank wanted the whole family to see it. The theme of the fair was the "World of Tomorrow" and two popular exhibits gave a somewhat correct view of it. General Motors seated viewers on moving chairs while speakers in the seats described the serpentine highways and interchanges of the future they were seeing and General Electric had one of the first television studios that were later to become so important in our national life.
All our trips were so enjoyable and I'm glad we took them. Frank's life was to be so short that it was good we had taken advantage of every pleasure we could when opportunity allowed.
The month of May in 1941 was a beautiful one as usual. By this spring our family fortunes were rising but they were to take a cataclysmic setback.
The economic upsurge caused by World War II and the nation's accelerating war preparedness program prior to our entry into that conflict created increasingly prosperous times for the railroads. Frank was working steadily now and took the examination necessary to become a conductor. This was a long held dream of his and he often volunteered to perform the duties of the conductor on the train crews on which he served to prepare him for that role.
One day Frank was at work and I wasn't expecting him in for another day or two. I was setting the table for the children's lunch when the kitchen door opened and Leo came in carrying his father's bag and lunch pail and Frank was with him, followed by the girls. They had been walking home from school when Frank came driving along and picked them up.
While the children were eating their lunch, Frank told me that he had collapsed on the job the night before and had been taken off the train in Binghamton where an ambulance met the train and took him to the hospital. He had been treated there, his pain diagnosed as a gall bladder attack. The doctor there advised him as to diet and warned him to reduce as he was overweight and an operation before reducing was inadvisable. This advice was the best that Frank was to receive. Too bad that the situation got out of his hands and the good sense and knowledge of the good doctor in Binghamton was not followed.
Frank reported to the Moses Taylor Hospital in Scranton as was required when a worker collapsed on the job. This was the hospital the Lackawanna Railroad used for the benefit of their employees and their families. Frank said that he felt all right and well enough to go back to work but he couldn't go until he had been cleared by the company doctors.
He acted so well and was interested in everything around him, that I thought that if he came home and we adhered to a fat-free diet, he might never take another attack. But, next day, when I came to see him, he had signed the permission slip and the operation was to be performed the next day. I got in touch with his mother and she came up from Wilkes-Barre to be with me. The operation seemed to last an unusually long time, or so I imagined.
Before the operation, Frank and I had talked about it. He wanted to get it over with while he was there in the hospital and not have to come back for it. An intern there, Dr. Thomas, in whom Frank had great faith, said that everything looked favorable for an operation at this time, heart, kidneys and all other vital organs were all good. We didn't know the doctor who was going to do the operation but assumed that he knew his business.
Frank knew of some job that he thought he could get later on. It was an easy job and he thought he could hold it until he was fully recovered. I said that I'd find a job also and he again objected firmly.
What happened after the operation is all confusion to me. I knew that Frank was very sick but in my inexperience with operations, knowing of them only from hearsay, I thought that it was normal to be very sick after an operation. I think that Dr. Thomas realized that Frank was in danger of death and that I had no inkling of it. He asked me to come into another room with him and then he told me. He had tears in his eyes. I asked him about calling a priest to give Frank the last rites of the church and he said he'd attend to it.
Grandma Landers, the nurse we had engaged, and I were with him that night when he died. It was twenty minutes to one, in the morning. He was thirty-seven years old. Frank knew he was dying and even "in extremis" tried to advise me as to what to do to raise the family. Finally, he said, "I'm too sick to think straight; just take care of the kids" Those were his last words.
Neighbors told me later that our dog, Peanuts, ran around and around outside our house that night. I believe in spirits and think that Frank made one last call on his children that night and that Peanuts sensed his presence. I have always felt that Frank has been with us in spirit no matter where we have lived or have gone.
Frank was buried from his home in the High Works section of Scranton, Pennsylvania on May 29, 1941. This was before the days of funerals from funeral homes, as we have today. My sister, Mary Wirtz, who had come up for the funeral from Florida, said that it was the biggest funeral she had ever seen. I had called our family undertaker from Kingston, John J. Maher, as burial was to be in Kingston Cemetery on Pringle Hill where our daughter, Sarah Jane, was buried. At the time she was buried, we had intended to put her in my mother's lot as this was the depression year of 1930 and we had no money to buy a lot.
Frank and my brother Lawrence had gone to the rectory to make the arrangements. Father Michael Lynott, who had married us, was there and he knew Frank well, as his former altar boy. He said, "You have other children, Frank, don't you? And how about you and Laura?" He opened a drawer, pulled out a paper, and proceeded to write up a deed for a cemetery lot for Frank, no money down, just pay when we could. The lot was in a good section, also, near all of our people.
Frank had often mentioned that he thought that Brotherhood men should be pallbearers at a railroader's funeral, so that's who we had with the addition of Frank's long time friend, Ray McGrellis. The funeral mass was said in the Scranton church to which we belonged and the parochial school of which our three children attended. On the day of the funeral three classes marched in from the school for the mass - Frances' 8th grade, Leo's 7th grade and Mary's 4th grade and the nuns who taught them were with them. Clifford Timlin, a grade eight High Works boy and a friend of ours had asked to serve on the altar for that mass. He is now the Bishop of the Scranton Diocese.
After the mass, the cortege then wound its way to the Pringle Hill cemetery for burial. After Franks' death many friends and relatives came forward to offer help; some going so far as to offer to raise the children to maturity. Franks' brother Bill and his wife Ruth offered to raise their godchild Mary. Father McNeill offered to take his godson Leo to raise in his rectory on Prince Edward Island and later send him to college without in any way influencing his career choice. Leo looks back on this offer with gratitude but with a sure knowledge that no church deserved to be so sorely tested.
But I was determined to keep the family together. I remembered his last words, "Take care of the kids." I didn't think Frank would have rested peacefully if I had allowed the breakup of his family.
So ended the life of a good man, long before his time. He loved life and his family and his work also. There was something about railroading that appealed to him. He never dreamed that he wouldn't be there to provide for us always and we never dreamed it either, but I know that he has been with us in spirit always - no matter where we are.
When Frank died, he left only two thousand dollars in insurance money to pay his funeral expenses and provide a base for me and the three children to earn our future support. The railroad carried much bigger policies on most of their workers with premium payments deducted from their pay and added to by company contributions. Frank had carried this larger policy for more that a decade and was happy to have such protection. The railroad simply cancelled this policy when Frank and many others were laid off during the depths of the depression. They did not wish to bear the costs of the company contributions to the insurance of laid off workers, further they did not allow the workers to assume this additional cost if they had so chosen. This callousness of the company, at just the time the men were in greatest need, so enraged Frank that he refused to renew the policy when it was offered to him upon his resumption of steady work.
This judgment made in anger was to place his beloved family in precarious circumstances. The funeral and various attendant expenses ran to one thousand dollars. The men who worked with Frank took up a collection and presented me with two hundred and fifty dollars, a goodly sum in those days. I knew that I could not spend the money his friends had sacrificed and the thousand dollars left of the insurance money and then go out to look for work. Some way to make money had to be found immediately.
My first thought was to get back to teaching, but when my brother, Joseph, took me around to apply for a teaching job in Larksville where I had taught before marriage and in Scranton where we now lived, I quickly discovered that no jobs were available. I was told that Larksville hadn't hired a teach in twenty-two years.
In Scranton when I approached a woman powerful in politics there about a job, I was advised to apply for mother's welfare, an almost below subsistence allowance for mothers and children. The attitude of this woman and her assumption that I wouldn't be able to do anything but go on welfare, steeled me to show her that I could do better than that, but at that point, I didn't know what. My mother and my brother Lawrence lived in Larksville in our old homestead and sister, Matilda and her family lived near her. Ma, Lawrence and I had considered having them move in with us in Scranton, as Ma owned the house we were living in and I thought that by joining forces, we could all get along better. The coal company now owned the house that Ma was living in and she was having difficulty paying the rent. By her living with me, I'd feel free to go out to work as she and Lawrence would be there with the children. We planned it all one day when Ma was visiting me and I went to bed thinking that we had settled our immediate future. But on the next morning, early, Ma asked me to please release her from her promise. She said, "I can't leave my home of all these years. Do whatever you have to do; go wherever you have to go, without worrying about me. If you are getting along; I will be getting along."
As I turned these various alternatives over in my mind, I knew that I faced more than steadily worsening financial circumstances. I faced weakened personal resources. Frank's sudden death had left me in a state of mental shock, not the best condition with which to face the rigors of the work world outside the home.
Too, my mother had warned me that the children were as shocked as I was and that I should keep that in mind. She said that she could see them trying to listen to every conversation going on around them, trying to get a clue as to what was going to happen next.
I remembered that for a short while, when Frank was laid off work on the railroad, he had opened a grocery store in our home. Perhaps this solution would offer support for our family, while giving the children the stabilizing influence of living in their own home and neighborhood with their mother at home. We needed a period of "marking time," as it were, to grieve and recover from our loss. So I launched a grocery store in the room Frank had converted to a store previously on the corner of Stanton Street and Ruane Avenue. Matilda's always helpful husband, Ray Jones, a carpenter, came up from Fernbrook near Kingston to put up shelves and place the refrigerator, ice cream cabinet, showcase and counter.
The High Works section of Scranton where I proposed to run this store was settled by Irish Catholic immigrants who passed on to their descendants many of the ways of their land of birth. First and perhaps foremost was their unshakeable belief in the Roman Catholic Church. Sundays found the High Workers of all ages winding their way to church at the Holy Rosary parish in Providence in the northern section of Scranton. I can still see this one mile parade being led by an old couple from Ireland, the Murphy's. He led, with chin high and at a brisk pace, while his wife marched a dutiful five paces behind as was the old Irish custom. The High Workers were only a portion of Holy Rosary parish for it served the Irish catholic from all of Providence, but they were a distinctive part, known for their ability to fight and their deep suspicion of all outsiders.
The parish owned most of one side of the block along Williams Street. In the financial euphoria of the early 1920's they had constructed four magnificent structures to serve their religious needs and had gone deeply into debt to do so. As you approached this street from the High Works you first encountered a large gray two story stone convent which housed the Sisters of Mercy who staffed the school. The next building seen was the large church itself. It was a massive building of large gray stones, reached by high stone steps which led to stone holy water fonts and then to an interior dominated by three altars in front and its beauty enhanced by oversized stained glass windows along both side walls. A red brick two story rectory was next, set back further from the road and less massive in impact than the other buildings. The school was last on the block and seemed to be a large, yellow bricked rectangle, unadorned with shrubbery and grass, not even the open and graceful appearance given most schools by their surrounding playgrounds or fields.
At the time of which I write, all this had to be paid for and maintained from the strained budgets of a parish prostrated by the depression and only now showing some signs of recovery. That the school was later to gain a large crack in one of its sides due to the settling of the coal mines under it, seems somehow symbolic, even to the failure of the coal industry, the main support of the area's economy and an industry which never truly recovered from its decline.
The people busiest at the Sunday masses held in the church were the lay money collectors. The standard fare was for three collections at each mass; one to cover parish indebtedness; one for maintenance and one for special causes ranging from a collection for the diocese or Vatican to needy cases such as the foreign missions. Sometimes a fourth collection was laid on for a special cause and the parish priests would illustrate its importance by coming down the aisles, making the collection themselves. A further toll was collected at the door from all adults who had to pay ten cents for "seat money." The overworked nuns spent their Sunday afternoons counting these receipts and making them ready for bank deposits.
Leo, who tends to exaggerate, also says that the Sisters of Mercy would never have been so named if the pupils of the parish school had been consulted. It was true that they ruled with an iron hand but they were good hearted and taught much of lasting value. They bore an enormous burden; Leo's class was always called "the small" class, and it had fifty-seven members. That the nuns could control such large numbers and teach them was a credit to their faith, will and hard work. They embodied the authority not only of teachers but that of religion. They could dole out temporal punishment coupled with the threat of eternal damnation. If these two sources of authority were not enough, they could call on that of the family. Only a fool would complain to a parent about a teacher; it only brought on more punishment for being in conflict with one of god's holy nuns.
The High Workers sent all of their children to the parish school when they were able to withstand the rigors of the mile walk to it. They walked home for lunch too except in the most inclement weather. The school day began with obligatory attendance at an eight o'clock mass where they sat with their class, presided over by their nun teacher, who usually had a small metallic clicker to indicate to them the time to stand or kneel. They marched from the church to the school with their class to finally emerge at the end of the day in a line of boys and one of girls marching to the cadence of two drummers who stood at the front doors. Upon reaching the sidewalk, the children would explode outward like a shotgun blast, releasing their youthful energy in a gala of mischief.
One negative aspect of the children's education at Holy Rosary, that I was not aware of till later, was that some of the nuns went too far in their zeal to inculcate their Irish Catholic biases in the minds of the children. For instance, one nun, to impress upon the children the importance of respecting the host by swallowing it when they received communion, told the story of a boy who saved his host for later inspection. He took it home and after looking at it for some sign that it was indeed the body of Christ as he had been taught, he then accidentally dropped it on the ground. A chicken started to peck at it and the host began to bleed.
Another nun, obviously rabid in her hate for the British, told the children that it was not an accident that the mapmakers usually used the color red to identify the ports of the world-wide British Empire. Red was used to symbolize the blood of the many martyrs who had fought the spread of English exploitation. This pre-Irish loyalty had obviously been fanned in the mind of a little girl I once heard answer a visiting missionary priest. He was in the church talking the the children at the special nine o'clock mass held for the parish children each Sunday. He pointed to Christ on the cross and asked if any of the children knew the meaning of the inscription, "I.N.R.I." above Christ's head. The little girl replied, "I Never Wronged Ireland."
Children grow into adults and teaching them falsehoods to buttress adult beliefs causes them when they reach mental maturity to sometimes discard many beliefs, true and false. A more temperate, less biases explanation of the world is a firmer base on which to pass on their cultural heritage.
The High Works section was a neighborhood of single family homes clustered at the base of a mountain where the Morgan Highway descended into the flatter valley terrain of Scranton. This mountain framed one side of the section. The area was about four blocks long and four blocks wide and was dominated by the high railroad tracks and its culvert which looked down from an arc which dominated two sides of the section. It had a highway tunnel through the culvert through which Keyser Avenue, the main thoroughfare ran. The fourth side dwindled off to open fields and ponds as Keyser Avenue wound its way to the Hyde Park section of Scranton. On this outer rim and up Ferdinand Street which climbed higher up the mountain to the mines, lived the people who came here from southern and eastern Europe, mostly Polish and Hungarian. These people too were catholic and they attended churches catering to their national languages. At first there was little mingling of these people and the predominant Irish High Workers. It was said that the early Irish forced them to walk around their part of the section but during the time we lived there they mingled more, especially the children, and indeed they bought houses in the Irish section as they became available.
The dominant occupation of both groups was coal mining and occupations dependent on it such as railroading and the commonly collateral service jobs. The young girls tended to work in the usual parasitic, low paying, textile mills or the offices and stores in town. Most people owned their own modest homes, debt free. It was a working class neighborhood where few students finished high school and fewer went on to college.
Living conditions in these small homes were primitive by today's suburban standards. Keyser Avenue and the valley part of Ferdinand Street which led to the inner city were paved, but the many side streets were dirt. These often served as the depository for ashes from the coal stoves used to heat the homes. Both heating furnaces and stoves used for cooking, depended quite naturally, on anthracite coal for their fuel. Most people had a coal shed or storage area either in the yard or in their cellar. Coal was cheap and could be bought in large chunks even cheaper. The men and boys were expected to crack these chunks of coal into smaller pieces suitable for the stove or furnace. The amount of energy stoking the fires for heat and dampening them at night was considerable.
When we moved to the High Works in 1930 there were no sewers nor indoor baths and toilets. The needs served by the latter were attended to in outhouses which were dug and constructed at some distance from the back of the houses. This placement made them an ideal target for youthful vandals on Halloween. One Halloween, our neighbors, the Gilboys, had their outhouse overturned and rolled down their steep backyard with the aged Mr. Gilboy still in it. His imprecations were matched the next day, All Saints Day, by the foul mutterings of all the men forced to resurrect these family bathrooms. Neither their words nor their spirits were suitable matched to the holiness of the day.
Before we moved in, we had a septic tank put in the yard and an indoor bathroom installed. We also had a hot water tank connected to the kitchen stove. We were the first in that community to do so and some of our neighbors thought we were "putting on airs." Consequently, our initial reception was a little cool. The Irish never liked anyone to get ahead of them.
One thing in our favor, was that I had been a frequent visitor there when I was growing up and Aunt Annie Coursey lived there. So I had friends who knew me and welcomed me. The old timers spoke of me as Sarah Jane's daughter, referring to my mother who had grown up in that same house.
This neighborly jealousy of anyone seeming to be getting ahead was manifested in other ways. They loved to gossip and if a person got along too well in their estimation, they liked to "pull him down," but if were down, they'd "pull him up." They had a lot to say about anyone who left the High Works to "better themselves" and they tried to belittle him or her by saying that the ones who left hadn't done so well, and wished that they were back.
For all this, they were a gregarious, fun-loving group of neighbors, most of whom could be relied upon to help when they could. When we first moved there, the old customs and practices prevailed and we accepted them and joined in their participation. On Christmas Day it was obligatory to visit all the neighbors' houses to exult in their tree and gifts and have a drink of Christmas cheer. At Easter each child of the neighborhood was expected to visit each home with his Easter basked in which they would put additional candies. Leo soon learned to put most of his candy on the bottom of his Easter basket, cover it with the customary straw and leave only a few lonesome pieces showing. The neighbors would exclaim, "Look at Leo Rooney's basket, hardly an egg in it," and pour in a generous dollop of fresh candy. As he went to the next house he would rearrange his basket the same way until it appeared that his basket was filled extraordinarily high with straw.
When there was a death in the neighborhood everyone helped get the house and yard ready for the wake and funeral. These were the days before the common use of funeral parlors and the keeping of moderate mourning hours. First, the women would descend on the house of the deceased and give it a thorough cleaning. Then the finest of furnishings would be culled from the entire neighborhood and put in place. People would gather for each of the two or three nights of the wake. Food and coffee were served with a special lunch at midnight after which most of the mourners left. Close friends and neighbors would then sit up all night with the deceased since they believed it was bad luck to leave the body alone at any time. This latter belief could have sprung from the oft told tale of a group of tipsy revelers snatching the body from a wake in the early hours of the morning and taking it for its last sleigh ride on a wobbly sled up a hill.
The High Works was the setting within which I tried to establish a small store and support my children and for that reason I have sketched some elements of its culture. I did not expect the store to grow into a large chain nor a vast enterprise. I wanted it to provide a modest living in familiar circumstances while the children and I recovered from the loss of Frank and to give me time to work out a long range plan. It did barely that.
Old friends tried to help by patronizing the store. Mr. Gilboy, Sr came into the store one day and put thirty-five cents on the counter. When I asked him what he wanted, he said, "You are the boss; give me anything you want to." He wanted to show his good will but his needs were few as he was old and sick and lived with his son Jim. The times were poor with many men working for the Works Progress Administration, a federal project designed to create jobs by employing men for about thirty dollars a month to work on public projects. One such family, the Atkinson's, spent the whole check in my store, getting things on credit all month, and then paying when the W.P.A check came. I worried about them, knowing that they could do much better shopping at a supermarket, but they couldn't seem to plan meals that far ahead. They bought on a daily basis, cold sliced meat, canned beans, bread, milk and a few other items, soon devoured by their large family.
We had a few faithful customers, mainly people from up on Ferdinand Street, the Polish or Hill section, as we called it. There were two little blond girls whom we called the "Blondies" and their name was Seccolish. They used to run errands for the folks on the hill and they always came to our store as we were nice to them.
There was also a Fleck family who came often. I remember so distinctly the Sunday of December 7th when a Fleck boy came dashing into the store shouting, "Turn your radio on Mrs. Rooney, there's war!" Pearl Harbor had been bombed and now we would join the combatants in World War Two.
My brother Lawrence and Delia Burke, a young girl who had come recently from Ireland, were visiting me one day. While they were there, a young married woman brought back ten cents worth of Bologna that she had sent her son to buy. She said that the meat was sliced too thin. Delia Burke was so surprised and amazed at this action that she blurted out, "You'll never make a living from people like that." It was true.
Luckily, the three children were of an age where they could help me in the store and they did. They spelled me during the long hours and every day opening so necessary to a small store depending so heavily on selling people items of which they have run out when the larger, cheaper stores have closed.
Too, Frances and Leo were old enough to earn some money outside the home and this helped in a small way. Steve Ruddy who lived at the end of our lot, asked for, and obtained a job for Frances, in the Scranton General Hospital after school although she was below the legal age for that job. Steve's brother-in-law, John Boylan, was head of the Miner's Union in Scranton and packed a lot of weight. Frances' job was to spoon feed four patients who couldn't eat by themselves. She liked the job and the money and worried about these patients on her day off, hoping that they would be well cared for.
Leo caddied at the Scranton Country Club which he reached by hitchhiking up the Morgan Highway. No thumbs were necessary as the players knew that their pool of caddies lay right there at the base of the highway. They received eighty-five cents to carry a bag for eighteen holes and fifty cents for nine. Tips of fifteen cents for eighteen holes and ten cents for nine holes were standard but not always given. Since there was a large number of older boys and indeed men, they were given priority. A boy of Leo's age was quite lucky to get a bag for nine holes late on Saturday and Sunday. He usually brought home a dollar a weekend. He also sold morning papers at two cents each from a stand at Keyser Avenue and Oak Street and delivered them in the High Works in the afternoon for the same price.
The store sputtered along from the summer of 1941 to the spring of 1943. Its lack of success was due to a number of factors. First Frank had a car of sorts and he could go to the wholesale district on Penn Avenue in downtown Scranton and bargain for the best prices with the dealers there. Frank would often get a parking ticket but he never paid it, just brought it in to the dealer to settle and that was that. Frank told me that when he went into a wholesale house, the owner would ask him, "Where did you leave your car now, in the middle of the streetcar tracks?" I didn't have this kind of access nor did I have the personality, push and know-how that Frank possessed.
I called the wholesalers with whom Frank used to deal and they were most helpful and truly tried to guide me in my undertaking. They had liked Frank and were sorry about his death. They delivered the groceries to me and gave me the names of other dealers who would deliver meat, milk, and bread.
Store in the High Works, summer 1941 to spring 1943
Since we operated out of a room in the house that was no bigger than nine by twelve feet, we were extremely small and could not offer the variety and the cheaper prices allowed by larger turnover. There were two good sized stores, one only a block away and the other two, both in the High Works. Supermarkets were only a half mile away. We had too few customers and they had too little money. The burgeoning defense and war work was not happening in our area. Those that wanted to join in this economic revival had to leave Scranton and a vast exodus had begun. So the rising economic tide in the nation did not lift my family's boat, the store.
In addition to the store not prospering, my social life was practically nil since Frank's death. I attended one Trainman's Ball at the insistence of some railroad wives, but I felt so lost and out of place that I didn't go again. Not at the Trainmen's Ball, but in other situations, I discovered that life was very unfair to widows. It tries to relegate them to a subservient position, not intentionally, but it seems to work out that way. Many widows have expressed the same discovery to me, but at the time it was all new to me. In my mind, Frank was still my husband, and I certainly wasn't interested in any other man, and it hurt when someone thought I might be.
To give you an example of my new status, one of my meat dealers said that he could bring me some fresh oysters on the Fridays of Lent, if I thought I could sell them. So, I put up a sign in the store expressing this fact. Willie Moyles, an elderly widower from down below Keyser Avenue, heard about it, and wanted some oysters, but he called a boy who lived near me, Henry McNulty, to get the oysters for him, as "people would talk" if they saw Willie coming to the widow Rooney's store. I just couldn't believe that this was happening. If I were looking for a man, Willie Moyles would be the last one I'd be interested in.
Another instance was young Marie McCormick being sent over to borrow a tool for her father, for, as her mother said, it wouldn't be proper for her father, Leo, to come. Leo and I had known each other for years, in fact, he had boarded at our house in Larksville before any of us were married. He was a telegrapher in a tower for the Lackawanna Railroad which was located near Larksville. It was a shock for me to discover that he and Helen thought that he couldn't come over for a tool as he always had when Frank was alive.
When I wasn't busy in the store, I had started to cut carpet rags, not that I needed carpet, but to be doing something. In the evening I'd sit on the front porch and cut and sew rags, and soon I had a lot of helpers and companions, some of them bring rags to add to the pile. We cut and sewed and talked and eventually this "busy work" netted forty yards of lovely rag carpet. I don't remember ever using any of this carpet, but the making of it has served its purpose of occupying my mind.
Gradually I came to the decision to prepare myself for doing war work and then to move my family to a place where such work was available. I enrolled in a course in mathematics and blue print reading in Scranton and attended evening classes there while my children tended the store. Two skills I learned there were to stand me in good stead later.
One was the ability to use a micrometer. This was very difficult for me. A young man in the class took time every night to work with me on it, and I really believe that without his help I never would have mastered it. This young man was married and owned and ran a small grocery store. He didn't want to be drafted into the Army so was anxious to start doing some war work that would be deemed essential. Later, when I was working for a steel company, I had to use a micrometer and many times in my mind, although I never saw this young man again, I thanked him for his kindness.
Another thing that I learned, was how to read a blueprint. My knowledge of this enabled me to get a good job in a shipyard later. I would become a journeyman electrician there with the resulting good pay and pleasant work.
My sister Johanna and her husband Leo Gallagher had left my brother Tom's ranch in Oregon to seek war work. Johanna wrote to tell me of the well-paying jobs they had gotten in a small shipyard on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound in Washington state. The Gallaghers invited me to join them there and they would help me get a job and get settled. I knew I could rely upon them to help as they promised. My brother Tom also said he would help in any way he could if the children and I came west.
So, the decision to go was made and plans started to carry out the migration. There were so many things to be considered and done. I went for a conference with the mother superior at the Holy Rosary Parochial School that the three children attended. I asked her about the wisdom of such a move, leaving both grandmothers and the other relatives so far away. Sister urged me to make the move. She said that my mother had a son living with her and a daughter nearby, and Frank's mother had her husband. My first priority was my children and she advised getting them out of the High Works as there was no future there. She said we could leave as soon as we were ready, not wait until school was out for the summer.
As a widow of a railroad employee, I was entitled to an annual long distance pass on connecting railroads for myself and the children. I sent for passes from Scranton to Seattle, and the die was cast.
Now that the big decisions had been made I became engrossed in the details of the many other ones to be made if I were to move myself and my three children three thousand miles away.
My mother helped solve two difficult storage problems. I couldn't afford the expense of moving our furniture over so vast a distance nor did I know how much of it we would need in our new circumstances. Ma agreed to clear her front parlor and to store the furniture there until I needed it.
The other storage problem would seem small to some; where to find a home for our family dog? We couldn't take her with us, yet her placement was more important than that of the furniture in the eyes of my children. We had had Peanuts since she was a new born pup and the children quite young, so they were firmly attached.
Little Sonny Secoolish, a neighborhood youngster, had tried to sell her to Leo for a nickel. Sonny took her from the litter at his own home and continued to argue price with Leo while they came to our home for Leo to check his assets. They were accompanied by a gang of onlookers who came to the house to witness the final sale. While Leo and Sonny dickered and their kibitzers added to the excitement, the wobbly little pup, who could barely walk, wisely escaped this loud and frightening din by creeping under the bathroom tub.
Sonny tried to reach her so that he could still sell her for as high as a nickel, but his prodding drove her in the opposite direction as far as she could get. That happened to be up to the bathroom wall and through the openings allowing the entrance of the water pipes. This placed her inside the wall between the kitchen and the bathroom where she could cry and whimper in freedom from grasping fingers.
I called on my good neighbor, Tom McCrone, a partially employed mule driver in the coal mines and handyman, to come with his tools and rescue the distressed puppy. When Tom started to dismantle the wainscoting on that part of the kitchen wall, Sonny saw his nickel profit go a glimmering, perhaps to be replaced by substantial new costs. He and his cohorts wisely therefore departed. Finally, with a portion of the wall dismantled, Tom held the shaking little puppy in the palm of his hand while he petted it and fed it warm milk. My children and I gathered around and from that point on she was adopted as a member of the family. We named her Peanuts, probably because of her diminutive size and brown color.
The day we moved, Matilda and Ray Jones delivered Peanuts to Ma's and she soon adjusted to her new home and Ma and Lawrence became very fond of her. Ma told me later quite firmly that she wasn't going to give Peanuts back to us ever, and she never did. Ma used to cook an egg for her every day, but she did it surreptitiously, didn't want anyone to know about it, lest they think her silly. Peanuts lived quite cozily there until she died of old age.
Our passes on the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad to Seattle came in due time, and the next step was to make reservations. This was not easy in 1943. Civilian transportation in that wartime year was severely curtailed. The armed services needed vast amounts of petroleum from diesel oil to high test aviation gasoline. Consequently the amount of gasoline allocated to civilians was rationed according to the amount available. Each automobile was assigned a sticker from A to E according to its use. If the car was used for pleasure riding only, it bore an A sticker entitling the driver to about three to five gallons a week. Those who had to commute to work got a B sticker and enough gas to travel only to and from their work. Only such people as police and clergymen got an E sticker which allowed them unlimited gas. Even with enough gas, worn-out tires could not be replaced.
These restrictions on private transportation insured that every bus and train station was jammed. The population of the country was about one hundred and thirty million and fully a third was in constant motion. Civilians were going to centers of war work to find jobs and returning home for visits. The military was moving to training posts, duty station and points of embarkation as well as to their homes. Our reservations did not include Pullman sleepers as it had in 1939, for most of these were allocated to military travel, particularly of the wounded. We would have to settle for cramped seat coaches days and nights on our trip across the country.
Our leaving our home in the High Works signaled no round of good-bye parties or other celebrations. Everyone knew the necessity for our departure and tried to help in their own quiet way. Ones who worked particularly hard to get me packed for the trip and my other belongings ready for its loading on the van for its twenty mile trip to Ma's were Kate Reap, Mary Gilboy, Flo McGrellis and Matilda and Ray Jones.
Kate had been left a widow with a little girl years before so she understood my feelings and was tireless about the packing as was Mary Gilboy. On the last day, Mary packed us an enormous lunch; its size attested to by the fact that we were still eating parts of it while viewing the Rocky Mountain states. Flo McGrellis came up all the way from Kingston on moving day and worked all day until she had to return on the evening train home. She said that her husband Ray, Frank's friend of many years had told her to go up and help Laura, and she surely did. Matilda and Ray took care of boarding up the windows of the house because though we offered to rent it for ten dollars a month, there were no takers. The movement was out of Scranton, not into it. In the late afternoon they left to take Peanuts to Ma's.
Like all moving days, this one was filled with hard work and unforeseen calamities. The moving van came on schedule but instead of loading the furniture, they decided to go over to Ferdinand Street to turn around. Ferdinand Street was unpaved the the steepest hill in that section though the moving men didn't know that nor had they the wit to ask. They maneuvered themselves into a deep ditch there and spent the better part of the day trying to extricate themselves. Little boys acted as couriers to relay back to us the van's latest attempts and misadventures. Flo said that if she were I, she would be screaming. But I think that I had reached the calmness of despair, displaying the attitude of "So, what else is going to happen." If the van continued its backward plunge down the inclined ditches of Ferdinand Street, I planned to leave the key and the house in Mary Gilboy's charge and keep those precious reservations.
About 9:00 P.M. the van got itself unstuck and came to empty the house just in time for us to get a taxi to catch the eleven o'clock train. Jim Gilboy, Mary's father, a neighbor and fellow railroad worker with Frank, came over. He shook hands with me with tears in his eyes, turned around and walked home without a word. Our feelings were too deep for words.
When the children and I entered the taxi, the driver turned to me and said, "Where are you going lady?" I replied, "Seattle, in Washington State." Noticing his baffled expression, I quickly added, "But you just take us to the D & L Scranton train station." He seemed relieved.
I chose four facing seats with me at one of the windows on the left hand side of the train as we pulled out of Scranton. I knew this would afford me one last view of the High Works as the train pulled slowly across the high culvert that gave the section its name and went up the incline of the mountain on its way west. I watched for and saw a final glimpse of the High Works with its street lamps lit and our lonesome little house huddled there as we passed.
I was surprised to see military police patrolling the train, supposedly, keeping the large number of servicemen in order even though they were away from their formations. I imagined that they resented this infringement of their freedom while they were nominally free from their military duties. I thought of how Frank would view this strange phenomenon and wonder what he would say about it.
It was a long tedious trip as we sat in our upright coach seats for four nights and five days. We rented pillows at night so that we could at least rest our heads comfortable. A man called a candy butcher plied the aisles of the train during the day and sold hot coffee, sandwiches, fruit, pieces of cake and pie and even a little candy. Purchases from him supplemented the prodigious lunch box provided by Mary Gilboy. Temporary friendships were easily formed with fellow travelers who were thrown together for long periods of time. Reading material was exchanged, games such as cards were played and long conversations were engaged in to pass the long hours. People would reveal thoughts and hopes they wouldn't normally in those conversations for they were assured that their auditors were only temporarily in their lives. When one of these long term riders would reach their destination, fond farewells would be said and hearty wishes expressed for good luck in their endeavors at the location to which they were going. This friendliness and camaraderie among fellow travelers is not duplicated on cross country flights today.
Inevitably we had to change trains in Chicago, that famous crossroads and also inexplicably in St. Paul, both familiar to us from our trip west four years previously. Another town that held tender memories for me was Butte, Montana. This time we didn't get off as we had done before. Aunt Ella and the McBrides still lived there but Uncle Thomas Curtis had passed on and we had more pressing business. The scenery in Montana was always dramatic and the children delighted in seeing both ends of the train simultaneously as it wound around the many hairpin curves of the mountains. I watched for the large sign "Big Butte" on a hill across from the railroad station, outlined in painted rocks I surmised.
As we approached Seattle we found out immediately that they took the war more seriously here than in Scranton. The train took us along tracks elevated above a large factory whose roof we looked down on. The roof was carefully camouflaged to look like a working farm when viewed from the air by enemy pilots. This sight startled us but we were in for more surprises. On the way from the train station to the ferry slip we noticed antiaircraft gyms and large plane searchlights on roof tops, empty logs and even on sidewalks. Pedestrians using such sidewalks had to veer around the protective sandbags and take their chances in the street.
Our view of the war had been from an interior valley in Pennsylvania where the most valuable targets for attack were coal mines which offered protection not vulnerability. We suffered the same wartime shortages ranging from appliances to cigarettes. We conducted scrap drives, which engrossed especially the energies of the children, of everything from junk steel, aluminum, rubber, bacon grease and old silk down to the tin foil from cigarette packs and gum wrappers that the children carefully peeled and rolled into large balls.
But here in Seattle we were seeing a people "ready to repel boarders" and expecting to be attacked at any time. Perhaps air raid drills give a clear example of the difference. In the High Works sirens would announce an air raid drill and most lights would go out for its duration. No block air raid wardens patrolled the streets and most people would casually stroll outside their homes to join their neighbors in viewing the darkening city down in the valley. Here the homes had permanently draped black out curtains. Frequent air raid drills could cause flights of warplanes to fly overhead to give the anti-aircraft guns and searchlights targets and plentiful practice. During an air raid alert, military forces on Bainbridge Island would sleep in their clothes with the doors wide open, weapons nearby, ready to run to duty at the first call.
We heard later that in one of the early air-raid alerts a mob of a thousand angry citizens enforced the blackout by smashing windows and looting stores that were slow to darken. We also heard that on nearby Whidly Island in Puget Sound, when the news of Pearle Harbor struck, farmers armed themselves with pitchforks, shotguns and clubs and patrolled the island's beaches prepared to repel the Japanese whom they felt would be attacking soon.
We took a ferry from Seattle ten miles west in Puget Sound to Winslow, the biggest town on Bainbridge Island but a very small town by any standards, not even supporting a movie house. The island was twenty-six square miles in size and the part we had to get to was a cluster of houses in a section named Yeomalt. I don't know how we did it. By now I was on automatic, proceeding on shattered nerves. The long train ride without sleeping accommodations, worry about losing our tickets or money, carrying the responsibility of taking the children into the unknown or a combination of all of these blots out this experience for me. But the children who were alert, observant and helpful all during the long trip assure me that we took a local bus and that our stop contained a large sign "To the Gallaghers." We got off and followed smaller signs saying the same thing along a path bordered by majestic pines and beautiful ferns until we reached a cliff. Another sign directed us to a narrow path with wooden railings which curled down this steep cliff to a group of homes along the beach. We all halloed the house the last sign pointed to, and you can imagine my joy when my sister Johanna came out the door. We were all so glad to see her that we hugged and kissed her and reveled in the joy of having at last reached our target.
Johanna had stayed home from work that day to get things ready for us and that would take some doing. Johanna and Leo lived in a small green cottage fronting the waters of Puget Sound. Ten miles across the sound you could see Seattle, Fort Lewis and the majestic sight of Mount Rainier. Mount Rainier rises over 14,400 feet in the Cascade Range in west central Washington quite a distance from Seattle, but its great height, the highest point in the Cascades make it seem that its snowy peak is just next door.
Their daughter Elizabeth was away in training to be a nurse in Oregon and the cottage was only meant to handle two people comfortably. It had a good sized living, a small kitchen and one bedroom. Shared living quarters were a common phenomena around war work sites but the addition of four more people to shoehorn into this small cottage was going to take ingenuity.
Johanna and Leo had given the problem some thought. Uncle Leo had purchased a tent which was put up in the yard for Leo Rooney to sleep in, a novel experience for him, and the envy of Mary who eventually managed to usurp it from him. She enjoyed the privacy and was quite comfortable in the mild weather of the late spring and summer spent there. Johanna and Leo, always ones to go great lengths to help someone in need, slept in a room at a neighbor's, the Olsens. They gave me their bedroom while Mary and Frances shared the living room which overlooked the sound.
Having a beach in the front yard was something for us to marvel at and enjoy. It made me recall my earlier delight at seeing the beaches at Belmar, New Jersey for the first time when I was a young girl working as a baby sitter there. I saw that same delight reflected in my children's eyes now as they plumbed the many pleasures to be found in beach-side living. It was a youngster's paradise. They could follow the rising and ebbing of the tides, dig clams which Johanna made into a delicious chowder, go crabbing or fishing or swimming. There was even a small rowboat to give added relish to many of these salt water activities.
Puget Sound even gave us firewood. High tides and waves regularly washed up large logs that had escaped the loggers, to the highest point on the beach where they were stranded until the next storm. Uncle Leo, now with the help of my children, regularly cut up these logs into manageable sizes and when they dried chopped them into stove sizes.
Like millions of others during the war, Uncle Leo also raised a sizeable "victory garden" in his yard in which he grew a wide variety of vegetables. My Leo particularly disliked the constant weeding this garden demanded and said, "If God didn't want vegetables to be found in grocery store produce departments, he wouldn't put them there."
Before the war, Bainbridge Island had a small population of year long residents. They made their living at a shore side factory creosoting logs, commuting by ferry to the Bremerton Naval Shipyard, working in the small shipyard in Winslow, fishing in Puget Sound or in Alaska, farming and in the myriad of service jobs that support any society. In the summer the population swelled by the addition of large numbers of wealthy Seattle people who owned or rented estates and cottages near its abundant shoreline. The expansion of the Winslow Shipyard there to make minesweepers for the U.S. Navy as well as the mushrooming of the Bremerton yard to build and repair ships up to carrier and battleship size just across the sound from the other side of the island, drew an influx of workers from all over the country. After a few days of rest, I joined this mad maelstrom of activity.
Leo Rooney and I walked down to Winslow to shop at the Eagle Harbor Market. Leo sat on a bank of ground near there to guard our packages while I went further down to the shipyard and applied for a job. Eureka! I was hired in the electrician shop and was to start as soon as I could get the proper work clothes for working out on the ships. It was great sharing the news with the Gallaghers that afternoon when they returned from work. We celebrated with a joyous dinner held on the beach around a blazing fire.
I was not particularly aware of it but by 1943 women constituted one third of those working in war related jobs on the home front. We, older men and teenage children were needed not only to fill the vacancies created by millions of service men but to fill the new jobs created by the war effort.
The next day, I dashed to Penney's department store in Seattle to purchase the necessary work clothes. I felt strange trying on and wearing work slacks for the first time in my life. I supplied myself with two complete sets of navy blue work suits plus work shoes and a sweater. I was surprised to find that in the steep hills in the center of town the sidewalks had cleats on them to help the pedestrians climb up the steep inclines. I was to hear that some former residents of flat lands became so disoriented by these steep hills and cleated walks that they would get down on their hands and knees to scale them.
I began my work in the shipyard the day after I purchased my work clothes. I was assigned as an electrician helper because I could read blueprints. I had to pay a forty dollar fee to join the electrician's union. The costs of the trip west, my work clothes and union membership was pushing me close to bankruptcy, but I was filled with hope not worry. The Rooney family's fortunes, sent into a steep decline by Frank's death, had bottomed out and I saw a rosier future in store for us if only for the duration of war work.
I was assigned to work with a woman of fifty-six years of age named Myra Sargent, a fine person, who turned out to be a good friend. Myra and her husband lived in Montana before coming to the Puget Sound area. Her husband had found work in the Bremerton Navy Yard and they lived in Bremerton.
Myra and I worked directly under another woman contributing to war work. Mrs. Gregory, a native resident of Seattle and like Myra, commuted by ferry to the island daily. Mrs. Gregory never went out on the ship under construction. She planned the work from blueprints in the shop and detailed Myra and me to do the actual work on the minesweeper.
Myra and I started out each day with the tools and supplies needed and spent the whole day aboard working, coming off only for lunch. Our job took us to all parts of the ship. The different electrical lines had to be located from blueprints and it was our job to affix a plastic name tag to them so that they could be traced later if any trouble developed and had to be repaired at sea. We also had to identify each circuit and control boxes. To do this we would drill holes, make threads for the screws and fasten the appropriate name plates. This work became especially hazardous when the ship neared completion and the electricity was turned on in the system.
There was a man named Mr. Sweeney who seemed to be a sort of clerk of the works with wide powers of intervention. He was an older man and suffered from cancer of the stomach, but he was well qualified for his position and felt that he should do what he could in the war effort. He said that if the younger men could give their lives in the war, he could work until he dropped. He was always kind to me and took a proprietary interest in my welfare. He knew that I was a widow with children to raise and he looked out for me when things on the ship were "hot," as he said. He meant that the electrical power was flowing and he didn't want me to drill into a live wire and get electrocuted.
Myra, like me and many others who had come from all over the United States to work there, lived in a house without many conveniences and cooked and baked on an unfamiliar wood stove. Nevertheless, she used this stove to cheer me on my birthday that November.
She knew of my birthday and that the day held no special prospect of joy for me. I often stood on a ship with her, looked out at the surrounding mountains with snow topped Mt. Rainier in the distance, and told her that I longed to see the familiar Poconos instead.
On the day of my birthday, we worked as usual and made no mention of what day it was. But on leaving the yard after work, there waiting at the gate was my youngest daughter Mary, holding a beautiful white cake to surprise me. Myra had baked the cake, my favorite, as she had discovered from my children, and arranged to have Mary there. I cite it as an example of the kindness of many people to me as I tried to overcome my loss of Frank and to raise my children. I shall not ever forget nor fail to appreciate this example of kindness of one human being to another.
We were proud of each minesweeper as it was finished and taken for testing on a trial run by the navy. If accepted, it was then commissioned and sent to the navy yard in Bremerton for further outfitting.
The day of the testing was an exciting day in the shipyard. Important officers from the navy and the company assembled with key workers for the whole day's testing out on Puget Sound. Everyone worked on the ship as usual, on last minute jobs, but were told that a warning blast on the whistle would mean that all unnecessary workers should get off.
Myra and I were working down in the hold when we heard the whistle. Neither said anything, but we exchanged a look which said, "Let's go for a ride, it's a beautiful day."
Slowly we gathered our tools, put on our sweaters, and when we felt the ship moving, we went up the ladders hurriedly, but of course, too late to get off.
We sat down in an inconspicuous place on the side, out of everyone's way, and enjoyed a lovely day's outing. This was the tenth minesweeper we had worked on and we were proud of the part we had played in getting it ready. We never admitted that we had stayed on for the trial run on purpose. Others guessed that we had and they were right.
It is difficult to explain to later generations how many of us home front warriors felt about the war work we did. For many the work held overtones of pure patriotism not commonly felt in later conflicts. For instance, one day our latest minesweeper had been commissioned and was supposed to leave the shipyard early that morning. Delays accumulated and all morning, workers, sailors and officers were running back and forth to the new minesweeper due to leave almost any minute.
A group of four or five of us used to eat our lunch up on top of a pile of logs nearby. We'd spread newspapers to sit on, after the precarious climb up on the logs. This day, we climbed up as usual and declared that we'd sit there and eat our lunch no matter what happened, even if the new "sweep" decided to leave at that time. We had been waiting all morning to see it leave and had become tired of the wait.
Just as we were settled nicely with our lunches opened, the new minesweeper gave a long toot and started to move from its moorings.
All the other ships round about took up the whistle and there was wild excitement as workers ran down to the dock to yell and wave and cheer. Signalmen on other ships were waving messages with flags and being answered from the departing ship.
We, on top of the logs, who had emphatically declared that nothing would make us move until we had eaten our lunch, jumped to our feet at the first whistle, newspapers flying in all directions. Regardless of our precarious perch, we jumped, hollered, waved and cried and prayed for the good luck and safety of our ship and its crew.
I shall always remember that experience of such a great surge of patriotism and love of country. May she always live in freedom, home of our children to come!
Feelings were particularly high at the time of the commissioning of this our latest minesweeper because just prior to it the war had been brought home to us in a direct and devastating way. The largest ship I had ever seen limped into our harbor. She was completely camouflaged with painted stripes in an irregular pattern, and she was severely damaged. Security was tight and no one said her name aloud. But her identity could not be hidden, because many of the men who had built her in the Bremerton Navy Yard before she left for duty in the Pacific, now worked in our Winslow shipyard. They whispered that she was the battleship U.S.S. Washington. Some of the men who had worked on her previously, cried when they saw the damage she had sustained.
The appearance of the "Washington" brought back particular, poignant memories of my final days in the High Works in Scranton, Pennsylvania, before we had come west. A friend and neighbor, Mrs. Greeley, came to say good-bye to me. Her heart was filled with worry about her son, George, who was in the U.S. Navy and stationed on the U.S.S. Washington as a junior officer. She had expressed this concern to the mailman whom she waited for daily, hoping for a letter from George. The mailman asked her to sit on the porch swing with him while he explained the situation to her. He told her that the U.S.S. Washington was the Navy's best and biggest ship and they weren't going to let anything happen to it. He drew a picture for her of it being surrounded by protective ships, the safest place in the world to be. This comforted Mrs. Greeley and she told me that she wasn't going to worry any more.
I thought of all this when I saw the sorry looking, but still undaunted ship coming in under its own power. Later on I got in touch with George Greeley who was still on it, and he came to see us and stayed overnight. It was strange and heartwarming for the children and me to visit with this fellow Highworker, all so far from home.
Leo Gallagher worked on the "Bull Crew," a gang of men who went from place to place moving things or doing anything requiring strength on a temporary basis. One day I was passing him and his crew and as I hurried along, laden with tool kit and electric drill, hard hat with the number 3704 on its front, work slacks and oversize sweater, Leo stopped me to introduce me to the gang. I'll always remember one courtly old gentleman who bowed from the waist deeply while he said, "I'm pleased to form your acquaintance." It made my day.
Most of the workers in the shipyard commuted daily by ferry from Seattle. It was among these that I met my first Swedes, enmass and it would lead to a disillusioning experience. They belonged to and controlled the painter's union. I was interested because up to that time my father was the only Swede I knew, and I admired him so much. These Swedes were different, talked with a funny accent and used snuff, always putting it in or out of their mouths.
One day one of them came to me where I was working and I thought he said, "Do you have a wrench?", so I reached down to my tool bag to get one for him. "No, no," he said, "Do you have a ranch?" If I did, he said he had a tool for me to steal out that would come in handy later on when I returned to my ranch. I thanked him, but refused the gift. That episode jarred the image I had always had that all Swedes were like my father.
Johanna worked in the tool shed giving out tools. Johanna and I ate lunch together every day in the tool shed. She always had jars of soup or vegetables which she would heat to accompany our sandwiches. Her many friends there were very nice to me. She had told them all about me losing my husband and one of the friends said that she thought, from my distant, distraught manner, that it had happened just before I came west. She was surprised to learn that it had happened almost two years previously. In the short time that I worked in the west, I received three offers of marriage, all honorable, but none of them appealed to me. I was in my early forties, and these men were in their early sixties, a big factor in my mind at that time. I thought of them as old men. Now, at eighty, I'd probably call them young men.
But I wasn't interested in men of any age at the time. My mind was on the children and their problems trying to adjust to a new environment and conditions as I was myself.
Leo Gallagher was a kind hearted, witty man who easily made friends with everyone and was not timid about imposing on this friendship. He now took it upon himself to get jobs for the other Rooneys of work age, the sixteen year old Frances and Leo who would be fifteen years old in July. He first wangled a job for Frances during the summer working as a telephone switchboard operator. When school started he got her a job in the shipyard canteen selling coffee, pie and doughnuts. One day she asked me, "Mom, and I an orphan?" Her Uncle Leo had told the canteen manager that she was, as one of the reasons she needed the job.
The best that Leo and Mary, who was 11 at the time, could do to earn money at first was to join the Indians from Canada who had come to pick the large strawberry crop. These Indians came annually and lived in large family groups in the fields. The oldest women cooked for all and minded the babies, too small to pick. All the rest picked from morning until night at what Leo described as a furious pace. Each picker was given a tray which held twelve quart boxes. When filled, the tray was carried to a central truck and the pickers card was punched to show he had earned sixty cents, payable at the end of the day. Leo and Mary did not accumulate a small fortune in the short season but Leo did develop an aversion to strawberries that he has to this day.
After the strawberry season Uncle Leo found his namesake a job washing dishes in a Greek restaurant in Winslow. About a week later, Leo told his uncle that the surly abuse he had to take from the drunken cook was inevitably going to lead to trouble, although the hours and pay were good. His uncle arranged for him to transfer his newly acquired professional dishwashing skills to the cafeteria adjoining the ferry slip which also served meals to the shipyard workers. His hours were from two to ten at night, so we didn't see too much of him during the week that summer since all the rest of us were on the day shift.
Leo and Mary became beach combers during the hours before Leo had to go to work. They were tanned, healthy and happy. I was concerned for Mary's safety in the interval between Leo's leaving and our returning from work. I was reassured that there was no crime on the island and that she should be perfectly safe, and it turned out that she was.
The war was hard on teenagers as well as others. Many had working mothers such as I, absent fathers, most gone to the armed forces, and new found access to money with the enlarged availability of jobs that paid well. The impermanence caused by wartime mobility and the relaxing of family and community restraints all contributed to a new independence many of them could not handle well. I think my own children avoided the worst consequences of their many pitfalls because of the strong bonds of family always prevalent in our family and inculcated in them since birth.
One area of adjustment, central to our individual and family values, was religion.
To us who had come from an Irish and Catholic neighborhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania, it was a shock to learn that there was no catholic church in Winslow or surrounding towns. There was a mission church to which a priest from the Jesuit college in Seattle was sent over on the ferry to say Mass every Sunday for the few Catholics to be found on the island. His name was Father Nichols, a very learned man to whom the little mission with its pot bellied wood burning stove and sparse congregation must have been an oddity. His mind and his sermons were on higher things and he had no interest in money. In contrast to masses in Holy Rosary, our previous parish, he never mentioned the subject. He was known to leave the Sunday contributions in the bag where it had been so carefully put by the ushers, blithely not counting it and forgetting to take it to the Seattle headquarters of the Jesuits.
Leo Gallagher used to open the church each Sunday, chop wood and build a fire in the pot-bellied stove and whatever else was needed to prepare for mass. For this, a neighbor, Bill Smith, dubbed Leo the "Deacon" and the nickname spread universally on the island. Frances and Mary noted these sacrifices of Leo and asked him, "What will you do if you die and find there's no heaven?" "I'll raise hell!" Leo was quick to answer.
Mary was in the confirmation class that year, and Father Nichols was in charge of it. He taught it diligently, as time between ferries allowed, but he was casual as to what name the youngsters could take in confirmation and what they'd wear when they went to the cathedral in Seattle to be confirmed by the bishop.
There were just a few in the class. Father gave them cards to be filled out by their parents. The heading on the card said, "Adult Conversion Class." Mary's face was so red when she was reading it. She had always attended parochial school before coming west. I think that being grouped in this way made her feel far away from the good sisters in Scranton.
When she asked Father Nichols about what name she could choose to take in confirmation, he said, "Any name, child, any name." In Scranton it was mandatory that they take a saint's name; she chose Jane.
Johanna and Leo went with us to Seattle on the ferry the night of confirmation services in the cathedral. The class from Bainbridge Island was to meet Father Nichols outside the cathedral. He was there, walking up and down and reading his breviary, and waiting for them.
Soon they were joined by another group composed of Indians, Chinese, Filipinos and others. By this time Mary surely felt that she had left all that was familiar back east.
It was all to the good that my children learned that not only were people not all Catholics, but that not all Catholics were Irish. It was a sudden introduction to a broader view of the world all the more telling because of the swift transition from one society to another quite different. Leo could now laugh at the narrow provincialism of him and his classmates at Holy Rosary, who when told that a Protestant family was moving in two blocks away, dashed to the scene. They knew there were Protestants but here were the first ones identified as bona fide specimens.
When September came all three of my children enrolled in the public school which housed grades seven through twelve; Frances was a junior, Leo a sophomore and Mary was in seventh grade. Miss Larson, Mary's teacher, told me that she enjoyed having Mary in class. When she spoke to her or called on Mary to recite, she invariable rose to her feet, showing the good training she had received in the parochial school. But before the year was out, Mary shed this habit and was behaving like all others in the class
My introduction to Mr. Miller, the principal, was less pleasant than to Miss Larson. As the children milled around in the halls outside their homerooms one morning, Leo checked to see if the fire alarm system was in working order and emptied the school. He was saved from suspension from classes by the fact that he was on the football team, and Mr. Miller was its coach. Further, Mr. Miller found out that I worked during the day and could not easily come to school nor supervise the suspension. He told Leo to introduce him to his mother after Mass the next Sunday because he had noticed him in attendance previously. Each previous experience in interviewing with school authorities on Leo's behalf made the meeting more practiced if not less painful.
The teaching staff contained a generous sprinkling of male teachers, not a familiarly school environment for my children. They were introduced to changing teachers and classes, physical education, science, laboratories, foreign language instruction not limited to Latin and the absence of religious instruction that had begun each school day and permeated most lessons in Holy Rosary. This inclusion of a particular point of view on facts which could be interpreted differently became particularly clear to Leo in his history class. In ninth grade at Holy Rosary he had studied, "Ancient History." In tenth grade on the island he signed up for a course called, "History of Western Civilization." He was chagrined to find that the text and of course the subject matter was to be identical. He explained this to his teacher and asked to be transferred to another history course. "All sophomores study this course," his history teacher explained. "You will probably get an A." "I got an A in it last year," Leo feeble replied, knowing that his fate was sealed. The course turned out to be dazzlingly new with the same materials being treated from a secular point of view. A good lesson to have learned so early for a person who would later major in history in college.
All things considered, my children seemed happy in their new school and seemed to have made a host of new friends quickly. The native island people and their children were open and friendly and being newcomers placed my children in the vast majority, an unusual situation when attending a new school. The new students, like their parents, came from all over the United States, but particularly from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the ranch country of the western states and Hispanics from the states bordering Mexico. They did not isolate individuals because of their ethnic or regional differences but delighted in exploring their dissimilarities. The Irish brogue of my children could at first always be expected to gather a crowd as they asked the to pronounce "bottle" or "creek" and then laughed uproariously, only puzzling my children who thought "bottue" and "crick" sounded natural. Many of the students thought my son's name was Arleo because that's what my daughters called him when speaking about him. Only patient explanation led them to understand that they used the expression "Our Leo" to distinguish him from other people named Leo.
On the whole, the little I learned of the school did not favorably impress me. Some of their best teachers had left to do war work and the replacements recruited weren't always up to standard. One math teacher of about seventy years of age, brought out of retirement to ease the shortage, delighted her charges by bringing in her mother for an all day visit to her classes.
The entrance of my children into school that fall coincided with our move out of the Gallagher's crowded quarters to a place of our own. A Mrs. Eakin owned a home close to Winslow and my work. She had two married daughters living in Seattle and her two bachelor sons, who were in the merchant marines, found it difficult to get home to the island on the ferry. All urged her to move to Seattle for the duration of the war.
There was another reason that Mrs. Eakin was so willing to make the move. She had been left a widow years before with children to raise. She had a hard time, taking in washing and doing the hardest kind of work. She and Johanna were friends and Johanna had told her about my situation. She said to Johanna that she'd like to do something for another widow with children to repay in a small way all that had been done for her when she needed help, so she allowed us to live in her home.
The house was an old one, perched on a hill, with a beautiful view of the sound, Seattle, and snow capped Mr. Rainier. It had electricity but no modern conveniences. Water had to be drawn from an outside well and kept in a bucket in the pantry. The two stoves, one for cooking in the kitchen and one for heating in the living room, had to be stoked constantly with wood. Leo abandoned coal cracking to daily wood chopping and couldn't fathom an area where coal was expensive and mostly non-existent.
I have stressed throughout this description of wartime Bainbridge Island the rich diversity of people attracted there. Before expanding this aspect of island life further, it is important to note that one group native to the island was expelled. The Japanese residents who had been widely respected for their honesty and industry had been unceremoniously plucked from their homes, businesses and strawberry farms and interned in camps inland. Over one hundred thousand of them were removed from the west coast states during the spring and summer of 1942 and put in temporary camps for three years. This, though not one was ever brought to trial for the feared espionage neither here nor in Hawaii. Some of their homes were being used as "huts" by the children and they reported on the furniture left behind and scattered family photographs lying about. Many of the native islanders rightfully resented this desecration of the Japanese homes and the deterioration of their tidy fields in the hands of their new owners. They thought the removal of the Japanese was uncalled for and unjust.
The island now teemed with servicemen. Soldiers trained and marched up and down the road in long columns on the dirt road leading to the Gallaghers home on the beach. The navy ran an important signal base further out on the island and sailors from there and from the shipyard occasionally attended teenage parties and hangouts such as the roller skating rink.
Even the Russians were there as they were our allies in the war and their merchant syndicate ships had access to the Winslow shipyard. On May Day flags were strung in all directions on the Russian ships and loud classical music emanated from each one as part of their celebration. The crews on these ships were well disciplined, going in and out the yard, looking neither to the left nor the right, minding their own business. They didn't seek nor encourage friendship with the workers but were always polite and busy.
After football season, Leo worked at the Eagle Harbor Grocery Market in Winslow after school. He often described the wonderment and bafflement of the Russian crew members when they visited the store which was not far from the shipyard. Their wonderment was prompted by the variety and amounts of foods not commonly seen by them at home. Their bafflement was shared by the ordinary American shopper when they had to deal with books of ration stamps as well as prices. Rationing and price controls were used during the war to insure an equitable distribution of any necessities that were scarce and for keeping down their prices. Each person was issued books of ration stamps; red for meat, butter and fats; blue for canned goods. The number of stamps needed for various items fluctuated with available supplies and these were posted in the stores about once a month.
The Russian sailors usually gave up asking prices and stamps of each item and simply picked up what they wanted, paid Leo what he said it cost and let him take the stamps from their ration books. One day, a Russian officer went through this laborious process and then ordered Leo to deliver his purchases to his ship immediately. Leo tried to tell him that all deliveries were made by truck and that he didn't drive nor was the truck there. He untied Leo's apron and shouted the Russian equivalent of go. The crew members were mostly young boys, and I suppose the officer expected one to go when he said to go. Leo continued to resist his imprecations until the store owner finally intervened and was able to assure the officer that his order would be delivered but not by Leo.
The women who served as the doctors and cooks on the ships and stood guard duty with a gun on their turn, seemed particularly overawed by the riches of the store, available to all.
All these highly divergent groups of people working in concert to strengthen the Allied war effort nevertheless produced a contrary demoralizing force which I feared might harm my family. The war provided rich new job opportunities for all ages and sexes. Many high school students worked short evening shifts in the shipyard and women as old as seventy worked as sweepers. This put a river of money into circulation with few goods to spend it on. The very fact that so many worked prevented them from forming a coherent community of social values and a restraining hand on its less inhibited members, particularly the young. All this produced an air of war wildness and heightened excitement to the island. Saloons, dance halls sprouted and alcohol flowed.
In the electric shop where I worked, incredibly, three co-worker mothers had sixteen year old sons killed in auto accidents on the island. The boys had money, alcohol was available and this combined with their love of speed and inexperience produced their untimely deaths in a pattern familiar then as now. Having a boy about the same age and having heard him and his friends describe escapades that seemed pretty wild to me, I became increasingly concerned.
Mary and Frances shared my feeling of being uprooted from friends and relatives in Pennsylvania. Leo loved the excitement of the island and the openness of its peoples and found it beyond belief that I would forsake the waters of the sound for Pennsylvania's low hills, the Cascades for Poconos and boat whistles for familiar train whistles. But I had other things to consider too.
I learned that my mother was slowly dying from cancer of the throat. Though she had told me, "Go wherever you have to go, without worrying about me," I could not ignore this ominous development in one so loved. Additionally, a friend of my mothers, Sadie Simoson, wrote to tell me of a conversation she had with Ma when they met in the street. My mother had cried and said, "I'll never see Laura nor her children again." This cry from her heart seemed more valid than her previous stoical advice.
I also heard from other friends in the east that Frank's mother was saying to everyone, "First I lost my son, then I lost his children."
So for all these reasons, I decided that we would leave the island and return to Pennsylvania in the summer of 1944 after a fifteen month stay there.
Though I had never really settled in the west nor made up my mind to stay, we had received many valuable benefits from our stay there. I had been reunited with Johanna and Leo and shared their love and support which I badly needed at that time. Other western members of the family had rallied round. Elizabeth Gallagher, my niece, came to visit us at the beach house of her parents with her friend Mary Gray. They were in training to be nurses at Astoria, Oregon. My brother Tom came down from Myrtle Point, Oregon and spent a night with us at Christmas time in our home in Winslow.
It was primarily the love and help I got from Johanna and Leo that shook me out of the doldrums of my grief for Frank and propelled me into the work world. The work in the shipyard, where I had advanced to the level of journeyman electrician provided a stepping stone to confidence in my own abilities. It enabled me to go on from there to broader and better things which led eventually to my return to teaching, the first and most satisfying work of all to me and the most rewarding. Finally, we had refilled the family coffers and when I told the children we were going back east I had more than enough funds for Mary and me and Frances and Leo could handle their own expenses.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of our stay on the island was an intangible one. It had opened our eyes to the wide variety of ethnic, racial, religious, social levels and points of view of the American people and instilled a respect for such diversity. The children in particular had their narrow, provincial blinders removed and a wider world of differences and opportunities revealed.
We boarded the train going east stronger than we had boarded it going west.
Our train trip east in that summer of 1944 was a reprise of our trip west in the spring of 1943. We had to endure sitting up for many days and nights and the trains seemed more crowded than ever with servicemen in transit. The long awaited invasion from England of the allied armies into France had begun on June 6 and the issue as to whether they could secure their lodgment on the continent and then breakout of Normandy wavered in the balance until August when we came east. It was a tense time for all Americans, for among the invasion forces were our relatives and friends whose welfare was a constant worry to us on the homefront.
When the radios on June 6 began to crackle the first news that our men were landing on the beaches of Normandy that day, the churches filled and our thoughts and prayers were sent eastward by people in and out of church. I had turned on the radio in the kitchen that morning as I busied myself in preparation for work. When I heard that our men were throwing themselves on the beaches in France, I fell to my knees on the kitchen floor to pray for their lives and their success.
The intensity of civilian concern can also be illustrated by what happened to Leo that day. He was working in the meat department of the Eagle Harbor Market opening a large rectangular tin of spiced ham. Instead of paying his usual careful attention to the extremely sharp metal tab he was unwinding, he was raptly listening to the latest details of the invasion coming from a radio placed on a high shelf and turned to maximum volume for all in the store to hear. He cut a deep gash in the little finger of his right hand and had to go to a local medical clinic nearby for attention. He thereafter called it his D-Day would and claimed to be the American casualty wounded furthest from the battle site.
We arrived finally in Larksville, Pennsylvania at my mother's home to be happily reunited with her, my brother Lawrence and our family dog, Peanuts.
My sister Matilda with her husband Ray Jones had a home nearby in Fernbrook. One of their four children, Aleatha, who was about Leo's age, wrote to me recently about what she remembered of the western sojourn of my family.
I remember your departure from the High Works. I was in Ma's house (in Larksville) when I first heard about it. I didn't like the idea at all. I think I missed you all before you even left.
As I remember it -- it was to be only for a few years and you would be back. But a few years seemed like a lifetime then. We used to have such good times in the summer. Where we lived in Fernbrook there were usually no children my age, so I really appreciated that week in Scranton which was usually followed by at least one of the Rooney children coming to Fernbrook for a vacation. We always got along pretty well and had fun without spending much money.
So, I was sorry to hear that the Rooneys were going out West, but not surprised. The Rooneys were the travelers in the family. The Joneses "don't travel", a fact of life. I envied you on one hand, this was not your first trip out West, but on the other hand I wouldn't want to go away for two years. I remember being homesick if I stayed anywhere more than one week.
And then we heard that the Rooneys were coming back! Joy!
Waiting for the arrival day was like waiting for Christmas. I couldn't wait to see everyone again, especially Little Mary. She would have changed the most.
With my children headquartered at the familiar home of their grandmother, with friends of many happy vacations both at the Jones' and in Larksville, I was free to look for a new job. I thought it would be easy to find war work comparable to the work I had in the west. I was to be quickly disillusioned. Lawrence and his friend Vic James were working at a small plant nearby doing war work. I was appalled to learn of the meager wages they received and realized that if I were to earn sufficient to support my family, I would again have to venture out of the coal regions.
Lena and Jim Foy, neighbors and friends of ours in the High Works, were living in Philadelphia with their two children, Mary and Jimmie. Jim worked in the shipyard there and I thought my recent experience equipped me for a job there. When I told the Foys of my interest in seeking employment there, they very kindly gave me a room in their apartment so that I could make my search. To my amazement, the shipyard in Philadelphia indicated their willingness to continue their war work without me. They weren't hiring new employees at the time, and all I got out of my attempts was a pleasant visit with the Foys. They were their usual friendly selves and when I left they asked to be remembered to my children who indeed were to visit them later.
Grandma and Floyd Landers, Frank's mother and step father were living in Quakertown, a small town about thirty five miles north of Philadelphia, founded by Quakers in 1715. I next went there to visit them and to seek work in that area. I found out that the Bethlehem Steel Company was one of the biggest employers in the region and indeed ran a bus north from Quakertown to Bethlehem to take its workers back and forth, a distance of about fifteen miles. I boarded this bus one morning and went to the plant's employment office when I got there, and was hired on the basis of the good references I supplied from my Winslow shipyard employers.
The Bethlehem Steel company's hiring practices were not so casual as those in force in Winslow, Washington. I had to spend the rest of the day filling out forms, being fingerprinted and undergoing a thorough medical examination, a touch of Teutonic thoroughness unfamiliar to me.
The center where the medical examination was given was thronged with people awaiting their turn. When the doctor in charge came to the door and looked the crowd over, he pointed to me and said to the nurse, "Bring that woman in" I was of course perplexed by the doctor's action and asked, "Why did you choose me, when others have waited longer?" He told me that my scarlet face could indicate dangerous problems. I was not alarmed because it was a terribly hot day and I was anxious to get a job. When he took my blood pressure, he was surprised to find that it was low, as it has been all my life. So with no further alarms, I qualified for employment as a lathe operator though I had no previous experience and indeed did not know how to spell the word at that time. It was my ability to read a micrometer and my recent references that had landed the job for me. Silently, I once again thanked the young man in my Scranton class who had so tirelessly instructed me in the mysteries of that instrument.
Now that I had a job, the next item on my agenda was to find a place to live and bring my children there. In this, I believe that Providence took a hand. As I was leaving the plant I passed a section where an old friend from Larksville days was standing in an open doorway. It was Hugh McLaughlen, an old friend of both Frank's family and mine. He knew the members of both families before Frank and I met. My mother had attended his wedding and Hughie particularly admired the fine Irish tenor voice of Will Rooney, Frank's father, and mourned his early death. Hughie had been a "caller" for dances at Croop's Glen outside of Wilkes-Barre one summer, and he sometimes took my sister Matilda and me to the dances with him. He used to say that he wanted to make sure that the fellows who came to the dances had partners, so he would bring along a few girls in his car as insurance.
At the time we met at the Bethlehem Steel plant he was in his mid-fifties. He was a small man with such typically Irish features that he had always reminded me of a leprechaun. We recognized each other and were greatly surprised to find each other in the present circumstances. After fond greetings, he asked me what I was doing there. I told him that I had just landed a job in a new machine shop and now had to find a place to live. Hugh said there was a small furnished apartment for rent in the building where he and his wife Kitty lived with their one daughter Mary. Mary had graduated high school and was in her late teens and had taken a job.
The apartment was in Allentown, a city of over one hundred thousand people just five miles west of Bethlehem and also on the Lehigh River. He said he would ask the agency to rent it to me and contact me at Quakertown.
Hughie, as always as good as his word, did so and within a few days I gathered my belongings and children from Ma's and we settled in Allentown at 15 Liberty Street, near the fairgrounds.
That first apartment never appeared in the pages of Better Homes and Gardens. It was on the second floor rear of a three story brick building. It consisted of a narrow kitchen and a larger bedroom. The bathroom was shared with the McLaughlins. That was it. It's only view was of another brick building in back and the street on the side. My children who were used to the large yards and open fields and woods of Scranton and Bainbridge Island went into an instant state of mental shock. It was summertime and hot in the apartment. The only amenities consisted of a gas stove and a refrigerator that had to be filled with blocks of ice and the drippings gathered in a pan underneath to be emptied hopefully, before the pan overflowed.
While the children waited for school to open, they spent most of their time in that cramped second floor oven. Walks in the neighborhood failed to develop any friends among the clannish Pennsylvania German population. They spent many hot August days looking out the window to the baking street below. They became movie buffs to while away the long hot days; Frances by inclination, Leo by lack of alternatives and Mary by necessity. I was working shifts that changed weekly from day to swing to midnight and the older children were my indispensable protectors of the youngest one.
The movies of the war years were heavily laced with propaganda. All allies, particularly servicemen were shown as heroes and all enemies were portrayed as villains. Characters were caricatured rather than depicted. Morale boosting war themes formed the focus of these films. Nevertheless, the films did accomplish their goal of diverting my children as well as millions of other viewers. They helped ease their loneliness in a town which seemed closed to them.
Perhaps it was this introduction to Allentown that has so soured my family recollections of our stay there. Years later my son was chairman of a fifteen member committee evaluating a school in this part of Pennsylvania for the Middle States Association. When he got together with his assistant and the school administrators in a pre-visit meeting to work out all the necessary arrangements, the principal casually asked him, since he was by now from New Jersey, if he was familiar with the Pennsylvania Dutch country. "Yes," Leo replied, "I spent my junior year in high school in Allentown." "How did you like it?" probed the principal. "I hated it." Leo replied firmly. The principal didn't inquire further.
After a while we were able to get a larger apartment downstairs on the other side of the building. It had two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a private bathroom. I got one bedroom and the girls the other. The living room had a couch which opened into a bed and Leo made his bedroom here with the obvious disadvantage that the conversion could not be made until the living room was clear of guests.
Our unhappiness in the apartment and with our isolation in the society was somewhat lessened with the opening of the school year that fall of 1944. Frances entered the senior class, while Leo became a junior at Allentown High School. It was a school experience that was to vary from their lives at Holy Rosary and Bainbridge Island as a fish differs from a whale. Its most easily grasped difference was its size. There were three thousand students in grades ten through twelve. Leo and Frances felt lost in its long corridors, endless classrooms and teeming cafeteria where you could sit down opposite a different unfriendly student every day. Its facilities and programs surpassed anything seen by them before, with a wide variety of vocational and academic offerings programmed for a wide variety of student abilities and uniformly of a high quality. This could not make up for the unwillingness of the vast majority of the students, who were of Protestant, Pennsylvania German extraction, to accept Irish Catholic students from another part of the country.
Leo tells the story of his homeroom teacher taking attendance the first day and calling off a string of names of Teutonic origin such as Rathsheller, Rausch and Ritter and then pausing before his name and saying quizzically, Rooney? This always got a large laugh from the group. Leo began to chafe when this became a daily practice and he asked his teacher, a man twice Leo's size, to stop it or to accompany him to the gym and settle it with boxing gloves. He declined the offer, expressed surprise that the practice had become offensive and stopped doing it.
If my children and I had suffered "culture shock" by moving from Scranton to Bainbridge Island, we were to undergo a similar trauma when we moved to Allentown. This southeastern section of Pennsylvania is dominated by people of German origin incorrectly called "Pennsylvania Dutch". They are a clannish people bound together by a long history, various Protestant religions and a common language. Those, like us, who didn't share this heritage but who had come into their midst to do war work found it difficult to feel at home.
I heard one woman, native to the region, say, "I'll go to Mrs. Fehnel's funeral tomorrow, because she's only been here twenty years and I'll be needed to help swell the crowd because not many will be there." I stayed there only one year, so needless to say, I didn't make any friends among the old time residents, nor indeed, did I meet many of them.
Mary had quite different experiences and looks back on Allentown as one of her favorite stops on our itinerant way. Mary, then an eighth grader, was happy to be back in a parochial school, Saint Catherine of Sienna, a short distance from our home. The nuns were kind to her -- invited her to the convent after school -- usually to help wash windows or do some chore, but Mary was glad for the companionship. She maintained a correspondence with her 8th grade teacher for several years afterward, and through high school seriously considered becoming a nun herself.
Frances and Leo were able to find jobs after school which enabled them to buy their own clothes and pay for their own expenses. Frances worked for five hours each evening in a local laundry, Leo got a job in the used lumber yard and box factory which was next door to our apartment house. Here he earned fifty cents an hour for pulling nails out of wood and storing it. This was lower pay than he earned on the west coast but he was able to supplement it by contracting to make boxes of used lumber for special orders.
Our estrangement from the larger society caused us to pull closer as a family and our geographic proximity to former friends and family members also encouraged these ties. Living in Allentown was the children's great aunt Catherine. She was the sister of Will Rooney, Frank's father, and her husband was George Langham. She was delighted to renew her friendship with me and meet Frank's children. We visited their home a number of times and they were very kind to us and willing to help in any way they could. The children were puzzled by the formal way they ate, seated in a stately dining room, cloth napkins in rings at each place, while the dishes and food were placed in front of George who then served each person according to their requests. George was an executive for the Mach Truck Company and the elegance of his manners and table held my children in awe. It was quite in contrast to the casual meals doled out at our kitchen table.
The younger William Rooneys, Frank's brother Bill with his wife Ruth and their son Billy also visited us in Allentown from their home in Nutley, New Jersey. I imagine they were surprised to hear the "ye bucks" of the High Works speaking in accents shorn of their thick Irish brogues.
My niece, Elizabeth Gallagher, surprised us one night by walking in unannounced, outfitted in her army uniform, from her war time duty as nurse in France. She told us of her experiences there while serving in a field hospital close to the fighting front. At the battle of St. Lo, one of the turning points of the war where the allies broke out of their Normandy beachhead and overran France,German shells tore gaping holes through the hospital tents as they tried to stem the American tide. She and three other nurses had become ill and had been flown home to a hospital in New York. After a few days rest there, she made her unexpected visit to us and planned to go on to Larksville to Ma's. Elizabeth particularly enjoyed the fresh milk and fruits we had available but kept asking if her enjoyment of these was depriving anyone else. I assured her that she was not and that she could now makeup for the lack of such foods at the front.
Mary was chosen by her class, to crown the Blessed Virgin in the May crowning ceremony. Ma and Johanna came to Allentown to be present at it, also Frank's mother, Flo McGrellis and Matilda.
An Italian family ran a shoe making shop next door to us and they were friendly. The old shoemaker, the patriarch of the family, kept saying, as he sat on his porch facing our kitchen, "Where are the men, why is it all women in that family?"
Of course, the primary member of our family, partly for which I had returned from the west was Ma. While in Allentown, we often visited her Larksville home and used it as a headquarters to make forays to visit family and friends throughout the coal regions. My mother had been getting progressively worse since our return from the west, but she managed to stay on her feet and to maintain her home. One night when I called from Allentown to tell her I would arrive late that night to see her, she went out to whitewash rocks along the path that I would have to walk in the dark from Luzerne Avenue back to her house on the lane. Though her health was in steep decline, her love and her courage never faltered.
When I was hired at the Bethlehem Steel Company I was told that they had a contract with the United States Navy to produce punches to be used to bore out the center of large naval shells. Large lathes, machines which hold a piece while it is being shaped by a tool, were installed in a machine shop. They were called production lathes and rotated at 450 revolutions a minute. In addition to the men assigned to this work, they were going to try to expand production by training thirty women to run these machines. Women had proved adept at work that required the meeting of precise calibration but they had so far not been tried at such heavy machines with hot flying metal chips with which to contend. A German machinist, Mr. Messener, was put in charge of this project.
I found the work difficult but enjoyed the larger than usual pay it brought and enjoyed doing a new and challenging job. Of the thirty women who started in this shop, by war's end only six had survived its rigors. I was proud to be one of the six. I was not to know until much later that I was playing a small part in a national effort to expand our armed forces naval and artillery shells which were in short supply at the time. The shortage of these types of shells were slowing down our armed forces particularly our armies in Europe. They were being rationed and hoarded for use in particularly threatened areas or to support attacks. Like Leo's "D-Day scar" I garnered many scars in those military campaigns fought so far away. My neck and chest still bear the scars made by red hot filings that eluded or penetrated my protective clothing.
I wasn't the only worker there that had trouble with those flying hot filings. (If a lathe wasn't adjusted properly it would throw off red hot cuttings of steel into the area behind the lathe, where another operator had to stand to run his or her lathe.) One of my fellow lathe operators had hair which stood up wildly and so we called him "Bushy". To keep this long, curly, tousled hair out of his eyes he had cut the top out of a felt hat and wore just the rim.
One night a girl, operating the lathe in front of Bushy's, was having a particularly hard time maintaining the proper adjustment on her machine, and it kept firing flaming chips in Bushy's direction. Some landed in his hair and these especially bothered him. He fashioned a shield for himself by using a tall piece of sheet metal to stand behind as he worked. This was very conspicuous and caused lots of laughter and jokes among the other workers.
When Bushy took a break to go to the men's room, someone wrote on his shield in large, red painted letters, God Save Me! This so embarrassed Bushy that he took the contraption down and learned to dodge the hot steel, or at least to smell his hair burning and put it out before too much damage was done.
One of the ways Americans coped with the wartime shortage of gasoline was to band together in car pools to get to work. Those that had cars took turns driving therefore stretching out their gas allotments. Others like me who had no car, paid to ride in the pool and reduced the costs to the drivers. I was lucky to become a rider with a Pennsylvania Dutch young man who was doing war work to avoid the draft. As long as he held a job considered "essential" in a war industry, he was granted a deferment from service in the armed forces. Our shifts were compatible for our car pooling. We rotated our working hours weekly; one week days; one week four to midnight and then the graveyard shift from midnight to eight in the morning. This shift work was the hardest part of the job. By the time your body adjusted to the new times for meals or sleep, you would change your hours.
As at the Bainbridge Island shipyard I was fortunate to make a good friend at work and to be favored by one of the bosses. The particular friend was named Mary. Mary and I always ate our lunch together. One time when I had a tooth extracted and couldn't eat for several days, Mary became very worried. She brought in a two quart jar of pure beef broth for me and insisted that I drink it. Mary had a husband and a little girl at home and I'm sure she had plenty to do, but she took the time to get fresh beef and make the broth for me.
One thing that my many and varied jobs had taught me was to not make waves, to slide into a job and learn all about it and to get along with my fellow workers. This paid off for me at this particular time in the Bethlehem machine shop. Once in a while an order would come in for some special piece of equipment that only a skilled machinist could make. Our boss, Mr. Messener, was just such a skilled operator, but he had no lathe. The head man was to oversee, not do the work himself. Due to the urgency of the need, when such an order came in, at least once every two weeks, Mr. Messener would come to me and say, "Loretta, I'll have to use your machine to make this." That's all he would say, and I made no remarks, just stood aside and tried to make myself look busy, filling the oil can and dusting around a little.
At the end of the shift Mr. Messener would give me a white slip made out to me, as having made the described piece on my matching number. This slip called for the highest pay, and Mr. Messener couldn't turn it in for himself as he was a company man. So my pay would take a substantial hike. Mr. Messener knew that I was a widow with children to support and I think that was why he threw the extra money my way when he could.
Mary, who knew exactly what was going on, though no one ever put it into words, would say as she noted my special slip, "What did you work on, Loretta?" and I'd read out what it said on the slip..
In addition to the kindnesses extended to me by Mary, Mr. Messener, the Langhams and the McLaughlins, there were others whose help I appreciated. The butcher with whom I dealt was a model of fairness in the difficult situation thrust upon him by the war. Meat was in short supply and of course tightly rationed. You could not often find meat available to buy when you had the necessary rationing stamps. Shift work compounded my difficulty. Housewives, at home all day, could watch for the available supplies of meat and purchase their share. This butcher would always put aside meat for people like myself to be sure we got what we were due.
Another example of the Pennsylvania Dutch sense of duty and doing the right thing though difficult was provided by our building superintendent. There was at one time a lot of talk about a "peeping Tom" being active around the building. I warned my girls to pull the shades down at night and to keep the doors locked. One night as I came home after midnight following my working the swing shift, I approached the back door when suddenly someone jumped off a wooden box on which he had been standing to peek into our bathroom window. He sprinted away with our building superintendent in pursuit. He didn't catch him but got close enough to recognize him.
I admired the superintendent for his loyalty to his tenant's welfare and his persistence. He had another job during the day and with his own family home safely, he could have gone to bed but he kept his lonely watch.
This attention to duty and high standards was clearly seen in the work force at Bethlehem Steel. The U.S. government inspectors who passed on all the work done in the shop were scrupulously honest and so were the workers. If a punch were even slightly off in its specified measurements, the worker would call it to the inspector's attention and abide by his or her decision on whether it could pass or not.
As we lived through our first spring in Allentown and our second summer we were buffeted by events of world importance, the death of Franklin Roosevelt, the victory of allied arms in Europe, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the surrender of the Japanese in Asia.
We were living in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1945 when the WW II ended and all war work contracts automatically ended. I received a formal telegram from the war department telling me so. My sister, Mary Wirtz, was visiting me the day it arrived and we marveled about it, something new in our experience.
I got the message -- I should once again look for another job. I was able to get a few months work with the Consolidated Vultee Co. there in Allentown. That company was building airplanes, or I should say, they succeeded in getting ONE plane off the assembly line before closing their doors. My daughter, Frances had graduated from the Allentown High School in June and had been accepted as a Cadet Nurse in the class that was starting nurses' training in the Nesbitt Memorial Hospital in Kingston, Pennsylvania near my mother. My son, Leo, had another year of high school to go and Mary had just finished 8th grade in the parochial school - St. Catherine of Sienna.
On 8th Street in Allentown there was a Teachers' Agency that I had often noted and filed away in my mind for future reference. After all, I was a teacher, and it was something to look forward to resuming when the war came to an end. So, I went down there and registered and set the wheels in motion to apply for a teaching job.
Among the references I gave, were my brother, Joseph, my former principal, and my good friend and fellow teacher, Evaline Simoson Steele. When Evaline was writing the reference, her husband, Myron, kept trying to make her tone it down so it would be believable. He said that no one would believe I could be THAT good. I also gave Sister Maura Honor's name as a character reference, and Hugh McLaughlin, friend from my younger dance days and now my neighbor. The recommendations must have been potent because I was hired on the first job that I applied for.
That was in Mendham, New Jersey, in September of 1945. The newly hired principal from there came to Allentown looking for two teachers. His name was Clyde Weinhold and I was the first teacher he had ever hired. Up to that time, he had been a teacher in the Morristown High School but decided to enlarge his experience by engaging in administration. It was a lucky break for me that Mr. Weinhold's wife wanted to visit her parents in Lancaster, Pennsylvania at that time and Mr. Weinhold combined business with pleasure and recruited me as a teacher in Mendham for the coming year, starting in September, 1945, as they passed through Allentown on their way to Lancaster.
There had been a big shakeup there in Mendham at the close of the previous year when their principal, Mr. Taylor had resigned, along with four or five of the teachers. So Mr. Weinhold, who was new himself, was faced with five new teachers, three of whom had been hired by Mr. Taylor before he left. That left two more for Mr. Weinhold to hire, and I was one of them. The other was Patricia Taylor who had just returned to Mendham from the Army Camp where she and her husband had been stationed during the war. Patricia had taught in Mendham before she left to be with her husband at camp.
To live in Mendham, a person really needed a car, but I didn't have one. I thought that if I once got settled there, I'd stay "put" in a central location where I could walk to school, church, store and even the doctor and the dentist. It had been nineteen years since I had taught, and Mr. Bergman, the man at the Teachers' Agency in Allentown had advised me to take any reasonable teaching job that I could get, make good, and then I'd be launched back into my profession with recent references and could go on from there. He felt that I would make good and inspired me with that same confidence.
At the time, I had only Leo and Mary with me, as Frances was in nurses' training up in Kingston, Pennsylvania. She was in the last class that the government would have trained as nurse cadets, now that the war was ended. The girls were furnished with their uniforms and books free and were given fifteen dollars a month besides. Of course, they lived in the hospital so food and lodging were free, also. This was a big help to me and was the only way that Frances could have gotten through training.
Leo stayed in Allentown with his Aunt Kate Rooney Langham until I got a place for us to live in Mendham. It took several weeks and he had started school in Allentown, but came to Mendham to join Mary and me. Leo was a senior and Mendham sent its high school students to Morristown High School in a bus, so that was taken care of. He was also able to get different jobs around town, such as digging graves, shoveling snow, cutting grass and helping Rick Cacchio take junk to the junk yard, among a number of other jobs. In time, he also had a part time job in the local A & P store.
Mary was a high school freshman that year and she went also in to the Morristown High School by bus. She did some baby sitting around town, also, so we were able to manage.
We had been able to get a small apartment across from the post office after a while, but at first we had to stay with a family named Keene for a week or two, paying board. They were very nice, good people and had a son in Leo's class which made it nice. Leo and Larry Keene became friends. Larry introduced Leo to all the riders on the high school bus, and then went back to the freshman bus and did the same for Mary. I thought it was very kind and thoughtful of him.
I was assigned to teach the third grade and so began the year. It wasn't easy and I went home exhausted each day for about a month, but then I began to feel more at home in the situation and relaxed and things began to be easier. The other teachers and the townspeople were most cordial to me and Mr. Weinhold was such a good Christian man and an able administrator.
There had been many changes in teaching methods and curricula since 1926. Most of them I knew about as my own children grew up and attended school, but the teaching of science from kindergarten on was a big thing in Mendham and that was new to me.
My third grade had been accustomed to taking science walks and we even had class text books that were very interesting. Of course there was a big difference in the nature and circumstances of the children themselves. Mendham was a quiet residential town, very different from the coal mining town where I had taught previously. This was reflected in the ways and attitudes of the children. There were practically no discipline problems and when you talked to your class they listened. The classes were smaller and the parents more visible and involved. In Larksville we teachers never saw the parents of the children unless there was an emergency. The Larksville parents were most recent immigrants. No English was spoken in many of the homes, but these parents were anxious for their children to learn and get along well in the new land, and they respected and cooperated with the teachers.
On my first day of teaching in Mendham, a new pupil came to join the class. Her name was Mary Ann and she was crying. Her mother was with her and stayed all morning trying to console her. The mother and father had been divorced during the summer and the mother came to keep house on an estate near there and she brought Mary Ann with her. So, Mary, Leo and I weren't the only ones facing a whole new experience that day and I could feel and sympathize with what this family was going through. I told Mary Ann that I also had a Mary who had to board a school bus that morning, not knowing her future classmates, or her future school in Morristown. From that day on, September 1945 until now (1982) Mary Ann and her mother and I remain friends.
That day I also met a fellow teacher who was to become one of my best friends in the years ahead, and still remains so. She was Frances Garabrant, teacher of the second grade, as I was teacher of the third grade. She had taught most of the children in my class and was a big help in getting me started with them. She was never too busy to answer a question for me, to tell me where to get supplies, or to acquaint me with how things were done in the school, in a general way.
I remember that my class was scheduled to give an "assembly program" in the auditorium on a certain date in September and I didn't even know of what a third grade program should comprise. She described different programs that she had given the year before and gave me an idea of what it was all about. The children were a delight to work with and they loved doing it. We kept it simple and it went off well. We dramatized the story of "Little Black Sambo." My son Leo tells me that I "wouldn't have gotten away with it, in any town but Mendham." At that time there was no race problem in that town, no blacks either, that I remember but a few did come later. We blackened a white boy for the story, mainly because he was a good singer and his mother would make his costume.
Speaking of costumes several years later when the girls in my class were going to be "raindrops" in a play, I went to the costume closet and obtained some white net outfits that I thought would do just fine, although they had been there a long time and were a little yellow with age. The "room mother" who was in charge of helping me with the play, spurned the costumes. She said that Mendham children could afford new ones and that's what they got.
When I first began to teach in Mendham in 1945, I had only a 2 year normal diploma plus a certificate of 3 years of successful teaching in Pennsylvania. Actually, I had taught 5 years in Pennsylvania and had been given a permanent teaching license in Pennsylvania. Now I was required to get 6 credits each year to bring my credentials up to New Jersey standards. This posed a problem, as the courses required were obtainable in Newark or Morristown, but other teachers who were taking the courses, provided transportation for me and I paid toward the gas.
Every year I made sure to get the 6 credits, as I thought that my job depended on it, but one year, even though I had handed in my credits to the office, they were mislaid. Luckily, I didn't know anything about this loss, and it was much later that I learned about it. My principal had recommended that I continue on my job, as I was "one of their best teachers." He thought that I had failed to get the 6 points and he saved the situation by his personal recommendation. The credits were later found and it was only then that I was told about it. I was gratified to know what the principal had done for me, even though he must have wondered why I hadn't told him of my supposed problem.
There was another time when I greatly appreciated Mr. Weinhold's support. In that first year there were 35 children in the 3rd grade class. Of that, nine students had started first grade at age 5 and were too immature to learn. They also had been victims of illness - epidemics and diseases in grade 2. I got them in 3rd grade and was appalled by their lack of reading and math skills. I knew that they were not going to get a good education unless they repeated 3rd grade, and so I held back all nine. If I had hand-picked the nine I could not have come up with a list of more influential parents in town. There was the child of the chief of police, the town doctor, the town mayor, the grocery store owner. Needless to say, there was an uproar.
I was so convinced that these children needed to repeat that I was ready to quit my job. I told Mr. Weinhold that I would resign and not embarrass him. He said "No. I'm going to stick by you."
Many years later one of the teachers who was a native of the town told me "I admired your courage. I couldn't have faced that." I said maybe it was foolhardy rather than courage.
The mother who led the uproar also told me years later "I was wrong. It was the best thing that could have happened." It took courage for her to say that and I did appreciate it.
My biggest problem in Mendham was finding a place to live each year. Each place that I got settled in, was either sold or some other problem arose. When school was out, I could go up to Pennsylvania to my brother Lawrence's, but I always had to come back to Mendham to a new place or situation. One June, before leaving for Lawrence's, as usual, I wrote out my resignation and took it over to the office in the school. Mr. Weinhold was there and he wouldn't accept the resignation. He said that I needed the job and should keep it. Frances was still in training at the Nesbitt Memorial Hospital in Kingston, Pa., Leo was in the Pacific with the Navy and Mary was the only one with me.
Word got around that I was sending paperback books to Leo from the Mendham Post Office and several people kindly began leaving books there for me to pick up, among these a woman named Many was most kind and generous.
My teaching experience in Mendham was pleasant and has given me many happy memories. My fellow teachers were unfailingly friendly and cooperative, and the town people couldn't have been more supportive or nicer. It goes without saying, that I loved the children and enjoyed working with them. They were very responsive and I feel that together we accomplished our scholastic goals.
Some classes and pupils and units of work stand out in my memory after all these years. I used to read to the class a chapter of one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books every day after lunch. When I was reading, "Little Town on the Prairie," we decided to combine it with our Social Studies program and we built the town on the prairie as Laura described it. Then we wrote to a 3rd grade in DeSmet, North Dakota, the actual town of the story and asked them for information of the present town, emphasizing how it had grown. They responded enthusiastically and we built the town as they described it and placed both towns as we had built them, side by side, as a demonstration on Parents Night at the school.
One year before the extensions were built on the school, my classroom was in the cafeteria. A large curtain separated us from the cafeteria workers during school hours, but at lunch time the curtain was pulled back to make room for the children eating. We got along very well and Mrs. Walkins, the cafeteria head, said she enjoyed hearing the lessons and the singing. That year, I remember two of my pupils coming in after lunch "like drowned rats," the water dripping from their hair and clothes. No one was supposed to be outside that lunch hour, but they went out after they had eaten their lunch, and they proceeded to build a dam on the playground. Their mothers had to bring dry clothes to them. One of those boys now owns a construction company.
The next year I had a new classroom in the extension and my class was busy preparing an assembly program on Robert Louis Stevenson. In the midst of our study of his poems, a mother of one of the boys in the class appeared at the door and asked me to please tell her boy that she was called away and wouldn't be home at lunch time, so he should eat lunch in the cafeteria. I meant to tell him after class, but it completely left my mind and of course, he hadn't heard my conversation with his mother.
He went home for lunch, as he lived near the school. When the afternoon session began, there he appeared, clothes in disarray, as he had climbed up to a second story window in his home, gained entrance, and then went downstairs and got his own lunch. His next step was to go to his father's library and remove the whole set of Robert Louis Stevenson books and strap them together and take them to school.
I tell this story to emphasize that the responsibility of a teacher to his or her pupils is a grave one and there are so many pitfalls to beware of. Luckily this occurrence turned out safely, but we can't depend on this always happening.
I have found that both parents and children are most reasonable and forgiving, usually. But, the possibility of a mishap is always there and we teachers must be aware and alert. My relationship with parents and children in Mendham was most pleasant and rewarding.
At one time I took a course on South America at Newark State Teachers College and I correlated it with our social studies in my third grade. The father of one of my pupils happened to work for an exporting and importing firm in New York and he loaned us many samples of imports from South America to display and study in our classroom. Teachers from some different schools who were taking the course with me, said that in their school, they wouldn't be allowed to deviate from the prescribed curriculum to that extent. In Mendham, we teachers could make use of all teaching experiences available, within reason, of course.
One year, Mary and I lived with another widow and her two boys and this worked out fine for that year, but I was always on the lookout for a place of my own to have when Frances finished her nurses' training and came home, and when Leo came home from the Navy. As of yet, I had no car, and this was a handicap.
For the next year, I was able to rent rooms for Mary and me in Morristown in a house next door to the Weinholds, and Mr. Weinhold kindly offered to take me back and forth to school with him. In fact, the Weinholds were the ones who got the place for me, practically forcing their friends to rent us the rooms. This was another stepping stone in housing - two rooms and bath on the third floor, and cooking in the basement. It was in the Sherman Park development near the high school. So Mary was all set. She had friends there who lived in Morristown, one especially, was Joanna Petrone. Joanna and Mary worked and played together and visited each other at home. We Rooneys were very casual about coming and going and we took it all in stride, but Petrones believed that girls should be chaperoned on the street and Joanna was brought to visit us by way of her father's car. When Mary was visiting at their house, Mary would hear Mr. Petrone ask his wife, "Who is going to take that kid home?" He knew very well that he'd have to do it, in spite of Mary's protestations that she could easily walk home, and she COULD.
As June 1948 approached, the house where we were living was on the market to be sold and the time was fast getting nearer that Leo and Frances would be coming home. I put an ad in the paper asking for an apartment or house, and luckily, I got one. It was on Jersey Avenue, one side of a duplex, and just what we needed. I sent to Lawrence's in Larksville, Pennsylvania for my furniture that had been stored in Ma's parlor for six years since we left Scranton. This was a happy occasion and a great cause for thanks. I can still see, in memory, the furniture being unloaded and Mary's dolls and carriage being trundled in. When we were in the west, Ma used to write to us and sometimes she'd say, "The dolls are sleeping in the parlor, waiting for your return."
Mary could walk to the high school from Jersey Avenue. Mr. Beyrent, a lawyer friend from Sherman Park where our previous rooms had been, spent a whole Sunday afternoon driving around the different streets between our new place and the school, to determine the best way for her to go.
I was able to get a ride back and forth to Mendham with Carol Thompson, a newly hired kindergarten teacher, who lived in Morristown. For the summer, I was able to get a bus to Madison to work in the Pine Acre Nursing Home there. This job, I kept for many summers afterward. In time, both Leo and Frances came home, so we were a united family again.
I taught in Mendham until June 1964 when I retired at age 63. The reason for this early retirement was that by retiring then, I could collect a pension, plus Social Security. The law was to be changed, barring a person from collecting both. Later on, this law was rescinded, but I have never been sorry that I retired at that time.
Frances Garabrant, my fellow teacher and friend, and I, retired together and shared many parties and honors. One, in particular that I remember, was the one when they had our "first classes" in Mendham there in the auditorium. Letters and notes from former pupils were read and those former pupils present stood up and expressed themselves verbally. Two adjectives that were used so often to describe me, were "kind" and "fair" and I couldn't wish for two better words to express what I hope that I always was, in my teaching in Mendham.
(by Mary Rooney Byrne)
My sister-in-law, Alberta Rooney, and I have put together this book from typed pages of a draft copy, plus the last two chapters still in Leo's handwriting. In her last years, my mother grew too feeble to finish the book. My brother Leo didn't have the heart to continue the work without her.
In my mother's manuscript she doesn't mention what I consider her greatest compliment. When she retired, the Mendham Borough Education Association established a scholarship for Mendham students who want to pursue a teaching career. They named the scholarship the "Garabrant - Rooney" scholarship to honor the two respected teachers and good friends. Each year the Association organizes a popular faculty - student basketball game as a fund raiser for it.
An especially gratifying result one year was that the winner of the scholarship happened to room at college with the daughter of Florence McNulty Brennan, our closest neighbor in the High Works! So the news of my mother's lifetime success reached the people in Scranton who had shared the sadness of my father's death, and also the loss of baby Sarah Jane.
In retirement, my mother volunteered to tutor at St. Margaret's Catholic School in Morristown. She told me once that she offered this work in memory of her baby Sarah Jane, who never got to go to school. My mother was assigned young students who needed help in reading and she took a great interest in each one. But too, she often said that it made her feel good just to walk into the school building. She truly loved everything about teaching.