Chapter IV: The War and Uncle Harry
My sister Isabell, whom we called Bella, was the oldest. Her health was not the best. She had served as the shock absorber in my father's attempt to break from what he considered a hopeless cause. Bella always took my mother's side and protected her. This, of course, increased my father's wrath against Bella. Some doctors said she was tubercular and should have lots of rest, good food, and emotional stability; by no means should she be allowed to toil in overcrowded, dusty factories.
Bella worked in most of the factories in the area. At one of them which produced batteries, she had to breathe the harsh fumes for ten hours a day. As a result of three months' toil in that place, she was hospitalized on and off for four months. Another of her jobs was a six-week stint in the slaughterhouse, isolated in a steam room. Her job was to direct a live steam hose onto a big slab of meat that came into her area on hooks moving on rollers. The constant wet steam sent her back to the hospital, with an even longer stay away from work. My mother tried to find her other kinds of work, but jobs were not plentiful for young women outside of factories, sweatshops, slaughterhouses and hospitals. Perhaps, for my sister, World War I came in time, for in it she saw an opportunity to break away. She joined the Nurses Corps and was sent to an outlying hospital for training.
Two days before she was to depart for France, she came home. She looked good, healthy and well-fed. She said goodbye to us as she donned her black nurse's cape; then she kissed us. Her ship was three days away from France when the captain received word that the Germans had surrendered and the war was over. The ship immediately turned around and headed back to the United States.
Bella left home shortly after being released from service in the Nurses Corps. She married and gave birth to two wonderful boys. But she was racked with back pains, colds, and weak lungs. She died of cancer at age 65 and was buried in a town near the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in California.
Our dwelling was about six blocks from the ferry terminal that adjoined the train depot. Trains took off from here for all points in Jersey. It was at this depot where thousands of soldiers boarded trains for Camp Dix, the Army training grounds. It was to this same depot that the soldiers returned from Fort Dix to board ships for France in World War I. The war seemed to move on a fast track; I remembered the soldiers leaving, and suddenly they seemed to be home again. A series of parades with marching music celebrated their homecoming.
No one was able to explain why most of the people in our area, as well as in other areas, suddenly started to scratch. We were told that the soldiers had brought back some itch from the war. Every three days for the next two weeks, I walked to the County Hospital and, along with many hundreds of kids and grownups, stood in a line two blocks long. Slowly we moved ahead, clutching our buckets, pails or tin cans, waiting for that happy moment when a hospital staff member would thrust his arm into a 50-gallon can and come up with a quart-size scoop of salve. On the way home, we started smearing the salve all over us to ease the discomfort of the "soldier's itch." That, too, passed in time.
At the same time the troops were returning home, a stranger entered our household. He was a tall, slim Irishman from County Cork. He had joined the American Army and gone overseas to fight in several battles: Chateau Thierry, the Marne, and other battles in France. He had been gassed and put through the wringer, finally returning labeled a "shell-shock case." My mother introduced him to us with, "Meet your Uncle Harry."
In the beginning, this big Irishman was very congenial, always smiling and showing what good bridgework he had. In his dress he had no equal. He kept himself immaculate. He could spend an hour just polishing his shoes, making sure he got the right shine. It wasn't long before "Meet your Uncle Harry" changed to "Take this cup of tea to your stepfather," or "Don't make too much noise; your stepfather is trying to sleep."
So, my mother had remarried, we were told, and from now on we were to take orders from, and be disciplined by, Harry. It was fairly obvious that someone was bound to come along and fill the void in my mother's lonesome life. Even with a dozen kids around her she could still be lonely. My mom had met Harry years before at a St. Paddy's Day picnic. At that time he was carefree and charming. After he returned from the war, he sought my mother out and found her, separated from my father, vulnerable to his charm.
It wasn't long before the honeymoon was over. That came through to me via a slap across the face that sent me reeling across the room. I looked into the eyes of what appeared to me at the moment to be a madman. I glanced past him to my mother for some sort of protection or comfort. But all she said was, "You deserved it."
The discipline was tightening up. I did not like it one bit, nor did I like the stepfather. Two weeks after he took over the reins, he sent me out to sell newspapers. I would buy the Jersey Observer for two cents per paper and sell it for three cents. If I sold ten papers in a day, that was ten cents profit; ten cents could buy a lot. So I hustled around with papers under my arm, rain or shine, and competed with the other barefoot kids who ran around the street.
My biggest day in the newspaper game was during the Dempsey-Carpentier fight in Boyle's 30 acres, in Jersey. I met the newspaper man and his horse and buggy at the Lackawanna Railroad Ferry Depot. I gave him twenty cents in advance for ten papers. Instead of the ten papers, he handed me a bundle of 100.
"Here, these are for you. I'll be around later to pick up any papers you don't sell, and the money."
I panicked. "Why so many papers?" I protested.
"Never mind," he soothed me. "You'll sell them all today. Just shout as loud as you can when the people come off the ferry boats, `Read all about it! All the facts about the big fight!'"
I did as he ordered. I shouted my "read all about it" as each ferry boat brought in hundreds of people who would disembark and catch other transportation to the fight. The Observer carried a picture of the Manassas Mauler, Jack Dempsey, on its front page in a posed shot facing the French challenger, Georges Carpentier.
Within two hours I had sold out the hundred copies. I didn't realize how much money I really had, since many people handed me a nickel or a dime and said, "Keep the change."
The newspaper man came around, left some more papers and took some of the money. I went home with two papers I hadn't been able to peddle. As I emptied my pockets onto the kitchen table, there were smiles and pats on the back and words like, "He's a great boy."
Old stepfather kept his eyes open for little jobs for me. One day, the potato man came past our house. He had a horse and cart loaded down with a mountain of potatoes. A big sign on the wagon read "TWENTY-FIVE POUNDS FOR TWENTY-FIVE CENTS." The peddler was fat; he didn't look like someone who looked forward to climbing long flights of stairs all day. Harry had a little chat with him. Then he called me out to accompany the potato man and assist him in his work. "And be sure to do everything the man tells you or you'll catch it when you get home," was his parting shot.
All that day, the horse and cart moved slowly through the poor neighborhoods of the city, the potato man shouting out his bargain. People stuck their heads out the windows to holler down their orders. He loaded the bags, handed them to me and told me what to collect. It seemed like most of those who bought potatoes lived on the top floors. Sometimes I had to climb the stairs again to take back change.
At one place where we stopped, a good-looking woman put her head out the door and beckoned to the peddler. He came back to me and said, "Kid, stay near the wagon, see? I'll be back in a few minutes."
When he finally reappeared, he was buttoning the fly of his pants. "Here, take these potatoes to that woman. Don't collect nothing. She already paid me."
At six that evening, we finished, with 25 pounds of potatoes left. He let me off the cart at my house and handed me 25 cents and the potatoes. Again I was the hero, but I was so exhausted I could not stay awake to eat. I curled up under a few old coats and blankets and fell asleep.
If our mother had expected things to improve economically around the house by giving us a stepfather, she was soon to be sadly disappointed. Old Harry rarely held down a job longer than the first or second paycheck. He was full of excuses. The war, he said, had taken the best out of him. He was suffering from ulcers brought on by his service in France, he said. This also meant that if there was fresh butter or milk around the house, it would go to him. While we spread lard and salt on our bread, he drowned his toast in butter. While he drank fresh milk, we poured a spoonful of condensed milk over a bowl of snow and pretended it was ice cream. Harry received a small disability check from the government because of his war injuries. But that check was spent days before it ever arrived. Harry also loved the taste of the foamy suds, and he was no stranger to the thrills of wiping out a bottle of Irish whiskey.
Again my mother had to be the provider, taking in washing, scouting around for cleaning jobs. There was one fail-proof way we recognized the pressure building up in her. Ordinarily, if I was doing something she did not like, she would say, in a comforting voice, "Stop it." If I ignored the warning, she would come charging at me with Harry's razor strop in her hand and whack me across the fanny. But when she was under pressure, there was no comforting warning. Instead, she would lay it on before I knew what was happening.
One day I turned quickly to see her charging toward me. I put out my arm in self defense. She stopped short, and in that moment, I made a gesture of swinging at her.
"Don't you dare hit your mother. You hear me?" she shouted. I said nothing, but felt happy that the charge resulted only in a verbal blast instead of the strop. She continued with her tirade. "In Ireland, you can always tell the bad people who struck their mothers. When they died, their hands stuck up out of the grave."
For many months afterward, I would carry the picture in my mind of graveyards in Ireland with hands exposed above the ground. I didn't want my hand sticking out from the grave; from that day on, I never struck back.
Sister Kate had been dating a young Polish guy called Chick. He worked on and around the vast fleet of barges which were towed up and down the Hudson and East Rivers, laden with cargo. He lived a few blocks down the street with his mother and two younger brothers. When he came to the house to court Kate, he always stopped at the bakery and bought a bag of sugar buns. I liked him. The romance had gone on for six months. There was mention of marriage, but my mother thought that Kate should wait at least another year.
One night, the winds blew and the rain came down heavy. The barges tied together alongside the docks banged and stretched their mooring lines. It looked as if some of them might be set adrift. Chick was called from the house to go down and make sure they were secured. Crossing from one barge to the next with a lantern in his hand, he slipped and fell between the two. He was crushed, then drowned. It was a night he was to have taken Kate to an uptown movie.
For three days and nights, Chick's body was laid out in an open coffin in the front room of his house, while friends of the family came at all hours to kneel before the casket and pray. His mother was constantly in tears. On the third day, the horse-drawn hearse came to the house and took him to the burial grounds, removing the black ribbon that had been pinned on the front door to let everyone know there had been a loss in the family.
The sudden tragedy of Chick's death was a shock to sister Kate. In the next six months, she came close to joining a Catholic order to become a nun. Instead, she married two years later, raised a family of five, and died of a heart attack in San Francisco at the age of sixty-two.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book One