You could say that I have had bad luck with grandfathers. My paternal grandfather died in a truck wreck twenty years before I was born. He left a widow with 15 children to shepherd through the depression years.
Dad was the 13th of the 15 siblings. A child of the great depression, he left school after the 8th grade to find what work he could, to hunt and fish along the White River in the hills of Southern Indiana, not for sport but for subsistence.
Lying about his age, he managed to get a job on the WPA. It paid enough that he could later afford to go to a trade school and learn to weld. Welding became his life’s work. With the coming of the second world war he went to Akron, Ohio to weld aircraft fuselages in a huge dirigible hanger converted for aircraft manufacturing.
My maternal grandfather was a son of a bitch who abandoned his wife and his three children in Akron Ohio, leaving them to face the depression without his help. I only saw him twice. The first is when my mother took her three children to see him. I remember that he wasn’t at all interested in his small grandchildren and was quite uncomfortable by our visit.
The second and last time I saw him I was a teenager. He was standing half hidden and far away from the grave of my uncle, his only son.
After being abandoned, my grandmother found part time work as a maid in Akron. She was employed by a family that had become suddenly and fantastically rich, manufacturing tires after the advent of the automobile.
The job did not pay well enough for my grandmother to support three children. Sometimes she had to leave them in the city’s orphanage so they could get enough to eat. She retrieved them when she had the money to feed them. One of those times was when Thomas Edison, staying with the rich family gave her a five dollar gold piece when he departed.
When the war came, my mother learned to rivet aluminum sheets to aircraft frames in that same dirigible hanger. The two fatherless children met. My dad welded the airframes and Mom riveted on the skin of the airplane. They married near the end of the war and had three children in quick order.
I was born in 1946 in the public housing projects of Akron, Ohio. The projects were long single story wooden buildings partitioned into dwellings for the depression-battered poor who had come to the city for the work the war had provided. I was about two when we entered the projects. I have no earlier memories.
When the war ended there was massive unemployment. Returning veterans were favored for the few jobs available and my dad had stayed out of the war with a deferment because of the strategic importance of his job. Eventually he found work welding the pipelines that brought oil and natural gas from the wells in Texas and Oklahoma to the rest of the nation.
Dad bought a small trailer with the money my parents had saved while employed. We left the projects and embarked on a gypsy lifestyle that lasted for years. To keep Dad employed we had to follow the pipeline wherever it led. When that pipeline was finished Dad had to find another pipeline job and then we moved the trailer again.
We spent so much time moving that we three kids learned to read by sounding out the words on billboards and passing trucks. “City Laundry” was the first intelligible phrase my sister read, although she pronounced it “Kitty Laundry”. She was 4.
The trailer was parked in Greensburg, Pennsylvania for a few weeks one summer in a poorly kept trailer camp. One indelible memory of mine is that of my dad shooting rats there. The rats were nested under a log in front of a high bank. As the evening approached the rats would venture out and run the length of the log to go about their rat business. My dad would sit out on the step of the trailer with a 22 caliber rifle and pick them off as they ran. He was a deadly shot. It was a skill he developed shooting squirrels for dinner. Down home, If you took a shell out of the box, you had better come back with something to eat.
Around that time, my mother got the idea I was super intelligent. Strangely, she got this idea because I was so slow to begin talking. I never babbled baby talk, she said. When I finally started talking, she said, I began talking just like an adult. She took me to a place where I took some tests. Afterwards, I started going to first grade with my sister. I was 4 years old and she was 5.
Shortly after that we moved further north to the tiny village of Driftwood on the Sinnamahoning River in northern Pennsylvania. My sister was allowed to enroll in the one room schoolhouse there because she was now of age. I was denied because of my age and because there was no more room in the school house, at least for the kid who lived in a trailer down on the river, just beside the oil well. My formal education was put on hold, but I continued to read. With a coupon from a box of cereal and fifty cents I sent away for two books, Huckleberry Finn and Robin Hood. I read them over and over until we were in a location with a public library where I branched out.
I spent my time drawing pictures on paper towels and dreaming of when I could go to school again. The pictures all had as a background the mountainside across the river. It was covered with evergreen trees. Most of my pictures had some snow in them. In these drawings there was always a dog house next to the trailer, but we had no dog. The pictures were just a dream of having a dog.
After Driftwood we continued up the river following the end-of-pipe. When it got too far away for Dad to make the drive every morning, the trailer moved again. During that period we ranged as far north as the Canadian border, as far south as far as Alabama and as far west as the Mississippi river. Sometimes we found a trailer camp, sometimes we parked behind a gas station or a barn furnished with primitive water, electricity and plumbing connections.
Even in the trailer camp facilities could be primitive. These camps were not the tidy trailer parks of retirees with flowers, little fences and trailers that would never move. Those we called trailer parks, not trailer camps and seldom stayed in one.
The people of the trailer camps were diverse. There were migratory workers like my dad, gypsy caravans, religious revivalists, and wrestlers, who in those days traveled from armory to armory to present their entertainments.
The famous wrestlers like Gorgeous George, of course did not travel in a trailer but many of the others did. I remember especially a lady wrestler who shaved her head so her opponents could not pull her hair. Her wrestling name was ‘The Bald Angel’. Her companion in the trailer was a tall thin man whose only name was Cowboy. One winter morning as we were setting out for school, Cowboy came flying out of Angel’s, trailer with his pants on fire. We never found out whether it was a trailer on fire or if Angel had lit him on fire and kicked him out of the trailer during one of their many battles. But Cowboy was still there when we returned from school.
My parents did not drink and my dad had almost continuous employment, but that was not the norm in the trailer parks. Neither I nor my siblings had any idea that we were poor, and comparatively we were not. There were lots of kids whose fathers would drink up half their paycheck (if they had one) every Friday night. There were a lot of loud domestic altercations to keep you in touch with how the neighbors were doing.
I don’t know if there were earlier signs of my mother’s emotional problems. Perhaps I was too young to notice or she was so busy raising three kids to manifest the symptoms. Mom was always timid and fearful, probably because of being shuttled between the orphanage and a series of rented houses when grandma had enough money for rent and food.
When we finally moved out of the trailer and into a house (next door to a trailer camp), we kids were old enough to take care of ourselves. It was around that time that mom began to have a complete breakdown. She would stay in her bedroom and cry. Sometimes she would not come out for days.
Dad finally took her to a psychologist. The doctor committed her to the state hospital for the insane where she endured weeks of electroshock treatment. She would come home on Sundays. When it was time to drive her back to the hospital she would scream and beg my father not to take her back. He felt that, for her sake he had to follow the doctor’s orders. The drive back to the hospital is the worst memory I have and now I wish I didn’t bring it up during this gray afternoon.
Despite the fact that he was fatherless and endured the depression with 14 siblings, Dad was not as scarred by the experience as my mother was by hers.
In the hills of Martin County Indiana no one had ever had much money, depression or no depression. They had learned to live without it. The family had a patch of land that grew enough vegetables to get by, the rivers had fish and the boys had the Hoosier National Forest to hunt. There was no running water or electricity but no one went hungry. No one paid the slightest attention to hunting or fishing seasons.
In a family of fifteen siblings it is almost like three generations under the same roof. When the youngest child was born, the oldest was already an adult. Even without a father, there were many breadwinners in Dad’s family so the depression was not so serious for them.
Money comes to some of the Survances
Somewhere along the line, one of the older brothers set up a saw mill. The boys logged the oak and hickory of the forest and sawed it into railroad ties to be sold to the railroad to be made into pallets.
When the war came, the Navy created the Naval Surface Warfare Center in the limestone caves of Crane Indiana, close to home. The caves held megatons of highly explosive materials and ammunition. There was a great need for pallets to move them. Suddenly the Survance’s and everyone in Martin County had employment at good wages, wheeling those bombs in and out of the caves.
I don’t get back to Martin County any more, but when I did I would always go up to the fire tower where the family reunion was held each year. My uncle Cotton was on the crew that built the lookout tower years before. On the day the footings were poured for the tower, Cotton (whose legal name was Lester) wrote with his finger “LS+TM” in the wet concrete. Lester Survance loves Thelma Montgomery (later his wife). I liked to trace the letters in concrete hardened by the years while I sat and thought about the course of life.
As the eldest son, My uncle Cotton owned the little farm after Grandfathers death. He discovered that there was a huge mountain of Gypsum underneath the farm. In the wild growth after the war, houses were being built using fireproof gypsum for the interior walls. He sold mining rights to American Gypsum and pocketed a bunch of money. I don’t think any of the other siblings got any money. Certainly my dad, the 13th kid in line didn’t get a penny.
A bit later my uncle Snake Eyes married into the Survance clan via my Aunt Lily (sibling number 12). Snake Eyes had a little farm across the Wabash in Illinois. For cash money he was working for an oil company as a roving mechanic, watching and fixing their pumps when necessary. As he drove around the county servicing these hundreds of pumps he finally realized that with all that oil around he might have some under his property.
He found a driller and the driller found a whole bunch of oil. We used to visit Everett (his legal name) and Lily when I was very young. But after they were rolling in money, Lily let all the family know not to come around trying to get some of their money. So much for brotherly and sisterly love.
There was only one word for black people in our family but it was not spoken in rancor. Often it was just a description. On general principles we believed in the inferiority of blacks, segregation, and enjoyed telling racially biased jokes. However we were not the mad-dog sort of racists who abounded in the sixties.
My parents had absorbed the beliefs of their white ancestors and with contemporaries of the same generation and social class. I don’t except myself from any of our family’s racist attitudes. But there was no malice in our racism. On an individual basis we often did pay as much attention to the content of a black persons character as to the color of their skin.
Still, there was no doubting how my father felt about the civil rights movement. He did not hate black people as individuals, but in the turmoil of the 60’s when blacks were getting militant, he could not imagine a state of affairs where black and white mixed freely. He detested troublemakers like Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson and even attempted to attend a big Ku Klux Klan rally but was turned away by the Ohio Highway Patrol.
I have remembered all my life an incident that happened when I was working with my dad on the pipelines. The crew was composed of Dad, me, a black man named Willy and three or four worthless white redneck drunks. My dad and I knew that Willy was by far the best worker and most responsible person on the crew. He worked all day at manual labor and then hurried to his night job so he could put together money for his kids’ education. He was an exemplary person, but he was black.
I remember one day Dad, Willy and I were in the ditch helping Dad who was disassembling some poor work done by a couple of the worthless white drunks. Dad described it as a “nigger rigging”. Without speaking Willy jumped out of the ditch and into one of the pickups. He roared around the job site a few times to let off steam and then returned to work. No one said a word for the rest of the day but I could see that dad was deeply troubled.
My father was a complex man, made more inscrutable because he didn’t talk much. When I got into my teens I started to see how unhappy he was. I believe it was because my mother’s fear and psychological frailty, he was unable to do all the things he might have wanted to do with his life.
Mom never wanted to travel or even to go out to a movie. If I remember correctly we kids had a baby sitter only once in our entire childhood. Mom wanted to stay home, and she had to have at least one of us at home with her to calm her fears.
After Mom was released from the hospital we bought a house in the little farming town of Medina, Ohio. That gave us the needed stability to deal with mom’s problems. Grandma lived only a few miles away in Akron.
Afterwards, I went to high school all in the same town. that was a real change for me. while in the trailer I would often have to enroll in two or three different schools in a school year.
Medina is no longer a small farm town since the opening of the north\south freeway. That allowed those who worked in Akron or Cleveland to live in Medina, outside the racial turmoil happening in those cities during the 1960s and 70’s.
It seems incredible, coming out of a mildly racist environment as we did, that me and my brother would have so many black friends, but that’s the way it was.
I was 15 or 16, going to high school in Medina Ohio when I met Fred. He came from the ghettos of Chicago.
As I would learn by bits and pieces of his conversation, there was a gang fight and someone got killed. However he was caught running away by the police and spent some time in the juvenile wing of Cook County Jail before coming to trial.
Fred stood by his story. The fight took place on a stair landing in his building. Fred said he wasn’t involved, that he was coming downstairs when the fight broke out and he was only running away from trouble when the cops grabbed him. I don’t know if that is the truth but it doesn’t matter anymore.
As he tells it, his father came to the jail and told him he was going to have the best lawyer in Chicago. Fred however told his father that he didn’t want the best, he wanted the crookedest lawyer in Chicago. At any rate, he went to trial and he was released into the custody of his uncle who lived in the sleepy town of Medina, Ohio.
Medina was not ready for a guy like Fred.
I had made some friends in Medina, but in the social hierarchy Of Medina high school, I ran mostly with the hoodlums, the outsiders. Some of them had spent time in reform school or even in the county jail. I myself even spent a few days in the county jail. Maybe we will touch on that episode later.
Fred quickly became the leader of our group, although he did not see himself as a hoodlum at all. Fred was smart. his grades were high despite working all night loading trucks at the mattress factory just out of town.
He did not look for trouble but he would not stand for racist attitudes among the teachers or the students.
There were a few black families beside his uncle in Medina and they had learned to ignore the racism. but that was not Fred’s style. The other students didn’t give him much trouble. He stood six foot four inches tall and was muscular and a skilled street fighter. The teachers however were another story.
I was present when the basketball coach ran up to Fred in a rage about something Fred had allegedly done or said. Here’s how it went:
Coach [screaming] “I wish I wasn’t a teacher so I could beat the hell out of you”.
Fred [in a slow casual tone] “Bring it on, Roscoe. You will get your own ass kicked and then you will get sued and then you will get fired. Then when you aren’t a teacher any more I will kick your ass again.
The coach turned around and walked away with steam coming out of both ears.
Nights in White Satin
The Sealy Mattress Company had never had an employee like Fred. He loaded more mattresses in an eight hour night shift than any four men at their other locations.
Fred was the only one supposed to be in the building during the night shift but very often there were three or four of us on the dock helping Fred load the mattresses. We would drive out to the factory after everyone but Fred had left the building. After we loaded the trucks we would smoke some marijuana or drink some beer. Afterwards we went home to get some sleep or sometimes we all grabbed a pneumatic stapler and chased each other around the dock for an hour or so trying to staple someone’s ass.
The staplers were used to staple the wooden frame of the mattresses together. but they could shoot a staple about twenty feet. We all aimed low and, miraculously, nobody caught one in the eye. Nowadays people play this same game with paintballs, helmets and masks.
I Embarrass the Faculty
This will sound like bragging (which it is), but it is germane to the story so I will give it to you straight and you can believe it or not.
I was a genius when I was a kid. I registered 160 on the Stanford-Binet scale. I was great at taking standardized tests like the college boards or the Ohio State Scholarship Exams. I realize now that Stanford-Binet really did not measure intelligence per se, it mostly measured how much you had read and retained. I had read everything I could get my hands on since I was four years old and hadn’t forgotten much.
As mentioned above, I ran with the hoodlums, the outsiders. In most of the schools I had come to, the previously smartest kid in school had been a quiet, studious boy or girl who never got into any kind of trouble. They had their homework assignments neatly finished when they came to class. I, on the other hand, never did homework and often I just skipped the school day entirely. I was always in plenty of trouble and didn’t give a damn.
The problem was that I had to show everybody how much I didn’t give a damn. I made some serious enemies among the faculty, showing up their ignorance of the subjects they taught.
Come graduation time I took the College Board tests and came out with a score that made me a National Merit Scholar, eligible for a scholarship. To receive the scholarship entailed some paperwork and most importantly a recommendation from my high school principle.
After the scores were made public The principal called me into his office and told me he would not write the letter of recommendation. He was overjoyed to deny me a college education.
However, in those days a lot of colleges contacted National Merit Scholars directly with scholarship offers. A dozen or more Universities contacted me.
I had never lived in a town that was large enough to be called a city so I accepted the offer from Long Island University at their Brooklyn Center in Brooklyn New York. Since then I have only returned home for brief visits. Each time I returned I had nightmares wherein I was unable to leave Ohio.
The Sidewalks of New York
Akron Ohio was the biggest city I had ever seen and here I was in New York.
I took my stuff to the dormitory at Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus. I was assigned a room with two other students. The three of us arrived on campus at the same time. Together we chose our beds and shoved our suitcases under them. one of my roommates was a returning student and knew the subways so we headed uptown seeking adventure.
What we found was McSorley’s Old Ale House. McSorley’s was the oldest tavern in New York. It had been selling beer since the Civil War. No women were allowed. I hear that has changed by court order since I left New York but I can’t imagine McSorley’s with women all over the place.
Despite the impossibility of female companionship in McSorley’s we got so drunk that night that we had trouble finding the subway back to Brooklyn.
It did not take me long to realize that Long Island University was not the university I needed. It was one of the first for-profit universities that were popping up. It began as a few classrooms above a bowling alley.
At any rate, I was not much interested in the university but New York had a lot to teach me.