Parents, Home, Neighbors

My parents were both from Pittsfield, New Hampshire, a town small enough so that most people knew each other. They were married in 1907, lived for a few years in Lynn, Massachusetts, where father served as Secretary of the Shoe Manufacturer’s Association, and then moved to Haverhill, living at first in the Riverside section, before moving to Bradford. My father owned a small shoe factory, which he ran with his brother, Frank, but that was before I was on the scene. Much later in life, Lucile pointed out to me the two floors in a manufacturing building, which had been their “factory”. By the time I was old enough to know, father owned the City Insurance Agency, located on the main business street of Haverhill, where he employed a couple of other people, Miss Elden, Cliff, and my sister Lucile.

I have often wished that I had asked more about why the switch from shoe manufacturing to insurance, but I am left only with surmise, and a few snippets of information shared by my sisters. My father was not well during most of the time when I was growing toward manhood. My guess today is that his condition had something to do with loss of the shoe factory. The shoe industry had moved south from large parts of the Merrimack Valley, and of course the stock market crash came about the same time. Today I am confident that whatever happened to the business was largely contributory to the limitations placed on him by poor health.

My father was not able to be to me what fathers often are to boys; I was not taught some of the things which young boys usually learn from fathers. His condition was called by a variety of names, including the term “nervous breakdown”. He was treated with numerous and sometimes peculiar “cures”. I can remember a period of time when a doctor had father get up early in the mornings on cold days, go out into the yard to open the garage, clad only in his BVD’s! That was a spectacle I watched with wonder, and mother with a hope that the neighbors did not see! She told me that she told Mrs. Bowdoin about so that she would understand if she saw him; a good way to make sure she looked!

Neighbors included the Bowdoins, across the street from us. Others on the street were the Smiths, the Stearns, the Mulloys, Batchelders, Ross’s, Mrs. Carleton, others whom it is hard to remember. At some point my father’s brother, Frank, lived “around the corner”, on Williams Street, sometimes too close, always easily distanced. Mr. Bowdoin worked as a tanner, and came home wet and dirty, and seemed mostly to retreat into the house. The Smiths worked in a grain store, had two sons, both older than I, and they were quiet, “good neighbors”. Mr. Stearns went each day to a bank where he worked, always pleasant when he paid me for shoveling the snow. Closest to us were the Ross family, whose older son was in the Navy, and whose daughter, Dot, became one of my best early friends. Mrs. Ross and mother were active together in various clubs.

Mrs. Carleton, a retired piano teacher, was regarded as a community enigma, some would say “witch”. I befriended her enough to discover her “peculiar” propensities. One day she explained to me that she had lots of old magazines stored in her attic, and that she periodically rotated them bringing one batch, then another downstairs, fearful that “they might be lonely” in the attic. Most people on the street were happy to avoid Mrs. Carleton. I think she appreciated what attention I accorded.

Among our neighbors, the Mulloys, next door to us, on the corner, presented for me a mystery I have never fully understood. At an early age I learned that my parents and members of the considerable Mulloy family were never to speak! A low hedge separated our house lots; driveways were juxtaposed, and it was necessary to walk past their house to go almost anywhere. For years I moved in that direction in frozen silence, sometimes frightened, always uncomfortable. At some point I made initial contacts, and by the time I was in high school was actually invited into the house, had conversation with Mrs. Mulloy, and began what was a modest attempt at reconciliation. She was gracious, and seemed almost proud when I was recognized in the local news upon graduation with honors from high school. Gradually I was pleased to see the days when mother and she at least exchanged casual, though still cool pleasantries. I must have asked my parents about the reason for the estrangement, but do not remember any satisfactory answer; I was content to forget it, and move on. The reasons for that severe rift in the neighborhood were never explained to me, but my suspicion always rooted it to some degree in the fact that the Mulloys were Catholic, on a street occupied by at least nominal Protestants.

From my school years, there is one dominant and sad memory of my father. The “picture” is of evenings at home. A small den, dining room, living room, hall, and kitchen were circled around a central chimney. Evening after evening, hour upon hour, father paced around between the living room, dining room, kitchen, occasionally stopping at the door of the little den where mother sat sewing, or perhaps, if my homework was done, I would have joined her in a game of cards. He would stop briefly, and in the few moments of exchange often share a worry; then continue with his pacing, by the hour. It is a difficult memory to share, because it reminds me that I did not know him until much later in life, long after he had retired and I was married, and saw him playing with my children.

Due to my father’s illness, there is a sense in which, as I grew into teen years, I turned to mother for friendship. My father was never mean or never treated me poorly. I am conscious today of times when he tried to break through that inevitable “teen-age wall”, to be a friend. Add to the common difficulties of understanding between father and son, his illness placed limits on the relationship beyond those most young boys experience. Mother became the confidant, and she also turned to me for companionship. She taught me to play two-handed bridge and other card games, and we spent many an evening talking as we played. When she wrote papers for presentation to her reading club, she asked me to read, discuss, and critique them. Mother was for me the adult friend my father could not be.

My parents were eminently good people. Members of the little white church on Bradford common; mother more regular in attendance than father, neither very active in the church beyond Sunday. Mother read her Bible daily, but said little about what she had read. The only time I remember any expression of religious feeling from father was on the day I returned home, discharged from the Army after World War II. When I entered the house that afternoon, he fell to his knees by the couch in the living room. I was so astounded that I did not even hear the words by which he gave thanks!

Early Lessons about Race/Ethnicity

Words of bigotry were not allowed in the house. I was taught that the word “nigger” was not to be used, but never had that explained. A strange memory was of my being in conversation with playmates, explaining to them that it was wrong when one of them picked his nose, revealed a tiny black something on the end of his finger, and called it “nigger”. Today it seems ever more odd that I remember that! Certainly there was a genesis of at least confusion about the matter of “race”. At the very least I knew there was something wrong about using the word “nigger”, but any reason for that was certainly “at the very least” of family concerns.

There were occasional anti-Jewish outbursts from father. I remember once questioning him about how those feelings related to what seemed were cordial relations with Jewish men who ran the store from which he bought meat. There was little response; I think he saw no reason to reply. During the period when FDR was President, I do remember curses from father which were politically anti-New Deal. “Race”was not mentioned in my home. Politics were not discussed at home; they were announced by father, in strong Republican accents!

One incident from my very early years which became a “learning” many years later, occurred in a family visit to my Mother’s home in Pittsfield. My widowed Grandmother was living there alone, and we took the day-long ride to visit her regularly.
Each year my Uncle Ernest also came to visit her, and we made a point to be there with him. I never had a sense that Mother was especially close to him, but I liked him. Part of my liking him was in the fact that he had a large car, and a Negro chauffeur, who drove me around the tiny town on errands. Uncle Ernest was Secretary of the Pennsylvania State Chamber of Commerce; while that meant little to me, it impressed me that he was quite “important”. The long, black car was itself enough to gain attention in Pittsfield; a chauffeur would have been unusual. The long, black car being driven around the tiny town was certainly a subject for note. To those images I add myself, the little white kid obviously being served by a black driver! I wonder still of the effect which it had on my viewing of “race”.

The Chauffeur’s name was “Joseph”, the only name by which I ever knew him!
He was pleasant, cordial, and competent in everything he did. He was the only adult person I ever knew whom I was allowed to call by a “first name”! Of course, I learned later that the origin of that “naming” was in the slavery period which stripped its victims of names, and allowed white little “masters” like me to disobey the rules of common decency I had been taught.

“Joseph” was treated with respect by my Uncle, but the “respectful” distance included that he was not allowed to eat with the family. We four ate in the dining room, while “Joseph” ate at a table in a remote corner of the kitchen. One time when my Uncle was not present for a meal, I remember my Father and Mother discussing their concern that Joseph ought to “eat with us”. I went with Father into the kitchen, and there he invited “Joseph” to join us in the dining room. Of course, “Joseph” declined, and we returned to our meal, sorry and probably confused. In much later years, reflection on this incident illuminated for me what was then a beginning understanding of “liberalism”, now a term which I hope never to deserve. I began a process of empathizing with all “Josephs” who could not possibly have received my Father’s “invitation” as anything other than misplaced paternalism at best, and worse as a demand that placed “Joseph” in conflict with the orders of my Uncle, his “master”. Little did I know that those encounters with “Joseph”, would later lead me to understand the larger context of the time which shaped the ways Father and Mother viewed the world of “race”. Still, in 2008, I encounter too often that same kind of blind ignorance.

Early “Organizational” Life

My father was not a “joiner”, aside from those business associations which were necessary. That he did not engage with groups may have had to do with an event in his life, which I only heard about once or twice, but which I knew was a source of hurt. He had applied for admission to the local Masonic Lodge, and had been rejected … they called it, “black-balled”! (That name, in and of itself” is rooted in negative assumptions of “blackness”!) He was sure that some business jealousy was the cause of his rejection, but he was deeply hurt. He told me about that rejection when I became active in the DeMolay, often seen as a youth “branch” of the Masons. I became very active in the DeMolay, and served for several terms as Chaplain, and was given the highest award of the Order, the Chevalier Degree. Father was pleased, and I think saw my success as a vindication of his name.

Another incident in the DeMolay Chapter contributed to my eventual withdrawal from the Masons, and rejection of all secret and secretive institutions. In High School I befriended a boy in the neighborhood who had a reputation as “bad”. I submitted his name for membership in the Chapter, confident that membership would be good for him and the group. That same secret system which had denied membership to father, worked against Don, as members moved forward, each putting his hand into a box where a “black-ball” could be dropped without anyone knowing who had dropped it. At the time, though disappointed, I had no idea how significant that action was in forming my views against secrecy. Often too, I have reflected on the paternalistic feelings I had for Don, sure that I could help him! Another attitude to be “un-learned”.

As a young boy and teenager I also became active in the church, a in the children’s choir, and then as President of the youth organization. I became a church member while in High School; as a part of the service, I was baptized by what was called a “sprinkling”, a traditional Congregational way of avoiding the larger pool! As a part of the service, each of the new members was given a Bible. The minister, Rev. George Cary, read for each of those being inducted a Biblical verse, which was meant to have significance individually. The verse chosen for me was the magnificent word of Micah: “..what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” That verse has always had great meaning for me, and I hope at the end of my days, to have given actual substance to it in my life. One of the toughest parts of that verse is the bit about walking “humbly”. The presumption of even writing this story is rooted in what I hope is justifiable immodesty.

As President of the youth group, The Pilgrim Fellowship, I began to hone some organizational skills and interests, constantly engaging in organizing social events, meetings, lectures, etc. A number of people foresaw me as a minister, and this was confirmed when, after the 1938 hurricane, aged fourteen, I read during the Sunday service, an essay assuring all that our magnificent steeple had been saved by an act of Providence. !!!

Church and Christian Contradictions

The church of which I was a member sponsored each year a Minstrel Show, which attracted good numbers, and made a bit of money. During my High School years, I became one of the very best of “end men” for that show. In that role, I covered my face with burnt cork, widened my lips with very red lipstick, learned the stereotyped words and speech of degraded black men images. The role engaged me as a dumb, helpless, lazy “nigger”, responding stupidly to inquiries from the “m.c.”, who of course, was a bright, white man, always leading the audience in laughter at my antics. Whatever the role required, I played it well, even singing and dancing to make fun of the stereotyped black man. Each year I looked forward to this role; it focused a lot of appreciative attention, admiration, and loud applause. Years later, when I learned to put the “minstrels” in their racist context, I realized that I had to work to replace all that stupidity which that acting had put into my head/heart. I learned how to forgive myself, but I have never quite forgiven the church for condoning that conduct. That may have been the seed-bed of a later time when a more substantial disillusionment led me out of the church and organized religion.

The church also sponsored a Boy Scout troop; I went to one meeting with some friends, a session that was supposed to enlist us as members. All I remember of it, was that we stood in rows for what seemed interminably long, and I did not understand why. We were put through some simple “drills” barked by a man at the front of the room. I had no inclination or desire to repeat them. I did not return for another meeting! It was probably the foundation of later rejections of regimented activity of any sort.

Silent Prejudices

Among my friends, Bob Carbone was the longest-lasting, and one from whose relationship I learned the most. His Italian family lived in a three-decker house on a street near to my home. Bob and I became friendly in grammar school and remained so through all the school days. It was only until our lives had parted, that reminiscence taught me something about the subtleties of prejudice.

I was frequently in Bob’s house, yelled for him every day on the way to school, through High School, ate meals with his family, learned to say a few Italian words which his immigrant grandmother could understand. I was fully accepted there. In a later adult day, I came to realize that I could hardly remember a time when Bob was ever in my home! I was astounded to admit that, and wondered, of course, why.

When I graduated from High School, my parents took me to Washington, D.C. as a celebration, and I was told that I could invite a friend to travel with us. Of course I chose Bob, and he did go with us. One day at breakfast in our Washington hotel, when Bob was away from the table, I was amazed to hear my mother share her surprise that he was so wonderfully courteous and well-behaved! Bob was probably not “at ease” with my parents, and clearly they were not “at ease” with him. Remembering this as an adult, the fact that Bob was seldom in our home made sense, or really, nonsense!

Today it seems strange that I never discussed this with Bob. It stands for me as an example of a “lost opportunity”, which might have had rich instruction for my learning, My bet is that Bob and his family were aware of, or at least assumed that my parents held unspoken prejudices against their immigrant status. Adult reflection later led me to see this as an instance of the subtlety of prejudice. Later I would see similar dynamics abundant in race relations.