Sophia’ Sunday — Epilogue

While the character of Sophia in this story is fictional, the setting is based on historical fact.  The city in the story is Lawrence Massachusetts.  The strike referred to is sometimes called the “Bread and Roses” strike.  It was a strike of all of Lawrence’s textile workers from January 11, 1912 to March 15, 1912.

The strike started because worker’s wages were reduced after the state mandated a reduction in the maximum working hours per week of women and children.  The hours were reduced from 56 to 54.  The worker’s had requested of the mill owners that this reduction in hours would not affect their weekly wage.  At the time, the average weekly wage for 56 hours of work was less than $7.  That is not an error.  It was $7 a week, not $7 a day.  Lawrence, known as immigrant city, was basically a single industry town, textiles, with the textile mills employing upwards of 40,000 people, or a little less than half the entire population of the city of Lawrence!

The “old immigrants” of Lawrence, Germans, English, Scot, and French Canadian, were giving way to the new immigrants, primarily Italian and Polish, but also there were Russians, Belgians, Syrians, and Armenians.  These new, and unskilled, immigrants provided the largest portion of the textile labor in the city.  Their working hours fluctuated greatly, and they never knew from one day to the next if they would be working.  Layoffs were extremely common, and when small strikes happened, mill owner usually just replaced the striking workers with other workers.  Only 25% of all strikes in America at the time were even marginally successful.

The plight of these workers came into national view when in mid-February over 120 children were sent from Lawrence to New York City where surrogate families had volunteered to take those children who had suffered the greatest.  Margaret Sanger, the famed birth-control advocate of the day, had visited Lawrence at the beginning of the strike and was at Grand Central Station in New York to meet the children when they arrived.  The socialist movement of New York marched the children down 5th Avenue where all could see.  Sanger later commented on the condition of the children they received.  Sanger, a trained nurse, claimed all were suffering from severe malnutrition, and many were so poorly dressed that they were not even wearing undergarments.  This so incited the American people that a cry went out for a congressional hearing.  President Howard Taft’s wife, Helen, urged her husband to take action.  The here-to-fore Taft, a friend of industrialists, ordered the House of Representatives to convene an investigation which it did.

At a hearing of that house committee, more than half those interviewed from Lawrence were young people between the ages of 13 and 18.  All had worked in the mills and related both their working conditions and living conditions to the members of Congress.  At the time the minimum working age in Massachusetts was 14 which also had an education requirement attached.  The young people attested that such requirements were easily circumvented by bribing local officials.  They stated that their working was an absolute necessity for the survival of their family.

An investigation by the “White Commission” of Lawrence in 1912 revealed that portions of Lawrence were even more densely populated than the most populous portions of New York City, a startling revelation.  Those conditions were accompanied by poor sanitation, extremely poor public health measures that resulted in the spread of diseases like dysentery, tuberculosis, and other maladies commonly found among the malnourished.

The strike in Lawrence was revolutionary in that it was the largest strike of a single industry in a single city ever in the United States.  At any one time during the two plus months of the strike, as many as 30,000 people were on strike.  It became the blueprint for unions on how to run a successful strike in the years to come.

Throughout the strike there was a constant struggle between the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) for the hearts and stomachs of the affected.  Prior to that strike, however, the AFL had made it quite clear it was only interested in a membership of skilled male textile workers, a fairly small portion of the entire workforce.  Conversely, the IWW used their “big tent” format for including all operatives, regardless of job or gender, for inclusion in their membership.  At least for the period of the strike, the IWW easily won that battle.  However, they were never able to gain even as many as 1000 workers as dues paying members.  When the strike ended, the socialist IWW went back into disfavor, and the AFL went back to desiring only skilled labor.

But the IWW succeeded with this strike where most previous strikes had failed.  It was unusual in America for any strike to last more than 10 days.  Even the largest of strikes, 1000 or more workers, usually ended to the favor of the industrialists.  Strikes were frequently violent, particularly when the IWW was involved.  The socialist IWW attracted America’s radicals of the day, many of whom were self-declared anarchists.  The American memory of that day was still fresh with the assassination of President William McKinley by a professed anarchist.  William “Big Bill” Haywood, leader of the IWW, had previously been at the forefront of the Western Mine Workers who had in previous years had a number of violent clashes in Colorado.  Haywood had been indicted and tried for the murder of Governor Frank Steunenberg of Idaho.  Although Haywood in fact had had nothing to do with the murder, a reputation for violent confrontation followed him the rest of his life.  And when he arrived in Lawrence two days after the beginning of that city’s strike, the city fathers feared that violence could not be far off.

The Lawrence strike, however, was not headed by Haywood, but rather by a man who was a poet by trade, and secretary of the IWW office in New York City, Joseph James Ettor.  Ettor was a soften spoken, baby-faced man who endeared himself to his audiences.  From the start of the Lawrence strike he constantly urged his follower to remain peaceful at all costs.  Throughout the entirety of the strike there had not been a single all out riot, although there had been a few confrontations that could easily have descended into an all out riot.  Only 3 strikers died by such confrontations, at least one of which was an obvious case of manslaughter at the least, but no one was ever taken to court over these deaths, and the was little investigation done by the police department.

The mill owners, and William M. Wood in particular, head of the huge American Woolen Company which owned six of the mills involved in the strike, felt certain they could wait out the strike without  having to make a single concession to the strikers.  But in late February when young mothers in Lawrence were arrested and taken to jail, some with babies in their arms, the public attitude towards the strikers changed markedly.  It become more and more apparent that the industrialists claims that the strike was a movement by a subversive and un-American element, was simply a falsehood.  But even more, merchants whose livelihood depended upon the business the strikers brought them was impacted.  A solution had to be found.

All the powers of Massachusetts, Governor Eugene Foss, Senator Calvin Coolidge, Cardinal O’Connell, who had adamantly opposed the strike at its beginning, moved for a quick reconciliation by the time March rolled around.  The conditions over the average worker had been spelled out in great detail by newspapers like the Boston Globe and the New York Times, and the industrialists found themselves in a no-win situation.

When the strike ended on March 15, four of the five demands made by the strikers were met in full.  They had demanded, and gotten, a 15% pay raise.  But even more importantly, they had shown the world how to conduct a successful, and peaceful, strike.  A few days after the end of the Lawrence strike, the textile mills of Lowell Massachusetts, who employed equally as many people as did Lawrence, went on strike.  That strike was settled relatively quickly.  A year later the silk industry of Paterson New Jersey, a fairly large industry at the time, went on strike and it too used Lawrence’s methods to a successful conclusion.

What most importantly came out of the Lawrence strike was first the living conditions of the average mill operative in American cities.

American Linen Co Cleaner - Spinning room Fall River, Ma

children on spinnerRhodes Mfg. Co., Lincolnton, N.C. Spinner 1908

Images such as those above were printed in newspapers across the United States.  The federal government realized that state laws protecting children were largely ineffective, ambiguous, or non-existent.  A minimum working age of 12 was common in the southern states while pictures such as those above belied that such laws were being followed.

The federal government, in the several years following the Lawrence strike, enacted a series of child-labor laws, minimum wage laws, and even a few laws governing working conditions, although these laws stayed very weak until the 1950s.

The location of “Sophia” in my story was on Common Street in Lawrence.  On a single block there were a good number of three and four story tenaments which housed anywhere from 50 to 80 people in a single building!  Although such building generally housed a single ethnic group, it was common that a house full of Poles would be neighbor to a house of Italian or Armenians or some of the older, yet equally poor, Irish and English.  The plight of these workers is detailed in works such as “Huddle Fever” by Jeanne Schinto, “Twenty Years at Hull House” by Jane Addams, and in the case of Lawrence, “Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and he Struggle for the American Dream” by Bruce Watson.


Sophia’s Sunday — Part 4

Sophia’s morning ended with a small lunch.  Her mother had boiled potatoes but there was no pork as was tradition.  Her father said they simply did not have the money, and the butcher was not taking any more credit.  The small meal, much less than usual, was not satisfying, leaving Sophia to wonder if they would truly run out of food entirely and starve to death.  The combination of cold and hunger did things to the mind.  When you went out after a meal not feeling sated, when the cold New England wind bit into your ill-clad body, the who world seemed a little more gloomy, and the times a little more desperate.  That feeling of desperation dominated much of the gossip among the out-of-work mill operatives.

The afternoon promised nothing.  Sophia had promised some friends, who she also worked with, that she would join them in a strike march at one of the mills.  The mill was not the one she worked in but was one of the more than half-dozen mills where the textile operatives had walked out.  A baby-faced Italian leader of the IWW had spoken the day before on the necessity to act as one, it “class warfare” even though, as he implored, they remain peaceful.  The thought of the march both excited and troubled Sophia.  As a part of the larger group she felt a certain safety and sense of kinship with people of so many varied ethnic background.  But she feared both the militia, local police, and private police, the Pinkerton men, who were little more than hired thugs who had been called in to break heads, literally, and stir up trouble.  She had more than once witnessed a policeman using his nightstick mercilessly on one of the strikers.  Women in particular seemed to be targets as they were the least likely to resist or take up the physical fight.  Such actions invariably happened at every such gathering she had ever attended, and she feared that one of this hot-headed Irish policemen would see her only as a “dirty Pollock,” as they frequently called her, and take their aggressions out on her.

The strikers started their march of the main street of the city only to be immediately confronted by a large contingent of the state militia that had become encamped their.  Those at the head of the march divided into two columns and swarmed around and past the militia fronting them but being extraordinarily careful not to directly confront them.  Though many epithets were tossed back and forth, neither side descended into violence and the march continued peacefully.

As they got to the middle of the business district they march turned left, southward towards the mill that was the object of the day’s protests.  All was quiet, and a little too peaceful in Sophia’s mind.  Things seemed to be going a little too well, but then, she thought, maybe the city fathers had finally realized that the strikers had no intentions of rioting, ever, has had been feared.  After all, she thought, it was 10 days into this strike already and there had not been a single riot, or anything close to one.  Maybe, thank God, things would remain peace.  Still, she positioned herself as close to the middle of the crowd of strikers as she could to protect herself for the endless line of police and militia who followed them on their sides.

One block down they turned left again as the reached the desired mill.  There was, a news reporter retold then next day, probably 2000 strikers out that day in the march.  But just as the last of the strikers turned the corner something entirely unexpected happened.  Men stationed on top of the mill in question turned on fire hoses and soaked the strikers.  The below freezing cold of the day coupled with the water had its desired effect of dispersing a large portion of the strikers.  But Sophia found herself caught between two groups, one trying to flee the situation, and another, mostly young men and boys, who were scrambling for chunks of ice to hurl at those men who had aim their hoses upon them.  It seemed suddenly to her that this would certainly turn into the riot she so feared.

As Sophia turned to tell her friend Anna that they should flee, she found that they had become separated and she could no longer find her friend in the frenzied crowd.  She was immediately gripped with fear and then suddenly jostled to the ground when she was stepped upon several times by people trying to flee.  As she got to her feet she was astounded to find that she was now at the front of the crowd but there was no longer water being sprayed down upon them.  Instead, she saw a combination of nightstick wielding policemen and armed militia bearing down upon her.  As she turned her back to flee she felt a sharp pain at the rear of her head.  The blow sent her to her knees and nearly unconscious.  The pain, however, only reinforced her fear and then her determination to flee.  She crawled several feet before getting back to her feet and this time, without fear of courtesy, she pushed herself through the remains of the crowd towards safety.

A minute later Sophia found herself back on the main business street heading home.  Her head still split with pain and as she took stock of herself, she felt the sharp coldness of the day racing through the soaking wetness of her clothing.  She also noticed the heavy scent of horse manure on her body somewhere from when she had fallen.  At other times such a condition would have greatly bothered her, but now her mind was focused entirely upon getting home as quickly and safely as she could manage.

As she burst through the door to the family apartment she almost ran headlong into her mother.  At the sight of her, her mother burst out in a series of questions about where she had been, what had happened, and what trouble she had gotten into.  The trouble portion concerned her mother almost as much as her daughter’s physical condition as all immigrants did their utmost to avoid trouble, to keep the police from their door, to stay out of jail, although such things sometimes proved fruitless even when a person as most careful.  The common $5 fine for loitering, causing a public nuicance, and other charged meeted out at the city’s police court, represented a price higher than most immigrants could afford.  A week’s stay in jail for such infractions was not uncommon.

Sophia quickly comforted her mother with multiple assurances that no police officer had taken any particular notice of her and that she had acted  as a proper woman the entire time.  It was only then her mother noticed Sophia’s bloody scalp and once again lapsed into a long series of question about how her daughter could possibly have come by such a wound, although the reality was she knew exactly how it had happen, it was still extremely difficult to accept that any child of hers would be involved in such disreputable activities.

Sophia had not seen this coming from her mother but she should have.  Both her parents were of the belief that good Catholics, particularly Polish Catholics, always carried themselves in such a way as not to go astray of the law.  Even more, pronouncements made from the pulpit, even the Italian Catholic pulpit, represented the wishes of God and that going against them was always some sort of sin.  Of that they were always certain, even though they usually did not understand such directives.  In this case the clergy had admonished their parishioners from joining in an IWW activities.  The IWW, the contended, was a subversive socialist group that was both anti-God and anti-Catholic in particular.  The Polish community was quick to point out how the IWW was led by “those Jews” and how could one trust such people.

Sophia listened quietly to her mother’s admonishment as she fully understand that to stand up to her would not only be fruitless, but would have some sort of lasting consequences.  Strangely, as she sat there, cold and in pain, Sophia felt a sort of victory within herself.  She had come to be in a violent situation, and her head wound not withstanding, she had come out all right.  She deafened herself to her mother’s continued tirade by considering how it might just be a good thing what she had done.  Maybe, she thought, it was something in which she should become even more active.  But then what, she wondered.  How would that play out.

Sophia’s Sunday — Part 3

Her family did rouse themselves, more slowly than most Sundays, but this was not most Sundays.  Except for going to mass as 9:30 that morning, none of their usual preparations for the week ahead needed to happen.  They would wash their clothes, but there was no sense of urgency to get it done.  If it had to be finished on Monday, that would be all right.  Sophia noted how structured her Sundays usually were, and there was comfort in that structure.

Unlike her brothers, who disdained going to mass and frequently found ways to keep from going, Sophia enjoyed the mass.  She found it comforting.  Father DiGrasso, who always said the 9:30 mass, always gave uplifting sermons.  They unfailingly provided comfort and hope, particularly when the community was going through hard times.  He always seemed to know exactly what to say, and Sophia really liked him.  Fr. DiGrasso was someone she had found in whom she could confide, more than just as her confessor, but especially as a spiritual advisor.  He was not like the priests she had known in Poland, a little cold and aloof, he always seemed happy to see her and always had time to listen to her troubles.

At this particular Sunday’s mass Fr. DiGrasso was markedly different from any she had observed before.  He was quite solemn, and never broke a smile, as he usually did.  He spoke of the strike they were all enduring.  He spoke at great length on the rewards of “turning the other cheek.”  He implored his congregation to avoid trouble at every turn.  He assured the people that the Boston Archdiocese would be helping the congregation with food supplies and other necessities.  Sophia wanted to believe him but his statement troubled her now because he had made that promise a week earlier and so far nothing had happened.

Two days after the strike had started the local socialist labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World, held a mass meeting in the city’s common.  A large man they called “Big Bill” spoke to them and promised them the same support Fr. DiGrasso had promised.  But the IWW had set up soup kitchens within a couple a days, and Sophia had had a number of meals there already.  They were lean meals, but far better than nothing.  And nothing, as the IWW was fond of saying, is what the Catholic church had given them thus far.  In private, her parents had contended that had their been a Polish church in the city thing would have been different for them.  Sophia was not so sure.

But what Sophia did know, and everyone she knew seemed to agree with, was that they were all literally starving.  It was what the strike was truly about.  They had begged the church on numerous occasions for help but it seemed their pleas had fallen on deaf ears.  She knew the Catholic Church hated the IWW socialists, and she suspected most of the IWW leaders felt similarly towards the Church.  But the IWW had kept its promises, so far, and the church had not.  She had heard rumors that the pastor of the Irish Catholic church had literally ordered his congregation not to participate in the strike.  But a few days after the strike had started, they had little choice, the mills were closed, although there were scabs who crossed the lines to do what little work could be done.

As she walked home, Sophia reflected on the strikers who put out the cry for “bread” on their table where they claimed there was none.  Although her family had fared well enough during the tough times, she knew of other families who had young children who had died from malnutrition, or were always sick because they did not have enough to eat.

Then she felt a bit of pride over the fact that it was Polish women who had started the strike when they found their wages had gone down with the new year.  They had walked out of the mill yelling “short pay” and imploring their co-workers, of every ethnicity in the city, to join them.  Most did.  It had seemed a glorious moment when it started.  Sophia had worked on the floor below the women who started the strike.  But she remembered how the Polish women had left the mill arm-in-arm with the Italian women who worked with them.  It had seemed such a joyous moment, in a morbid sort of way, but it was a declaration of freedom.  Those first few days had been both heady and scary.  A day after the strike started several hundred of the state’s militia came to the city to assist in keeping the peace.  That was scary.  They all carried rifles with their bayonets attach.  When crowds of strikers gathered, the militia would taunt them with their bayonets pointed at the crowd.  Nothing had come of these taunts, but everyone feared a riot was sure to break out.

Holding strikers in check, Lawrence, Mass

As she arrived home from church that morning she wondered to herself what she should do next.  It was a most perplexing problem, fraught with the fear of the unknown.  She thought briefly about the promise the mill owners had made right after the strike had started that anyone who returned to work would be fully employed and there would be no retributions.  But then her mind went to the IWW leaders, Godless anarchists the city fathers had called them, who said publicly that they could win only if their remain solid.  In private everyone “knew” of the threat of violence to any who crossed the picket line.  She found choosing between hunger and violence a difficult task, certainly not one someone of her young years could fully fathom.

Sophia’s Sunday — Part 2

The Andreotti’s had moved in next door to them early at the beginning of the previous summer.  Sophia’s father was suspicious of them.  He said he did not trust Italians but when pressed on the issue he could offer no cogent argument, only that it was “well-known” that Italians were not to be trusted.  When Sophia asked why, if that was the case, that it was all right for them to attend the Italian Catholic church down the street, her father had dismissed the question in a huff saying children should not question their parents.  He did that a lot when she brought up any subject which might be thought of as being uncomfortable.  While her mother was more pliable, she seldom went against what her husband proclaimed to be the truth.  And if you asked the question a second time, no matter how well you reworded it, he raised his voice a little higher until she recognized the fruitless nature of her inquiry.

Sophia reflected on her neighborhood that cold January morning.  That was unusual because she seldom had time for her own thoughts once she awoke to the new day.  This day, however, was not a usual day in any respect.  It was not just that it was a Sunday and no one worked on Sundays.  But that there was no prospect of work for anyone in the family for the foreseeable future, and that had trouble all of them.  They had suffered through times of low employment when one or two of the family was out of work.  But this time was different.  This time they were all out of work, food was low, money was lower, and the winter was just reaching its chilling heights.

Sophia reflected back to her life in Poland, just six short years ago.  They had been extremely poor then too, but they always had friends and family to help them through even the most difficult of times.  Now, most of her family surrounded her in this small apartment.  They had no actual relatives in the city, as they had claimed.  Her “uncle” had actually been an acquaintance of her father’s from Poland who had written to his brother.  That brother had talked rather glowingly of America and its promise.  Her father, a headstrong man, had always believed he deserved more than he had gotten, and this word of a better life in America had been virtually all he needed to hear.  Then, about a year before they left Poland, her father had seen a representative, from one of the American mills, talking to some men in Krakow, where he had gone to find some replacement tools for the farm.  The man had said how America longed for the Polish immigrant to work there, and that they were paid handsomely for their toil.  When her father had asked how much, the representative had instantly responded that they lived like kings.  The reference to royalty was met with amazement and disbelief, but it was a tale oft retold in many eastern and southern European towns.  He had heard such “gossip” before and dismissed it as idle talk, but here, right before him, was an American recruiting for those very mills and saying exactly what had before only been rumor.  It was all he needed.

But Sophia was comparing her small village in Poland with the city in which she now lived.  In Poland you knew everyone, and had an opinion about everyone.  Each person knew his place, and that place had a certain respect within the community.  Her father had been very well-respected for his extremely hard work at maintaining a good farm and for generously helping others in their time of need.  Now was their time of need, but here, in America, you knowledge of your neighbors was limited by where you went to church, where you worked, and most importantly, your ethnicity.  When they arrived it was thought they would be living in a Polish neighborhood in their new city.  But that had not been the case.  On her street alone along with the Polish were Italians, Russians, Scots, a few French Canadians, and Armenians.  Their backgrounds were about as diverse as one could imagine.  And their lack of a common native tongue further inhibited them.

When they first arrived they were introduced to their Polish neighbors, who numbered few, and were shown where they could buy their kielbasa, when they could afford it, turnips, cabbage, and get it on credit if need be.  They were also made aware of whom to avoid.  The Poles were always suspect of Russians even though they were of the same background.  You did not go to Warchovsky’s grocery because not only was he a Russian but a Jew, and who could trust them.  That’s what they were told at least.  Sophia had learned much of her English for a Polish Jew who told her that they were not so different from the Russian Jews, so how could that be bad.  Sophia had found work quickly in the closest mill as a mender, one of the better paying jobs, and a job generally assigned to just women.  The women at her mill, mostly Polish but some Italians, were given to gossiping about everything but as she listened Sophia learned that the old world mistrusts did not translate well in this new world, and most importantly, that they were “all in it together,” whatever that meant.  It did not take her long to find out that it meant it was them against the floor bosses who assigned work.  If you did not please such a boss, you might find yourself being laid off and another taking you place in just a day.

At that moment Sophia noticed the emptiness of her stomach.  It ached.  She knew breakfast would be some bread covered with molasses.  It was not very filling but it took the edge off her hunger.  When they had first arrived Sophia and her family looked like well-fed country stock.  She had been a bit of a big girl back then but the constant battle against hunger had depleted her body that it seemed to her she was forever taking in her dresses just so they would fit better.  Sophia had been a seamstress in Poland when they left, and her clothing had been relatively new and always in good condition.  That had all changed, and many was the day that she was simply choosing between the least threadbare garments she owned.  And winter only made things worst. Her one overcoat, though made of wool, failed to keep out the cold for any length of time.  They few times she had had to work across the river at a more distant mill in the winter, she had wished she had the five cent trolley fare.  By the time she made it to work, even when she rushed as best she could, she was always shivering.

As she thought of breakfast she longed for the days when her mother’s fesh-baked bapke and fruit pierogi started her day.  They had enjoyed none of that since they arrived in America.  And their was no Polish baker to provide their favorites.  Mostly the grocers and bakers were Italian and Syian.  But her father had assured her that their present condition, six years previous, was merely temporary, and that soon her mother would be making “babci’s” (grandmother) favorites.  She longed for her babci but knew she would probably never see her again.

At home, here in America, everyone still spoke only Polish.  Her brothers had all learned pretty good English, but her mother and father spoke very stilted, and heavily accented, English.  Her father, it seems to Sophia, was worst of all.  He had a stubborn streak a mile wide.  As much as he need to learn English, he resisted it so much that she frequently had to go with him when he needed to buy something in particular from someone who did not speak Polish.  Her father’s English was so bad that certain of the neighborhood men spoke poorly of him in his own presence without fear of his knowing what they were saying.  It was only Sohpia’s scornful looks that stopped such talk.  When her father noticed this he’d ask what had transpired, and to protect her father, Sophia had become very adept at making up a story to fit the situation so as not to upset her father.  She adored and idolized her father, though he made her crazy many times with his stubbornness and pronouncements.  When such things were talked about among other Polish people, they would universally agree that it was in their nature to be that way.  They were a proud people, and they let their pride show whenever the chance afforded them.  They all belongs to the Polish-American club down the street where these claims were justified on a regular basis.

Sophia’s Sunday

It was January 21, a Sunday, and Sophia did not have to work today.  But then it had been 10 days since she last worked, and the prospects were grim.  She arose at 5:30 that morning, just like she had every morning.  Her sister, Elizabeth, was snoring lightly in the bed next to her.  Elizabeth was 10 years younger and had just started working.  On a mattress next to her were her brothers Januz, Frank, and Thaduez.  They ranged in age from 11, Januz, and 12, Frank, to 17 Thaduez.  On a third mattress to himself was Walter, a strapping young man of 20.  As the eldest child it had fallen to Sophia to rouse her brothers each morning and prepare breakfast for them.  This was a tradition they had brought with them from when they had lived in Przybyslawice Poland, a village not far from Krakow.  They had left Poland in 1906 when Sophia’s mother and father had feared their sons would be conscripted into the Czar’s army.

Sophia’s parents had saved as much as they could, and when they felt they had to leave, they sold their farm to an aunt and uncle who said they wanted to move from the city of Katowice to get away from the constant noise and unhealthy air of the city.  Sophia suspected they had bought the farm for far less than it was worth preying on her father’s need for cash to buy passage to America.  They arrived at the port of Boston with slightly less than $100, and claimed to the immigration official that they would be living with her father’s brother.  That was curious as her father was the only boy in a family of seven children, but they were related to the man, though distantly, and reasoned that it was God’s will they use this falsehood to gain admission.  Her parents had not known that giving any name and address would have sufficed.  The port officials knew these immigrants would help fill positions, extremely low and ill-paying, that drove the American economy.

Sunday meant church.   The Polish community was trying to set up its own ethnic church in the city, but until it did they all attended mass at the Italian Catholic church just down the street.  When Sophia question the necessity of building a Polish church when a perfectly good Italian church was only a block away, her mother chastised her and instructed her as to the necessity of retaining their culture in this alien nation.

Sunday also meant they would have meat in their meal that day, probably pork shoulder, along with turnip and cabbage.  It took the combined pay of everyone who worked to ensure that meal but Sophia knew this day would be meatless.  No one had worked the last ten days which meant meat was a luxury they could not afford.  Sophia wondered what the big meal of the day would be, or even if it would be.  She had overheard her father speaking to her mother the evening before saying he would have trouble meeting rent, let alone buy food.  She had heard such desperate words before, but always before at least one of them was still working.  That simply was not the case this Sunday.

As Sophia attempted to survey the room around her in the near darkness surrounding them, she wondered what they day truly held.  It was at that same moment she noticed how cold her nose felt and she wondered what the temperature outside was.  They had been suffering through a particularly cold spell.  The windows of their small apartment did little to keep the drafts at bay.  In Poland they had always had a good supply of wood to keep the fireplace burning high even on the coldest of nights.  They also had a good supply of down quilts with which to keep warm when the winds blew strong.  But then they seemed to have some control over their living conditions, something they no longer had.  Each day the younger of her brothers were tasked with finding errant coal at the coal bins around the city, and particularly at the rail yards.  Their task was a tough one as they competed with other children on the same mission, each hoping to find what another had not.  Mostly it was futile and they would scavenge scraps of wood.

Sophia hated getting up on mornings such as this.  The cold cut through to her bones.  The routine of washing up quickly and dressing went more quickly in the cold of such mornings.  The small coal stove in the kitchen would take its time heating just the kitchen, let alone any of the other rooms.  While her mother tended to her younger siblings, Sophia was charged with getting the stove going.

As she lay their, Sophia wondered what other girls her age did on Sunday mornings.  Not the girls of the city, like herself, but the girls who lived in the more affluent towns surrounding her city.  Did they have to rise early too?  She reminded herself that on Sunday she could get up an hour later than her usual 5:30.  That always felt a bit luxurious.  But were other girls required to take care of their siblings as she was?  She wondered how many of their siblings had to share a bed and a bedroom.  Then her mind wandered  back to wondering why they had ever left Poland.  She had never known anyone who had been conscripted into the Czar’s army.  Maybe it was all just a rumor, she thought, and if they had waited a little longer as her father had implored her mother the troubling news would have passed without adverse affect.

Once out of bed she turned on the single overhead light and attempted to rouse her brothers from their sleep.  This was always a difficult task as they always resisted her attempts, particularly on Sundays when their presence at the mill was not necessary.  Her attempts on this particular Sunday proved to be particularly futile and Sophia gave up quickly.  Her mind was elsewhere, though she could not seem to nail it down to any particularly place, she felt no motivation to continue her morning task.  She looked out the dirty window of her second story bedroom at the apartment directly next to them.  She could see into their bedroom when the shades were pulled, which they usually were not.  The family in that apartment was the Andreottis who, she thought, were louder than her own loud family but fun and extremely friendly.

It Isn’t Easy Being Human

I remember when I was a college freshman, a professor asked the question, “what makes us human?”  He was asking us to answer what separates us from any other animal on the face of the earth.  I do not know the answer he gave, but I know the answer to be our ability to make a weighted and thoughtful decision.  No other animal, when faced with something, stops to consider its options.  All animals, except human, act purely on instinct.  Animals cannot make decisions as humans do.  They draw entirely on experience, Pavlovian, and instinct.  Animals also always exist entirely in the moment.  A German Shepard does not distinguish between his own breed and any other.  All he sees is another dog.  We humans should be so blessed.  It would certain make for a lot less animosity.

But the single thing that separates us most of all from all other animals is the fact that we have the knowledge that one day we will die.  No other animal, without exception, has any concept of mortality.  They never consider what things will be like next year.  They are entirely involved with living today, and assuring their continued survival but without regard to death.

We, as human beings, make hundreds of judgement decisions every day.  Sometimes we fail and we recognize that we have failed.  The concept of failure is not in an animal’s mind.  Animals do not think that they failed, they are already moving on to their next plan that will fulfill their need.  We humans would do well to take that approach.  Unfortunately, many us get bogged down with our failures and allow those failure to rule our lives.  We think we are “failures” rather than accept that failure is a simple fact of the entire animal kingdom, and is seldom a moral issue, another thing animals are incapable of, moral judgement.

Regardless of what you may think, no animal now, or ever, has ever been evil.  Evil is an entirely human concept.  Animals kill other animals because they are protecting their young, their territory, or for food.  The mountain lion does not kill the deer because he hates any particular deer.  He kills it for food.  Bears attack humans because they usual perceive us as a threat to their territory.  A polar bear will actually track a human down and kill him, but that is because he sees us as prey, not because he dislikes us.

In the entire animal kingdom, except for humans, survival of the fittest is an absolute law.  We humans, however, do not have to follow that law.  We have the ability to help the “less fit,” those who are weak, sick, mentally deficient, etc.  How much and how well we do that is a matter of choice.  Had other species been able to make such judgements, the woolly mammoth of North America for example, they would still exist today rather than having fallen into extinction.  Because we are capable of understanding we have an immediate obligation to help and to understand our fellow humans.

It was not until the mid to late 20th century that humans had any real understanding of mental health.  And because we are at our hearts animals, we tend to deal from our fears and too often let those fears control our actions.  It is known today that a very large portion of our population, at some point in their life, suffers, even briefly, from some form of mental illness.  Most common, of course, is depression.  There are those who suffer from what is called clinical depression, and who suffer for a long time, if not a life-time.  Then there are schizophrenics, bi-polar, psychotics, who require intense and life-long treatment.  Those people suffer the largest degree of alienation from other humans even though their disease is truly a disease like cancer, chicken pox, polio, or any other disease humans suffer from.  The difference being that diseases of the mind cannot be seen except in their outward manifestations, and that scares us.  We become uncomfortable when we are around such people.  But what we need to remember is our responsibility to them is no less than it is to anyone else, maybe more so.

On any given day we humans are bound to make a goodly number of mistakes in judgement.  Most such mistakes we do not make much of, and are soon forgotten.  Once in a while a mistake rises to something more serious.  When such things happen one of the most foolish things we can do is to dwell on the mistake, and beat ourselves up over it.  The most healthy thing we can do is to apply the appropriate fix and put it in our rearview mirror.  There seems to be something unnatural to humans in doing that, but it is actually the most healthy thing we can do.  If we can learn one very good lesson from the rest of the animal kingdom, we need to learn how to live in the moment.  It is impossible to change history, regardless of how shameful, but as humans we do have the good fortune to not repeat of our mistakes by simply making a mental note of what did not work in the past.  Animals are incapable of such behavior.

It is truly not easy being human, but it is extremely rewarding.  Unlike our animal friend, we know we exist and we can do something about how we exist.  Still, happiness is generally a choice.

America’s Politicians Are Compromising Its Future

Winston Churchill said, Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”  He was repeating what George Santayana said in 1906.  Churchill’s reference is more compelling because he said it as the result of the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939.  It seems, however, that this bit of wisdom has fallen upon deaf ears when it comes to the Congress of the United States.  Democrats in particular, but some Republicans too, are hell-bent on reducing the size of our military.  The concern is the size of the defense budget.  What is being forgotten is America’s security.

After World War I the United States entered into a period of isolationism that proved disastrous.  When it came time that we had to go to war against Germany and Japan, our military was in a very sad state of affairs.  But that was where it had found itself just prior to Word War I as well.  Why?

Then, as now, the price of freedom is steep.  The guardians of our freedom is our standing military.  It is their readiness and ability to quickly go into action that keeps us strong, safe, and free.  After World War I Americans, with a complicit Congress, thought the size and price tag associated with it was far too steep.  There was a huge reduction is equipment and personnel.  When the United States was drawn into World War II in 1941, it was extremely undermanned, poorly trained, and poorly equipped.  But after WWII we seemed to have learned our lesson.  The United States, particularly with the cold war, kept a well-equipped, well-trained, and reasonably sized force until the mid-1980s.  Then, during the Reagan administration, it was decided that we needed to close out-dated and redundant military installations.  With that, it was felt we could achieve a budget savings that was needed.  It was a truly good idea in theory but in practice it has been a political boondoggle that defies logic and common sense.

The Base Closure Commission was first convened in 1988 to consider the necessity of the 3800 military installations then in existence.  On December 29, 1988, the first base closure commission (with its 12 members appointed by the Secretary of Defense Carlucci) issued its report. It recommended the closure, in part or in whole, and realignment of 145 bases. The commission projected that this would improve the effectiveness of the base structure, and would save an estimated $693.6 million a year in base operating costs.  Considering the total defense budget for 1989 was $427.7 billion this was fairly insignificant.  The first base closed was Pease AFB in Portsmouth NH.   But as usual, members of Congress fought tooth and nail to keep every single proposed closing that impacted their state removed from the list.  This, of course, lead to the back-room deals which resulted in the closing of bases that left both the Pentagon and those knowledgeable in military affairs scratching their heads.

For example, during the second round of base closures Fort Huachuca Arizona was scheduled to be closed.  Its men and facilities would be moved to Fort Devens Massachusetts.  Fort Huachuca was the home of the Army Communications Command along with a number of other smaller groups.  Fort Devens was home to the Army Security Agency and several other groups.  The Army Security Agency was responsible for the security of military communications.  With Massachusetts’ nation leading technology base it seemed a match made in heaven.  Its operations and those as the nearby Hanscom AFB, an air force research and development installation engaged in many of the same activities as the army’s security agency.  It must have made too much sense.  But Hanscom AFB has also been a target for a base closure.  To this day it is my belief that Sen. Ted Kennedy made a back room deal with Sen. John McCain in which he secured the future of Hanscom in exchange for closing Fort Devens.  Fort Huachuca remains open today.

To put a dot on this i, if you look at the history of base closures you will find that the majority have come in states where Democrats either tend to be in power or hold great sway.  Large bases which probably should be closed, but have consistent avoided that bullet, remain open and all are in states that are strongly conservative.  Large bases like Fort Sill Oklahoma, Fort Jackson South Carolina, Tinker AFB Oklahoma, and others which probably should be closed remain open because of their location over their mission and cost.  I mention these things just to show how much of a political football our military is.  Political expediency reigns supreme over military needs.  This is exactly how it went right after World War I.

I would like to suggest that one major area of savings can come from reducing our military presence abroad.  Korea, for example, is home to some 50,000 troops.  Why?  The South Korean military is large, very well-trained, and very well-equipped.  Whatever threat exists from North Korea is something they can deal with themselves.  I would suggest removal of all troops from Korea save a small contingent at a joint US/Korea facility at Osan AFB which is an excellent staging area in the case of an emergency.

Then there is the US presence in Japan.  Following World War II, Japan signed an agreement that it would maintain only a defense force, no capital ships or large tactical army allowed.  But in the 75+ years since that treaty was signed Japan find its power in its industrial might, something it always wanted anyway, and shows no interest in being a military power.  I suggest that like Korea all U.S. troops save a very small contingent at an air force base be removed and that Japan be allowed to grow its own military.

The same is true for Germany.  After World War II it was required to sign a treaty that allow only for a purely defense military.  Like Japan, Germany is no longer a state that has any interest in the militaristic tendencies of its past.  Here again we could easily remove all troops save the small contingent and allow Germany to raise and maintain its own regular military.  There is absolutely no reason to believe that Japan and Germany would not continue to be anything but wonderful allies.  And this in turn would greatly reduce the cost of military forces abroad.

One of the things our military has become extremely adept at is quickly deploying to anywhere in the world in response to foreign threats.  We are better served by having a highly mobile and quickly deployable force located in the United States than at most of the locations overseas.  This would mean, however, increasing the number of available transport aircraft but that cost is greatly offset by the savings realized from removing forces overseas.

Key to this is keeping enough men and material available to respond to any emergency.  The proposed cut of 100,000 troops is entirely contrary to good military standing.  We are already too small in the size of forces.  Our soldiers are forced to endure too many overseas deployments to meet the nation’s needs.  Military effectiveness relies upon good troop morale.  A good way to undermine that is to send the same soldier over and over again into harm’s way.  We learned, supposedly, in World War II the dangers of that and during Korea and Vietnam soldiers were not required to serve more than one tour of one year in a combat zone.  That could not be further from the truth today.

We must get our Congress to work smarter and put aside their selfish political agendas.  Democrats have to give into the idea that the entitlement programs desperately need reigning in and controlled.  Republicans have got to understand that the only way our government gets revenue is through taxes.  They have got to put an end to corporate welfare and give in to the hard reality that we all may have to pay a little more to continue our way of life.

The large land wars of the past involving multiple nations at once seems unlikely.  But we can no longer afford the cold war deployment model either.  What we need is to listen to the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and their aides as to the present and future needs of a well-trained, well-equipped, and properly manned military force.  Politicians really need to get it out of their heads that they both understand and are sensitive to the real needs of the military.  Don’t build ships that naval leaders do not want.  Don’t build aircraft that air force leadership doesn’t want.  Address their real concerns and you will show, finally, that you do remember our history.