Biographical Non-Fiction posted January 2, 2020 Chapters: 1 2 -3- 4... 


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My first year in America as the poor Irish boy

A chapter in the book Celtic Roots

Life: learning the ropes

by JLR




Background
An Irish family, parents separating and splitting up the children, my mother bringing four us to American and in chapter three focusing on my first year and a half in a new country, with new rules.
Initially, I didn't have a clue that we were, based on American cultural morays, looked upon as misfits, taking from the system. This knowledge came swiftly into my awareness, shortly after the beginning of school in the fall. Throughout the summer, we all had numerous meetings with the state caseworker. She had us children poked and prodded and made sure that we got every immunization known to modern medicine as if we all carried a deadly contagious disease known on the planet. She also took us to a school, where it seemed, we were tested by every method known to science to determine whether we might be fit to stay in America, or so I thought.

Somehow, after all the testing, the test results told those administering the tests that the system said that I would begin school in the fourth grade. I was seven and a half; I soon learned my classmates were ten going on eleven years old. The first days of school were profoundly challenging. I just wanted to melt away and disappear every time I uttered a word with my Irish brogue being so unusual. The classroom would burst out in laughter and fingers were pointed at me when asked a question by the teacher, Mrs. Benner, I was so ashamed and felt out of place. 

There were more children in this large school than were in the parish I was from in Glenn-Coe, Ireland. I was small in stature compared to all the rest of the class, and there were girls in the same classroom - with us boys something, I thought was a mortal sin.

It was also in these beginning days that I discovered I was going to spend three more years moving from the fourth, fifth, and finally sixth grade. We surely didn't have the same type of system at home. I thought that three years was going to be for the rest of my life.
My very first American teacher was Mrs. Benner. She was a fantastic instructor. Mrs.B had little tolerance for buffoonery in her classroom. Her instruction was thorough, and she showed great interest and patience in aiding me in learning "American slang." I soon learned this was a "must-do" so I could circumnavigate in the world of school children. As in Ireland, I found a great escape into the world of math, science, history, and having a library inside the school, filled with more books than I could ever hope to read, seemed quite a luxury.

The one time, each day that I dreaded most, the first months was recess. This was when the best and the worst came out from mostly the boys. The rough and tough ones strutted around, heckling, and testing the ground that I stood on. These times, I soon realized, were when I would have to adapt from and adapt to the way they spoke and would undoubtedly need to learn the games they played, and as quickly as possible defend my space.

It was on one freezing day in November, while walking to school, that the bully, Johnnie Cartwright, and a couple of other "tough guys" stopped us. Like usual, they started heckling and calling us names. But Johnnie went too far this time and pushed me. I found myself on the ground. Getting up, I let loose with thundering blows to his head, quickly bloodying his nose. This seemed to cause Johnnie to stop, and the other boys grabbed him and then started running off back to Johnny's home. At lunchtime, I was called to the principal's office, where I found myself staring into the faces of Johnnie, his mom, and his dad. Upon seeing me and the size that I was compared to Johnnie, his dad looked over at him and said, "boy, you need to apologize to this little guy." I was shocked and in disbelief, but from that day forward, the bullying stopped.

I learned where it mattered to be different was in the classroom, doing the work, answering the questions correctly, and testing with as much perfection as I could muster. It was a small circle of students that I began to find I had a common ground. Students that I felt I belonged with and felt a sense of "fitting in." Tommy and Terry Reedy, a set of twins, were right there with me in getting good grades. It was often a real contest of wills to see who posted the highest scores on the assignments. Outside of class, however, I wasn't a part of their social class; they tended to hang with the wealthier kids. It took me no time at all to realize that it was going to take a whole lot more than good grades to "fit in."

Come Spring, I started to enjoy the weekends. It required that I walk a very long way from our house to get to where Grandpa lived. He enjoyed working in a shed out back of the house and made chairs and side tables. Grandpa was good at shaping the wood and using the tools. He had hand planes, saws, hand drills, a lathe, that he would peddle the treadle on to spin to shape the wood. It was not the case for me. My left-handedness made using his tools awkward, and everything he did, I seemed to do ass-backward.

Grandpa was patient with my lack of skill and would find little projects to pass the time with him. Grandpa had a rabbit hutch along the garage wall, and he would let me play with the rabbits. However, with the full understanding that I was going to, when the time was right, kill and skin some of them. When he told me this, I, of course, stated, "I understand," but a reality of the act was more difficult.    However, long before I had my first biology class, I became quite adept at skinning and eviscerating many a rabbit. It made dissecting frogs in later years much more comfortable and by then more interesting.  I began my interest in the possibilities of a medical career at this time.

It wasn't too much later into Spring that I found that Grandpa loved to fish. That became the beginning of many a fishing trip and many more fish stories, as, over the years, we would come home to tell Beulah who had caught biggest and most fish, usually it was his being the trophy catch every time.

On weekends beginning in the Spring, grandpa would walk across the street to the fire station number 15. The station at the time was located at 3009 E. Olympic street. This station served the small railroad community of Hillyard. The building first served as Hillyard City Hall and the city jail for the township. The township of Hillyard was annexed into the City of Spokane in 1924, and at that time, the building was reconstructed to house the fire station.

The community was made up of small businesses and townsfolk who worked at the Hillyard railroad facility. The railroad hub was the manufacturing center for Great Northern and produced large numbers of the most massive and most powerful built steam locomotives in the world. The construction of these enormous stream engines required working with heavy equipment and machinery and did not go without risk. Fires of varying sizes were frequent, and professionally trained fire personnel were the means of preventing disaster. Because the yards transported goods across the Pacific Northwest, any catastrophe would have a rippling effect on the region.

The firemen had a beautiful grassy lot with shady trees and lilac bushes that exploding in the Spring with deep purple and white flowers. When they came into bloom, I knew that it wouldn't be long before the firemen would set up a croquet game on the side lawn, and they would play for hours upon end. Many an early evening, I was allowed to go over and be with the firemen.

During the summer, Grandpa would let me go with him to the "YARDS" (what he called his area of responsibility) with a lunch bucket underarm, to work a swing shift with him. I know that to him, my eyes must have appeared as big as the moon as we walked around and along the rails. Seeing all the locomotives in the switchyard banging and clanging as the switchman sent signals with lanterns up to engineers to move a long string of cars up and then back to add and disconnect specific cars onto different rails. With each railcar to be connected to different trains to complete the railcars assigned destination. It was a fantastic sight to witness; men and machines in the pitch black of the night working in such concert and with what seemed such ease.

On many an occasion, it was during these special times that he began to do his talks. All the time, while I listened quite intently at his words of "never and always," I started to learn of the depth of his character, the lessons of life that he would instill in me, need for me to learn to act upon. His moral compass included: To have a good work ethic and to be a friend when a neighbor needed a hand. He often repeated never borrow, never steal, always Thank GOD for every meal. On more than a dozen occasions, he would say thank you, be quick to say I am sorry when I wronged someone, never complain about hard-work, always be on time, never treat a woman harshly, always wash behind both ears and always wear clean undergarments.

The not so pleasant times were when I had to be home. Caretaking became a form of survival in the house. Mam was never well. Or so she always said. At the time, I was just doing whatever I could to be in charge of my brother and two sisters as we walked softly around the house. Whenever we could be out of doors, we were; this was where life seemed freer. The air was fresher, space far more open and brighter.

Mam took so many pills. It was nearly impossible for me to remember what and when she needed to take medicine and for what purpose. Medicinal care was so grossly different in America. We didn't have the home remedies provided by our Mamo in Ireland. When we took ill, we were all carted off by a bus to welfare clinic, waited in line to show our card to let them know we were allowed in, then took a number and waited our turn to be called into the closed doors of the clinic. There were all types of people in the waiting room with coughs, sniffles, blisters, burns, some on crutches, some with stumps, many sitting shivering, or with sweats. Rarely, did Mam or anyone of us children see the same Doctor at the clinic and Mam seemed to get pills handed to her for just coming in to see someone for any range of her discomforts.

My single and most important function was to try and make sure that we ate. We rarely could go to a grocery store, to do so required cash and we simply did not have any. Perhaps my most significant time of embarrassment as a child came once a month. Mam would get a card in the mail, and we went off to the commodity exchange store. We had an old rusted, wobbly-wheeled red wagon, acquired as a gift from grandpa who had pulled off a garbage pile. Once a month, we would get our allotment and wheel the food home going through the small town and often running into kids from the neighborhood.

I learned reading some of the pamphlets given to Mam, that the government had a surplus food program. To get the Government surplus, a family had to be in the lowest of income classes. 

People, such as we were, did not want to acknowledge that we received and used government surplus foods. We rightly feared that our friends and especially their children would know our household was on welfare assistance. One thing that I knew real quick was that neighborhood folk did know. Especially all the kids that made it painfully known to anyone we would come into contact with we were poor.

The bulk packages were an assortment of "get by" foodstuffs. Even to this day, it is difficult for me to say anything good about powdered milk. We used powdered milk for our mashed potatoes, gravies, and sauces. We would regularly mix two-thirds powdered milk with one-third whole milk and allowed it to sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Resulting in a mixture in a taste somewhat like regular milk. However, toward the end of every month, there was no whole milk to extend it, and then it was tough to get it down the hatch. I thought that the powdered milk was terrible. However, the powdered eggs were a close second. I could not acquire anything toward an acceptable taste of anything that asked for eggs in the recipe. Canned meats also had an awful appearance, and the gelatinous fats that came out of the cans were the foulest smelling. A treat, from time to time, on the other hand, was that Spam; we all found it was quite tasty, especially when it was sliced and then fried. Peanut butter was quite familiar to us; however, it was rather stiff. It would be much later in my life that I learned that there was a creamy version of peanut butter.

Besides these foods I have mentioned, rice, flour, butter, and yellow cornmeal were other surplus items. The real treat I looked forward to every month was the cheese. The surplus cheese, by itself, was not that great. The sharp-tasting cheese cuts were a block of wedge-shaped variety that was hard to cut. Nevertheless, it quickly melted and was excellent with many menus and genuinely outstanding for making macaroni and cheese and even more exceptional for a grilled cheese sandwich. However, as much as these were the basics of basic foodstuffs when one is hungry, anything can taste like a steak when there was nothing else in the house to eat and especially in the months when we ran out of food near the end of the month.

While I was ashamed to be getting food from a Government Surplus Food Program, this child-man, going to fetch the foodstuffs, every month, had little doubt that it was quite beneficial and quite literally keeping our family well feed and adequately nourished, back in the day. 

While getting used to our new life that first year, the one constant that I was able to hold fast to was reading. It was a safe passage for my siblings and me into the discovery of new places, new ideas, new experiences. Before the start of our new school year, we moved into a two-bedroom house that was on a dusty dirt road not more than two street blocks from where our grandpa and his wife Bertha had bought another house. I came to learn that grandpa purchased this house and expected Mam to pay him a monthly rent. This significant gift by our grandfather made it a permanent place that I will live in until I left home, ten years in the future.

The neighborhood was a real mix of working-class people. Many of the families went to the same parish, ST. PATRICKS, and it became a familiar place that we children would find refuge away from the strife and struggles of being around Mam. She was forever ill, complained about how difficult her life was, and all the bad things that GOD had done to her life. Mam never finished the second level in her education. She could barely read and write and had little if any prospects of finding work that would provide enough income for us to live a comfortable and healthy life.

At her age of twenty-five, Mam would have been called attractive, she had luxurious auburn hair and robust chest and was about 5'4". When she drank, I heard women folk say, "she was flirtatious." At age seven, I could not grasp what they meant at the time. However, they all made it a personal mission, it seemed, to get her hooked up with a guy. Soon, she did start dating. Not knowing where this was going to go, I judged that the only thing that she knew she was good at was flirting and drinking and started going to the neighborhood pub.

For a while, she did not bring any men to the house. Nevertheless, she was out from the early evening until the early morning. It was not uncommon for her to wake us as she came into the house-- stumbling through the four rooms to her back bedroom.
Millie and LeeAnn slept in bunks across from me and Ira John in the only other bedroom. We had a clothesline that I put up to provide us with the only privacy we could create. We had one bathroom and one vanity, and I learned to get an early start and late finish to each day so that I could wash and clean myself without interruption. I finally caught on that with her nightly outings and early mornings returns that she suddenly had a few dollars. She would send me to the store to buy things we seldom enjoyed in our regular diets; stuff like ice cream, soda, and potato chips. I asked her where the money came from, and she replied, "I was given a little sugar."

I didn't know at the time that she was taking money to sleep with guys.


 


Book of the Month contest entry


This is my third insertion of a chapter in Celtic Roots. In this chapter, I am covering the first year and half in our new lives in America and the harsh reality that were poor and I was didn't want to have any of the hand-outs, but the fact was the basics were what got us by.
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