Monday, March 09, 2009

Listening to the Voices of Uncles Long Gone

I've mentioned before that I come from a family in which story-telling was a big part of family life. I had a lot of uncles and those uncles had a lot of stories and, because we were kids in a time when the media didn't have as much of a hold on us as it does on kids today, my brothers and I spent a lot of time listening to those stories. We loved them. Uncle Eddie and Uncle George were Mom's uncles. Both of them spoke with the Old Country “Dutchy” accents that one heard a lot in St. Marys, Pennsylvania back then. I don't know if there are any old timers left with that peculiar rich, clipped, “Ch-erman” speech pattern. When I was young I was pretty good at imitating it but it's been a long time now since I've heard it spoken. Still, I used to be able to make Uncle Gus laugh until his sides ached when I'd talk like Uncle Eddie. “Cheesus Christ. Gottdammit!”

Anyway, Uncle Eddie and Uncle George had both worked “in the woods” in their younger years. Which meant they worked in lumber camps. Gram, their younger sister, also told good stories about the lumber camp life because their oldest sister Lena had been married to a logger and had done a long stint as a camp cook in her younger years. She lived in the camps, cooked and washed and bore 13 children. She told stories of the lives of the loggers and of the tramps that haunted the camps once The Depression started. She told how they'd always make sure there were a couple of men in the camp all day to keep an eye out for the women and children. The only black man Great-Aunt Lena ever knew was the camp blacksmith who was her guardian through many a close call once the woods were being populated by more and more desperate men looking for work.

On Dad's side there were Uncle Harry and Uncle Walter who also worked in the woods. Uncle Walter was in his late seventies when I was a little kid and had been a “hick”, a logger, before the war (the first one). Later he became a bricklayer but he always loved the woods. He told the best hunting stories of anyone I ever knew. Whenever we went to Falls Creek, where Uncle Walter and Uncle Harry lived, Jack and I would beg for more stories. With Uncle Walter that didn't take much work. Jack remembered all those stories and could tell them just like Uncle Walter did with that strange accent that he had which, in retrospect, I recall as sounding almost Cajun. It is Uncle Walter's stories that served as the background for the character of Mick Hawking in my forthcoming novel, Each Angel Burns.

What has made me think of all of this is a book I am in the middle of, Heartwood, which was written by PJ Piccirillo who grew up in St. Marys, too. His grandfather was Fish Herzing who had a grocery store on Maurus Street (I think). That was back in the day of neighborhood groceries. That market was just down the street from where my brother-in-law, Andy Neubert, grew up. Andy followed in his father's footsteps with a market of his own and has long been revered as one of the best sausage-makers left from the old tradition of Bavarian sausage making.

Anyway, I got an email some time back from PJ who told me about his book and, when it became available through Amazon, I purchased it and then had a heck of a time trying to get around to reading it. Well, this weekend I sat down with it and got lost. It is a wonderful book written in a beautifully cadenced and lyrical manner that makes me think of Uncle Eddie and Uncle Walter. It starts out in the lumber camps and then moves in to the early days of the carbon factories in St. Marys, called Marstadt in the book. Uncle Eddie and Uncle George and, also, Gram all worked in the carbon factories “after the War” (the second one). I remember Gram bringing home odds and ends of piece work she did --- magnets and gizmos and widgets. We thought they were amazing.

In PJ's book there is also a character who was a “formula-maker” who worked in lab of one of the plants. Dad's youngest brother, Uncle Tom, also worked in such a lab. I remember him telling about the new stuff he was always learning. Anyway, I am a little over halfway through the book and am loving every page of it. As I lay on the couch watching the snow fall outside and turn the pages I can almost hear the voices of all those long-gone uncles talking. It is sweet and much valued.

Thanks for reading.

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