Thursday, October 20, 2011

Sweat of Toil

Sweat of Toil
Michael Joseph Francisconi

    The YMCA has changed from my memories, when I was quite young.  Then, instead of a family oriented operation, it was a place frequented almost exclusively by young boys and old men.  It now seems that membership in the “Y” is a sign that one has arrived into the middle class. 
    When I was growing up in Pocatello, Idaho, it was known as the Union Pacific YMCA.  As the railroad largely financed the “Y”, anyone whose father worked for the railroad was guaranteed free membership, which meant free lessons.  Thus, all young boys were required to take advantage of the situation.  Between 1954 when I was seven, and 1963 when the “Y” burnt down, I took swimming, boxing and wrestling lessons every year.  I hated those lessons, as the coach seemed always to be a man in his thirties, a World War II Marine drill instructor with a perverse attachment to young boys.  No matter who he was he never knew how to talk, only how to yell incoherently.  I never understood what any coach was trying to tell us, I only knew it had to do with our lack of male sexuality.  My clearest memories are of myself as a young boy with 10 oz. gloves at the end of arms that looked more like shoe string potatoes than the forelimbs of a bruiser, staring blankly into the belt buckle of the coach while he assaulted my worth as a male and as a human being.
    In addition to being a place where a young boy could learn survival skills like fighting and swimming, the “Y” was also a recreation center.  However, as a place to play it had a certain reputation, and my mother never really approved of me going there except for lessons. It was populated by rather rough young boys and less than reputable old men.  On week ends during the summer I would tell my mother I was going to ride my bike around the country roads where I lived; she had carefully mapped out which routs I was allowed to travel because they were quite empty roads close to home.  Instead of staying on those roads close to home I would ride by bike into town and go to the “Y”.  Weekends were best as no lessons were being given and there was less chance of being caught.
    It was  an ancient building in the center of town.  In the basement was the swimming pool.  On the main floor was the jewel of the building.  As you walked up the marble steps, you entered a broad lobby with a highly glossed oak-wood floor.
    To the left was the recreation area.  A step down ran the full width of the building, abutting the main lobby.  Evenly spaced around the recreation area were about a dozen pool tables, a couple of snooker tables, and a large ping pong table.  For a quarter you could rent a table for two hours.  However, the management would let you keep the table until somebody else wanted it.  Four or five guys could split the cost and have entertainment all afternoon.
    To the right of the lobby was a smaller room with polished, over-waxed yellowing garnet floors.  The room had a series of ornate windows overlooking the alley.  In the center was an ancient dusty oriental rug.  The pale blue rug had turned a light charcoal.  Particularly faded were areas of the rug where the afternoon sun fell.  It had splotches of amber brown stains distributed randomly all over the rug.  Around the edge of the room were over stuffed arm chairs, with a fabric so dark that it hid years of grime without a trace.  By each chair was a tall metal ash tray that seconded as a spittoon.  Originally the colors probably matched the chairs though you would never have known it at the time.  The acrid smell of decayed chew and fresh cigar smoke filled every cell and fiber of the room, and to this day that memory is a fragrance sweeter than roses to me.
    On the second floor were two gyms, a small one and a larger one.  This was where the lessons took place. The locker rooms and showers were in the basement with the swimming pool.  The basement was where we would dress down before climbing the stairs to that above ground dungeon, the torture chamber.  After our lessons we would descend once again into the womb of oblivion before showering and going home.
    On the top floor there were many small rooms rented out for the night, week or month.  Some were used by visiting railroad dignitaries, who stayed in these rooms because they were so inexpensive the dignitaries could pocket the difference between their travel allowance and the cost of a room in the “Y”.  In those days if it wasn’t illegal it certainly wasn’t unusual or seen as being unethical.
    Most of the rooms however were the abodes of the ancient ones.  Old men, mostly widowers who lived out the final rhythms of their lives straggling through the arroyos of their retrospections.  These old men rented a small room each, with a bed and a dresser, by the month.  They showered in the basement of the “Y” and took their meals in a café across the street, all year around.  The café was on the main floor of a hotel where a number of the other ancient ones lived.  These were men who built a nation with their toil out of rock, sagebrush and desolation; yet who had never learned to care for themselves.  Men of incredible strength and endurance, left abandoned with the death of their wives in a world they had built and were strangers in. 
    The ancient ones were why I loved the “Y” so much.  They would sit in their dusty old chairs in the room off the lobby.  These old men would sit quietly listing to an old 1930’s radio.  After 1955 during the evening from 5 PM to 10 PM they would watch TV on the single channel offered.
    These village elders would seem to wait patiently each day for a young boy to wander in before coming to life.  When I would enter I would sit a few minutes before being acknowledged.
    The old ones would sit quietly as if unaware of their surroundings.  Then one of the men would ask me a question, but before I could form an answer, the stories would begin.  Stories of another world more exciting and romantic than anything that TV or Hollywood could ever hope to create.
    One, and only one among many, such fellows was Bob Malm, the oldest of the old men.  He died in 1959 at somewhere around 97 I think.  I met him in 1954 and I listened to his stories from then until his death.  The ancient Swede had memories of territorial Montana and the early silver and copper mines.
    This man would influence my view of his generation for the remainder of my life.  Every generation has its moments of glory, but workers of his generation were forged in the blast furnaces of the molten heat of booming industrial age, only to harden with the cold tempering of time. 
    As a child Bob worked in the mines with his father.  The small boy scurried a mile beneath the earth in the crevices too small for a man to work.  He placed charges of explosives along the small shelves at the end of the tunnels.  He, along with other small boys, cleared the rubble from the distant corners of the shafts.  The boys shoveled up the spills from the men loading the ore cars.
    The men were paid by the car, and the young boys were then paid by the adult worker they worked for.  Because they were ever pressed for speed, to increase the wages of the men, the jobs of these small boys were extremely dangerous.
    Every Saturday the miners were paid in company scrip.  Not legal money, it could only be spent in the company store, in which everything was over priced.  From the weekly pay was deducted a price for the tools and equipment used, rent for living in company housing, and a small deduction to pay the wage of the company doctor.  The doctor was an incompetent alcoholic and was nearly useless as a medical expert. 
    Also deducted from the wages were groceries bought at the company store, whiskey bought at the company saloon, and entertainment provided by the company prostitutes.  By the end of the week some men would receive only an itemized stub listing all the deductions.  Sometimes a worker only received a company IOU.  The rule was all IOU’s from the company had to be paid off before quitting or moving on.  Under such conditions it was quite common for the boys to receive no wages at all, as the men they worked under were often broke themselves.  The only recourse a boy had, because he was not on the company payroll, would be if a family member threatened the boy’s adult partner.  This would rarely happen because the boy usually worked for a relative.  Bob work for his father.  There was little social sanction for paying the boys, because all of the men were in the same situation.
    If the worker became hurt or unable to work all income stopped.  The worker would be evicted from company housing, and any belongings, however meager, were seized by the company for all past debts.
    If his adult worker was killed, the young boy would be relocated to another worker.  The fate of the women was far more grim.  Losing their main support, the widows and daughters of the workers killed would be thrown out of town to whatever fate befell them.  This was the story of Bob’s mother.  After her first husband died in a mining accident, she become a company prostitute to support herself and Bob’s older half sister Connie.  This was where Bob’s mother met his father; she quit her job after paying back the debts she owed the company, and married the much older Malm.  Since a miner’s income was not enough to support a wife and a family, Bob’s mother took in laundry and cooked for other miners, mostly her former customers.  This deeply bothered the angry silent senior Malm. 
    When Bob was six years old he had to go to work in the mines to help support his family.  Bob was lucky in that he worked for his father; while Bob was not paid anything, he was somewhat protected from the more extreme dangers.
    Bob worked in the mines until he ran away from home at age thirteen.  After leaving home he worked all over the West in logging in Oregon, on the docks in California, ranching in New Mexico, and the Railroad in Nevada, before settling into Railroad work in Southern Idaho.  Bob, after leaving his boyhood home, never returned to mining or Montana again.  Even in old age he feared if he ever went back he would be arrested for breaking a contract.
    It was only because of these old men and the love they shared through their stories that myself as a lonely boy could survive the frozen and empty wastelands that was America during the Cold War of the 1950’s.  While the Dark Ages spread its cape of spiritual suffocation over the countryside, I lived in a land of wonderment and hope of a past generation.  This is one of only many stories be told to the next generation to know we are what went before.

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