Saturday, May 31, 2014

Uncle Al—The Last Old Soldier

On Tuesday we lost the last direct connection our family had to the World War II generation with the death of my wife Kathy’s Uncle Alphonse Wilczynski after a lingering illness.  He was 87 years old and much beloved.
Al—nobody called him Alphonse—grew up in Chicago’s large, vibrant Polish community.  He entered the Army as a slender, freckled face, redheaded teenager and saw combat as an infantryman in battles across Europe.  Like most veterans, he never talked much about his experiences.
At war’s end he returned to Chicago and went about the business of building a life.  He and a buddy, fellow veteran Art Brady, both played accordion and spent weekends and evening performing with Polka bands.  They were good enough to be regularly featured on the radio.  He joined the local VFW post where he long remained active.
In 1947 Al married the very pretty and lively Benita Zgoski.  Art Brady married Bea’s sister Joan better known as Lulu, my wife’s parents.
Al settled down to work and after completing his apprenticeship became a master upholsterer, a trade in which he took great pride worked at for more than 40 years.  When I first met him I remember being impressed by the strength of his forearms and hands, exercised by cutting, stretching, and tacking fabric.  And handling heavy furniture was a work out.  But he never complained.
His life was centered on Bea and their three sons, Paul, Gary, and Wayne.  Bea was exuberant and social with a wide circle of friends.  Al was as quite as Bea was talkative.  He was content to be her chauffer—she never learned to drive—and companion/escort on all of her adventures and shopping trips.  Both were deeply religious and very active in their Parish, St. Francis Xavier on North Nelson Street.
They bought a house just south of Belmont and east of Sheffield.  It wasn’t much to look at—just a plain frame two flat sided with gray asphalt shingles set on a very narrow lot.  They lived on one floor and rented out the other.  Inside Bea decorated and hosted parties for the children and a famous New Year’s Day open house.
As they grew older, Paul and Wayne moved far away and started families.  Gary married an Irish girl named Kathy and stayed in the area, but they had no children.  With their own grandchildren far away and only seen on trips or visits, Bea and Al lavished attention on her sister Lulu’s brood of children and all of their many children.  They were godparents multiple times over to generations of them. 
As Lulu’s grown children set up households in distant Round Lake and Crystal Lake, Al dutifully drove Bea all the way out to attend each and every birthday, first communion, confirmation, graduation, or marriage, all of the holidays and summer barbeques.  Al never complained and enjoyed sitting with the husbands and older sons sipping a beer or two and catching a Cubs or Bears game if possible. 
After big family dinners when the table were finally cleared and the cards were broken out for the traditional game of 31—a simple three card draw elimination game for nickels—Al was famous for his fast knock on the first round no matter how low his hand was.  In the early rounds with a dozen or more people still at the table, he knew he could beat somebody.  Old Rapid Knuckles we teased and he took it in good sport.

A few years ago Al and Benita’s Chicago home burned.  After determining that it could not be rebuilt, they reluctantly decided to move to Elgin, near Gary and Kathy.  The got a nice, comfortable townhome.  They were comfortable, but they were far from all of their old friends and especially from Parish life.  It was hard for both of them.

After Al finally retired, there was more time for traveling to visit their far flung children and grandchildren on excursions with my wife’s older sister Cindy and her husband Jim that included shopping and casino visits.  Al wasn’t much on either, but he was always obliging of Bea.
Inevitably, they grew older and frailer.  Bea suffered a series of devastating strokes which left her unable to communicate or move most of her body.  She was in and out of hospitals and nursing homes, and then brought home for a while, but in need of almost constant nursing care.  Al himself was too frail to help much.  Gary’s wife Kathy stepped up with care and attention above and beyond the call of duty.
Bea died last August and the whole gang, plus all of her old friends gathered for an emotional funeral at Resurrection Church, the new consolidated parish that occupies her old St. Francis Xavier church building.  Al was stoic.
And then his own long decline accelerated.  His once sharp mind wandered a bit.  He would forget how old he was or how long Bea had been gone.  He wouldn’t recognize some visitors.  Already unsteady on his feet, he fell more often.  He didn’t eat well and lost a lot of weight.  He also entered a round of hospital stays, nursing home periods, and eventually, although he resisted it to the end, placement in a continuing care home.  Kathy Wilczynski watched after him and did all she could do.
My wife Kathy visited as often as she could, often bring a favorite meal—soup, or chili, or pot pie.  She would watch a game with him or play along with a favorite show, Wheel of Fortune.
Al finally entered the hospital for the last time, just tired of living.  He lingered for a few days.  When he drew his last breath Kathy W. was there, as she had been all along, holding his hand.
It was an  unspectacular life.  Quite ordinary in many ways.  But one that touched and warmed many others.
Sunday there will be a wake and viewing in Chicago at the Lawrence Funeral Home, 4800 North Austin Avenue from 2-8 pm.  A funeral mass will be said at Resurrection Church, 2840 Nelson Street (at the corner with Francisco) at 11 am on Monday.  There will be a military ceremony at Saint Adalbert Catholic Cemetery, 6800 North Milwaukee Avenue before he is laid to rest beside Bea.  Family and friends will gather afterwards across the street for lunch at the White Eagle Restaurant.
It will be hard to say good-bye.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Memorial Day They Want You to Forget

As strikers and their families try to flee the tear gas and gun fire they stumble over the dead and wounded only to be beaten senseless by the Chicago Police 

Note:  This is becoming one of those annual posts.  But that’s all right.  The story needs to be told and retold.  Never forget.
It was a hot, muggy day.  But the sun was shining brilliantly.  Due to the week old strike and the Memorial Day holiday, the giant mills nearby were not belching their customary heavy smoke.  Maybe those unaccustomed dazzling skies contributed to the air of a holiday outing as steel workers, their wives in their finest summer dresses, and their children converged by bus, trolley, auto, foot on Sam’s Place, an erstwhile dime-a-dance hall, turned into a makeshift soup kitchen and strike headquarters on Chicago’s Southeast Side less than a mile from the Republic Steel mill.
It was May 30, 1937.   The Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), the pet project of John L. Lewis’s Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), had shocked the nation earlier in the year by bringing industry behemoth U.S. Steel under contract by infiltrating the company unions and having them vote to affiliate.  Faced with rising demand as there seemed to be a recovery under way from the depths of the Depression on one hand and a popular, labor friendly administration in Washington on the other, the nation’s dominant steel company quietly surrendered.
Buoyed by the success, organizers turned their attention to Little Steel, the smaller, independent operators in Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Chicago  and other grimy industrial cities.  But the bosses of Youngstown Sheet and Steel, Republic, Bethlehem, Jones and Laughlin and others were a tougher bunch than the Wall Street stock manipulators that ran the huge rump of the old Steel Trust.  In fact they had nothing but contempt for the monopolists, their old business enemies, and their “weakling” attitude toward unionization.  Little Steel vowed to fight.  Tom Girdler, President of Republic, had said that he would go back to hoeing potatoes before he met the strikers’ demands.
The ferocity of the opposition to unionization was not just empty rhetoric either.  They had shown they meant business in blood on more than one occasion.  Famously in Youngstown, Ohio back in 1916 strikers accompanied by their wives and children marched from the slums to the gates of the Sheet and Tube mill to keep strike breakers from reporting to work.  Inside the gates a small army of private security forces responded by throwing dozens of tear gas bombs.  As the thick, poisonous haze hung over the workers obscuring their vision, guards unleashed volley after volley of rifle fire directly into their ranks.  The exact toll may never be known as workers were afraid to bring the wounded to medical attention.  At least three were killed, probably twice that many including women.  Twenty-seven injuries were confirmed, but strikers made oral reports of more than a hundred.  Enraged as the dead and wounded lay bleeding on the ground the strikers attacked the guards with stones and bricks and perhaps a pistol shot or two before retreating to town.
In rioting over the next two days, workers burned much of the town’s business district only to be eventually crushed by Ohio National Guard troops.  The memory of those events was still fresh to workers more than twenty years later.  Especially when Little Steel bosses quietly let it be known that they had been stockpiling armories for years and were ready, even eager to repeat the carnage.
The USWOC had called their national strike against Little Steel a week earlier.  In Chicago it had been marred by predictable violence, particularly on the part of the Chicago Police Department which had a long history of being used as armed strike breakers.  Beatings and arrests on the picket lines were occurring daily.  Some strike leaders had been kidnapped and held incommunicado.  For their part senior police officers were “subsidized” by corporate bosses who also bought political clout with the usual campaign contributions and bribes to local officials.  They also pledged to reimburse the city for police over time during the strike.  In addition the still largely Irish Catholic force was kept inflamed by homilies preached in their parishes deriding USWOC as “Godless Communists.”
Despite this, moral among the strikers was high.  After only a week out, families had not yet felt the full pinch of lost incomes and strike soup kitchens kept them fed.   Organizers made a point of engaging workers’ wives from the beginning, including them in planning and giving them important support roles.  This was critical because many a strike had been lost in the past when families went hungry and the women urged their men to return to work.
As the large crowd gathered at Sam’s Place for the first mass meeting of the strike, vendors plied the crowd with ice cream, lemonade, and soft drinks.  Meals were passed out from the soup kitchen.  Other families munched on sandwiches wrapped in wax paper brought from home.  Many of the men passed friendly bottles as they settled into a round singing—mostly old Wobbly songs including Solidarity Forever and Alfred Hayes’s I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.
Then came the rousing speeches.  Joe Webber, USWOC’s main organizer pointed his finger at the distant plant. The plan was to establish the first mass picket at the gates of the Republic Works.  Some workers carried homemade signs.  Organizers passed out hundreds of pre-printed placards stapled to lathing emblazoned with slogans.
With a sense of a gay holiday parade the strikers marched away from Sam’s Place behind two American flags singing as they went one block up the black top and then turned into the wide, flat prairie that separated them from the distant plant. 
Historian/novelist Howard Fast later described the scene.
…snake-like, the line of pickets crossed the meadowland, singing at first...but then the song died as the sun-drenched plain turned ominous, as five hundred blue-coated policemen took up stations between the strikers and the plant. The strikers’ march slowed—but they came on. The police ranks closed and tightened… now it was to unarmed men and women and children that a police captain said, “You dirty sons of bitches, this is as far as you go!”
About two hundred and fifty yards from the plant, the police closed in on the strikers.  Billies and clubs were out already, prodding, striking, nightsticks edging into women’s breasts and groins. It was great fun for the cops who were also somewhat afraid, and they began to jerk guns out of holsters.
“Stand fast! Stand fast!” the line leaders cried. “We got our right! We got our legal rights to picket!”
The cops said, “You got no rights. You Red bastards, you got no rights.”
Even if a modern man’s a steelworker, with muscles as close to iron bands as human flesh gets, a pistol equalizes him with a weakling—and more than equalizes. Grenades began to sail now; tear gas settled like an ugly cloud. Children suddenly cried with panic, and the whole picket line gave back, men stumbling, cursing, gasping for breath. Here and there, a cop tore out his pistol and began to fire; it was pop, pop, pop at first, like toy favors at some horrible party, and then, as the strikers broke under the gunfire and began to run, the contagion of killing ran like fire through the police.
They began to shoot in volleys. It was wonderful sport, because these pickets were unarmed men and women and children; they could not strike back or fight back. The cops squealed with excitement. They ran after fleeing men and women, pressed revolvers to their backs, shot them down and then continued to shoot as the victims lay on their faces, retching blood. When a woman tripped and fell, four cops gathered above her, smashing in her flesh and bones and face. Oh, it was great sport, wonderful sport for gentle, pot-bellied police, who mostly had to confine their pleasures to beating up prostitutes and street peddlers—at a time when Chicago was world-infamous as a center of gangsterism, assorted crime and murder.
And so it went, on and on, until ten were dead or dying and over a hundred wounded. And the field a bloodstained field of battle. World War veterans there said that never in France had they seen anything as brutal as this.
Because workers were afraid to bring their injured to hospital, the exact casualty count may never be known for sure.  Ten men were confirmed dead.  All shot in the back. More than 50 gunshot wounds were reported. At least a hundred were badly injured, many more with scrapes, bruises, and turned ankles from police clubs and the panicked stampede to escape.
Many reporters and photographers were on the scene.  Police confiscated most of their film.  Newsreel cameras caught the action, but the companies were pressured not to show the footage.  The next day, led by the rabidly anti-union Chicago Tribune, most of the press dutifully recorded that the police had come under attack by fanatic Reds and had acted in self-defense. 
Although covered in the labor press, the nation as a whole was kept in the dark about what had happened.  Even the workers supposed friend Franklin D. Roosevelt, pretty much accepted the official account and told reporters that “the majority of people are saying just one thing, ‘A plague on both your houses.’”
A Cook County Coroner’s Jury ruled the deaths that day as “justifiable homicide.”  Not only was no action taken against any of the police involved that day, but senior officers were commended and promoted.
The truth about what happened was very nearly suppressed, as so many atrocities committed against working people had been.  But a single newsreel cameraman saved the footage he shot from the roof of his car.  Some of the photographers on the scene retained their shots.  The stills and the moving pictures were placed on exhibit during the hearing on Republic Steel held by the subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Education and Labor almost a year later.  A shocked nation saw for itself the senseless, unprovoked brutality of the police.
As for the strike, it dragged on through the summer, as did regular violence on picket lines.  Then on July 19th it was Ladies Day on the picket line in front of the Republic Steel mill in Youngstown.  After a company guard assaulted one of the women, they were pelted with rocks and bottles.  Retreating into the plant, in an eerie replay of the 1916 violence, guards let loose with tear gas and then opened fire, many firing down on the crowd from virtual snipers’ nests.  At least two were killed and dozens wounded.  Once again the National Guard was called in and the town became a virtual occupied territory.  The strike was crushed and workers went back.
But the Steel Workers turned to the new National Labor Relations Board for help.  They complained of unfair labor practices by the Little Steel companies.  The case took years to resolve.  But in 1942, with another war on and the need for industrial peace, the NLRB ordered the companies to recognize what had become the United Steel Workers Union.
Today a local union hall stands on the site of Sam’s Place.  The Republic Mill and other Little Steel plants are closed and pad-locked eyesores.  The city seeks desperately to find some way to redevelop what are now called simply Brown Fields.  Recently the site was suggested as one possible future home for Barack Obama’s Presidential Library.  USW members and the Illinois Labor History Society sometimes gather in remembrance of that terrible day.  And the last aging survivors, including some of the children present, fade away one by one, their stories untold.