Long before he was my Pop, buying me ice cream cones, he was prowling the neighborhood of the Ohio River town as a member of a Welsh street gang that looked out for intruders.
Italians, Poles and Blacks were discouraged from passing through. Go around.
When he told me that, I was no longer a child basking in the light cast on the first grandson. I was a young man who thought of him as the old man with crooked fingers forged by work in the steel mills, stained with nicotine on his right hand, who sat and watched the day away from a perch in the shade on the side steps, his elbows on his knees, bony shoulders pushing through the long-sleeved shirts that he wore even in the heat of summer.
He had been living with family, apart from his wife but not divorced, the house they had shared on a hill overlooking the river a memory bitter with the way he just sold it and told her later.
In the past, people reacted to his name — one way or another. Now, he was no threat to anyone.
“When a man can’t work a full day anymore they should just take him out and shoot him,” he said. By then he was left with memories of the rolling mills at Wheeling Steel, where he went to work at 12, and the later years at Blaw-Knox, helping to make guns for the Navy in World War II. His lungs were gone — emphysema — and with it his stamina. But he still had a force of will that was forged along with the ores in the mills and given oxygen by old resentments.
Maybe that was the Welsh in him. His roots were pulled out of rough shale hills when he was 2 and his family settled in America among other Welshmen and Irish in the Ohio Valley towns in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio. Nothing was easy, and no thought was given to what one might feel entitled, beyond respect for his labor and the opportunity to hold honest work.
Eventually, he became a staunch union man, a supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a power in the Democratic Party, active in local politics. He served on the school board and the town council, and his name was among others engraved on a bronze plaque affixed to a brick column at the entrance to the town park.
But before that, he had been in that gang, and I wanted to hear more about that. I got little from him; more, later, from his son. For one thing, was it like street gangs of today?
In many ways it was. It wasn’t about drugs then, not even alcohol. It was about turf. Don’t cross the street into the neighborhood if you weren’t born there. Not even to pass through to go to work. Go around, or take your chances, but whatever the case, don’t ever saunter through as if it’s your right. But even then, it was really about retribution, as it is today.
Getting even for the most recent disrespect, the latest slight. Restoring respect by exacting revenge on the offender or his tribe.
Race was part of it, although ethnicity and nationality were often blurred.
The pecking order was the foundation of politics and the labor market. America was the land of opportunity, if you could take it from someone else.
Meritocracy? The game of success was not played on a field of honor, but on a social ladder, and tactics included stepping on the fingers of anyone climbing below you.
I think of him as we begin again, a new year, a nation in need of renewals on many fronts.
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Dean Minnich writes from Westminster.