Tuesday, May 5, 2015

1934: Time Marches On

Time has marched on a bit, and it is now 1934. My mother no longer needs babysitters. I can hang around the store all day and if I need a little afternoon snooze, I can take it underneath the counter. Civin’s Specialty Shop is starting to grow. On a good day the business is taking in $11 or $12 and perhaps another $11 or $12 by my father peddling in the outlying towns.

Remember that earlier in the story I had said my Uncle Nathan had gone to New York City seeking employment, and that he would reappear? Uncle Nathan has come back from New York with a bride. Gertrude Farrington is now Gertrude Israel. I would guess that the real reason Nathan went to New York City was to follow Gertrude. She was a beautiful woman, considered tall for a female of that period. She was perhaps 5’8 or 5’9” with very dark, smooth skin, black hair; blue eyes, very white, straight teeth and a great body. People that remembered her have commented to me about her beauty even within the last few years.

Uncle Nathan, on the other hand, was very short, perhaps about 5’ tall, with boundless energy. Thinking about it now, they must have been an odd-looking couple walking down Mechanic Street. How I loved that couple, and among other things I remember Nathan’s quick wit. But, there was a real bad problem: Nathan Israel, son of a devout Orthodox Jew, had married a gentile. Gertrude Farrington Israel was half-English and half-Irish, brought up in an observant Roman Catholic home, and together they created one hell of a furor. What is to be done? Remember that this is 1934, when interfaith marriages were pretty rare.

Uncle Nathan and Aunt Gertrude were both very left wing in their politics and I assume they were agnostic in their beliefs. To remedy the situation, though she never practiced, Gertrude converted to Judaism. Uncle Nathan and Aunt Gertrude rented an apartment on lower May Street, on the second floor of a home owned by an elderly couple by the name of Phillips. From what I can remember, the Phillipses were real nice people, and they were very kind to the Israels. Nathan and Gertrude joined the family business, with Gertrude working with my mother in the store, and Nathan peddling on the road.

Mom and Dad are also starting to become part of the Spencer community. My father becomes very active in the newly organized post of the VFW; and my mother joined the VFW auxiliary. The VFW national organization had been active in the fight to pay World War I veterans their promised bonuses now instead of in 1940 as originally planned. Dad was able to sell uniforms to the post, making the VFW a booster to the fledgling store. My father’s uniform was brown with a thick Sam Browne belt across the middle, and a shoulder belt in parades. My mother -- who also marched -- wore a white dress, blue cape, and a blue beret. I was sure proud of my folks when I watched the Memorial Day and Armistice parades.

My Dad enjoyed the VFW and had many comrades, as they were called in the days before the Cold War. Among his pals in the post was Leo Larue, who was 100% disabled for the rest of his life after being badly gassed in France at age 17. Almost every winter, he would have to spend time in the then-Rutland, MA Veterans hospital. (Melanie, Leo Larue was the father and father-in-law of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Huard.)

Another close friend was Anthon Lampron, a Greek immigrant who had been both machine-gunned and gassed in battle in World War I. Mr. Lampron ran a small lunchroom called the Y/D Luncheonette. It was in a little store right beside the Spencer Products building on West Main Street. When my father and I would return from the dump on Sunday, we would always stop in the Y/D Lunch for a treat. Memories; I remember it as if were last Sunday. I can still hear Anthon saying; “Good morning, comrade.” There seemed to be a fellowship among the veterans of World War I you do not see among today’s veterans. I do not think mother enjoyed the auxiliary as much as Dad enjoyed his meetings, especially after the VFW ladies took her to the Victory Café, a dubious establishment on Chestnut Street, to toss back a few beers after a meeting. Mother and Gertrude both also joined the Spencer Women’s Club, something they both enjoyed. Aunt Gertrude became president of the Club around 1940.

Behind the Memories: No Ordinary Times

To quote historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, “These are no ordinary times.” Life is hard. So, the people have responded by electing Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president — no ordinary man. He took office in 1933 and immediately instituted programs to fix the terrible economic conditions in the country. By 1936, Spencer is starting to be effected notably by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), with a camp being established in North Spencer on McCormick Road, where the 4/H camp is now. The function of the CCC was to have unemployed young men do conservation work in the woods and forests of this country. Most of our state parks and many national parks were built by CCC labor; Howe Park is an example. I think I am correct when I state that the young forest workers were paid $24 per month, and $19 per month had to be sent home. The CCC was a quasi-military organization, with the men enlisting for a six-month hitch. The workers could serve no more than four hitches or 2years. The men came here from all over New England, with some of them remaining in Spencer, marrying and finding jobs in the community. Two of the men that come to mind would be the late Stanley Starvish and the late Pete Larson. When I was in the Army many years later, many of the old sergeants told me they started in the CCC.

Thanks to FDR, legislation was passed establishing the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in every city and hamlet in the United States. The main function of the WPA was jobs: Get people back to work earning money and putting food on the table. The WPA hired artists, teachers, pick and shovel workers, canal and river dredgers, dam builders. You name it, the WPA most likely had a place for you. It was the biggest make-work project the country had ever seen. In Spencer, most of the WPA men worked on the roads, and also repaired and extended the town’s water system. The back part of the David Prouty Junior High was dedicated in 1937 and built by the WPA.

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