Posted by: johnhourihan | March 4, 2014

This guitar kills fascists


First I heard the slap of the screen door slamming against the summer night. The screen had a spring and a latch that made its closing automatic. It was built that way for protection against the flies and hornets and mosquitoes
Then my father fumbled with the inside door, a thick solid wooden door with the kick marks at he foot from years of opening it when it was swollen shut, and the gouges from pushing it open with the front end of the five-times-used baby carriage – Patricia and Diane being too old to have been babies behind this front door.
The door never closed right, so in the winter the frigid air slid unmuffled under  and around it. It didn’t matter that it was as thick as a slab of tree trunk, if it didn’t shut all the way it wasn’t much good against the forces of nature that threatened our family.
And the wind blowing tonight was that my father was home early, well, early for a pay day.
He had been fired from the shoe shop.
We had expected it.
We all knew why. Our dinner table was a place where everyone got to speak what was important to him or her, and what was important tonight came from what had been important every night for at least a few months of dinners.
As we filtered into the kitchen and my sisters picked up and fixed the wooden leafs of the table so we could all sit, my mother hugged my father. This was not an every night occurrence.
I was around seven years old, the age of reason. In the past months I had been taught a lesson that is still part of my makeup. I don’t apologize for it. I care what happens to other people, especially poor children buffeted and pummeled by the winds of greed.
When it had begun months ago, dinner conversation centered around the Portagese who had been moving to the town of Milford, Massachusetts to take the place of, and some said the jobs of,  the Irish and Italians who were entrenched on the lower rungs of the shoe shop ladders.
“They don’t even know they are getting hosed,” my old man told my mother directly and the rest of us by osmosis.
“They get the same number of chits for a case of shoes, but they are getting paid less per chit when they turn them in at the end of the week. If we let it happen, pretty soon we won‘t have jobs and they still won’t be able to feed their kids. They’re Catholics you know.”
“Is there anything that can be done?”
The heads of the seven children turned back and forth from mother to father as if watching a tennis game, with an occasional pause for a bite of ham or potato.
“Union…Union could be the answer.”
My father was a Woody Guthrie fan
“Can it happen? Can they get the votes?”
“Ray and Billy Donahue think we can get it done, but we have to work quick before everyone finds out.”
It was only a few weeks later that the “troubles” started, and the grandchildren of  an IRA man knew what that word meant, “troubles.”
It meant we would feel the sting. We would feel it in our stomachs, and in our vain fight against the cold of next winter. There was no such thing as food stamps, or welfare. There was barely any unemployment benefits or health care. If he didn’t work, we were going to be hungry and sick and cold.
My father was a freakishly strong skinny Irisher whose father had slept with a shotgun in Northbridge, a Catholic Irish defense against the KKK.
My father and his brothers and sisters grew up hard. They smiled and laughed and drank with anyone who felt that was a good way to live, but when it was needed they fought anyone, and fought to win.
My father saw happening to young men and women, and even younger families, the same greed-driven unfairness he had faced when the signs at Draper Corporation had warned “Irish need not apply.” For a time, after eight hours in the shoe shop he worked eight more in the Draper foundry under an assumed name. They found out and he got fired.
Only this time it was the Potuguese who filled our dinner conversation.
The young men he and his two friends trained were hard workers, put in an honest days work, sweated out every thing they could,  and still were not being paid enough to feed their families, or provide a home that didn’t also house two or three other families out of economic necessity.
We Irish and our Italian neighbors had graduated from that, and now left the situation to the newcomers. We now owned our own home, a house in the woods on the north Purchase, that had a sporadic furnace, ice on the insides of the windows, and a front door that didn’t quite close all the way.
It wasn’t long before Scrapper Jack and the Donahue boys were being threatened by the company goons. That didn’t scare Billy Donahue and Jack Hourihan, and nothing scared Ray Donahue, so they pushed to bring the union to the Milford shops. A last ditch effort at fairness and a true shot at allowing the newcomers to work their way out of poverty too.
Only last week we had rejoiced in the news that the vote was happening as we ate, and it looked as if the union would make it.
Now the men who brought it in were fired.
“It’s the way of things, Jocko.” That’s how my old man explained it to me.
What I had learned from this at the age of reason, and because of my Catholic-school upbringing, was that a single good man could stand alone against the economic forces of nature that worked hard to keep him and his friends from earning a decent wage.
I learned that the screen door of a few principled friends could keep out the flies, the hornets and the mosquitoes.
But even if they made it more comfortable for some, unless the door could be shut behind them, they and their families wouldn’t be protected from the malevolent forces of nature – greed, gluttony, avarice, and pride.
When my sister asked him later in life if he would do it again, Scrapper Jack answered, “If you stand up for everyone, you are sure to hang alone.”
I have spent my life shouting as loudly as I can, on the pages of three different newspapers, across the decades about how the accumulation of money twists the humanness of men into undistinguishable deformities. How greed makes us turn on each other, and how the rich can do the most unspeakable things to their brothers and sisters in a perverted effort to keep their money safe.
I believe there are those now who want that time to return.
I believe there are those who want to bring us back to when there were no unions, no regulations, no reason for fairness to the lower class, no welfare, and little or no heath care.
If you wish to call yourself human, you have to do something that will stop this from happening.

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Responses

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this story John! I can appreciate the picture you painted. My Dad was an underground copper miner. Less frequently these days but in the past so often I would have strangers come up to me and ask if I was Art Swanson’s daughter. They would go on to tell me how they believed my Dad had saved either their life or knew of somebody with a story they had heard. You see the Mexican men usually weren’t allowed in the company houses, forced to sleep in the bunk houses. Which meant living separate from their families. They were made to tap (place & blow dynamite) the most dangerous shoots, and were paid much less. When the union came about “wet backs” were not included. My Dad was a stout man with a temper and was always up to taking on a bully. Living in a company town I noticed my friends fathers always treated me a little different then the other kids. I always heard talk that made me believe my Dad was feared. I couldn’t understand that… this man took the graveyard shift so he could sit next to me ,for the first 2 weeks of my first year in school, You see I was afraid. The Mexicans were afraid. I think there is an extra type of endorphin that kicks in for some people, when they see injustice. I believe my Dad had that. He took on those folks who felt threatened by the diligence of the Mexican workers. Within in months Mexican families were moving into the company houses that were being built. My Dad saw to it that nobody under his watch would take risks beyond reason. He later became a Federal Mine Safety and Health Inspector. In retirement he stayed active as a consultant. On a lighter note.. it was the 1960’s and 70’s over 100° in AZ summer my Dad would make my brother wear full length pants, safety goggles and steel toed boots to mow the lawn. 🙂

  2. I wonder if the Art Swansons or Jack Hourihans even exist anymore?

    • It was a different generation,but, well, there’s you.

  3. I think poverty + nightmarish memories of poverty, do more harm than wealth – there’s even more desperation and scrambling, less energy and heart for compassion.
    Love your writing – sort of a cross between Hemingway and James Jones (From Here to Eternity). You tell it well!!


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