Learning to Read in a Gravel Yard
... he thought he couldn't be fired, because he had graduated from MIT.
by Dorothy S. O'Connor
My father, Phil Glasson, received a degree in Chemical Engineering from MIT in 1925. He did not look very far away from the Boston area for a job. After all, his fiancee, Alice, was working in Boston as a bacteriologist for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and he preferred to stay near her. So he took a job in a paint factory in Everett.
It only took a short time for him to realize that this was not the right job for him. A few months later, when he heard that the Brown Company in Berlin, New Hampshire was hiring chemists, he applied there for work.
Berlin, he learned, is about 180 miles from Boston. It is located north of the White Mountains in a valley on the Androscoggin River, surrounded by a seemingly inexhaustible supply of wood. Brown Company, the largest employer, which had been founded shortly after the Civil War, manufactured products from wood and pulp.
It is such an isolated area that the first white family did not settle there until the early 1820's. By 1829, when it was incorporated, the town of Maynesborough had 65 people and was renamed Berlin.
By the late 1920's, when my father arrived, the city was a thriving community with a rich ethnic mixture. There was a large community of French Canadians, who had migrated from Quebec to the logging camps and paper mills of the White Mountain area. The French settlers built St. Anne's Church, which opened in 1901. The parish then founded St. Regis Academy and the St. Louis Hospital, where I was born.
The French Canadians settled on the East Side of Berlin. They lived mainly in multi-storied buildings with exterior stairways. These buildings were called "blocks" and often housed several generations of one family.
In Berlin there was also an area known as "Scandinavian Village," with streets named Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. The workers were hired because of their background in logging. With the Scandinavians' love of skiing, the city became known as the "Cradle of Nordic Skiing." The Nansen Ski Club, founded in 1872, is the oldest such club in the country. In 1936 the Nansen Ski Jump was built, the largest in the eastern part of the United States. I remember watching Olympic tryouts there in the late 1930's.
Berlin also had a sizeable Irish community which supported St. Kiernan's Church and St. Patrick's School. There were many Italian immigrants, hired because of their skills with stonework and masonry.
Since they were used to severe winters, Russian laborers were encouraged to come to Berlin. In the early years of the century there were many male Russian workers in the North Country. With no female companionship, they became boisterous and rowdy. In 1915, to encourage women to emigrate, a Russian Orthodox Church was built on the corner of Petrograd and Russian Streets. The Brown Company supported the project by providing workers to help clear the site and construct the Church, onion domes and all. It sits on a hill overlooking the city and is the only Orthodox Church in the North Country. After that, women arrived from Russia and a viable Russian community is still part of the city.
This, then, is the community my father moved to when he decided to take the job he was offered in the Company's Research Department, even though working for the Brown Company would mean many months of absence from Alice until their wedding in July of 1927.
Phil was of average height, with curly brown hair and piercing blue eyes (which stayed deep blue until his death at age 86). He enjoyed hiking, reading, and, in his early years, dancing and playing bridge. He hated gambling and alcohol consumption. Poor man, having been brought up by Vermont Yankees, he had great difficulty expressing his emotions. He loved to talk, but when his wife or one of his daughters displeased him we would get the silent treatment, sometimes for weeks at a time.
My mother, Alice, was not a "pretty" woman in the Hollywood sense, but she had many talents. She was athletic, intelligent, and resourceful. In her Simmons College yearbook, the quote beside her photo says, "Age cannot wither, nor custom stale, her infinite variety." Her personality was warmer than my father's and she knew how to make and keep friends.
When my father brought his bride to Berlin in the summer of 1927, she felt hemmed in by the mountains. After all, she had grown up in North Easton, Massachusetts, where the tallest hill in the area was the Great Blue Hill in Milton, (635 feet).
My father and mother both enjoyed living near the woods. She knew the names of many wild flowers, ferns, trees, and birds. They shared an interest in the constellations. They made friends with other newlyweds, with whom they hiked in the White Mountains, went dancing, and played bridge.
My mother gradually grew to love the North Country. Her contentment deepened in July of 1928 when I was born. During the week or so when she was in the hospital after my birth, she became friendly with Hazel Town. Hazel's first child, Shirley, had been born the day after I was. The two families, Glassons and Towns, became close friends, but the two women formed an unusually strong bond which lasted nearly half a century until my mother's death in 1976.
When I was nearly two years old, my father told his parents and his his maiden sister Glenna (his senior by seven years), that they were expecting another baby in January. Glenna replied, "Oh, Phil, we were hoping for quality, not quantity." It took my mother years to forgive and forget that hurtful and barbed remark.
My sister Jacqueline was born in January of 1931, when I was two and a half. By this time, of course, the Wall Street collapse had occurred. Instead of the bustling community of the 1920's, Berlin, like many other cities, was beginning to be affected by the Depression. The mill was working at 25 percent capacity and there were three consecutive 10% wage cuts.
My father truly believed that since he had attended MIT his job was secure. After all, he was a graduate of one of the leading schools in the nation. Not so; when my sister was a few months old he was laid off. The ax fell on workers with little education, a high school diploma, and college graduates alike. There were no other jobs to be had in Berlin. In desperation, our little family went to Proctor, Vermont, to live with my father's parents and Glenna until the economy improved.
Our neighbors the Redferns offered to store our furniture in their barn. My parents packed all the clothes and baby equipment they would need into the green Chevrolet. My father disassembled the baby crib and strapped it to the running board.
My parents were grateful to have shelter and three meals a day. The atmosphere, however, was not entirely congenial. My grandmother Minnie was a diminutive woman with decided convictions, especially about child- rearing. She never hesitated to foist her opinions on others, whether they had asked or not. Even though she was his mother, my father found her interfering ways hard to take, and it must have been very stressful for my mother.
My grandfather Jim was an upright and outstanding citizen, but he had his own Victorian opinions about women, money, and food preferences. He never, ever, in a marriage that lasted over sixty years, told his wife what his income was, and he conveyed this attitude to his son, my father. Jim was a good gardener; I remember picking gooseberries from the bushes in his back yard. But he had a prejudice against raw vegetables and accused my mother of liking "rabbit food" because she loved lettuces and other greens.
After six months the tensions between the generations became so difficult that my father wrote to the Brown Company. "I'll take any job you have," he said in desperation. And so my family returned to Berlin and he went to work as a day laborer for $10 a week.
When we first returned to Berlin we lived in an apartment in a house owned by the Kellys. Our family occupied the second floor of that house, but our bathroom was in the unheated third floor. We used to call a trip to the bathroom "Going to the North Pole."
After that, we lived for a time in the first-floor apartment of a two-family house in Berlin Mills. The yard had no grass; there was gravel instead. We must have lived there for a year or more until it was time for me to start school. Then my mother insisted on moving to another part of town where she felt (correctly or not) that the elementary school was better than the one in Berlin Mills.
To my parents' credit, if they felt resentful and angry at their situation, they kept the family atmosphere fairly pleasant. At the apartment in Berlin Mills, I remember one hot night when my mother struggled to open a stuck window. It was over the bathtub, hard to reach. She finally pounded it in such a way that the glass broke and cut her wrist. The quantity of blood made quite an impression on five-year-old me.
My parents budgeted their money carefully. 5˘ a week was allotted to "entertainment." With that money they bought each week's issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Agatha Christie's mystery story, And Then There Were None, was serialized in the magazine at that time. Each week my mother read the chapter to herself and summarized it to her spellbound little daughters.
My father controlled the purse strings during their married life. Taking a cue from his father, he never discussed finances with my mother; he gave her a household allowance. When she wanted or needed extra money she had to "beg" for it. (Perhaps it was necessary; he was a better money manager than she was; she was generous to a fault.) Seeing a woman of her caliber having to "beg" for money made a lasting impression on me; even as a married woman raising a family, I have always held a job outside the home, and could control my own money.
My father was damned lucky to have such a creative helpmeet. She grew vegetables and canned them; she picked wild fruits and made jams and jellies; she made all the clothes for herself and her two daughters. I never had a "store-bought" dress or coat until I was out of college. She braided rugs and made hooked rugs from scraps; she painted and wallpapered rooms; she even reupholstered furniture and repaired small appliances.
The Brown Company owned land where employees were encouraged to plant gardens. When we lived at "the gravel yard," our vegetable plot was about half a mile from the house. I remember feeling grown-up and responsible because my assigned task was to walk carefully along the rows after seeds had been planted, one foot in front of the other, to tamp down the soil. My parents used to take along the baby carriage and use it to bring the produce back to the house. My mother told me years later that she had felt guilty at that time, "making" the baby (who was about three years old) walk, but my sister didn't mind and has no bad memories about that experience.
My sister fell down in the gravel yard and cut her lower lip. She still has a slight scar from that accident.
In the apartment, my mother had to battle cockroaches. The house also had no insulation. There was a couch placed in front of a wall, with pillows leaning up against the window. During a cold winter night, one of the pillows froze to the window. Made a big impression on us little kids.
Upstairs lived the Richards family with four bright, lively children, two boys and two girls. The only one I remember is Elsie, a few years older than I. As we played in the gravel yard she taught me to read, so that when I got to first grade a short while later, in 1934, I already knew how to read.
But knowing how to read didn't do me much good with Miss Harris, the first- grade teacher. She had the traditional three reading groups -- the Squirrels, the Bluebirds, and the Robins. All the "dumb" kids were assigned to the Bluebirds group, and so was I! I haven't forgiven Miss Harris yet. Maybe in another sixty years I will!
By the time I was ready to enter first grade in 1934 we had moved to a second-floor apartment in a house owned by the Bass family. One day Alice Bass and I decided to take our pets walking together. She put a leash on her dog, I outfitted our cat with a leash, and we met in the stairwell. Much to my surprise, the two animals had a terrific fight. I must have looked astonished, because my mother laughed long and hard over my expression. The outing, of course, never materialized.
All during those years our family enjoyed hiking in the nearby woods and having picnics in a favorite grove of maple trees. One day my mother sent me across the street to King's little neighborhood grocery to buy supplies for the picnic. Armed with two dimes, I carried out her instructions, buying a package of cream cheese and a loaf of bread.
I didn't know we were poor and supposed to be unhappy; I had a happy childhood. During the late 1930's, when we were renting a whole house, an occasional tramp would appear at our back door. My mother would always give him some of her good food, which he ate sitting on our back steps.
One of the effects on my father of losing his job was that his political thinking moved to the left. In 1935 Berlin elected a Farmer-Labor Party Mayor, Arthur Bergeron. The party also filled other offices; my father ran for Library Trustee on the ticket, and served for several years in that capacity. Bergeron, only 29 when he was elected, was a productive mayor. With combined loans from the city and state, he helped keep the Brown Company going when it faced bankruptcy.
Some of my father's political acquaintances would gather in our house of an evening to talk politics. Their voices would swell in discussion and argument, and once in a while someone would utter a swear word. I was shocked the first time I heard my father say the word "damn"!
Around that same time I heard an interesting word on the school playground and decided to try it out at home. At what I thought was an appropriate time, I said, "SHIT!" My mother, usually meek and mild and sweet, grabbed me and washed out my mouth with soap. It took me about 35 years to repeat that word.
As the economy slowly improved, so did my father's working life. He was put back in the Research Department as a chemist and eventually became the Research Librarian, a job he held for several decades until he retired.
One of the indications that our family was recovering from the Depression is that when I was twelve, we finally acquired a telephone! Using the telephone was a Big Occasion. My mother and her sister, and my mother and her college friends, wrote letters to keep in touch. My father and his friends and relatives wrote letters, also. The telephone as only used in cases of dire emergency, and then one would have to go to the local drugstore to use the phone.
In 1940, when we got that first phone installed, the number was 396-R and the first person I called was my friend Shirley Town, my lifelong friend born the day after I was.