Biff America: Icehouse socialism during the Great Depression
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years,” said Mark Twain.
My own father, Mike Bergeron, stood on the banks of Flag’s Pond on a bitterly cold day, surrounded by more than 30 desperate men. This was during the winter of 1932.
Brockton Ice and Coal needed 10 workers to cut large chunks of ice from the pond’s surface and drag them to a huge barn where it would be cut into smaller pieces and hauled by motor and horse to homes in the surrounding towns on Boston’s South Shore. The work would be both strenuous and cold.
Funny, hard working Man
The Depression hit the Brockton area hard. Known as “Shoe City USA” for the many shoe factories and mills, the once thriving economy was wracked by the poverty and hopelessness that prevailed nationwide.
He felt pretty good about his chances of rising to the top and picking up a few weeks of work. First of all, he was one of the younger men, barely 23; he was strong with long arms (good for using an ice saw), and he was French Canadian. Many of the other applicants were older, smaller and with either darker complexion of their Mediterranean origins or the fair skin of Scandinavia.
It wasn’t that he discounted any of those races’ work ethic but the man who was doing the hiring had a last name of Comeau, and back then, there existed a clannish priority to help out your own first.
My father was both a severe and funny man. Certainly, you can count on his hard upbringing and coming of age in the Depression as contributing factors, but I also think he was simply dour by nature. He valued hard work, honesty and toughness and was usually too busy providing for his family to play with his kids. When he bought his first new car in 1968, in accordance with Federal law, it came with seat belts. Not being one to be told by a Democrat (LBJ) how to live, he cut off the safety devices as soon as he got home. (The rest of the family thought he was taking the slogan “Live free or die” too seriously.)
He demanded that his sons respect coaches, teachers and clergy and to always throw the first punch in a fistfight.
Between bouts of anger and melancholy, he also was fiercely funny. He had me hang from the highest tree in our yard by my toes and called out my mother to come outside to see an “owl on a branch.” When my Mum looked up to see her 9-year-old son dangling upside-down a hundred feet over the ground, she fainted. When our neighbor complained obsessively over the fact that his once-beautiful wisteria bush stopped blooming (as did ours), my old man would spray paint our bush blue, which, when seen from a distance, looked like our bush had blossomed. It drove our neighbor crazy.
I don’t think my Dad told me he loved me until he was in his 80s, but he did tell me lots of stories and I listened and remembered most of them.
Like this one, of him standing on the ice, a horribly cold day, wearing two jackets with newspapers stuffed between them, waiting to see if he would get three weeks of cold, backbreaking work. As I said before, he was young, strong and could put in a better day than many of the others there.
All eyes were on the foreman, Mr. Comeau, as he walked from the icehouse to the assembled applicants. As he passed my dad, their eyes met in recognition, as Mr. Comeau was friends with my dad’s father. He had all of the men line up. He told all of the married men with children to step forward. About half did so. He then thanked all others for their interest but added that men with kids needed work more than the rest and asked them to check back in a week. My old man walked away as older, weaker and smaller men stayed.
Getting what you need
When I asked him years later if he thought it unfair, he said that people getting what they need is more important than people getting what they think they deserve. Many years later, when he ran his own business, he lived and hired by those same ethics.
Like Mark Twain, I underestimated my father. I based his affection on his words, not deeds, and intelligence on whether he agreed with me. In my own defense, I can blame immaturity and a pompous conceit perhaps caused by the concussion I got when we had that fender bender and I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Biff’s new book “Mind, Body, Soul,” is available at local shops and bookstores and at backcountrymagazine.com/store.
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