By Paul Marion
The following story by Paul Marion originally appeared on paulmarion.com with the title, “Laid Off,” a chapter from “Do You Think You’ll Ever Go Back?” (a memory book in progress).
ONE OF MY PRE-SCHOOL MEMORIES is a composite of scenes with my father during the day when he was not working at the mill, when he was “laid off.” That was the term I heard. Laid off. Told by the boss to stay home because the company did not have enough business activity to keep him employed. When this happened, he qualified for unemployment insurance. He would be “collecting,” as people said. He was also said to be “loafing,” but that was not precise and even cruel. Loafing makes me think of Walt Whitman: “I loafe and invite my soul,/I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” For my father there was little of this kind of sauntering. It was not his choice to be out of work in the 1950s, sometimes for months at a stretch.
I was too young to know that the national economy was right in our kitchen. According to federal economic reports, the textile industry took one of the worse hits in the recession of 1957-58, which knocked five million people out of all kinds of work. The Northeast had high job losses. The post-WWII economic surge had topped off. Business growth lagged, and personal spending contracted. Also, an Asian flu pandemic slowed exports in manufacturing, and interest rates rose as the Federal Reserve banking system countered inflation. Nationwide, the unemployment rate reached 7.5 percent by mid-1958. After the highest joblessness since the 1930s, the rate dropped to below 5 percent by 1960. Lowell from 1950 to 1957 ranked as an area of “persistent high unemployment” with an average rate of 7.9 percent. Another term I heard when I was a bit older was “a depressed area.”
I was assigned to Dad on the days when my mother worked in the women’s clothing store in downtown Lowell. One vivid scenario: My father drives my mother to work downtown with me in the back seat of the car. After dropping her off at the corner of Merrimack and John streets, Dad parks the car at a meter near the store. The two of us walk down Paige Street on the back side of the five-and-ten cents stores to a bar called Marty’s, known for having one of the longest bar tops in the state, stretching the length of the building from Paige Street over to Merrimack, from back door to front. We sit in a booth upholstered with slippery red material, not cloth. My father orders a glass of draft beer for himself and an orangeade for me. Always a glass of orangeade from the soda fountain. I’m four years old. We have one drink and then go. Never two drinks.
Sometimes we made a pit stop at the men’s restroom that was under the sidewalk on the back side of the five-and-tens. The men’s and women’s facilities here were the only public restrooms in the city. Many years later the stairs were sealed over. One day an urban archeologist will discover the toilets under Paige Street.
At home in Dracut, the “laid off” days passed. Time must have dragged for my father. He kept busy around the house, working in the yard or down cellar or helping his parents next door. There’s always something to maintain or clean when you own a house. He built a solid workbench in the cellar using scrap wood and his few tools. When he was younger, he had done a little carpentry with his Marion cousins who ran a construction company. The Marion name is associated with building in the area. Louis Marion’s company built one of the yellow-brick buildings in the historic quadrangle of the old Lowell Textile School, one of the predecessors of today’s Lowell campus of the University of Massachusetts. An old friend of mine says the Marions were cathedral builders. Sometimes when my father was driving the family around, he would point out a house that he had helped build. (My mother never got a driver’s license because she was too nervous to drive a car. She took lessons but could never get the hang of it. For years, she called taxis to pick her up in Dracut to go to work in downtown Lowell).
John Mullen worked with my father at Gilet Carbonizing, at first in Lowell and then in North Chelmsford. He supervised scouring machines on the lower level of the mill, a job I did for two days in the summer of 1972. Here’s my take on what it felt like in Satan’s glowing red, infected bowels:
No adjective for the heat. My olive-green T-shirt blackens before work starts on the scouring train in the cellar of this mill. I’m the keeper of the vats, three linked in a fifty-foot machine, my train between two more. A chute drops raw wool into harsh detergent soup, bubbling the shit out of it, then a big claw rakes acrid slop from vat one to the next until the whole mess hits the dryers.
Like an underground sentry, I march up and down a yard-wide walk, using a hoe to unclog grates beneath each vat where steaming liquid strains into a waste-way. There are regular red alerts—when a section plugs, muck flows over, and scalding soapy stew boils up, I run down to scoop out crap. The stink of cooked sheep dung, bleach, oil, and sweat makes me plan to burn my jeans at home.
With no fans, no relief, and the sight of my twenty-year-man teacher, I know there’s no tomorrow.
I’m in awe of the will it must have required for a man like Mullen to report every day to that underworld. The commitment baffles me, but his is another example of the sacrifices made by people who were determined to make a life and earn a living in America.
John said it straight: “When I first went there in 1939, let me tell you, you wouldn’t want a dog to work in the place. And I was a dog at the time, lucky to get a job. I did all the shit jobs in the world that were lousy there. When you’re a new guy, you get, well, you know what you get.”
John talked about the boss, George Noval. “He probably was the only one that could really speak English and knew every process in the mill. The people in the Pawtucketville neighborhood of Lowell can be thankful to him because if there was an opening somebody from Pawtucketville got the job. The place was ninety percent French other than the early people that were there, who were Portuguese and Polish.”
My father had lined up the summer job for me, which meant asking for a favor unlike he had ever done at the mill. I’m sure I caused a problem, even embarrassment, when I told him the stench of the scouring machines made me nauseous to the point of vomiting and that I could not make it past the morning on the second day. He didn’t chew me out, however, and sucked up the news that he had to give to the big boss. I told him I’d apply for a job at a fast-food counter rather than go back to the mill.
Luckily, my mother got me in at the women’s clothing store where she was a senior salesclerk. The manager hired me part-time to run the manual elevator. I could hardly have painted a more different occupational setting. I needed a job to help pay for college tuition and to put gas in the creaky 1966 Ford Galaxie 500 that had been handed down to me when my father got my grandfather’s black Mercury sedan after he bought a new pine-green, two-door Comet. The Galaxie looked like it had leprosy, the silver-blue paint flaking off from hood to trunk.
In October, I gained a windfall benefit. My parents sold their small ranch house in Dracut because Dad wanted to get out of house-care worries. We moved to a two-bedroom, garden-style apartment on the west side of town, Whitecliff Manor—how upscale British sounding. With a small profit from the house sale, my parents bought themselves their first new car, a bronze 1972 Ford Torino, automatic transmission with a stick shift (Dad said, “I can die now.”) and got a new, chocolate-brown Ford Pinto hatchback for me—for commuting to Merrimack College in North Andover, where Red Sox star Carl Yastrzemski had earned a bachelor’s degree in off-season classes. I ran the Pinto for ten years, until the engine burst into flames one afternoon outside my mechanic’s shop while I was inside explaining the car’s latest problem. I know the Pinto is a cultural punchline in 1970s humor, but I squeezed every ounce of value out of that car. My folks had paid less than $2,000 for my “ride” ten years before.
But back to John Mullen. He spoke with Mehmed Ali, Ph.D., of the Lowell Historical Society for two hours in June 2002, recollecting the mill work and labor organizing of his day. I sat in. He was eighty-five-years old, articulate, white-haired, and had a face like Kirk Douglas the actor. He remembered one strike whose aim was to get a ten-cent raise for the textile workers. He laughed: “Even if you ask for nothing, the owners can’t afford it.” Industry executives considered Gilet to be a top plant in woolens and worsteds. He counted three or four strikes in the 1940s when my father was hired at the Lowell mill, which stood at the Lower Locks complex of the Pawtucket Canal where today’s UMass Lowell’s Inn & Conference Center is seen (the site of a Hilton hotel in the 1980s). Gilet’s later moved to a mill complex in North Chelmsford near a railroad line.
John ticked off names of men who worked with my father: Joe Halloran, Bucky Landry, Bill Jezek, George Brouillard, and Marcel Vervaert, “Big Marcel,” who taught my father, “Little Marcel,” how to sort wool, a trade that served him for forty years. One time an anthrax scare shook up the employees. “An old French guy on the third floor who opened the bales of sheep fleeces got sick enough to see a doctor,” said John. A doctor saved his infected eye. He never returned to work. In the business, anthrax is known as “the wool sorter’s disease,” and it was a constant concern.
“Wool sorters were the elite in the mill in the early days,” said John. “You can be proud of your father. They can take a handful of wool and make three or four different sorts, grades of wool [like Prime and Choice for beef grades]. It was amazing to see those fellows in action. People from Rhode Island and Lawrence, Mass., came to work at the Gilet factory because of the high pay we were able to get for the wool sorters. That skill was hard to find anyway. I never had any trouble negotiating a wage for the wool sorters.”
John smiled as he recalled a colorful character from his time. “There was a fellow named Harry Healey who believed that wool sorters were the top of the heap. He came to work all dressed up. At the shop he’d put on a white frock. And guess what he had in his briefcase? His lunch. But he would take a shower after work every day and put his suit back on to go home. You should see that white frock after eight hours of sorting wool. Oh, oh! Well, you know, raw wool is full of burrs, dirt, and shit.”
He admitted he was a thorn in the side of the boss, but John says “We improved operations 1,000 percent—1,000. In the early ‘50s, I got the hell out of there, and then went to work for the United Fund in 1955. I should have stayed with the union, because in the textile thing I was president. We had a Woolen and Worsted Division of the United Textile Workers of America from the AFofL-CIO. We had several plants, Southwell and others, so with my big mouth they elected me president of the council.”
Looking at me he said, “Your father was one of the union stewards. I’m sure he was because I was smart enough to make sure that even with the elite that I got the guys that I wanted. And I know Marcel was always up front. He was always up front.”
The 1953-55 Labor Agreement between the Gilet company of Lowell and the United Textile Workers of America, A.F. of L., Local No. 734 is a fifty-two-page document detailing the terms and conditions for union security, hours of employment (forty hours a week, eight hours a day), seniority, basic force level, wages and cost of living adjustment, holiday pay and vacation, military service, management and discharge, union notices, safety and health, grievances and arbitration, health benefits, miscellaneous items and the term of the contract. The wool sorters would be paid $1.865 per hour, second only to over-lookers who would earn $1.975. Scourers like John’s first slot came in at $1.395. The agreement was signed by the company president Albert J. Gilet. Kenneth G. Clark signed for the national union, and for Local 734 six names are listed: John J. Mullen, William J. Landry, Gerard Morrissette, George Brouillard, Marcel Marion, and William Jezek.
And even with all John Mullen describes the owners and managers in the 1950s ridded themselves of the union. By the time I was old enough to understand, the collective protection of organized labor was gone from my father’s workplace. Conditions deteriorated, he was furloughed more often, and the once well-compensated wool sorting no longer drew top dollar. John Mullen chalks up the decline to increasing competition, shifting markets, and technological changes.
In the months out of the mill, Dad explored other options such as a job in electronics. He’s kept a notebook with mimeograph drawings of tubes and circuits. This may have been a TV repair class. I can’t tell. The diagrams show audio output, amplifier operation, grid voltage, electron-emitting cathode, photo-sensitive material. The notes are about transformer couplings, plate resistor, capacitor, and transconductance. Stored with the notebook was an exam book for a police services job. This may have been something he looked into after the war.
The workbench was Dad’s area in the cellar. It was eight feet long and the height of a kitchen counter. Built like a box against the back wall of the house foundation, the bench was open in the front and had a tabletop surface about a yard deep. When I was small, I had to stand on a stool to reach the back of the top counter. Underneath there were used paint cans, boards of various sizes, large and small saws, pieces of metal, and other items that were too useful to throw out. On top he kept his mix-and-match tools: no two screwdrivers were from the same family of implements. A couple of dozen jars and small boxes held nails, screws, hooks, brass hinges.
One winter he organized the nails and screws in old jelly and peanut butter jars whose covers were nailed into a board that was in turn nailed to beams above the workbench so that Dad could reach up and unscrew the jar containing the needed nail or hook. I’ve seen this arrangement in cellars of old houses in the area. Baby food jars are a good size for small screws and washers. At the back of the countertop more remnant parts and supplies were stacked, waiting for the next home improvement.
In the months out of work, my father had a lot of time to think and read. He enjoyed the writings of the longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer and Edward Bellamy’s social critique Looking Backward: 2000-1887. In his own way he was spiritual, just without the dogma and clerical trappings. He said the Pope should sell all the gold ornaments in the Vatican and use the money to feed hungry people. His anti-clerical views made me take a pass on the chance to be an altar server, which baffled nuns who taught me. I preferred not to do that. On top of Sunday Mass with my family, the school required weekly Crusader Masses, First Friday Mass, Easter Week and Christmas Masses, and Holy Day of Obligation Masses, which gave me plenty of capital in the God Bank, I figured.
A few years before my father died of cancer in 1982, I published a meditation on him in my first collection of poems:
Dad’s middle name was super-French, Réal, in the category of Hormidas, Salomé, and Déodat from the older generations. I pictured him trudging down muddy German roads in 1945, one eye on Bavaria, his combat boots worn thin. Did he see himself, twenty years ahead, sorting raw wool in the San Joaquin Valley of California, touring the sheep spreads and talking French to the Basque farmers?
State dinners in Washington with ambassadors and movie stars made him sick to his daily-bread stomach. It’s a good thing he enjoyed the Red Sox.
“Jefferson was a genius,” he’d said. “Something went wrong. Mazuma did it. Money corrupts absolutely.” Taking off his glasses, he’d sigh. “I dunno what’s gonna happen.”
There were no political junkets for him, no study trips to Sweden and Japan. He had to be happy with native corn and tomatoes in August. Who knows that Corporal Marcel Marion studied Greek and Latin and geometry in the junior seminary in the White Mountains of New Hampshire?
Once, watching a TV symphony, he said to my mother, “Now there’s a guy who did something in his life. He composed music. What did I do?”
“You had a family, three sons, that’s something.”
My father used to say he had seen our country’s best days. He worked, read, wanted to travel, enjoyed his grandsons, liked to bet a buck, drank a beer. My father had questions.
Paul Marion (c) 2023
6 Responses to Laid Off
Paul, your mom was correct when she responded to your dad’s query, about what did he ever do, after admiring the work of a great musical composer. He might not have produced a musical symphony, but he had a caring family and a son who was moved to write such a loving tribute to him. Having lost my son, I can honestly say that it would be more meaningful to me to have him with me for my entire lifetime than to have written a symphony greater than Beethoven.
Thanks, Charlie, for this heartfelt response.
Marcel Marion – “Now there’s a guy who did something in his life.”
And you Paul, his beloved son, continue the Marion “cathedral building” tradition. Your texts are building the cathedral of local, regional, ethnic history. Merci.
Paul’s piece reminds me of the disgusting conditions so many people experienced for the whole of their working lives. My father used to come home every evening and wash the welding sparks and the asbestos (which contributed to his death) out of his hair. And so many other parallels come out with life in a faltering British industrial town.
We both have to be thankful that we got away from that, Paul ahead of me; it took most of a lifetime for me to settle into language translation (Hungarian).
Thanks, Louise, Brian, and Malcolm for the encouraging responses. As Malcolm writes, “so many people” have worked and still work in bad conditions out of the spotlight.