Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Romeo and Juliet in Pennsylvania

The theme of forbidden love has been used to advantage by many writers, from ancient times to the present.

Consider Abelard and Heloise. Launcelot and the Lady of Shalott. And, of course, Romeo and Juliet. A thousand other examples might be suggested. There are many reasons for love being forbidden. The most common include social distinctions such as class, religion or ethnicity.

Probably no one has used the theme to better advantage than Will Shakespeare—most notably in Romeo and Juliet, but also in a number of other classic plays and poems.

I don’t intend comparing myself to Shakespeare, but I’ve used the theme in my novel Watch The Hour and don’t feel it would be out of line to say it might be seen as another variation on Romeo and Juliet.

Fleeing famine and brutal oppression, more than a million Irish refugees flocked to the United States between 1846-1855 in search of opportunity and a better life. They worked whatever jobs they could find and were routinely exploited. Many found their way to Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region where they encountered some of the worst exploitation and hatred.

In the 1870s, mine owners and their employees, particularly the Irish immigrants, were in conflict over working conditions. Private police forces commissioned by the state but paid by the coal companies were sworn to protect property of the mine owners. The miners knew their real purpose was to spy upon targeted agitators and intimidate and break up strikers.

My Romeo is Benjamin Franklin Yeager, a coal company police officer. He does his best to follow orders while trying to be fair to the workers whose lot he sees as little different from his own. Despite his efforts at fairness, Yeager’s job makes him the enemy of the Irish.

And that’s the crux of his troubles. For Ben is in love with an Irish girl, Jennie Teague. You’ll have to read the book to see how their love plays out.

Watch The Hour is available in print and electronic forms from the publisher at https://www.whiskeycreekpress.com/store/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=725

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Wind In His Face

I’m reading David Herlihy’s excellent “The Lost Cyclist,” which recounts the story of Frank Lenz, a Pittsburgh adventurer who disappeared in the 1880s while attempting his dream of cycling around the world.

Appropriately, this is National Bike Month. And that brings fond memories of my maternal grandfather, George Lester Sears, in whose life the bicycle played an important role.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the bicycle that first made Americans mobile. For the first time, the average person who could not afford to buy and maintain a horse and rig could travel increased distances in speed and comfort by his own power. Boundaries were extended to the distance a person’s energy could carry him. The bicycle was reasonably priced and easily maintained, requiring no feeding, stabling or cleaning up after.

The first U.S. bicycle craze, circa 1860-70, succumbed to faulty equipment and poor roads. Interest resurfaced in the 1880s with such improvements as the pneumatic tire. In the 1890s, while farm prices fell and unemployment rose, the bicycle industry was thriving. Mass production methods developed by the bicycle firms, which typically employed about 50 people each, became a model for the auto industry. By the turn of the century, the bicycle was a fixture with the public and the preferred mount of both police and the military.

A bike was my grandfather’s first major acquisition and his fascination with both its use and repair soon made him the acknowledged expert among his peers and earned him the nickname “Bicey.” It also gave him one of the several trades he practiced throughout his life. Though he was a blacksmith, farmed and worked in the silk mills, he was best known to many as a bicycle repairman. It was a skill he passed on to his sons Pete, Raymond and Walter who also operated shops to supplement their income.

Growing up, it seemed to me Pop divided his time about equally between the bike shop, the garden and fishing. I’d like to say he met grandmother bicycling. Actually, he skated across the frozen Susquehanna one winter to court her.

Even marriage failed to constrain his urge for mobility. By my mother’s tally, they lived in more than 20 locations in several counties and each of his nine children was born in a different place. Perhaps his restlessness can be traced to his British ancestors who were seafaring men. Even after his forebears turned inland they kept their feet wet as canal boatmen, a profession that was in its decline as he reached manhood. Late in life, he confided he might have gone to sea had he not married.

A quiet man full with his own thoughts he seldom put into words, the bicycle may have given him some sense of the wind in his face that his genes craved and his erratic pursuit of new horizons may have had a similar source. I believe he’d be pleased health and environmental concerns and sporting enthusiasts are contributing to a new surge of interest in bicycling.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Homage to Mom

Finding a significant way to honor one’s mother isn’t the easiest task.

If you’ve been fortunate enough to have a good mother, there’s no gift you can buy sufficient to alleviate the guilt of not being able to do more. For those who haven’t had a good mother, the task is no easier because you’re exposed to a plethora of emotions in regret of such misfortune.

The second Sunday in May is the date selected for Americans to remember their mothers by some act of gratitude, a practice mirroring an earlier European custom, Mothering Sunday, where children give small tokens to their mothers. The traditional gift in many parts of Europe is a bunch of violets, the symbol of faithful love.

Perhaps such a token remembrance is the best course to follow since most of us would be hard-pressed to find anything to accurately respond to the love of a mother. Indeed, even the name “mother” can be seen as a form of veneration, since its Sanskrit root is “origin” or “source” of life.

Personally, I’m grateful to have had the kind of mother whose love can’t be repaid in ample proportion. We lost Mom on March 28, 2008, at the advanced age of 100. Even in her final years her energy belied her age and put to shame many who saw half as many summers. After a lifetime of work, both in the home and in area factories, retirement was a concept and not a reality.

The eldest daughter in a family of nine, she learned early responsibility and hard work. She possessed a multitude of talents that could not be learned in any school but life—and I don’t mean just culinary and household skills, though she excelled in those as well. She inherited a love of travel from her vagabond father and proved a boon companion on many a jaunt.

An eternal optimist with an indomitable spirit, she was always an inspiration in times of discouragement. Though distance separated us at the time, my efforts to raise two children as a single parent could not have been as successful without her constant support and advice.

She was always a liberal, open to new ideas and unafraid of change, but one guided by solid principles from which she never veered. If she had any vice it was a streak of stubbornness that brooked no interference with the goals she set for herself.

She was always the primary booster and supporter of any enterprise in which my sister and I engaged and, later, offered the same encouragement to her four grandchildren and four great-grandsons. We all miss you Mom.

This, then, is a small token of appreciation for all those mothers whose devotion didn’t end when their children left home.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Got Kindle?

If you have a Kindle wireless reading device you have ready access to more than 500,000 books.

That number includes the first three novels in my Sticks Hetrick mystery series—Something In Common, Cruel Cuts and Corruption’s Child, published by Whiskey Creek Press, www.whiskeycreekpress.com

This series involves the title character, Daniel ‘Sticks’ Hetrick, retired police chief of rural Swatara Creek, Pennsylvania, who has been called back to service as consultant to his less experienced successor, Aaron Brubaker, along with Hetrick’s protégés, Corporal Harry Minnich and rookie officer Flora Vastine.

Check out Corruption’s Child, latest in the series, here: http://www.amazon.com/Corruptions-Daniel-Hetrick-Mystery-ebook/dp/B001GKWFV0/ref=sr_1_9?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273156510&sr=1-9

My historical novel, Watch The Hour, is also available in a Kindle version: http://www.amazon.com/Watch-The-Hour-ebook/dp/B002F7BGXG/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273156510&sr=1-4

And now, three short stories which had been available in the Amazon Shorts program are also offered to Kindle users. They are:

Twin Stars, http://www.amazon.com/Twin-Stars-ebook/dp/B003KN3ZSS/ref=sr_1_11?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273156510&sr=1-11

Trees And Memories, http://www.amazon.com/Trees-And-Memories-ebook/dp/B003KN3ZQA/ref=sr_1_10?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273156510&sr=1-10

Thin Ice, http://www.amazon.com/Thin-Ice-ebook/dp/B003KRP3E8/ref=sr_1_12?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273156510&sr=1-12

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Question of Morality

Priests and ministers condemned it from the pulpit. Newspapers editorialized against it. Physicians called it a threat to the health and morality of the young. Government bodies and businessmen assailed it.

What was this thing that outraged so many segments of society across the nation in the early 1880s?

The skating rink. Huh? Seems rather benign these days, doesn’t it? But after equipment improved and roller skating became a popular activity in the late 19th century many civic leaders raised a national outcry against the recreational arcade. One major concern seemed to be the meeting of “the virtuous girl and the woman of loose character” on a common plane.

A Belgian, Jean-Joseph Merlin, is credited as the inventor of the roller skate in 1760 and the first patent for a skate design was awarded to a Monsieur Petitbled in France in 1819. Since these early skates were not very maneuverable, inventors continued improving design and James Plimpton of Medford, Mass., came up with the first practical four-wheel skate in 1863.

The first public skating rink opened in 1866 in Newport, Rhode Island. Design improvements continued and mass production of skates in the 1880s spurred the first of the sport’s several boom periods.

The first woman to publicly demonstrate her proficiency in roller skating was Carrie A. Moore in 1871 at the Occidental Rink in San Francisco.

When an indoor roller skating rink opened in Dodge City, Kansas, on April 6, 1885—considered the peak year for the skating craze in America—the Dodge City Globe derided its patrons as “intellectual paupers.”

It’s been estimated more than $20 million was invested in roller skating rinks in cities and towns across the United States in 1885.

“Patrons would find far more rest, if not recreation,” the Globe said, “in the reading of some valuable book and in acquiring information upon current events about which they are in woeful ignorance.”

The Lowell, Massachusetts, Sun called the rink “…the resort of some of the most immoral classes of the community, prostitutes and libertines, both married and unmarried, and that it serves for many the purpose of a house of assignation; that it is in its effects the most immoral licensed institution that we have; that it is the cause of more and worse immorality—yes, ten times more—than the worst conducted rum-shop in the city.”

An editorial in the Jan. 30, 1885 edition of the Shamokin Weekly in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, called that community’s rink a “propagator of prostitution and sapper of health.”

This editorial said, in part: “The skating rink craze has become epidemic in this country, and is spreading in every direction in spite of all righteous opposition. If it were one of the silly harmless crazes that sometimes affect empty heads and light heels it might be left to run its natural course like a case of cold. But it is a demoralizing evil, injuring the health, corrupting the morals, and ruining the souls of some of the infatuated devotees of the rink. There can be no question but that these rinks have led to a great increase of extravagance and there are a great many opportunities for indiscretions and the first steps toward vice; there is no parental supervision; legitimate business is interfered with; and the craze is a direct antagonist of all religious effort.”

A Scranton, Pennsylvania, newspaper charged that the daughter of a respected railroad superintendent had eloped with a railroad brakeman she met at a rink. It was reported a girl named Ida Clayton died of convulsions after suffering an injury in a fall at a Yonkers, N.Y., rink. The Shamokin Times quoted a Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, story of a seduction case resulting from a chance meeting at a rink.

A Danville, Pennsylvania, school director charged some students were forging absence permits in their parents’ names so they might spend more time at the skating rinks.

One report even made the ridiculous comment that “Supporting posts for the roof of a roller skating rink may be regarded as useful, but they are unsightly and even dangerous. Abolish them!”

The Shamokin Times reported both the Catholic and Protestant clergy were sermonizing against the dangers of frequenting the rinks. Rev. Joseph Koch, who shepherded St. Edward’s Catholic Church for fifty-one years, expressed the hope young people would seek more suitable recreation and urged parents to supervise their children on this point. He also warned continued patronage of the rinks by members of his flock would bring offenders under the discipline of the church. Rev. J. A. Flickinger of Shamokin’s Lutheran Church expressed the view that as between two evils, ballroom and rink he would choose the former as the least dangerous to social morality.

When pleas of immorality fell on deaf ears civic leaders turned to physicians for support. Prominent physicians agreed, declaring the skating rink a hot bed of disease and a source and cause of physical debility. One declared spending time and exerting oneself in an over-heated space and then going out into the cold laid the foundation for quinsy, consumption and pneumonia.

A father complained to his local newspaper, “I was puzzled for some time to account for the failing health of my daughters. They complained of languidness, fever and nervousness. The family physician ascribed it to undue exercise. I scoffed the idea, until he spoke of the rink. Investigation proved him right. My daughters were frequent visitors, wearing themselves out in misconceived recreation.”

Shamokin Borough Council took action to impose an amusement license tax it hoped would drive the owners of the local establishment out of business. These upholders of morality must have shouted with glee when it was announced at the end of January 1885 that the county sheriff was holding sale on the property since one of the three owners had defaulted on an outstanding loan.

That may have resolved their situation, but it remained an issue elsewhere. In February 1885 a grand jury was convened in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, in an effort to have the rinks condemned as a public nuisance. In recognition of the charges brought against the rinks, Judge J. W. Simonton instructed the grand jury to carefully investigate and report on the issue. Their response is summed up in a brief paragraph:

“In the matter of the skating rinks in this city (Harrisburg), we would respectfully present that with the information laid before us, we believe such places of amusement to be detrimental to the health of our young people and in a great measure destructive of the morals of the youths who frequent them. And in the opinion of this grand jury in this respect they are nuisances.”