Chapter 23

Discharge From the Army

Sometime in the late summer of '43 I came down with pleurisy, no doubt form moving so many times a day out of cold storage where the temperature was kept around zero, to the outside where it was a hundred in the shade. After a while I became careless, running into the cold vaults while I was soaking with sweat.

After I had recovered from that, the sight of food nauseated me and I ate very little. I went from about 160 pounds to less than 120. Since the doctors could not seem to figure it out, I was sent to see a psychiatrist who also seemed unable to help. I was then sent to the base hospital where I spent several weeks.

Finally one day I was sent in to a room containing a lot of brass. They informed me that I was being discharged. I had no idea why this step was being taken, and it was not until many years later while applying for a military pension that I found out anything about it. It was said that I was discharged because of a nervous condition, whatever that means. I went to see my aunt in Tampa and the Harris family before I left. Every member of the family cried when I bid them good-bye, and kissed me. I am ashamed to say that I never made an attempt to contact them after I left the service.  In 1969, after I told Ted about them, we attempted to contact them, but the operator could find no trace of them.

 First Civilian Job

I pulled into Ogdensburg on the 8 am train, and Betty was waiting for me. As I rushed to embrace her, she backed away and explained that some friends of hers were inside the station and I had to be content with a handshake.

I later tried to explain to her that it must have seemed weird to her friends to greet her husband with a handshake. She did not seem very happy to see me and I could understand why. She still was not talking to her father, since he had no use for me. As my family had left for Utica, we had no place to stay. I walked her home, then went immediately to the unemployment office. They sent me to the Cleveland Container Company where I was hired. I went to the Surprise Store and bought some work clothes and started to work that afternoon. Mrs. Cayen had talked to her husband and he agreed to let us stay there until we could find a place of our own. We paid him fifteen dollars a week. Eddie Cayen was then working as a guard at Alcoa in Massena. 

I worked only two days when I again came down with pleurisy. I sent word down that I was sick and would be back as soon as possible. Meanwhile, one of the Rogers family told me that Vincent Rogers, the boy I used to play with on WSLB, was in the hospital and was asking to see me. I was not told why he was there, but I thought that as soon as I was able I would go up and see him. Before I was well, I was told that he had died. If I had known that his condition was serious, I would have seen him, sick or not. I felt very badly about this. He was about the only real friend I had at the time.

 Becoming a Machinist

My work at the Cleveland Container Company was in the machine shop. The company made shell and mortar canisters as well as tubing for Tampax. As any machinist starting in those days, I had to start at the bottom and serve a four-year apprenticeship before I could become a first class, or “A” machinist.

At first I had to clean up the chips made by the old timers and do simple jobs like drilling. As I did well on each job I was trusted to do more and more complicated work. I was given additional work on a cutter grinder making circular wheels which were used to cut large rolls of paper into various widths on a machine called a slitter. The rolls then went to machines called winders which rolled the paper into endless tubing, after the paper went through glue pots. The tubing went to a machine which cut the tubes off in appropriate lengths.

Sometimes the last machine would jam, and an operator could have a tube a couple of hundred feet long before he noticed. Since this had to be scrapped, the management did not look kindly on these accidents. But the operator had to do so many things at once that he could hardly be blamed for this. Rolls had to be changed and glue pots and hot tar pots changed without shutting down the machine.

Tubing of many sizes were made with many combinations of paper. Some of the papers I remember were called parchment, white craft, Kraft, onion skin, and chip board as well as many enameled papers. Since we had no millwrights, the machinists had to fix the machines as well as make the parts. At first I worked as a helper to the older men, but as time went on I did more and more of the jobs alone. I loved the work, I learned fast, and after a couple of years I was given more of the inside work that no one else liked to fuss with, such as plug gages and ring gauges. I liked fussy work, and I would put a mirror finish on all the gauges I made. 

 Workmates

There was quite a crew working there then. I will list them, as many as I can remember. Emery Ferguson was master mechanic. He had worked at Skillings, Whitney & Barnes in this city. Bob Bothwell (or Boswell was in his eighties and had come out of retirement. Ralph Darrow had worked at Dunn's Marine Motors. Tommy Irvine, the foreman, was a very rough and rugged Irishman. John Allard, the theorist and mathematician of the group and had taught the four to midnight class of VEND at school. Tommy Ferguson, brother of Emery, had spent most of his life driving a team for American Express.

Lawrence "Red” McRoberts had been a cop and obtained a deferment by going into war work. Charlie Cutway, more than any other, took me under his wing and helped me learn the trade. Floyd Mills worked mostly with punch presses. Harold Boprey, both a good machinist and a great welder, could burn four-inch steel so neatly you could lay a square on it. Harry Norman, who ran the large planer, filled his one quart thermos with whiskey every day and would sip on it all through the shift. Albert Sayer mostly puttered around. Both Norman and Sayer had their own bakeries before the war. There was also Stanley Spooner, Dudley Bassett, Eddy DuFore and Ralph Darrow. 

There were two full-time welders. Vic Dashnaw learned his trade at the now-defunct Fitzgibbons Boiler Works across from the shipyard. Jimmy Halliday was an Irishman with the gift of blarney, and would steal anything, including that which was nailed down, since he would simply burn off the nails. His gift of blarney would gain him the manager's job at the new plant which opened in Prescott, Ontario, but his taking ways would end his career with the company. 

There were several younger men in the shop. There was Frank “Muffer” Brenno and his brother Harold. Jerry Boyer was attending ATC in Canton and worked only on the weekends. Bob Seymour would go far in the school system, but was totally inept in mechanical ability. And there was me. I remember two plumbers. There was Henry Lago and Henry "Hoopsnake” Dashnaw, a brother to Vic. There were also two electricians. One was Stuart Smith, who was a contractor on the side. George Fratische was an electrical wholesaler on the side. James McCall was a surly young man who was well over six feet, and was not particularly liked by anyone.

 A Growing Company

You might wonder at all the employees in the trades. But this was a rapidly expanding company, and our shop was primarily engaged in making new machinery for other plants. Before the boom ended at the end of the war, there were three plants in Ogdensburg: one at the former silk mill, one at the former International Harvester Company building, and another at the present Acco plant. There was also another in Prescott, and the company had bought the former Fells Foundry on Lake Street, where castings were made for our own use. All these plants were engaged in making tubes and small cans with the exception of the one at the Harvester building, which made plastic products such as piggy banks, toy wheels for cars, and other items. The plastic material was primitive compared to that of today, and looked something like hard black rubber.  Most of the items were sprayed with colorful lacquer.

All these plants and others in the country were owned in toto by one man, William Walker. We could work almost unlimited hours to earn overtime and he was very generous with the help. Each summer he paid for a family picnic for all the help. Each Christmas all the machines were placed against the walls and we had a catered party with a band and all you could eat and drink. He disliked unions, and when organizers came to the plant he warned everyone that if a union was formed, his generosity would cease.  A union was formed, and immediately all parties ceased. Our hours were cut to forty a week, which made for tough going for a few years.

During the war years, young men were in short supply. The girls would whistle at me when I had to go near the production lines. I thought they were being sarcastic and wondered why they disliked me. I was too shy and naive at the time to understand their actions. I was aware, however, that the plant was one big brothel. The night shift especially, had couples all over the place making love, especially during the Christmas parties where it was done almost openly. Day or night someone was going down to Boozie Blair's, a store about a block away, to bring back a case of beer. No one seemed to care as long as one used a little discretion. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I was too shy to take advantage of all the propositions made to me, and was actually terrified at the aggressiveness of most of the women. I saw a lot of shocking things in my years on skid row, but I still find the goings-on at the Cleveland Container Company incredible, even though I was there and saw it.