Biff America: Hunger, love and hardship
Frank McLaughlin got off the train in Brockton, Massachusetts. The year was 1904. He was 16 years old.
From the age of 13, Frank had worked at a Marlborough, Massachusetts shoe factory. The same factory his father worked at. Every payday Frank would dutifully hand over his entire paycheck to his mom while his dad only surrendered half.
At about age 15, Frank noticed the lack of parity (and smaller portions). His mother complained that there simply wasn’t enough money provided for her to feed two men and herself. She didn’t mention that much of their family income was consumed by Frank’s father’s drinking.
Hunger was a seed for reflection. Initially, his love for his parents was enough for him to accept his situation. But as his body and appetite grew, he began to question the fairness. Frank was always hungry and his dad was often drunk.
Just after turning 16, Frank kissed his mother goodbye and walked to the train station.
Brockton, Massachusetts, nicknamed “shoe city USA,” had many mills and factories. He got off the train and walked into the first factory with a help wanted sign.
Frank was short, with a lantern jaw and bulging eyes; no one would confuse him for handsome. His body was strong from labor, but skinny from lack of nourishment. The foreman looked the young man up and down as if to judge both his character and work ethic.
He asked the boy, “Do you drink?” “No,” answered Frank. Do you smoke? No. Do you cuss?
Retelling the story years later, Frank said he thought that might have been a trick question. He answered “sometimes.” The foreman said “me too,” and Frank got the job.
His starting wage was $8 a week for six 10-hour days. The foreman directed him to the Ross boardinghouse just down the street where he would get a room, breakfast and dinner for $4.50 a week. Frank said being able to keep $3.50 a week sounded pretty good and added that the meals prepared weren’t particularly tasty, but the portions were ample.
Frank put on some weight and saved his money. Usually he was too tired to do much other than work, sleep and eat, but when the Brockton Fair was held, the temptation of carnival rides, vaudeville and “girlie shows” was enough to entice the then-18-year-old to sacrifice some sleep and cash.
It was that night when he met a short, fairly unattractive Irish immigrant named Bridget Sheely — my grandmother. Frank asked Bridget on a date and Bridget refused, saying she was already seeing John O’Malley.
Not long after, Frank left Brockton and moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, where he took a job shoveling coal, for nine hour shifts, on the Boston-Maine Railroad.
He met Vera Burt and soon married. Vera was an epileptic — a fact not shared with Frank by either Vera or her family; this was back when there was no treatment. A year into the marriage Vera had a child named Harry. Soon after giving birth, the frequency and intensity of her seizures increased, eventually causing brain damage. When she was unable to function, Frank had to put her in a state home. Harry’s seizures began at around 8 years old, and within a few years, he too needed to be institutionalized.
Frank would visit both weekly.
In the meantime Bridget Sheely married John O’Malley. They had three children. He abandoned her shortly after the third and never returned. She was unable to care for her children so she was forced to surrender them to her husband’s parents and go back to work.
Bridget was working in a factory, living with her brother and visiting her children when her in-laws allowed.
One day Frank showed up at her door and asked, “Do you remember me Bridgie?” He took her to lunch. The food must have been good. They married soon after, and Frank treated her like a queen until he died almost 50 years later.
My earliest memories of my step-grandfather were of a stunted and ugly man whose smile could light up a room. He never spoke of the hardships of his life, but rather of his love for my grandmother and the various old cars he had owned.
“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members,” according to a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.
Frank McLaughlin’s life and plight were far from unique. Life was hard in America back then. For many Americans, life is as difficult now as it was for Frank McGlaughlin over 100 years ago. Our nation’s greatness is being tested, and I’d like to think that we are up to the task.
Jeffrey Bergeron’s column “Biff America” publishes Mondays in the Summit Daily News. Bergeron has worked in TV and radio for more than 30 years, and his column can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He is the author of “Mind, Body, Soul.” Bergeron arrived in Breckenridge when there was plenty of parking and no stop lights. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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