Friday, April 1, 2011

Time For A Story

The O'Connors Arrive in America

After disembarking from the immigrant ship, it was a short walk to the station where a train awaited to take them to their final destination: the hills of northeastern Pennsylvania. The town was called Barryton, a steel and coal mining city in the county of Slocum where Maggie’s aunt, Alice Murphy, lived.
In letters, Mrs. Murphy told Maggie that Barryton had a large Irish population and plenty of work for men with strong backs. She vividly described the beautiful mountains and clean, flowing rivers. The soil was so rich, she wrote, you could simply toss seeds on the ground and up would pop the tastiest vegetables this side of heaven. Every backyard had fruit trees of apple, cherry, or pear. The woods were filled with game and the streams were overflowing with fish. “You will never go hungry here, my child,” she emphasized, meaning that if her husband failed to provide then the good Lord would take care of her family.

As the train chugged along on its uphill climb over the mountains of Pennsylvania, Dada looked out the window and smiled.
“Ah,” he said to Maggie, “looks as green as the Emerald Isle itself.”
Mile after mile the coal-burning locomotive dragged its long tail over hard iron rails, many of which were made decades earlier in Barryton. The community was a major iron and steel producer for five decades, but by 1910 coal became its major export. Although it had lost some of its bluster, it was still considered a “boomtown” by many economic experts, a place where any hardworking man could find work and provide for his family. This thought was in Dada’s mind as the train emerged from a long, dark tunnel and he heard the gruff voice of an aged conductor bark out, “Tickets! Tickets! Next stop, Barryton.”
The long train descended slowly down the side of the mountain, the tracks carving a narrow path through the dense foliage and layers of hard rock. As it neared its destination, the fresh green colors turned to stale gray. The O’Connors got their first good look at Barryton now. Nestled between rising hills on all sides, the city appeared to be a prisoner of its surroundings. A brownish blue river, known as Laurel River, ambled its way down, around, and through the heart of the city and out again, as if desperately searching for a way to escape.
Along the banks of the river were red brick buildings with tall smokestacks billowing dirty white smoke into the overcast sky. Soot-covered wooden houses peppered the landscape and rising hills of dark coal and slate silhouetted the entire community. On one hill Dada observed two dirty-faced boys who turned from their chore of picking slate to wave forlornly at the passing train. He waved back, but his heart really wasn’t in it.
When the train rounded the final bend, he could see the Barryton train station looming ahead. It was an impressive structure. Built in 1908, just two years before, it was a massive complex and still new enough not to be completely covered in soot. It was to be the headquarters for the Pennsylvania Railroad, but rumor had it that this designation would go to a station farther west, as Barryton had already lost its ranking as the “greatest boom town in the east.” Still, it was the pride of Barryton and, much like the pyramids of Egypt, it would live far beyond its usefulness.
Beside the passenger train, small locomotives chugged along in both directions, pulling strings of coal cars behind them like noisy tin cans attached to a small lad’s wagon. Dirty frozen snow was piled high along the sides of the tracks and looked as if it would be there until spring, which was still a good month away in this part of the country. The dark, dismal March sky sucked up the bellowing white smoke that seemed to be everywhere. It hung over the city like a funeral pall over a casket. There was a ghostly quality to Barryton that sent a shiver up Maggie’s young spine. But she was of sturdy stock, and shook it off.
The locomotive clattered toward the platform, huffed and puffed and hissed and finally came to a complete stop. The conductor came down the narrow aisle and announced, “Barryton! Time for departure.”
The O’Connor clan filed out, one-by-one, and retrieved their luggage: one small trunk, two old suitcases, and one tattered, leather bag. They shuffled into the train station and were immediately swallowed up by the cavernous open room. Five stories in height, it rose above their upturned faces to a huge, stained-glass dome. Dada saw several workmen on tall scaffolds touching up the catwalk high above. It had a mahogany handrail attached that encircled the entire ceiling. It reminded Dada of an expensive sweatband on the inside of a fine Derby hat. The walls of marble glimmered with moisture and far below the grated catwalk the sound of clickety-clack-clickety-clack metal cleats clicked across the newly waxed floor. The noise rebounded off the walls, across the open space, and back into the awestruck faces of the young immigrant family.
Dada looked around the room and saw, standing near the opposite doorway, a small, humpbacked man in dirty clothes looking their way. The man hesitated for a moment, and then slowly dragged his deformed body toward the O’Connors. Dada instinctively moved out in front of his family to fend off this intruder. The little man, however, stopped short and looked up at Dada.
Using the back of his dirty hand, he wiped some brown ooze from the corner of his mouth. “Are yez the O’Connor clan from Ireland?” His voice had a wheezing quality that sounded as if he had inhaled too much coal dust. Dada said they were indeed the O’Connors and the twisted man said his name was Flynn and that Mrs. Murphy had sent him to fetch them.
“But,” he said, “I’m suppose ta tell ya they’ll be no meal awaitin’ on ya. Supper won’t be until six o’clock, as always.”
“That’s okay,” Maggie said. She knew her aunt was not one to change her daily routine for visitors, especially kin. Flynn then led her and her family through the two massive front doors of the train station to his horse-drawn wagon outside.
Dada scrutinized the wagon and asked Flynn why Mrs. Murphy didn’t own one of those newfangled automobiles. And he was told, very bluntly, that Mrs. Murphy was not one to throw her money away on such nonsense.
“But a lot of people in New York City have them,” Dada said.
The little man spit a wad of tobacco juice onto the ground.
“Well, anyone who lives in New York City, or likes New York City folk, is a damn fool.” Then he turned his curved back to Dada and pulled himself up to the driver’s seat. “Da misses and da baby can sit up here wit me. Youse and the younguns best stay in the back.”
Dada shrugged and tossed the last of the family luggage onto Flynn’s rickety flatbed wagon. He looked up at the steel gray sky and muttered to himself, “Ah, yes, this is goin’ to be one truly grand adventure all right.”

Flynn took them to Mrs. Murphy’s large house that sat on the corner of Penn and Main. It was a Victorian-style home with twelve rooms, eight of which she rented out to “respectable” gentlemen. She said Maggie and her family could stay in one of the rooms “fer a bit” until “Himself” got his first paycheck. And, at supper that night, she made it clear what she expected.
“I hear they’re looking for men to work the Taylor Mine. Better get yerself down there, right quick.”
But Dada had his own ideas. “A man needs fresh air to breathe,” he said to her. “But, don’t ye go worryin’ yerself. I’m sure to get work as a laborer topside. I’m good with me hands. I’m sure someone must be needin’ a carpenter or bricklayer of sorts around here.” He looked over at Maggie and winked.
In response, Mrs. Murphy raised her bushy eyebrows.
She was a tall, heavyset woman with a mass of gray hair and piercing dark eyes sunk into a round, unsmiling face. Fat jiggled from her upper arms as she reached up and brushed her hair from her face. She had an ample stomach, wide hips, and an oversized derriere. Bulky brown stockings covered her varicose-vein legs. And the skin on her fat, swollen ankles flowed over the tops of her tightly laced shoes that moaned and squeaked when she walked.
“Wants to breathe the fresh air, does he?” Her words to Maggie sounded more like a statement than a question. She pushed her plate away and gave Dada a quick glance and looked back at Maggie. “So our coal mines aren’t good enough for this husband of yours?” When Maggie didn’t answer, Mrs. Murphy pushed back her chair, got up, and threw down her napkin and thumped out of the room.
Dada raised his eyebrows, looked at Maggie, and grinned.
“Ah, yes, there be nothin’ like a warm welcome from one of yer kin.”
Then he reached across the table for another helping of potatoes.

*From the novel, The Hero of Barryton, by E. P. Burke

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