“… Uncle Eddie, what happened in 1925 at a Canadian Logging camp?”
I never knew this uncle, the oldest of my mother’s siblings very well. He and his family live in Massachusetts and visits were on special occasions and holidays but I liked him – He had the same kind of penetrative green eyes as my favorite uncle Nap, aka, ‘Frenchie’. His laughter was similar to a booming sound that reverberated through the rooms like distant thunder from mountain hollows. This was amplified when Frenchie joined the frivolity with his own loud mirth. How I relished those sounds especially when it was hushed by an ultra-reserved aunt (who I thought looked like the actor George Raft) with her misting, “Shhhh, shhhh!” Now, what could of been better than that!
Several ago, as I was going through my filing cabinet, in the back of a drawer was a legal-size pad of paper with curled up ends of pages that sighed (perhaps it was me) when reached for. Scribbled, in big bold letters, were triple-spaced notes spread across two pages, “What the … hell?” What kind of secret code was this? Then it came to me – The notations were about uncle Eddie, told to me by aunt Exilda, his oldest sister. “Maybe you can find out more than I can tell you about this.”
“Is this some sort of mystery?” “Yes.” “Spies and secret agents’ stuff?” “Well, I wouldn’t go that far, no.” “Aunt Exilda, please tell me what you know … “I’m beginning to feel like Charlie Chan".
… During the roaring twenties, when bodies littered streets and machinery reduced employment and the crash on Wall street was a sliced wrist and gasp away, an out-of-work uncle Eddie had to find a job on two counts, he was at an age where he needed independence and a paycheck that would provide that precious extra amount that could be sent to his mother. Raphael, his father, once a respected barber and carpenter, had become a daily consumer and self-appointed connoisseur of bathtub hootch. It did not raise the eyebrows of neighbors to see the little guy brought home slung over a son’s shoulder. “Did you take the back streets here?” “Mother, I brought him home.”
Raphael hadn’t earned a living for several years so the reins of responsibility for the support of the large family automatically passed down to the combined efforts of the oldest sons although everyone who could earn even a nickel or dime, contributed it to ‘mother’s teapot.’ Napoleon (Nap) and brother, Michael (Joe) managed to hang on to their jobs in the mills, as did aunt Exilda who thought herself especially blessed to be working for pittance. There were no chicken-in-every-pot in those days but there was an increasing number of signs reading, “Irish (nor French) need not apply here.” Situations born and bred underground were beginning to surface like nightcrawlers in a downpour.
There, on a main street, a storefront office, operated by representatives from a consortium of Canadian lumber companies was hawking for workers … Anyone who could swing an axe, draw a saw, climb a tree, and skin a cat was sought – all expanses paid. It was the kind of work uncle Eddie’s strong arms and back could do. It was the answer to his prayers! “I don’t trust this, Eddie,” cautioned, Nap. Chimed in, Michael, “Why don’t you go to Boston, first and see what’s there.” “No, I’m not wasting anymore time – I’m going to Canada!”
… By the 1920’s, Communist branches of The IWW (Industrial Workers of the World had cut wide swaths across Canada for the establishment of socialist labor unions that had placed a toehold into lumber camps owned by profit-conscious companies. True, workers lived in appalling conditions and were subjected to many abuses. The pay was rock-bottom though increased slightly because of steady pressure by the communists. On January 1, 1924, the established IWW lumber workers union called for an 8 hour day with blankets to be provided and a minimum wage of $4.00 per day. The workers, in support, went on strike. After several weeks, the camp operators tried to bring in scabs from various areas in Canada and from the United States. Another feature of the strike worth mentioning was the offer of ‘free’ transportation by the Northern Railways to scabs (certainly not described as such) on condition a man’s luggage was impounded until his strike breaking wages repaid the fare …
None of this was known to Eddie. As far as he understood he was going to work in Canada, in a lumber camp, good money, just a hard-working guy wanting to make a living, no philosophy, no politics, no nonsense. I think that when Eddie got to his destination, he found himself in an intensely hostile environment however, he was there to make money and that’s what he tried to do. But, taking a striker’s job, especially someone striking for better working conditions, stuck in his throat. A scab? Not on your life! Was he pro communist? Not this man; not this family! Logically, he supported unionization. Morally, he supported worker rights, the American way that even with its faults and abuses, was the very best way. I think that for a period of time he compromised his beliefs for the money, sending the majority of it home. Then, unable to stay dumb and numb to the beatings and serious injuries the strikers suffered from bad-ass scabs and from company-hired thugs, he crossed over the line and joined the workers, doing his share of striking and head-knocking before returning home. Afterall, the man was no scab; no strike-breaker. He stood with the strikers and if he had to hurt someone well, it was an understandable matter of protective responses for the cause of rightness against oppression and abuse.
When uncle Eddie returned home, he carried scars but never confided to anyone (though it is thought that he did so to uncle Nap who he trusted) what exactly happened in Canada and went to his grave with that story but I think, based on, albeit quasi, research that he and a few others, also with scars, did some damage there before taking the long way back to the family hearth. But, what do I know? A Charlie Chan, I’m not. A reporter for the National Inquirer, I’m not. But, something did happened in that lumber camp or at another not too far away. Maybe I’ll never get any closer to it than I am at present though I’m close – very close and should leave it at that.