Monday, February 16, 2009

“14 Hands Around, Matey!”

                    seagulls and owl

My favorite and  best loved uncle was popularly called ‘Frenchie’, a nick-name that stuck with him throughout all of his life yet, it was more than a moniker, it was a title spoken with fondness and respect … A jolly, “Hey, Frenchie, my good man!” Or, a serious “Captain Frenchie, You can’t turn me down, I need your help – I’ll make up to you.” Most of the time, they didn’t make it up to him but, what the hell, Frenchie understood … “14 hands around, Matey, my friends don’t owe me nothing, glad to be of help!” And this simple, under-rated statement summed up the real altruism of Frenchie, my uncle.

Joseph Louis Napoleon Fortin was born to a mill-working Quebecois family in Amesbury, Ma., 1909 and died in 1987, within the embracement of his West End home, Portland, Maine having lived at Gorham’s Corner and West End sections of this coastal city for the majority of his years. During his hard-pressed and tormented lifetime he was a Coast Guard auxiliary seaman for a spell, patrolling the southern coast of Maine in search of bootleggers, harboring a strong opposition to prohibition and the rum-runners. He was a commercial fishing boat crewman and oft pilot and skipper, labor union advocate and handy backyard mechanic – A ‘jack-of-all-trades’ yet master of none though of one; the Jew’s Harp from which he could create the lamenting sounds of lost loves and noble causes, and then bewitch a listener with tunes that would make a stony man dance with a racing heart. Frenchie could do the same with a harmonica.

He fell deeply in love with a nurse from High Street, not far away, who was as Irish as the earth of Ireland, itself, and possessed the patience of St. Job along with the gift of Irish smiling that made the difference in during days when all hell had broken loose! Now he, himself, was a hot-wire with a temper that was frequently quelled by a heart bigger than his baggy undershirt. Still, his temper was always just below the surface. Frenchie and the Nurse had 7 children, 4 boys, chips of the old block and 3 girls, reflections of their mother, who I grew up with during the  prevalent effects of the infamous 1929 stock market crash.

The wounds of the Depression were agonizingly slow in healing – times were ‘hand-to-mouth’ days with no rest for the weary. This was 1935 … In Maine, the Depression had limited impact relative to the rest of the nation because the state's core industries of fishing, textiles and timber had been in a depressed state since the 1890s, said Richard Judd, a professor of history at the University of Maine at Orono

"The joke was that people in Maine didn't realize they were in a depression because Maine people had been dealing with economic adversities since the late 19th century," Judd said ...” 

Our large family pulled together like that of a wagon train under attack and we survived the ravages of impoverishment in a city that was predominantly Yankee with minuscule consideration for the Irish and least of all for the French, both unfaltering workers who, all too true, earned much less than their productive value on the Portland docks though represented by the longshoremen’s Benevolent Society. It was a labor union that not only had to advocate for the dock workers under political nit-picking forces but had to fend off the maneuvers of communism, mob-run labor unions and corrupted trade practices. Racketeering was a pronounced presence like wharf rats with the lowest rodent looking to fit in with the local ‘big boys’ and move on to bigger piers. Whatever it took to get there was not a problem … It was a blood-thirsty compulsion!

Frenchie’s love was for fishing; his hate was for anyone who stuck their hand in a poor man’s pocket and if that meant speaking out against that, he would - “14 hands around, matey, put them damned gangsters down, I say, put them down.” Grandmother would sigh lightly and reach into a pocket of her starched apron where rosary beads bulged from a lint packed corner. “Don’t look for trouble, Napoleon, you have a family and lucky to be working … This is not the place nor time to speak out. Be patient.” Hmmm, uncle Nap patient?

From this insinuating thought my mind is becoming flooded with a memories that are stitched with graphic images as tatting on a handkerchief, never having faded, or changed, during these many years gone by …

I remember, as a young child, a splendid time when we were having a family reunion that included many out of state relatives. Our home (I was living with my grandmother) on the corner of York and High streets was filled to capacity with jovial and hugging kinfolk that had brought old albums and recent pictures, gifts and cameras with blinding flashes. Throughout the large dinning room were end to end tables with platters of assorted foods – nothing fancy but tasty and filling. In the living room, where the rug had been rolled and pushed behind the couch, there was dancing and singers crowded around the piano where aunt Exilda played tunes upon requests, two uncles played guitar and banjo when she needed a break. Frenchie played his Jew’s harp.

In the mist of this merriment, the doorbell rang sounding like a muffled shrilling, as I recall. Somebody wanted to speak to Frenchie. I saw uncle Nap go out the door and was suddenly overwhelmed with fear!  Enough so that I felt nauseous and had goose-pimples. Grandmother was in another room so I squeezed into a corner furthest away from the front door by a lamp wanting to turn off the light but didn’t dare to. My heart pounded and I heard my voice utter and repeat, “No, no, no, no” followed by piercing screams that froze everyone in the moment! Aunt Bertha, wringing her hands, sobbing and mumbling, kept running back and forth between the rooms. As if in slow motion I weaved through the gathering crowd and pandemonium to the front door and there, at the bottom of the stairs, laid uncle Nap on the brick sidewalk in a pool of blood! A thickening, dark red fluid surrounding his head and shoulders, staining grandmother Amanda’s fancy dress as she rested his head upon her chest. Aunt Exilda handed her a towel to hold against his throat that had been sliced from ear to ear. Unnoticed, until I was roughly pulled away, I was sitting next to grandmother poking at the blood with a crooked twig trying to push it away from our Frenchie who looked like he was just sleeping and dreaming but, he wasn’t. Why? Why would that man with a knife do that? With my mind’s inner eye, I had glimpsed a look at his hands and the knife that had a design, a squiggly line that curved and looped on the edge of the blade like it had been crudely carved in there. The hands were of a intense man who smiled too much. Why would he do this? I felt sick. I knew that this was not an accident like when both my knees were cut and bloodied from falling on rocks at Willard Beach, So. Portland. Somehow, this was as if I’d been forcibly pushed onto jagged rocks, deliberately. A brutal person had forcibly done this to Frenchie, deliberately, but with a knife

Grandmother Amanda, predisposed to her father’s Viking and German genes was not one to over-react to emotionalism or even participate in it, especially not at a time as this because all around her, the family and gathered relatives, were in crisis. Uncle Nap had been rushed to the hospital … Aunt Exilda and uncle Bill were sent to aunt Alice’s home (Frenchie’s wife) as she had left the festivity earlier to release the babysitter and breast-feed little baby cousin Cecelia. … Exilda stayed with the children and uncle Bill rushed his sister-in-law to the hospital to be with her husband. She was prepared for the worse and prayed for his life to be saved as if assured that it would be.

It was a precarious ‘touch and go’ situation for the first days of Frenchie’s hospitalization but, miraculously, he recovered, albeit with numerous stitches and with an abounding amount of high-flying stories from visitors as to what really happened and who really did it and, “who’s going to get it next” to, “damn loud-mouth Frenchman, he asked for it”. Uncle took the tales in yet made no comment – he seemed only concerned with how we were doing.

Paranoia seduced by the temptations of mystery lent the passing days an excitement,not felt for awhile, that had men order an extra tall glass of ale raised to each other, “God help us all”. And the women, they couldn’t wait until mass was over with so they could linger outside church long enough to catch the newest take on the story, understandably, after grandmother and my aunts had passed beyond ear reach.

Time cannot care about what’s happening, it’s not involved in the affairs of ‘mice and men’ so summer turned into a cold, blustery winter and friends and dock co-workers of my uncles and aunts (who worked in fish canning factories on the waterfront) eased back in visiting us everyday though did continue to drop by at uncle Nap’s home fairly regularly till Christmas booted November, out of the way, Ho, Ho, Ho’ing at the hard times and attention was focused on the season. Frenchie had healed and seemed his former self once more - almost. He didn’t laugh as freely and wouldn’t talk about anything even remotely related to what had happened to him. I still observed that bounce in his walk when he visited grandmother. He hadn’t lost that but my spunky uncle had changed; was more protective of all of us, more cautious, more serious. And, there was an anger present as visible as the pigmentation on his skin. The aunts and my mother spoke in low voices when congregated around the kitchen table by the window, one of my favorite places when it was mean-spirited wintry and the coal-burning stove warmed the room. But, during this unsettling period of time, I chose to curl up at the end the living room couch that faced the front door and windows. And think. And feel. And I sensed that more harm was going to come to us.

My family, both French and Irish, were as if genetically pre-programmed to be pro-Quebec, pro-Irish, pro-Catholics, pro-Americans, pro-equal rights, pro-unions. It was a given. What a proud way to live … “14 hands around, matey!”

Most Americans don’t realize the incredible war against workers going on in workplaces behind closed doors. According to Cornell University research, one-quarter of private sector employers illegally fire at least one worker during a union campaign; and 90 percent use some degree of intimidation, coercion or threats to intimidate the workers. When employers deny workers’ their right to form unions, families have smaller paychecks and worse benefits (if they get benefits at all), overtime pay laws are weakened, society’s safety nets are threatened, race and gender wage gaps grow, the tax base is weakened and the doors open wide for more abuse of workers  (Page updated 5/3/04) 
                         From:  MAINE AFL-CIO 
                      A Union of Unions Fighting for
                 Working Families in Maine and the Nation

You’ve read and some may recall, from personal experiences, what it was like on Commercial street before labor unions. Unions were not welcomed by companies and businesses and strong measures were practiced to dissuade the hardworking men and women, and children, from their appeal. It became a standard response to the problem, through third party arrangements, to hire thugs to scare off the union organizers and sympathizers with acts of brutality such as beatings, broken limbs, killings and in Frenchie’s case, throat-cutting that, had the slitting been a little deeper, would of resulted in murder.

I was in my twenties when, one day while visiting my mother and her sister who was there, our conversation took a turn backwards to the sardine-cutting and packing days where I, too, had a fling with scissor-cutting herring heads off as quick as blinking an eye. From there it was a straight line to an older clock where my ladies were walked by me to a place that raised the cockles on their necks and mother shivered in reliving that time “when our the music turned to blood.”

I’ve never liked long silences. It felt like waiting to be anesthetized before having my tonsils removed. “Bastards”, spewed my aunt, who shattered the silence, “they almost killed Bobby, too.” What a rush! I was back sitting on that old horse-hair stuffed couch riveted to the front door and windows waiting … more was coming …

As told to me, when ‘half in the bag’ uncle Bobby became loud and boisterous completely the opposite of how he was when sober, a quiet, small man with a shock of blond hair that was the brassiest thing about him when sober. When drunk and feeling a powerlessness, he became a raging lion and this behavior increased after the attack on his big brother. In a barroom or wherever he was when 4 sheets to the wind and there was an audience, he became foolishly bad. “Whoever cut my brother’s throat has me on his scent and I’m going to find and hurt him. I’m talking to alot of guys and getting closer to that weasel so if anybody wants to help me do right, tell me who he is right now!” Nobody told him anything and he continued to drink and grow booze-muscle and a nastier mouth. 

A month or two later, the police came to grandmother’s home to notify the family that Robert was in the hospital with broken ribs, a shattered leg and a badly fractured The height5 of that arm, broken nose and extensive bruising. Allegedly, he had fallen from the Portland Grain Elevator building. that reminded me of what the tower of Babel would of resembled. He didn’t work there, nor could anyone reason why he had been there so late at night. Bobby told family and friends that he couldn’t remember what had occurred that day and evening – everything was a blank. Actually, claiming that he didn’t think he’d ever remember what happed. At the time I had been told, unconvincingly, that uncle Bobby had pneumonia. After that, he was never the same ever again - a stranger who became a very sickly, garbled alcoholic. Years later, he died from aspirating on his vomit. “Bastards’, my aunt tearfully repeated, “he was almost killed.” Mother replied with rasping words, “But he was! He was killed!” I had listened intently to what my mother and my aunt released from the burial places in their minds and pieces of my puzzle began to fit together as integral parts of the whole story except the identities of the thugs, names forever lost. 

Frenchie’s drinking progressively increased over the years and his value onboard a fishing vassal, decreased, “14 hands around, matey, I’m as good a hand as I was.” … “I know that, Frenchie, maybe next time.” So my hero uncle reeled nets, lumped boats, cleaned decks, fillet fish when his hands didn’t trembled too badly, worked in a cold storage warehouse until he fell asleep in a freezer one day and near froze to death, unloaded trucks but would take off for another drink. before the job was done. Cheap wine became the jug of the day and when that wasn’t affordable, he’d squeeze canned heat, with the walking dead, under a dry wharf. By this time, his children were grown adults; his wife patiently standing by him. One afternoon, as he was staggering home, he crumbled in a heap from a heart attack in front of the Mercy Hospital’s entrance. He died and was resuscitated back within minutes. Frenchie recuperated, dried out, went to AA and talk about sun-drenched endings, my beloved uncle had miraculously been blessed with an extended life, sobriety and the loving closeness of wife and family.

I remember … 14 hands around, matey … I remember. 

                              jew's harp




  1. Alice Mary, You Have done it again, awakened old memories that were nearly forgotten. Rekindled them and made me remember and long for the yesterday that was so much apart of everyone’s life. Back when prohibition lived in the shadows of backyards and men gathered in homes with shades drawn just in order to enjoy a good drink of whiskey or a glass of home brew. Prohibition for me meant a Saturday ride in an old secondhand car that my father bought for ten cents on a dollar. The destination was either Falmouth or Gray for Yarmouth was dry and my father was eager for his weekly reward. My mother and I got a ten cent box of Blue Ribbon potato chips, and that was really a treat. Life was hard back then but I honestly believe that it help us oldies to appreciate the value of what we have today. Every family had its share of happiness and fun, good laughs and music. We to rolled back the old rug and danced the ST. Anne’s Real as my two uncles played their fiddles and my grandmother gigged the tunes in a way I remember to this day but have never heard anyone do since. Oh, we all had our heartaches and tragedies but somehow we survived and now we have the pleasure of remembering. Thank you for sharing yours for all of us to enjoy.

    A Fan forever, Island Paradise

  2. What a great story my friend! You are truly a great very descriptive that you paint a picture with each paragraph. When I read your stories, I always feel full. I don't feel as though you have left out any details. Not only do you tell us what is going on but you also let us know what it looks like, feels like, smells like and what it WAS like way back then. Bravo to you and your fabulous writing! Keep it up...I love it!:)

  3. A day late and a dollar short as they say but today I read your story word for word and then sat here wondering how to say "thats a hell of a story and you are a hell of a writer" You have framed the words of your past to touch the heart of any who read them. Im glad to say my wife is a super blogger if ever there was one.

  4. You must concider writing a book! Please think of it at least! Wonderful!
    I´m looking forward to Your next text!

  5. Word verification turned off. Got to love it…

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