Phoebe Honig: A father's awakening on race

PITTSFIELD — I recently found a quote by Albert Einstein which speaks to those reeling from a sense of shock at some of the statements being made by our president. Einstein said, "A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe...He experiences himself, and his feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness...a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us." Einstein felt that "we must see our task that of freeing ourselves from this prison by having wider circles of compassion" in order to "embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

I loved my dad, but when I was small, my home did not show this welcome for diversity in the person of my father, who was a brilliant MIT grad. He, the superintendent of the Sunday school in my church — the first Sunday school in the United States — was bigoted. He had been born into a family with a strong sense of pride, descendants of his having arrived on the Mayflower. My father, bright and cocky, was one of the elite, and apparently in Boston looked down on the immigrants from Italy and Ireland who labored by hand until they could amass enough money to afford bringing wives and children to join them.

My father's lack of sympathy or humanity toward the immigrants he saw daily in Boston led him and his fraternity brothers to become jokesters, making up songs and stories about those they saw as different and inferior: Jews, Catholics, Italians, Irish, you name it. In my childhood, it limited my world, since while I could visit someone different from me, I didn't dare invite that friend for a visit to my unwelcoming home. Anna Guarino and Bernice Labovitz must have wondered why they didn't get to come to my house.

One day, when Dad was doing one of his Jew and Catholic jokes with relish, I began to cry and he asked me why. "You take me to church to learn about Jesus," I said, "and Jesus was a Jew." Apparently it gave him something to think about.

I don't know when things changed exactly, but when my dad, a chemical engineer, retired, he went to poor countries like Peru, Costa Rica, Kenya and Pakistan to advise tanners under the auspices of an international aid organization. He delighted in the friendships he made with people of vastly different backgrounds.

Paid to teach the professionals by day, at night he volunteered his time to work with the poor. He enjoyed finding creative solutions to problems he encountered, for example arranging for a laboratory car containing examples of chemical treatments for working with animal hides to travel a steep road high up into Peru for the benefit of local llama owners. They sent him back to the U.S. with humble but touching gifts.

Hard life of laborers

My father in his later years wrote the story of his family's history, and I think a description of how laborers worked in the early 20th century, seen through the eyes of an engineer, might not be amiss. Kenneth Eldon Bell (1894-1970) wrote the following:

"During the first 10 years of this (20th) century, nearly nine million people — mainly from Southern Europe — were immigrants into the United States — nearly a million a year. When I was small, the Irish were laborers and cops. The influx of Italians displaced the Irish. On street work — digging and drilling — the Italians did the work. There were no power tools, no air hammers or diggers. Men used shovels; drilling was done by one man lightly holding the drill while two others "whanged" it with sledgehammers."

"Factories, spinning and weaving mills, sawmills etc. were powered by waterpower and shafting and belting, or steam engines, which drove the shafts. Machinery, run by belting and clutches, was very dangerous. In my time, men at the tannery [where the author was a technical director and only college graduate] were caught in the machinery and killed.

In the early 1900s, and for years afterward, men worked a 12-hour shift, seven days a week, in the steel mills. They didn't go to work in cars, they walked. Pay was about a dollar a day. Hours were 60 a week, the general time in working mills, and were cut to 54, much later to 48, and in recent years to 40. When I started with DuPont in 1917 as a graduate chemist, base pay was $65 a month. Due to the war, a bonus, bringing pay to $96 a month, was in force, shortly raised to $105. Few companies had vacation or pension plans in place. Dupont did.

"Speaking of DuPont, my introduction was walking a mile across a swamp, on cars-full of laid plank walk, across the grounds of the largest dynamite plant in the world. The plank-walks were for the small nitroglycerine buggies. Vibrations would set it off.

"One could not carry matches. Smoking caused immediate discharge. I worked on tetry, which was used to denote TNT. For a few weeks I did research on a new explosive. One made very small batches at first. I was combining two, amounting to a few ounces, when the thing let go. It was in a crucible, suspended in a large iron pipe, but the lab hood and part of the lab were wrecked. I was wearing goggles and an asbestos mask and hat, but I was deaf for some days. The new explosive was given up. While I was there, a nitrostarch dry house blew up; four men were killed.

"Next, I was in the Army, an aide to Colonel Walker, in command of Edgewood Arsenal, where poison gas was manufactured. The operations were crude, fumes were terrible, and many fellows worked there 12 hours a day. Many were kept in the hospital after the armistice until their skin had healed."

Perhaps, on reading this, one may better understand that life for an uneducated immigrant is not a cushy one by any means, and one should have greater respect and sympathy for those forced to seek a better life for themselves and their families living in another country.

Phoebe Honig is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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