Lewis, John Llewellyn, 1880-1969 – American labor leader b Lucas co. Iowa; son of Welsh immigrant coal miner. He became a miner, and after 1906 rose through the union ranks to become president (1920) of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) — Columbia Encyclopedia
To tell the truth, I never did much like Mr. Walinski. He had a whole mess of thick black hair that grew long like Samson’s, which is who he wanted us to think he was—some sort of muscleman. He’d be bringing in firewood and take a piece of kindling, break it in two with an important noise and bang the strips together. He said it was to get all the mealy bugs out, but I thought it was just for show.
Plus, he ordered Maude Ann and her mother around something awful: “Get my pliers outa the tool shed; hop to it!” he’d yell, and Maude Ann would have to stop whatever we were doing and go running. One time at dinner he said, “Gawdamighty, Christine, these biscuits taste like iron ore. Just lemme have some loaf bread – bring the whole loaf, throw these dagblasted biscuits away.”
Maude Ann Walinski, though, was my friend. She was tall and dark and had long black hair like her father, only on her it was beautiful. When she talked, she’d put her long square-tipped fingers up to her cheeks and her eyes would crinkle at the corners. Her family had moved down south to Marshallville from Pennsylvania, which right away made her sort of glamorous to everyone, but she never did act stuck-up the way a lot of new people did. Mr. Walinski worked at the mill fixing the machinery.
The war was still going on they summer they came. Gas and butter and sugar were rationed, and everybody worried about the Nazis. Very few new people came to Marshall County, Virginia. I guessed that Mr. Walinski lost his old job or something. But the way he was always flying off the handle, taking the Lord’s name in vain and everything with his eyebrows pulling together and his black eyes narrowing, I imagined he’d had to leave Pennsylvania. And came to Marshallville because mill jobs were going begging, what with so many boys off to the war and workers so scarce. He kept a rifle under the front seat of his old truck.
They arrived during a sweltering summer. I met Maude Ann at a one-week day camp put on by some professors’ wives. We had lemonade and ran ourselves down with relay races. A few days later I invited her over to see my movie-star collection—pictures cut out of old Life magazines and occasionally The Saturday Evening Post or Time. Maude Ann said her family didn’t get those magazines, but she knew some of the movie stars. Veronica Lake was my favorite. Maude Ann liked Veronica Lake too, and both of us thought Claudette Colbert looked sort of snooty.
After that we had spend-the-night parties at my house or hers. The Walinskis lived in an unpainted wooden two-story house on a hillside ‘way out a steep, winding dirt road. That summer the road was hard and rutted, so I’d have to walk my bicycle once I left the blacktop. The entire house had the same wallpaper in every room—cream with little wreaths up to the ceiling, as if someone long ago had wanted to send up cheerful little prayers—although it was not a cheerful house. The lines where the rows of wallpaper met were streaked a muddy tan, and there were little torn places in several rooms that nobody had tried to fix. In the living room there was a picture of Jesus and another in cross-stitch with a house in a frame made out of sticks. On top it declared Home Sweet Home.
Mrs. Walinski always had a pot of greens boiling, with thick pieces of bacon for flavoring. Their house smelled like dinnertime even in the morning. Maude Ann’s little brothers and sister—named Joseph and James and Martha, out of the Bible; I guess Maude Ann is in the Bible somewhere—played stick-soldiers outside near the fenced-in place where Hacky and Brewster, their family hounds lived. Martha shared Maude Ann’s room, which had a big iron bed with plenty of room for the three of us when I spent the night.
Maude Ann had to watch the littler children, so we made our own playhouse area off to the side where we did not allow them to come. We built lean-to shelters out of scraps of fabric from the mill and hollyhock dolls my mama had taught me how to make.
I liked being at their house in winter. Mrs. Walinski put hot coals in a covered pan we could use to warm up the sheets, and there were goose-down comforters smelling of camphor and cedar chips that we could snuggle under. When it rained, the windowpanes rattled like an angry giant was shaking the house, and we pulled the covers over our heads and told ghost stories. Though in the freezing cold I didn’t like having to go to the outhouse.
The trouble started the fall Maude Ann and I were 13, just when everybody was making plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Because they lived out a ways from town, the two previous years Maude Ann had stayed with me the night of the Annual Christmas Tree Lighting and Town Songfest—which was just about the biggest celebration of the year for Marshallville. It was always held the Saturday after school let out for the holidays.
The fall months were our favorite—there were football games in the afternoons with bonfires the night before. Even little kids got to stay up late—sitting close so the flames made faces glow. During the bonfire somebody always started the unofficial Marshallville town song. It had probably a hundred verses, one of which went:
“We talk politics on the drugstore stool,
Call Truman everything from a crook to a fool,
But we vote Democratic ’til hell gets cool . . .
In my home town.”
And of course, that was true. We learned in fifth-grade civics about the two-party system, but we knew from even earlier that Republican was just another name for carpetbagger. I don’t remember any Republicans ever coming through town, whereas Mr. Truman’s train once stopped long enough for the mayor to hop up on the last car and smile and wave from the back platform with Mr. Truman himself. Mr. Roosevelt’s train had always stopped in Marshallville, too, or at least slowed down long enough for everyone to cheer, whether or not the mayor hopped on.
That Mr. Truman had never liked Mr. John L. Lewis was one thing I knew for certain. By the end of that fall, nobody else in Marshall County liked Mr. John L. Lewis either. I didn’t read much of the newspapers except the funnies, but I couldn’t help noticing Mr. John L. Lewis’ big angry face in pictures and cartoons everywhere including the front of Life magazine. He had eyebrows like bushes, so big that Mr. Walinski’s eyebrows seemed skinny. People said we were running short of coal, with a hard winter coming. I put together that it was Mr. John L. Lewis’ fault.
“He wants the miners to get more of a square deal, A. J.,” my Pa explained one night at dinner; “But a lot of us think he has too much power for one person.”
“How come?” I said.
“Well, he couldn’t call all the shots in one union, so he started another one of his own.”
I knew what a union was, because we had studied that in civics class, too. And I knew that Mr. John L. Lewis had gotten the miners to strike during the war, which was against the law and not a patriotic thing to do. My Pa seemed to have forgotten about that in his talking about square deals, “We don’t have any unions in Marshall County,” I said.
“No, sweetheart, this is not union country. Farms and dairies and feed mills are what we have here along with stores and the college. We’re just not union country. Where the coal mines are—that’s union country.”
Down in our basement was the huge round coal furnace that heated our house. Pa or Mama went downstairs to shovel in coal from time to time, and sometimes I got to do it too. You had to close the little furnace door in a hurry, then watch through the glass window as the coal went from a simmering orange into quick flames. I loved the smell of coal. If there were a coal shortage, it could be pretty bad at our house this winter. Unlike Maude Ann’s house, which had iron stoves in the downstairs rooms that heated up fast with logs, our house just had the big old furnace, and a fireplace in the living room like most of the houses in town.
“That’s dumb, going on strike so nobody has coal,” I said to my Pa.
“I wouldn’t call it dumb; A.J. Strikes serve a purpose. But I do think Mr. Lewis is overdoing it—the coal shortage is making things hard for the whole country.”
This pretty much cinched it for me. Mr. John L. Lewis was a bully and a troublemaker. I didn’t want a thing to do with him. I was secretly glad that we weren’t union country, so at least he wouldn’t be coming around Marshallville. He would not be welcome.
A few days after that conversation at dinner, I rode the school bus home with Maude Ann. Late that afternoon we were playing checkers on a braided rug in the living room while Mr. Walinski was listening to the radio. There was a little square newspaper on the table next to us. I got curious about it because there was never anything much to read at Maude Ann’s house except the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. The little newspaper had Mr. John L. Lewis’ picture on the front. I felt I had an understanding of the situation—with Pa and the editor of The Marshall County Monitor on my side, so I picked it up and looked at Mr. Lewis’ picture, “Oh, that man!” I said, “He’s just a stupid bully.”
“Yeah, maybe,” said Maude Ann; “That’s what I hear.”
“He’s got too much power. He’s a bully and a troublemaker and . . .”
“Maude Ann!” hollered Mr. Walinski.
We hushed. “Yessir?” she said.
For a minute Mr. Walinski didn’t say anything. “You and A.J. go on and help your mother set the table.”
After supper Mr. Walinski and Maude Ann drove me home in the Walinskis’ truck. We got to ride in the back even though it was already dark and cold outside—making it mysterious and exciting. While we huddled under an old tarp that Mr. Walinski kept there, we talked about Thanksgiving holidays just a week or so away. After that would be Christmas and the Tree Lighting and Songfest. We were full of plans, “We can work at the Girl Scout apple cider booth. You wanta?” I asked.
“Sure, like last year.”
“Maybe it’ll even snow. Remember three years ago when it snowed for the Tree Lighting?”
“Do I ever! It was my first year in Marshallville. That’s when I really began to like it here, at the Tree Lighting.” That year, when we were first friends, Maude Ann had been shy and quiet when the Tree Lighting and Songfest ceremonies began. But when she started singing the carols, with her twangy accent and beautiful, clear voice, she all of a sudden belonged. Walking home, with wool scarves pulled close around our necks and mittened hands in our pockets, we talked about what it was like to be in a whole new place when you’re ten years old.
“Back home”—Pennsylvania still seemed like home I guess—“We never had a town songfest. We got to stay up for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, though. I was always too excited to sit still.”
“I’ve never been to a Mass,” I said.
“That’s really funny!” Maude Ann said. “Never been to Mass!” And we got the giggles, and giggled halfway home.
“Then did you get to open your presents in the middle of the night?” I asked when we’d calmed down.
“Oh no, we always had to go to bed and try to sleep. My Papa usually had Christmas Day off, but my uncles all worked down in the mines.”
“Sure. The mines never shut down. So, some of my uncles and cousins were always working and we couldn’t open presents until everyone was home.”
I couldn’t imagine people working on Christmas Day, except maybe for doctors.
“Remember talking that first Christmas you were here?” I prompted.
“About how I’d never been to a Mass, or heard of people having to work on Christmas Day.”
“Oh. Yes. You thought I was from some foreign country.”
We laughed again, hunched close together under the tarp, holding hands and watching the shadowy trees loom tall and then disappear like phantoms under the inky November sky. When we got to my house, I thanked Mr. Walinski for the ride and said good night to Maude Ann.
“Next week let’s sign up to work at the Girl Scout apple cider booth, OK?” I said.
“Sure!” she called, waving out the open window. The next week, though, instead of posters about the Tree Lighting and Songfest, other signs were beginning to appear around town. Sally Shepardson’s daddy, who owned the five-and-ten-cent store, put a sign on the door that said, “Closed All Day Wednesdays and Thursdays. Hope We Don’t Go Out Of Business.”
The coal shortage had gotten so bad that the State Corporation Commission told businesses all over Virginia they could only have heat and electricity for twenty-four hours a week. It did not seem right to me, rationing stuff now that the war was over. The whole mess was the fault of Mr. John L. Lewis. Then I heard the really bad news—Marshallville probably would not be able to have the Annual Christmas Tree Lighting and Songfest.
“They might as well not have Christmas at all,” I said to Maude Ann that day after school; “I can’t stand missing all the fun.”
“Me neither,” said Maude Ann; “If the mine owners would play fair, they could settle the strike.” She had her hand on the handle of the school bus door. Her eyes were flashing. She stood very tall and straight and flicked her hair back impatiently. I wanted to ask what she meant about the mine owners, but the bus was ready to leave, so I turned and walked home. The afternoon paper was lying on the front porch.
“NO CONTRACT NO WORK, LEWIS SAYS,” The headline was in large bold letters. By now I was reading stories I saw in the papers, hoping to figure out when Mr. Truman was going to get the coal miners back to work and the Christmas lights on in Marshallville. It didn’t look good. I was beginning to hate Mr. John L. Lewis something awful, which you are not supposed to do.
At dinner that night Pa said he had some more bad news.
“Your little friend Maude Ann,” Pa said.
“What about her?”
“Not Maude Ann exactly, but her daddy. He got into some trouble at the mill, and I’m afraid he got hurt pretty bad.”
What had happened was Mr. Walinski told some of the other men at the mill he thought the miners should strike if they wanted, and Mr. John L. Lewis was right. They got into a bad fight and Mr. Walinski wound up in the hospital with a broken jaw.
It was almost Thanksgiving.
“Those poor dears,” said Mama; “We’d better fix something to take over there tomorrow. What will they do?”
“The mill’s covering his hospital bills,” Pa said; “And the other fellows have apologized. But Walinski’s a proud man. I doubt he’ll go back.”
In the morning I helped Mama bake some rolls that we took out to the Walinskis’ house. Two other ladies were there with casseroles. It reminded me of when somebody has died. Maude Ann was sitting at the kitchen table.
“Hi, Maude Ann,” I said. “I’m really sorry about your Pa.”
“Yeah,” she said.
“You can be nicer than that,” her Mama said. “Look at these pretty rolls A. J. and her mama brought.” Everybody was looking at Maude Ann and me, but she just stared at the floor. Mama said we had to hurry back because she’d left some other things in the oven—and I was glad in a way. I had wanted to go off, just the two of us, so things could be the way they always were. But Maude Ann wouldn’t even look at me and I was getting this funny feeling inside as if I might start crying or something.
“See you later, Maude Ann. I hope your Pa’s better soon.”
I never saw Maude Ann again. When Mr. Walinski got out of the hospital in early December, they moved back to Pennsylvania. Maude Ann didn’t come back to school at all before they left. Mama said the school board didn’t like that, but Mr. and Mrs. Walinski said Maude Ann would just wait to go to school in Pennsylvania.
Somehow Mr. Harry Truman got the strike settled in time for Marshallville to have the Tree Lighting and Songfest after all. I didn’t sign up for the Girl Scout apple cider booth. It wasn’t the same without Maude Ann. She seemed very far away already.
A lifelong (octogenarian) newspaper & magazine writer, Fran Moreland Johns has published fiction, nonfiction and several books. She currently blogs at Medium.com and franjohns.net. This story is part of an as-yet-unpublished collection of stories loosely related to a small Virginia town in the 1940s.