by Bob Rossi
It is early September of 1919,
And I am waiting for the train to arrive.
Impatient and worried, I check the time
On my pocket watch and look northward
Along the railroad tracks and search the faces
Of others. Round faces, drawn faces,
Some so dark and some calcite white.
The newsboy shouting a headline
That I don’t understand, the pleasant smoke
Of a cigar named for a president
Who I despise, the boarding house ladies
Passing by with vegetables in baskets, the detective
Eyeing me. He is as impatient and worried
As I am.
I hope for much, but this road is long
And we are traveling on the blind and in the dark,
Tramps on a locomotive named The History Express.
I have crossed two continents and an ocean
And wiped the cinders of despair from eyes.
I will be pleased if the day will end with
Beefsteak and beer and a good argument
Between friends in my language and
If I have learned to unravel some foreign words.
I check my watch again, catch the eye of the detective.
I will count it good fortune if I am the first
In my family to die in a bed that is mine.
And if we can win this strike, and then
Our images are captured in a photograph taken
From a wagon, the German photographer forever unhappy
With his work. The stout detective will scowl forever.
The boarding house ladies’ laughter will be forever blurred.
The barber will never drop his straight razor.
The newsboy will be eleven years old forever, his mouth
Open in a raucous shout. The station master will remain
Thin and gaunt. The sky will always threaten rain
And the horses will never die. My paesano’s cigar
Will never turn to ash. Dozens of people standing with me
On the platform, all of them anxious,
Will be forever surprised by the camera’s flash.
And I will forever squint and hide my hands in my pockets
And reason against hope.
Nothing will record our handshake, calloused hands to
Calloused hands and then hands to shoulders,
Our grim smiles and whispered greetings.
The newsboy will recall years later for his grandchildren
That he saw those two union men at the station
Just weeks before all hell broke loose, how the one of them
Shook his hand and asked his age and wouldn’t take change
For the newspaper he bought, his name echoed in the headline.
The detective remained deadpan, silently weighed his options.
The taste of the beer and beefsteak will go unremarked,
As will the boarding house lady’s brogue.
“I hope you win for our boys, Bill.” The newspapers will record
The shouting in the streets, the violence, but not that night
When I found tenderness and rest.
I missed the late train carrying the mail. A letter from the future
Remained unopened in the boarding house parlor, grew old
With Mrs. O’Leary, yellowed and was discarded one day.
“Hey, Guido, you lost that strike. Scores were blacklisted.
The wind blew them north and west. The Spanish flu came and went.
And two years later the flood hit. One day you were running a machine
And probably did not hear the rumble above you stop before
The mine roof came down. You didn’t die in bed, or even with
Your given name. The metal crosses marking your graves rusted away
Long ago. That ground in the cemetery is sunken and soft now.
The mine and the mill shut down, but not before we took a bit
From the bosses. We work hard now, but this earth is finally ours.
Red flags are everywhere. And, hey, Guido, I found an old pocket watch
And a dented lunch bucket the other day.
Were they yours?”
Bob Rossi is a retired union organizer whose family lived in Hazleton, Fern Glen, and Philadelphia. He is active in community and socialist organizing efforts in Salem, Oregon and is writing a social history of Colorado coal mining communities in the 1920s. He is a member of Hazleton’s Tirolesi Alpini club and Hazleton’s Greek Catholic Union lodge.
Be sure to check out Bob’s work on Community Radio KMUZ (Turner, OR). A good place to start is with this excellent bit about the labor history of Sacco & Vencetti.
Also by Bob Rossi
Book Review: Remembering Lattimer
Linking Histories of Resistance
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