Saturday, September 13, 2008

How I Spent My Summer Vacation - Part One

Updated September 15,2008

First let me explain that this piece will come in two parts. Part One, below, is about a family trip back into our own history and culture. Part two, will follow, hopefully in the next week. It is a telling of grassroots advocacy efforts that our little Springfield Advocacy Action Team attacked this summer.

Both, in their own way, were delightful, exciting, poignant, and I will remember them always…

I come from a very ethnic family. We are proud of our immigrant history. I am half Slovenian and half Polish. Both are eastern European peasant cultures. For some reason, I identify myself more with the Slovene side. I am happy that my sister identifies more with her polish half, to make my mother feel less slighted. However, after so many years of marriage, my mother has to be, at the very least, an honorary Slovene.

Time spent with my Sluga grandpa, aunts, and uncles always included lots of accordion and concertina music, beer, homemade wine, 8-part harmonies, and Slovenian folk songs and polkas…

For those of you, who did not know that there is such a thing as a Slovenian style polka, let me quickly educate you. Slovenes taught the Poles how to Polka! (Sorry Mama.) Slovenian style button boxes predate the piano accordion used in Poland. If you ever heard Frankie Yankovic (the Polka King), you have heard Slovenian style polkas. And, believe me, there IS a difference.

But, I digress... I could polka before I could walk. Uncles and aunts often swooped me up to dance around the house with me in their arms. It's how they entertained themselves and their children... making music, dancing, singing-beautiful harmonic songs in Slovenian and English, talking and laughing late into the night. It did not occur to me that all this was happening in a shack with an outhouse, in Virden Illinois, on the other side of the tracks, in a place called "the patch.” It was heavenly to me.

My Grandpa Johann Sluga (aka John Schluge) was a coal miner; and strongly believed that workers had the right to organize and fight for social justice. He joined the radical Progressive Mine Workers Union (as did many Slovenes) after the United Mine Workers (UMW) kicked them out. They ignored an order to go back to work after the UMW sold out the workers. My father was a boy when he joined Grandpa and a caravan of miners in what became known as "The Battle of Mulkeytown", famous in Illinois coal mining history.

…the union leaders in the Gillespie and Benld area made plans for a huge picketing demonstration, announcing that no miners would be armed, and that the parade of autos into southern Illinois was to be well organized and peaceful. Some 10,000 miners left the Staunton area, the tunes of the local municipal band ringing in their ears.

The circumstances of what soon came to be known as the "Battleof Mulkeytown" seem clearly to have been a result of collaboration between the sheriff of Franklin county, state police who directed the caravan into an ambush, and militant Lewis followers among the local miners. Hundreds of high school boys, coal miners, and businessmen were deputized by the Franklin county sheriff, as well as two physicians who were told to treat only Franklin county people among the expected casualties.

When the head of the vast cavalcade reached U.S. Highway 51south of DuQuoin, the state police shunted the leading cars eastward on State Highway 14. When the leading cars crossed the Little Muddy River, a short distance from the village of Mulkeytown, the sheriff's deputies suddenly appeared ahead. Shots were fired, men were beaten, cars were pushed over, and tires were punctured. It was hardly a melee, much less a battle. There was no contest, for only one side was armed. The great caravan turned around, and headed northward. Five of the would-be picketers were casualties; none of the sheriff's deputies had been wounded.

Luckily, Grandpa was near the end of the caravan and was able to turn around and escape unscathed.

Grandpa was fond of saying he was a coal miner for 50 years, but only worked 25 of them. The rest of the time he was on strike. Grandpa went on strike for mine safety, and many of the worker rights we take for granted today. He and his union brothers also threw down the gauntlet to show their strength, if the mood was right, and a boss looked at them cross-eyed. They would turn their lunch buckets upside down and walk out. A Wildcatter; that was my Grandpa.

He wasn't an important man, not an influential man; but the struggle he and his brother miners endured, the abject poverty they lived in, have given the working\middle class the benefits we enjoy today. It saddens me to think we are losing many of the things he fought so hard to achieve.

If you are wondering what all this has to do with my summer vacation; I'm getting there, I'm getting there.

The mine owners recruited Grandma and Grandpa Sluga and other Eastern Europeans to work the jobs the “English” workers would not do. My Sluga grandparents arrived at Ellis Island and delivered to a little coal mining "company town" called Herminie 2, PA. It is in the bituminous coal country of southwestern Pennsylvania; about 3 miles down the tracks from just plain Herminie. He came over just about the time when Slovenes and other ethnic groups were starting social clubs and burial societies. In 1904 Grandpa joined the Slovenska Narodna Podporna Jednota (Slovenian National Benefit Society or SNPJ).

These societies provided the social and cultural life for Slovenes for decades and in some part, still do today.

Every year at SNPJ Pennsylvania, is the annual National Slovene Picnic. It is just 20 miles from Herminie 2. Local lodges used to have smaller picnics all over the country. I grew up going to the Slovenian picnic in Auburn Illinois every year; as did my kids. It's sad because most of the first and second generation Slovenes are gone; and so are the local picnics. The younger (my age), are fully integrated into the fabric of American life and do not see the need for such things.

My father, Leon, the youngest child of Johann and Maria Sluga’s eight children, is the last survivor of his generation. He is 87 years old and my mother, Emily, is 82. They had never been to the National Slovene Picnic, or Herminie 2.

I was longing for some extended time with my parents. So, my husband and I packed them into our minivan and set out for the picnic and Herminie 2.

It was a leisurely meandering through four states. We stayed off the interstate and took the winding "blue highways" all the way. We visited houses we lived in, in Indianapolis, and our farm between Knightstown and Spiceland, Indiana. We visited the livestock sale barn where my dad bought our first cow, Rosie and a host of other critters. We went by the old swimming hole where my brothers and I grew from tadpoles to excellent young swimmers. We stopped by historic sites, homes of long dead old friends, as well as roadside attractions. We visited the longest covered bridge in Ohio and took long looks at a couple of WPA projects. All the while, my parents regaled Mike and me with stories about their lives; secrets never before revealed; intimate chats, never to be forgotten.

Lest you think that we are all angels; we are not. Ok, my mother is about as close to being an angel as humanly possible. My father is almost as cantankerous as I am; and my husband will take the opposite side of an argument, just for fun. Nevertheless, those three days on the back roads of America, we all behaved reasonably well. I will count them as some of the best days of my life.

Our peaceful journey erupted into a party when he got to SNPJ, Pennsylvania. Bus loads of people came rolling in to local hotels from all parts of the country. Squeals of "Oh my god, it's so good to see you," filled the air! I hugged hundreds of people I did not know.

One woman, who heard my parents were coming, looked through her mother's albums for pictures of my parents as newlyweds. Others held them long and hard, saying, "We never thought we'd see you again." And, I felt at home. These people are my people. They even looked like me; if not me, then my cousins Shirley or Carolanne, or Eugene, or Greg.

The next morning we followed the Chicago Bus into the SNPJ Recreation Area, the location of the picnic. If I thought Slovenian culture was on life support; it is alive and well in at least one place, once a year. There were thousands of people, six musical venues, and Slovenian food galore.

All Slovenian food is high fat, high calorie, artery clogging, heart attack inducing and delicious. Our genetic material makes our bodies impervious to the hazards that mere mortals face when they eat fat. Klobase (sausages), golaz (goulash), sauerkraut, pork, stuffed cabbages, apple zavitek (strudel), and poticia. We eat "low on the hog.” These people grew up in poverty. If they even had meat, it was the lowest fattiest cut. They made food with the cheapest ingredients and learned how to make it tasty.

Mike and I left Mom and Dad so they could visit with their friends for the day. We hung out at the International Stage, where the Button Box is still king, and the open mic stage, where at any one time there would be 20-30 instruments playing all the old Slovene standards. It was a very full day and we didn't even stay for the fireworks. The second we got back to the hotel, we collapsed into our beds. We had to get a little rest. Herminie 2 was waiting for us.

Apparently, there hasn't been a cartographer in the area since Grandpa left a hundred years ago. None of the roads matched the map. We got hideously lost. Fortunately, we met a helpful stranger who led us to the town. (We interrogated her. Yes, she is the daughter of a Slovenian miner. “100% Slovenian”, she replied. Yes, she is a member of the local SNPJ lodge (#87). And, yes she is a native of just plain Herminie, not 2).

Cool; we were finally there: Herminie 2

We drove up and down every street, looked at every house and lot. Somewhere in this little town, my grandparents lived. Maybe the house was still standing. We stopped to ask a friendly man tending his roses where the mine used to be. He gave us useless directions. We thanked him and moved on. We talked to his neighbor and asked her where “the patch” was. She said, “You’re standing in it!”

“The Patch” is another name for the housing the company provided for “unskilled” workers. Our family never understood why the area grandpa lived in was called the patch until Mike, started researching mining history. After the mines closed, the company sold the homes, but the designation of "the patch" remains in coal mining town across the country. My Dad bought my Grandpa’s house in the Virden Patch for back taxes, during WWII, while in the Navy with a steady paycheck. It was the only home Grandpa owned.

There is a saying, "They used to build things to last." Who ever said that was not thinking of company owned coal-mining towns. The company built housing just long enough to house workers until the mine closed. In Herminie 2 that was 1938. Many of the lots were empty. The houses that remained were a testament to stubbornness. They were in moderate shape, most well painted, and couple had large vegetable gardens, or flowerbeds. Herminie 2 had seen much better days.

Looking at the houses solved a family mystery.

Grandma Sluga died when my Dad was six. Grandpa said when they came to this country he received company script, not money, as pay. It could only be cashed at the company store. He said the only “real money” they made was by Grandma taking in borders, 8 single men. They had to be Slovenes, because she spoke no English. It was hard to figure out where eight more people would live in the kind of housing Dad grew up in. However, Herminie 2 had big houses, no huge houses; boarding houses. So, Grandma ran a company owned boarding house. Mystery solved.

We were quiet in the van for the first time. Dad finally broke the silence softly, almost reverently saying, “I feel like I did 15 years ago when we (Mom, Dad and I) when to Slovenia and visited Litija [la-tea'-ya] (my grandparents hometown). My father and mother walked here.” I wiped tears from my eyes.

We continued to drive around the little town looking for the mine. The only helpful we received, was it was close to the old brick church. We did not find an old brick church, but we did find one brick building, roof collapsed into the first floor; first floor fallen into the basement. But, not far from that spot we saw the 8 ft high square fence that enclosed the mine shaft. Mike kicked up a brick next to the fence and gave it to my Dad, a souvenir of the backbreaking work his father endured down in that hole.

The “church” we knew from earlier research was the original lamp house. A lamp house had to be made of brick; a frame building would burn down too easily. It was the only building standing. There was a partial foundation of another brick building, maybe the mule barn; mules were considered more precious than workers. There is an old joke supervisors used to remind workers of their status. They would say, “Take care of that mule mister. I can hire another Joe to replace you, I’d have to buy a new mule… they don’t have offspring.”

We sat there a long time looking at the site. Grandpa came to this new world looking for a better life and landed here. He often said that if he had the money, he would have gone back; probably one of the reasons the company paid in script. But he didn’t. He persevered; he and his brother workers stuck together and created the 8-hour day, the weekend, vacation pay, job security, unemployment insurance, retirement benefits, health insurance, OSHA,and more.

They also reduced the gap between the rich and the poor. They were able to afford to send the next generation to college and escape the grinding poverty of their own lives.

We took the Interstate back. The ride home was quiet. Our emotions were overloaded. We arrived in Indianapolis and left my parents in the care of their three sons and a number of grandchildren. There, they celebrated their 60th anniversary by telling of the things learned about the family and our heritage.

Cross posted at: All in Our Family Blog

Look for Part Two, next week...


Ace said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jimmy Higgins said...

A splendid and moving look at your working class roots, BN!

As a music geek, I must hesitantly take issue with your Slovenian chauvinism on the polka front. It's widely (though not universally) accepted that the polka arose in Bohemia in the first half of the 19th century, possibly mocking traditional rural Polish women's dances. It became an international phenomenon when it took London and Paris by storm in 1844, and spread world-wide.

Various polka traditions developed in the US among European immigrant groups, likely Germans first in what is called Dutch style, kinda oom-pah-y. While modern polka bands and the recording industry both seem to have arisen in the '20s, and were based in ethnic communities, there's not much basis for claiming precedence for Slovenian style.

The misconception may come from the fact that shortly after WW2, Frankie Yancovic took the Cleveland style, as Slovenian polka was also known, up the pop charts for the first time with "Blue Skirt Waltz" and "Just Because", and it was few years later that Li'l Wally Jagiello, the Muddy Waters of the polka, created "Heavy Chicago" or Chicago Style polka, which became the dominant form in the Polish community. Li'l Wally headed a smaller, looser combo than the Eastern Bands (a larger catch-all that included not only Slovenian but Polish orchestras) with their bigger lineups, their tighter and faster arrangements and their strong influences from the swing era big bands.

Nor are the dividing lines as strict as some might see 'em. Yancovic was always big in Milwaukee, a city with a big-ass Polish population and not much of a Slovenian community--go figger.

Big Noise said...

Jimmy, you must have been mislead by colonial overseers who wrote history to once again, keep the slovnes subugated (slovenian traslated means slave; my sluga means servent)their cultures usrped and claimed bycolonists.

When the people history of the oppressed is written, slovenia will be known as for it's contribution for polkas and well as pez dispensers.
we're not kiska, ya know! :O

BN :)