Category Archives: WWII

The Assembly Line Mentality and Public Education — Feeding from the Same Trough?

My mother was a World War II “We Can Do It” poster girl. When she wasn’t seated at her sewing machine making gowns and coats and fully lined three piece suits, she worked a semi-automatic machine at Csencsis Manufacturing, a shop which produced nuts and bolts for the war effort.

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Every morning, my brother and I would awaken to her shrill holler, frantic herald that our nocturnal sludge threatened to make her late for work. The round jar of Pro-Tek greeted us on the toilet tank, next to her fragile hairnet, foreshadowing that petroleum products intended to protect skin from the stain of petroleum products would shorten her life. And, every day after we walked to school, she’d stand at the noisy, oil spewing tool, tapping and threading out “piecework” until the buzzer signaled either lunch or the end of her shift.

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Like everything else mum did, she excelled at the numbers; her quota always long exceeded, the other workers grumbled that her standard was beyond expectation and made them look lazy. But, to her, one must put one’s hand to the plow and do the work to one’s best ability. This was all part of the grand order of things: the assembly line of life, and her part in it.

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Back in school, mum was a math “whiz”, and tutored other students. She also wrote clever verse, and kept a diary. But, hers was a life of deferred dreams; winning a sewing contest as a girl, the award — a trip to New York, to study fashion — was aborted when the Great Depression called a halt to everything, and the French soldier pen pal over whose letters she obsessed would never come to the States to finally meet; instead, she would deliver the home baked bread door to door, take in sewing, and marry the Italian soldier, who appeared on the night train just in the nick of time to save her from a life with preacher Willie. Once the war ended and the dust settled, dad would have a house built for her and faithfully carry home the cash from his barbershop, on Saturday nights, to count it on the kitchen table.

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The extra money earned in the machine shop meant more material for our clothes, which were all handmade by her, and food for the cooking; my brothers and I ate at mealtime, then dad would arrive home by 8pm to sit down and eat his supper alone. I never had any memory of mum having supper with any of us.

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While mum was at work and dad was at work, I’d be up the hill to Lincoln School, watching the other children in my class, trying to remain in my scratchy spot on the Kindergarten rug, cringing bewilderedly at Mrs. Williams gentle scowl every time I opened my mouth, then stretching my arm as high as it could go and waving my hand until she finally let me speak. There were so many things in the classroom — easels, for painting; a piano for playing; so many books to read; so many things to make. I would look around, at everybody on the rug, then stare at the teacher’s laced up shoes, waiting, waiting for a moment to do what I wanted to do. To my eye, everything in that room was there to be used, and I couldn’t stand sitting while we talked about the calendar and the days of the week and what time it was until we could finally do any of it.

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Twenty five years later, I would be at the front of the room, facing hundreds of children, all week long. For the first time, I could actually see all their faces, and absorb their expressions. And, for twenty five more years, I did this every week from September to June.

Fifty years went by; had I contributed anything important?

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The assembly line mentality had herded me, and my mother before me, into a predictable, limited life. I grew up to perpetuate the myth that controlling the masses mattered most, that a democratic majority could be found among those who followed along. Somehow, in spite of intellectual strength and inborn gifts, my mother would die at age 76 from a cancer which had never, before or since, appeared in any member of her family, a disease which the assembly line had wrought, caused by multiple chemicals produced in shops, chemicals used on the lawn at which she knelt all summer weeding the flower gardens, chemicals in the artificially sweetened beverages she drank to lose mid section weight brought on by daily, sedentary toil and malnutrition, chemicals in the air surrounding the manufacturing machine and in the water she used to make her coffee.

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The assembly line generation is fearful that their jobs will be replaced by artificial intelligence. This is borne of a lulled sense that, apart from the job they do all day, their lives have no further value. And, that is tragedy on the cusp of realization.

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Ours is a structurally outmoded society. And yet, those in power persist in allowing war to dictate how our economy survives. If this doesn’t change, we could very well starve to death before we have ever truly lived.

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© 8/1/19  Ruth Ann Scanzillo      Originally published at Medium.com    Thank you for respecting original material.

littlebarefeetblog.com

 

QUESTIONING The ANSWER: How to Get Labeled the “Troublemaker” in Your Own Hometown.

 

Anybody who was born in Erie, Pennsylvania within the past century knows.

This town has an unspoken history.

What has appeared in print, alternately surreptitiously or boldly depending on the relative acceptance of the author’s credibility, has alluded more than once to what everybody has always known: this was a Mafia “mob town”.

Back when Italians and Irish were the dominant first generation immigrant population, the “connected” families were well established. One of them led the city’s government for decades. These were the days of scenes from The Godfather movies; small business fronts, numbers runners, clubs, and neighborhood networks all set up to keep everything smoothly under control.

Into this picture, my Italian father appeared as a displaced citizen. A Bostonian ward of Massachusetts, he’d found himself here by way of a night train and a native Erieite who would become his wife, twice – the first time, in 1944, and again in 1955. Having graduated from barber school after WWII, he would set up his first shop on what, in those days, was the center of the East side: Parade Street. A decade later, he would move to purchase a cement block building on the corner of East 5th & Wallace Streets, and serve a regular clientele of Russian and Polish immigrants as well as city officials for 44 years.

I can remember Dad speaking about the BB gun holes in his plate glass windows on 5th. He and Mum would discuss them, in front of my brothers and me; these were Union people, harassing him to join and follow all their rules for price fixing. I cannot remember when the BB gun holes ceased, but something happened to end them because, once they stopped, they never appeared again. The city officials, however, continued as loyal customers until their deaths by natural causes. Many a final haircut would Dad give, to each of them, in their hospital beds at Hamot, St. Vincent, and over at the Vet’s.

A dear widow and long time Erie resident told me her take on the city, recently. Her late husband was beloved, and well known. And, as secretary to an attorney’s office, she knew who all the racketeers were, by name. She said that, back then, there was no crime in Erie; the mob saw to it that the streets were clean.

Nowadays, Erie is in transition from being an industrial mecca to a vacation resort, and shows promise. But, socially, vestiges of its history can be found in a continually manifesting tribalism. Because, geographically, the city is set on the water’s edge of Lake Erie its flat terrain is laid out in the “Philadelphia grid” style of endless, square city blocks. Consequently, there is nothing to distinguish one neighborhood from another except immediate, unspoken boundaries of ghetto; those living in poverty can be found one square block away from the wealthy, investing elite who own historic villas converted into office space and executive rentals just down the street from City Hall.

So, these tribes of peoples, set apart by closely juxtaposed neighborhoods from Glenwood Heights to the upper lakefront blight, still function in parallel proximity. Even as each nationality represented continues to celebrate its heritage in the multiple summer ethnic festivals, one problem persists: Social segregation. Now, who is in control?

And, that is the first question.

In Erie, as in these United States, every citizen is free to ask that first question. Ask any question, once.

The answer given is expected to be accepted.

But, what if the answer, often the official position on any topic, isn’t acceptable?

What if there is a problem with its content?

I have always been the inquisitive child. If Why? is the question, I will be the first to ask it. Unfortunately, though an established professional in my own right, I am merely the barber’s daughter. Who will give me the straight, factually accurate response? Do I need to know it?

In Erie, you can ask; but, you cannot ask, again. If you challenge the answer you are given, what happens to you is swift and inescapable: you are labeled the “troublemaker”.

And, once branded, you had better retreat into the shadows and stay away. Control is everything to those grasping after it and, in a town where the history was all about leaving well enough alone, if you wonder you are to do so in solitude; if you doubt, you are to keep quiet; if you disbelieve, keep your religion to yourself.

To what end can we know how Erie, Pennsylvania will survive those who do?

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© 6/12/19   Ruth Ann Scanzillo.  Born at Hamot; raised on the East side; educated in the public schools; taxpaying homeowner on the West side; lifetime Erieite. God Bless Our Home, and all who dwell within it. Thank you for your respect.

littlebarefeetblog.com

 

 

“Blessed Assurance”.

 

The boy had a mouth on him.

He was the shortest, darkest, angriest trumpet player I had ever seen. Furthermore, his embouchure (through no fault of his own) had never been properly set and his tone, well, that’s what happens when your embouchure hasn’t been set right.

But, there was something in him. He had a deep, inborn sense of the good. He had principle. And, this combination produced a student of such determined commitment, a young man who put forth with every cell in his body to produce. I was merely the music teacher – a scant, 29 year old, belated second year fledgling – and this guy had convinced his impassioned concoction of underprivileged, underserved, and undertrained in the East High marching band to vote “Yes” to compete. I had my work literally cut out for me – by John Jefferson.

The first solution seemed to be a transfer to the F horn. This instrument’s conical bore mouthpiece would allow an easier tone production, in an alto range. John took to it. He learned the solo. I felt my first small triumph.

But, this, of course, was short lived. John spoke out. From the top tier of the bandroom at the end of the annex, he’d answer me back, in full on challenge, and loud enough for the whole room to hear. He was the alpha male, and I needed to know my place.

As for the next decision, I can remember neither the day nor the hour. I only knew that John needed to be out front. He needed to lead. And, that is exactly where I put him. By the end of his first season as a sophomore, John Jefferson was East High drum major.

The whole uniform fit him like the glove on his right hand. The epaulets were never more proud to grace any shoulder. But, most of all, John could finally assume the position he was born to take. John Willis Jefferson could stand, stock still – chin up, eyes fixed – at attention. And, John Willis Jefferson could salute.

The band did their absolute best. I always regretted that the association in charge of the competitions never produced a trophy for Most Developed Ensemble, because my kids deserved a big one. Nevertheless, led by John and his cohorts Shawn and Melanie, the students faltered not once. They just held up their heads .

John graduated from public education during my final year at his high school. The district would move me, against my will, across town to fill a vacancy, and I would never see either him or the rest of the students who would call me “mom” again.

That is, not until one, singular occasion.

Via the blessing of social media, I had been reunited with several former students. Naturally, one of the first to find me was John. Except that he had produced quite a life story – married, to Mindy, and the father of at least two of his three boys. But, about to realize more of that story, quite without warning I received news of an upcoming event: a 20th Class Reunion.

I’d been to several. In fact, every five years, my classmates from Academy High had dutifully taken on the enormous task of bringing us all together for dinner and more.

But, John.

John didn’t just tell me about his. John invited Miss Scanzillo to the East High 20th Reunion of the Class of 1990.

He was hosting, he said. Would I please come? They would be honored by my presence.

To my memory, no teacher had ever attended a high school class reunion. Certainly none of my former teachers were ever present at any of mine – not the 5th, the 10th, the 15th….you get the picture.

The night of the event, I thought perhaps I should appear low key. Clad in a casual, soft summer top and capris, I slipped into Calamari’s Squid Row.

The doors opened into a full diningroom draped in white linen. A grand buffet spread across the front, covered in decorative stainless steel. And, presiding at the head of the long, formal room was: John Jefferson.

Master Sergeant John Jefferson, US Air Force.

In full dress.

The red and grey drum major’s costume had been replaced by the dark woolens of the United States Military, Sgt Jefferson’s chest emblazoned with three rows of colored ribbon and precious medals. I was beyond stunned.

Finding a discreet seat at one of the table rounds, I set my gaze on our John. He spoke as loudly as ever before, but with a refined speech, a grace, and a carriage that made my heart well up. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.

We kept in touch, after that. Facebook chat was a great place to convene, no matter where he was deployed. He’d check in, from Iraq, Afghanistan….and, always, the sign off: “I love you!”

See, something else had happened to John.

During the first year he and Mindy became a couple, they had both committed their lives to Jesus Christ. Now, not everyone will know what that means to those about whom such an act bespeaks. But, to the faithful, becoming a born-again Christian is what happened to John. This meant that, like my father before him, John accepted a life changing force into his heart. They called this the Holy Spirit, and to this Spirit’s direction and counsel both men would vow to remain true.

John and I continued, now familiar references to prayer and faith peppering his dialogue.

Life marched on, past another decade of Veteran’s Days. Twenty five more years, to be nearly precise. My adored father passed on into eternity, age 95, and I retired from public school music education. Then, word came to me that John and his family were coming back to Erie for another visit. Would I please join them all, for dinner?

Overjoyed, I met the entire family – at Chic-Fil-A. The boys were sweet, quiet (like their mother!) and polite. John talked of his travels and experiences, of meeting President George W Bush; I marveled. Mindy and I met, for the first time, that day – and, before we ate, John bowed his head and publicly asked the blessing for our food.

Last October, (could it be?) John had reached a life milestone. Now Senior Master Sergeant, he was set to retire from the US Air Force. Twenty six years of devoted service to his God and country. A full military ceremony was scheduled, at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. On Facebook, the word went out as an open invitation.

It only took me a couple days to decide.

I flew in. Mindy met me, at the gate, to grant guest of family passage. High security, all around. Miles of real estate, devoted to air power, air men and women, and their commander. I was introduced to the latter, in the office where SMSgt Jefferson had been spending most of his time. A gracious civilian base employee chauffeured me all around the grounds, allowing me a few select photos.

And, then the ceremony. Getting a bear hug from John was the icing on the cake, or so I thought. But, then John’s colleague, a Major, stepped to the podium.

What followed was a litany of awards and accomplishments so vast that I could not contain the realization. John hadn’t just devoted his life to service; he had positively excelled. Officer of the Year. Medals for this, and medals for that. A contract officer, SMSgt Jefferson had, near as I could tell, managed millions of dollars of military monies over two decades of military action across the globe.

The celebration was surreal, a fascinating trek through life passing before one’s eyes. His insisting that I sit “with the family”, me stubbornly resisting that “order” so as to get my choice photos, I sat on the officers’ side. The formal presentation was followed by John’s individualized “thank you’s”. I received the final, single red rose, and words of gratitude which could only be overtaken by those of my own; this old music teacher just had to make sure everyone in the room knew that John had begun his career out front, directing the East High Marching Band. Always a leader, always an outstanding man, from the beginning.

Then, the final occasion.

Last week, I would receive the last of so many words on my beloved student, the boy who came closer to being my own son than any other child I would ever know. Inexplicably, after a mere two months of retired bliss and following a statistically innocuous routine medical procedure, John would cease breathing; efforts to revive him failing, his brain would swell; by sundown the same day, those in power would declare his brain death and, only hours thereafter on a vent and then off, at the age of only 45 his body would give up its ghost to the God of all believers.

This time, I could not attend.

John’s had been a life so worth celebrating; how could I even acknowledge his untimely and unacceptable death? My best effort was to sit, holding the single rose he’d presented to me, and weep.

The world had become, in large, increasing part, a frightening and sinister place for humans to reside. Nations, rising up against nations; holy wars fast becoming the order of the day. Addiction and apathy, married; deceit and treachery, lurching into the limelight; and, all efforts to revive hope, faith, and charity met by the darkest of demons.

Today, many a Scripture verse from the Book of my childhood speaks to me in solitude, along with the memes on my grandmother’s wall:

“For if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”

I hope to God it’s all true.

Because, if ever there were a voice on earth deserving of the realization of its passionately held convictions, that voice belongs to the soul of SMSgt John Jefferson.

And, I can still hear him.

SMSgtJohnJeffersonFinalSalute2018

© photo by Ruth Ann Scanzillo 10/17.

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© 3/9/18   Ruth Ann Scanzillo.  This piece dedicated to the life and memory of SMSgt John Willis Jefferson, of Erie PA. All rights to its contents the strict property of the author, copied only by the author and shared with those who carry respect for its subject.

littlebarefeetblog.com