Friday, September 15, 2017

Post # 4

Post #4

Quote of the Day: "[Lake Superior is] beautiful, empty, glittering, cold and brooding, gull-swept and impersonal; always there, always the same -- there for the grateful and ungrateful, there for the bastards and angels."  Robert Voelker, Anatomy of a Murder 1958.


Sawdusted: Notes From a Post-Boom Mill
by Raymond Goodwin

The author, a two-time college dropout, went to work in a non union sawmill in Northern Michigan in 1979. The glory days, when white pine was king, was a 100 years in the past when Goodwin stepped in a sawmill located somewhere between Lake City and Houghton Lake, but he immediately felt a strong connection with the men who flooded the white pine forests and lumberyards of  Michigan after the Civil War. As in the past, the sawmill attracted a number of fascinating characters who performed hard, dangerous, and highly skilled jobs for relatively low pay.

Goodwin found the easiest way he connected with the past was through the 30-odd men he worked with, and the operative word here is odd. In attitude, endurance, the wide variety of personalities, the aches and pains, poor food, and just plain wildness, the author  discovered he and the crew he worked with were not far removed from those who preceded them by four generations. One of Goodwin's fellow employees described the greater part of the crew as men who were, "...a nickle short of a quarter, a tooth short of a set, and most people didn't have the sense to point a compass north."

But the above quote could well be caused by the working conditions. The noise in a sawmill was off the chart with, "the roar of the machinery [sounding like] a terrible case of whooping cough." In the mill men communicated with hand signals.  Goodwin discovered there's an art to the backbacking job of stacking lumber, and if not done right the stacker could find himself buried under a pile of newly sawn wood. There was a 100 ways to be injured. Goodwin found the easiest was when he had to roll a five-foot-tall circular blade across 50 yards of concrete and rough ground. There was no learning curve here, one mistep and you're horribly cut. Goodwin compares it to, "dancing with a large plastic bag of broken glass."

In a sawmill a rookie was considered by their coworkers as someone who didn't know a board from a pile of sawdust and Goodwin tells how, "On Friday afternoons we gathered outside the office door to watch the new men open their first pay envelopes just to see how far their jaw dropped with disbelief that they could work so hard for so little reward."

Any lumbercamp or mill has to have a Paul Bunyanesque character. Lightning Joe filled the bill fully at Goodwin's mill. Lightning Joe said he got his name because he'd been struck by lightning a dozen times. He also claimed to hunt deer with a pistol. When asked why he replied, "I have to. It makes it easier when they charge you." Joe swears that whenever he went deer hunting the deer attack him. They came at him so fast he claimed he didn't have time to raise a long gun, and numberless deer would have gored him to death if he wasn't a quick draw with a pistol.

The author worked 20 months at the mill before quiting and going back to college and this time graduated. He is currently a manager of human resources at Central Michigan. To my knowledge this is the only book Raymond Goodwin ever wrote and that's a shame. He is a fine and funny writer and barely a page goes by without the reader wanting to write down a sentence or segment of one because it is so memorable. Herewithin a sampling of my favorites.

"Having a tatto that was 'not that bad' was having a maple fall on you instead of an oak."
" the saw mill, complaints fell into the same category as ballet: unrecognized."
"Fannel shirts, coveralls, and hard hats, the more battered the better, all speak, if not sing, the language of the mill."
"[sawdust] every weary man's mustache, which is how it smiles."
"He was calmer than oatmeal in a bowl."

Yes, this book was published in 2010 by a university press and then virtually ignored. According to MEL, the Library of Michigan's electronic catalog of books found in the state's public and university libraries Sawdusted is owned by barely more than a dozen libraries. This book needs to be rediscovered.

Goodwin, Raymond. Sawdusted: Notes From a Post-Boom Mill, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010. $22.95

Terror in the City of Champions: Murder, Baseball, and the Secret Society That Shocked Depression-Era Detroit
by Tom Stanton

There may not have been a stranger, more disturbing, or remarkable year in Detroit's history than 1935. For sports fans it was simply exhilarating as the Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings all won their first league championships that year. On the other hand it was also the year that fear and even hysteria gripped much of the city with the revelation that a sinister, secret society was threatening the lives of Jews, Catholics, foreigners, Communists, politicians, and even their own members. Called the Black Legion, its tentacles reached into city and county government as well as the judicial system.

Tom Stanton braids these disparate strands of Detroit history into a compelling and fascinating narrative set against the backdrop of the Motor City's struggle to endure the Depression. By 1934 Detroiters suffered 45% unemployment and autoworkers lucky enough to still have a job received pay cuts. Auto production fell by 4 million units between 1929 and '32. Thousands of homeless roamed the city and half of Detroit qualified for some kind of assistance, of which there was very little to be had. Making it even worse, between 1920 and '30  the city's population jumped by a half million. With the population increase came a widening mix of ethnicity, race, faith, and political beliefs. Two towering Detroit figures stood as almost perfect symbols of this struggle to come together or come apart. Joe Lewis was every Detroiter's hero, except for the Black Legion, while Father Coughlin spewed weekly incendiary political rants on the radio to thousands of listeners.

In spite of an almost weekly coverage of the Tigers' season and the exploits of Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Schoolboy Rowe and the rest of the Detroit line up the Black Legion dominates the book.The author's revealing portrait of the legion and its violent nature come as a shock even if the events Stanton describes happened 80 years in the past.

 At the end of the 1920's the KKK's power had waned and, in the Midwest, the Black Legion rose to fill the void. The legion's prime mover and figurehead was Virgil Effinger, an Ohio man, who thought the Klan had lost its excitement, mystic, romance, and the ability to instill fear. In short the Klan became boring. As concieved by Effinger, the Black Legion was anything but boring.

The group's recruiment methods were unigue and terrifying to the inductee. Members would invite friends, relatives, or fellow workers to what the member called an informal social club.The meeting was usually held in a pitch black basement and the surprised visitor found a flashlight shined in his face so he could see the pistol trained at his head. He was then told he had to pledge his life to the Black Legion or be shot. After swearing allegiance the new member was given a .38 calibre bullet to put in his pocket and told he would be shot with a twin of the bullet if he disobeyed legion rules.

Members were whipped if they missed meetings, others were killed for renouncing the group, and many simply disappeared. One member was ordered to fire a Catholic maid and throw his ill mother-in-law out of the house or be whipped. By 1934  the Black Legion numbered four regiments of 1,600 men each in Detroit with additional regiments in Monroe, Pontiac, Flint, and Saginaw. Legion members looked into killing class enemies by spreading Typhoid in targeted neighborhoods and Effinger set September 16, 1936 as the date for overthrowing the government.

When Captain Marmon, of the State Police, began investigating the legion he estimated the group was responsible for 50 murders plus the attempted assassinations of a judge, reporter, and a Detroit councilman. In 1936 twelve Black Legion members were convicted of 1st or 2nd degree murder. More were to follow until Marmon went to the FBI and asked the G-men for assistance. J. Edgar declined and squashed any further  investigation. But Det. Marmon and the Wayne County Prosecutor had drawn back the black sheets the legion hid behind and the exposure meant the end of Black Legion.

Stanton's previous four books were on baseball and he knows how to bring the game to life on the page. The recounting of Detroit's 1934 pennant race and loss to St. Louis in the World Series, as well as the 1935 championship season is colorful, filled with great characters, and told with an immediacy that almost makes the reader feel they're in the bleachers at Navin Park on the corner of  Michigan and Trumbull. The coverage of the Lions is given much less type and the Red Wings' championship season is all but dismissed in five pages.

Detroit is still the only city in the U.S. that has ever had three major professional sports teams win championships in the same year. And that story juxtaposed to the rise and fall of a home grown terrorist organization in the same city makes for great storytelling. The book is also a tribute to the author's narrative skill in blending history, sports, and crime into a remarkable book that's as riveting as overtime in the 7th game of  the Stanley Cup finals.

Stanton,Tom. Terror in the City of Champions,  Lyons Press, paperback ed. 2017, $17.95.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Post #3

Post # 3

September 1,2017

Quote of the Day: "On the first day ... the Lord created fudge. And on the second day, He created northern Michigan so people could get the fudge." Kay Severinsen, Michigan Living, August 1979


A $500 House in Detroit: 
Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City
by Drew Philp

Drew Philp was a senior at the University of Michigan who, after four years in Ann Arbor, couldn't reconcile the completely different world of Detroit barely 40 miles from his campus. While the wealthy and privileged were living comfortably in Ann Arbor, just down the freeway was one of the once-great cities of the U.S., which had lost two-thirds of its population and most of its manufacturing; the remaining residents flirted daily with destitution and foreclosure. From 2005 to 2007, about 67,000 houses in Detroit were foreclosed. As the author succinctly puts it, "The city that put the world on wheels drove away in cars they no longer made."

Drew came from a working-class background. He had been taught the value of hard work, and he was looking for a cause, a way to make a personal statement and a place where he could make a difference. He found it in the nearly deserted neighborhoods of Detroit, where foreclosed houses were auctioned off by the city at a starting bid of $500.

A newly minted UM graduate, he bought an abandoned Queen Anne-style house in Detroit's Poletown neighborhood for the opening bid. He was broke, lacked a job and now owned a house that came without doors, windows, plumbing, electricity, a furnace and a hot water heater,. It didn't even have a sink. What it did have was holes in the roof and the floor. When he walked in the house for the first time, he found mountains of trash filling every room. And so began years of work and an introduction to a new culture and way of life that is taking root in an abandoned city.

Drew grew up learning how to fix things. Every chance he had while growing up, he was under the sink or on the roof helping Dad fix leaks, repair toasters or work on a home improvement project. But translating his childhood experience into rebuilding a derelict house was a tall order. And he learned getting through all the bureaucratic red tape could be even more discouraging.

Drew found a job and poured every dollar he made into his house. It took months to just clear out the trash and board up the openings where doors and windows used to be. His father and uncles helped when they could, but his most valuable help and support came from his neighbors. Only two other occupied houses were on his block, but at least a dozen urban homesteaders who lived within several surrounding blocks came to Drew's aid with tips, knowledge and the offers of free help.

The community into which Philp was welcomed is extraordinary. Through very hard work, a lot of help from each other, and lots of imagination and ingenuity, Detroit's new settlers are slowly rebuilding some of the city's neighborhoods. People are planting orchards on vacant lots, and a farmer not far from Drew's house has turned an entire block into a hay field to feed his farm animals. Hay cutting and baling is a community event that always concludes with a much-anticipated party. Vegetable gardens abound, and even beekeepers practice their trade -- or hobby -- in neighborhoods cleared of houses. These good people live and work in this new frontier under a "given" understood by Michigan's earliest settlers: You must have community support and your neighbor always has your back.  The last is a must when the response time for a 911 emergency call is almost an hour.

It took the author several years to rebuild his home, which included replacing a basement wall with the help of his family and neighbors. The only job he didn't do himself was re-roof the house. In the course of remaking a piece of urban blight into a house and home, Drew also remakes himself. He becomes more comfortable with himself , more outgoing and trustful, thanks to finding a cause.

Philp also voices deep concern about the direction Detroit is taking. The city's movers and shakers are trying to lure big money into the Motor City. Twenty percent of Detroit's land is already owned by speculators. In most cases, they buy up entire blocks of derelict houses, then let them sit and rot while the gamblers hopefully wait for prices to rebound or the chance to can sell the land to an urban farm conglomerate or urban renewal project. Philp worries that the city's power of imminent domain could let billionaires displace the urban homesteaders.

Detroit has had a half-century of very rough times, but you can't read this refreshing and optimistic book without hoping Philp  is right that Michigan's greatest city can be rebuilt one house at a time.

Philp, Drew. A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City, New York: Scribner, 2017, 290p.

Wolf's Mouth
by John Smolens

Although this is John Smolens' ninth novel, it's the first book of his I've read. My initial reaction after only a couple of dozen pages was: How could I have overlooked this author for so long? This was almost immediately followed by, "Hot damn, eight more books to add to my must read list." Wolf's Mouth  is a love story, novel of pursuit, war story, thriller and tale of revenge and redemption -- all crammed into 259 pages that nail you to your chair.

Francesco Verdi, a captain in the Italian army, is captured by U.S. forces in North Africa during WWII. After long trips by boat to Boston and by train to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, he finds himself in a POW compound called Camp Au Train. The prison, located some miles west of Munising, is in a seemingly endless forest that the prisoners attack daily with axes and saws. The camp is so remote and the woods so daunting that escape is unlikely; the few who try give up and just walk back to camp. Verdi is thankful to be out of the war, but has doubts he's even in the United States because all the civilians he talks to are Finnish, French Canadians or Native Americans. At first he wonders if the Yoopers are also prisoners. 

Because Verde is one of the few prisoners who speaks passable English, he him sent into Munising on errands and to pick up supplies. The trips give him the chance to meet and talk to these strange Americans, and he's shocked to discover the vast majority of people living in this sparsely populated, isolated northern wilderness wouldn't think of leaving -- ever. 

As in most POW camps. the senior officer among the prisoners controls daily life inside the wire. The rub for Verde is that the camp kommandant is a virulent Nazi who thinks it is the duty of all detainees to escape, sabotage trains, destroy war plants, and spread terror and confusion among the populace.  Verde wants none of it; instead, on a trip into town he rescues a child from a burning house. He's a hero to the civilians, but the kommandant charges Verdi with aiding and abetting the enemy. When the Italian is found guilty and sentenced to death, his only option for staying alive is escape.

Verdi makes it into town and goes to the home of  an Italian mother and daughter. Both women consider the prisoner a hero for rescuing the boy, and the daughter, Chiara Frangiapani, readily agrees to help Verdi escape. The couple make a long and difficult drive to Detroit, where Verdi hopes to disappear in the big city.

By 1956, Verdi and Chiara are married and living in Detroit under the names of Frank and Claire Green.  Frank owns a small appliance repair shop, and life is good except for that constant twinge of fear that he will be found out. As the years unfold, Frank and Claire's lives and their growing family undergo drastic changes as Frank waits for the inevitable.

Then one day it happens. A man from the Immigration and Naturalization Services walks into Frank's life. He learns the INS doesn't want to send him back to Italy, they want to use him as bait for his old kommandant. Still a fanatical Nazi, the man has been tracking down and killing ex-POWs he believes were unfaithful to the Third Reich.

It wouldn't be fair to reveal much more of the plot as the book turns into an unconventional thriller that takes unexpected turns as Frank and Claire's quiet life comes under attack. In a last, desperate attempt to survive and elude the killer, the couple return to the U.P.

Smolens is a master at portraying the uniqueness of life in the U.P. in the 1940s as well as the hustle and bustle of Detroit during the war. He has an intuitive feel for setting scenes and peoples his novel with fully rounded, flesh and blood characters. Match those talents with the little known history of POW camps in the U.P. and a flair for storytelling, and you've got a can't-put-down reading experience.

Smolens, John. Wolf's Mouth, East Lansing: Michigan State University Press. 2017. pb $19.95

April 1, 2020 Post # 53

Quote for the day: "...[Lake Superior is] beautiful, empty, glittering, cold and brooding, gull-swept and impersonal; always there, alw...