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.

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