Memoirs of a bygone era

November 1st, 2012

History was always one of my best subjects in both grade school and high school, because I thought it was fascinating. My feelings haven’t changed; I think it’s important to know how we as Americans and world citizens arrived at this point in history. I believe that in order to make decisions now, we must understand our past. People need to document their histories for others to learn from and enjoy.

My maternal grandfather is famous in our family for his stories about life in the Great Depression and in the Navy during World War II. He grew up during a time when immigrants came from across the world to America seeking a better life. He had an up-close and personal view of the struggles in the early 20th century as a first generation American.

Thankfully, he decided to put his thoughts on paper and share his story with a wider audience. My grandfather, who celebrated his 96th birthday earlier this year, recently published a book about growing up along the Ohio River in an area informally known as the Steel Valley.

The town where he grew up was a “melting pot” of ethnicities – Greeks, Croats, Germans, Poles and Romanians, among others. Many of these people came to work in the town’s thriving steel mill, which was a booming industry in this country at the time, or owned businesses that primarily catered to mill workers.

With the prosperity of the mill came the growth of the town, even when depression struck the nation. Even when times were tough, people had the perseverance to keep going. In the case of my ancestors, life was better in America than back in their war-torn countries, so a little economic hardship was not going to keep them down. If anything, the townspeople built a greater sense of community out of that common experience.

I find it remarkable that, in the book, my grandfather lists specific businesses and residences on each street in the town. For some of them, he even remembers addresses. His memory is quite astounding.

One fascinating story in particular comes to mind. During an October day in the early-to-mid 1930s, someone came in to a billiards establishment in town wanting to play pool. One of the owners of the place enlisted my grandfather, with whom he was acquainted, to play pool with this stranger. After the two played a couple of games, the stranger paid and took off. My grandfather described the man as “sociable.” But, little did he know, he had just finished playing pool with Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, a notorious bank robber and outlaw who was listed by the FBI at the time as “Public Enemy No. 1.” The next day, my grandfather writes, he discovered his identity by reading about his death in the local newspaper.  Floyd was killed in a shootout with police in a nearby town hours after the pool game ended.

So, you might be asking, what can we learn from this book? I think a couple of lessons jump out.

First, as I wrote in the beginning, history is something we must continue to record and preserve. Understanding who we are and where we’ve come from helps to define us. A better knowledge of the past gives us context for what we face in the present and future.

Also, my grandfather characterizes the neighborhood where he grew up as one where everyone got along, no matter what their nationality or skin color was. I think we could learn from that model. Rather than focus on our differences, why not accentuate our similarities? Maybe we’d all get along a lot more if that were the case.

If you go through my grandfather’s old neighborhood these days, you’d find weeds, run-down buildings and closed portions of a dying steel mill. You would never know that the area was once a center of activity.

That, my friends, is why knowing history makes all the difference.