Thursday, May 27, 2010

John Jackson: Pop

Son of the American Legion: A young John Jackson.

Colorful characters abound in the Gang's memoirs. John Jackson has written extensively about his father, a World War I veteran who worked in a knife factory. Among John's earliest memories are the tattoos his father acquired as a young man. "Eighty years ago, long-sleeved shirts and coats were a standard part of male attire," John writes, "and I was quite old before I realized that my father’s tattoos were in any way unusual. I assumed all fathers had them. The most spectacular was a large parrot, which extended from elbow to wrist. A line drawing of a crawling baby represented—I think—Baby Snooks, a newspaper cartoon character." The following is excerpted from John's memoir "Pop":

John Arthur Jackson, known to his two sons as Pop and to most of the rest of his world as Art, was born in 1895. His life story is complicated and, in many ways, undocumented. I certainly can’t claim objectivity, so the following account must be accepted on faith. There is no one alive who can challenge the few facts I possess.

By the time my father was nine years old, both his parents were dead. I don’t think he went to school much after he was orphaned. He lived with a cousin and he worked, perhaps as an apprentice. He was allowed to keep ten cents each week from his pay; five cents of that was put into the church collection plate. The other five cents was for clothing and wild living.

At the age of twelve or thirteen, he left and lived on his own, camping for a time near the village fairgrounds. At about age fifteen he went off with one of the circuses that visited the fairgrounds each year. He became a roustabout, putting up tents, feeding animals, and so on. When he was sixteen or seventeen, he joined the army.

Most of Pop’s army experience was in the Coast Artillery in Panama; he became a “hard hat” diver on a mine-laying ship. He was discharged from the army in 1917, but a few months later, when World War I started, he was called up and sent back to Panama.

Near the end of the war, he was cutting loose a mine cable that had become entangled in the propeller of a ship, when a nearby mine exploded. Pop was seriously injured. For the rest of his life, he received a partial disability pension and was in and out of veterans’ hospitals. He had attacks of something akin to asthma, and I suspect in today’s world he would be diagnosed with PTSD.

It took Pop eleven minutes to walk home from work. Since his stride was measured and military, the time didn’t vary. I was expected to be at the table, ready for supper at 5:11. Pop would walk into the house, wash his hands in a chipped enamel pan from under the kitchen sink, and sit down for supper.

My mother worked as a sewing machine operator in an underwear factory, getting home about 4:30. This made putting a meal on the table by 5:11 a little tricky. I would often stop by the underwear factory when I got out of school to pick up a shopping list. The sewing room at the factory was large and open, with long rows of tables with sewing machines on both sides. My grandmother worked at the sewing machine opposite my mother. I would pick up my list, go shopping (I often bought salads and cold cuts at our local delicatessen), and have the food home ready for preparation by 4:30.

On Thursday, my mother and I would meet Pop on Main Street and we would shop for payday supper. It often included round steak, salads, Frisbee’s pie, and ice cream!

Pop was very active in the local American Legion and in the Masonic Order. One of our family activities every year was to place a flag and plant a geranium on every veteran’s grave in four local cemeteries. One of the graves was that of a veteran of the German army in World War I. Every year, my mother would make a World War I German flag down at the underwear factory and we would place it on the German soldier’s grave.

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, my brother Jimmy joined the Army Air Corps. Pop tried to join all of the armed and semi-armed forces, but he wasn’t accepted. In the first place, he was forty-six years old, pretty old for most of the services. In the second place, he had a 25 percent disability from World War I. He was rejected by every service, including the Coast Guard and the Maritime Service.

He consoled himself by going to work for the Spence Engineering Company in Walden, which had war contracts. By doing that, he felt he was making at least a small contribution to the war effort. The company had a long history of war work. During the Civil War it had been known as the Rider Erickson Engine Company. Erickson was the designer of the Monitor (of Monitor and Merrimack fame), and some of the parts of the famous ironclad were made in Walden. Another war-related activity involved donating blood. Pop had a type of type-O blood that was much in demand on the battlefield. He would go to New York City as often as they would take him, sometimes carpooling with other donors, and donate his blood, which would be flown, unprocessed, to Europe.

Early in 1942, a public meeting was called by the Army Air Corps in the high school auditorium. The purpose was to convince the people that a station of the Aircraft Warning Service was needed in the Walden area. Somehow, probably just by volunteering, Pop was chosen as the chief observer with the responsibility to set up and administer a station in Walden. It required the finding of a proper location for the observing site and organizing volunteer observers, two at a time, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. That’s a pretty big job for a town of 5,000 people. In short order, we had a temporary station in a trailer on a farm near town. It was a pretty inconvenient location, particularly with gasoline rationing and was impractical for winter operation. Within a few months, a permanent station was set up on top of the Telephone Company building right in the middle of town. It was the tallest building in the downtown area, overlooking the twice life-sized bronze statue of President McKinley holding a large American Flag. The station operated as required until the end of the war. Obviously, there were many occasions when people had to miss their assignments. The shifts were six hours starting at noon. When substitutes were needed, my father, my mother and I were the easiest ones to find. At the end of the war, Pop got a medal for serving over 2,000 hours, Mom got one for over 1,500 hours, and I got one for over 1,000 hours.

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