LESSONS TO LEARN OVER SEVENTY-FIVE

Time passes quickly when you are involved with an idea. For me the past five months have been spent thinking about stories of our nation’s industrial past. During this time I have written three stories that bring to life the experiences of the people who worked in the mills and factories of our nation. Also, I have visited the National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania eight times for tours and teaching sessions to gain an understanding of how they tell this story of our country. Since early January I have tried to offer to the museum staff suggestions of ways that they might incorporate oral storytelling in their presentation to the public. My ideas have been acknowledged, and even appreciated by some of the staff, but so far I have not been invited to discuss my ideas.

I ask myself: why is the NMIH staff reluctant to discuss my storytelling ideas? This is not the first time I have failed to sell an idea. Anyone who is creative, and presents new ideas, will fail more times than they succeed. But for this blog, I find myself thinking about my age and its influence on the reception of my creative ideas today. Do the young staff of NMIH look at me and see a man over seventy-five—which I am—and they say, “What does that old man know?” I reflect on something that Philip Roth said in an interview for the New York Times. Talking about the decision to stop writing novels at the age of seventy-eight, he said: “I had a strong suspicion that I’d done my best work and anything more would be inferior. I was by this time no longer in possession of the mental vitality or the verbal energy or the physical fitness needed to mount and sustain a large creative attack…” I certainly do agree with Mr. Roth that I do not have the physical and mental energy that I had ten years ago.

I could argue with myself and say: well, you are not Philip Roth. You’ve had, at best, limited success in your work. Your standards are not as high as his. Besides, you are a dyslexic writer; you have always struggled to read and write. You have to work your stories over and over to make them intelligible for others. You write not because you are a good writer, you write because you think you have something to say and you want it recorded as your perspective on this life! You love what you do, why not continue until you drop dead!

So again, I ask myself: what are you going to do about this relationship with NMIH? Nancy advises: Be patient, you do not know the struggles they are going through to keep the museum running in only their second year of existence. I remind her that I have never been a patient man and quote Grandfather Jung: “I have had much trouble getting along with my ideas. There was a daimon in me, and in the end its presence proved decisive. It overpowered me, and if I was at times ruthless it was because I was in the grip of the daemon. I could never stop at anything once attained. I had to hasten on, to catch up with my vision. Since my contemporaries, understandably, could not perceive my vision, they saw only a fool rushing ahead.”

I will try to take the advice of my good wife and mentor. I will, for a while, continue my work on stories from our industrial past. One of the stories I have written is based on an idea from a novel, Out of This Furnace, by Thomas Bell, published in 1941. I call my story, The Price of a Smile.

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Stanislaw Duplaga was twenty-three when he came to America from Poland. His journey began when he received a letter from his brother in America. The letter contained $ 3.50 in American money. Included with the money were strict instructions: When you arrive in New York, take a ferry to New Jersey and buy a train ticket to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania with the money I have provided. If you need help show this paper in English to any policeman you meet. On a sheet of white paper was printed clearly: Please help me find my way to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The letter ended with a warning about men who might try to steal his money and possessions. Fortunately, his brother did not warn him about beautiful, blond haired women.

Stan first noticed the beautiful, blond haired woman standing alone on the pier in Bremen as they waited to board the ship to America. On a warm, early summer afternoon, she wore a light sweater over a simple dress that did not conceal the curves of her body. After they boarded the ship to America, time and again he found himself mesmerized by glimpses of the beautiful woman in the narrow passages of the ship; or, across the crowded steerage deck of the ship.

The steerage deck on a 19th century steam ship was normally below the main deck. On the journey to America, the steerage might accommodate up to one hundred of the poorest immigrants. On the journey back to Europe, it was used to carry cargo. The large open space in the steerage had bunk beds lining the walls and the center was filled with tables for eating and social activities. Single men slept at one end of the steerage and single women at the other end of the compartment. The bunks in-between were ideally reserved for married couples and their children.

The journey to America normally took just under two weeks. Stan was lucky. The seas were calm and he did not experience sea sickness. Nevertheless, he was lonely traveling without family or friends. Numerous times he looked across the large room and he saw the young woman he had first encountered on the pier in Bremen. He saw her numerous times in the passages going up to the main deck for the fresh sea air, but he could not gain the courage to engage her in conversation.

Two days before they were scheduled to arrive in New York, Stan finally found the perfect opportunity to speak to the young woman. She was seated at one of the eating tables, not alone, but there was room for him to sit down next to her. With his bowl of porridge he signaled his wish to seat himself beside her. She nodded a shy affirmation.
“My name is Stanislaw Duplaga.”
“I am Maryla Stankiewiez”, she responded.
“And where is your new home in America”, if I may ask?
“Ah, Pennsylvania, I believe it is called”, responded Maryla with hesitation.
“Ah, Pennsylvania, that is also my destination. Do you have family living there?”
“Yes, my older sister lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.”
“You are traveling to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania!” cried out Stan with great excitement. “I too am traveling to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to live with my older brother. Perhaps in two days we will travel on the same train in America!”
Stan looked to Maryla, expecting a happy response to their discovery. Instead, he saw a sad look on her face. “Are you not happy coming to this new land?”
Maryla responded with her eyes down, “I miss my family: my mother, my father, my younger brothers and sisters. Tomorrow is my father’s day of birth celebration. The family will be gathering: uncles, aunts, cousins…to share a meal, a glass of wine, the family together, to dance together…but… I am here alone in the world.”

Stan did not reply to Maryla. He understood the uncertainty of coming to a new land. Later, when he was alone, he thought of Maryla’s sad look and he wanted to change it, to bring a smile to her beautiful face. Stan felt in his pocket for the little purse where he carried the $3.50 in American money. He pondered: How can I bring a smile to Maryla’s face?

Next morning, Stan visited the third-class steward on the main deck. With his American money, he ordered a bottle of red wine for $2.00. And for $ 1.00 he was able to hire an accordion player from the ship’s crew. That evening, he managed to be eating with Maryla in the steerage cabin when the sailor showed up with the bottle of wine and his accordion. From the bowels of the steam ship that night the sound of music and singing filled the air as the steerage passengers celebrated the birthday of Maryla Stankiewiez’s father!

The following day the ship from Bremen, Germany docked near Castle Garden, the New York port of entry for immigrants in 1890. Stan had just enough money to buy a ticket for the ferry to travel from lower Manhattan to New Jersey. When Maryla hurried to find the train station to buy a ticket to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Stan lied and told her he had family to visit in New Jersey before traveling to Bethlehem. He did not share that he would be walking instead of riding the train. As they parted Maryla smiled and told him how wonderful the evening of music, wine and singing had been for her. She very much wanted to see him when he came to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

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So Raymond, as your anima, I encourage you to listen to your wife: find patience in your old age, do not cut and run from the museum relationship as you have so many times in your life. Maybe there are lessons to learn as you grow even older!

 

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