Read an Excerpt
Book One of God Bonded America a Trilogy
By Michael W. Weaver, Will Scott
Balboa PressCopyright © 2013 Michael W. Weaver and Will Scott
All rights reserved.
In the early 1880s, a young Mae Rodgers, the third oldest of fourteen children, lived with her family in a small Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, home. Nine of the fourteen children were boys, so two of the boys had to sleep with the girls in the three-bedroom house.
Mae, with her brown curls and steel-gray eyes, turned many heads as a young woman. She could likely have done better, but she began a long, difficult courtship with Calvin Kaye. Calvin, or "Pop," as he came to be known, had a bad temper, was a hard-core racist, and had a severe drinking problem. Even so, he was no better or worse than Mae's father, Bill Rodgers. Mae really wanted to make the relationship with Calvin work, as she longed to get out of the overly crowded home. Mae and Calvin finally married around 1895 and set up housekeeping in Harrisburg.
The thriving metropolis of Harrisburg became the capital of Pennsylvania in 1812. From the grounds of the capitol building, one could look down onto the Susquehanna River, the city's western border. The Native American Indians who first inhabited the general vicinity knew the area as Peixtin.
When Harrisburg was first established, it was a major crossroad of trade between the white men and the Native American Indians. John Harris, an English trader, was the first white man to settle in the area. By 1785, John Harris Jr. and William Maclay had mapped out the original city, from Pine Street to the north, Tuscarora to the south, the Susquehanna River to the west, and Cameron Street to the east. In 1791, John Harris Jr. named the city Harrisburg in honor of his father.
However, none of that mattered on the morning of February 3, 1897. A typical winter morning, the wind gusts howled straight up State Street, and the choppy whitecaps on the river separated the city from the river's west shore. The freezing rain stung when it slapped against bare flesh, and it was starting to change to a heavy, wet snowfall.
Calvin Kaye and several of his scrawny Rodgers brothers-in-law—Bill, Frank, Charlie, Walter, and Paul—were among the many volunteers of the City of Harrisburg Fire Department responding to the fire at the state capitol building. Flames quickly ate up $1.5 million worth of property. The state capitol building was destroyed, and the legislative halls fell in ruins.
It started on a day when the House of Representatives was in session. The Senate was about to come back into session after a short recess when someone noticed smoke pouring out of the windows of the House. Instantly there was a motion to adjourn. Meanwhile, in the Senate, the smell of fire pierced the senators' noses, and then smoke clouds surrounded them. Senator John Grady of Philadelphia quickly warned the senators, and they began ripping their desks loose from the wooden floors and carrying them out. The representatives did the same in the House chamber. Once outside, the desks were placed on the capitol grounds under trees and then covered.
Crowds of people gathered from all over the city to watch, as if the fire were a Wednesday afternoon show. Flames shot from the roof over the lieutenant governor's chamber, where the fire had originated. The people began shouting when they realized that they were able to get there from their homes but the fire department still had not yet arrived. When the firefighters did finally get there, the first thing the hose crews did was walk around the capitol, assessing the blaze. To the crowd, that was another waste of time.
The fire licked through the roof of the capitol. In numerous places, flames skipped about like burlesque dancers. At last, the fire companies started spraying water on the roof of the Senate wing, which seemed fruitless, as the fire had grown into a wall of flames, with embers of hot ash floating to the ground close to the spectators. To add to the mayhem, the water hardly had enough force to reach the roof's edge, let alone get to the blaze that was breaking through the roof.
Much of the water was evaporating from the flames and heat, but what was falling back to the earth was turning into ice on that cold February morning. Although the morning was stormy and a lot of wet snow was falling, the dry wood was defenseless against the fire. The capitol burned as if it were made of matchsticks.
The roof quickly collapsed into the building, and the fire rapidly ate its way down into the Senate chambers. Those who were trying to get furniture and documents out of the building were suddenly driven out and reduced to spectators like the hundreds of others. Within an hour or so, every part of the capitol was on fire. There was no hope. Nearby apartments were in danger of catching fire but were saved by an act of God—the wind had shifted in the opposite direction.
Numerous firefighters were injured by falling burning timbers. The flames finally burned themselves out when there was nothing left to burn.
The finger-pointing started while the fire was still smoldering. The locals and the news media all blamed the inefficiency of the City of Harrisburg Fire Department, staffed only by volunteers.
Pop, the Rodgers boys, and many other firefighters were on the hill at the capitol, putting out hot spots well into the next day, February 4. Once they were given the okay to return to the station, they cleaned up the gear and stowed it away. They then left the station and, realizing that their wives had no clue whether they were back from or still at the fire, went to their favorite watering hole for a few pints of ale before going home. They just had to unwind after a tough day and a half of fighting the fire and, frankly, to bitch a bit about the finger-pointing and nasty comments and accusations being hurled at them. After all, they were the ones putting their lives in jeopardy. What if those cruel comments about the fire department made the newspaper?
* * *
Pop and Mae's home was a third-floor flat at 13th and Vernon streets, off Derry Street, by the Mulberry Street Bridge. While the fire burned, Mae was having her own adventure. Dixie, the colored indentured girl for the other family in the main house, lived in a room on the second floor. At Mae's request, Dixie ran the entire way to the Rodgers house, which was right up against the canal, just south of Paxtang Street and next to the Harrisburg Barrel company. She was to bring Mae's sisters to Mae.
Two of Mae's sisters, Stella and Zena, readied their father's barrel wagon, declaring that the only part of them that was running that day was their noses. Stella was built like her father, short and round, and she could not get around as fast as Zena, who could have passed for Mae's twin. Riding the wagon was also good for little Dixie. Sitting between Stella and Zena, Dixie warmed up from her almost two-mile run in the awful weather.
Once they got to the flat, they stopped at the top of Derry and Mulberry streets to water the horse at the water fountain. They could see the fire out in the distance and wondered what it was. They guessed that it was one of the churches over on Third Street.
They knew that Pop and their brothers were certainly over there. However, they had no time to dillydally around, as Mae needed their help. Stella waddled up the steps, having to take a breather a few times when she became winded. Zena ran up the stairs, opened the door, and yelled out, "Mae!"
From her bedroom, Mae responded, "Ahhhhhhhhh, daaammmmnnnn!"
They rushed into the room to see her legs spread, a puddle of wetness between her legs, and sweat rolling off her face in the relatively cool room. She again yelled, "Ahhhhh!"
Zena turned and went to the kitchen to warm water on the stove. She told Dixie where Mae kept her towels and told her to fetch a few.
Stella, moving about as quickly as cold molasses running uphill in winter, lowered herself to her knees like an elephant taking a graceful bow in the center ring of the circus. She stationed herself to receive the newborn child Mae was laboring to deliver.
Stella said, "Sis, stand over the top of me and push like you are trying to poop." She continued, "Dixie, honey child, get one of those towels wet with the warm water and stand behind Mae's tush. Wrap the towel around her belly and pull it tight like it's a girdle."
Mae said, "Oh my God, I'm going to kill Pop."
Stella said, "Sis, lean forward a bit. It will take the pressure off."
Mae groaned and said, "I wish I was still a virgin."
Zena laughed and said, "It's a bit late for that now."
Mae only labored for about an hour, during which she twice threatened to destroy Pop's manhood and three times threatened to kill him. Dixie and Mae's sisters also heard numerous cuss words. Nevertheless, it was soon over, while several miles away, Pop and his brothers-in-law were in the worst throes of their personal hell while fighting the fire.
Russell Kenneth Kaye came into this world that day. Dixie started cleaning up the mess made on the floors in the flat while the Rodgers girls took care of little Russ.
Pop and Mae ended up having two children, and both were boys, Russell and little Cal. "Barrel" was Cal's nickname, as his physique, even as a small child, resembled one of the barrels coming out of the factory by Mae's childhood home.
Calvin Jr. was born November 2, 1902, which, ironically, was the day of the groundbreaking for the new capitol building in Harrisburg. Joseph Miller Huston designed the new building.
Pop found work at a doughnut shop. As soon as he got off work there, he went to Bethlehem Steel to put in another five or so hours during the day. He got off work at about one or two o'clock in the afternoon and did his drinking until early evening. Then he passed out until about eleven thirty at night, when he woke up to start the routine all over again.
Pop thought that if he got five hours of sleep, all would be well, giving him the weekends to spend with his family. However, most weekends he spent more time nursing a bottle and running his vulgar mouth than he spent with his wife and two sons. Pop essentially forced Mae to find things to do with their boys outside of the apartment to protect them from his mouth and behavior. Unfortunately, the boys were destined to be a product of their environment.
Mae walked to work in all weather conditions. She sold fresh and canned produce at a fruit stand in the fifty-year-old Broad Street Market. She took the boys with her, and they had to sit under the apple bin and play quietly so she could keep her job. She usually earned just enough money to buy some needed food items before she went home.
There were weeks when Mae didn't need things like Pop's three-pound crock of apple butter at fifteen cents, five cakes of homemade soap for twenty-five cents, and fresh coffee beans at thirty-five cents a pound. In the spring of the year, if you were willing to pay extra for the transportation needed to get it down here all the way from Vermont, there was Vermont's delicious maple syrup, which was a yearly purchase at ninety cents a gallon. Mae tried her best to have such extras around the house. She called them frills, and she tried to spend no more than fifty cents of her three-dollar pay on them.
She needed other things almost on a weekly basis. Kidney beans were ten cents per quart, peas were seven cents per quart, and tomatoes were eight cents per quart. As for meat, she would walk around just at the close of business on Saturday and in many cases get deep discounts on meats from the regular price of beef roast at ten cents a pound, cured ham at twelve cents a pound, and sausage at twelve cents a pound. If she played her cards well and took the boys in tow wearing their mismatched, patched, and hemmed clothing, she could get ten or twelve pounds of meat to get them through the next week for fifty to sixty cents and take home about eighty cents of her pay to get things during the week. For the most part, she could not depend on Pop's check. Some of it would have gone to drink before he even got home. Mae usually forced herself to stay away from her weakness, peanut brittle. Even though Pop drank at least half of his pay, Mae felt guilty if she took even five cents out of her earnings for a half pound of peanut brittle.
The Broad Street Market was founded pre-Civil War and helped feed over five hundred troops coming through Camp Curtin. Mae took pride in her job, as the market had helped feed her father and several of her uncles when they fought in the Civil War. The original building that ran from Third to Sixth streets was still part of the market. The stone end of the building was built in 1863, and the brick end of the structure was built about ten years earlier. The market remained a community gathering place even thirty-five years after it opened. Moreover, it was still growing.
As little Russ and Barrel got too old to hang out at the market under the apple table, they started to resist going to the market and wanted to stay home. However, Pop made it clear that he wasn't a damn babysitter and they needed to be out of the house.
Russ and the bigger boys in the neighborhood played "conkers." When the pods, called conkers, fell off the horse chestnut trees, the boys would select the firm ones and bore a hole in each one. Then they would run several feet of twine through them. Conkers was played in pairs, and the idea was to swing your conker to hit the opponent's conker. The game ended when one conker got broken. Then the unbroken conker was declared the winner. Barrel would never play with Russ after Russ's conker accidentally hit him in the face when the twine slipped out of Russ's hand.
When they got bored, they played "knocking down Ginger," a game in which the boys ran up to somebody's house, knocked on the front door, and then scooted away. Lord only knows why the game amused them so much, but it passed the time.
Then there were the things that really made Pop raise the roof when he found out about them. The boys would steal some of his booze, gather some corn silk and a few pipes, and head down the alley to act like little men. Then there was lifting a few of Pop's private collection of early nudie magazines that the Rodgers boys got shipped in mass quantities all the way from France to resell. Pop had at least twenty-five of them hidden away in a metal box in the closet, and the boys snuck a few out at a time. They were early titles, and Pop had at least two of most, including H&E Naturist, Photo Bit, Body in Art, Figure Photography, Nude Living, and Modern Art for Men. Once they and the neighborhood boys saw these, there was no going back to the lingerie section of the Sears catalog.
As the boys grew older, the little flat on the third floor was no longer working for them. The family moved to 230 S. 15th Street to give them a little more space. The boys knew all too well from living in the flat that if they made the least bit of noise in the evening, Pop would get up and wear out their butts with a hickory switch or his leather razor strap. The names and curse words he would call the boys were not fit to call an animal, let alone one's child. He also was known to hit Mae if he felt the boys were not "under control," for he held Mae responsible for the effective discipline of their sons. The hope was that the bigger house would lessen that feeling of imprisonment and keep them off the streets a bit more, for their parents had starting hearing stories about their behavior.
The new neighborhood was nosier than the old one, and this became a problem for Pop and, in reality, for the entire family. It defeated the purpose of the move, and the noise drove the boys to the streets early in the day to escape Pop's carryings-on. Russ and Barrel were running the streets of Harrisburg at the ages of thirteen and nine years old. Because of the foul language and other crap Pop spewed around the house, Russ and Barrel stayed away from home more and more to stay out of trouble with their parents.
Mae tried her best to expose the boys to religious values and community at the Salem United Church of Christ as a replacement to running the streets. At best however, the church only saved the boys from being worse than they were. They grew up with troubled lives, and because of that, they found their way to the bottle, loose women, and fist fighting. Their father was their role model, and by the time they were in their mid and early teens, they were nothing but trouble. Mae was deeply despondent.
Maxamillion Kline, Max for short, was a Jewish friend of Russ's, and he called him "my favorite kike." He lived just off Forster, on South 17th Street. Max was quite tall and had sandy brown hair, blue eyes, and more freckles on his face than there are stars in the sky. The two of them would regularly skip school and take their fishing poles, a pouch of corn, and some potato mash to the lower side of the Dock Street Dam. They would fish, catch carp, and measure them across the tracks of the railroad bridge. If they were not longer than the width of the track, they would throw them from the bridge, through the air, and try to get them to the top side of the dam so they could watch them go flying back over the falls.
Excerpted from War Bonds by Michael W. Weaver, Will Scott. Copyright © 2013 Michael W. Weaver and Will Scott. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.