Midwife in the Tire Swing

Intermezzo 6—Talking Furniture

It is 1930.

In India Mahatma Gandhi began his Salt March, a march with a small group of early followers to the shore of the sea where he hoped to manufacture salt in defiance of the British government monopoly on salt production.

Mother Jones, the union organizer, dies at age 100. She looks small and frail, shrunken, in the newspaper photographs. “Mother Jones,” says Lucy seventy-five years later. “‘Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.’ She said that.”

The film at the Willipaq Cinema is The Arizona Kid, an O. Henry tale, with Carole Lombard as Zorro’s love interest—America’s Most Lovable Bandit Continues His Adventures in Old Arizona in this Great Movietone Romance. Ripley’s Believe It or Not is the short subject. Mr. Ripley interviews John R. Vorhees, who, at age 102, has voted 81 times since his 21st birthday.

It is 1930.

And Cat’s pleasure is cutting the tails off fingerlings, the herrings called sardines, with her big, silver shears. She does this twelve hours daily, with half-Saturdays, in the tin-roofed fish plant at the commercial pier. Her hands are roughened and red, and wrapped with adhesive tape against scissor welts. She sits at a bench by a window that overlooks Willipaq harbor and the comings and goings of the trawlers. Her hands lay sardines side by side precisely, the magic of a simple repetitive task which, like performing a Chopin sonata or playing a poker hand while clutching a pistol under the table, bypasses the cognitive and swims to a distant shore—her mind, not the sardines. The shore is Little Big Fiddlehead Island, Canada just across the bay past a window yellowed with cigarettes and the coal fire. The Radio Hour of the Little Flower is her Sunday indulgence at the cannery. Cat arranges the little corpses in tidy rows inside their cans and sends the cans down the line for mustard sauce and soldering. In her ears rang the voice of Fr. Charles. E. Coughlin.

Through heterodyning squeals and unpredictable tuning—crackling atmospherics, sleet and snow squalls that attacked the power lines—from the Philco tabletop radio which imitated the shape of a cathedral window smeared with a spattering of fish guts, Fr. Coughlin bloomed and faded. Getting Consolidated Canneries to allow a radio on the packing floor had been a major achievement.

“Talking furniture.” Tad Needy, the Bull of the Woods, her floor supervisor, frowned on the new-fangled entertainment as it would distract his girls’ attention, perhaps confusing them. One Sunday the foreman paused to light his pipe. Fr. Coughlin was on a roll and his homily in mid-passage from hypothesis to synthesis:

“As we turn back the pages which tell us the story of the World War, we are convinced that it was one organized and operated for commercial purposes and commercial gains. Every cannon forged, every shell exploded was trade-marked with the sign of decadent capitalism. It was a war fought to make the world safe for Wall Street and for the international bankers.”

The Bull of the Woods gave Cat a funny look and expelled a cloud of deliciously acrid smoke. Cat coughed. Tad Needy sauntered off. He pretended to write a note on the pad he carried in his vest pocket. There was nothing on the pad; he just liked the girls to know he had his eyes open.

Fr. Coughlin’s voice was a rich voice, the voice of a beloved uncle more than that of an orator. Coughlin spoke with the unaffected brogue of a CBC announcer, but had a workingman’s delivery. Cat was sure he was a Newfoundlander who broadcast from Bangor. She sent Fr. Coughlin a letter. A man named Dave Peel answered.

Dear Miss Armstrong, thank you for your interest in The Radio Hour of the Little Flower. Due to the press of other engagements, Fr. Coughlin has requested that I respond to your very welcome letter dated March 14th instant.

Unfortunately, your attendance at a broadcast in Bangor, Maine will be impossible. You see, the program originates from WJR in Detroit. The program is sent out to our affiliate broadcasters on those large lacquer discs known as electrical transcriptions. But here is a treat for you and any other of our faithful Maine listeners who may be of your acquaintance: Fr. Coughlin will be broadcasting “live” as the radio folk have it, via telephone lines beginning in the fall. Because of this miracle of modern technology, The Radio Hour of the Little Flower will be visiting each of our affiliate stations during the coming year. Keep listening after Fr. Coughlin’s homily as the announcer will be sure to mention this fact and supply a listing of appearances by the Father.

You had mentioned that you are a working girl and employed in a packing plant. You are not alone; the Father wants you to be aware of this. You are one of the millions who comprise the sturdy and devoted listenership of The Radio Hour of the Little Flower. Thank you for your letter. I hope that you have noticed there is no attached appeal for a donation to continue our good work. That you work and that you listen to the Father’s radio sermons is sufficient. Your day is coming.

If I may quote Fr. Coughlin: “...both the laboring and agricultural classes of America are forced to work for less than a living wage while the owners of industry boastfully proclaim that their profits are increasing.”

Yours Sincerely,
Dave Peel, Chorister (6).

After his first broadcast on radio station WJR in 1926 Fr. Coughlin received eight letters from listeners. At his controversial peak, 30 million listeners coast-to-coast tuned in his broadcasts and he received 80 thousand letters a week. Cat’s letter was one of them.

*  *  *

Cat insisted on a hookup with “the cable” when she caught the bucket truck creeping by on the other side of the road. Rocky Johnson, the pole climber, was going slowly, paying out a line of wire from the huge spool mounted on a piece of pipe held between the sides of the truck with a line of large wooden clamps, the kind cabinet makers used. Every pole Rocky stopped the truck and climbed up with his tool belt bumping against his thighs to attach the wire with a staple. One staple. This was Maine and the company’s frugality was applauded.

Lucy had gone down to the road to watch his progress. “There’ll be proper cable hangers when we get it up and running,” Rocky promised. Following the truck was a Ford Fiesta, a rental car from the airport. In it was the president of the cable company. He went from door to door, shaking hands and introducing himself.

Lucy resisted a cable hook-up, for that meant they would have to buy a television set to go with it. “Something at the end of the wire? Where the pictures come in? That would be nice,” Cat said.

Cat played her own movies in her head; she saw them in flickering blues, the colors of rotogravure, the magentas and soul-searing combustible orange of endless sitcoms and game shows, infomercials for vegetable peelers, vinyl siding, body-building gear that promised immediate results and twenty-six low monthly payments of $49.95 and the latest scientific breakthrough for removing unwanted hair—“It’s New!” Flashes of snow blindness when a woodpecker or owl attacked one of Rocky’s splices were not unusual, not for Cat Hobart. That Lucy could now see Cat’s movies, too—this was new. And it interested him.

The septic too was new, again—one time too many. Coming in from the barn, Lucy shrugged off his overalls’ shoulder straps, walked out of his pants and stood to urinate into the sink. “I can do this now. Billy Bradshaw and his pumping shit uphill. I used to get to pee off the porch.” There was money left to pay on the septic connection. “‘A man only truly owns what he can carry in both hands at a dead run.’ Robert Heinlein said that. Good advice, bad management practice. I’ll be damned if I’m going connect the flush till it’s paid down.” As a boy, Lucy learned that most good stuff came from Someplace Else—a lesson that took many years and many miles to unlearn. Robert Heinlein was a science fiction writer; Cat made Lucy keep his paperback books in the barn for fear that visitors might see them.

“There are mice in the barn.” Lucy likes to read in the barn with Molly, the cat, the traps and the mice. No one bothers him there; it is like drinking on the sly. “I can’t have my books in the house. They attract mice. You said so.”

“Poison the mice,” says Cat.

Lucy will not use poison baits for mice and the red squirrels that scamper in the walls, nibbling at his electrical connections and leaving their droppings between the breakfast cereal and the sugar bowl. “Poison is not honorable.”

“You poison the ants.”

“Something I got from Ed Hobart. He sent it over with that good-looking girl he’s got working in the office. Heidi? Ed and I have not spoken. Not in all his 42 years. And he likes to keep it that way. He finds me an embarrassment. Because of his father. Ants are different. And he can send Heidi over as much as he wants.”

“His father? Ed has a father?”

“Your son, Cat. Elliot who fell on his head.”

“Elliot’s boy.”

“An embarrassment. Ed sometimes thinks he is Ian Emory’s child. Another rung on his ascending ladder of humiliation.”

“Yes, Ian Emory. The soldier. He enlisted. He was just like you, Lucy.”

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