A blog on reading, writing and life

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Union story

I wrote this for homework in grad school. A different version was later published in Everyday Fiction, but I still prefer my original version.

The harvesting time 'round south was coming to an end, and folks was beginning to pick up, and catch the Union lines north where there was still corn to be picked and hay to be bailed. There weren't no lack of jobs, what with so many boys being away in the war, but it didn't help the conditions none. Folks was still working from dawn 'til dusk, picking 'til their fingers bled, an' bailing 'til their legs were scratched up something fierce.

Men was pouring into the trains, trying to get up north where they could still make some coin before the winter came. Dozen or so men hopped in one freight car outside of St. Louie, headed up to Chicago. The car was filled with crates of canned corn. There was just enough room for the lot of them to stand side by side.

“Damn,” said one young boy, with a mop of blond hair and spray of freckles across his pink face. “I was hopin' there'd be 'nough room for me to sit. I got me a bum leg.”

“What happened, kid,” asked someone in the crowd.

“Caught in a thrasher when I was 12. Hurts to stand for too long, though by God don't I do it every goddamn day.” He fiddled with the buckle on his coveralls, and looked down like he was afraid of his own rough language.

“Well, ya ain't gonna sit now, so why don't yer shut yet goddamn mouth, boy,” said a gruff older man standing across from the boy. He had the same straw colored hair, though his was beginning to grey. “Don't be playin' these strangers for sympathy.” His voice carried the weight of seeing a lot of the world, and being made up on how it worked.

“Now sir,” said a young man next to the boy. “That's no way to talk to a brother. We've all tasted the same whip. No need to be throwing salt in one another's wounds.” He was clean-shaven and carried a large satchel, while the other men just had the clothes on their backs.

“That's my flesh an' blood and I'll talked to 'im how I please.” The scant light from between the boards of the car hit the man in his beaded black eyes, intensifying his glare. His face, like old leather, was folded into a scowl. “Ya don't fool me with yer fancy talk. I knew when I saws you hop on you was a damn Wobblie ramble-rouser.”

The young man smiled with his teeth. “Why, yes it's true. I'm an organizer for the IWW. We're trying unite the migratory workers in the Midwest, just like we got the lumberjacks together out west, who now enjoy a 8 hour work day and higher pay.” Even with as little room as he had, the organizer gestured broadly as he spoke. He talked quickly but with each word enunciated, like any practiced soapbox preacher.

“I wanna thank you, sir,” said another in the group. “Everyday I carry my union card and my mother's cross in my pocket, right over my heart.”

“What's the IWW?” said the boy.

“The Industrial Workers of the World,” said the organizer. “One big union to represent all the working class—without regard race, color or creed.” The train started to move, and the boy nearly lost his balance. The organizer steadied him with one hand. “Careful there, brother,” he said. The boy rested his body against the organizer's satchel.

“That's bullsheet and you know it,” said the man. “You devils are in the Kaiser, trying to sabotage the war effort. That's what they done in the northwest. Kept my older boy over in France from gettin' supplies he needed. They'll tell you all 'bout it too. They's proud that they slowed work in the lumber camps.”

“No, son,” the organizer said, looking down at the boy. “The IWW has never been in league with the Germans. That's just what the capitalist class wants him to think. They know that there's power in union, so they use scare tactics to break it apart.” The train was swaying and the boy was holding on to the organizer's satchel for balance sure as he was hanging on every word. The organizer wrapped one arm around him.

“Why if Big Bill Hayworth and the IWW had its way, your family wouldn't be needing for money. You wouldn't be in the fields. You'd be in school learning to read and write.”

Now he started singing and all the other union men joined in, “Hold the fort, for we are coming, union men be strong...” One fellow got out a harmonica and played along. Next time they got to the chorus, well if the boy wasn't joining in.

When folks got off in Illinois, the sky was near black on account of all the factories nearby. Most everybody was hanging around the freight yard and getting a stretch before they dogged it over to the fields. They pulled out handkerchiefs and whipped the sweat from their faces. Some pulled out crumpled cigarettes from their front pockets. Couple union men were still singing “Dump the Bosses of Your Back.” The organizer opened up his satchel to give the boy recruitment papers. When he looked inside he saw his money purse was gone. It had near a five hundred dollars of organizing funds. Gone. He looked round for the man and his boy, but they had already split.  

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