A memoir writing assignment unlocks memories of holidays past and a bittersweet childhood education
By Kevin Uhrich 01/01/2013
I started a recent class in Chicano Studies with the implicit understanding that, unlike my classmates, I, a white male in his early 50s, had never been oppressed, at least in any modern understanding of the word. All but three other students in this class at California State University, Northridge were of different Latino heritages, one was African American, and many of these kids, some young men but mostly young women in their teens and early 20s, already had many experiences in which they were targeted for trouble because of their skin color — by police, employers, even teachers. But not me.
After studying the roots of oppression and writing about my race and gender for this class, though, I came to better understand a different story about myself, one in which there actually were elements of not-so-subtle social exclusion in my younger years. Only these were byproducts not of my color, but my Irish Catholic upbringing and lower-middle class home; I was reared in a generally happy and loving family, but one that seemed to always be in need of money — conditions created by social forces beyond my comprehension when I was the age of my classmates.
It was for these reasons I decided I had a story to tell, as opposed to retelling one or more of the hundreds of yarns that I’d written as a reporter over the past three decades about dozens of people who had found themselves outside of society for one reason or another. Staying away from my experiences as a journalist, I turned to my past to connect with the person I am today.
You are there
I began this with a note about my father. If he were alive today, Dad would have turned 101 years old on Nov. 20. His name was John, but everyone called him Brud, which was short for Brudder, or brother, a nickname given to him by his younger siblings that he carried his whole life. My deceased mother’s birthday is also in November. Her name was Faye, and she would have been 96 this year. Doing some quick math, this means Dad was 47 and Mom was 42 when I was born. Having older parents was both a blessing and a curse, especially as a teenager. Perhaps “curse” is too harsh a word, but on the downside, Mom and Dad were much older than the parents of my friends and not really that socially active, which, regrettably, I, in my ageist teenage way of thinking, found embarrassing.
One of the many blessings, however, was the transference of all the history these two wonderful, if sometimes hard-bitten, people possessed from decades past, times which they both could recall with such clarity that it was as though events like the Great Depression, the New Deal and World War II had all occurred only yesterday and not 40 years prior. The oral tradition that developed from sitting around the kitchen table and arguing about minutiae related to political and historical events imbued me with a deep appreciation for history in general and my own history in particular. Even if I didn’t quite understand the feeling as a youngster, I somehow intuitively knew my life did not actually begin in 1959, the year I was born, but many years — centuries — before I arrived in the world. From childhood, I believed in my heart that I belonged in my little hometown, Lebanon, Pa, population 25,000, located about 90 miles west of Philadelphia.
My father was second oldest of 12 children and the oldest male in his family. As did his father and other teenaged children at the time, Dad worked at the dirty and dangerous Bethlehem Steel plant before, during and after the Great Depression. However, what only the older kids in the family knew was that Dad had been blacklisted from the giant steel manufacturing plant for his union organizing activities in the 1940s. Because he needed to help feed and clothe some of his own brothers and sisters, Dad had only made it through the eighth-grade and had few skills other than sports and steel work.
By the time he was 8, Dad was already so enmeshed in the community’s culture of steel he served as batboy to Babe Ruth, who barnstormed with the Lebanon Bethlehem Steel’s baseball team in 1919. Twenty-odd years later, though, all that ended, after he was fired following a serious work injury, a broken arm. The union-fearing Republican business owners of the time refused to rehire him after the union was finally approved, and he worked a full-time clerking position and other low-paying jobs.
Dad was a pretty athletic guy, and one of his many jobs was managing a local sporting goods store owned by one of the few Jewish people living in Lebanon, Charlie Baer, who was Dad’s friend. Even though our family was devoutly Catholic, we also celebrated Jewish holidays with Charlie and his wife, Ruth. Another one of Dad’s jobs was managing the local newspaper distributorship, the little city’s hub of all printed information. This is where newspapers from around the East Coast were dispersed citywide by an army of boys pulling giant wooden wagons full of newspapers. The business was owned by another Jewish man named Dave Etter, who was also good friends with Dad.
My mother, on the other hand, was highly educated, read voraciously and worked as a registered nurse at the local hospital. But as a result of them working all the time, my three much older sisters — Cela, Martha and Mary, all in high school, with a fourth sister (Cathie, the oldest child) away, studying to be a nun at a convent in Philly — were responsible for taking care of me, two brothers slightly older than me and our modest home.
My eldest brother, Jack, the second oldest child, was from 1961 to 1965 a college student, with me just out of diapers. Deep in college-loan debt, Jack decided against teaching school in Lebanon after graduation. Instead, he married his girlfriend, Barb, the daughter of a local physician and former mayor, who treated me like her own little brother. They went on to live in such exotic places as Washington, DC, and Philadelphia, where he became a social worker and they joined the fledgling social resistance movements in those days. Short-haired and bespectacled, Jack, a former Republican for Nixon in 1960, was slowly becoming a hippie. However, while that transformation was occurring, Barb learned she had cancer. The disease spread quickly, and Barb died not long after that in a hospital in Philadelphia.
As soul crushing as Barb’s death was, Jack’s life went on, and when he returned home to visit, his hair getting a little longer each time, he would bring with him what seemed to me wild tales about the Black Panthers, anti-war rallies, communal living and mounds of magazines and other reading material unavailable in our little hometown. Periodicals like In These Times, The Guardian, The Utne Reader, The (old) Village Voice, The Nation and politically radical cartoon booklets were just some of the forbidden, or “verboten,” publications I pored over at a very early age.
My parents frowned on Jack’s radical political activities, mainly because historic little Lebanon had always been very pro-war (who do you think was buying all that steel?) and still remains that way, and because they were rabidly Republican. My parents had already felt the economic pinch associated with Dad being let go by Bethlehem Steel. They knew firsthand how petty, vindictive and frightened people with a little bit of money could be. They worried about my brother’s physical safety, but they didn’t discourage him.
More than anything, Mom and Dad were devoted to their family and to the Catholic Church, in that order. Mom took all the kids to services on Sunday, and Dad attended Mass every day at 6 a.m. in his later years. Even though he’d only made it through eighth-grade, the old guy was able to speak some Latin, which he learned as an altar boy. Although neither of them made much money, our parents sent us all to the local Catholic school, which back then charged only moderate to nominal tuition, not the exorbitant fees we see today. A better than good education was attainable, and they both sacrificed pleasures and dreams in their own lives so all of us could have such an opportunity. We helped with our own tuition by getting jobs, like delivering papers. I learned at an early age to try hard at things I liked, which, unfortunately, did not include school work. But during this time in my life, working as a paperboy in Dad’s shop, I was also exposed to a number of great East Coast newspapers on a daily basis, along with all the stuff Jack was bringing home.
My knowledge of the world as I saw it then — much as I see it now — was molded as much by the reading material I was consuming, some of it revolutionary in nature, as it was by these very different but generally positive intra-familial relationships, which, by virtue of the family’s size, represented, in many ways, a microcosm of the real world.
Although my mother was Welsh and Irish, and my father’s side of the family possesses a very German last name, it was always with the Irish — Irish Catholics — that my family members and I most identified. That allegiance stems from the crack that the Irish Catholics helped create in my family tree more than a century ago, a split that remains to this day.
My name is indicative of the mixture of European people who comprise my racial identity. “Kevin” is ancient Gaelic, Irish, as is my middle name, Patrick. “Uhrich,” or “von Uhrich,” is another ancient name originating in Germany that literally means “clockmaker.” Thanks to research by an uncle, we learned that the Uhrich side of the family came to North America in the late 1730s. They settled in Pennsylvania to escape religious and political persecution in Germany, where Lutherans and Calvinists had been forced to live under the yoke of a Catholic ruler in the early 1700s, John William, Elector of the Palatinate and Duke of Newburg, writes Dr. Walter Allen Knittle in his 1937 book, “Early Palatine Emigration.” Knittle believes crop decimation caused by ceaseless war was more responsible for the mass emigration than religious intolerance. Whatever the case may be, many of the real or imagined injustices those people fled were, in turn, used against their own family members in America more than 160 years later. In essence, they had adopted the tactics of their own oppressors in efforts to assimilate with the dominant Lutheran-dominated culture, even if that meant tearing apart their own family.
Grandfather John Uhrich, a steel worker, musician and, at the time, a Lutheran, met my grandmother, Katherine Murray, an Irish Catholic immigrant, around the turn of the last century. During this time, the Uhrichs in Lebanon were lawyers, doctors and law enforcement officials. But after the couple wed, grandfather’s family disowned him for marrying not just an Irish person, which was frowned upon, but an Irish Catholic, which was absolutely verboten. But the two were in love, grandfather converted to Catholicism, and over the next many years they had 12 children together, the second oldest male being my father.
When Dad married Mom in 1941 (their 71st wedding anniversary would have also been in November), the same problem with religious intolerance presented itself again. Only this time it involved my mother’s family, which was partly Irish but not Catholic. In fact, her parents, the Shields, were Protestant, and they absolutely forbade their five daughters from dating Catholics.
As a child growing up in Lemoyne, an all-white suburb of Harrisburg, Mom recalled seeing cross burnings on the lawns of some homes in her neighborhood. She often told us of her Sunday school teacher, the proud wife of a local Ku Klux Klan leader. Remember, at the time, Catholics and Jews were on the list of people the Klan hated, along with African Americans and “foreigners.”
So when my parents married, my mother converted to Catholicism, defiantly memorizing all the prayers and performing all the rituals better than anyone born to the faith ever could. As a result, her parents and younger sisters shunned her and Dad. Then my parents, in turn, had eight children over the next 18 years, me being the youngest.
What is remarkable to me is the level of hatred people had for others, based not only on race but also religion. This was common. Being Catholic in Lebanon in the 1960s carried with it social stigmas that were prevalent throughout my childhood. At football games between the local public high school and our Catholic school, for instance, children from the other side and some of their parents would bring dead fish to the games, or effigies of the Pope, to taunt us. They called us names like “mackerel snappers” and “fish heads” for the Vatican’s former rule against eating meat on Fridays.
One particularly elaborate display of all this animosity (they call it hate these days) was a makeshift coffin the public school kids had built and then placed a dead fish inside before parading it around at football and basketball games. What made this all the more remarkable was that it was done in the presence of, and in most cases with the consent of, school and law enforcement officials in attendance at these events. The message of all these theatrics was abundantly clear: Catholics were not welcome here. And believe me, rare was the day that my slightly older brother, Jim, and I didn’t find ourselves in fights with the public school kids we had to pass each day on our way to St. Mary’s Elementary.
‘This is not a slum’
Of course, these social distinctions created their own economic realities, most of them negative. My first knowledge of belonging to any particular class came when I was 8 or 9 years old during a family dinner one Sunday after Mass. Jack, who by 1968 was sporting a beard to go with wire-rimmed glasses and now-flowing long hair, was deep into the movements for equal rights and against the war in Vietnam when he visited from his new home in nearby Philadelphia.
Our house in this racially tense, working-class neighborhood, comprising the extremely few African-American and Puerto Rican families who lived in Lebanon at the time, was old but sturdy. It needed work, and Dad and Mom always seemed to be fixing something. By this time, Dad was in his early 60s and Mom was in her late 50s. This was the first house they owned in the nearly 30 years they had been married, and they knew they would never own another.
Jim and I were mesmerized by Jack. We often mouthed some of his new radical ideas without really knowing what they meant. At dinner, Jim, who was sitting next to Dad, suddenly declared that we lived in a slum. He was just repeating something Jack had said earlier. But with that, Dad backhanded Jim across his still-open mouth, knocking him backwards and out of his chair. Dad stood over Jim, who was perhaps 12 or 13, and pointed his finger down at him: “This is not a slum,” he growled through clenched teeth. “Never call my home a slum again.” That act — much like a political theater performance meant to send a broader message — was aimed at Jack, my brother, Tom, and me as much as Jim.
In fairness to Dad, this was also the man who warmly and openly embraced one of Jack’s girlfriends after Barb’s death, Alice, a teacher my brother had met in Philly, who was African American. Rather than becoming undone, as so many parents might have in the racially volatile ’60s, Dad made Alice feel as though she was part of our family, doting on her at the house and even putting his arm around her shoulder as he, she, Jack and I walked around our neighborhood after that year’s Christmas dinner.
Dad was fearless in this sense. One day, a neighbor knocked on the door seeking signatures to get rid of an extremely poor and very loud family on our block, the Johnsons. Dad asked the man, dressed in a tank-top T-shirt exposing the intimidating tattoos he’d acquired in the Navy during the Korean War: What did they do that was so bad? More importantly, what was going to prevent this guy and other neighbors from getting rid of us when we acted up and got loud, which we did quite often? I was only 9 or 10, but I still vividly remember Dad finally saying, “Now get the hell off my porch,” after bawling out the guy in front of our neighbors.
Being raised in a family with four macho, intelligent males and five fiercely independent and capable women shaped the attitudes I’ve come to adopt over the past five decades about myself and the men and women I have known. In fact, looking back, it has been women in positions of power — much like the positions of authority that my Mom and older sisters held in our home when I was a kid — who have embraced me and propelled me through my career in journalism for reasons still not fully understood by me.
In our immediate family, the two closest boys to me in age were good students, excellent athletes and hugely influential in my life, showing me that being good at sports was not necessarily related to being a good man. As they had done, I also played football, baseball and basketball, and did fairly well at football. But I rarely viewed these activities as gender-enhancing exercises, primarily because my brothers didn’t, and partly because my sisters at home were as physically tough as most of my teammates. If there was a fight between siblings, as there often was, all four of my older sisters could very easily hold their own with the boys.
Although Jack was an academic and not a jock, he dated a lot after Barb’s death. One, a girl he had met after moving to New York, after he and Alice had broken up, was a tremendous influence on me. Her name was Jo, who, like Jack, was also a hippie. Jo was from New York and was also pretty tough, in a streetwise kind of way. She was also defiant, refusing to shave her armpits to satisfy anyone’s false ideas about beauty, smoking cigarettes and pot, going braless, baking bread and making candles so they didn’t have to use electricity, and generally living her life according to principles espoused by writers like feminists Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem. She represented, in my young eyes, everything that was cool and good about the various movements of the day, especially the women’s rights movement.
Jo was a rebel in every sense, and I not only loved her, I respected her. Jack and Jo eventually broke up, and Jack married again, this time to Arlean, who, like Jo, was also from New York, also Jewish and also extremely independent, extremely witty and very capable and self-assured.
It’s interesting how, in later years, these same types of people would come to shape my professional life. When I first got into the journalism business in the early ’80s, I was hired by Sandi Gibbons, the former city editor of the Daily News and now a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office. A few years later, I worked for Thelma Barrios as an editor with the San Fernando Sun, which she and her son, Rick, operated. After that, I was hired as a reporter for the Simi Valley Enterprise by Managing Editor Jaque Kampschroer-Shehab, and when I was hired in Pasadena, it was by Star-News City Editor Jerrianne Hayslett. Later, when I went to the LA Times, I was hired by then-Editor Karin Klein. At the LA Weekly, Sue Horton, now with the Times, approved my checks. Here at the Weekly, former Associate Publisher Paula Johnson was my boss. There were many others, and many other women I worked with as colleagues when I was starting out. In those days, women were only beginning to emerge as reporters and editors in newspapers, and not only is my being hired exclusively by women over all that time unusual, it may be unique.
As I said, I originally wrote this essay for a class. It’s already appeared as an excerpt in a book put together by our instructor, Dr. Alberto “Beto” Gutierrez. Better than most, Gutierrez knows these kids — and millions more like them — have already seen far darker days in their short lives than I’ll ever know in the time I have left. But I wanted these young men and women to read it, to see that we aren’t really that different, that hate doesn’t discriminate, knows neither time nor geographic boundaries and thrives on ignorance, jealousy, greed and selfishness.
In retrospect, perhaps I never felt discriminated against because I was always taught to believe fighting those odious forces that kept our family down made us better than our enemies. We may not have ever won a football game against Lebanon High, a school whose student population outnumbered ours 5 to 1, but we bloodied a few noses trying. And that was good enough for us when it came to balancing the scales, which it seems we had to do with our hearts, minds and sometimes our fists every single day.