MooI was 14 years old when V-J Day was declared in August of 1945.
It happened that my crazy Aunt Johanna, whom I just loved, was visiting us from Philadelphia. She asked my dad if I could go back to Philadelphia with her. My dad said it would cost too much for a train ticket, but she was aggressive and got him to agree that if I could get on the train for the child’s fare, I could go.
We went to a thrift shop and bought a ridiculous little sailor suit with short pants. She bought me a huge sucker, and my dad sheepishly took us to the train station on Depot Street. She took me by the hand and had no trouble convincing the conductor that this 14-year-old, 4-foot-10 child was under 12.
The trip was so exciting for me that it was worth the embarrassment. I had never seen such tall buildings, escalators and the magical Franklin Institute Science Museum, which I visited by myself on the subway every day I was there.
My dad was a firm but patient teacher and despite my size, I was a willing (if tiny) apprentice. I loved learning how to sort scrap metal, grade hides and value the many items that we bought for recycling and resale.
Before I was 12 years old, he taught me how to use a beam scale, just as many of my contemporaries learned to use a cash register for the family business. This scale was similar to the ones used in many doctors’ offices, with a sliding beam and a pointer to indicate when the load was in balance. With more weights added, these scales could handle up to several thousand pounds.
I can still hear my father admonish me: “Watch the beam, son—don’t look at the sliding weight until you have the beam in balance.” He also taught me how to figure the weight of the boxes, barrels and burlap sacks that held the merchandise. This tare weight had to be meticulously recorded and deducted in order to get the net weight.
My dad also gave me responsibilities well beyond the normal challenges for an undersized young teenager. I don’t know if it was to stretch my capacity to the max or to save money, because family works cheap. Probably somewhere in between, but sometimes the results were less than satisfactory.
As I explained in a previous column, my dad operated a rendering plant on Riverside Drive. He bid on and received contracts from surrounding military installations to buy kitchen grease and animal offal, such as meat trimmings and bones.
From time to time I would be pressed into service as weigh master and receiver, because with most men still serving in the military, there was a shortage of literate adult males who could perform this task.
Our crew consisted of an older black driver I called Uncle Nelson; his helper, Buster; and me. One of our stops was the Grove Park Inn—then an internment camp for diplomatic prisoners that was ringed by barbed wire—to pick up the kitchen grease and bones.
I can’t imagine the astonishment of the Marine guard at the gate who admitted our smelly truck and had to deal with this tiny boy who was handling the passes and the paperwork.
The first time we went there, we could not operate the freight elevator. A large Italian chef standing there saw that we were having trouble and said, “Justa poosha the button and uppa she goes.”
We also picked up at Moore General Hospital in Swannanoa, which now houses the Juvenile Evaluation Center; the hospital treated military personnel suffering from tropical diseases. The soldiers in the kitchen were always friendly, helpful and obviously bemused by this scrawny straw boss, whom the two black men sometimes called “Mistah Jerry.”
The tragedy, of course, was that 70 years after “emancipation”—before which it was illegal to teach a slave to read—the culture of the South still did not deem it important that black men get an education. The limited number who were truly literate had long since joined the military.
Lack of literacy was no indication of these men’s intelligence, as they’d learned and excelled in the many skills needed in the business. But having an educational advantage, even as a teenager, did illustrate the adage that in the land of the blind, “One Eye” is king.
The biggest base we serviced was Camp Croft in the Greenville/Spartanburg area. The military had brought back hundreds of German prisoners of war and put them to work in the base’s mess halls.
They had to be the happiest and luckiest soldiers in the entire Wehrmacht. While their comrades in arms were freezing and dying in places like the Battle of the Bulge and the Russian front, they were safely serving bacon and eggs to American troops. I suspect that many of them stayed in America and settled here after the war.
I spoke a little German, and they would always ask us if we were hungry. Of course we would say yes.
By the time we had our load together, they would come to us with big bags of sandwiches and sometimes whole hams and roasts. These Germans didn’t care how much of Uncle Sam’s food they gave away.
This would happen in kitchen after kitchen, and by the time we were ready to leave the base we had many precious bags of food. We couldn’t put it in the truck bed with all that nasty grease and bones, so we stashed it in the cab—precious cargo, since meat was rationed.
Being the smallest, I always had to sit in the middle with all this stuff practically piled on top of me till we got home and could divide up the spoils.
In a few weeks I will render you the final chapter of the “tails” (literally) of the rendering plant.
[Jerry Sternberg has been active on the local scene for many years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]