NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

February 2, 2013

Lagoulis column: Leaving one's mark somewhere, somehow

John Lagoulis
Columnist

---- — Two beings, the grizzly bear and mankind, share a common thread. Both leave their mark.

Mankind left marks in caves, which are still being discovered today in all parts of the world; the huge grizzly bear always leaves its claw marks on the trunk of a tree. I share this with you because I, too, have left my mark.

Years ago, when I was a youth searching for work in and around Newburyport, jobs were almost nonexistent to a young man like me. Due to the ongoing Depression, my family was in dire need. I’d tried everywhere. I, having recently graduated from the Newburyport High School Class of 1938 and being a member of the first class to graduate from the new high school on Mount Rural, combined with my having earned good grades and teacher references, believed I would certainly find work.

I was willing to work anywhere and do anything. I was tall and strong and willing to be a laborer. Still, I was unable to get a job.

While seeking work, I had gone north to the Navy Yard in Portsmouth, N.H., where some of my classmates got jobs. I hurried there seeking work, but all I got was these two questions, “Are you a veteran?” and “Are you able to weld?” I answered “no” to each question.

However, some of my classmates and friends did get jobs there. I was denied a job because I was not a WWI veteran, but neither were my classmates. I was denied a job because I could not weld, but neither could my classmates who were hired.

After a while, I went back and tried again. Yet, again I was asked the same two questions which I had to answer “no” to. And, again I was denied work there. Each time, while there seeking work, I saw my classmates and friends lining up, waiting for the work day whistle to blow so they could go home. It hurt me to see them working while I was still seeking work. It confused me. My mother and father had broken up a few years before. My mother was left alone with several children to raise, and I was trying to be the man of the family. It was very difficult for me. Unable to find work, I decided to do something about it.

Being a so-called wharf rat, I knew Tom McGlew. I always played along the Merrimack River in the area of the wharves, an area which was known to us as McGlew’s Wharf, where Tom McGlew had his own welding and machine shop.

I decided I would ask him if he would be kind enough to teach me to weld so that I could get a welding job. I told him I could pay him fifty cents each visit. He looked at me, hesitated, studying me. Then, he said, “If you can get here after 5 p.m. every night.” Every night for two weeks I faithfully showed up at McGlew’s Welding & Machine Shop and was trained to be a welder. In two weeks I had learned to do electric welding and torch welding and had been trained by expert welders. I was proud of my new skill.

With my newfound training, I returned one afternoon to the Portsmouth Navy Yard. Now that I knew how to weld, I was confident I’d get the welding job. Yet, again I was denied a job. I left. I was fully disgusted – sickened right to the heart. I learned that I didn’t have the connections that others had. So, I went my own way. I joined the Naval Reserves.

There was some talk in town about an oncoming war. I learned there were plans to build a new port for the modern submarines; the old, aging submarines were being done away with. The newspaper reported that the Aberthaw Construction Company signed a contract with the Portsmouth Navy Yard to get the job done.

I quickly approached Aberthaw Construction seeking work. They hired me because I knew how to weld. The first thing I did was to pay fifty cents to the Aberthaw Construction Company Union and became a member. They immediately put me to work as a Blacksmith’s Helper. I had a title, earned fifty cents an hour and was a union member. The work schedule was six days a week — sometimes six and a half days a week.

I was a strong young man. Soon, I became an ironworker. I received raises seemingly each month because I’d gotten promoted and because I was willing to work six and a half days a week. How happy I was to have a job! Each week I brought my entire pay check home to my mother, living in Market Square. It felt good. It felt right.

I no longer had to watch my mother cry. We no longer had to beg the Red Cross on the steps of their building located on Harris Street and feel the door being repeatedly slammed in our face, nor at the Greek church, nor at City Hall. There were no so-called government programs in those days to help people in need, especially immigrants and non-citizens. As a young man I tried to explain to them (my mother could not speak English then): “We may not be citizens, but we are human beings.” They still gave us nothing.

At last, things had turned around for us! How happy we were! It did not last very long. Unbeknownst to us, WWII was just around the corner. Soon, I would realize just how cruel a world it is.

When I’d joined the Naval Reserves, they asked me about my past, previous work and skills. They were satisfied and accepted me. It was 1941 and I was called into the service to serve my country. There, I excelled. I experienced active combat during invasions of Guadalcanal, Vella LaVella, and Okinawa. The ship that took us there, USS John Penn, was sunk by the Japanese after we’d hurriedly disembarked, wading to shore carrying 50-60 lbs. of supplies on our backs in deep waters well over our heads.

Many men drowned there in the deep waters before even reaching the shore. I reached down into the water and pulled one of the men up by his backpack until he got his feet on higher ground with head above water a few feet further. Having grown up as a wharf rat, swimming in the waters of the Merrimack River in Newburyport, I took these deep and dangerous waters in stride; it didn’t bother me at all.

Toward the end of 1945 the general of the 6th Marine Division requisitioned for a ship to bring a huge granite rock to Okinawa where I was stationed. WWII was coming to a close. He ordered a monument be constructed on the island by July 4th, 1945. The order was given, but who would build it?

Three men were selected to build the monument because of their past experiences. One man was from Vermont. He was selected because he’d worked in the stone quarries of Vermont. Another man was selected because he had worked cutting stone for cemeteries — his civilian business was a stone cutter. The third man was me. I was selected because of my welding skills and blacksmithing skills, and I knew how to make the necessary tools. It was an honor.

It took us about a week. The monument, when done, would be positioned on the highest hill facing west — facing Japan and China. We three had successfully cut the granite stone into the shape of one very large, heavy, gray cross.

We had the monument up and in place on the highest hill on Okinawa. And, on July 4, 1945, a special dedication ceremony was held. The General of the 6th Marine Division spoke. He was very pleased we got it done and on time. The monument represents the 1,697 Marines and Navy men buried there. I was proud to have played a significant role in its construction. The steps I’d taken in Newburyport as a young man many years earlier, when I took the initiative in asking Tom McGlew to teach me to weld down at the wharf, paid off far away on Okinawa. The monument stands there today and is visited by many veterans and their families.

Years later in a VFW Hall in Anchorage I shared my story with a friend, an Alaskan native, and said I’d like to go back and visit Okinawa and see the monument again. This person said, “Do you realize you have left your mark there? As the wild grizzly bear uses his claw to leave his mark in a tree – you have left your mark on Okinawa.”

I realized then the significance of my work. And, just as the early cavemen left their marks and as the wild grizzly bear leaves its mark, so have I (and a few others). It was a prominent experience in my life of which I am very proud, and I am also very proud of Newburyport. I left my mark. And, may you, dear readers, also have an opportunity to leave your mark somewhere ... someday.

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John Lagoulis, age 93, is a columnist for the Daily News. He writes about life in Newburyport during the early 1900s. You may e-mail him at wharfrat01@att.net or visit www.NewburyportWharfRat.com or www.JohnLagoulis.com.