Wednesday, April 13, 2005



Part One

I herewith take the floor to honor my late father, Robert A. (for Amos) Pry.

Men in general, and dads in particular, have taken a bad rap for most of the latter 20th Century, ever since “Father Knows Best” went off the air. We’re (depending on which branch of NOW is talking) calloused and unfeeling, or wooses incapable of standing up to a strong woman whom, as a group, we fear, anyway. We have other faults, too, chief among them being stupid.

Well, given my druthers, I’d rather spend time with women than men, and I’m the first to admit that a lot of guys have to have a lot of work done on them before they can be considered civilized. In this, as in many other things, I’m a child of my father.

Dad and I were not close when I was growing up. We were so not-close that I estimate I was around 25 or so before I started understanding him, and I know I was 39 before he got a handle on me.

As I was a hybrid geographically, so I was environmentally, too. My mother (84 now and still driving her own car) had been born in Joplin, MO, and lived variously in Blytheville, Doniphan, and Glenwood, Arkansas, before her father moved her and her brother to Chicago.

My father was from a not-too-wide spot in the road called Mingo Junction, Ohio, right on the Ohio River, across from Weirton, West Virginia. There’s a lot about his life that I not only do NOT know, but will never have a chance to find out.

I know he was among the youngest of some 8 kids. Mingo Junction existed primarily because it was where the eastbound line of the Pennsylvania Railroad turned to head for Chicago, while the original main line continued south, towards Washington, DC. Mingo is about 5 miles south of Steubenville (home of Perry Como and Dean Martin). You now know more than you ever wanted to know about Mingo … except for one thing: the terrible insularity of the town. A few years ago, my cousin, Jim (who grew up there), and I went to a relative’s in Mingo for a visit and, through the whole day, they stared at us like we had two heads apiece. We had Left the Valley. We lived and worked Somewhere Else.

An 18-year-old 2nd or 3rd cousin was getting ready to go into the Army. Had to: girlfriend pregnant, they were going to get married, but the best job he’d been able to find since graduation was janitor at the high school. He was terrified. No, he wasn’t terrified about the Army, but at the thought of leaving the womb of the valley.

This was not a new phenomena: it had always been there. What makes it important is that, the night he graduated from high school, my father walked off the stage into the audience, went to where his mother was sitting, dropped his diploma in her lap with the comment, “Here, you got what you wanted,” marched home, picked up his pre-packed suitcase, and headed down to catch a Greyhound bus to Chicago. He Left the Valley.

I only met my grandparents once, in 43/44 sometime. Grandad Lewis Pry (hence my middle name) was a Master Mechanic for the huge Pennsylvania Railroad roundhouse that used to be in Steubenville. My grandmother, Francis, I remember only as a squat, dumpy woman who didn’t speak, just sat on a rocking chair in the kitchen, smoking odiferous Cubebs (seriously advertised as “the medicinal cigarette”). She was retired from being a travelling corset saleswomen (who, apparently, did pretty good at it).

Consequent to all that, I have no idea what went on between my father and grandmother. Things had been screwy enough during his teen years anyway. My father was a jock, a high school football player. If you have never seen how high schoolers play football in Ohio, it’d almost be worth the trip, just so you can see unarmed combat in uniform. In a word, it’s fast and it’s vicious.

Dad was good at it, which is why, at the height of the Depression, he turned down a scholarship to Ohio State: he was insulted, since it was an academic scholarship, NOT an athletic one.

Hence, Chicago.

A fruitless year in the Windy City, and 18-year-old Dad was about ready to throw in the towel and go home in defeat. In fact, Valentine’s night, he already had his bus ticket, but the bus didn’t leave till midnight. Now, tall, lanky Dad LOVED to dance, so he went looking for one, and found one … and a scrawny 14-year-old girl there who LOVED to dance, too … and who he married two years later and, about two years after that, stared down at me, fresh from her womb.

It was about five years after that before he saw Mingo Junction again, and that just for a visit.

Being newlyweds, and then a new dad, was not easy for people in the depression. Now, my folks were bright, and high school graduates, but with Ph.Ds selling apples on street corners, things didn’t bode well, even if people who actually finished high school were not thick on the ground. There were evenings when my folks would just “happen” to drop in on friends or relatives right at supper time. When offered some of the meager meal, my folks would lie through their teeth and say they’d already eaten, then point at me and casually say, “But he’s always hungry, and could probably take a bite or two.”

They got me more than one meal that sneaky way.

Daddy’s first real job was as a stockman in Marshall, Fields and Company, the huge department store in Chicago: he was right at the main store. In what was to become a pattern in his future life, while there was no formal “boss” in the stockroom, it didn’t take too long before his colleagues were looking to Daddy as their unofficial leader.

About the 4th or 5th hard worker that went “upstairs” to one of the bosses, asking for a raise, someone thought to ask who’d put the idea in their mind. It was my father telling them they deserved a raise. They all got the raise.

Daddy got fired.

The economy started getting better, primarily because of the growing trouble in Europe, and Daddy, more by default than anything else, drifted into warehousing and proved good at it. By the middle of World War II, he was a stockchaser at the GM aircraft engine plant in suburban Chicago.

As he later said, “The job wasn’t that difficult, it just took six months to learn it.” It was essential enough that, when the government got desperate enough to send a draft notice to this flatfooted father of two with one crossed eye, he’d give the notice to his foreman and never hear about it again.

Momma and Daddy were among the throng celebrating V-E and V-J days, but Mom wasn’t with him when he and his colleagues showed up for work the morning after and found the plant closed: aircraft engines weren’t needed in those kinds of quantities anymore.

Robert Amos "Bob" Pry Posted by Hello

Dad kicked around several jobs, including managing a couple of bowling alleys (Prima and Lawndale Lanes, the latter being the only two-story bowling alley I’ve ever seen), bowling being one of his and Momma’s three main passions, the other two being dancing and cards.

Eventually, Daddy ended up as a Foreman at a huge A&P warehouse up on Chicago’s northwest side, with a large crew of primarily immigrants from Eastern Europe: Lithuania, Latvia, Czechoslovakia, etc., a job he stayed in until 1953, when he and Mom moved down here, a year after my sister and I.

Ran a couple of honky-tonks here, spent time as a security guard at the missile silos and, eventually, went to work at what was then the new Birdseye plant here in town, where he ended up as the shipping/receiving supervisor and, finally, manager of six related departments. When the tax incentives ran out, General Foods offered him a promotion and transfer up to the Midwest when they closed the Searcy plant (now owned by Land O’ Frost) but Daddy said Nope, he’d moved all he intended to move.

He died at the age of 69, victim of too much retirement sitting and a hard life.

It’s taken me three pages to lay out his chronology. I’ll TRY to compress what I learned from him into the same length … later.


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