The old neighborhood

Note to readers: This exploration of my family history is primarily for my kids and kinfolk. I’m posting it in my blog because I’m too cheap to set up a separate website. If you are not among my relatives you probably won’t be interested in this stuff and that’s fine with me.

I’m a city kid. My childhood home was a three-room, third-floor apartment at 5025 Maypole Ave. in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. My brother and I slept on bunk beds in the bedroom, and our folks used a fold-out sofa bed in a living room that also housed a pull-down desk and an upright piano. The four of us could just fit around the kitchen table.

The location was ideal for a family without a car. Spencer School was across the street.  A store at the end of the block sold milk, bread and penny candy. My father walked to work at the Dowst Manufacturing plant a half-mile away. There was a movie theater five blocks away on Cicero Avenue, and we hauled groceries home from a nearby A&P supermarket in a little red wagon.

A Green Hornet at Madison and Crawford

A Green Hornet streetcar at Madison & Crawford

Public transportation took us everywhere, even after my folks bought a car in the early 1950s. The Laramie Avenue station on the Lake Street elevated line was four blocks away, with a 20-minute ride downtown to the Loop. A bus on Washington Boulevard two blocks away took me to Cub Scout meetings. The Madison Street “green hornet” streetcar three blocks away took us to Goldblatt’s department store at Madison and Crawford. I rode a “red rattler” streetcar on Lake Street to the library and the YMCA.

The neighborhood was a working-class mix of apartment buildings and two-flats with a few single-family homes. Our playground was the sidewalk in front or the alley in back. The front lawn of our apartment building was off limits: If we stepped over the low chain fence to play on the grass the janitor would yell at us. The nearest actual playground was blocks away, across two busy streets, and generally wasn’t worth the trek. The alley was more interesting than swings and monkey bars on bare gravel.

There were spontaneous games of baseball in the alley or, more often, bouncing a ball against a garage door. Girls played hopscotch and jump-rope. And there were things to explore: discarded furniture in an alley, nearby industrial goings-on and the occasional construction site. Our mothers taught us to always look both ways when crossing streets, and we developed the knack of judging traffic before dashing across. Kids grew up agile and smart and no one I knew was ever hit by a car.

Our immediate neighborhood was mostly Irish-Catholic, and most of the neighbor kids went to St. Thomas Aquinas School a few blocks away. (We envied them a little because saints’ days were school holidays and they seemed to have lots of saints.) Many of my classmates at Spencer School were Jewish kids who lived in slightly nicer apartment buildings on Washington Boulevard, and I attended Cub Scout meetings in a synagogue.

Spencer School

Spencer School

Spencer School was a massive, red-brick edifice with stout doors and dim hallways. It’s still there and the exterior looks pretty much the same. Chicago schools were on a semester system that graduated two classes a year and enabled bright kids to skip half a grade at a time. I skipped the first half of fourth grade (after being reprimanded for reading two chapters ahead of the class) and the first half of sixth. Because two half-grades shared a classroom, skipping a grade was merely a move from one side of the room to the other. All the kids walked to school and went home for lunch. After school I had a paper route, delivering the Chicago Daily News from a pushcart.

Free-range kids were the norm in those days. Our neighborhood had its share of tough kids but I don’t recall feeling particularly unsafe. My folks turned us loose but set limits. They were displeased one Halloween when one of my friends suggested trick-or-treating in the taverns along Cicero Avenue and I came home with a pocketful of change. Parents generally didn’t drive kids around: I walked or took public transportation to Boy Scout meetings and activities at the Y.

Lake Street El

Lake Street El

In my middle-school years my parents let me ride the El to the Loop alone to wander around State Street and Marshall Field’s. When we moved to a suburb a few years later, I was appalled to learn that one of my high school friends was not allowed to go downtown by himself because his mother thought it was unsafe.

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Being a savvy news consumer

We’re a nation of smart consumers. We kick the tires on a used car, check restaurant and hotel reviews on TripAdvisor and read food labels.

Now we need to wear our consumer hats to follow the news. That’s because the era of objective news coverage is all but over, at least for national news, and the credibility of the news media is at an all-time low. Everyone is concerned over fake news because it’s getting harder to tell what’s real.

biascartoon2In a politically divided nation it’s easy enough to find news that matches your political inclination and, unfortunately, that’s what most people do. Liberals watch the major TV networks and read the New York Times and the Huffington Post. Conservatives watch Fox News and read The Daily Caller and Breitbart. Getting both sides of the story requires venturing outside your echo chamber.

Full disclosure: I am a news junkie. I have a journalism degree, worked as a newspaper reporter in college and worked with the news media during my public relations career. Even in retirement I read two newspapers a day, follow news online and rarely miss the evening TV newscast.

The profession I entered in the 1960s was obsessed with objectivity and accuracy: Check the facts, get the quotes right and cover both sides. I learned that objectivity is hard to achieve because reporting and writing a story requires a cascade of judgment calls on whom to interview, which quotes to use and what facts to highlight or omit. And then some bonehead editor slaps a misleading headline on it. So I consume news with a reporter’s skepticism.

I don’t rely on a single set of news outlets. A personal dashboard on my Internet home page enables me to browse a cafeteria of online news organizations (mostly free of charge) that represent a variety of viewpoints such as the Daily Beast, Newsmax, the Daily Caller and Real Clear Politics. If I’m interested in a story I look at how competing news outlets cover it. If a story shows up only in left-wing or right-wing media I’m a little suspicious. I mostly trust the economic news on the business channels and in the Wall Street Journal and ignore the “news” on Facebook.

My operative question is “Says who?” If the author of an article is a liberal such as Paul Krugman or a conservative such as George Will, I know where they’re coming from. If a reporter quotes only the Sierra Club in an article on the environment, that’s just one side of the story.

Economic pressure to disseminate more news with fewer reporters means that national newspapers no longer have correspondents in Boise or Berlin, and cable newscasts have fewer on-scene reports and more pundit panels. Less reporting and more analysis inevitably blurs the line between news and opinion.

Ironically, the political divide has made the news media more transparent. Because some news outlets have abandoned objectivity to openly declare war on the Trump administration, consumers know what they’re getting and no longer need to look for subtle bias. It would be even easier if commentators on the TV networks wore red or blue jerseys. We’re seeing a return to the roots of American journalism: the partisan press of the early Nineteenth Century.

The good news for consumers is that we no longer need to rely on traditional media as information gatekeepers. A growing number of Internet newsrooms are producing solid journalism, and nonprofit organizations have taken over the investigative reporting the news media used to do. Former President Obama bypassed the news media by appearing on entertainment shows and President Trump has taken this to a new level by using Twitter as a bully pulpit.

Much as I miss the objectivity I learned in journalism school, it’s easier than ever to stay well informed. All we have to do is kick the tires.

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How to drain the swamp

What’s most appealing about Donald Trump’s victory (with apologies to my friends who believe he’s the incarnation of evil) is the prospect of long-overdue government reform. His “drain the swamp” campaign pledge resonated because 75% of Americans believe there’s widespread corruption in the federal government.

'Hi - I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help you.'

The deepest swamp in Washington is not politicians and lobbyists, but an unelected federal bureaucracy that writes and enforces thousands of regulations. Term limits for Congress aren’t the answer. That would make it even easier for entrenched bureaucrats to outlast the people’s representatives.

Donald Trump and the Republican Congress have an opportunity to disrupt the executive branch, and that’s a good thing. My corporate career made me a big fan of disruption. Companies re-invent themselves regularly to stay competitive, and bring in new management to take the enterprise in a new direction.

In the federal government, however, every Trump cabinet appointee will inherit hundreds of executives who may oppose the new administration and are virtually impossible to fire, even for misconduct. In some cases political appointees “burrow” into permanent positions with civil service protection. Politicians are even urging federal employees to actively resist the Trump administration’s policies. No private enterprise tolerates this. When a company changes direction, executives who don’t get on board go out the door.

So Congress needs to reform the civil service system to give federal agencies the same capability for change as private companies. Folks like payroll clerks and wildlife inspectors must be protected, but government executives should be as accountable as their private-sector counterparts. Government agencies need the authority to fire executives (above GS-15) for poor performance, policy violations or criminal behavior without going through years of civil service reviews.

Private companies often cushion major shake-ups with buyout offers that make it easier for managers to leave. Congress should enact a short-term program to offer a graceful exit to federal managers who disagree with their agencies’ new policies.

Conflict-of-interest rules need to be tightened. Environmental Protection Agency employees should not be in cahoots with Exxon Mobil or the Sierra Club, and we don’t want Treasury Department officials to help their Wall Street cronies. Yet it doesn’t make sense to bar experts from government positions just because they used to work for a private company or association. We need a thoughtful solution to enable talented industry professionals to serve the public without corrupting the fairness we expect of government.

Congressional oversight of federal agencies is broken. Democrats fought investigations of the Obama administration, inspector general positions were left vacant and the Department of Justice declined to prosecute corruption. There is nothing to prevent Republicans and a Trump administration from doing likewise. We need something like a bipartisan commission reporting to Congress to hold the administration accountable.

Reforming federal agencies may be the most daunting challenge for the new administration because public employee unions finance all Democrats and some Republicans. In recent years legislation to give the Department of Veterans Affairs more authority to fire employees was blocked or watered down by Congress.

With a Congressional majority and overwhelming public support, the opportunity has never been better to reform the executive branch. It will be a tough fight because every new policy direction will meet with stiff opposition from special interests and howling outrage from the celebritocracy and the news media. But if President-elect Trump is serious about draining the swamp, this is the place to start.

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Family stories: They met in the bargain basement

Note to readers: This exploration of my family history is primarily for my kids and kinfolk. I’m posting it in my blog because I’m too cheap to set up a separate website. If you are not among my relatives you probably won’t be interested in this stuff and that’s fine with me.

My parents met in the bargain basement of Goldblatt’s department store on State Street in downtown Chicago. They did, really.

My father in his younger days. The pipe may be hereditary.

My father in his younger days. The pipe may be hereditary.

Allan McClure, my father, arrived in Chicago from his hometown of Corinth, Mississippi, in the late 1930s to study voice at (probably) the American Conservatory of Music in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue. He lived at the downtown YMCA at 820 S. Wabash Ave., where he shared a room with an aspiring artist, Charles Banks Wilson, who was studying at the Art Institute of Chicago: a little like a Chicago-Depression version of La Boheme.

Wilson later became famous for works depicting American Indians. I have a lithograph of an elderly Indian for which Wilson used my father’s hand as a model. The button on the Indian’s overall is inscribed “McClure.”

Dad had a scholarship but had to support himself. He told me his father would have contributed to his education if he had chosen to study a respectable profession such as law or medicine, but if he wanted to become an opera singer he was on his own. So he worked at a variety of odd jobs, including working as a longshoreman on Chicago River barges.

My mother, Vilma Gasperik, applied for a job as a telephone operator after she graduated from high school but was rejected because she was too tall. (The Bell System’s approach to ergonomics in those days was to hire operators to fit the switchboards instead of vice versa.) She wound up working at the day-old bakery counter in Goldblatt’s basement, where discounted bakery goods were popular during the depression.

My father also worked at Goldblatt’s demonstrating electric shavers: a job for which he was suited because he had a heavy beard and could shave several times a day. Among other things, they had a common interest in music: My father sang and my mother played the piano.

My folks came from different backgrounds. My father had to assure his parents that my mother was not Catholic even though her family came from Europe. And my mother’s folks wanted to know whether my father was part Negro because he came from the South. They were married at City Hall August 22, 1941.

When they were first married my parents lived with my grandmother on the South Side, and moved to an apartment on the West Side before I was born two years later. By that time my father had abandoned his opera career and was working as a machinist. He said he had been offered a scholarship to study opera in Italy but World War II intervened.

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The national civics lesson

Americans may be deeply divided by the 2016 presidential election, but we’re getting one helluva civics lesson. Until this year, most of us gave little thought to the Electoral College,  the Federalist Papers or even the Constitution. Now we’re getting a crash course on the stuff we ignored in high school civics class (if we even had a civics class).

constitutionThe post-election campaign to defeat Donald Trump has been educational. We learned that when recounts fail to change the vote totals, the Electoral College can theoretically overturn the election in the name of democracy.  So hitherto anonymous electors were targeted with email, letters, phone calls and noisy demonstrations demanding that they vote their conscience by defeating Donald Trump. This was promoted by scholars of the Federalist Papers such as Martin Sheen, and suddenly every activist was quoting Alexander Hamilton (or maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda). And we were outraged by the Russian hackers who threatened our democracy by exposing the dirty tricks of the Clinton campaign.

There never was any chance that party-loyalist electors would betray the voters, despite the wishful-thinking media hype, but the browbeating campaign offered a shred of hope to Democrats going through stages of grief. Diehards still may cling to the fantasy of Vice President Joe Biden refusing to certify the Senate’s endorsement of the Electoral College vote Jan. 6, or the Supreme Court declining to administer the oath of office at the inauguration. Maybe someone will hide the Bible.

We haven’t heard the last of the Electoral College. There’s bound to be yet another movement to abolish it in favor of a nationwide popular vote. The latest argument is that the Electoral College is based on racism, though nobody mentioned this in 2008 and 2012. A straight popular vote would require presidential campaigns to focus on big states like California while completely ignoring places like New Hampshire, Iowa and most of flyover country. A constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College would require two-thirds of  the states to approve their own disenfranchisement. So it’s not going to happen.

Federalism is coming back into vogue. For decades progressives have pushed to expand federal authority and diminish the power of state and local governments. Now sanctuary cities like New York and Santa Fe are claiming the right to block federal deportation of illegal immigrants. This harks back to a Nineteenth Century controversy in which states claimed the right to nullify any federal law they deemed unconstitutional. Nullification had a brief revival in 1963, when Alabama Gov. George Wallace attempted to block federally mandated school desegregation.

Some folks in California are even talking about seceding from the United States. I’ll bet South Carolina will give them a deal on gently used Confederate flags.

This is a role reversal because it’s usually conservatives who want to shift power from the federal government back to the states. If Democrats are embracing the principle of federalism to defend sanctuary cities, it’s logical that they also will support Trump’s proposals to put states in charge of Medicaid and environmental regulation. Unless they’re just fair-weather federalists.

We’re also seeing a role reversal on the Constitution. For the past eight years Republicans have claimed President Obama’s executive orders and regulatory actions were unconstitutional. The courts often agreed but Democrats cheered every stroke of the executive pen. Now the Dems are telling us that Trump should be barred from the presidency, or immediately impeached, because he is violating the Constitution (by his very existence, apparently).

Expect a lot of activists and pundits to invoke the Constitution with claims that owning real estate (as Washington did), appointing billionaires to the cabinet, holding rallies or sending insulting tweets are unconstitutional and/or grounds for impeachment. The good news is that the political noise may get more Americans to actually read the Constitution. Perhaps universities will even allow its distribution on campus.

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The culture shock of alien tribes

The transition to the Donald Trump administration is an exercise in culture shock. Trump himself is a shock to the system, of course, and it’s reasonable to expect the losing party to bitterly oppose anyone he appoints. Where the culture shock comes in is that Trump’s appointees include members of two unfamiliar tribes: military officers and business executives.

That’s scary to some folks. I’ve met people who have never worked for a competitive enterprise and believe all businessmen are greedy tyrants who exploit their workers. That’s what their politicians and college professors have told them (because the politicians and professors have never worked in the private sector, either).

Military officers are equally unfamiliar because most Americans have had no contact with the Armed Forces. Academics and politicians steeped in Vietnam War protest nostalgia would have us believe that generals will either take us to war or take over the government.

I have experience in both alien tribes. I spent 25 years in the Navy and reserves, and 30-plus years working for and with business corporations.

Business executives aren’t greedy, just competitive. Most new businesses fail. The ones that survive compete for customers, stay ahead of technology and market trends, and turn a profit in order to attract investors and raise capital. Successful companies are good at disrupting themselves to stay ahead of the competition. I saw constant change in my corporate career with reorganizations, new products, executive shakeups and more.

While I encountered a few dysfunctional managers, they generally did not last long. Successful businesses hold people accountable by rewarding good performance and weeding out the miscreants. I saw several senior executives summarily fired for misbehavior such as sexual harassment (unlike civil service executives who can appeal a dismissal for years). CEOs are accountable for everything, and are routinely kicked out if they don’t perform. Imagine a government agency running this way!

We may be seeing a new generation of dollar-a-year men, like the industrial titans Franklin Delano Roosevelt recruited to mobilize World War II wartime production. I am more comfortable with self-made billionaires running the government than with career politicians who have become multimillionaires by holding public office.

Military officers don’t love war. When I led boarding parties and stood bridge watches in the Navy, I understood that a mistake on my part could get my shipmates killed and thought about that every day. Multiply that responsibility a thousandfold and you get people like Generals Mattis, Kelly and Flynn. The military take on national security issues will be to deter war as much as possible, fight only when necessary (to win, not to send a message) and bring the troops home alive.

Military folks are rewarded for being decisive, flexible and pragmatic, from the sailor who swaps coffee for radio parts to the commander who upsets the bureaucrats but wins the battle. Commanders are accountable for results and are quickly relieved when they screw up. It will be refreshing to watch “Mad Dog” Mattis shake up the Pentagon.

I am impressed that today’s military officers increasingly function as diplomats, starting with junior officers who negotiate with village elders in Iraq and Afghanistan. We also have the best-educated military in history: The Navy sent every one of my active-duty counterparts to civilian universities for masters’ degrees, and senior officers get additional graduate-level education at institutions like the Naval War College.

Military officers often take over the government in banana republics by default because they’re usually the best-organized people in a failed state. By contrast, the U.S. military has a long tradition of political neutrality and regulations that prohibit political activity by active-duty personnel. Unlike other government employees, military people do not have unions that make political contributions and campaign for candidates. If any organization is going to impose its will on the government, the teachers’ union is in a better position to do so than the Marine Corps.

So we are getting cabinet officers regulating the economy who have actually worked successfully in the economy, and national security officials who prefer deterrence to warfare. Talk about culture shock!

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Election observations

At the risk of contributing to the post-election drama, here are a few observations.

If you insult me I am not going to vote for you. Calling Donald Trump a racist is not unreasonable, given the incendiary things he has said. But when you call everyone who supports him a racist they may take it personally.

That may be one of the reasons why the “basket of deplorables” became an electoral majority. Same thing happened in Britain when Brexit supporters were dismissed as xenophobes and rubes. Yet we’re still hearing from some progressives that widespread racism is the only reason for Trump’s victory. Seems like an odd way to win back the millions of Obama voters who went for Trump this time.

The Clinton campaign focused on scaring people about Donald Trump and struck fear into the hearts of half the country. So the massive outpouring of fear, grief and panic over the Trump victory is no surprise. When I was a Boy Scout, we used to tell scary stories around the campfire and some of the kids had nightmares.

Angry mobs are less effective in the U.S. than in France. Union mobs in Wisconsin failed to stop the re-election of Gov. Scott Walker. Twice. The Occupy movement fizzled. Protests at Trump rallies (which we now know were connected to the Clinton campaign) apparently backfired. See a pattern here?

A campaign of relentless public shaming drove Trump supporters underground. 40% of my state voted for Trump but I saw very few Trump yard signs and bumper stickers. I sure didn’t display one. We’ve learned that many Trump supporters refused to answer polls, including exit polls. If this is the norm for future campaigns, the political prognostication industry is toast.

Nobody will ever again trust the mainstream news media, but we already knew that.

Issues still matter. Polls have consistently shown that the majority of voters are concerned about the economy and think the country is on the wrong track. Exit polls said the same thing. In the final weeks of the campaign, Donald Trump talked about the issues and Hillary Clinton talked about Donald Trump. How much trouble could we have saved if both candidates had talked about issues from the beginning?

It’s official: Celebrities are irrelevant. An unprecedented number of stars busted their sequined tails for Hillary and nobody listened. Because of their distress over racism and xenophobia, many entertainers plan to emigrate to Canada — which has a smaller minority population and tougher immigration laws. Why not Mexico? The weather’s better. Half the country bids them good riddance and hopes Trump will deport Justin Bieber.

After listening to nearly a week of post-election analysis, I miss the elegant clarity of Chicago’s legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley. When asked to comment on each election victory, his only response was that his opponent didn’t get enough votes.

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They’re really smart. So why can’t they govern?

One of the more interesting aspects of the presidential campaign is watching the expertise of the campaign organizations. The Democrats, anyway. President Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012 made innovative  use of data analysis, audience targeting and social media. Both parties now use detailed information about individual voters to craft campaign messages and deploy armies of volunteers.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign has raised electoral science to an even higher level of sophistication. Whether or not you agree with the politics, you have to admire the organizational mastery at work. The Clinton campaign has mobilized some of the nation’s smartest technocrats and managers into a model of what every organization aspires to be: efficient, thorough, motivated and responsive. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Democrats are the best in the world at running an election campaign.

Running the country, not so much. If the campaign organization is Seal Team Six, the people in charge of the government are the Keystone Kops.

President Obama’s campaign employed some of the top information technology experts in the country. But the Obama administration was unable to get the Obamacare website operational without spectacular cost overruns and system failures. And security breaches such as the hacking of federal personnel files have become increasingly common.

It’s not just technology. We’re seeing a steady drumbeat of government failures. Veterans die while waiting for care at Veterans Administration hospitals. The Environmental Protection Agency pollutes a river. Engines on the Navy’s brand-new littoral combat ships keep breaking down. Victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 are still waiting for disaster relief. Delays in tax refunds from the Internal Revenue Service have become routine.

And it’s not just the Democrats. Republicans are equally inept, though their preference for smaller government may result in a little less damage. Both parties share the blame for the VA’s long-standing problems and the Federal Aviation Administration’s failure to modernize the 40-year-old air traffic control system.

When inspirational campaign promises are routinely sabotaged by bumbling bureaucrats, it’s no surprise that fewer than half of Americans trust the government’s ability to solve problems.

So here’s the mystery: Why do politicians hire talented people to get themselves elected and then turn the government over to stumblebums? What happens to those brilliant campaign technocrats between elections? Why aren’t they running the Obamacare website or organizing patient care at the VA?

This is more than idle curiosity. We elect politicians to run our government, and most of us will tolerate moderate levels of waste and corruption so long as things get done. That’s the deal: If the streets are clean and the garbage is picked up, I’m willing to overlook my city councilman’s sticky fingers and loose morals.

But when government is incompetent, the politicians aren’t keeping their end of the bargain. At some point voters will decide that the deal’s off and vote for the other party.

So I’m amazed that politicians don’t appoint their best and brightest campaign operatives to run government agencies. Delivering value to the voters (what a concept!) will keep their party in power. If those talented campaign experts can persuade us to elect someone like Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, imagine what they could accomplish if they were doing honest work!

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Family stories: Mac and Mamoo

Note to readers: This exploration of my family history is primarily for my kids and kinfolk. I’m posting it in my blog because I’m too cheap to set up a separate website. If you are not among my relatives you probably won’t be interested in this stuff, and that’s fine with me.

The house was within earshot of the railroad, and whenever we heard a train my grandfather would pull out his pocket watch and note whether it was on time. An old habit after working for the Illinois Central for 50 years.

My grandparents

My grandparents

Virgil Allan McClure went by “Mac” and I never heard anyone use his first name. He spent most of his career as railroad’s telegraph operator in Corinth, Mississippi. My grandfather had lied about his age when he went to work for the Illinois Central and never corrected the employee record. He was pleased with himself when he retired at age 64 instead of 65. Put one over on them.

His job as a telegraph operator was a step into the middle class for a farm kid from Kentucky. Mac taught Sunday school at the Baptist church and was a big wheel in the Masons. He served on the draft board and the housing authority.

mamoo-steve

Mamoo with her first great-grandson

My grandmother, Ethel Holderman McClure, was always known to me as Mamoo. She was tiny, gentle and always smiling. She, too, was active in church and Masonic activities. On a visit to Corinth many years later, a woman at the local history museum remembered her: “She inducted me into Eastern Star. Little bitty thing.”

Mac was taciturn and Mamoo was quiet, especially in her later years when she was hard of hearing but too vain to wear a hearing aid.

My grandfather was notoriously frugal, a trait my father inherited. He once decided to make some extra money raising and selling chickens, and bought at least 100 day-old baby chicks. Unfortunately, many others had the same idea and the chicken market collapsed. Since selling the chickens would be a losing proposition, my grandfather decided the family would eat them. Mamoo tried every known chicken recipe for breakfast, lunch and dinner for months, and my father disliked chicken until his dying day.

1967: four generations

1967: four generations

Mac and Mamoo visited us in Chicago occasionally because they rode the Illinois Central for free. On one visit my folks took us to Chinatown and introduced my grandparents to Chinese food. My grandfather loved the food and, best of all, it was cheap! On every visit thereafter, Mac took us all to Chinatown for dinner.

Mac was a creature of habit and went to bed every night on the stroke of 9 p.m. Guests who overstayed their welcome got the hint when he would stand up, announce that he was going to bed and leave the room.

In all the years I knew him my grandfather had only two cars, a 1940’s-vintage Ford and a 1953 Chevrolet. Whoever bought the Chevy after he passed away in 1973 probably got a good deal: Since Mac only drove to church and around town, the car was in mint condition with less than 20,000 miles. On one visit, my teenaged brother borrowed the car and quickly came back to report that the Chevy had no brakes. My grandfather had never noticed because he drove at a sedate 15 mph and coasted to a stop.

I credit my grandfather with some of the robust genes that allow me to stay active. After my grandmother died in 1968, Mac lived on his own until he passed away at the age of 89. In his later years he used a cane but occasionally walked off without it. We once found the cane hanging from a tree in the backyard.

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Family Stories: Corinth

Note to readers: This exploration of my family history is primarily for my kids and kinfolk. I’m posting it in my blog because I’m too cheap to set up a separate website. If you are not among my relatives you probably won’t be interested in this stuff, and that’s fine with me.

The house is still there, at 1421 Bunch Street in Corinth, Mississippi. (I found it on Google Street View.) One story, painted white, modest yet gracious with a wide front porch, set back from the street on a slight rise with a concrete-block retaining bunch-stwall along the sidewalk. The big oak trees my grandfather planted are gone and the house shows its century of age, but it’s pretty much as I remember it.

I’m not sure if my grandfather actually built the house, but I was told he finished the interior walls with beaverboard. It was a step up from the farmhouse in Kentucky he left when he was in his teens.

My grandfather (left) at work

My grandfather (left) at work

Virgil Allan McClure spent a long career as a telegraph operator for the Illinois Central Railroad. He married my grandmother, Ethel Holderman, in 1910 in Covington, Tennessee, and my father, Marvin Allan, was born there in 1911. The family moved to Corinth by 1913.

Corinth, in the northeast corner of Mississippi, is a railroad crossroads that attracted a Civil War battle in 1862 and my grandfather half a century later. My father dug minie balls out of the old fortifications as a kid, and was one of the Boy Scouts who helped elderly Confederate veterans during the annual parade. Outside the county courthouse, generations of old men sat on a park bench next to the Confederate monument and whittled pieces of wood (not to make anything, just whittle to pass the time). The town’s population was more than 5,000 when my grandparents moved there and is around 15,000 today.

Whittling by the courthouse

Whittling by the courthouse

Tornadoes used to be a problem there. Some of the neighbors had dug storm shelters in their yards. My father claimed a tornado once tore off roofs in the neighborhood and turned a nearby house sideways on its foundation.

According to my father, every so often a visitor to Corinth would stop by the post office and ask if they’d received any letters from Paul lately. People got the joke because practically everyone attended church. My grandparents attended the Baptist church, largest church in town. My grandfather was a big shot in the Masons and my grandmother was a leader in the Masonic Eastern Star.

My father went by Allan and never used his first name. The family had a Negro housekeeper (as most middle-class families probably did) and as a toddler my father thought the dark-skinned woman was his mother. He was a big kid, recruited for the high school football team when he was in eighth grade. He had a younger brother, Jimmy (after whom I am named), who died of appendicitis in his teens.

My father graduated from Corinth High School in 1930, where he was senior class president and participated in the typewriting club, theater and the Masonic DeMolay organization. After high school he knocked around, because his graduation would have coincided with the beginning of the Depression. He told stories about running moonshine in a Model T Ford to a friend who was attending the University of Mississippi in Oxford. And an improbable story about meeting a young William Faulkner in an Oxford drugstore, getting drunk on moonshine and shooting rifles in the backyard.

He got involved in labor organizing, probably through working in the textile plants that were industrializing the South. He told of attending a camp for union organizers that he later realized was run by Communists. My father probably was involved in a series of textile workers’ strikes in Alabama in 1934 and said he landed in jail briefly for union agitation.

At some point he got interested in music and singing. And in the late 1930s my father went to Chicago on a scholarship to study opera.

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