by Josephine Pagliai
EDITOR’S NOTE: We recently received “Childhood Remembrances” by Josephine Pagliai, a former Madrid resident. This week the Madrid Register News is publishing her biography, and will print her story in November.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josephine Pagliai was born in 1916 in Fiumalbo, a small village in Northern Italy.
In 1923 she and her mother came to the United States through Ellis Island to join her father. He had served in the Italian army during WWI and was wounded in the Battle of Caporetto. After the war he immigrated to the United States and found work in a coal mining camp in Madrid, a town of about two thousand people in Iowa. The town, pronounced with the accent on the first syllable, unlike its somewhat more famous namesake in Spain, was one of the hubs of the coal mining industry in Iowa from 1870-1945.
Members of the Pagliai clan in Fiumalbo began migrating to Madrid in the early 1900's. As with immigrants today, an early arrival, Fernando ("Nando") Pagliai wrote the folks back home about jobs in the mines and sponsored later arrivals. By the time Josephine arrived, there was a substantial Pagliai contingent in Madrid and even today the surname is akin to Smith in this small town. The majority of the current residents of Madrid are descendants of the Swedish, German and Italian immigrants who came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Her family lived in a company camp in housing provided by the mine. A younger sister and brother were born to her parents in the 1920's. CHILDHOOD REMEMBRANCES deals with her childhood years in the camp.
Growing up in the camp, she became all too familiar with the toll that mining took on workers. Her father toiled in the mines for more than two decades before succumbing in his forties to the chronic ailments common to miners.
During WWII Josephine served as a WAC. While a librarian in the service, she cultivated her love for writing. Several of her poems and stories were featured in army publications.
While stationed in New Jersey, she met her future husband. After the war, she moved with her husband to Santa Barbara, where she had a son, Fred, who is now a teacher at Santa Barbara City College.
After divorcing in the late 1950's, Josephine worked as a Secretary at the County Assessors Office and later at the University of California at Santa Barbara. When her son graduated from college in 1969, she quit her job and embarked on a four-year odyssey through Europe and the Middle East. Traveling on her own and with enterprising frugality, she visited and lived for extended periods in Florence, Calabria, Paris, Dublin, Berlin, Geneva, Cyprus, Beirut and Damascus.
An illustration of her adventurous spirit and her legendary thriftiness was her decision to sleep on a park bench in Damascus for several nights when she refused to pay what she considered an exorbitant rent for a room. The Damascus police pleaded with her to consider the risks of this venture to no avail.
She found Santa Barbara to be a bit boring upon her return in 1973 and moved shortly thereafter to Las Vegas, where she lived for twenty five years honing her bingo skills.
In Las Vegas she again employed her knack for enterprise to actually make a tidy profit out of winnings from bingo and keno and selling coupons for drinks and meals that she had collected.
She returned to Santa Barbara in 2001 to be closer to her son and took up residence in Friendship Manor, a retirement community. CHILDHOOD REMEMBRANCES was written shortly after her return.
By Josephine Pagliai
Part 1 of 5 articles
Today in the twilight of my life, with the nights getting longer and the years growing shorter, I reflect on the days of my childhood. Ah, those days!
My family emigrated from Italy and settled in Madrid, Iowa in a coal mining company camp, which was surrounded by mud as well as pigs, frogs, snakes and various dogs. The houses in the camp resembled brown boxes etched by the climate, decay and human neglect. Because they resembled boxes, this part of town was nicknamed Boxtown, though the better off residents of Madrid commonly referred to it as Mudtown. This was my home along with my sister, Rosie, and my little brother, Benny, through the 1920's and the Depression.
The dismal appearance of the camp did not despoil the harmony of its residents. Here Italians, Greeks, Germans, Swedes, Slavs and other immigrants lived together in a raucous union. Race was inconsequential as we were all poor together and we tried to enjoy that poverty to the hilt.
Everyone spoke a foreign language except the children who attended school. It was amazing to hear a Greek woman conversing with a Slav; neither could speak the other's language but somehow they understood everything.
Cleanliness and neatness were always present. Every day the housewives would scrub their little houses, porches and outhouses and every night they would wait for their coal miners to come home. wait for them with a near house, coffee and a treat- after they had bathed in a shed next to the house.
Every day, when the sun was out, the women would get out a large tub and, after many trips to the pump, fill it with water. Then the water was left in the sun to warm. In the winter hot water was carried from the house to the shed, a tedious chore
There was a garden around each house. Every spring a farmer would come with his horse and dig up the garden for the Spring planting. It was a thrill for us as children when that day arrived because we were allowed to ride that poor horse and tug at its tail and feed it. Caring for the garden meant getting rid of the bugs that wished to feast on the growth. One of my first jobs in life was to take a can of kerosene, walk up and down the garden and drown the bugs that were feeding on the tomato and potato plants. I would soak them with kerosene with a joyous cry of victory.
One of my favorite past enjoyments was to run home after a fun rollicking day in the fields and grab a fresh tomato growing in our garden. Oh, the joy of eating that tomato. They were so delicious! Never have I tasted tomatoes since that were as delicious as those..
The camp had a store run by an immigrant and a kinder person couldn't have existed. His eldest son used to come to every house each morning to collect orders from the housewives to be delivered in the afternoon at no charge. He never cheated us. In fact, he was generous. More than once my mother, being short of money would say, "Would you let me have two dollars worth of groceries? Put it on my bill and I will pay you come payday." He never refused. When we went to pay our bill, that day was a great day because everyone who paid got a sack of candy. How I enjoyed that candy!
Did I mention that there was a water pump shared by several houses? And of course there was rainwater that we collected in anything that could hold water. This rainwater was used to wash our hair, scrub the house and shed and take our baths, which happened once a week. First the children bathed, then the parents, then the cat or dog, if you had one. Then it was used to wash out the outhouse and finally the leftover was used to water the garden.
And oh, the kitchen stove; it was the gathering place of all social affairs. We would sit around the kitchen stove to gossip, bake apples, eat our meals at times and dry our hair
A big part of home life was canning. Everything was canned- apples, tomatoes, any fruit we could buy and our Scandinavian neighbors even canned chicken. I can vividly recall the cellar stacked high with cans and jars of food and filled with wine bottles. Other occupants of the cellar included frogs and lizards. And there was a funny dank smell. I used to hide in the cellar when I was supposed to be doing some dreary job until I was flushed out with a broom. Even the neighborhood dog, Tom, took refuge there sometimes.
Winemaking was a part of life in the camp. Residents would eagerly await the arrival of the train at the railroad station with boxes of grapes to be pressed into wine, even during Prohibition. All sorts of bottles were used to hold the wine, even bottles that had been used for fernetto, an Italian laxative. Once a reveler mistakenly drank a bottle actually containing fernetto and got so sick that a priest was summoned to administer him last rites.
Many families in the camp kept chickens and pigs. Sometimes chickens wandered into our yard and I suspect my mother took advantage of that situation to provide us with dinner. But pigs were the big prize.
They were raised until full grown, then slaughtered and hung from the clothesline so that their blood could drain into buckets. They provided bacon and ham and blood sausage was made with raisins and nuts. The bones were saved for soup.
Once a pig disappeared from the yard of our neighbors, the Cassinis. A great search ensued and we children joined in, looking everywhere for the missing pig. It turned out that a farmer's dog had dragged off the pig and the farmer saved his dog from a vengeful mob of towns people only by offering the Cassinis a piglet as compensation
Another story about pigs is among my favorites. Once a parishioner gave the local priest two piglets, a boy and a girl, instead of a monetary donation. The grateful priest kept them in a yard next to the church. But one day, after they grown, they became a little too friendly and noisily disrupted the embarrassed priest's attempts to conduct Mass.
And there was the mine. Every morning the miners walked the mile or so to the mine works at six. They came home around two with their dirty mining clothes and the hats with the light on the beak. We would hear the whistle blow when work started and ended. But if you heard three whistles at any other time, it meant tragedy. There were many accidents- electrocutions, bad air, flooding, cave-ins. I lived through many of them and saw the mangled bodies of humans toiling so they could exist. It was years later before a union stepped in to make things a little safer.
When a union organizer came to town, many of the immigrant miners did not understand the concept of a union. After he made a speech about the rights of workers, he asked if anyone wanted to air any grievances. After a long silence, a man stood up and said, "Three years ago some son of a bitch stole my pick."
Eventually, after a long struggle, the union came to the mines. Working conditions improved and there were now showers for the miners who no longer had to remove the grime of their labors in a shed at home. But my proud father refused to bare his nakedness to his fellow workers and refused to use them. So my mother had to continue to prepare a bath for him in the shed every day.
That was the town of my childhood. In spite of the drawbacks, there was so much for children to do. We ran with gunny sacks along the railroad tracks to collect pieces of coal that had fallen off the trains. There were dandelion greens to pick to enjoy in salads or we fashioned them into veils, bracelets and necklaces.
I recall when my girlfriend and I- we were barely six- were digging up dandelions near the town where people lived who had inside toilets and water in the kitchen. We spied the most popular young man of the town strolling by. What if he were to see us digging dandelions? Quickly we hid behind a tree until he walked by.
But oh the games we enjoyed, poor as we were. Besides the common variety of games such as hopscotch, ring around the rosie, mumbledee peg, hide and seek and so forth, we climbed trees to see who could jump the farthest from a limb. We played jacks if we had any; if not, we used stones. We caught garter snakes and wrapped them around our wrists as bracelets.
We loved to gather wild roses and eat the rose hips. We would strip the roses and eat the juicy stems. There were also walnuts that left a brown stain on our teeth and fingers. And there were wild berries that we gobbled up as soon as we gathered them.
We hiked to the edge of the town and dug up what we imagined were Indian graves. If it rained, we ran through the puddles and sloshed in the mud. We chased squirrels and rabbits and even skunks. I recall a day when two boys were sprayed by a skunk as they walked to school and were sent home in makeshift uniforms.
Sometimes we would go into an outhouse and bring out the Sears Catalog that was used for toilet paper. We would pick out from its pages the toys we hoped to get. Sometimes we would forget to return the catalog, angering later users of the outhouse.
During the Summer season we never wore shoes- my feet were bruised and swollen by the end of Summer but I didn't care- and all the boys had their heads shaven so that haircuts were unnecessary. Once in a while we gathered lice and our mothers would comb our hair with a thin toothed comb and squash the lice.
There was one boy who lived in the camp that had a glass eye; in exchange for a few marbles or slices of bread and jelly he would take it out and let us examine the hole.
We dug up rocks of every size and made little barricades and called them our Indian fort. Sometimes we would go into the farmers' fields and pick the corn or play hide and seek amongst the stalks. That was fun. Often the corn was so high we couldn't find each other. Many a time I went home thinking my friend who played with me got lost. It was just that she hid so well.
The winters in Iowa were very cold but I loved to roll down snowy slopes, make snowmen, throw snowballs and eat snow. Once I tried to lick an icicle off a water pump and my tongue stuck. A miner came along and spit on my tongue to loosen it. When I told my mother of this, she made me wash out my mouth.
In winter going to school was an adventure. We had to walk so we would go with galoshes, coats, heavy stockings, earmuffs, hats and gloves adorned with many holes along with a paper sack containing our lunch. As we fought through the snow, we stopped at various houses for warmth. We were never denied. At each stop we would warm ourselves for a few minutes and then move on. Sometimes we were given something warm to drink before moving on to the next oasis. When we reached school we had to wait until 8:00 until the bell rang to let us in. We would stand outside the school chanting over and over again, "Ring the bell, I am cold. Ring the bell, I am cold."
Some daredevils would play hop the corners on the corners of the school, often slipping and falling to our mocking laughter. In the school there was warmth, rest, peace, contentment. In those days school was the safest place on earth and most beloved.
I sang in the school choir. We sang songs like "Beautiful Dreamer". I and a friend were called the laughing hyenas beause we were always laughing and were often out of pitch. especially myself. I couldn't carry a tune. But they kept me in the glee club anyway.
But we children could be naughty. Once in kindergarten my friend and I couldn't stop laughing. I can't remember what we were laughing about but we just couldn't stop. We had the laughing jitters and laughed loud and long and louder and longer until finally our teacher ushered us into the closet. Here we stood dejected for a moment and then we were laughing again for on the floor of the closet was a brown sack and it held our teacher's lunch. We opened it up- sandwiches, cake, candy and pickles.
We laughed and ate it all, then placed the paper bag back on the floor and fixed it so there were no signs of anyone fooling with it; we thought we were so clever in our deceit but of course ended up in the Superintendent's office. I was afraid because I had gotten in trouble with her before by drawing a picture suggesting that she had dyed her hair red, a taboo back then. But she spared me and my friend this time.
How our teachers dealt with such a mix of nationalities, I'll never know. I don't recall anyone from the camp flunking out but the well off children from outside the camp were the gods and goddesses of the school. They had well trimmed boots and stylish clothes and lunchboxes full of goodies that I could only dream of.
Once a relative gave me a lunchbox that had once contained cigars. For years my food always tasted of cigars but it was a colorful lunchbox and I refused to give it up.
My lunch usually included a salami or ham sandwich and fig newtons, which were very popular. While eating these delicacies, we would watch the sociali (well off children) eating their steak sandwiches, apple turnovers and sometimes chocolates.
But one farm girl got our attention when she ate tongue sandwiches. We were aghast! We knew the better off children looked down on us so it was good to be able to feel superior to someone.
Sometimes we were given a dime by our parents to get lunch at the grocery store. The proprietor would make us a sandwich. throw in some candy and even give us a bottle of pop. We got to eat in the storeroom, sitting among bags of produce. Once we punched a hole in a bag of peanuts, filled our pockets with them and ran out of the store. After eating them, we deposited the shells in the shoes which were on display in front of the store next door.
In Spring it was easier to get to school. We could take a shortcut through an abandoned railroad tunnel. After school we would walk near the railroad track and pick flowers and wild berries but sometimes there were cyclones that appeared out of nowhere. I remember once the wind came with such intensity that I could hardly breathe. It felt like it would suck the breath out of me. I went to a tree and hugged it. The wind whirled and lashed at me. A lone farmer spotted me, took off his jacket and threw it over my face so I could breath. He walked home with me and left me at my doorstep. I never saw him again but I was eternally grateful.
Then there was the Italian custom of celebrating weddings. When there was a wedding, the whole camp celebrated. Such food, such drinking, such fighting!- yes, fights did break out. But for the children it was a joyous party. We got any pots and pans we could find and banged them as we stood outside the wedding feast. We would bang them as the married couple left on the wedding feast and shouted their name and the couple would then distribute handfuls of goodies to us. We would keep banging and demanding more until someone would say that enough was enough and would tell us to go home and leave them alone.
As for other entertainment, there were the comic strips. Someone in the neighborhood bought the newspaper and we kids would take turns reading the comic strips. Oh, how I thrilled to Tillie The Toiler and laughed and cried with Salesman Sam when he was caught by natives in Africa while on a selling expedition and put in a boiling pot. We could hardly wait for the next day to find out if Salesman Sam had escaped or been eaten.
And that reminds me of the salesman who used to come and sell the Italian women episodes of an Italian soap opera. He would come around every week and for ten cents you got a copy of the latest episode of a poor woman who suffered all the horrors of existence. The women would pass the episodes around and wait for the next installment. The men hated that salesman because they felt he was taking money away from them unjustly but no matter how much they yelled and screamed, the women still bought the episodes. In one episode the poor woman was buried alive by a jealous lover. She was digging herself out of the grave and the episode ended with a picture of a bloody hand reaching out of the grave.
The women of the company camp held their breath for the salesman to come around with the next episode. He never came. The men laughed and surmised he had been killed by a husband angry at this waste of money. Often I overheard the women murmuring about the fate of that buried woman but they never did find out. Though I did find out that Salesman Sam escaped being eaten.
Few families in the camp had radios in the 1920's but one family had a gramophone and seemingly only one record. It was an RCA record with the "His Master's Voice" label and this fascinated me. When I visited, I danced endlessly to the same tune.
Speaking of dances, many were held to celebrate all sorts of ethnic holidays from Columbus Day to Bastille Day. Mr. Steinberg, who owned the hardware store, rented out the room above it for the dances. People of all ages attended. But Mr. Steinberg was always complaining that some of the men stomped so hard that pots and pans fell from the walls and shelves of the hardware store below. And he complained that the older women congregating by the coal stove were always saying they were too cold and demanding more coal. So he encouraged the young bucks to dance with the older women to give them a whirl and warm them up to reduce his heating costs.
Of course there were the five cent Saturday movies. The whole town seemed to show up in the afternoon. Men, women and children shoved to get into the theater to see Tom Mix, The Perils of Pauline and Fu Manchu. We would leave the theater with Tom Mix dangling from a cliff, Pauline tied to a railroad track or Fu Manchu concocting some weird mixture.
There were also Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Lon Chaney, who frightened me, and Charlie Chaplin. When I first heard his name, I knew he was important but innocently thought that he was the owner of the theater. And when Rudolfo Valentino died, all the men in the camp believed he had been killed by a jealous husband.
It was hard to get a nickel for the movies but I managed and I must confess that several times I rummaged through my father's trousers to get it; off I would run to see William Boyd, Mary Pickford or Clara Bow. Sometimes we girls would write fan letters to the stars and once Clara Bow sent us a picture. There was a fight over who would keep it but I gave up my claim for some licorice.
Speaking of letters, once a friend and I wanted to write to Santa Claus. We were too young to write well so we asked her brother to do it. He obliged and we mailed the letter but much to our woe and sorrow, the postmaster opened it and placed it in the window of a store in the town. My friend and I were embarrassed and heartbroken over that and we were teased so much that it seemed at the time that, the pain would never heal.
A common activity for girls in the camp was preparing a hope chest- that meant embroidering pillowcases, towels and table clothes. Every girls dream was to be married and it was the thing to have a chest full of hopes for the future.
I embroidered a little but I was more of a dreamer looking for four leaf clovers. I preferred to read romance books I might find discarded in someone's garbage or wander looking for berries or lounging, watching the boys play baseball.
I dreamt a lot in those days- life is full of beautiful things. As a child I thought every parent was fine and honest, every teacher wise and dutiful, every storekeeper generous and understanding. I looked at life through rose tinted glasses.
Gradually that began to change. My life was less and less about hopscotch, going barefoot in the summer or making necklaces of dandelions. I spent less and less time straining to hear the town gossip of the old women around the coal stove.
My life changed and I lost the illusions of those early years but the memories of Boxtown are etched in my memories.