OUR work began in a place which I had known about from the newspapers, but which a good citizen is supposed to know from the outside only. It was the club-rooms of the Thomas J. McManus Association, the headquarters of one of the strongest rock-ribbed Tammany districts in New York. You go to the Ninth Avenue Elevated, then around the corner of Fiftieth Street to the Avenue, and down a few houses, and climb a flight of stairs over a grocery store, and there you are. Draft-boards were then new things, and our board was, I suppose, like most of those which worked busily through the war in this free, self-drafting country.
As you went in, the club-rooms were full of little tables, and the Advisory Board and its assistants busy helping a motley crowd to fill our questionnaires. At one table a husky Irish longshoreman, in his jumpers, was telling a story which put him where he wanted to be, in Class 1 A. At another table a Lithuanian peasant, with four children and a wife, was exhibiting birth-certificates and a marriage-certificate of the persons therein described, as the best possible reason why his $90 a month earnings should continue and his soldiership be deferred. At another, a scow captain was explaining the absence of his wife and dependents to his official interrogator — a good young man, who looked like a Sunday-school teacher marooned in a foreign land, and who was sitting at a table under the very portrait of the McManus, genius of the place. ‘You see,’ he was saying, ‘she has been having pains for a week now; I could bring her, and if you say I have got to, I’ll go and get her; but,’ he added viciously, ‘I am a Republican, and this Tammany joint is no place where I want a child of mine to be born.’
In the front room, in whose comfortable chairs the politics of the district had been played for a generation, the wise men of the draft were located. It was a clatter of questions and quick answers. ‘No, the Turk is not an alien enemy, get supporting affidavit signed by each dependent, tell him to get them and bring them around, get the marriage-certificate and birth-certificates for the children, check them up too. No, a misdemeanor is not a crime; if he has n’t done anything worse than that, he is no Class 5 H man. Tell him to go to the Greek Consul and get a certificate and come back Friday.’
In the middle of the turmoil of the front room, the chairman of the board — a bald-headed lawyer, with a gift for getting things done — was profusely cursing a non-producing coalman over the telephone. It was in the early Garfield days, and the chairman was assuring the coal-man confidently that the Provost-Marshal General and the director of the draft would courtmartial him and order him shot at sunrise if the coal did not arrive in an hour. It came.
I had a small table given to me and set to work to learn to ride the questionnaire à la Squeers — a course which I presume was followed by most of the fifty-four hundred lawyers who, in New York City, volunteered for the Legal Advisory Board of the draft. It was slow work. The first applicant for legal advice and assistance was an Italian with four dependents; and, what with his limited English and my limited knowledge of the intricacies of the dependency clauses and the blanks to be filled out, it certainly took time. ‘Remember,’ said a sarcastic voice at my ear, it is this war and not the next one we are getting soldiers for.’ The chairman passed, and thus goaded, I finished and put Giuseppe in Class 4 A.
Some twenty or thirty assistants were doing like work. All sorts and conditions of men came: clerks, mechanics, longshoremen, waiters, laborers, chauffeurs, bar-tenders, — a never-ending stream, — patiently waiting their turn to answer their country’s questions and be classified in accordance with their eligibility for the supreme service of citizenship.
The copybook is right. Practice does make perfect. Familiarity, slowly acquired, with the questionnaire and with the service act, by degrees gave my mind greater freedom to study at close range the human aspects of the great draft. Local board work might be called the lost opportunity of the novelist. The questionnaire was a searching document. The disclosures it required left about as much privacy to the registrant as to a gold-fish in a bowl in the parlor window. Originally a highbrow, I soon found myself guilty of a distinctly friendly and sympathetic attitude toward burglars and highway robbers. I had tête-à-tête talks at the board with, I think, six, three of each, not including one convicted and pardoned murderer. The murderer was a rather low-class party. The others were surprisingly decent fellows. It was a genuine disappointment to me to have to classify them as morally unfit, when I could see every one of them, if given his chance, going over the top, as fearless men full of genuine fighting spirit — the real stuff for soldiers. The French dealt with this problem better than we did.
One of my associates handled his cases of this class with great finesse. He is a careful soul, and when I found, on examining the questionnaires turned in, one which he had ‘advised,’ with the criminal questions unanswered, I called it to his attention.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘ I remember this fellow: he was a fine, upstanding chap, about thirty-two, good soldier stuff. I was just starting to ask him, “Have you ever been convicted?” etc., when I caught a look in his eye; so, instead of asking that, I said, “ You are down as a plumber by trade. Have you been a plumber right along, or was there a while when you did something else?” He grinned and said, “Well, there was about two years and seven months when I was a stone-cutter and a broom-maker.” “Well,” I said, “have you voted recently ?” “No,” he replied, “not since 1910.” So I concluded that I had better skip those questions. If the Draft Board wants to lose a perfectly good soldier and a decent fellow, too, why, send this questionnaire back for those answers.’
One of my ex-burglar friends told me, with considerable pride, that he was now chauffeur for a well-known elderly lady of wealth, who lived quite alone, protected by two burglar-alarm systems, and who insisted upon his sleeping in the house as an additional precaution.
It would be a libel upon the district to create the impression that it was full of burglars and highwaymen. The few I met happened to surprise me by being so decent. The main bulk of the district consisted of a mass of almost uniformly poor people of the laboring class, hardworking men, — with now and then a rummy, — and plain, simply dressed women, the married ones generally with an abundance of children. The men are of a kind that makes soldiers — physically strong, and with a good percentage of the daredevil, adventurous type. The slackers were extraordinarily few. Those who claimed dependents had them generally in profusion. Schemes to beat the draft were rarely tried, and when they were tried they generally failed. The necessary information was forthcoming from one source or another.
The draft in our district was a kaleidoscope of nationalities. As you saw the long line patiently waiting for their turn at the advisers’ tables, they looked like what they were — an average assembly of New York workingmen. When you analyzed them separately,— and never has this process been done in our history with such minute thoroughness as the questionnaire required, — you found the ends of the earth were before you.
This good-looking tobacconist is a Turk; he has a French wife; they were married in Syria. You put a note on the yellow slip, ‘ Marriage certificate unobtainable.’ The next is a first-paper Englishman from South Africa, formerly an actor, now a salesman. Next come two husky lads from Ireland, willing to serve in an American army, but no British army need apply. The next is a blond giant, with a strong accent. ‘Where were you born?’ ‘In vat is to be the vorst licked country in the vorld.’
So it went. Yet with all the diversity of nationality, there was somehow a unity, indefinable, intangible, but real.
They were citizens of the big city. They were all Americans.
I have said that we had little trouble with slackers. We had far more cases of men who were too anxious to go than of those not willing enough. ‘What about the wife?’ when put to a man with a wife, but no children, brought at most times an optimistic and cheerful response. ‘Oh, Mary can get along all right, can’t you, Mary? Sure I can, if I don’t have a big stiff like you to feed.’ Mary had worked before marriage, and simply expected to return to supporting herself. There were few clinging vines found in our district.
Because there were so many diverse nationalities in the district, so many who listened to the spoken word and read not even the Hearst, newspapers, our chairman, long before the system of instruction to drafted men was devised and systematized, had worked out a programme for the proper sendoff of our boys. ‘ We want,’ he declared, ‘to do three things. We want to send our boys off sober and clean and in good order. We want them to know what they are fighting for. We want the district to see them go off a credit to the district, and help make the draft popular here, so that we will get more soldiers later from the spectators.
So the Board worked out this programme. The open-air send-off, the first we had, drew nearly thirty thousand people, with flags, bands, cigarettes, chocolate for fine soldier boys, sober, clear-eyed and confident, who left the district in a whirl of enthusiasm and local pride —good for them and good for us all. These open-air meetings were precursors of many other occasions, some small affairs, some big assemblies, but with like purpose. The biggest indoor meeting of the kind was held on the hottest day of last summer. It was the most interesting public meeting I ever attended. It was held in the basement auditorium of one of the public schools. It was in the very centre of the McManus district. It was an assembly of his people. The McManus was there — chairman of the meeting.
Now we all know about Tammany — at its worst. In the mind of the average cultivated New Yorker, who takes a mild interest in politics, there is a somewhat blurred but distinct picture of the district leader as a type and representative of bad government — a combination of red-light houses, saloons, dance-halls, gambling dens, crooked contracts, manipulated by diamondfronted men with dyed moustaches in rear rooms behind the bar.
When we know a type, a stage villain, or village maiden, or Tammany politician, we are rather disturbed and annoyed at variations and innovations. The McManus, so-called to distinguish him from four brothers, all bachelors like himself, living together in a twentydollar flat in the district, turned out to be a hearty, husky Irishman of fifty, who looked like the fighting forties, and wore a close cropped beard. A handsome man he was, with courtly ways, twinkling eyes, and as Christian Science a manner as can be permitted to a good Catholic. What I mean is that he seemed to radiate health, heartiness, friendliness. I am told that he does n’t drink a drop, considers the saloon the bane of his people, and won’t have a disorderly resort in the district. Germany for fifty years built up over a docile people its power and unity by teaching them whom and how to hate. The McManus went on a different principle. He built up his power in his district, in perhaps half that time, by teaching his people whom to love — Thomas J. McManus. Moreover, McManus is still leader of his district and the Kaiser has abdicated.
But to return to the meeting. It was, as I said, the evening of the hottest day of the summer. Into this big auditorium came the wives, mothers, brothers, and fathers of the boys about to leave for camp. The air was filled with the wailing of babies. The hall was full of them.
We started out with song. A chorusleader brought in from the ‘outside’ attempted to lead us in harmony. He looked like a good young man in a strange place. He started wrong. ‘Let us try the chorus of “Over There,” ’ he announced. The response was feeble. ‘What, have you no more lungs than that?’ he began again, in what was intended to be a tone of friendly sharpness. The McManus, not yet chairman, stepped forward on the platform and raised his hand. ’Just one minute now. There is one song that every man, woman and child in this great West-Side district does know. I suggest that we begin this meeting with it. Try the “Star Spangled Banner.”’ The district did know it. It sang until the chandeliers shook. The ‘outsider’ had been wrong. The ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ was the song with which to begin such a warmeeting, and it seemed natural enough and proper enough that the ‘outsider’ had been shown his error by the man who knew the district, its pride and its patriotism, and was its natural spokesman. Score one for the McManus.
Introduced as chairman, he prefaced his speech with score two. ‘ This being a district of plain people, without frills or fancies, I am going to ask the ladies to allow us to take off our coats,’ suiting the action to the word himself. Every man’s coat in the house came off in two seconds. It was a blessed relief. The man in front of me had a shirt slit from the shoulder-blades to the belt; but ascertaining that no lady was behind him scrutinizing his much-exposed anatomy, he accepted the comforts of his situation relieved of embarrassment.
The McManus made a distinctly good speech, passionate, full of punch and patriotism. He began by regretting his own inability to get into the khaki. ‘They tell me because I am fifty, I am too old, but I want to tell you there is many a young fellow in the district I can trim yet.’
‘Good for you, Senator!’ said my next neighbor; ‘you are right, your maulies are good yet.’
In the middle of his speech, a woman in one of the front seats, having a particularly noisy baby, in immediate proximity to the speaker, started to go out. Before she reached the aisle the orator stopped his speech. ‘Wait now,’ the McManus commanded, in a voice brusque but kind, ‘you go back and sit down; that baby is all right. God forbid that in this great West-Side district a mother at a meeting on a night like this should have to go home because her child gives up a natural cry. Thank God, it is a baby’s natural cry in its mother’s arms, and not the cry of the babies of Belgium bayonetted by the Huns.’
The mother went back and the baby marvelously stopped crying. Continuing his parenthetical remarks, the Senator added, with a grin of engaging frankness, ‘You know I always did cater to the ladies in the district, and now they have got the vote, I am going to cater to them more and more and more! ’
Other orators there were: the Senator (Tammany, of course) for the district; an assistant district attorney, ‘ one of our own ’; a good Catholic priest, the idol of his people, who received more applause than any of the others; and a doctor, who talked with unvarnished plainness of the requisites of fitness to fight. But the permanent impression I retained from the meeting was the picture of the McManus, sitting in his shirt-sleeves, in the chairman’s seat, with the gavel in one hand, while with the other he held, sitting quietly on his knee, one of the toddlers of the district, who had strayed on to the platform, and who will vote the straight ticket for McManus in 1938.
The humors of the draft would fill a book. The work was full of incident, and many a local board man will tell you that it was one of the most interesting and engrossing episodes of his life. More marriage tangles and triangles came out in the course of the draft than Arnold Bennett could have imagined. Some were sad cases and some were funny.
Here is an Italian confronted with the following question under the dependency clause: ‘Is any other person contributing to the support of the named dependent ? ’ — his wife. It took some explanation before he understood the question. His eyes then glittered and he hissed, ‘I theenk so; I catcha heem, I kill heem!’
The case of David and Uriah is not without its modern counterpart. In our board, a man had claimed deferred classification on account of a wife dependent upon him for support. He was told that half an hour earlier his wife had been in and said that she thought she could get along, and was willing to waive her rights and permit his service in the army. It seemed very patriotic to us. The husband had other ideas. ‘That’s some more of that d-police-
man’s work, all right. He thinks because he has got one of these here necessary employment cinches, he can stay around in my fiat, while I am in the trenches hunting the Hun! Nothing doing!’
If there was anything from which more than from another our board drew satisfaction, it was in the numerous cases in which we made wedding-bells — long deferred — ring. Men who for one reason or another had delayed ceremonial marriages, with consorts of long standing, revised their views on the subject of matrimony when they found a new use and reason for the marriage-certificate as a necessary proof of the existence of a dependency recognized by law.
Sometimes, when the wedding was not feasible, the theory of common-law marriage had to be stretched to cover cases which a judge would find difficult. Take a problem like this: Here is a man, a decent respectable fellow, with a wife and two children and no marriagecertificate. Why? Well, he had married in pique, following a lover’s quarrel, a worthless woman, who a month later left him, telling him incidentally that she had an unreleased husband elsewhere. Repentant, and this time sober, the deserted one goes back to his true love, tells her his story and his situation. There was no legal proof to get annulment or a divorce. The departed one’s story might or might not be true. He had no money to hire detectives to find her or the facts. The solution adopted was that the young people took one another for better or worse, without the wedding-lines, lived otherwise decently, and accumulated two pretty children. For the first time in their lives the certificate became a necessity. We called it a common-law marriage. Bad law, perhaps; but we hope it was good practical sense under the circumstances.
The wife is not always a dependent. One of my friends served on a board which included part of the colored belt. To him, in the toils of the law, came Jasper, a husky colored person, who promptly claimed the exemption due to a man who had a wife and two children. He produced the children and the marriage-certificate, but no wife. Somewhat uneasy was Jasper when told to bring the wife. Two days later he came with a large fat lady, the deferred wife. It looked like an ordinary case of dependency — a Class 4 A case — until the wife began to make a few inquiries.
‘Ah is his wife, all right,’ she admitted, ‘but what does this dependency word mean?’
It was explained to her. The situation changed at once.
’Now, see heah, Mr. Man,’ she began, ‘I’s been supporting this yere worthless crapshooting black trash for ten years.’
The examiner considered this a propitious moment in which to explain the allotment of soldiers’ wages for wife and children and the allowance for dependents. A new light came into her eyes.
‘Thank God for dem Huns and dis war!’ she ejaculated; but she added venomously, ‘If Jasper don’t have no more luck shooting them Boches than he lets on he has shooting craps, dis war never going to end.’
Jasper became a soldier.
One of our members was a person of rather precise and mathematical views, who had a mania for making soldiers. He was forever figuring in dollars and cents on the mathematics of dependency. It ran something like this. ‘ Now, Mrs. Clancy, let us figure this out. You have two children. Your husband makes eighty-two dollars a month. He says he turns it all in to you. My own guess is that he holds out something for Saturday night, but let that go for the minute. Now, you have to feed him out of it. He looks like a good eater. What would you board a big fellow like this for if he were not a relation of yours, with prices as they are?’
‘Sure, ten dollars a week is little enought,’ says Mrs. Clancy.
’Very good,’ says the mathematician; ‘so out of the eighty-two, or shall we say seventy dollars, he turns in, you feed him forty dollars’ worth. That leaves forty-two dollars at most for you and the children. Now, you would get, if he went into the service, fifteen from his pay, fifteen from the government and twelve for the children. That makes as much as forty-two anyway. If he got killed you would get fiftyseven fifty a month for twenty years, or, if he got incapacitated,’ etc., etc. The persuasive examiner went on, putting the allurements of the allotment in a most attractive way, while Clancy, poor soul, squirmed visibly.
Mrs. Clancy would rise to the situation. She would appear to hesitate. ‘Well, maybe you’re right. The man has n’t brought me a full pay envelope since Corcoran’s saloon was opened, and that is four years ago, come January. Eighty dollars a month, he says he brings home. Not to me. Let me think it over a bit, will you?’
The interview is suspended. I asked the mathematician a few days later what had become of Clancy. ‘Nothing doing,’ he sighed. ‘She came in yesterday and said Clancy had been to the priest and signed the pledge, and she concluded she could not get along without him.’
The mathematician occasionally got a soldier in this way, but his methods had by-results not wholly undesirable.
‘ Most of these men,’ he declared, ‘ think that when they bring home a depleted pay-envelope and give it to the wife, have her cook it and feed most of it to them, that they are worth their weight in gold. I have shown a lot of these women that their husbands pay just about their board, and that they would be better off with a little government money, free time for themselves, and a chance of cashing an insurance policy. I count on doing one or the other of two things, making a soldier or a better husband. Either result does Uncle Sam some good.’
With all the incidents, humorous or pathetic, which came during the work of the Selective Service Act, the deep and lasting impression, however, made upon my mind was one of profound respect for the patriotism of the poor. We are hearing so much these days about Bolshevism in Europe, and the dangers of the proletariat inflamed against the bourgeoisie and the capitalist — dangers which alarm some even in our own country. All these causes for alarm may be real, but there are some facts which should give us confidence. Take our own district, for example, and remember that it is only one of many, and note the response to the call for citizen soldiers.
Our people were all poor. They were asked to fight for a country which had given them little more than a bare subsistence. The red star has been replaced by a gold star in many of its tenement windows. The district contains only seventeen city blocks, yet fifty-five thousand people live in these blocks, closely crowded in tenements. It sent eleven hundred men into the army, half as many more into the navy, and with special inductions surely seventeen hundred men went from it into the country’s service.
Forget for the moment that these men went to risk their lives for their country — and they saw hard fighting, and we are proud of them. Let us think prosaically of the conditions they left at home. The average wage of these men was at least three dollars a day. These 1700 men (100 from every block on the average, and one block sent 228) had a combined earning capacity of $5100 a day, over $30,000 a week, $122,400 a month. These figures represent, not the decreased earnings of some large company with vast capital to draw upon: we are talking about the capitalization of human deprivation, lost each day and week and month by about 1500 families living in these congested city blocks. This figure, over $122,000 per month, is lost earning capacity, is wages directly out of pocket. It represents self-sacrifice, even suffering, uncomplaining privation; it represents foregone winter clothing and wholesome food for younger children; dark twoor three-room tenements for parents who can no longer afford to pay $15 per month for rent; it represents almost everything which makes life worth living; education for children, who are now working at tender ages. It represents so many things that I will not tire you with a further enumeration. But these people do not whine or beg; they are patriotic, proud of their boys, and more than willing to sacrifice to give them the one big chance.
The uninformed layman will say, ‘But you are forgetting the allotments and allowances to cover these losses, provided for by law.’ Well, it is pretty nearly time for something sharp and severe to be said about these theoretical payments and the reasons why they were months in arrears or never came at all. The mothers and wives who relied upon them and needed them somehow got along without them, with the help of their neighbors or by unwonted labors. The way in which the department at Washington almost completely broke down under its responsibilities is one of the yet-to-be-discussed problems of the war. With uncomplaining fortitude, our district met the shortcomings of the government, which kept the word of promise to the ear and broke it to the hope.
Let us think about this thing further while there is time. We are past the delirious Monday of the world’s great armistice—weary, staggering toward peace. The big dollar-a-year men are resigning from their jobs at Washington. The camps are emptying and warindustries are getting their contract cancelations; thousands of men are being thrown out of war-employment in consequence. The boys in France are looking toward home; reconstruction is the new word, with all the confusion and the potentialities of distress which it implies. Let us not forget too soon the sacrifice of the people of districts of which ours is but a fair sample. Let us make the new America to which the boys return, a land worthy of their generous devotion, and of the willing sacrifice of those who made their service possible.