To the Editor of the Atlantic: —
Even though my life has been a series of trials and tribulations, I do not regret one of them. I have profited by every one of my experiences. To begin with, my father died about three months before my birth. I was born near the cotton fields in a small town in South Carolina, away back in December 1921. Everyone expected me to die because I was three days old before I cried. If a baby lived three days before it cried, there was supposed to be something wrong with it. After it was decided that maybe I might live, my grandmother, knowing that my mother was not the kind of woman to rear children, undertook the task of bringing up my brother and me as she had done with her own seven children. Under her wise guidance, I grew rapidly and sturdily until I was about four. Then, one cold morning in early November, my grandmother died. Those first four years were the happiest of my life.
My mother was a woman of very weak character. It might be said that she was the black sheep of our family. She had very little will power and could be easily led by almost anyone. My brother was born when she was sixteen and I was born when she was seventeen. She was too young to have children. Before my grandmother died, my mother had gone to Pittsburgh and had remarried. When she heard of her mother’s death, she rushed back for the funeral services. After the funeral, she, with my brother and me, started off again to Pittsburgh. Even though I was not quite four, I still remember the night that we arrived here. We got a taxicab immediately after we got off the train and started for our new home. It was very different from what I had imagined. I have always had a very vivid imagination. The house was small, but very neat. It had only three rooms. I had imagined a large, beautiful, green house, surrounded by trees.
My stepfather was rather nice, and after a week or two in this strange city I became reconciled to my new home. During the first year that I lived with my mother, she was the sweetest of mothers. She taught me during that year to say ‘Thank you,’ ‘Pardon me,’ and to practise other genteel manners that little girls should know. After that year I started to school. Then we moved. That had more effect on me than anything else.
For some reason not known to me, my family moved into a dark, dirty alley in one of the worst slums in the city. The people were drunkards and of the lowest moral standard. Since my mother was weak-willed, it wasn’t very long before she was as bad as the rest of the people in that district. She began to drink and get drunk. This had a terrible effect on me. I soon lost all respect for her. Then she began to neglect her home and, for some reason, began to hate me intensely. I developed a feeling of independence and made up my mind that I would never be like any of those people, not because I thought myself better than they, but because I did not approve of the way they lived.
When I got to the fifth grade, I quit living with my mother, got my first job, and since then I have had many more. I have scrubbed for some people, cleaned for some, washed and ironed for some, and have done clerical work for others. I have met just as many types of people as I have had jobs. Some people I admired and respected very much. When I got to know them better, I became somewhat disappointed. Everyone seems to preach virtue and many other saintly qualities, but I still have not found anyone who lives up to all that he preaches. Maybe I expect too much of people.
I lived with this person and that person until 1936. During that year my mother died. I was not yet fifteen. Up to that time I had unconsciously or instinctively, although I would not let myself believe it, felt that she still had some authority over me. As soon as she died, however, I realized that I was really out on my own.
I then got a job cleaning and doing clerical work for a doctor. After I had worked for this doctor about a year, I went to live with her. That was my first and only job of living on the lot. It did much toward making me what I am today. I worked after school every day and all day on Saturdays and Sundays; therefore I had very little time for social life. As a result, I had very few friends. I lived with this doctor for about a year and then moved to the East End and got job working for a consulting engineer and his wife as a cook. I am still working for them and enjoy my work, too.
I sometimes find it quite hard trying to make three dollars a week pay room rent (I live in a small, neat rooming house) and buy food for breakfast and also other necessities; but I manage to get along somehow. I can honestly say that during these last two years, when I have really been out on my own, I have not gone hungry one day or gone two weeks without a job or had a night fall without some place to sleep. I do consider myself very fortunate. Living in a slum district had a decided effect on me. It has made me hate the sight of liquor and the people who drink it. Anyone who has never lived in a slum district can have no idea how terrible it is. I have made up my mind, however, that I am not going to let my past stand in the way of my future. I am determined to become an honest, clean, decent person who is always ready and willing to help anyone. I intend to go to college and study medicine. I realize that it will take a number of years of hard work and hard study, but I am not afraid of hard work and I have faith in myself and in the future.
THE PRICE OF SUCCESS
República de Argentina
To the Editor of the Atlantic: —
During my convalescence in this small town of northern Argentina I managed to secure several copies of the Atlantic. The letters of ‘Under Thirty’ interested me to such an extent that I have been prompted to write one of my own.
My letter, however, will not be one asking the United States Government to remake itself so that I might be given an opportunity in life; I am not asking for anything except the health with which to fight this world. The obstacles that confront one in everyday life, at least in mine, are challenges to one’s ingenuity. My profession requires a person to use materials on hand, and sometimes to recondition worn-out, useless machinery.
I am an American citizen just under thirty. I finished a four years’ course in an engineering college, although the financial problem was not an easy one to solve. After being graduated with top honors in 1932, I got a fellowship that extended my professional activities into a field very closely allied with my own — that of ore dressing, more commonly known as concentration.
After receiving my Master of Science Degree in Metallurgy in 1933, I found myself among the employed in one field or another. Many times there was no money involved, but I secured my board and room. When there was no mining or concentration to look after, there was always cord wood to cut at fifty cents per cord, two cords per day.
From the spring of 1933 to the fall of 1934 I wandered over most of the Western states working wherever I could. Sometimes my only shelter was an old cabin or a tent, and my only companion a pack horse.
During my wanderings I had come across an occasional article in technical journals indicating that working conditions were better in foreign countries, particularly in South America. If my own country could not furnish me with steady employment, why not try a foreign one?
My varied experience soon secured for me a position in Peru. It meant three years or more away from home, from the country I loved, from all my friends. However, I found the work I liked to do, the problems I liked to solve. In fact, there seems to be no limit to the opportunities one finds on this Southern continent — if one is walling to work and take the risks involved.
Although most countries require an eight-hour working day, there is no room here for a person who takes advantage of that. One must be on the job all the time. He must be willing to go out whenever called, be it day or night. The risks involved are those of life, health, and finances. One may forget all about stable governments. One never knows when foreign money may be confiscated. And worst of all, one never knows when he wall be attacked by such scourges as amoebic dysentery, typhoid fever, malaria, or yellow fever. If it is not one of these, it may be the effects of the altitude. Yes, living at fourteen thousand feet above sea level is bad for the heart. Malaria and yellow fever do not seem to exist at the high altitude, but one must go down to the tropics for a rest.
After leaving Peru, I returned to the States for a brief interval and then came to Argentina. The mining camp is again close to fourteen thousand feet above sea level. In this case, however, it is colder than in Peru and the threat of pneumonia is far greater. But the work is still interesting and the type I like.
However, I have not been so fortunate. A short time ago, while in the tropics, I contracted amoebic dysentery. Anyone will tell you that it is a miserable disease, requiring long treatment, and even then one cannot be certain of having cleaned the amoebae from the intestines. Should they reach the liver, it would probably be fatal.
I have rapidly climbed the ladder of my profession and at the moment hold a position that many mining engineers would envy. My mind is analytical and I believe I have the solution to a new method of concentration. Yet, I have this scourge staring me in the face. After finishing this job, I may have difficulty securing another, for no one wants to hire a person who has had dysentery; it may return if not properly cured.
I am not complaining. I left the relatively small salaries and the security of health and finances of my own country for the larger salaries, opportunities, and dangers of these countries. I am merely paying the price.
All I ask for is complete recovery from this illness (it is proving to be very stubborn) so that I can continue my work and have my independence. The problems presented are pleasant things to solve with good health, but if that health is lacking . . .