Of Tent Cities and the Search for Home
Consider the backyard, pop-up tent. One good gust of wind and you’re toast inside that thing. After all, it’s nothing but a parachute tethered to earth. And aren’t parachutes meant to capture the invisible, elusive wind?
If I’m a fly on the wall, and I listen in as two woodsy guys decide to invent the parachute tent, I swear I hear one of them say, Tents aren’t impermanent enough. Let’s ratchet this thing up. So they employ lightweight, flexible poles, jimmy them together, then string the whole lot with ultra-light fabric. Pure genius, affixing a parachute to the ground.
Like many other suburban families, ours succumbed to the pop-up tent’s implied promise of adventure. Though I and my (now ex) husband were a couple of desk jockeys without any camping credentials whatsoever, we bought a pop-up tent in the late 1980s and set it out back for our son, Ted. After a time, our Labrador retriever went inside the tent, ultimately staking a claim and turning it into a giant stink trap. That’s when I decided to disassemble the thing, dry-clean it, and stash it away. Time to build a tree house.
Yet the oral history of our family includes an important story involving a tent as my grandparents’ residence. Whenever I see a tent, I think of my grandparents, whom I called Baba and Gedo. Who comes to America to live in a tent? And yet that’s exactly what happened.
Right after my father, their fifth child, was born in Footedale, Pennsylvania, in late September 1921, my Baba and Gedo were living in a home in a company town, a coal patch, as they called it. Gedo had a job in a coal mine when the miners at the H.C. Frick Company went out on strike.
Because Gedo didn’t want to scab, the family was forced to leave their home in October of 1921. Just days after my father was born. When I first heard this story, it reminded me of the baby Jesus in a stable – a type of outdoor living that had nothing to do with adventure, but everything to do with survival.
If you scabbed, they would throw dynamite into your house. It was that dangerous, my father told me. Better to live in a tent than to scab. Pap wouldn’t scab.
I nodded. I understood Pap’s decision. My father always called his own father Pap, though to me, this man was Gedo. Whenever we talk of his father, we seem to use both names freely, sometimes claiming his relationship, other times, claiming mine.
The guards who worked for the coal company came with their guns, and they carried all your furniture outside, and put it on the street. You were just put out.
Pap hired someone with a buggy to move their belongings. And in October 1921, off the family went to a church in New Salem, Pennsylvania, where the church furnished tents for the evicted, striking miners, and their families. Five children in a tent, one of them a newborn – my kindly Baba must have been beside herself over this development. I never knew her long enough to ask her. Baba died when I was in middle school, long before I had developed the necessary empathy.
As for the tent, it was no spacious Bedouin tent, like in Lawrence of Arabia. Neither did it resemble a yurt, which seems livable over the long term. From the photos I had seen, these canvas tents looked like the ones used during the Civil War, tall and wide affairs, but not set up for family life.
Pap looked for another job in Allison, Pennsylvania, and he was hired pretty soon by a different coal company, W.J. Rainey. By December, the family was back in a real home, House #19 in Allison, narrowly averting a winter of camping.
When I was in my mid-thirties, I picked up a piece of stationery left over from a work-related retreat and began what would become my lifelong address list. The year was 1988. What an ironic choice for such a list, I’ve since decided, more suitable as shopping list paper. Yet it must’ve been the only scratch paper handy. Along the bottom border, it depicted a silly cartoon graphic with many weary souls, pronouncing the following: “I survived the retreat of 88.” Years later, I realize my many moves were anything but a retreat. Rather, this list is a testament to my restlessness. I’ve lived full throttle, tilting toward each new place.
In order to undertake such a list, I must’ve had a premonition well before I lived into the quest. As I write, I am currently on my nineteenth residence. These nineteen places spanned five states – New Jersey, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Illinois and Colorado. Quite a long list, for a woman whose friends have pegged her as a homebody.
Homes number one, two, and three were my childhood homes in Rockaway, New Jersey, and my college dorm in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Homes number four and five: my single-girl apartments in Morris County, New Jersey, after I landed my first job as a law librarian. Numbers six through fourteen included all of my residences while married. Homes number fifteen through nineteen were all my own doing.
As young newlyweds in 1980, we purchased our first home, number 9 on my list: 183 West Fairview Avenue in South Orange, New Jersey, which bordered Newark. The home was built around the same time as my grandparent’s house, a bungalow with a spacious front porch and two fireplaces. Next door to us lived an old retired Italian couple who were frequently visited by members of their extensive family. We only lived there a year before a geographic fix overcame us.
For the apartments on the list, I often omitted the street numbers. For one, I had simply written, “Chicago, IL Lincoln Park.” This was an efficiency apartment right next to the Four Farthings Tavern, which offered us our only chance to sleep on a Murphy bed. Because the city sidewalks were littered with broken beer bottles, it was nearly impossible to walk our two dachshunds. It wasn’t long before we departed for the Chicago suburbs.
The house that I loved most unreasonably is number 14 on my list: the colonial on Delles Road in Wheaton, Illinois. That was to be my dream home. When the marriage ended there, my son and I found ourselves lost in a four-bedroom home. Two years after the divorce, it was time to let go of the Delles Road dream, so we packed up our two-story lives.
In my son’s thoughtful, middle school mind, this home deserved a written thank you, a proper goodbye. So he wrote the letter and buried it beneath the tree house my dad built. Delles Road was the place where Ted spent the bulk of his childhood. When Ted told me he wanted to buy the Delles Road home someday, I nodded. I understood. Certain places have a trancelike effect on us. That was the yard where we pitched our tent out back, hoping for adventure and permanence all at once.
But then along came house number 15, the blue ranch on a corner with the fabulous shed. After we outfitted the shed with electricity and a sofa, it became the perfect high school and college hangout for Ted and his friends. In a testament to our resilience, we found a way to love again.
What was it about my grandparents that would hint at the instability to come in my own life? I search my memory bank for clues, yet I am left to wonder. Because they eventually did settle down. Was it the genes, or my own shortcomings, that led me to roam as I have? Whatever it was skipped a generation, as my own parents have lived in fewer places than I have. That’s why I look to my grandparents. They’re the ones who came to this country. They started the great migration, as it were.
As a child, I could tell that Baba and Gedo were different, ‘not from around here.’ Between 1910 and 1912, they arrived separately in America, emigrating from the Kingdom of Hungary, county of Bereg, considered western Ukraine today. Baba and Gedo met and married in America, settling in western Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh.
Baba and Gedo talked funny, their house smelled stuffy, and they cooked a peasant beef noodle soup so loaded with black pepper it hurt my mouth. I suppose if you were a lifelong pipe smoker and tobacco user like Gedo, a high level of seasoning is ideal. Gedo died of throat cancer in 1974 when I was in college.
At Baba and Gedo’s home, House #54 in Allison, Pennsylvania, there was much for a growing child to explore in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
His days of laying tracks in coal mines long over, Gedo presided over the screen door by the back porch. He positioned himself on a chair there, clutching a fly swatter. Baba and Gedo’s house was so overrun with grandchildren, it was necessary to establish order to the foot traffic coming into and out of the house. They had raised eleven children, including my father, and lost one infant son. Now, their far-flung, grown-up children had kids of their own, twenty-six in all. That could make for a lot of small visitors.
They wanted the grandkids to stay outdoors, but I had my own agenda. I flitted in and out. Summer visits to Baba and Gedo’s were short enough, I couldn’t afford to waste time sitting still. Each time I re-entered the house, before the screen door could even bounce-slam, Gedo confronted me. Don’t you see the moohees? That was peasant Russian for flies; my grandparents and all their children spoke this form of Russian. You’re letting the moohees inside.
I don’t see any, I answered truthfully. Because Gedo was wielding a fly swatter, the flies I let in previously had been eliminated. This was lost on me.
My dad would try to interpret such grandparently encounters so that I would see what was expected of me. My Gedo and I remained worlds apart, each speaking one language not native to the other. Yet he and I were flesh and blood.
In their basement, I often waded into the vast coal bin, which occupied its own room. Coal was delivered through a chute leading outside; I once tried to climb high enough in the chute to peek into sunlight. I pretended I was in a cave, and for all the world, the coal bin felt like one, with its dirt floor and spooky darkness. The sensation of climbing on shifting black rocks piled up indoors was unlike any experience I had in my 1950s Cape Cod tract house in suburban New Jersey. Deep in the coal bin, I could have sworn I was playing outside, but strangely, I had a roof over my head. Naturally, the backside of my shorts belied my secret expedition, as did my new sneakers. We often had new clothing to wear especially for these summer visits, as my father wanted his parents to see how well he cared for us.
In addition to the coal bin, the basement contained another attraction – wooden shelves holding Mason jars full of brightly colored vegetables, especially tomatoes, harvested from the garden. Who keeps food in the basement, I wondered? Back home, we didn’t have interesting glass jars like these. Always a fussy eater, I was convinced this food was better for looking than eating.
No corner of the house was left private or unexamined, even my grandparents’ bedroom. Baba and Gedo raised eleven children in a two-bedroom house, which meant one bedroom for the parents, and one for the children. Baba’s dresser top, covered in doilies, caught my attention. There, I learned that even the working poor must have something beautiful in their lives. As a boy, my father had made a wooden box for Baba, and there it still sat on her dresser so many years later, a prized possession.
Upstairs, downstairs, all around, large metal grates mounted into the floors attracted my attention. I would get down on my hands and knees, peering into them so closely I risked leaving a waffled impression on my nose. But I was rewarded by seeing clear through to the floor below.
Back outside, I would pause on the wooden benches under the grapevine trellis in the side yard, stare up at the grapes growing beyond my grasp, and squint into square slices of sky. My father’s generation loved to talk here in the cool shade. Gradually, I grew bored and slipped away, first from their sight, and then, from the sound of voices speaking in Russian. I would examine the exterior of the house, peel the blistering white paint off the home’s stone foundation until I was found out. Then, I would wander off down the garden path between rows of growing tomatoes and carrots.
And good Lord, that outhouse, strategically located at the back edge of the property for a reason. It was all I could do to run past it, let alone visit it. It was the one place I actually tried to avoid. Though visit it I did, until the drafty back porch was outfitted with a modern bathroom.
On the clothesline, I never saw a pair of pants belonging to my Baba. She was old school, all girl, only freshly wrung-out dresses and aprons hung from her clothesline. She was a big woman, the kind whose embrace enveloped you. In that embrace, I knew: this is love.
As I write these words, I’m searching again, in Colorado. I don’t even have to tell you what it is I’m searching for: you already know. I am she-who-wants-one-more-beginning. Perhaps this is what happens when you spend your twenties with your head buried in the books. I give in to restlessness without a struggle. When it overtakes me, as it does so easily, I can see the advantages to having a fresh start.
Perhaps my Facebook status should read: living in home number 19 but searching for home number 20. Just like the winding canyon roads of my adopted state, I waver in my desire over where to live. Maybe I’ll stay in Colorado. Or, maybe I’ll go back to the Midwest to be near my son Ted. I always believe my next move could be my last move ever.
I moved to Colorado for reasons both known and unknown. A friend who moved from the Midwest first piqued my interest in coming here. But lately, I see myself as a modern day Heidi, moving to the mountains to heal, to reverse chronic pain and autoimmune disease, if that’s possible. Only this Heidi is primarily vegetarian, and not looking to add more animal protein into her diet.
Several years in, I remain optimistic about Colorado and my healing. I now know even the most restless soul can’t outrun illness. Hoping to shed a medical diagnosis by moving cross country – the same way you lose the beat-up furniture you no longer want to own – isn’t realistic. Turns out, there isn’t a magical witness protection program that shields us from disease if we remain on the run. I can confirm that moving won’t free you from the long arm of disease. Yet I hope the Colorado landscape can instill the peace that healing requires. If I stay put long enough.
On a quick jaunt to New Mexico, I stop in Ludlow, Colorado, at a memorial built to commemorate the massacre that occurred at a striking miners’ tent colony. The Ludlow tent colony consisted of 200 canvas and wood tents, housing 1200 striking coal miners in 1913-1914. The exhibits tell the story of life in the tents, and for some, death.
The large monument and grounds with exhibits are eerily deserted, surrounded by a tall cyclone fence at the perimeter. An unlocked metal gate flaps like a saloon door in the considerable wind. I think I’ve time traveled back to the Wild West, except it is, after all, a metal gate. I scan the horizon and grant myself permission to enter.
I’m not really sure why I came here. I have no familial connection to Ludlow. Is it to understand what my grandparents went through? The sacrifices made by an earlier generation? Judging from the weedy grounds, there must be others who aren’t sure what to do about this place, either. What to do about tent colonies? I press on in search of answers.
From the exhibits, I learn the Ludlow tents measured about ten by fourteen, with wooden floors, often with cellars. No electricity or running water. The colonists hauled their water from a well near the railroad tracks. One photo depicted coal miners cooking inside a tent, on a stove that vented to the outside. As for food, how about salami made out of jackrabbit meat? Inventiveness and resilience were not in short supply that winter, even if housing was.
On the day before the massacre, April 19, 1914, the miners had celebrated Greek Orthodox Easter with dancing, singing, and a baseball game. An early morning explosion on April 20, 1914 triggered gunfire between the miners and militia, who were reportedly company men. The fighting went on all day between armed miners and the militia, while women and children hid in the tents. In the afternoon, women and children ran to the hills to hide as a passing freight train interrupted the exchange of gunfire.
At dusk, the militia entered the colony and set fire to the tents. Two women and eleven children suffocated in a cellar dug beneath their tent. Lives were lost on both sides that day at Ludlow, with the death toll at twenty-one.
As I pore over the exhibits, I snap photos in case I do not pass this way again. One old time black-and-white photo shows snow heaped up around the tent compound. Camping through a Colorado winter, followed by death for twenty-one souls; and for most of that number, death in the cellar of a tent.
It’s a mystery how we will die, and where we’ll be at the time. Many of us hope to have a home worthy of our final breath. Realistically, a simple twin bed next to a picture window could get the job done. Will my next home be the last address of my life? Or, will there be one more chance after that?
Someday I’ll scrawl the last address of my life on my now yellowing piece of paper. Then the list will be complete. Finished. And where is that place? How will it represent me? The last thing I would want is sympathy for my plight or my choices. We’ve all heard the funeral chatter: So this is where she died? This is where she ended up. Is this all there was for her in the end?
At the Ludlow colony, it took a special force of character to shut the door to a company house for the last time and open the flap to a tent. In these photographs, in these courageous faces, I see what I came for.
Just as I get used to the silence and to being alone, a freight train chugs by, like it did on the day of the massacre. I drive off, recommitted to my search for home.
Whenever I visit the acupuncturist, it’s all about the needles. I try not to move as she places one needle after another into the nerves of my upper arms. All the way down to my wrists she goes, like a trail of floppy breadcrumbs. I’ve learned they want my nervous system to go faster, so naturally, I want that, too.
My acupuncturist knows I’m searching for answers. She often imparts her healing wisdom whenever I’m captive. I stare at the ceiling, try not to look surprised when she blurts out, You know, I think you’re coming home to yourself. A couple of needles later, she explains, You’ve been cerebral for so long.
Can’t argue with the lady. I’m beginning to see how I used my body like a tent: portable, ultra light, flexible. I could take it anywhere. I could stake it anywhere.
The story of how my grandparents moved into their forever home: that’s another one for the books.
Back in western Pennsylvania, Baba and Gedo, along with their growing family, had been living in House #19, which was the first home they occupied in Allison, a duplex. Then they found out that a single-family, detached home, House #54, would soon be vacated by Italian miners, the Vasco family.
Gedo went to the company office and told the company official that he didn’t get along with his duplex neighbors. Could his family possibly move into House #54 after the Vascos moved out? His request was arranged.
Once the Allison mine was worked out and there was no more coal, W.J. Rainey offered to sell the company patch houses for $500 each. My dad thought it was around 1931 or 1932 when his family bought House #54. He wasn’t entirely sure of the year. He was, however, very sure of how the purchase came about.
First, Gedo tried to get a loan from the bank but was turned down. Work was scarce, said my dad. Pap worked one, two, or three days a week. Sometimes in a two-week pay period, he was only paid for five or six days. He didn’t have good credit because he wasn’t working every day.
Back then, a miner would make thirty-five to fifty cents per hour. Ah, the scourge of the part-time worker. This story sounds so post-2008. And being at the mercy of the banks, that sounds post-2008 too.
Gedo needed $500. After the bank turned him down, he asked his friend Mr. Bomback to lend him the money, and it was done.
My father speculates that the loan was extended to his family in the hopes that Pap’s son Mike would marry the lender’s daughter someday, which did not happen. But, Gedo shared a common language with his friend: Russian. And that made for enough friendship to lend.
To get the money, my father recalled that Pap walked from Allison to Royal, Pennsylvania, to get to Mr. Bomback’s house, a six to seven-mile walk each way, three miles along a road and two miles through dense woods. Anywhere along the way, someone could have attacked Gedo and stolen his money. He made it back with the money and without incident.
My dad still marvels at the way things turned out. What a difference that Pap could borrow that money. If Pap didn’t have a friend, someone else would have bought that house, and we’d have to move again.
House #54 in Allison is the only home I associate with Baba and Gedo. In time, their coal patch birthed a town, and modern postal addresses were required. So House #54 became 54 Broadway, though there was nothing broad about that cobbled street.
There weren’t down payments back then, you know. In 1929, after the banks closed, the depositors got nothing. That was the end for everybody. Well, some say they got a bit of money back, but mostly, they lost their savings. And if you didn’t have cash, you couldn’t buy a house.
I often ask my father to refresh my recollection concerning events he lived through. These are stories he told me before, in some distracted moment, but now, I feel a sense of urgency to commit his memory to writing.
I marvel that my own father has lived to reach the age of ninety-three. A twenty-first-century Gedo to four grandchildren, he is uneasy with the mantle of family patriarch, but all of his brothers are gone, save one younger, though three sisters carry on.
We speak by phone, which I know he hates, but he’s in Florida, and I’m in Colorado. For a science guy who worked for the telephone company for thirty-some years, it’s ironic how much he dislikes the device. But if ever there was a metaphor to explain the communication between us, it’s TASI. That was one of the 1960s inventions my father worked on at Bell Laboratories; it stands for time assignment speech interpolation, which equipped the transAtlantic cables. I was captivated when Dad told me TASI was capable of half-time talking and half-time listening. He and I have become our own TASI: half time, he talks, I listen, and vice versa.
I learn that a recent Zillow estimate, or Zestimate, as it is called, for 54 Broadway in Allison, is $47,000. Baba and Gedo’s coal patch home has soared in value since they paid $500 for it in the early 1930s. I tell Dad about it. He asks, What’s Zillow? How do you spell it?
The last time we spoke, Dad had told me I should visit Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Go early in the morning or late in the day. When the sun begins to set, the bats fly out of the cave like a dark cloud, thousands of them. After they find food, they return. Go see those bats at Carlsbad hang upside down in the cave.
I haven’t forgotten about the bats.
After he gets the back-story on Zillow, Dad asks me, Did I ever tell you about my good friend who was a rancher down in Texas? He wanted me to work on his ranch with him after the war…. My father’s words fade in and out a bit, like his landline telephone is slipping beneath his chin as he tries to hold it up. It is a heavy hand piece to hold. I can picture him talking on the back porch he constructed, sitting on his handmade furniture fashioned out of PVC piping and overlooking the Florida landscape he has tended for more than thirty years.
I told him I didn’t remember, just to hear him tell me the story again. But Dad’s words lull me, and I fail to pay attention. That’s because I feel a case of New Mexico coming on. Before long, I may have to visit those caverns.
What is it that I have yet to learn about restlessness? I can’t seem to get the lesson right. Try as I might, no address has yet contained the invisible, elusive spirit inside me. What scaffolding can shore up my hopes and dreams, this granddaughter of immigrant miners? While I strategized that placing a half-ton boulder at the entrance to home number 18 would anchor me, in fact, I’ve already moved on. Nineteen homes, perhaps more. The yearning grows as I age. Or is it fear of illness that won’t go away? A few decades later, time runs short. A few deceased friends later, and I know for certain I’ll be summoned. A light tap-tap on the shoulder—Come with Me—and it’s off to my forever home I will go. I believe in pauses. I believe in way stations. I believe in adventure. But mostly, I believe permanence won’t come this side of heaven.
Every now and then, I think about planting a grapevine, like Gedo. Or delivering giant hugs in the front doorway, like Baba. It’s not just home, it’s what you make happen inside. Maybe it’s the life I’ve been looking for. My last gleaming chance.
Christine Bodine has been writing creatively for many years. Educated as a lawyer and librarian, she has worked in library, research, and educational settings throughout her career, often with writing-related roles. She received her MFA in poetry at Queens University of Charlotte, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her chapbook Souvenirs of Myself was published in 2012. Her latest book, 99 Meditations for a Modern-Day Habakkuk, was published in October 2015.