Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Scott

Traveling to Survive

The reasons that we travel are as diverse and complex as we are.

We travel to visit friends or family for special events and reunions. We travel for war. We travel for work. We travel as part of our education. We travel for fun.

My own travel has been mostly for fun and profit.

But for my family, and just one generation back, the reasons for travel were very different, and rarely for fun.

The first trip my father made was on foot during the Dustbowl. He walked next to his 2 brothers and 2 sisters and my Grandpa Bev's Model A truck from Kansas to Pritchett Colorado.

Their journey began the day after goons hired by the local bank bulldozed my grandfathers farmhouse and everything he had worked a lifetime for into a heap of smoldering rubble while he worked for the last time in his own fields.

Once the family got to Colorado they simply dug a hole in the earth and lived in it for the duration of the depression working in Southern Colorado's broom corn fields.

But Dad's is a different story. You can read his story here.

This story describes my Mom's history. It occurred at nearly the same time and involves a journey also made by economic hardship. It ends when my maternal grandmother Magdalena (Lena) loaded her three daughters into the car of a family friend in Chicago and returned to her beloved California.

Grandma Magdalene Marie "Lena" Christmann
Age 15
Sacramento, California

This story also begins in California. As that is where my Grandmother grew up and eventually met and fell in love with a talented mechanical draftsman from Chicago named Ernst. Some mutual friends arranged their introduction and Ernst immediately fell for Grandma. They were married and began their family with two daughters arriving in quick succession. Ernst worked for various engineering firms and for the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. 

Ernst and Lena
Top Left

But the economic woes leading up to the Depression left him unemployed since he was not a "native son" to California. In those days that was the final question he was asked at every job interview.

Running out of cash he finally gave up and moved back to Chicago where his family had arranged a good job for him at the Mills Novelty Company. He got settled at Mill's and sent for his family. After the move to Chicago my mother was born. While my Grandma was happy to be reunited with Grandpa, she hated the cold winters in Chicago. 

My Mom, however, loved Illinois. She loved the changing seasons, the sweet corn in the fall and having lots of cousins from Grandpa's extended family to play with.

Grandpa did well at Mills and in the final years leading up to The Depression earned a decent income. In 1935 Mills' was actually thriving. Since the turn of the century Mill's had made coin operated musical devices. In 1935 they struck gold with Coca Cola's famous curvy vending machine. They also made cigar dispensers and slot machines. In the height of The Depression Mill's executives lived in Oak Park and owned yachts.

The backstory was that years earlier Herbert Mill's had seen the value in Charles Fey's invention of the Liberty Bell slot machine (nicknamed during the gold rush as the "one-armed bandit"). When Fey's San Francisco factory was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake, Mill's history officially says they "collaborated" with Fey to produce a "look alike" liberty bell slot machine. Mill's slot machines pretty much came to dominate a burgeoning new market.

Grandpa worked on a number of inventions for Mill's but his work on the slots led directly to the patent for the modern payout mechanism eventually used in the devices made for the Mob's mega casinos being built in Las Vegas.

Grandma said Grandpa told her he knew the harm the slots would bring and he started to express guilt and misgivings for helping to create it. While at Mills he also took out patents for automatic (floor pad operated) doors, and linoleum with a coved base. He delighted in engineering and the tools he used each day. My mom remembers him measuring the width of her hair with his micrometers.

While times were good he splurged on a short wave radio. The radio was an E.H. Scott Allwave 23 made in Chicago. Scott's were handmade and referred to as the "Stradivarius" of radios. It was very expensive and it was Grandpa's prized possession.

Grandpa took on side jobs painting houses and developed a serious infection due to lead poisoning (from exposure to fresh paint.) He refused to go the doctor and by the time his brothers forced him to go, he had suffered brain damage which resulted in paranoia and schizophrenia.

His descent into paranoia left him convinced that "they" were after him. He stayed up all night using headphones listening to his Scott radio to intercept "secret messages". 

He chained the windows of the house closed and confided to a brother that he was contemplating harming his wife and daughters.

One of the Final Photos of Grandpa 
With His Daughters

Grandpa's brothers had him committed to a mental institution. Grandma lived for the next few years with Ernst's sisters waiting to see if he'd recover.

Mom in Chicago
After Grandpa was taken away many of the photo's of my Mom seem to convey a little girl unable to grasp what was happening to her world.

Once it was clear Ernst was not getting better Grandpa's sisters arranged for a family friend to drive Grandma and her three daughters back to California where she could live with her own family.

Mom's Last Photo in Illinois

Grandma W/ Mom (Left)
On the Way to California
(The Same Dresses Show Up in Every Photo)

After traveling back to California Grandma's world galvanized to a singular focus - to keep her family together. She had lost her father and an early boyfriend to the Alaskan Gold rush. Now she had lost her husband to mental illness.

She was hell bent not to lose anyone else in her life ever again. I have never met anyone that can match her resolve.

In California Grandma worked in commercial bakeries for 10-15¢ an hour. She and her daughters lived with her own mother until an unexpected inheritance seemingly came from nowhere. It was actually from the father that had disappeared to Alaska. This is the money that allowed Lena to buy her first real home for her and her daughters.

Eventually a real job with benefits came along working for the Southern Pacific Railroad as a billing clerk. Her resolve had paid off.

As for me. I never met my Grandpa Ernst. Mental illness in the family in those days was treated as a family secret. He never had a chance to see his wife or his three daughters again remaining institutionalized until his death.

Grandpa Was Buried in Chicago
Grandma Was Buried in California

I do wish Grandma and Grandpa could have been buried together. I guess that is kind of silly, they have a hereafter to be together, but somehow it just seems like it would have been right.

The Scott
(With Toys He Made for His Three Daughters)

There are so many questions I'd love to ask Grandpa that simply can't be answered in this life. I guess I'll just save them for the next.

In the meantime I will cherish the toys he made for his three daughters in happier times.

And I will take good care of The Scott.

Roadboy's Travels © 2009

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