Not your typical Thanksgiving story

How my grandmother ended up at a Cuban cockfight in a fur coat with a man who wasn’t her husband…

I was not born early enough to meet either Dominick or Carmela, my great-grandparents, and that is my loss. Both came to the United States as teenagers. Had they stayed in Italy, though, they might not have been allowed to marry. Carmela’s parents had been relatively well-off in Sicily, while Dominick had little formal education and was forced into the hard life of coal mining in the hills of West Virginia. Moving to the United States was a bit of an equalizer—all immigrants struggle—but Carmela’s family still had their pride. When Dominick proposed marriage, Carmela’s mother demanded that he build his bride a big house in Morgantown. None of their children could explain to me how he got the money to do that, but he did. And, in the day before interstate highways, he even managed to commute to and from the mine so that his wife did not have to live in the hollow.

Dominick-house-Morgantown
My great-grandparents’ house in the South Park Historic District in Morgantown, a short walk from the high school. It has three bedrooms and one bathroom. Dominick and Carmela had six children, and my grandmother and her first husband lived in this house when they were newly married. That’s nine people. ONE BATHROOM.

Dominick worked hard and managed to keep his wife and seven children in their family home throughout the Great Depression. There are two reasons often given for how he accomplished this impressive feat. First, it seems that he was such a consistent and reliable worker that his boss at the mine always made sure to keep him on, despite dramatic layoffs. Second, and more relevant for these times, his mortgage was replaced by a loan from the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a New Deal program. In this program, the federal government bought out mortgages from banks (who were happy to exchange it for bonds) and then gave a more favorable, more patient loan to the homeowner. Where was this in 2007, huh?

Not only did Dominick keep his job and his house, but he also made sure that his younger children—male and female—were college-educated at West Virginia University right down the street. Unfortunately, the older children were not so fortunate. For example, Dominick and Carmela’s eldest child, Josephine, was not able to go to college. This woman, my grandmother, graduated high school square in the middle of the Depression, in 1937. I still wear her class ring. (I guess the fact that she was still able to buy a class ring at this time is something, at least.)

Morgantown-High-1937-class-ring
1937 Morgantown High School class ring passed down from my grandmother, Josephine.

Now, even though Dominick and Carmela married for love, they did not give Josephine the same choice. Her first marriage was arranged to another coal miner, and it failed—spectacularly. Her husband was domineering and abusive. This was my grandfather that I barely knew.

When my mother and her sister were in high school, Jo left her family for the man she had loved since high school. Why hadn’t she married Jess to begin with? Class mattered, once again. Jess’s family ran a profitable grocery store. While Dominick and Carmella were upstanding citizens and homeowners, their daughter was not what Jess’s family had in mind. After being denied this first time, Josephine and Jess ultimately ran away together. Far away. To Cuba. In 1958. The year before the revolution.

Jennifer-Hallock-grandmother-Cuba

This is my favorite photo of Jo. This photo finds her and Jess watching a cockfight at a resort in Wajay, Havana. Apparently, it was cold because my grandmother is wearing a fur coat. Jess looks typically uptight next to her. They do not have the body language of recently requited lovers, to say the least. (Jess—or “Uncle Jess” as I called him—was never very demonstrative, to say the least, but he was always very kind to me.) They would later marry, divorce, and remarry. Status update: complicated.

Jennifer-Hallock-Josephine-Jess-Cuba-

The whole thing is still a sore subject in my family. It caused a lot of pain and embarrassment. It was the fifties, when Josephine’s Catholic family did not find domestic abuse a reason to dissolve a marriage. (They did not believe in divorce, in any case.) Moreover, because my grandmother was in Cuba, my mother and her sister had to change high schools and move in with their father, who quickly remarried to a recent widow with two daughters. (They lived in Fairmont, West Virginia, the birthplace of the pepperoni roll—see below—and the hometown of Della Berget, the heroine of Hotel Oriente.)

Country-Club-Bakery-Pepperoni-Roll-Twitter

My mother’s relationship with Josephine thawed only when I grew to be about five or six years old. It was Josephine’s more settled and reliable sister, Anita, who planned my mother’s wedding, for example. It was Anita who still filled the role of grandmother for much of my life, until her death this past summer. (Miss you, Ya!)

Even after Josephine and Jess were invited back to the table, things did not always go smoothly. Jess became a landlord of student apartments in Morgantown, and it was Josephine’s job to scour them. Jo scrubbed floors during the day and slaved over the stove in the evening—hardly a romance. She worked hard, and my mother resented Jess for that, not surprisingly. Uncle Jess was certainly set in his ways by the time I knew him. He was a Pabst Blue Ribbon man—tall boys—and he wanted his beer with dinner. Not before dinner, not after dinner, but just as dinner hit the table. Yet he was Josephine’s choice. I cannot explain it.

I do have good memories of Josephine and Jess, though. They mostly involve obscene amounts of food. Thanksgiving included at least three main course choices—turkey, ham, and maybe even a meat chop of some kind—plus about a thousand side dishes, the best of which were the stuffed artichokes. Jess, the grocer’s son, never trusted any supermarket in Columbus. Every holiday he arrived with a car of overflowing bags from his favorite Italian haunts in Morgantown. On the pepperoni front, I appreciated his snobbery. We had a tradition that he would bring in that bag first for me. It was a good tradition.

Josephine should get the most credit for the food, though. Once my grandmother was staying with me while my parents were away, and my high school boyfriend came over for dinner. She had prepared her signature dish: true Sicilian spaghetti with her own fresh pasta CUT BY HAND. He naively accepted her offer of seconds, which meant that she piled a new plate taller than the first. He looked at me, stunned, like he wanted me to get him out of eating the whole darned thing. I just shrugged at him. You don’t mess with an Italian grandma. Unfortunately, that kind of eating, along with chain smoking and obesity, led to her unfortunate death in 1991. I miss her too.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I wanted to give thanks for the bounty we always enjoyed at Josephine’s table. Her legacy was complicated. Her (and her parents’) choices did not really pay off, at least not for her. But she was not afraid to try, and I admire her for that.

rancho-luna-wajay-havana

The Ones Who Began It: The Spanish-American War of 1898 (Part 2)

[This is part 2 of a series on the Spanish-American War. Read Part I here.]

Cuba: a country so pretty, so well located, and so full of profitable sugar plantations—some owned by Americans—that a group of U.S. ambassadors in Europe considered offering Spain $120 million for it in 1854. Though these ambassadors met at the request of the American secretary of state, keep in mind that diplomatic posts back then were given to adventurers not necessarily known for their diplomacy or discretion, so the plan leaked—as they do. The northern states grew alarmed that this might be a back-door plot to expand slavery, so the whole thing was quickly scuttled. And when the Civil War broke out, people forgot Cuba for a while.

The Cubans had not wanted the Americans to take them over—but they didn’t want the Spanish to stay, either. They launched a revolution in 1868, seeking total independence, and they were happy enough to work with individual Americans toward that goal. The Cubans purchased an old Confederate blockade runner called the Virginius under an American frontman, and the ship began transporting guns and men to and from the island under a hastily-raised American flag. When the Virginius was captured by the angry Spanish in 1873, many of its officers were summarily executed, including several Americans and Brits. War drums began to beat. Yankees talked of action against Spain, but it was so soon after the end of the Civil War that few intended to go through with their threats. The moment passed. Twenty-five years later, Spain would not be so lucky.

Children of reconcentrados on the left, along with a political cartoon of Weyler on the right.

The Cuban revolution paused and then flared up again in 1895. It was a pretty ugly war on both sides—guerrilla war always is. The Spanish general Weyler got blasted in the American press for his reconcentrados: “protected zones” that cut civilians off from the rebels they supported. Conditions in these towns-cum-concentration-camps were abysmal, and anyone outside of one could be shot on sight. Keep in mind, though, that American outrage over the reconcentrados would have been more laudatory if we had not repeated the tactic in the Philippines in 1901—a truth that was acknowledged in the contemporary press.

Sensationalist newspapermen roused the American public into a frenzy, and the Spanish inadvertently helped them. For example, a letter by the Spanish ambassador Enrique Dupuy de Lôme was intercepted and published by William Randolph Heart in his New York Journal. In the letter, de Lôme said:

McKinley is weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd besides being a would-be politician who tries to leave a door open behind himself while keeping on good terms with the jingoes [extreme patriots who advocate an aggressive foreign policy] of his party.

De Lôme was not wrong, but it still got him recalled to Madrid because Spain was desperately trying to avoid war with the US. In fact, in an attempt to pacify the revolutionaries, Spain offered Cuba and Puerto Rico enhanced local autonomy—an offer that the Puerto Ricans took up. San Juan received its own constitution, a bicameral legislature on the island, and continued representation in the Spanish Cortes. Puerto Rico was in the process of putting together its government when US gunships arrived. An often overlooked aspect of the Spanish-American War is the fact that in the name of democracy, the United States extinguished that very thing. We “saved” Puerto Rico from the Spanish, yet the Spanish were actually giving that island MORE representation in their legislature in 1898 than the United States Congress gives it NOW. Think on that a minute.

General view of the wrecked battleship Maine, Havana Harbor, Cuba. A stereograph from 1898.

If the Spanish were trying to avoid war, then why did it still break out? Of course, you know: “Remember the Maine!” That is probably the one thing the average American history student does remember about the war. The explosion of the USS Maine in Havana was actually due to a coal fire igniting a reserve magazine of six tons of gunpowder, much of which was already degrading due to the humid climate. The navy’s leading weapons expert, Philip Alger, actually said this at the time—and got called a traitor by Theodore Roosevelt. Yet, what Americans knew came from their papers, and the papers said:

Maine

“A secret infernal machine! Oh no! Let’s get those jerks!” went America. I’m paraphrasing.

To make a long story short, Congress added $50 million to America’s defense budget and—to satisfy the non-imperialists—passed an Amendment that we would not colonize Cuba. (Nothing was said about Puerto Rico, the Philippines, or Guam.) President McKinley asked Congress for a declaration of war, though Spain—with few options left—did us the favor of actually declaring first. Congress followed suit the next day. American boys lined up at recruiting stations all around the country, anxious to prove their manhood.

A Puck illustration by Udo J. Keppler (27 July 1898) and a Scribner’s essay.

Roosevelt resigned his post as Assistant Secretary of Navy and recruited his own calvary unit, made up of half Ivy League boys (seasonal hunters who knew how to ride horses and fire guns) and half cowboys (whom Roosevelt admired for the same manliness that romance readers still swoon over). The 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry was known as the Rough Riders. Fun fact: later on in the war, American soldiers with venereal disease in the Philippines were known as “rough riders.” Oh, those soldier boys. How droll.

Col. Roosevelt and the officers of the Rough Riders from a stereograph card distributed in 1899.

Roosevelt’s focus on male virility in what he called the “strenuous life” was something he practiced as well as preached. No “over-civilized” man himself, Roosevelt wanted to be in the thick of the action, and his unit fought enthusiastically in Cuba, shaming others into action with eager charges. In fact, Roosevelt won the Congressional Medal of Honor—not bad for a sickly, asthmatic, near-sighted child who had to be home-schooled until college.

He made no bones about it: peace was a weakness. He said:

I have even scanter patience with those who make a pretense of humanitarianism to hide and cover their timidity, and who cant about “liberty” and the “consent of the governed,” in order to excuse themselves for their unwillingness to play the part of men.…Their doctrines condemn your forefathers and mine for ever having settled in these United States.

The war that Roosevelt fought in Cuba was the one that most American volunteers signed up for. Nevertheless, many boys actually found themselves somewhere entirely different: the Philippines. The bait and switch was partly Roosevelt’s doing. It was Roosevelt who told Commodore Dewey, who was in the Pacific, to steam toward Manila and lob the first cannon shot of the entire war there. And then, while they were there, some were sent to China to put down the Boxer War in 1900. Maybe the term “mission creep” is familiar to you? Stay tuned for more.

Public domain photo of Havana, Cuba, in 2010 by Carol M. Highsmith.

Featured image (at the top of the post) is a 1919 postcard of cutting sugar cane in Cuba.

Now Someone Say How This Began: The Spanish-American War of 1898 (Part I)

The historical backdrop of my books is the Spanish-American War of 1898, when the United States acquired the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam for the low, low price of $20 million. What a bargain!

American readers, how long did you study this war in your high school history classes? Maybe for like a day? A half a day? The Spanish-American War has been getting more attention recently but not nearly as much as it deserves. Frankly, everything Americans know about their country’s role in the world stems from this tipping point. Whether you agree with it or not, American “exceptionalism”—the idea that America’s democratic history, transparent legal system, and free market economy make it especially suited to transform the world for good—was born here.

“Here’s to the girl I left behind.” (Photograph from the Library of Congress.) Doesn’t war look like fun?

Before 1898, America’s overseas interventions were relatively minor. Sure, we had lots of scuffles in our yard (Texas and Mexico), and the US intervened in Chile, Brazil, and Nicaragua in the 1890s. And, admittedly, we almost got in a tussle with Britain over Venezuela, but that was settled by appointed commissioners (none of whom were actually Venezuelans). But outside of Central and South America—what James Monroe had declared a US “sphere of influence”—the Yanks claimed only small bits of territory, including a portion of the Samoan islands.

Most Americans had little appetite for conquest, as a group of American planters and US Marines found out when they overthrew the legal monarchy of Hawaii in 1893. They wanted the US to annex the islands, but President Grover Cleveland, an anti-imperialist, refused. At that time, the mood of the public was: “What are you boneheads doing? Why do we want Hawaiian problems when we have problems galore here on Main Street?” I’m paraphrasing.

So Hawaii went into limbo. More on them later. And then a depression hit in 1893—a big one. In fact, it was the worst American economic crisis to date (in a time of peace), and remains one of the worst in American history. And that was when everything changed.

An 1896 melodrama based upon the Panic of 1893.

The cause of the panic was, ironically, progress. Railroads turned a patchwork of small agricultural markets into a single large one. That plus mechanization and improved farming techniques drove down prices and put small farmers out of business—or in terrible debt, which led to a debate over abandoning the gold standard. Though manufacturing blossomed in the cities, conditions were appalling. Professional strikebreakers, including private security firms like the Pinkertons, were still a thing, and labor disputes were violent on all sides. In the end, wages stayed low, which meant there were not enough customers to buy all the stuff the country produced.

May 5, 1893: panic on the stock exchange as captured in Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.
May 5, 1893: panic on the stock exchange as captured in Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

You get the picture. What was the answer? People began to think: “If we can’t sell our goods here, let’s hawk them abroad, like the Europeans do! We should be able to sell to China, too. Commodore Perry already opened Japan for everybody. Oh, and by the way, you’re welcome!” I’m paraphrasing again.

Anti-labor propaganda that uses the memory of the 1893 depression to encourage a free trade agenda.

Americans began to get hungry for empire—but should that empire be an economic or a territorial one? Some said we needed the land, men such as Frederick Jackson Turner, who bemoaned the closing of the American frontier in 1890. He said the expansion across the West was where Americans had grown strong and manly. Sure, a lot of pioneers died in the process, but the virtually unlimited forests and plains available for the taking had ensured that America would never become a feudal society dominated by a small class of land-owning nobles. And now that we had settled everything from New York to San Francisco, where would we go? Space? No, not yet.

(And, no, Turner was not concerned about the Indians or the Mexicans—their lives, their rights, their culture, or their children. America was so racist at this time that the word “racism” did not exist yet; systemic discrimination based upon race or ethnicity was normal. See my related discussion here. The military that brought you the Indian Wars would eventually bring you the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. The very same officers, in fact.)

Alfred Thayer Mahan, photographed in 1904. “The Story of the Spanish Armada” was a promotional book and poster published in 1898 to celebrate America’s victory.

On the other hand, one influential group of strategists said that what we needed was reach, not largesse. We needed ports—lots and lots of them around both oceans. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, a professor at the Naval War College, thought it imperative that America protect its sea lanes with a strong navy, which would be “the arm of offensive power.” To do that, America needed coaling stations all around the Caribbean and Pacific, à la the Portuguese maritime empire. Mahan particularly insisted that “no foreign state should henceforth acquire a coaling position within three thousand miles of San Francisco.” (By the way, coal would still be king for another twenty years or so. The oil era will not change our priorities, merely the pins in the map.)

Talk like this inspired a whole generation of imperialists. A prominent young lawyer in Indiana named Alfred J. Beveridge articulated this group’s position so cogently that his oratory alone propelled him to a seat in the United States Senate:

American factories are making more than the American people can use; American soil is producing more than they can consume. Fate has written our policy for us; the trade of the world must and shall be ours. And we will get it as our mother [England] has told us how. We will establish trading-posts throughout the world as distributing-points for American products. We will cover the ocean with our merchant marine. We will build a navy to the measure of our greatness. Great colonies governing themselves, flying our flag and trading with us, will grow about our posts of trade. Our institutions will follow our flag on the wings of our commerce. And American law, American order, American civilization, and the American flag will plant themselves on shores hitherto bloody and benighted, but by those agencies of God henceforth to be made beautiful and bright.

Note that Beveridge believed in the full colonial system, with all the rights and responsibilities that entailed. He was eager to take up Rudyard Kipling’s call to the “The White Man’s Burden”: “To wait in heavy harness, on fluttered folk and wild—your new-caught, sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child.” Though Kipling and Beveridge were born three years and a hemisphere apart, they were kindred spirits.

Cartoon from the April 1899 issue of Judge magazine.

Theodore Roosevelt agreed. It was time to “have done with childish days,” and time to “search your manhood,” in Kipling’s words. Roosevelt wanted conquest, even if it meant war. Maybe especially if it meant war. He said:

We do not admire the man of timid peace…Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

“The man behind the gun will settle this war,” from Puck. Now this is a piece of propaganda that romance writers can really get behind. Nudge, nudge.

He saw no danger of “an over-development of warlike spirit.” In fact, just the opposite. He worried most about becoming “a wealthy nation, slothful, timid, or unwieldy.” We remember Teddy Roosevelt best for his adage to “speak softly, and carry a big stick,” but honestly I see no evidence of soft speaking in his public record. This quote of his is far more representative: “Peace is a goddess only when she comes with sword girt on thigh.”

Roosevelt was hungry for war, and he was not alone. But where? Against whom? And how would he rally an isolationist public recovering from depression and bring them all the way to war? Enter Spain, stumbling awkwardly into the room.

Continue reading Part 2 here.

(The featured image is from an 1898 patriotic poster, found at the Library of Congress.)