SHOULD WE SEARCH THIS MAN’S FACE, we might see much farther back in history than we’d think a mere three-quarters of a century could actually take us. Because I have little doubt his eyes took in things we would consider medieval.
It might have been only the slitting of the throat of a pig or a goat outside the kitchen door. In town. In broad daylight. Only yards from the neighbor’s window. To the sound of squealing and struggle that would make our own blood curdle just to hear it, most of us.
When in July of 1938 he stood for this portrait, it appears with great reluctance, my mother, Joan Marie Scelp Starr Cartright Lauria, was nine-years-old and only a few blocks away. I can approximate her location with such confidence because, back then, in Midland, Pennsylvania, there weren’t that many blocks to begin with. So it’s literally true when I say that, strangers though they may have been, I know they were close.
My Poster Child
I believe that such uncomfortable personal proximity combined with an existential one–the claustrophobic geography of that Ohio River Valley mill town–left a deep impression on my mother. If you knew her, you could see it written all over her, in that way that you can see straight inside someone to their greatest fear because on the outside they are working so hard to cover it all up. She hid it so well and, eventually, tried to run from it so far that her youth became the inciting incident for an entire family saga.
Joanie wanted to be a singer. Not only wanted to be but deserved to be. She was gifted and she was beautiful, and yet something made her choke. I guess you could say that, in a way, it was the smoke pouring from the tall stacks of the steel mill as the red dust billowed above the boxcars hauling iron ore into town, blocking off the sun, convincing her she would never escape.
But she came close.
Photo: Steel worker, Midland, Pennsylvania, July 1938
(Arthur Rothstein, 1915-1985)
Library of Congress,
Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information
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