By Tom Clark
The envelope came as a surprise.
When I sent inquiries for employment outside town I never received a response, with one stinging exception, one I tried hard to forget:
Framingham Ironworks is not interested in hiring anyone beyond our city limits, particularly any bum from Worcester. Good day. (Signed) W. MacMaster
Because the message was written on the back of a postcard, I imagined W. MacMaster took great satisfaction having his comments read by every postman between Framingham and here. Of course I took the snub personally, wondering what the Shippee clan had ever done to offend the MacMasters. As time went on,I tried to dismiss the insult, but somehow it always felt raw.
I should make something clear.
The employment opportunities in and around Worcester were plentiful, the local economy strong. Help wanted signs appeared in most shops and factories and hourly wages were up a bit.
But these opportunities were not afforded to me. My limp arm was the object of ridicule, earning me a reputation as a street fighter, a brawler, somebody itching to exchange blows with anyone who looked at me the wrong way—especially if I had a drink, which was most afternoons. Only my family and former friends could remember the carefree teen of just a few months back.
Within Worcester, the character stain was indelible. I was grouped with other men who just couldn’t “cope,” so my only employment prospects had to come from somewhere far from my native town and from a complete stranger who was willing to take a chance on a Worcester bum.
With this mindset, I was hesitant to open the letter that lay face up on the table. The envelope was nondescript; it was franked with a two cent stamp of old George whose profile was partially marred with black wavy lines with an inexplicable number 69 in the middle. The circular postmark was clear: “Quincy, Mass, Jun 25 11:30 AM , 1921.” On the far left the sender: “Yerxa’s Garage.”
I vaguely recalled sending an inquiry about a job in Quincy several weeks earlier, but honestly I forgot the details.
My name appeared in typed form which was something I had rarely seen before, unless it was from the Veterans Bureau. Clearly, Yerxa’s Garage went to the effort of addressing me formally, something that also surprised me.
But it was the back of the envelope that garnered my attention; a full length image of dozens of narrow, formidable buildings apparently linked to one another across several acres. The presence of smokestacks suggested that this was indeed a huge factory complex. But in Quincy? That didn’t make sense.
The scale of the complex was beyond anything I could have imagined. So why was I receiving a letter from one of the largest industrial sites in the world? What did it have to do with Yerxa’s Garage? I certainly hadn’t applied to any factory like this.
Further inspection put things right. At the bottom of the image were two captions:
“Capacity One Million Cars a Year,” read one. “The Home of the Ford Motor Cars,” read the other.
Immediately, I reconciled both sides of the envelope. Yerxa’s Garage was somehow an agent or repair shop for Ford Motors, the new Detroit behemoth.
I touched the letter once or twice, put it down for a few moments, then picked it up again. Compulsively, I continued handling it for several moments, trying to build up courage to accept another rejection or worse.
So finding a letter opener, I carefully extracted the contents. It read:
June 25, 1921
Mr. C. Shippee,
68 Merrick St.,
We are in receipt of your letter of June 5th in which you are applying for the position as Stock Clerk. We would be pleased to interview you at once as we have a position open for an experienced Stock Clerk.
Very truly yours,
YERXA MOTOR SALES,
The note came as a shock, and I reread it several times, searching for hidden caveats, innuendos of rejection. I finally realized I may have in my hand the ticket out of Worcester, although there was much work to do if this was to become a reality. Beyond figuring out how and when I would travel to Quincy, I needed to clean myself up—and not just from a hygiene perspective. I also needed to fabricate a solid narrative about my employment as an experienced “stock clerk.”
Clearly I had much ground to cover, and I needed to act fast.
The sixty mile trip to Quincy required that I leave well before my Tuesday interview. So on a humid overcast day in early July, I found myself heading east on a combination of gasoline buses and streetcars. On one bus, I recognized a young man much like myself: tall, slim, wiry, no longer capable of a smile. The patch over his right eye was a giveaway that he had been closer to the action than I had. Mustard gas, probably.
I was the only one who could look at him straight on and understand what he had been through. He acknowledged the kinship by furtively nodding in my direction while offering a small salute with gnarly fingers.
The people on the bus and throughout the region only celebrated the men who cheerfully talked of their service.These were the steel-hearted men, the American heroes who were physically and mentally tough. Everyone believed it was these men who defeated the hated Germans. They were toasted as supermen like the explorers returning from Shackleton’s South Pole expedition.
My compatriot on the bus and I knew better. We had never met one of these heroes in a trench.
The interview went well, I thought. I was able to convince the manager I was left-handed and had been interested in moving to Quincy after meeting a fictitious girl named Mary. Thankfully, he did not inquire further.
But his penetrating look caused me to avert my eyes several times. At the end of the interview, I stood up and that’s when I made the mistake. He extended his right hand and instinctively I extended my own useless one. My grasp had no strength, and he noticed immediately.
But at the same moment he was discovering my secret, I was realizing something about him. In our handshake, I saw, rather than felt, that my thumb and index finger met. That should have been impossible. Somehow, I had passed over where his thumb should have been, and in a fraction of a second, I knew his thumb was missing. He was also a casualty, further evidence, as if there was need for more, of the utter uselessness of war.
He smiled apologetically and said, “Mr. Shippee, I expect you will report to work here in three weeks after you have given proper notice to your employer. Good day.”