A nation at war

Keeping the Watch


At 79, Harry Stehling still talked the straight talk of a truck driver, his sentences peppered with language so salty, much of it can't be printed, part of that old traditioon of road talk, rough around the edges. But he didn't drive a truck any more, instead, he shuffled around the neighborhood, cutting through the playground at Clarendon School for his daily exercise, wearing his cap so straight he looked as if he just stepped out of the military. The gold letters across the caps front defined him as a disabled veteran.

            He didn't talk alot about his career in service, other than to say that he fought and came home from World War Two, and was glad to be alive.

            "Back in 1943 everybody went," he said.

            Stehling said he was raised in farm country in central New Jersey, and how he went to school there as a kid before his father moved the family north.

            "My father couldn't get the trolley to work," he said. "So we moved to Hoboken."

            Hoboken, with its population at the time at nearly 70,000 people, didn't appeal to him. Jersey City was better, and when the family moved there later, Stehling remembered he still missed the farms.

            Sometimes as a teenager, Stehling came down into Secaucus just to get a taste of the old life, Secaucus still largely swamps, pig farms and vegetable gardens. The center of the town didn't exist then, developing only later as people filled in the swamps.

            Stehling also remembered the great change that came over Secaucus after he got back from the war, as he watched the farms begin to vanish.

            "I came back and everybody I knew was gone. I asked somebody I saw: `What happened? Where did everybody go?' He told me people sold their farms and that he was selling his farm, too. Nobody could make a living any more."

            There were other changes, too.

            "Just before I went into service, I got a great job," Stehling said. "Then, I remember when I came back out again, someone telling me I'd better look at my paycheck.

            Social Security and other federal taxes had taken out a larger piece of his pay.

            "We never had those before," he said.

            Stehling didn't blame the President, Franklin Roosevelt for those changes, believing, he said, that government intervention helped people stop living like animals.

            "People tell you that the eight-hour day is work," he said. "That's not true. The eight-hour day is the law, but it's not what most people were working back then. Most people worked 14 to 16 hours a day. People didn't live back then, they ate, they [excreted}, and went to sleep. That's not living."

            Stehling talked alot about being a union man, something of which he was still very proud, even though he admitted the heyday of the union movement in the United States seemed over.

            "People don't understand how bad we had it before the unions came along," he said. "People didn't work, they existed."

            As with everything, Stehling expressed this in much rawer language.

            The unions, he said, gave him an opportunity to advance, allowing him and others to work all over where once they'd been restriction to work in certain parts of the country, sweating out survival for low pay.

            Dispite his salty talk, Stehling didn't have many of the age or racial prejudices some of his contemporaries had. As someone who suffered through a broken family, Stehling said he understood many of the problems facing kids in the 1990s, espcially those in the inner city. Without family support, he said, it was hard for any kid to succeed. He said he particularly understood the plight of many blacks and felt bad about their suffering over the years. He remembered when he worked the farms as a young man and how white farmers used to pile work on the backs of the blacks, paying them very little desite the additional work.

            "And then people wondered why they'd go out and get drunk with the little [money] they had left," Stehling said. "What else could they do? They worked all day like animals. Everybody needs a way out. That was all they had."

            The memory of blacks and whites working for subsistence made Stehling parciularly conscious of his grandson's future -- someone who managed to graduate college and get a job with a national firm.

            "He hasn't provement himself yet," Stehling said. "It's a tough compnay, and he need to prove he has what it takes to work there. And that's the way it ought to be."

            Not that Stehling or his family ever denied the boy basis necessities.

            "When my grandson needed something, we got it for him. When he told me he needed a computer, I said: `All right, let's go out and get one.' Kids today have to have an education to make it and if my grandson needed something like a computer to learn, then I had to go out and get him one."

            But going anywhere was a struggle for Stehling now. He said he had just had an operation, so he was a little slower getting around lately. Hd didn't know exactly what the doctors did to him, but said they cut him open "from here to there," making a gesture near his stomach about 12 inches long. The incision had slowed him down, but hadn't kept him from getting his exercise. He still got out for walks when he could.

            "I'm not like that other fellah that walks around here," Stehling said. "He's 90-something and walked from here to Foodtown. I tried that once and nearly faited. I just walk a few blocks that way, then head home."

            Then, still talking, he lifted his hand stiffly for a wave and wandered off, waving as someone else in the neighborhood before turning the corner for home.



Published, The Secaucus Reporter, 1993


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