Chuck Vervalin of Dundee, New York
It had been a wet spring in the western foothills of the Catskill Mountains in 1928, and the rivers ran dangerously high. Arthur Vervalin told his wife not to let the kids anywhere near the water. People from those parts knew not to mess with the rivers.
Chuck, seven years old, heard his father's warning, but when his thirteen-year-old sister, Beulah, set out for the swimming hole, he tagged along anyway. His concern was not the danger—only that they might get the belt when they got home.
In Chuck's eyes, Beulah could do no wrong. All the Vervalin girls were pretty, but she was the prettiest, with green eyes and chestnut brown hair that fell in ringlets to the middle of her back. She watched over him and took him into town to buy candy, never making him feel like a pest. He loved the way she sometimes carried him on her hip or let him lick the bowl when she made cookies. She also took him with her whenever she ventured down to the swimming hole at the Unidilla River. She was the best swimmer in the family.
At the river, Beulah told Chuck and a couple of friends to wait on the bank while she tested the water. Her plan was to swim out to the sandbar in the middle where they usually sunned themselves, and if it was safe, she would come back and escort Chuck across. She'd done it dozens of times.
Halfway across, she began to flounder, the current pulling her downstream, away from the sandbar and the bank. Flailing her arms, she yelled for help. A man standing nearby heard her scream and dove in after her. But the current was too strong, and he turned and struggled back to shore. Beulah disappeared under the water.
Chuck was still standing on the bank an hour later when several men carried his sister's body on a board across the field. He watched them load her into the back of a truck and disappear down the road. Three days later, he was sitting in a pew at the front of the Congressional Church, Beulah's pansy-covered casket nearby. Next to him, his mother and sisters wept, and his father fixed his cold glare straight ahead.
The Vervalins were a close family, all the kids helping with the chores, but there was also an abusive edge to family life, even before Beulah drowned, mainly because of Arthur. An imposing 300-pound Dutchman who liked to drink, he often took his belt to the kids, including the girls. Sometimes there seemed to be no reason for his outbursts. Chuck, the oldest son, caught the greatest share of his wrath.
Arthur and his wife, Florence, scratched out a living on a 140-acre farm on the outskirts of Sidney, New York, with a couple of workhorses, a milking cow, pigs, chickens, vegetables, and an orchard with apples and pears. To help make ends meet, Arthur, an eighth-grade dropout, took an occasional job in town. Florence, an Irish redhead, worked from dawn to dusk, fixing meals, washing clothes, milking the cow, and feeding the pigs. Being pregnant, which she always seemed to be, didn't slow her down. After each birth, she'd be back at work the next day, picking potatoes and cleaning the barn.
Like her husband, she'd dropped out of school before the ninth grade, but she loved the written word and she read to her children every night, including the poetry of Longfellow. She sometimes wrote poetry herself but rarely shared it. Arthur thought it a waste of her time. She also read the Bible a lot, especially after two babies were stillborn. She found comfort in the Scriptures.
As the Depression spread across the country, the Vervalins were unable to sell their milk, buy feed for their animals, or keep up with their taxes. They lost the farm in 1930 and moved fifty miles west to Binghamton. Some of their friends and neighbors suspected the move had as much to do with what had happened to Beulah that muggy day in June 1928 as it did with the Depression. Arthur couldn't stand looking at the river anymore. He never talked about it, but the kids knew that down deep he blamed his wife. If she'd heeded his warning, Beulah would still be alive.
After the move to Binghamton, Chuck missed the farm, especially the horses and riding on the tractor. There were now ten kids in the family, and times were tough. Even so, Chuck was energetic and quick to adjust. His mom signed him up for Boy Scouts, and he set his sights on making it all the way to Eagle Scout, earning half the necessary badges in his first two years. His other passion was baseball, and he and his friends cleared a makeshift diamond out of a farmer's pasture. They had only one ball and bat among them, the bat held together by screws and electrical tape.
He was also popular, in large part because he always took the dare. When a pal challenged him to shoot a rubber band at the backside of his teacher Mrs. Sabercool, he did it, and got caught. The principal took the belt to him. Even when he wasn't at fault, he was one of those kids that trouble seemed to find. If somebody threw a snowball and hit a passerby, Chuck got blamed. When a buddy threw a rock through a neighbor's window during a game of cowboys and Indians, Chuck got the belt.
In 1935, when Chuck was fourteen, the Vervalins moved again, this time to a tenant farm just outside of Dundee, New York, in the Finger Lakes area, population 1,000. Dundee was only five miles from Seneca Lake, where summer yacht folks in fancy slacks vacationed, but to Chuck the lake seemed as distant as New York City. The family had moved to Dundee from Binghamton when natural gas was discovered in the area and Arthur got hired to head the purification plant, making him one of the lucky ones to have a job in the depth of the Depression. But his luck was short-lived-a coworker turned him in for drinking on the job and he got fired.
After that, Arthur worked a series of jobs for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the largest New Deal agency, which employed millions across America during the Depression to work on buildings, roads, and other projects. Sometimes he'd go off to Binghamton or Elmira for weeks or even months at a time, sending part of what little money he made back home. Chuck wasn't up on politics, but he heard his mother give thanks many times to President Roosevelt and his New Deal.
To Chuck, it was his mother who held the family together. Although she was usually soft-spoken and gentle, she was resolute, and sometimes showed a glimpse of a fiery Irish temperament. She never took a day off from caring for her family, even when she was sick. Chuck loved the way she read to him and his siblings, especially the westerns of Zane Grey. It provided an escape from the hard times and his father's absences. He also appreciated the way she could stretch the little food they had, whether it was by making a big pot of soup out of milkweed or baking bread out of the buckwheat that grew on their property. She was adept at improvising, as when she brewed a home remedy for cuts from the leaves of plants that grew along the road.
Chuck did what he could to help. He especially liked going out to hunt or fish for food. He'd learned to shoot at an early age, and had a 16-gauge shotgun to go with his .22. He'd killed a lot of different animals for dinner-squirrels, woodchucks, rabbits, and even raccoons. He scrounged for whatever jobs he could find, such as selling magazines, but many nights he went to bed without anything to eat, or at best, a bowl of beans and a little cornbread the neighbors had brought over. In school he'd get so hungry he couldn't concentrate.
Another job he had was picking berries. The Dundee area liked to think of itself as the berry capital of the world, with thousands of acres of blackberries, raspberries, and thimbleberries, and Chuck thought of himself as one of the best pickers around. He was a wiry 5 feet 6 inches, 120 pounds, and tireless, even on the hottest, muggiest days. On good days, he made a buck, turning all his earnings over to his mom.
Working so many jobs meant he had to quit the Boy Scouts. It was a hard decision. He loved earning his merit badges—he had thirty-four of them—but he knew he'd never make it all the way to Eagle Scout because he didn't have the time, and he knew he could never pass the lifesaving test. He could swim, but not well enough to haul somebody to safety.
One day, just after he'd turned fifteen, Chuck was walking home with his dog at dusk, feeling pretty proud of himself, his .22 rifle in one hand, two dead rabbits in the other. He knew his mom would make a good meal out of the rabbits, hopefully a stew. It'd been a week since the family had had any meat on the table.
Chuck walked down the quiet main street of Dundee, passing the hardware store and lunch counter where two of his sisters worked. Down a side street, he saw a commotion at a WPA work site where construction workers were digging a water line. He figured his father most likely would be there. Approaching the small crowd gathered around the WPA work site, he heard his father's muffled voice. A friend of his father's pointed toward a ditch, four feet deep and two feet across. Chuck moved closer, peering down into the ditch. Mounds of freshly hoed dirt were piled to the side, and down inside the ditch, covered in dirt and wedged in too tight to move, was his dad, all 300 pounds of him. From the look of it, he had been drinking, had tried to jump over the ditch, and hadn't made it. In trying to extricate himself, he'd gotten so twisted around that it looked like it would take a major excavation effort to free him. Embarrassed, Chuck backed away from the crowd.
At dinner that night, everyone ate rabbit. Except Arthur, who didn't get out of the ditch until after midnight.
The family moved again in 1936, this time into town, with the ten kids squeezed together in two small bedrooms. The house was a big black box with chipped paint, no front yard, and a rotting outhouse out back. But the house didn't embarrass Chuck as much as his clothes did. Although none of the boys at school dressed like Ivy Leaguers, Chuck would wear the same shirt three or four days in a row, or until his mother did the laundry again. His only pair of shoes had holes in the soles, and he stuffed cardboard in them to keep his feet dry.
He got teased about his clothes, and he fought back. Fistfighting was a popular sport with the boys in Dundee, a town with not much to offer in the way of entertainment. Chuck was smaller than most boys his age, but he had a reputation as a scrapper, somebody who didn't go around picking fights but who wouldn't back down.
Chuck wasn't much of a student. Reading came hard for him, and he'd been held back a grade when he was nine. He frequently skipped school, usually to go fishing or hunting. But he was still popular, mainly because of his sense of humor and the pranks he pulled: hoisting an outhouse up a telephone pole; setting two skunks loose in a school restroom; coaxing a cow into the school and tying its tail to the school bell; dousing so much moonshine on another kid in class that the boy smelled like the town drunk—a smell Chuck knew well. Trouble was, he never learned the art of stealth.
He had, however, learned the art of being generous. On Christmas Eve 1938, Chuck, now seventeen, and his sister Ynez sat at the kitchen table using newspaper and yarn to wrap their presents to the family. Like every other Christmas at the Vervalins, this would be a lean one. But unlike the other kids in the family, Chuck and Ynez at least had presents to wrap. Ynez had saved a few dollars from her job at the library, and Chuck had squirreled away money from his paper route. He'd bought each of his sisters a small dispenser of talc and a California orange.
Wrapping his gifts, he daydreamed, as he often did. He thought about traveling. He'd never been to New York City, let alone California, and except for the time he'd made it to Ithaca traveling with the town baseball team, fifteen miles from Dundee was the farthest he'd been from home.
Baseball was one of his escapes. Chuck had developed into a good third baseman, lettering on the varsity his sophomore year, one of only two kids from the team to be picked to play with the older guys on the town team. It had taken him months to save up enough to buy a glove. Sometimes he'd leave the house at seven in the morning to walk to an afternoon game in the next county. He still wasn't very big—5 feet 6 inches, 135 pounds—but he'd gotten strong from a summer job lifting seventy-pound bags of cement. He took special pride in having a good arm.
He fantasized about getting a tryout with a pro team, but his real dream, and he thought about it every day, was to be a harness race driver, and maybe even own his own pacer or trotter. Harness racing was a popular sport in New York, and his plan for the coming summer was to travel the racing circuit and hang around the tracks and stables, maybe getting hired to help with the horses. His father, on the other hand, told him he should start thinking about joining the service when he turned eighteen.
As he continued to wrap his gifts, his mind drifted to girls, especially one named Irene Damien. Not only was she really cute, she liked him too. They passed notes back and forth in class, flirting like crazy. But there was a problem. Her parents had forbid her to go out with him. They thought he was too unruly.
Undeterred, he had persuaded his friend Ernie, who was nice and polite, to go to Irene's house, make nice with her parents, and then escort her to the movie theater, where Chuck would be waiting. Ernie would hang around until the end of the date, then escort Irene back home, her parents never suspecting. The plan worked repeatedly, but other than a couple of harmless games of spin the bottle, Chuck never got past first base. But that was okay. The good girls of Dundee knew their boundaries, and the boys accepted them.
On Christmas morning, all of Chuck's sisters beamed as they opened their gifts. The last to open her gift from Chuck was Ynez. Peeling away the wrapping paper, she gasped. It was a doll he'd rescued from the doll graveyard, repainting its face and body and dressing it in a salvaged flowered cloth napkin. Ynez reached out to hug her brother. He shied away. Boys, he'd learned, weren't supposed to show affection.