RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Time now for StoryCorps, the project that collects stories from Americans across the country. Today we'll hear about a company town.
Mr. GEORGE LENGEL: My dad, my uncles, cousins, my grandmother, and my mother worked in the mills.
MONTAGNE: That's George Lengel remembering Roebling, New Jersey, where the Lengel family helped produce wire ropes that support the Golden Gate Bridge and the elevators at the Eiffel Tower. Here George talks about growing up in Roebling in the 1940s, and one man who stood above all others in a town full of tough men: his father.
Mr. LENGEL: Every weekend, Dad would drag me along everywhere he went. We walked to an area called The Row, and it was called The Row because it was a row of bars. I was eight years old sitting on bar stools and listening to the stories of the men. They were so proud to work in that mill. My father, when we go over a bridge, he says see those wire ropes, boy? We made those ropes.
And there was no doubt in my mind, I was going to work alongside my dad and my granddad, my uncles. But my father determined my future. We had a discussion one time. I mentioned that at 16 I wanted to quit school. I told him I wanted to go work in the mill. Well, my father decided to introduce my back to the living room wall. He placed his nose about six inches away from my nose and told me that I was not going to quit school, I was not going to work in that mill, that I was not going to be a bolvan, that he is a bolvan. And I said, Dad, what's this bolvan mean? He said, son, bolvan is a Slavish word. It means jackass. You're not going to be one. You're going to college.
There was one word that I would never say to my dad. The word was why. He'd say, son, cut the grass. Why? No, you didn't say that word. Son, you're going to college. I knew this was the right thing to do. I knew dad loved his work, but he didn't want me to do it.
I was the first in my family to graduate from college, and I remember, I was 18, 19 years old, and every night, even if he was mad at me, I'd be in bed, my father would walk in the room, he'd sit down on the bed next to me. He'd say, good night, son. I love you. And he'd kiss me on the cheek.
And I remember when Dad died of lung cancer. He was a smoker since he was 11 years old. I knew Dad was bad, he was on his way out, and I knew there was just a few days left. And I would go every night and I'd sit down on the bed like he used to sit next to me, and I'd look at him and I'd say, Dad, I love you, and I'd kiss him on the cheek and leave. He was a tough man, but he was a good father.
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MONTAGNE: George Lengel went on to become a history teacher and he taught in New Jersey public schools for more than 30 years. This interview will be archived with all the others at the library of Congress, and the podcast is at npr.org.
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