John Smith was born in 1930 and lived in North East, Maryland during World War II. His mother owned a boardinghouse that housed laborers from many different war-related industries, including munitions plant and construction workers.
In his interview, he talks about his experiences living in the boardinghouse and the many ways North East and nearby Elkton changed because of the war. He also discusses his work as a butcher in a grocery store and as salesperson for a scrap metal business. He also recalls his experience with plane spotting and Mexican Railroad workers.
How Mother’s Boardinghouse Changed
Well, she ran a boardinghouse is what she did. Before the war there were no motels or hotels along the road. And the main street that we lived on was Route 40. So people would come at night anywhere from 6 o’clock to 12, midnight, beat on your door wanting to know if you had a room to stay in. So we rented rooms to people like that. Then with the big construction boom that came with the war was Bainbridge Naval Training Station and Port Deposit was built there. Then, Aberdeen Proving Ground, they were expanding. And, of course, the war industries here, like Triumph, they were all building. So [then] most of our boarders came from there.
Now one thing we had, we had airplane spotters. I did a little bit of that. What happened was, in back of the high school athletic field, there was a little shack not much bigger than some of these storage buildings. It was maintained 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You had a telephone in there with a direct hookup on it, and every time a plane went over, you had to call in and tell them which direction it was going in, whether it was single engine, whether it was duel engine or four engines, and what direction it was heading, and what time it was. It was volunteer, but you were assigned to it. I did some of it. At night, I worked with my cousin; he was older than I was. You usually had two people there. And it went to one big plotting board where somebody would plot the plane and where it went. This was mainly a morale boosting thing that let the civilian population feel they were helping with the war effort. Because when you think [about] it, in retrospect, Germany didn’t have any planes – or Japan – capable of reaching the United States.
Scrap Metal Salesman
There was scrap metal drives, I was in the scrap business. A lot of people never did what I did, but when you’re poor, you hustle anything. I guess I was a hustler. Because what I did, I went around and collected scrap paper, anything in the way of scrap. And I had a wagon like an old Radio Flyer. And we had in the back of our house, we had a two story barn back there. And I would take it back there and store it, and any other scrap metal I could pick up. And every so often, the buyers would come by and they would come and stop there and I would sell it to them. Maybe you would get 25 cents, maybe a hundred or something like that. But when you don’t have any money, you couldn’t go to mother and say “give me a dollar.”
I went out and hustled to get it. Knocked on doors, asked people for it. So I’d collect it. And a lot of people [weren’t] collecting it themselves, they didn’t want to be bothered with it. They’d give it to you.
They knew I was, I assumed they knew I was selling it. There were other people bigger than I am who had a scrap business. We lost a lot of things to the war that were metal that were scrapped that we could have kept: a lot of wrought iron fences and doors and things like that, and a lot of automobiles that went to the scrap that antique automobile people would love to have.
Mexican Railroad Workers
Now someplace between North East [Maryland] and Newark, Delaware was a camp of Mexican railroad workers. They did the track work on the railroads. But nobody has been able to tell me where that camp was. In fact, when I worked in the grocery store, one of the jobs I did was bone racks of lamb to make lamb stew for the Mexican railroad workers. And looking into this, one of the great injustices was done. We imported 75,000 Mexican railroad workers to work on the railroads in this country. And at the end of that, [if] they stayed [to] the end their contract, they were supposed to get $3,500 bonus. Now when it came time for that, we paid the bonus to the Mexican government instead of the workers, and the Mexican government never paid them for it. There’s still a case in the courts; one man who’s 86 is trying to demand his money.
Celebrating the End of the War
We had at the end of Japan, there was a huge celebration. The whole town turned out in the streets; it was a spontaneous thing. Half the town got drunk, no doubt about it. My aunt broke out her dandelion wine she’d had for a long time. I consumed too much of it.
It worked at the grocery store. I did cut some meat, like you usually do. Worked for a man who was a very good butcher, but he swore I’d never make it because I was left-handed. One of the things we’d do – we took lunchmeat, when it gets old a little bit and gets a sort of greasy slime on the outside, we would take the tubes of it and wash it in baking soda water and put it back in. And another thing, when you were making hamburgers, grinding hamburger, we’d take the lunchmeat butts – you know, where you can’t slice them on the slicer anymore – take the covers off, throw that in, grind it up, put tomato puree in it so it would all look red.