Grandpa’s nickname was not the sort based on irony, like the six foot six, three hundred pound guy who goes by Tiny. He came by it naturally, and literally, because Cyril “Shorty” Byrne, on his best day, stood all of five foot four inches, and that might be generous. But anything he lacked in physical stature he more than made up for in presence, especially in voice. He passed away when I was only ten but I knew him long enough to believe the old saying about a bark being worse than his bite may well have originated with him. Shorty just seemed more naturally inclined to growl than talk, but from what I knew of him it was just as often with a twinkle in his eye as not, and myself and other grandchildren have even been known to catch a wink along the way. Cousin Ray and I still laugh at how used to tease us by calling us Raymond and Frankie Stew, which from best as I can surmise was a reference to the Hansel and Gretel story of kids getting eaten.
Grandma Gus was known to have claimed that her husband, were it not for starting a family so early, could have easily been a successful entertainer. It wasn’t just because of his rich baritone singing voice, though that was his strong suit, but also in the way he could command a room. From stories overheard at card tables at family gatherings the sing-alongs at Whitey’s Tavern on Main Street, many including his good friend and parish priest Father Barney, were legendary.
As a pre-school youngster I remember going to Sunday mass with the rest of the family. They used to call the service with more singing a high mass, or at least that’s what I thought it meant. We would get to our pews and I was way too short to see anything. One of my earliest church-going memories is of Mom lifting me up so I could see Grandpa Shorty up on the right side of the altar leading the congregation in song. This would have been around 1961 or 62, before cool became a popular expression, but it was all that and then some, and certainly among my first experiences at swelling with pride.
Maybe it’s a Grandson’s bias but I swear he could rattle those rafters as ably alone as the whole choir could collectively, and I’d wager many who remember him would agree. At that age I had no clue on the meaning of the liturgy, let alone the sermon, and would squirm and fidget like all the others my age, but so long as I could hear Grandpa Shorty singing up front all seemed right with the world.
(Interior of St Rose circa 1895, photo courtesy cousin Abby H. *)
When we moved to the farm near Lamont, Gus and Shorty were still living at the house next to the gas station just north of town. As the crow flies this is less than a mile from the original Byrne homestead near St Rose cemetery. In our first year at the farm there was a chicken pox outbreak to which sister Gloria and I fell victim. The folks thought it best to quarantine us so they took us back to Cuba City to stay with Grandpa and Grandma Byrne.
It was during this week-long stay where I got to see the gentler side of Shorty who, with the utmost of tenderness, combed our hair while managing, with considerable patient effort, not to aggravate the sores on our scalp. It was also when I developed a fascination by his damaged hand, it was missing half a thumb at the big knuckle, the index finger at the second knuckle and the tip of middle finger. I was told it was due to an industrial incident. Grandpa was too young for World War I, and too old for World War II, so it couldn’t have been, as many mistakenly assumed, a war wound.
The most amazing thing to me, or at least my four-year-old eyes, was the astounding resemblance his butchered thumb had to that of a hot dog. I have to believe whatever Doctor did the stitching twisted it closed like a sausage first because it was so perfectly symmetrical, just like an Oscar Mayer wiener. Even more amazing, I suppose, was his dexterity. If you didn’t stop to look, you would never notice he was physically compromised by the way he went about his daily business. There is no truer testament to that than the fact that I can’t recall whether it was his right or left hand. Nothing seemed more natural to me, for example, than to see Shorty laying foundation block for the addition to our house on Lafayette Street one day after school. At first I thought it was Dad, seeing how he was so proficient, and the technique looked familiar too. Sure enough, this is when I learned it was Shorty who first tutored Dad in the masonry arts.
I recall having breakfast in the kitchen. He would grab and pour from a half-gallon milk carton with as much ease and confidence as anyone. (Actually, it was Half & Half, as that was all he and Grandma Gus used, and to have it on Frosted Flakes, sugared cereal being an extremely rare luxury at home, was a treat almost worth being sick for) In spite of the proven capability, I positioned myself to be ready to catch it in case he lost his grip. He smirked and chuckled at my naive helpfulness.
I say “incident” because according to stories I heard, the cause for that injury wasn't necessarily accidental. In the 1920’s Grandpa and Grandma moved to Flint Michigan where Shorty took a job at an automobile plant, most likely the Fisher Body Plant, a division of Ford Motor Company.
At this time labor was not organized, and, not coincidentally, there were many fraternal organizations. Many of these groups were formed out of a need to provide for widows and families in case their members were injured or killed in work accidents. Not all organizations were open to all people. As a mater of fact the Catholic Church forbade its flock from joining any but their own, The Knights of Columbus. The Knights of Columbus was named partly as a jab at Anglo-Saxon protestants. Catholic hierarchy took umbrage at how Protestants were so quick to heap praise on Columbus, an Italian Catholic, sailing under the auspices of Catholic Spain, as an American hero, yet persisted in discriminating against new Catholic immigrants.
During that period the Ku Klux Klan, newly popularized by the Cecil B DeMille blockbuster movie Birth of a Nation, was reorganizing with recruiting drives north of the Mason Dixon. Northern industrial cities, Detroit for example, home to 40,000 Klansmen nearly half of all Michigan’s membership, were ripe for recruiting due to the massive influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. The heightened tensions from job and social competition made the existing protestant population nervous, and fertile for recruiting.
Recruiters were called Kleagles, who worked on commission, keeping half of new member fees and sending the rest to the state or national headquarters. An aggressive recruiter could make a good living and this incentive system accounted for much of the rapid reemergence of the Klan. One day at the factory, Shorty was approached by a Kleagle and informed that he should join. To show his support and indicate he would be at the next meeting he was told to mark his fender press machine in chalk with a KKK.
It may have been that Shorty had a markedly sharp difference of philosophy with Klan’s avid, and sometimes violent, support of prohibition. It could have been that Shorty heard that as far as the Klan was concerned “the only thing worse than a nigger is a papist”, a common rallying cry for that hopelessly unenlightened group. Here again there was more than likely some historical ill will, because yet another strain of tension could trace its origins back to the centuries-old Protestant/Catholic conflict in Ireland.
I am not sure how much of this might have informed Grandpa Shorty’s motivation, but for whatever the reason he decided to mark his machine with a K of C for Knights of Columbus instead of KKK for the Ku Klux Klan. It may well have been intended as a joke, or play on words, by a rural rube, but judging by the ensuing events someone was not amused.
Whatever the case, he wasn't going to have any of it, not Shorty.
At the end of the shift the power to the assembly line was shut down so workers could give the idle machines a good cleaning. Because of his smaller size, Shorty could get right inside the fender press and scrub it down. As he was cleaning he heard the power for the line start up again. Before he knew it the press was coming down right on top of him. He shot out of there fast enough to save his life, but not quite fast enough to save his thumb and fingers. That’s why if you had the chance to look closely you might have noticed how the direction of the severance from his thumb to the middle finger was a perfectly straight line - - corresponding with the edge of the fender press.
I never heard whatever happened after that, whether they caught the guy who pulled the switch, anything about the recovery period, or whether this was the reason they decided to relocate back to the more familiar, and much friendlier, environs of Cuba City. He took various jobs, among them construction, at the Vinegar Hill Roasting Plant, and in area lead and zinc mines. He would regale the family with tales of his underground workday at the supper table. Aunt Jean, an early grade-schooler at the time, remembers praying fervently for his safety those days. There were dozens of operating mines in the area back then and fatal accidents, while not exactly daily occurrences, were still an ever-present danger in that line of work. His Emphysema, if not originated underground, was certainly exacerbated during this period. Of course the pack a day of non-filtered Camels and cigars didn't help matters.
The construction trade led him to go into partnership with Dad manufacturing Brickcrete brand bricks, operating from the building that eventually became, and is still, the VFW in Cuba City. After that came the Shell Oil franchise north of town. There were also some rumors that Grandpa was either a lookout or runner for mob bootleggers. I am not sure whether that was before or after the Michigan experience, but in conversations with Dad I got the distinct impression this was pre marital activity. News archives from the period do not include his name in any crime reports, which leaves open a range of possibilities; either he was not heavily involved, or very adept. It is also of record that for a while during prohibition his Grandpa was the Mayor, and uncle was Sheriff of Cuba City concurrently. One could easily see how that could certainly be a hindrance to a bootlegger, or on the other hand, extremely convenient. If massive family fortunes are the measure I guess we can figure out which was the case.
This accounting is as best as I can pull together from memories of family conversation among the elders, the age old tradition of passing down family lore by word of mouth. I welcome feedback from any cousins, aunts, or uncles who heard differently or could add details. The historical activities and geography of the Klan are well documented. Grandpa was by all accounts a very bright guy, very devout Catholic, just as devoutly Irish, and on a related note, didn't take crap from anybody.
Almost all the comments I hear about Grandpa Shorty are about his gruff nature. We can only speculate about whether the incident in Flint caused or just reinforced that legendary cussedness, but we shouldn't overlook the possibility that he may have come by it honestly. Playing the hand you were dealt has a much deeper meaning where Grandpa Shorty was concerned, but I like to believe he played it as best he could.
The Wisconsin recall election is a reverse mirror image of the Presidential election, especially where the incumbents are concerned. In Governor Walker we have a GOP candidate proudly running on his record, in President Obama a Democrat candidate shamelessly running away from his.
In both races the Democrat electoral apparatus is employing their shopworn division tactics to keep attention off the record of the incumbent, and in both the weapon of choice is the alleged “war” on women. Everything except actual war is a war with these people. Such language abuse, maybe if the old fable were called “The Girl Who Cried Wolf” the lesson on the dangers of gratuitous hype would not have gotten so lost. Sadly the adage if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes true has become the modus operandi for Democrats.
In Washington consider this astoundingly hypocritical scenario; the same White House foisting this fictitious gender war is playing host to an Egyptian political contingent that is dedicated to the imposition of Sharia Law, one that places women beneath cattle in the social order, and that’s putting it charitably.
I had my share of misgivings about George W. Bush but to me his proudest moment was when he declared that “the United States judges other countries by how they treat their women”.
In the real world if the White House rhetoric on women had the faintest hint of sincerity their guests would be in for the severest of admonishments. If recent history is any guide they are more likely to receive a state dinner and an apology.
In Wisconsin a Democrat spokesmen openly admits the reason there is recall election, disgruntled public unions, is not a winning campaign theme , wonder of wonders.
from Mother Jones... And in the party's new strategy memo for defeating Walker, there's little mention of collective bargaining or organized labor in the Democrats' messaging plans.
With a process that started over a year ago, an early May primary, and an early June election, the idea that it has taken up until now to reach this conclusion takes isolated bubble-thinking to new heights. That it took outside consultancy to finally convince them has the bubble bumping up against the ionosphere.
They go onto explain that the war on women and other issues (specifically a politically motivated and almost comically biased witch hunt against then Milwaukee County Executive Walker) poll better in terms of motivating voters. So again, in both the Presidential and recall elections Democrat thinkers have determined their best bet is to divert attention, make stuff up, and smear the opponents because running on their records is a sure loser. (A quick recap of Wisconsin Democrat greatest hit records; bankruptcy, higher debt, higher taxes, anything goes pubic unions, dirty elections, anti-jobs/business for starters)
In Wisconsin these distractical maneuvers have some history, with mixed results. In the 6 recall elections last summer not a single Democrat candidate had the words union, Act 10, or collective bargaining anywhere on their campaign website homepage. They lost 4 of 6, and the winners were against particularly vulnerable Republicans in swing districts. Employing the same strategy without the benefit of a weak opponent is to blur the line between pragmatism and desperation.
One Democratic candidate, Kathleen Falk, was accidentally honest, defied the diversion strategy, and courageously promised public union brass that her first and top priority was to repeal the collective bargaining reforms. Interesting though, how when a Democrat candidate speaks forthrightly and deals with an issue honestly, the rest of the party commences to distance itself. Interesting too however, how this so plainly reveals once and for all that the only thing that really matters, or ever really mattered - - was winning.
The Democrats most honest candidate about the real reasons for the recall is considered less likely to win the nomination, because of her candor. That pretty much tells you all you need to know about the state of the Democrat Party in Wisconsin. I have said from the beginning this whole Walker dustup is largely due to the Democrats complete inability to deal with an honest politician, having had virtually no experience in that regard. This Falk flummox is exhibit B.
The noblest of claims on the impetus behind this frivolous recall was that it is gives the people a voice on Act 10. (Notwithstanding how their paid help, er Democrat Senate caucus, but I repeat myself, scampered across the state line like a bunch of startled cock roaches to avoid the subject when it came up for actual debate)
Now, in a respectful nod to their original and true intent, we should hold them to it. As a native son and devotee of Wisconsin and her proud history I’m going to make it a point to take advantage of the open primary and vote for Falk - - just to keep them honest. This is the fight they asked for so we should make sure it's the fight they get. I would hope conservatives statewide join me to take advantage of this perfect opportunity to show Democrats what democracy looks like.
There was a time not long ago when I sincerely hoped for a resurgence of the once respectable Democrat party as an honest counter balance to the right. Sadly I have come instead to hope for its complete demise. They have so miserably failed as a reasonable alternative and morphed into the very antithesis of Jeffersonian philosophy they once guarded jealously as their own, which is long buried beneath heaps of Marxist, Socialist, Keynesian, Progressive and other manure, a compost of fascism.
As an independent libertarian leaning Republican my sincerest hope is that this particular Wisconsin Democrat leadership team stays in place. If your ultimate goal was to escort the state Democrat party from its sick bed to the morgue you couldn’t hand pick a better pair of ushers than Graeme Cracker and Tater Tot. Heck of a job fellas.