Class Acts

Books have been written about the “brick” ceiling of class in the US, but the subject has never gotten much serious attention here. Yet it is a reality that shaped my life from the very beginning.

I was born in 1954 but my childhood could well have taken place a hundred years earlier. Three of my grandparents were born in “the old country”. Two in Italy and one in an Irish enclave in England. We lived in an Italian neighborhood of Butte, the hard-drinking Montana mining town where I grew up while my parents fought. Our back yard bordered a mountain of rust red and sulfur yellow rock, mine tailings filled with arsenic and lead, owned by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. Even weeds fought to live in the sterile soil.  

The early years of my childhood were not so hard as the later. Being the grande finale for the American baby boom, there were kids everywhere in the 1950’s. In fact, there were so many of us that the parents made little or no attempt to contain us. We were usually left to entertain ourselves in abandoned shacks, on piles of loose boulders, and in hot steaming creeks of toxic copper water. It was a landscape that encouraged a surreal imagination.

In the Catholic schools I attended, the priests and the nuns were stern, unhappy people. This condition was generally acknowledged as a result of the fact that most priests and nuns at the time did not have a choice about answering “the Call”. It was expected that at least one of the offspring of a “good” Catholic family would be “given to God”. Among the Irish, that expectation was elevated to a commandment with both the first son and daughter being destined at birth for a life in the church. As a bonus, those who got sent to Butte were also resentful about being stationed in a hellhole.  

Uncouth but honest. According to the nuns burdened with the hardship of being our moral guardians, this was our only virtue. Being the ragamuffin spawn of immigrant miners, we were destined for nothing more than fate had already handed us. I determined to prove them wrong.

My Irish father began working in the Butte copper mines at the age of fourteen. His own father died soon after he was born. My mother, the second youngest of eight children, started washing dishes on the night shift after school at the Rocky Mountain Cafe in Meaderville when she was twelve years old. At the height of the Great Depression, both of my parents were the first in their families to graduate from high school. It was a life that instilled a high tolerance for hardship along with the proud belief that it was our birthright to endure it. Outside of Butte, I entered the world as a ready-made masochist.