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The Forgotten Victims of America’s Class War
Main Street America - by Mr. Fish
MECHANIC FALLS, Maine – I am sitting in Eric Heimel’s barbershop in the center of Mechanic Falls. Russ Day, who was the owner for 52 years before he sold it to Eric, cut my hair as a boy. The shop looks the same. The mounted trout on the walls. The worn linoleum floor. The 1956 Emil J. Paidar barber chair. The two American flags on the wall flanking the oval mirror. The plaque that reads: “If a Man is Alone In the Woods, With No Woman to Hear Him, Is He Still Wrong?” Another plaque that reads: “Men have 3 hairstyles parted…unparted…and DEPARTED!” I can almost see my grandfather, with his thick gold masonic ring on his pinky finger smoking an unfiltered Camel cigarette, waiting for Russ to finish.
Eric charges $15 per cut. He wanted to be a welder, but the welding classes were full.
“Hair. Welding. Same fuckin’ thing,” he says, wearing a black T-shirt that reads “Toad Suck” and has a picture of a toad riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. On Eric’s hat is a homemade deer hair fly, known as a mouse, he uses for fly fishing.
“Big bait. Big fish,” he says.
“There are 17,000 cars and trucks a day that go through that light,” he says, looking at the traffic light outside his shop. “I only need 10 or 20 of them a day to stop for a cut.”
The pandemic hit his barbershop hard. Clients, for months, disappeared. Eric did not get the Covid vaccine. He doesn’t trust pharmaceutical companies and is not convinced by government assurances that it is safe and effective. Then, on top of Covid, there was an issue of the sign over the shop that read: “Russ Day’s Barbershop.”
Russ wanted it back.
“When I bought the shop I bought the sign,” Eric says.
One night the sign was stolen.
“It wasn’t Russ,” he says. “He’s in his eighties. It must have been his son-in-law.”
“Did you call the police?” I ask.
“How are you going to win in court against an 82-year-old guy?” he answers. “Besides, I’ve never called the police on anyone.”
Russ informed Eric he wanted his mounted trout.
“I already gave him his salmon,” Eric says. “It’s not Russ’s trout anymore. It’s Eric’s trout.”
We discuss local news, including the man who last fall put his credit card in the Citgo gas pump, poured gas over his head and lit himself on fire. He died. An intoxicated man in May fired several shots at another man on True Street. He missed. There was also a stabbing when two neighbors got in a fight. But serious crime is a rarity, although many people have small arsenals in their homes.
The former mill town of 3,107 people, like rural towns all across America, struggles to survive. There isn’t much work since the Marcal Paper Company mill — which operated three shifts a day and was located on the banks of the Little Androscoggin River that runs through the center of Mechanic Falls — closed in 1981. My aunt worked in the accounting department. By then the town’s glory days were long gone. The Evans Rifle Manufacturing Company, which made repeating rifles and the brick and canned goods factories, shoe shops, the steam engine plant, W. Penney and Sons, one of the largest machine shops in the state, were already distant memories.
The weed-choked foundations of the old factories lie on the outskirts of town, forgotten and neglected. The old paper mill was destroyed by fire in 2018. There are empty storefronts downtown and the ubiquitous problem with food insecurity — the regional high school has a year-round free breakfast and lunch program — and opiates and alcoholism. Within a small radius are three or four marijuana dispensaries. The house where my grandparents lived, two blocks from the center of town, burned down. So did the church across the street. Its charred remains have never been razed. On Sunday mornings I could hear the congregation singing hymns. The bank in the center of town closed. It is now a photographer’s studio and a hair salon. There is a casino in the town of Oxford which, like lottery tickets, functions as a stealth tax on the poor. The day I visit, a fundraiser is being held at an ice cream shop for an eight-year-old boy who needs a kidney transplant.
The town is 97 percent white. The average age is 40. The median household income is $34,864. Trump won Androscoggin County, where Mechanic Falls is located, with 49.9 percent of the vote in the last election. Biden received 47 percent. Republicans like Trump never had much appeal in the past. Franklin D. Roosevelt carried the county in the 1932 election. In 1972 the county voted for George McGovern. Jimmy Carter won the county in his two presidential elections. But, as in tens of thousands of rural enclaves across the country, once the jobs left and Democrats abandoned working men and women, people became desperate. Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, after the mill closed with the loss of over 200 jobs, won the county, as they did the state. But things have not improved.
Across the street from the barbershop is Bamboo Garden, a restaurant run by the only Chinese family in town. Eric says the owners won it from another Chinese couple in a poker game. What was their experience like? How did their daughter cope with being the only Chinese girl in the school? Were they accepted and integrated into the community? I talk to the owner, Layla Wang. I ask her if she experiences racism. “Very nice people,” she says. I ask if her daughter — who is now 26 and lives in Boston — had a hard time in school. “Very nice people.” I ask about her neighbors. “Very nice people,” she says.
It must have been hell.
My grandfather had little use for Blacks, Jews, Catholics, homosexuals, communists, foreigners or anyone from Boston. If you weren't white, Protestant and from Mechanic Falls, you were far down on the racial and social ladder. I cannot imagine him inviting the Wangs over for dinner.
Outside of town is Top Gun of Maine which sells firearms and has a shooting range. There is a red flag with the stars and bars on the wall which reads: “Trump Nation.” The owner periodically puts messages on a board in front of the shop such as “Biden is Going to Take Your Guns” and “Let's Go Brandon.”
I meet Nancy Petersons, the town librarian, and her husband, Eriks, who runs the town historical society in the town library. The library is located in what was the old high school’s home economics room. My mother and aunt took home economics classes here. High school students now go to a magnet school in the neighboring town of Poland. The building that used to house the town library when I was a boy was sold.
On one of the walls on the first floor, where the town office is located, is a sepia photograph of Maine’s 103rd Infantry Regiment. My grandfather, a sergeant, is seated on the right at the end of the first row. My uncle Maurice is standing in the back row. My grandfather was sent to Texas during World War II to train recruits. Maurice went with the regiment to the South Pacific, fighting in Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, the Russell Islands, New Georgia Islands, New Guinea and Luzon in the Philippines. He was wounded. He returned to Mechanic Falls physically and psychologically broken. He worked in my uncle’s lumber mill, but often disappeared for days. He never spoke about the war. He lived in a trailer and drank himself to death.
With the mill gone, people had to find work out of town. Bath Iron Works, Maine’s largest military ship builder, used to send vans to pick up workers early in the morning and bring them back at night. It is a 90-minute drive to Bath.
Maine breeds eccentrics. Nancy and Eriks tell me about Mesannie Wilkins, buried in the town cemetery, who in 1955, five weeks before her 63rd birthday, was told she had two to four years to live. The bank was poised to foreclose on her home. She decided, if life was to be that short and she was homeless, to ride horseback from Maine to California. She left town with $ 32 in her pocket. She rode a horse named King. Depeche Toi, her dog, rode a rusty black horse named Tarzan. Mesannie, who made the seven-thousand-mile journey in 16 months dressed in a hunting cap with earflaps and lumberman’s felt boots, lived for another 25 years. Jackass Annie Road in Minot is named after her. And then there was Bill Dunlop, a Navy veteran and truck driver, who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in a nine-foot fiberglass boat called Wind’s Will. He used a $16 sextant for navigation. He made it into The Guinness Book of World Records for the smallest vessel to cross the Atlantic. He then set out in his tiny craft to circumnavigate the globe, a trip expected to take two-and-a-half to three years. He passed through the Panama Canal and halfway across the Pacific Ocean but in 1984 disappeared between the vast expanse of water separating the Cook Islands and Australia.
It is late afternoon. I am at a table at The American Legion Post 150 on Elm Street with Rogene LaBelle, who was a waitress for fifty years and her friend Linda Record. It is burger night. Members can buy a burger and fries for $5.00. The hall is crowded. The bar is busy. There are American flags on the wall and a picture of the National World War II Memorial.
The women remember the town before the mill closed.
“Whole families worked there, husbands and wives,” Rogene says. “And when the mill went, local businesses went with it. Now most everyone works out of town.”
She lists numerous restaurants she waitressed at over the years that closed or burned down.
“This legion hall used to be a movie theater,” she says. “I walked down the movie aisle and right up on the stage when I was in 8th grade to get my diploma.”
Colleen Starbird, wearing a gray tank-top and jeans, sat with a friend, Richard Tibbets — who did two tours in the Marine Corps in Vietnam — on the porch. Colleen’s husband, Charles, did three tours as a Marine Corp gunner on Huey helicopters in Vietnam. He died 17 years ago of lung and bone cancer, which Colleen believes was caused by Agent Orange. The couple owned the old paper mill, which they were turning into apartments, when it burned down. They did not have insurance.
“He saw bad stuff,” she says. “They would interrogate Vietcong and throw them alive out of the helicopters. He had flashbacks. He would re-enact events. One night he forced me to crawl under the jeep yelling ‘They’re here! They’re here!’ He really believed in this country. He didn’t want to know he went to war for nothing.”
Colleen has pink toenails, long amber sparkle dip nails and heavily tattooed arms. The tattoo she got when she was married reads: “I have found the one my soul belongs to.” She got another when her husband died. It reads: “Forever in My Heart.”
We cannot dismiss and demonize rural white Americans. The class war waged by corporations and the ruling oligarchs has devastated their lives and communities. They have been betrayed. They have every right to be angry. That anger can sometimes be expressed in inappropriate ways, but they are not the enemy. They too are victims. In my case, they are family. I come from here. Our fight for economic justice must include them. We will wrest back control of our nation together or not at all.
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