My father never fancied himself a man of literary graces. On occasion, to be sure, he did see his writings in print?invariably they dealt with the telegraphic mysteries from which he gained a livelihood. When he died at the age of sixty in December 1962. he left behind no memoirs as such?only scattered notes, dating from the late 195Os. I have taken it upon myself to shape them into a narrative: a matter of reorganizing rather than rewriting. The style, the expression, the diction?these are his own.
Literature was at most of peripheral concern to my father. I believe it would have surprised (and embarrassed?and pleased) him to hear that his nontelegraphic efforts might be worthy of publication. If he was remote from belles letters, however, he was no stranger to books. He read as widely as his spare time permitted, often the texts I was assigned at college, and he ponderedthe meaning of the world around him. It is a pity that he never found time to set down his thoughts on, for instance, the Nazi gezerah, which he felt deeply, or the Zionist promise, which he took very seriously, or wartime Washington, which he saw when bis employers sent him there soon after Pearl Harbor to help train others as telegraphers. He spoke often of these things, and spoke of them with a sensitivity and an astuteness which bore witness to an agile mind and a superior character. And withal he was a loving man, a man it is good to have had for a father. [Stanley F. Chyet]
From Rovno to Dorchester
Jacob Maurice Chyet
I was born at No. 23 Shkolnaya Ulitza (School Street) in the Ukrainian city of Rovno on July 25, 1902, and given the Hebrew name Yaakov Moshe ben Aryeh Laib Halevi. I was named after my maternal grandfather. My ancestors were law-abiding subjects of the Russian tsar and typical religious members of the East European Jewish community. My fa?ther, Aryeh Laib (he was called Louis in the United States), his father, and his grandfather had all been born in Rovno, a city of about forty thousand at the turn of the century. They had all been tailors?which accounts for the surname Chyet (or Chait and Chayet, as some of my cousins spell it), an anglicized version of the Hebrew hayyal for "tailor."
No ancestral birth records were kept, but as nearly as I can figure out, my father was born in the year 1876. He was conscripted into the Russian army at the age of twenty-one in 1897. That same year he married my mother. The army sent him to Port Arthur, close to the Chinese border, and just prior to the end of his military service there the Boxer Rebellion broke out. To combat the Chinese, Russia allied herself with a number of foreign powers, including England, Germany, France, and the United States. My fa?ther was sent to Peking, where the Allies were constantly under gunfire till 1901, and he was fortunate to come away unscathed. I remember his telling us how cunning the Box?ers had been in the use of gunpowder and land mines, as we call them today. He also told us about the wall around Peking; the wall had been built in 500 B. C. E.
On his being mustered out of the army and returning to Rovno, I was conceived. My parents saved up as many rubles as they could for migration to the United States, where two of my father's brothers, Max and Joseph, and a sister, Baileh Steinberg, had already settled. I was only two months old when my father set forth for the Land of Free?dom. By the early part of 1904, he had landed in Boston. My mother and I arrived in Boston in April 1904, on the steamship Cedric. Uncle Hillel, my father's oldest brother, remained behind in Rovno, where, I am told, he enjoyed comparative prosperity and had in his employ five tailors who sewed by hand all the clothing and uniforms of the tsar's representatives in the city.
I have spoken of my father and his family; I want to say something about my mother and her family. She was born in the year 1879 in Klevan, a small town five miles or so outside of Rovno. Her given name was Malka Leah bat Yaakov Moshe?in America, she was known as Mollie. Yaakov Moshe Feldman, her father, had also been a tailor, but he died when she was only seven years old. My grand?mother Rivka was left to support five small children, Yshia (Isaiah), Essa, Malka, Chaim, and Yosef. She earned a liveli?hood as a cateress and became known as Rivka di Sarverin ("the Cateress Rebecca"). That no doubt is how Rivka's daughter Malka, my mother, acquired the skill of cooking maacholim (special delicacies] for which she was later noted.
Non-Jews, Too, Have a Spiritual Point of View
When my mother and I joined my father in Boston in the spring of 1904, my parents immediately set themselves up in housekeeping on Parkman Street in the West End o? Boston. They were young, and it did not take them too long to intermingle with their new neighbors. The old West End was a melting pot of Jews, Irish, Negroes, Italians, and Poles, all of whom lived together in peace?with the usual exception of the few fanatics of all nationalities who cher?ished their jealousies, misunderstandings of unfamiliar cus?toms, and ignorance. My father, I remember, never thought ill of his non-Jewish neighbors or held them inferior. "Zey hobn eychet a geistlicbe anshaung, " he would say?they, too, have a spiritual point of view.
My parents and relatives all considered themselves Or?thodox Jews, and later, when we moved to the suburb of Dorchester, my father was a charter member of the little Orthodox sbul known as Congregation Beth Jacob Anshe Sfard, on Norfolk Street. I, however, consider my parents to have been more Conservative than Orthodox. They were really assimilated (in the best sense), modern Jews who believed in giving their children a good Jewish back?ground, but never poured it on so that Jewish religiosity would become burdensome or distasteful. On arriving in the United States, both my parents took advantage of the night school sessions available to them and learned to read the English-language newspapers and to keep up with what was going on in the world in general. My father and his brothers all became members of the Knights of Pythias, the Brith Abraham, and the Free Sons of Israel. Many years later, in 1937, I was chancellor commander of the Revere lodge of the Knights of Pythias and eventually joined the Masons, too.
In addition to me, my mother bore my father five children, all of them in this country?Myer, who died at the age of three, Rose [Mrs. David Kawadler], Irving, Hyman, and Fagie (Frances) [Mrs. Henry Gossman]. We lived in comparative comfort, as my father was a hardworking and sincere family man. As the family grew, we moved to larger quarters on Lowell Street and then to Beacon Hill. In 1919 we moved out to the countryside, as it was then?to Dor?chester, where my folks purchased a brand-new, modern, three-family building, a "three-decker,"' at 387 Norfolk Street [which would remain in Chyet family hands until 1967]. They were still living there when my father passed away on May 30, 1937; my mother lived there until she went to her eternal resting place on November 15, 1944.
We Chyets, as I have said, were all law-abiding citizens, whether in Russia or here in the United States. In fact, I am the only one with a "criminal record." Let me explain how that came about. It happened in 1920 on a Sunday evening at 387 Norfolk Street. A number of us, including myself, my mother, and some of the neighbors, were playing penny ante when the doorbell rang. My father, who never cared about cards, opened the door to find a young police officer there. Father invited him in, and what did that miserable cur of a policeman do but announce to us: "You are gambling on the Lord's Day, so I will ask the males to come down to the station house"?Station 19, just around the corner on Morton Street. He took the cards and fourteen pennies in the pot as evidence. It may seem funny now, but we actually had to be bailed out by my father, and it cost each of us a ten-dollar fine the following day. That was no joke at the time. Incidentally, the same policeman was later fired from the force for taking bribes!
McLaughlin Had a Heart of Cold
I commenced my schooling in the kindergarten of the Washington School in the West End of Boston, and I gradu-| ated from the Wendell Phillips Grammar School in 1915
In 1919 I graduated from Boston's English High School (my son did not follow in my footsteps, since he went to English Highs "rival" school, Boston Latin, from which he was graduated in 1948). While attending English High School, I worked after school hours as a messenger for the Western Union Telegraph Company. I always look back to those days when I worked as a messenger after school. The company assigned me to a branch office in the South End, which was a "Skid Row" even then. I think the sights I saw there in those years were of such educational value to me that later, as an adult, I took care not to throw myself to the lions. In the South End I saw filth and poverty. I saw bums, opium smokers, and the like all go down, down, down. That was a lesson I will never forget. I was too young to see service in the First World War, but youth did not keep my cousin Matthew Woodrow Chait, my Uncle Joseph's son, from the war. He ran away from home at the age of sixteen and served with the American Expeditionary Force in France. Later, during the Second World War, he held the rank of captain, was provost marshal in Frankfurt, Ger?many, after the war, and took part in the Korean conflict, too. Another cousin, Jacob Chayet, my Uncle Max's son, became a physician and also served as a captain in World War II; he was stationed in the Pacific Theater. Jack's brother Ely, who became a judge, was, like me, not of an age to serve in either war.
The Western Union gave me a chance to acquire a knowledge of the Morse Code, and eventually I became a proficient telegrapher. On my graduation from high school, I was assigned a day tour as a Western Union telegrapher and attended the Bendey School of Accounting and Finance in the evening for three years. Around this time, in the natural course of events, I became interested in girls and dating. In 1923 I met Beatrice Lillian Miller, of Revere Beach, the lovely queen who became my wife on December 16, 1924. My Litvak father-in-law, I might add, was not too enthusiastic about his daughter's choosing for her husband the son of a Ukrainian shnayder. but Bea and I have had and, thank God, still have a splendid, happy, and joyful wedded life. The two children we brought into the world, Stanley Franklin in 1931 and Roberta Elaine [Mrs. Melvin Char-neyl in 1936, and later their mates and children have been the center of our happiness and attention.
By 1918 I had already become a member of the Teleg?raphers" Union, and in 1919, when a strike was called against the old Postal Telegraph Company, I walked the picket line. I was seventeen at the time. The union was weak and fell apart when the strike was lost. It was not until 1937 that the union movement became reactivated among West?ern Union and Postal Telegraph employees. At that time I was working for the Postal Telegraph Company, whose telegraphers chose the Congress of Industrial Organizations (C.I.O.) as their union representatives. I was a charter member and executive secretary of our union local, and in 1939 was elected grievance representative for the entire eastern division, extending from Washington, D. C, to the Canadian border and from Pittsburgh and BuflFalo to the Atlantic Coast. Trade unionism was of course, just in the process of reviving, and the C.I.O. was brand new, so that my office as grievance representative did not carry a full-time salary. I still worked for the Postal Telegraph, but whenever a grievance within the boundaries of the eastern division could not be settled locally, I would receive the union appeal. My management counterpart was Robert G. McLaughlin, general manager of the Postal Telegraph's eastern division.
McLaughlin and I would arrange to meet together in Buffalo, Syracuse, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, or wherever the most grievances had occurred. Of course, I had to travel within the limits of the small union treasury ?which meant traveling by bus, with a two-dollar per diem allowance for meals and $2.50 for a hotel room. McLaugh?lin was quite a character: here was a S15,000-a-year com?pany official (and $15,000 was big money in those days) meeting with a puny $2,500-a-year wire chief. When we first began meeting, I found this Irishman rough, tough, and ready to fight, but when 1 proved to him that my only defense was sincerity, fairness, and truthfulness, he became one of my closest business friends. Actually, McLaughlin had a heart of gold. He respected my stand and agreed to many requests I made on behalf of the workers, even though these requests were not in the contract, because he thought that they were fair and that I was telling the truth.
In 1943 came a change. Western Union and Postal Telegraph merged, and the A. F. of L., the American Feder?ation of Labor, which was then battling the C.I.O. for labor supremacy, won the election held among the Western Un?ion employees. All former Postal Telegraph employees, especially C. I. O. officers, were now in the doghouse. I became and remained just a dues-paying union member until 1952, when Western Union employees struck for seven weeks. The following year I was elected an officer of the A. F. of L. union local which had originally fought me. I carried on as vice president of this union for five years and attended the conventions in San Antonio, Texas, and in Buffalo, New York, during my tenure in office. After five years, I felt I had given enough time as an officer to the union, and I declined to be elected again.
It had been a wonderful experience for me, one which money cannot buy and books do not teach. During the years I held vice presidential office in the union, I also earned the respect of the company officials with whom I had to deal?and this was true even though, in numerous cases with McLaughlin or with the Western Union, labor and management representatives did not always agree. The dif?ferences of opinion between us were honest interpretations of the contract and carried no personal animosities when one or the other party was overruled.
A Sincere Man Is a Good Man
There is one important thing I want to point out. I was the first Jew to be employed as night chief operator by the Postal Telegraph Company. Later, after Postal Telegraph had been absorbed by Western Union, 1 was elected execu?tive union head of a department, the Plant and Engineering Department, composed of approximately three hundred employees in Boston. The percentage of Jews in this depart?ment was only about 3 percent; yet 1 was reelected annually.
When I chaired a reception for one of my associates, a Roman Catholic, I invited his pastor to deliver the main address. I was the master of ceremonies and in introducing the priest to the five hundred people in attendance did not hesitate to let the priest and his audience know what my own faith was?as if they would have suspected anything else by looking at me. Believe me, they liked what I said, but that is not why I did it. I did it because I think, as my father thought, that a sincere man is a good man, regardless of his nationality, creed, or color. If my children think the same, it is a belief they have obtained from me.
From: Lives and Voices: A Collection of 19th and 20th Century American Jewish Memoirs with Drawings of the Times edited by Stanley F. Chyet. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of
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Created: March 12, 2009 Modified: March 12, 2009