John “Gilly” Gilbertson

       I was born on September 28, 1921. My father’s family had come from Sweden in 1892, but I was born in this country. My uncle owned a sailing ship and he’d bring goods and immigrants over here. Some would come for a year and if things didn’t work out, would return with him on his next trip. They might go back under the name of someone who had come over on the most recent trip. The ship’s crew would often be relatives who would work their way over. Some who stayed would go to Minnesota and farm. When my family first got here, they lived in Jamaica Plain. Eventually they moved to Milford, where they lived in the Bear Hill section.

       At first, though, my father operated his own cabinet shop in Hartford, where he made picture frames. One of his brothers died not too long after the war, (World War I) as a result of mustard gas that had been used in the war. Two of his sisters went to college and they married well. During the flu epidemic in 1919, my father closed up his shop and came back to Milford to help care for the family, who were all sick. Central Street was the “main drag” for immigrants at that time. There were stores operated by people from all the nationalities who had settled in Milford. One day when my father was walking along there, he was stopped by a man who asked him if he could work for him a few hours a day, helping to set up a shop he was opening. He took the job, but when the family had all recovered from the flu, he intended to go back to Hartford. The man who had hired him asked him how much he could make a year at his frame shop. When my father told him, the man offered him $1,000 more if hed stay. He took the offer and stayed in Milford. He had gone to a vocational school. He put radiators in the shop and did other such work. The company eventually became Archer Rubber. After a while, my father became a boss there, although he was a worker as well. There was a lot to think about on his job, and even when he was home he was thinking and planning for the next day’s work. He had to learn how to run the machines, (sewing machines, etc.) and also to teach new workers how to use them. The main product of the company in those years was raincoats. Back then, raincoats weren’t the fashionable clothing they often are now. They were made to be worn by workers who might be out in the rain all day. They made a lot of them for firemen and policemen. As World War II began in Europe, they did a lot of work for the military.

       One of my earliest memories is picking blueberries. When we’d go, we’d take fishing lures, a tin of worms and a jackknife. It seems everything you did then, you made with a jackknife. I’d carry a bucket and bring whatever I’d find home. Sometimes I’d find little turtles, which I’d sell to Wendell Williams for the fishpond by his house on Claflin Hill. (The house is still there.) His brother, Judge Williams, lived at the bottom of the hill. Paul Williams lived at the Reynolds estate. He had been born without arms or legs, but in the early thirties, he ran an insurance office out of the Reynolds place. George Sears was his chauffeur. He’d carry Paul wherever he wanted to go. Paul was a big fan of Legion baseball, so George would often put him on his shoulder and carry him to a game. He’d also bring Paul to the theater, put him in a seat, and return for him two hours later.

       Another person I remember from those days was Harold Cole. He was the president of a company, but he’d milk his two cows every morning before going to work. People often did things like that then that you wouldn’t imagine people doing now. Many lived hand to mouth. They shared and many had farms or some connection to people with farms.

     When I was nine or ten, I went to the Grant Street School. I used to walk there with my friend, Hughie. Hughie’s grandmother lived on the top floor of the Thom Building on Main Street. It’s often called the flatiron building. We’d sometimes stop in to see her on the way to school, but more often on the way home. Hughie knew we’d get a root beer anytime we’d go there in the afternoon. There was a bar in the cellar, and you could get sandwiches and such, too. A few bums would be hanging out there in the afternoon. There’d also be salesmen (I recognized some, such as one who would sell silk stockings to my mother) sitting and reading the paper with their suitcases nearby. There was a dumbwaiter in the building. When we’d visit Hughie’s grandmother, she’d sometimes yell down the dumbwaiter, “Joe, I have two important gentlemen here. Send up a couple of sandwiches.” About ten minutes later, Joe would yell up, “Sandwiches are ready. Do you want a couple of beers with them?” Grandma would say, “No, these are kids I have here. Root beers.” I remember that there would be plates of chocolates around and a couple of women dressed in gowns like they were going to the junior prom. The women were probably around thirty five or forty, and they weren’t particularly attractive.

Hughie’s grandmother, who must have been eighty or close to it, would be wearing a gown also. You could tell that she was the one who was in charge of the place. When I’d go home and tell my mother what I’d seen, she’d say I must be making that up. Women wouldn’t be dressed like that at three in the afternoon. Of course at that age I didn’t know what was going on and I don’t think my mother did either, at first, but I’m sure after a while she figured it out. I think it was about four years before it dawned on me what the story was.

       I hated school. I was at the bottom of my class. I couldn’t talk when I was in the lower grades. I was tongue-tied. Everybody would laugh when I tried to talk. A few years ago I had a tooth pulled. When the dentist looked into my mouth, he told me that he was amazed that I could talk. I hated having to stand and try to talk, so I didn’t try. By high school I could talk better, but it still didn’t sound right. Everything I learned in life, I learned on my own. I enjoy reading and I read a lot of history.

       There was a gentleman in town who some people thought was a child molester. He had taught Sunday school in most of the churches. He’d be at one and someone would accuse him of being a child molester, so they’d kick him out. He’d move on to another, and this would keep happening. He went to all the churches and asked for them to give him groups of boys so he could teach them about government. He ended up with about eight classes of about ten boys each. They were all in the seventh or eighth grade. I was in one of the groups, and later when I was a couple of years older, I continued to help him. I never saw anything that made me believe he was a child molester. We probably wouldn’t have been interested in joining this activity except that the man, Alan was his name, would take us on trips. He had a very big car – a big Duesenberg, and he could take a whole group at a time. He’d take us to the Cape in the summer and Mount Monadnock in the fall. I went through his class. I always like him. As I got older, I’d go with him and help. At the Cape, we’d pitch the tents on the dunes, and at Monadnock, we’d pitch them near a lake.

       The land at the Cape where we’d stay belonged to a man named Bridgeham. I usually refer to him as the beachcomber. He had gone to several major colleges in Europe and he knew some prominent people. Before the crash in 1929, he had been a millionaire. He had 137 acres of land in what was called Calhoun Hollow. It was near the Coast Guard Station in Wellfleet. (The old Coast Guard Station is now a bar.) The Coast Guard commander told us it was okay to camp there, but he didn’t want any funny business. The beachcomber had an old World War I tent. He’d go south to the islands in the winter. Sometimes I’d go to Provincetown with him. He seemed to know everyone there. We’d pick up things that washed into the beach at Wellfleet, like deck chairs that washed off of ships, and sell them in Provincetown. We could also get jobs such as washing dishes there.

       Bridgeham wrote novels and poetry. He also built a house that’s still there. The ocean kept eating away at the dunes, and Marconi Station was starting to fall over the edge. Bricks would fall down from it. We’d load up Bridgeham’s car with as many as it could carry. We’d bring them back with us, and he used them to build the house.

       Back in Milford, someone hearing my stories from the Cape asked me to look up a certain name the next time I was there. I didn’t for a while, but the next year he asked again, and that time I did. I went by boat to Provincetown and Bridgeham met me. I asked him about the man. He had two FBI friends. There were stories of spies back then. (It was 1939.) Bridgeham wanted to know where I had heard of this guy. I knew the guy was harmless, but I told him. He told his FBI friends. They came over to talk to me. A few weeks later they showed up at our house on Purchase Street to ask my father about him. The guy was from Ireland. (I think some people had convinced him to do this, on the idea that the Drapers were of English descent and it would be an anti-English thing to do.) The reason the FBI was interested in him is because sometime before, someone had set off an explosion in the power plant at Drapers and they suspected him. It was probably about the size of a package of cigarettes and maybe closed down the plant for an hour and a half or something like that. The guy never went to jail. It couldn’t have amounted to much, because none of the people I know who worked there ever heard about it.

       In my senior year of high school, I quit and joined the merchant marine. Mostly, we went down to Cuba for sugar. The crews were a pretty rough bunch. These were guys who couldn’t get a job anywhere else, but they could get hired to work on the ships. I got along with them pretty well. Lots of them couldn’t read or write, so I’d read letters they’d received and write letters for them.

       After Pearl Harbor I tried to sign up for the Navy, but they weren’t taking anyone for a while, because they didn’t have enough ships for them. They’d lost much of the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, and they had been giving other ships to England for a couple of years. Most of what we did have had been built before World War I. They could only make about five or six knots. I went into the Coast Guard.

       For most of my three years and four months in the Coast Guard, I was on a 73-foot schooner. It was brand new when we took possession at Oyster Bay, Long Island. The Germans had subs offshore sinking our ships and we went out to rescue survivors. The sailboats were mostly ones that had been donated to the Coast Guard by millionaires. They were built for the summer months, but we were out on the Atlantic all though the year. At first we had a crew of eight or nine, but eventually that changed to five or six. Early in the war we’d go out for ten days at a time, but later on we’d go for shorter periods. We’d heard there were about 200 subs out there. After the war, we learned there had been far fewer than that. The cities along the coast wouldn’t turn out their lights. From the subs, they could see ships silhouetted against the lights. Most of the action there was in the first couple of years of the war. After that there wasn’t much going on.

       Our schooner had a diesel engine, which we used only to get in and out of port. It had two masts and three sails. We painted it gray and a furnace and coal bin were put in. A wheelhouse was added, since we’d be out year-round in all kinds of weather. We had four depth charges on the back. Sixty yachts were given to the Coast Guard by millionaires. The crews were mostly men who had participated in sail races before the war. After three years, there were only two of the boats left. They hadn’t been built for that kind of use. The best crews were made up of fishermen and rum-runners. They knew how to handle canvas, what the weather was going to do, and what to do about it, etc.

       There were also boats that had been used by rum-runners during Prohibition. They’d bring alcohol down from Canada. When they got near to where they planned to “deliver” it, they’d throw the barrels overboard. There would be men waiting nearby to wade into the water and bring them in. Theyd also have trucks and school busses waiting to take it away.

       Sometimes we’d see a German sub. We’d wave to them and they’d wave back. They could have finished us off with their 20 mms before we could get our handkerchiefs out of our pockets, but they knew we weren’t going to attack anyone and it wouldn’t be right to sink us. By the last couple of years of the war, it was just the skipper and me. He was a fisherman before the war. He lived in Montauk, right near our base. He was an interesting guy. By that time, we weren’t going out on regular cruises. Sometimes we’d take officers and their girlfriends out for a ride. Other times we’d go out fishing.

       I had worked at Archer Rubber for a short while in the 1930s. My father wanted me to go into woodworking, but that wasn’t for me. My father had a friend who had a construction company that was doing work for Drapers, so after I got out of the Coast Guard, I started working for there. One of the jobs I did with that company was putting asbestos shingles on the houses in Bancroft Park. I also worked on the apartments over the drug store where the pizza place is now, and on the Draper building on Freedom Street where the water goes under the plant. I laid floors there and in the new wood room. Another job I did was working on an addition to the foundry. I had signed up with a government program (one of the veteran’s benefits programs after the war) to become a carpenter. It paid $40 a week. I only weighed 120 pounds and most of the work was outside. In the winter I got pneumonia. I went to a Boston hospital in the Kenmore area. Four doctors examined me and each sent a letter. They decided that I had overworked for my size and suggested I stop doing the kind of work I had been doing.

       I knew Victor Pepper at Drapers, so I knew I could get into the company. He hired me right away. There were about 3,000 working there at that time. New hires were put to work in the shipping room. Drapers had about one hundred departments. When a new man was needed in a department someone would come to the shipping room, talk to a few of the men working there and pick who they wanted for their department. Some elderly gents came down and talked to me. One asked if I’d like to go to work in the plumbing department. I tried to discourage the idea, but in time that’s where I ended up.

       Nothing had been done with the Draper houses for years and they decided to start fixing them. Evidently they knew the place would be closing before too many years and the houses would be sold. My job started as a plumber’s assistant. Bill Honey drove the truck. He’d drop the men off at the house where you’d be working. I’d carry tools and go after parts. I enjoyed working with all the foremen. You couldn’t ask for a nicer place to work. We had a nine-hour day and we worked Saturdays. Drapers never laid off anyone. Even if you were 99, just sitting on a stool all day doing nothing. They’d decide within a year of hiring you if they were going to keep you.

       When the union came along I was pro-Draper. Once the union came in, I became the union workers’ comp representative. I did that for about fifteen years. I had to go to Boston about once a month the see a lawyer. Bruno Carnaroli was the union rep. I represented maintenance. I hadn’t known Bruno until after the union got in. He was a great person. At one point he said to me, “I don’t think I’m going to be here much longer.” He died not long after that.

       We had union Christmas parties on a boat in Boston Harbor.

       One thing we’d do a lot in the houses was taking the old cast iron set tubs out. I think they weighed about 475 pounds. There was nothing to get a hold of. I could be a mile away and they’d call me to help with a tub. Most of the houses had hot air furnaces. Up until about Christmas people would heat the house just a little using scrap wood from the Draper wood room. They’d use wood, cardboard, whatever. Then for the rest of the winter they’d use coal. The hot air furnaces were replaced with steam in some houses.

       Another job for the plumbing department was to replace bathroom and kitchen plumbing. For some parts, they’d send someone to Hopedale Coal & Ice. Eventually they decided to start stocking their own parts. I was assigned to set up a “store.” I kept stock, did orders, answered the phone, and assigned work.

       Guys were quitting as they found jobs. They knew the place was going to close before long. More were quitting than were being laid off. As business slowed down, they laid off everyone over 65. That included about all the bosses. Bill Meaden and I stayed another one and a half years taking things apart. We took out machines and disconnected pipes. All the water and oil pipes, etc., had to be plugged where they were cut. We had to pack machines to be shipped. There were holes in the floor to be filled. Eventually there wasn’t anything – machines, pipes, wires, anything – in there as far as you could see.

       During the final years, there started to be laws about what you could dump into the water. They needed to test the water under the shop. I was the guy who went into the river underneath to get water samples. I’d wear hip boots and have a bunch of bottles strung together. I remember seeing eyes looking at me down there. I think I did it about every month for a year or so.

       I was laid off by Buddy Rockwood. Years before, I had gotten him his job. He had moved up to superintendent very quickly.

    Years after I got through at Drapers, my wife got Alzheimer’s. When it was no longer possible to have her at home (Purchase Street, Milford), she went to Draper Place in Hopedale. After all our years of marriage I didn’t want her to be there without me, so I moved there too. She died after about two years and then I moved to the Griffin-Dennett Apartments. I liked it very much there. I enjoyed being able to walk around town and drop in on people at the Community House, the library and the “Good as New Shop” in the town hall. Sometimes I’d walk up to the Fallon Clinic on Route 140, and sometimes I’d walk up Adin Street and back by Route 16. In good weather I’d go out three times a day and walk about six miles in all. I like to visit and talk with people. I think I’m making up for the years when I couldn’t talk. John “Gilly” Gilbertson, told to Dan Malloy at various times between 2008 and 2012.

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