Authors Intro: Ever since I was a kid, I had the notion that if I placed my hand flat on something, old or new, and listened hard enough, it would tell me something. I believe there is a story in everything and have always been curious to know what that story is.
Levon the Stone Mason
I was downtown yesterday, walking around a building discussing signage with the owner for a new jazz club and restaurant. The owners have big plans for this old building, and I share their excitement. Classic music and food fusion, creating a destination to help revive a downtown that has struggled for decades.
The buildings are old and solid, the street level façades thankfully not “updated” with 1970’s efficiencies and boring straight lines. So, the grandeur of the early 1900’s stonework, arches and tall windows remain.
While my client made big sweeping gestures with his arms, I listened to the plan, made notes in my sketchbook, promised a fast estimate and moved off to take photos for reference.
I turned and went down the narrow street that ran between the buildings, glad for the shade and escape from the people walking and talking. As I collected my thoughts and did the math needed for the price, I became aware of the stonework, large foundation blocks that came up to about my waist, and clay red bricks going up 4 stories to the roof.
Not sure when this was built, I should know that as a writer, but I’m pretty sure around 1925.
What I am sure of is that this building has not shifted an inch. The block and bricks are uncracked, no support rods going through side-to-side to keep it plumb. It’ solid.
So, I pressed my palm flat on the foundation block to see what it would tell me, and this is what I heard:
My name is Levon, and I left Scary, West Virginia, for Akron, Ohio, to get a job in the rubber factories. Everyone at home said there were a lot of jobs in Akron, factory work, laying roads and building construction. So, I took the train with one suitcase, a lunch that my mother packed in a cigar tin, almost four dollars (after the price of the ticket), and great hopes.
My mother got religion young, from her mother, and the spirit came on her often. That’s why she named me Levon. It's a translation of the Greek name Leon, meaning “lion”, and she saw in me that strength and courage. Or maybe she hoped that the name would bestow those traits on me and in me. Only time will tell.
I was not feeling strong on that train, I was feeling alone. It was loud and the passengers sat very close, all of us swaying with the train car, being lulled into that middle mind space not sleeping or awake. The heat was oppressive, all the windows up to keep the soot from the engine out, but no ventilation to relieve us. We all wore too many layers because we only had one bag for clothes, so we sweat, and it was ripe by the time we got to the Akron Station.
Most of the men got off the train and went directly downtown to find the factories and put in applications. I didn’t know where togo exactly, so I just followed the group.
We came to find out that we were not the only trainload of people that had this idea, and any jobs that were available at the tire plants were gone. But there were jobs on labor gangs building the new downtown.So, I followed the group and one by one we all found work.
I waited in line outside a metal roofed shack, and when it was my turn I stepped inside, removed my hat, combed my hair back with my fingers and folded my hands in front of me. A very serious man named Tobias Papadopoulos was seated, with several ledgers in front of him, coffee that looked old and cold, and a large foul smelling black cigar between his fingers.
“You have Greek first name but not last…?”
“My mother spends time in theBible, Levon is Greek for Lion. She liked that for her son.”
“I know what it means. Let me see your hands”
I extended my hands, spread my fingers, palms down, then turned over palms up, and looked at him wondering about this request.
“Lion has big paws, this is good, very good. You, Levon, are going to be apprentice to our stone mason. This is good, long work. Hard work, but it will make you strong.”
I signed on as a mason’s apprentice and was told to be at the shack at 7:00 AM the next day.
Originally my hope was to get a job in the factory because of the pay and that it was inside work. But I got a job in just a couple hours off the train, so I felt blessed.
Again, I followed the group to find a place for the night. A group of us shared a room at a hotel downtown, for a couple nights before finding rooms in North Hill. There were a lot of homes there renting rooms by the week, cold water, breakfast included. They needed us and we needed them.
We fell into routine, work 6 days, Sundays for church and chores. Most homes had large gardens behind them where we grew anything and everything. Some homes grew great tomatoes, some peppers, some onions and so on. Greek, Italian, Irish, German, Armenian, a few French, everyone had their favorites and were excited to prepare for everyone to taste.
I ate well.
Big gardens in back and big porches on the front. We all sat outside and talked together and with the neighbors on either side. I learned a lot and can count to 10 in German to this day.
We wasted nothing, lunch boxes were made from work site cardboard, edges secured with adhesives used for roofing, lids held fast with twine. When the boxes were worn out, stained from food and transport, they became fire starter, the greasy spots burning brightly.
I got so I could recognize people from the hills in West Virginia and other small towns. Their clothing, like mine, was all dull colors and the fabric was thick, the pants almost like tent canvas. I heard that’s because the thinner fabric, the nicer weaves that draped and fit you off the rack, with saturated color dyes, all went to Parkersburg and Charleston. The small stores got the cheaper items, the fabrics from the end of the runs when the color dye fountains were running dry, and the saturation of the colors was all lighter and dull. They look washed out when brand new.
The pants were so heavy that they would chafe your legs and butt for weeks before they got “broke in”. When we would swim in Summit Lake we would laugh when we saw the tell-tale signs of new pants and holler, “hey red legs, where’d you get money for new britches?”
It was at Summit Lake that I metJoLene Bolyard. She was visiting her brothers that were working at theFirestone Tire plant and the attraction was immediate. We married at the end of the summer, moved upstairs to the attic apartment and started a life together.
I was advancing in my mason skills and making a bit more money. JoLene took in laundry, did mending, babysitting, and once quite without warning served as a midwife. While we all agreed that she did a proper job, the baby and Mother both coming through good and healthy, that was not her calling. She woke for weeks in a lather from dreams of it.It’s a wonder we had a child to be honest.
We were married about seven months when she became pregnant, and we had twin boys. We named them Levon Jr. andAres. My mother loved that, Levon the Lion and his brother Ares, a man of courage.
My greatest grief came when that winter the boys both got pneumonia. They were not strong yet and no matter how they fought, and we fought for them we could not get them through it. Levon, our first born died first, and Ares followed 3 days later.
Hemmingway would write “The smallest coffins are the heaviest”, and he has no idea how true that is. It broke me, and Jolene, and our tiny attic apartment became huge and empty. After the period of silence, the finding things to do that suddenly needed to be done so we would not have to be there at the same time, we finally admitted it. Admitted that neither of us could bear the loss of our boys or each other, so she went back to Batton Rogue to her family. She left everything, didn’t even take the photo of the boys with her. She left us completely.
The next day I was at the site at7:00 AM, with my battered lunch box and my big hands stuffed deep in broke in pants pockets. I pulled my hat down tight so I could see out, but nobody could see in.
Then, I pointed my grief at the only options I had. I made sure that all the concrete was mixed exactly, not too much sand, not too wet. I could palm four bricks in each hand, I watched each mason and anticipated when they needed more bricks or mortar or both, making sure they didn’t have to ask. My crew ran smooth, with few problems, and people noticed.
Tobias Papadopoulos pointed his stinky cigar at me and said, “Mr. Lion you make crew run like watch made by Swiss”. And he was right.
So, I trained my Second Man to see what I saw, he had good hands, showed up on time, and a young family to keep him focused. His name was Rhys Beddoe and started as a coal miner in Wales. He travelled here to escape all the danger and disease most men acquired working in the coal mines.
Rhys replaced my cardboard lunchbox with a tin lunch pail like coal miners use. Not only would these last years instead of weeks, but he showed me how you could use it to cook your lunch in while you’re working. A hot lunch is a gift from God when you’re used to yesterday’s biscuits buttered with bacon grease and some radishes and wild onions.
In the evening I would go into the woods across the way or walk the back yard gardens down the street and hunt rabbit, squirrel, pigeon, and Mourning Dove. I would dress them out, brine them, and of course share with the people whose back yard I shot them in. Then season them with salt and pepper, add some wild onions and garlic, potatoes, a turnip, a jelly jar full of water with lemon, some salt and herbs, then doughy biscuits on top. Everything went in that tin lunch pail from Wales.
About mid-morning I would place my pail at the base of the blacksmith forge and there the meat would cook while the Smiths formed rivets by the thousand, fixed hammers and pliers, made new horseshoes and custom hinges and fasteners. When the lunch whistle sounded, I would have hot stew that was delicious.
Even better was the way these men from all over the world would be grateful when you shared it. Hand a man a steaming plate of food with a smile and when they ask “why” the only reason you can give them is that this is the way humans should treat each other.
We can build cities when we build each other.
Soon there were a lot of pails around the fire, and the blacksmiths always, always, ate free.
I stayed on for a couple more years, working on three buildings at Market Street and Main Street downtown. I saved every dollar that I could, working at the site during the day and cleaning offices at night. Then finally, it was time to return home.
I arrived much the same way I left, on the train, one suitcase, dressed in too many layers. But I came back with skills, ability, grit, vision, a bit more money than I left with, and sorrow still very fresh. And of course, that great lunch pail.
My goal was to use my savings to help fix things. I couldn’t save my kids or my marriage, but I could bring something home that would benefit my people and myself, and the young ones that will carry the bricks for the next generation.
The first thing I did was get a small parcel of land downtown on loan. I added to the loan amount the cost for enough brick to build a small store with a room above it. I laid the foundation and built that store brick by brick. And everyone in town watched me do it. Turns out that was the best advertising I could have done. The town saw the care I put into the building and knew that I would do the same for them.
I stayed with Mother while I built the store, and she helped me move in upstairs when it was ready. I put in a water heater and a furnace, big windows for circulation, a big front porch for all to get comfortable and visit, and of course a big garden in back.
Ares Hardware opened on May 8th. I sell farm supplies, general hardware, paint, seed, groceries, home canned goods and produce from farms and folks from town. You can buy a tent, get your harness fixed, fill your propane tank, get your shoes repaired and have a cold spicy frosted mug of root beer. All while you catch up on the news around town.
My clothing section has gotten to be quite a topic too, folks have never seen so much colorful fabric before. And I carry these strange, beautiful lunch pails too. If you buy one you must listen to my story about them as I ring you up. And people do, 3 or 4 times a week.
After hours I still lay bricks and tend to my garden. I still hunt and make that delicious stew as often as I can. I just wish I had a blacksmith fire to put my lunch pail by.
I try to listen and be aware when people are struggling with things that need fixing. I need to help them move forward, to remedy a problem for them so they can keep on going. And honestly, it helps me do the same.
I miss my boys. I miss my wife. I do the things that help me help, to fill in the gaps, to try to be whole again. There is great power in that, not laying down, standing tall, roaring back at circumstance and taking a stand for you and all that are yours.
I am Levon. My mother named me well.
Authors note: Not sure this story of Levon Hicks and those talked about here ever really happened, but when I put my hand on that brick wall that’s what came to mind. It may be true, or it may not, but it’s a story now.