August 1991

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Harpending's Corners


Edwin N. Harris

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Married Man


Esther Weichenthal and I had been going together, off and on, since the summer of 1936 when I was working in the Deluxe Ice Cream Store in Dundee and she was nurse-maiding little Dickie Brewer.

I became a part of Esther's family long before we were married, and helped her father when not otherwise occupied. Esther's family had moved in 1935 from Stanton, Nebraska, to a farm in Yates County, three miles northwest of Penn Yan on Briggs Road. She had four brothers: Otto, Arlin, Paul, and Gerhart, and two sisters Ella and Amanda. Another sister, Martha, died in the great influenza epidemic of 1918. Esther was born in Goehner, Nebraska, not long before her family moved to Stanton near Norfolk.

Her father, Hugo, was born in Tuchel, West Prussia, Germany, in 1882. He finished his training and received his certificate as a blacksmith at Berlin in 1900, and worked in his trade there until he came to the United States in 1902 and became a farmer/blacksmith in Nebraska. Esther's mother, Clara, was born in 1888 in Norfolk, Nebraska. Her parents had been born in Germany, Gustav Latt in Posen, and Wilhelmina Grimm in Brandenburg.

Hugo was a boisterous, hard-working, powerful man with an ever-present heavy, curved-stem pipe charged with "V-C (cigar) Clippings" clenched firmly between his solid teeth. When he worked over his anvil, beating white-hot steel to his will, the teeth sometimes bit the pipe stem in two. His fractured English, sprinkled with coarse words, that so often are the first learned of a new language, could be hilarious, but not so when he admonished a skinny prospective son-in-law. "By Gott—if du can eat, du can verk." That's partly why I worked. He grudgingly admitted that I, having been trained by my ex-lumberjack father, handled a saw and an axe in the woods better than he.

Marriage was not seriously considered (by me, at least) until the Rochester Business Institute called me about an interview they had arranged for a job in Rochester. RBI still held my promissory note for money owed for tuition, and they were anxious that I have a steady income.

I drove Dad's 1931 Chevrolet sedan to the interview and was accepted for the position of "office manager" for Fred J. Hines, Excavating Contractor, whose office was at 2750 Monroe Avenue in Rochester. Plans for a wedding began to form.

Fred Hines was a giant of a man who, at 6' 4" tall, weighed up to 320 pounds, had a florid complexion, and heavy jowls. His great face featured rimless eyeglasses, his bald head was usually covered with a large felt hat, and he always wore a suit and tie. Fifty-two years old, of Danish descent, he walked with a limp in his right leg, the result, he said, of a construction accident that happened in his younger days when he worked on the construction of the Barge Canal.

When he directed his crew his voice sounded thunderous roars that were easily heard over the clatter of his bulldozers and power shovels.

He told me of being born in Tonawanda, New York, into a large, poor family that he ran away from at a young age to escape his brutal father, and he boasted of his sixth-grade education. (He would not be my last employer to make that boast.) Using his sound native intelligence and instincts, Fred was successful.

Now I was the manager of an office with a staff of one—me. My responsibilities covered most of the aspects of any business office: bookkeeping, banking, preparing the payroll, filing compensation insurance and tax reports, and acting as secretary and receptionist. My predecessor for a year had left for a "better job" and could spend only about three evenings showing me the ropes. Before him, Fred had kept his own records, that consisted of a check register, a bank deposit book, and some notes scrawled in pencil on the back of used envelopes.

At age twenty-one, I had accepted a job that was a bit more than I was prepared for, but with a twenty-dollar-a-week salary in hand, I had thoughts of marriage.

So, brashly undaunted, I returned to my old room at Ma Brown's to spend the next three months of my evening hours at the Monroe Avenue office willingly, for I knew my inexperience was something that would be overcome quickly.

However, before I could settle in, the New York Income Tax Bureau called for an audit of the past three years, and Fred told me to take care of it. A good break came when the income tax audit began. The auditor, a Mr. Wasserman, found serious discrepancies in Fred's records and called for a complete revision of them for the years 1936 through 1938. He, recognizing my predicament, went far beyond his official duty to guide me and appeared every few days to review my work. He showed great compassion and taught me far more than I had garnered in the one year of classes at RBI. Even after fifty years, I often think of Wasserman and my incredible luck of having met such generosity.

The main tax problem was that Fred did not believe in capital depreciation. He would buy a power shovel for, say $22,000, and enter it as "shovel expense," as if it were a repair bill. At the end of the audit I wangled some sort of a compromise from Wasserman, but when Fred saw the state order to pay back taxes in the amount of several thousand dollars in ten days or face evasion charges, I thought he was going to tear the office apart. I managed to calm him by explaining the fine principles of capital depreciation and pointed to the possibility of a Federal audit that would bring much larger penalties. Fred was fortunate that the State and Federal governments were not yet exchanging tax information. In time, Fred viewed me as a tax expert and found side jobs for me preparing tax returns for his friends, an auto repair shop, a gas station, and others.

My job at the office went along well, wedding plans were made, and Esther and I were married on the evening of Saturday, September 2, 1939, in an old Lutheran church in Geneva, New York. Fred and his wife Dorothy attended, and Fred gave me the day after Labor Day off for our two-day honeymoon, plus a two-dollar-a-week raise in salary. He covered his embarrassment for such lack of fiscal restraint by declaring, "A married man should be worth more to me."

Willard Noble, a recent roommate at Ma Brown's, was a tall, quiet, older man of about twenty-eight who had come to RBI from Wayland, New York. He became my friend and confidant and agreed to be my best man, borrowing a car from his foster parents for the wedding party. He was driving us from the church to the reception at the Weichenthal farm when a head-on collision with an on-coming auto in a blinding rain storm at the outskirts of Geneva ended that favor. No one was injured but the car was badly damaged. Esther and I continued on with another of the party following us. After the reception, Gaylord (Husky) Norris drove us to Hammondsport and the Park Hotel on the village square. My total cash resources were $21 and some change.

Two days later we settled in a tiny second-floor apartment at 30 Edmunds Street, just off Monroe Avenue, near Goodman. To get a little more room and a kitchenette, we moved in a short time one block to Woodlawn Street. With no auto, I rode the Pittsford-bound busses six miles to work for about six months, or until a bus-and-truck crash brought me cash to buy my own wheels.

© 1991, Edwin N. Harris
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