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Life Arts

The Ultimate Epithet: The Grandmother Who Climbed a Fence to Fight for Union Workers

By Mark Soifer  Posted by Walter Brasch (about the submitter)     Permalink
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by Mark Soifer

 My grandmother sailed from Russia in a cattle boat cradling her infant son, Joseph. She was not an admirer of the Czar. My grandfather followed soon after deserting the army and crossing the continent on foot. 

The family settled in Chester, Pennsylvania, an industrial town on the Delaware River near Philadelphia. My grandfather died of exposure to chemicals at the Congoleum plant leaving four sons with a sturdy, plain speaking, fearless peasant girl, my grandmother.

 Every one called her Baila. Baila became involved in the trade union movement of the “Twenties” partly because of her fervent allegiance to the newly born Soviet Union, “ The Dictatorship of the Proletariat” and also because of her distrust for  fat, industrialists grasping money bags and stomping on helpless workers as depicted on the editorial pages of “The Masses.” I remember the tall, rumpled union organizer who came to her home for shelter and encouragement. I remember the home cooked dinners at the Ukrainian Hall to raise money for the down trodden in Spain.

I remember the calendar with a drawing by Rockwell Kent showing a marberlized  workingman the size of Paul Bunyan brandishing a red flag with the letters, IWW “International Workers of the World.” When there was a bloody strike at the shipyard, Baila climbed a fence and urged workers not to give into the “goons” who surrounded them with clubs. The strike breakers backed off. They were no match for the ferocious lady from Kiev. Following Sunday dinner, which she prepared with the same gusto that boxers attack a punching bag, the talk was inevitably political. 

Among the despised, political demons were Father Coughlin, a right wing priest and Martin Dies, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee. For men of this ilk, Baila reserved the ultimate epithet. They were “No good Sonofabitch, Trotskyite Bastards.”

 I listened to my grandmother growl out the phrase for years before learning that Trotsky was an outcast of the Revolution, fleeing to Mexico following a Kremlin power struggle. Whatever Leon Trotsky’s philosophy, it certainly was not aligned with my grandmother’s philosophy or that of “The Daily Worker.”

 Among the “No Good, Sonofabitch Trotskyite Bastards” not already mentioned were General Francisco Franco, J. Edgar Hoover, Mr. Pew, owner of the shipyard, Drew Pearson, when his column didn’t agree with the Party Line and any member of the Ku Klux Klan. 

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My instincts have often told me that this relentless and memorable phrase is one of the great poetic epithets of the 20th Century and deserves to be noted in the appropriate literary encyclopedia. I enjoy repeating it often, almost unconsciously as a reminder, I guess, of the inventiveness of Baila, my tiny, lion-hearted grandmother. 

Some years ago, my daughter was hospitalized for a long period to correct a chemical imbalance. My wife and I were distraught as the doctors worked to find the correct doses of medication to make things right again. 

One night, after a trip to the hospital, I thought about my sturdy little grandmother and how she might react to the illness of a loved one. I walked into the backyard and created a contemporary demon of the sickness so that I might face it fearlessly and let it know once and for all who was boss. “You No Good, Sonofabitch Trotskyite Bastard, YOU NO GOOD SONOFABITCH TROTSKYITE BASTARD!” I repeated.

  Four days later my daughter was home.  

Mark Soifer, one of the nation'seading publicists, is director of special events and promotion for Ocean City, N.J. His work has brought national media to the resort city to report about the annual Doo-Dah parade, the Miss Crustacean Contest, Martin Z. Mollusk Day (where a hermit crab checks his shadow to determine if summer is coming early), and numerable other suntime fun events. Soifer played varsity baseball at Temple University, and was in the Army prior to going into publicity. His poems have also been published in several major national publications.

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