Robert Collins

Robert Collins

Interviewed December, 1995

 

I was born February 21, 1934 during the blizzard of 1934. I’ve lead a very sheltered life with a strict Catholic upbringing. I went to public schools and to high school in 1948 to 1949. In December 1949, at the age of fifteen, I joined the Marine Reserve outfit and served three years and four months. After I went to the two week summer camp in June of 1950, the Korean conflict broke out. We came home for 30 days to clear up any unfinished business. At the time, the military did not know that I was only fifteen years old. I wasn’t supposed to serve until the age of seventeen. I was still in the service when I got married on June 18, 1953.

I was the oldest of eight children, four boys and four girls. It was very hectic. Every time one of my brothers got in a fight, they always had a big brother to bail them out which big brother didn’t do. If any of my sisters had boyfriend problems, their attitude was “I’ll get my big brother.” Even though I wasn’t their parent, I was their older brother. It was a responsibility. My mother used to say, “As a big brother, you always have to look out for them.”

Every Sunday, I went to Church. I was baptized when I was seven. The oldest girl and I decided for ourselves whether we wanted to be brought up in the Catholic Church or in the English Catholic Church, which is similar in that they have confession and communion but they don’t recognize the Pope. My mother was Irish Catholic and my father was English Catholic. They did have their marriage blessed after a number of years. Father had become fairly friendly with a Catholic priest who is now a Monsignor. Father never became a Catholic but they did have the marriage blessed which made my mother very happy. They had gotten married by a Justice of the Peace in Boston. Her family was against the marriage because my father wasn’t a Catholic. But all of us kids were raised in a Catholic home. I’ve been to his church which is St Paul’s on Congress and Locust Street. I didn’t go to the Catholic schools but my wife did. I have a brother who went to Catholic schools. He went to Cheverus because he had a heart condition and couldn’t climb stairs.

Mother’s family was from Ireland and my father’s family was from England. My grandmother’s name was Tupper. My grandfather was from Brunswick. My father was brought up in a French speaking family. In fact, his aunt could speak no English. There were some really funny moments. My father had the name Collins and did not look French or have a French accent. In the Grange, my parents traveled all over with elderly people. Elderly people can be slow and forgetful. Sometimes when they eat, they are a little messy. One time there were some French women in a restaurant and they were poking fun of some elderly women who were sitting at the table with my mom and dad. Of course, they did not know what these French women were saying but my dad did. As they left, my father spoke to them in French. He told them just what he thought of them and they were really surprised to say the least.

 

When my father told you to do something, he told you once. Anything after that was just a waste of energy on his part. My father never beat us kids but we all knew what it was like to get the strap. He was a firm believer that “Do as you are told and what you are expected to do and you have no problem. When I was seven, my cousin and I ran away from home. Dickie and I had sneaked out at 8:30 one summer night. We had taken peanut butter sandwiches. I had a couple of apples and Dickie had a couple of oranges in a paper bag. We got on our scooters and went up Munjoy hill. We were sitting up by the band stand. We thought it was great. We were on our own. We were going to run away from home and we were going to get a job. We went down a vacant field and then through woods toward the Tukey’s bridge. There was a steel frame with a wooden ramp. We weren’t allowed over that part so we just stood there. We decided we had no place to go and it was getting dark so we headed home. We was getting hungry anyway. Our parents had the police looking for us. We were home at 9:00.

On Melborne Street, I was four or five years old. I followed some kids from Cathedral school. I got lost and the police picked me up. My mother had my father call the hospitals. Finally, he called the police department and they said no but they had a little blond‑headed girl down there. My father said, “really.” They replied yes. They were giving me ice cream. I don’t remember it but my father came down and saw it was me. There was an Armenian barber named Marc on Washington Avenue across the street from Nissens. My father took me in there to get a butch cut. When we came home, my mother just about killed my father for cutting my hair. He saved her one of my curls which was 12‑14 inches long. I remember this first hair cut but I don’t remember the police station.

When I was nine or ten years old, we lived across the street from the cemetery. Every time I walked by the cemetery, I walked across the other side of the street. One day I was at the boys club and my father had set a time limit for me to be home. I went into the cemetery next to the North school and I ran diagonally from one end of that cemetery to the other. It was in the winter time and pitch dark out. I never tripped. I was going to be late getting home. I had more fear of coming home late when my father told me not to. I wasn’t afraid of the beating, I didn’t want to go against his wishes. If he said, I want you home by 7:00. At 7:00 o’clock, I wanted to be home. got scared after I got out of the cemetery. I wasn’t scared running through it but I was afterwards. I was just a kid. You know you hear all those stories about cemeteries.

I found a dog at the cemetery. An old collie dog who had marks on his snout and I didn’t know what they were. I had him tied underneath the porch and I would bring him food. My mother knew I had the dog tied out there. I had him for two or three weeks. One day my dad came home from work and said, “I hear you have a dog.” I replied “yes.” “You know you can’t keep it.” “Why not?” “Because you can’t have dogs here.” “Well, he’s not here, he’s outside.” “Well, go get him and let’s take a look at him.” After I brought him in the house my father said, “You know this dog could be ugly because the marks on his snout are from a muzzle.”

One Saturday afternoon, I was supposed to do something. I can’t remember what it was but I didn’t do it. My father said, “Your mother asked you to do something?” “Yes,” I replied. “You didn’t do it.” “No.” “What did you say when she asked you?” “I told her why don’t you have one of the other kids do it?” “You know what that calls for don’t you?” “It calls for a licking.” He used to just say bend over the chair. He dug out the strap and then that dog had hold of him. He didn’t sink his teeth in but he didn’t move. So he put the strap down and the dog let go. The dog sat and licked my father. My father put him outside. I got the licking. The dog heard me crying. When he came back in, he put my father right into a corner. He never nipped at him or nothing. So the animal shelter came and got the dog. He was a big old dog probably seven or eight years old. Somebody had been abusing him. He had run away and found him in the cemetery. We couldn’t keep a dog. There was no place to keep him. The people upstairs, whose relatives owned the house, had a big garden in the backyard and the front yard was paved to park their car. We had no yard.

When I was 12 or 13 years old, my father made me a shoe shine box. During the war when the ships came in, all the black sailors would go up the barber shop across the street from where we lived to get a haircut. He was a black barber who was one of the nicest guys. I used to go in there to shine shoes and I used to go down to the pier when the boats came in. I always made pocket money. It only cost a dime to go to the movies.

At the age of 14, I got a job cleaning lumber for a contractor and before that I cleaned bricks with the kid who lived upstairs from me. His uncle was a contractor. We used to go out to his yard and take a little hatchet to clean bricks. I’ll never forget his uncle couldn’t give me my first paycheck until I got a social security number. I made eight dollars for a week. It was a lot of money back then. It was half a cent a brick. We cleaned a thousand bricks and we got five dollars and at that young age, cleaning bricks was a hard way to make a dollar.

When my dad and mother got married, she couldn’t cook. My mother lost her mother when she was little and her father, a businessman, hired a housekeeper and she lived right there. She had her own private room with private bath. She did everything, the cooking, house‑cleaning, laundry, and shopping. The girls helped. They had to. She used to have one day a week off or one afternoon a week off. My mother just never learned to cook. My father was a chef. He taught my mother to cook. He also taught my brother and I. My brother John is one of the finest pastry chefs you would ever want to meet.

My mother’s family was not poor. They weren’t what you would call rich. They were financially well‑off. My mother went without nothing. If she needed something she got it. It wasn’t like, well, you get shoes this week and your sister gets shoes the next week. Years ago people had large families and being brought up strict Catholic like my mother, at the time, birth control was not even mentioned. The word was taboo. And of course, my mother and father would go without so us kids wouldn’t. We were poor. But I never went to bed hungry. Never! We didn’t have steak very often. I would go up to the meat store they would say, “There’s little Robert.” I would say I need a bone for my dog. “We will go get you one with meat on it so the dog will eat good.” He knew I didn’t have a dog. My mother would make a big stew. My father would go down to the waterfront and reel nets then come home with fish. My mother would have baked fish or fish chowder. We would have potatoes and pork scrap gravy which was the poorest thing in the world. Today, if you can find a restaurant that makes it, it will cost you. Pork scrap gravy is made with flour and salt pork that makes a thick gravy to put on biscuits or potatoes. My father used to make corn meal mush and fried corn meal. He made all our breads, biscuits, donuts, and other pastries. We never brought from bakeries. My father used to make everything. This was in the 40’s, right after the war.

During the war my dad worked at the shipyard where you could make more money there than anywhere else. My father had his own boat. We lived on Peaks Island. When we brought the house, the boat came with it. It was a lifeboat from an old ship. My father put sails and motor on it and he would use it to go back and forth to work at the shipyard. When the shipyard closed, he got a job as a chef for the Armstrong Company.

At this time, my father owned a construction company called the Tri‑angle Construction Company. He took in three brothers as partners. Two brothers were alcoholics. The third brother tried to tell my father that he was making a mistake by taking the other brothers as partners. My father said, you all put in same amount of money so it was a four way partnership. At that time, it wasn’t much money. He didn’t need much money then to go into business. Customers would call to complain and he would find the brothers at a bar instead of working. He dissolved the partnership. The business only lasted couple of years. Then the Armstrong Company shut down. He got a job at B & M Baking Beans where he retired after working there for 20 years.

We lived on Peaks Island for three full years. But we still maintained a place down there. In fact, I sold the house fifteen years ago. We had all kinds of problems when we lived on Peaks Island. One of my sisters fell in a big hole that had been dug up for a cesspool and she developed osteomyelitis in her hand. My other sister swallowed a bobby pin and we had to rush her on the fire boat. The island fort was maintained. There were soldiers and a doctor still at the fort. You could go over and the doctor would treat you and then you would call the fire boat. There was no police, just a fire boat. They would take you to town to Maine General Hospital. It got to be just too much for my mother. When my sister Janice slid across the floor and put her face through the window, my mother couldn’t take it anymore. She wanted to move back uptown where doctors and hospitals were close. It was just an inconvenience if you were raising a family. Today, it is a little different. The boats are a lot faster.

Living on Peaks Island was fun when I look back at it. It wasn’t fun at the time. We always wore our swimming trunks to school. A group of us used to swim from Peaks to Portland during the months of July and August when the water was warm. It took two or three hours. We would take our time. There were no whales in the harbor at that time. There were just sand sharks, nothing to harm us.

When I was growing up, there was no television. I listened to the radio or read. The biggest thing was when the carnival came to town or going to the movies which cost a dime.

How my experience in the service came about is funny. My cousin, Dickie, was walking up Congrees Street in an uniform. said, “Boy, I like your uniform. What is it?” “It’s the Marine Reserve.” “What do you have to do to get into that? I like the uniform.” “Go down and enlist.” I asked “What do you have to do?” He said “You go to one meeting a week and they pay you for it.” So I went down to Commercial Street. I’m standing outside watching these guys marching back and forth and carrying guns in this big fenced in area. It impressed me. This is in 1949. A sergeant came up to me and said “Why don’t you come inside and we’ll talk.” Everyone had on this sharp uniform. So I went in. He was my neighbor. I had hung around with his son. “What’s the gimmick here?” He said, “Sign up for three years. You go to one drill a week for two hours. You get paid $32.50 every three months. We supply the uniforms. Two weeks vacation in the summer.” I asked, “what’s that?” He said “We go to camp for two weeks.” He gave me the paperwork and I took it home to show my parents and they said no because I was too young. I said I would get somebody to sign the papers. There was a Justice of the Peace on Congress Street across the street from Cathedral Church. I went up there. I lied about my age. My parents signed, and I brought it back and they fitted me for an uniform. I took it up to a tailor on Cumberland Avenue to alter it. I thought I was the “cat’s meow.” I liked that uniform. In the Marine Reserve, we weren’t allowed to wear the marine emblem on our shirt collars. We wore the marine emblem just on our cap. At Camp La‑June in North Carolina, I was at the two week summer camp in June 1950. The Korean War broke out and they let us home for 30 days. They gave us the insignia to put on our uniform’s collar, the marine emblem which is the globe and eagle. An active reservist had emblems on collar. Not all reservist were activated but I was in the engineering outfit as demolition man. We transferred into a regular Marine Corp.

My pay every two weeks was $65 a month. I sent $50 of it home to my family. I didn’t need any money. I didn’t drink, gamble, or run around. I bought cigarettes and I played cards a little. Movies, swimming pools, and bowling lanes were on base. Didn’t have to pay for it. I ate at the mess hall which didn’t cost anything. My uniform was furnished. I had to wash and iron my clothes and shine my shoes. I used to iron other guy’s clothes and shine their shoes to pick up a little extra money. They would be going out and I would stay right there on base. I would write letters, read, walk around base. It was a big base. My home base was Camp La‑June, North Carolina. I was on the air base for 3 weeks at Cherry Point South Carolina to get advance training. When I went back to La‑June, I still went to advance training school on demolition.

Back home one day, Dickie and I was going up Congress street and my father’s sister’s son saw us and said “Hey I dig those threads.” We were on our way to a drill and we told him to come down with us. We took him down and he enlisted. It was a lot of fun. It was a good experience I recommend it for everyone. It was a good way to get an education.

My discharge date was March 15, 1953. I served three years and three months. I was married when my discharge came in the mail. I didn’t have to attend any drills when I came home, but I had to report to the first marine division. The old post office where Tommy’s park is now was the old Federal building. That was where the recruiting office was when I came home. I had to go down there and report in. I could not leave the state unless I notified them.

 

My future wife was the girl next door. She lived one block away. I made a date with her but Marine Corp Reserve got activated so I went. When I came home on leave, I developed cirrhosis. I was in the Maine Medical for 13 weeks. Her father worked at the hospital. He saw me and told Marie so she went up to see me. I asked her, “What do you say we go out on a date when I get out of here.” She said, “you made a date with me and you didn’t show up for years.” I got out of the hospital in February and we got married on June 18, 1953.

I thought I had gotten cirrhosis while in the service. I had contacted viral hepatitis from somebody or from unsanitary conditions. If you don’t take care of it, it can go in advance stages. I came down with yellow jaundice and it didn’t bother me so I didn’t pay any attention to it. One night, I just passed out in the middle of the street. I just fainted. I got home and called the doctor. They took me right into the hospital. It raised holy o’ cane with my liver. I lost 30% of liver but it has rejuvenated back to 80%. Alcohol is the worst thing for me. I don’t drink anyway. It is an alcoholic’s disease. The doctor said to me “You are awful young to be a drinker.” I said “I don’t even touch the stuff.” I never did. All my friends would say why don’t you drink. I hung around with guys who drank but it didn’t mean I had to drink. The only filthy habit I picked up was smoking cigarettes.

On June 18, 1953, I got married. Marie was 19 years old which was the legal age for women but a man couldn’t get married without his parents consent until he was 21. My mother used to blackmail me like you wouldn’t believe. If you don’t do this, won’t sign. If you don’t do that, I won’t sign. She played it right to the hilt. Marie could get married but I couldn’t until I was legal age of 21. It’s discrimination. That’s what it is. Just like we used to pay poll tax. In the City of Portland every man paid a $3 poll tax. If you didn’t pay, you couldn’t get a drivers, fishing, hunting, or marriage license. You couldn’t register a car, trailer, or anything.

After we were married, I was still attached to Marine Corp but I was home waiting for my discharge. I worked at the stove foundry and then I took up a trade of repairing televisions. I did everything. I packed baked beans for one year. Repaired televisions for 20 years (part and full time). When I was in my twenties, I lived upstairs from an old guy who was a caretaker. One day he said to me, “How would you like to give me a hand on Saturday for a couple of hours? I’ll pay you ten dollars.” So he picked me up. We drove out to Cape Elizabeth. We drove into a graveyard. I asked him what we were doing here. He said we are going to dig a grave. I helped him dig a grave. It took us 1 1/2 hours and he paid me ten dollars. He said he took care of four cemeteries, two good sized ones and two little ones. This was the second largest one and he said he was getting too old to do it. He wanted to give it up and he asked if I wanted to take it over. I mowed the lawn on Saturdays and Sundays. I could mow the whole cemetery in a day and rake leaves, twigs and branches. So I did that and then I ended up digging. loved that job at the cemetery. It was peaceful and nobody bothered me. I made sure the place looked nice. The cemetery was in two sections. In the new section, there was nothing over 35 years old. The other part went back to 1800’s. An old fellow that past away was to be buried in the old part. It was hard to distinguish where one plot ended and another began because they didn’t keep any records back then. They did on the new section. I finally found where the old lot was and I stuck four screwdrivers in the four corners so I could dig it. I did that on Saturday. I used to have my brother come out and help me once in a while. He came out that Sunday to help me because of a wind storm. I wanted him to give me a hand for two or three hours in the morning because I didn’t want to work all day Sunday.

He came walking up to me and said “Look what I found. I found these four screwdrivers sticking in the ground over there.” I could have killed him! I spent all that time laying it out. There were some happy moments and there were sad moments in that job. People would give me a tip and say that the lot looked nice. “It never looked so good.” I don’t know if they were buttering me up or the old guy was getting along in years and getting a little lax. There was too much to do and he didn’t want anyone doing it for him. I lived upstairs from him. He had faith in me. So I’d take care of the whole place on weekends. Summertime, I would go out there on vacation. Then, I gave it up and I took a job weekends and nights operating the parking lot. When I got laid off at the foundry, I worked at the parking lot full time. I did a lot of things. I always had two jobs. When I got laid off at the foundry, I worked at A & P warehouse for 1 1/2 months to take inventory. Then I worked at Burnham & Morrills for a year before I got laid off along with 115 other men. I went back to the foundry. They used to lay off and hire, lay off and hire. When I got laid off again, I repaired televisions and worked in the parking lot. During layoffs, I always had something to fall back on. I raised five daughters. I can honestly say I never collected one dime of unemployment or workman’s compensation. I never went to city or state for help. I never got any assistance. I always worked. I was working at the foundry and I was repairing T.V.s nights and weekends. The parking lot, which was on Preble Street right next to the Grand Hotel, got sold and torn down. didn’t do any black and white T.V. repairs. A college kid did all the black and white work. He went away for a while. One evening, I went to repair a black and white T.V. which I thought was beneath my dignity. I don’t mean in the sense was too good. I had put in my dues on black and whites. I did nothing but color and antenna systems. Four or five weeks later, I got a call from the same residents and when I went this time,it was a color set. This time the woman’s husband was there and he spoke broken English. He was from Italy, a young Italian boy who had started a business as an electrical contractor.

He told me he was looking for somebody to help him. I mentioned it to one of the bosses at the foundry. He said, “You know you ought to take that job yourself because this foundry isn’t long for this world, it’s a dying trade.” It really was so I called her that night. She said, “My husband enjoyed talking to you.” I said, “Well, if he is still looking for someone, I’m taking it. I started at $1.90 an hour. I was making $2.35 at the foundry in 1966. When I quit him in 1980 of April, I was a master electrician and I was making $7.00 an hour. So that is when I went into the business myself in April 1980. I was not making an awful lot of money but I was having a lot of fun. You can make a lot of money but you have a lot of expenses that you don’t have working for someone else like supplies, tools, equipment, truck, commercial and liability insurances. Every time a new code comes out, I have to go to school for two days to maintain my license..

I learned how to repair televisions from home school correspondence. My cousin and I studied nights. We started by buying a tube caddy and a few tubes. We became tube jockey. That’s all we knew until I got in doing chasie work. Mancini taught me the electrician trade.

Then we started having a family. My brother thought that it was a riot that we had five girls. He and his wife were married nine or ten years with no children. He had rheumatic fever when he was young. He couldn’t have children so they adopted a baby girl from Massachusetts. Four years later, they had four kids of their own. They were all girls. Now it isn’t

so funny.

I had gotten married in Cathedral. We had a big church wedding. The oldest girl was baptized. Marie’s brother was getting married. Marie was a bridesmaid and I was the best man. The priest, who performed the ceremony, had also married Marie and I and he had baptized the oldest girl. When the service was over, he came over to talk to us. “You haven’t had any of the other children baptized have you?” Marie said no. The priest said “What are you waiting for? What’s the problem.” Well, we thought maybe we wait for them get a little older and let them decide for themselves. My father had did it that way. The priest said “That wasn’t a very good thing to do. How would you feel if your daughter died and went to hell?” I said that could never happen. He asked my why not. “Because the Bible says God’s teachings are those that die under the age of accountability are taken under me. The priest got really upset and said, “You people give me a pain. You read the Bible and don’t understand it. You are doing the wrong thing. You should not read the Bible because you don’t understand what you are reading.” That turned me against the Catholic Church.

When I got the parking lot job, one of the nicest men, I have ever had the pleasure to meet, was a born again Christian. He used to bring tracts, like “What does God have in store for you?” or “How to lead a fulfilling life.” one day Marie came up and saw the tracts laying around and asked me what were they. said, “Oh Phil leaves them there and I read them.” She said “You tell Phil that you have your own religion and for him to keep his own. Phil came in one morning and asked “Are you taking these tracts home with you?” I said no. He said “Somebody is getting them, good!” There was a place across the street where he’d buy these tracts. He’d leave them in the station and they kept disappearing. I couldn’t figure out who was taking them until I found out it was Marie taking them and reading them. don’t know if any of my kids know it but Marie and I are born again Christians. Marie accepted the Lord laying in bed 3:00 o’clock in the morning. She was crying. I accepted the Lord on my hands and knees in a kitchen in South Portland. My kids don’t know these things. So what I say is, let the children pick their own religion even if they want to go to a Jewish synagogue. Whatever they feel is best for them. As long as they’re not an atheist. That I don’t think I could take.

I was very nervous being around mentally handicapped people. I was very uncomfortable. I did some work for a couple who owned a kosher meat market. They sold the market to a man who trained the mentally and physically handicapped. I went to do some work in Freeport in a building affiliated with Pineland. Until you really worked around them, you just don’t understand them. They are handicapped. They are not foolish. They are smart people. They have problems that they are born with. Don’t cut them short. Don’t underestimate them. They can’t grasp things as easily as you and I do, but they can be taught. I have a lot of respect for them.

 

My advice to the younger generation is to get an education. They can’t take it away from you. I went into the service. I was activated. I had no choice. I had to leave high school. They made no exceptions. When I got out of the service, I would have been a little bit older than the other kids in my class. To me, that was a little embarrassing so I got education the hard way. To be in the trade I’m in, you have to have an education. It’s impossible to do the work without the education. You’ll always be a helper to somebody. My saying is get an education. Stay in school.

I had a friend of mine who was a manager of a restaurant. Every time they needed a dish washer the ad would read high school education is mandatory. One day, I asked him “I see your ad in the paper. It’s kind of ridiculous, isn’t it?” “What’s ridiculous about it.” “You’re looking for a dish washer and he has to have a high school education.” He said, “It keeps them in school, doesn’t it?”

My father was in his last year of high school and ready to graduate when his father died. He quit to make a living to keep the family going. My father was an educated man. He was nobody’s fool. He was quite a guy. He was the world’s worst driver but he was quite a guy. When he was young, his driving was alright but not when he got older. I followed him eight to ten blocks before I saw him put his blinker on. Another time I came to an intersection and the light was red. Before I knew it, I looked up and I saw this car whizzing by. It was my father whizzing through while he was talking on the CB radio. He had no idea the light was red. He didn’t even pay any attention to it. His philosophy was they’ll either stop or hit him. If they hit him, it’s their fault. The worst thing I ever said to my father was “Dad did you ever think of giving up your driver’s license.” Bad thing to say.

He called me up one day. “Come and get me.” I said OK. I didn’t know it was to bring him to his doctor. I went in the office with him. He asked him, “What is this?” My father called him every name in the book. My father grew up with this doctor and went to school with him. What happened was the doctor reported to the state my father’s heart condition and they restricted his driving. My father could only drive within a 15 mile radius of his resident. He couldn’t drive after sundown or before sunrise. He worked himself to death. His heart was gone. If he was younger, he could have been a candidate for a heart transplant. That’s another thing. When I was a kid, you used to read books about how they would take body parts out of one body and put it into another. I thought it was the grossest thing that there was. Here they are today with Kidney and heart transplants. It’s just unbelievable what they can do. Yet they can’t cure the cold.

I raised five daughters. Boy you either got to that bathroom first or you was in big trouble. And there were two males in the house, me and the dog and Marie controlled the dog. When you have children, you always hope and pray that they will (whether it’s boys or girls, it doesn’t matter) pick the right person to marry and work at it. Marie and I have been married 43 years. We just didn’t marry and say, OK, we will just stay married. You have to work at it. We had our problems. But I will say one thing, and she will tell you, most of our problems were over the kids. You got to work at it. A lot of people don’t want to work at it and it’s a two way street.

The biggest thrill I have now is when my grandchildren come over. That’s the greatest thing in the world. The girls have blessed me with eleven grandchildren. I can’t complain.

 

 

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