MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW - Reviewer: Henry Berry
Courtesy of R.S. Sukle
Ted Gall is shown on his family farm just outside Russelton, Pa., circa 1931 when he was a coal miner and involved in a grassroots campaign to organize unions. He joined the Communist Party but left it in the 1940s because he became disillusioned with it and its leaders.
MARION — In 1950, when Marion author R.S. Sukle was 8 years old, the "C word" in America was communism.
But in her young world, the letter might also have stood for the chaos that followed Sukle's family as a series of events that happened long before she was born chased them from town to town.
Her father, Theodore Albert Gall, was in hiding from American communists. He had left his family in Blackwood, N.J., and escaped to the place where he grew up — a farm near Russellton, Pa., 25 miles north of Pittsburgh.
"We would go visit," said Sukle, who is writing a trilogy based on her father's life. She recalled how residents of Russellton covered for him. He was loved in the coal-mining community, where folks remembered the Gall family's involvement in the Great Coal Strike of 1927.
A charismatic man who had a way with people, Ted Gall was a young man when powerful industrialists declared war on workers who had begun to strike for higher wages. He joined his brothers in efforts to organize the workers and provide relief for the inevitable suffering that accompanied the strike.
Courtesy of R.S. Sukle
The son of Prussian immigrant farmers who settled in Russellton, Gall was a restless soul who left home at 14 to join the Army and later served in the Marines as well. Sometime between the Army and the Marines, he hooked up with a leftist group called the Industrial Workers of the World, labor reformers who rode the rails and lived in hobo jungles to avoid government persecution.
Eventually, these "Wobblies" would become the American Communist Party. And it was the American Communists, supported by party members in Russia, who would fight for labor unions, racial equality and organized health care in this country.
"Nobody liked them, even in the 1920s," Sukle said, "because they were upsetting the system. Big business then was steel, rail, coal. In the '20s, the railroad ran on coal."
Conditions for workers in steel mills and coal mines were deplorable. Human life was expendable.
But Gall was a fighter — and a dreamer.
"My dad was an idealist," Sukle said. "He wanted the perfect world and he wanted it today. I don't think he counted on human nature.
"He never confessed to me that he was a member of the Communist Party until I was 21. But I always had my suspicions."
Rights and wrongs
Sukle's first book was "Bucket of Blood: The Ragman's War." Published in January 2004 by iUniverse; the book was reprinted last year as "Miner Injustice: The Ragman's War."
Set in 1927-28 in the coal fields north of Pittsburgh, it is a fictionalized account of Sukle's family ties to the coal strike that made headlines then. It is presented as fiction, the author said, because her father's politics were "an embarrassment" to some of her cousins and because she was unable to verify one of the local legends covered in the book, but essentially the story is true.
Sukle spent years reading old newspaper stories, researching the archives of the United Mine Workers of America and interviewing surviving miners. The project took eight years to complete.
"No one wanted to talk to me," she noted. "So many people remembered it, but they would skim over it. The story was so harsh."
Sukle poured herself into the project after her father's death in 1997 at the age of 91. In his last years, he lived with his daughter in Marion, where the locals knew him as "Pap."
"I started out doing a biography on my father, but I read the story of Russellton and got sidetracked," she said. "I'm working on the sequel right now. It will be about how the union was devastated after the strike."
While the main character in her first book is her father's brother — the "Ragman" — the sequel will focus on Ted Gall and his work as a coal miner and union organizer from 1928 to 1935. Sukle's working title is "Wildcat Strike."
A third book, "Loyalty Oath," is planned to cover her father's life during the McCarthy era. "It will focus on his involvement with the Industrial Workers organization until we disappeared in 1952," she said.
Sukle was 10 in 1952 when she and her mother left New Jersey to join her father in hiding from the Communist Party.
Although he had once embraced the ideals represented by the party, he turned his back on the communists after the Stalinists took over in the 1940s.
But the party wouldn't let Gall walk away. "I never knew what 'fingered' meant," Sukle said. "It meant my father would lose his job. He was being fingered by his own party members because they wanted him back and he was trying to get away.
"His nerves were shattered. The Communist Party had taken out a contract on him."
Sukle has fragmented memories of her father's affiliation with the party. As a girl, she didn't understand why her parents argued when they thought she was asleep. She heard cross words about men like Paul Robeson, an actor and early civil rights leader later targeted in Sen. Joseph McCarthy's investigations on communism.
"I think I may have met Paul Robeson at one time," she said. "My parents used to argue over him all the time. My mother would say to my father, 'It's not your fight.' And he would say, 'It's everyone's fight.' "
Sukle said her father courted the early Communist Party because he was attracted to its intellectuals.
"I would say education was the main thing he and my grandfather fought over," she noted. "My grandfather would say, 'An education will just make you restless.' This was true.
"My father studied the dictionary. He read too much. He only slept four hours a night. The rest of the time he was learning."
From shame to sharing
For a time, Sukle had trouble acknowledging her father's connection with the "C" word. "It's still hard for me," she confessed. "It took a lifetime for me to get the story out."
Public sentiment against communism in Sukle's generation wasn't the only obstacle. Another was the struggle of her mother.
"My mother didn't like my father's politics, but she liked what he did. She believed in his causes. She didn't believe in the Communist Party. She thought the bigwigs in the party were using people like my dad," she said. Her mother came from a prominent Pennsylvania family with industrial ties. To them, Ted Gall was a "rabble-rouser."
"But my mother did not care," Sukle noted. "They were married 67 years, and she loved him as much at the end as at the beginning."
Rebecca Gall stood by her husband even though he spent much of his early life in picket lines, in fights and in jails after being arrested for inciting riots.
Now their daughter is standing by him, too.
"I think doing these books has given me a lot more insight," she said. "It helped with resentments I had harbored. I always wondered growing up, 'Why did we have to be so secretive?' Now, I'm not embarrassed and ashamed. I'm proud of what he did."
For years, she was silenced by her mother's cautionary words: "What happens in this house stays in this house" and "Whoever visits this house stays in this house."
"It has taken me a lifetime to understand," Sukle said, adding that recent coal mining headlines have stirred memories of her father.
"He would be livid," she said as she imagined Ted Gall's reaction to events at the Sago and Aracoma mines in West Virginia.
"He would be mad at the union, too. My father left the union because it became corrupt."
Sukle believes America owes advances in workers' rights to the determination and guts of activists like her father, who often told her: "Whenever groups or individuals get too powerful, they often forget those they represent."
"He tried to find something to believe in," she said, pointing to her father's involvement with the groups he hoped would change the world.
In the end, Ted Gall had no political affiliations. Once an atheist, he turned to God later in life.
"My father became very religious," Sukle said. "He did a real turnaround."
Writing these books, she added, is her way of acknowledging her father's tiny place in history.
"I think all of my life he prepared me to write this or he wouldn't have left me so much.
"In his will, he left me all his books and papers. To me, that's the most wonderful inheritance I could have.
"I think he knew he had a good story," she added, "but he wasn't going to tell it in his lifetime."