is a fictional character created by my father.
When I told him I was going to pursue a career as an actor, he sat down and wrote a play, a monologue, a memoir for me to perform. He wrote about the men he knew and worked with at the 28 inch rolling mill during the 50s and 60s at Bethlehem Steel. The 28 is long gone, shut down in the 70s and torn down not long after to make way for a new modern mill. But my father's love for the men he shared the sometimes brutal and always exhausting experience of helping to build America, one steel beam at a time, is timeless and shines through every word of his memoir.
It was a meant as a gift to me, but it is a gift to all steelworkers, all industrial workers, past, present and future: the precious preserved memory of the time when America really was the Greatest Nation on Earth and of the people who made that happen.
Here is the excerpt from "The 28 Inch Mill" about Lefty California.
I hope you enjoy it.
Janos, remember the day they locked the Communists out of the plant. Musta been around 1950, 51.
Alls I remember was comin’ up to the Anthracite St. gate and seein’ the line of guys waitin’ to get into the plant. The cop at the gate was checkin’ everyone’s brass check. I mean usually you just flashed it and you were in. On top of that they wouldn’t tell us why they were doin it.
Next mornin’ we found out. Paper had big headlines: “Local Communists Refused Entry to Bethlehem Steel.” Then there was this list of about six or seven guys and there it was. I mean I couldn’t believe my eyes. “Alvin Elias Bittenbender also known as Lefty California, joined Communist Party, San Diego 1934.”
Then it went on to say that the F.B.I. was going to charge them with plotting the violent overthrow of the United States Government. Well, my phone started ringin’ off the hook. I mean everybody knowed me and Lefty were real tight. Hell, I was there the day he got his name. It was right after the war and we got a bunch of new guys ’cause they laid the women off and business was real good.
Anyways, Frank asked him his name and he says, “They call me Lefty.”
“We got a lotta Lefties around here. What’s your last name?”
So then Frank tells him how we got a Bittenbender who’s a heater up at the pits, a Bittenbender who’s a roller on the 40#1, and a Bittenbender who’s a foreman out in the beam yard. It all started with old Fritz Bittenbender who was a roller on the 40#1 and got his boys all good jobs before he retired. The guys useta say they was born rollers. You could tell Frank liked the guy. I mean lettin’ him know we didn’t need any more goddamn Bittenbenders around here.
So he says, “Where’re you from?”
“O.K., We’ll call you Lefty California.”
Lefty and me both got put on the labor gang and found out we both liked to fish. So I showed him all my good spots. Well, all except the one on the Monocacy. That one I’m takin’ to my grave. We used to fish the Delaware a lot. Bottom fishin’, you know, mostly catfish. Good eatin’ too, no muddy taste like most catty’s got. Once in a while you’d tie into carp. The bastards would give you a hell of a battle like you see on TV. Funny thing about Lefty he always throwed the fish right back no matter how big. He’d just pet it a little and talk to it and toss it back. I asked him once why he did that. I mean it was only a goddamn fish.
He says, “Karl, some day the Creator of the Universe is going to ask us how we treated the other creatures he put on this earth.”
Now I ask you, how could a guy like that plot the violent overthrow of the United States Government?
Not that Lefty wasn’t tough you understand. 5' 6" and 210 pounds and not an ounce of fat. He was always stickin’ up for the underdog.
I remember one time him and me were havin’ a couple of beers at one of those joints on 6th Street in Allentown. ‘Charlie’s’ it was called. This real heavy-set girl comes in, but she had a beautiful face and golden hair and she was wearin’ a black dress. Musta weighed maybe 250. Today we’d say she has a weight problem, like my old lady.
Anyway, some big jerk says real loud, “Boy, how could you screw somethin’ like that?”
Well, Lefty walks over to the guy and says, “I think you should apologize to the young lady.”
The guy just laughs and says, “What are you gonna do about it you little bastard?”
Lefty says, “Perhaps we should go outside and discuss it.”
So they go outside. Couldn’t have been 60 seconds and Lefty’s back in the bar. I never ask him what he done. Alls I know is I never seen that big son of a bitch again.
So anyway, all the guys are callin’ me:
“Did you know Lefty was a Communist?”
“Whatta you think made him join the Communist Party?”
“How the hell do I know?” So I says, “I think I’ll go see him.”
“You better not. The F.B.I.’s probably watchin’ him. They’ll think you’re a Communist, too.”
So I thought, “Screw ’em. Lefty California’s my friend. I’m gonna go see him.”
Goddamnit, I thought then, and I still think now, in this country, you can be anything you wanna be, even a Communist.
I drive over to Allentown. He lives in one of those row homes they got over there. You know, they all look alike. Had an Aunt who lived in one, but she died. At first I thought I’d better park a block away, but then I figured I’d park any place I damn well pleased. So I end up right in front of his place. I can still see it. It was on Turner Street. I rings the bell and his wife answers.
“Oh Karl, come in. Alvin will be happy to see you.”
Pretty soon Lefty comes out of the kitchen.
“Karl, nice to see you.”
Jeez, they seemed happy as hell, not like they was being charged with plottin’ the violent overthrow of the United States Government.
We all sit down in the parlor and they offer me a drink. So I says I’ll take a soda. What I really wanted was a good stiff belt, but I figured if the F.B.I. stops me, I don’t want no alcohol on my breath.
But Janos, let me tell you about Lefty’s parlor. It had bookshelves on all four walls. All full of books, too. ’Cept on the bottom shelves were record albums, the big kind that held 12" 78 records. Must have been a hundred albums. Most I ever seen in one place.
So just to break the ice I says “Whyn’t you put a record on?”
He says, “Sure, what would you like?”
“Well, how about Johnny Raye?”
“Well, even Frank Sinatra.”
So Lefty says, “Here’s one I think you’ll like,” and he puts on this one of a guy playing classical piano real loud. It was like when you sit next to the band at a football game and you feel a thump, thump in your stomach. I told him I thought it was terrific.
He says, “That’s Chopin.”
Well, of course I heard of Chopin, but I never knew he wrote stuff like that. So I asked him the name of the tune.
He gets this big grin on his face and he says, “The Revolutionary Etude.”
Jesus, we all started laughin’ like hell.
So anyways, Lefty told me all about how he joined the Communist Party.
Seems that back in 1934 he was in the Navy, stationed in San Diego, and got in a fight with one of the Chiefs and broke the bastards jaw. He gets booted out of the Navy.
Knowin’ Lefty, there must of been more to it than that. I mean maybe the Chief put his arm around him or somethin’, you know what I mean Janos? Else they would have sent him to jail for an offense like that.
So there he was; 18 years old, in the middle of the Depression, 3,000 miles from home, no money, no job, no nothin’.
Well, he says the Salvation Army would give him somethin’ to eat and even a place to sleep now and then, but none of the other Red Feather bastards offered any help.
One day he seen this crowd in a park and they was listening to a woman talk and she was telling them how the Communist Party was for the working man and how they were going to see to it that the workers were gonna be employed and make a living wage and you know, give ’em some dignity.
Anyway, sounded pretty good to old Lefty, so he went up to her after the speech and talked to her and she gave him some pamphlets and one of their newspapers. Lefty said after he read that stuff, he was sold. So he joined up. Besides they gave him a job printin’ pamphlets and before you know it, he was writin’ ’em, too. Traveled all over the West Coast. But then the war came and he got restless, so he joined the Merchant Marine. Then after the war, he came back to Allentown to take care of his mother and ends up working at Bethlehem Steel.
Well, Lefty’s gone now, along with the 28, the 40#2, the 42, and the 12 and 18.
Anyway, a week or two went by and they told all the Communists they could come back to work.
* * *
'The 28 Inch Mill' by Robert D. Frantz was written in 1988, edited and updated in 1994 by me with additional copy by my Dad. I performed it in February 1995 in Santa Barbara CA and again in 2004 in Bethlehem PA.
This material is strictly copyrighted and all publication, reprint and performance rights, in whole or in part, are held by me, Stanley R. Frantz, his son. Inquiries regarding reprint or republishing permission may be directed to me via my Kos account. I welcome your interest.
I hope and expect of course, that all Kossacks will respect my late father and his one great creative accomplishment and respect our copyright to this material, while at the same time helping us to tell the story far and wide.