Coal, War and Love

A Family Memoir

By Rudean Leinaeng

Rudean & grandparents
Rudean holds a portrait of her grandparents, Albert & Evelyn

She was beautiful, cultured, and clairvoyant–the pampered daughter of a middle-class colored family; he was handsome and hard-nosed – a laborer with little formal education. How they met and fell in love is the beginning of this family narrative.

Rudean's father
Rudean’s father, Albert S Johnson Jr., 1936

I had been hearing snatches of my Father’s stories about his beloved Dad and Mom since I was a young child.  About a year before my Father passed away, my son Thomas Allen Harrissuggested that I interview my father, about his life and times. Tom would document it on film.

During the interview, I was touched by the admiration my father, Albert S Johnson Jr., showed for his dad, Albert S. Johnson Sr., and amazed by his recall of his dad’s stories and jokes and the family lore, especially how his Dad met my grandmother. Albert S. Johnson Sr. was a strong, self-educated man, who became a decorated sergeant in the famous Harlem Hellfighters during the Great War. My romantic grandmother, Evelyn Ashton Johnson, was a talented seamstress, who became her own woman while her husband was away at war.

Shortly after making the videotaped interview, I became inspired to write a novel in which I would share this rich family history.

The following excerpts are from Chapter One of “Coal, War and Love.”

Rudean's grandfather
Albert S. Johnson Sr., Rudean’s grandfather

Albert  1909

I  awoke in a sweat at five that morning in one of the ship’s small cabins. I had dreamt of Pa again– his angry, distorted face, demanding complete and unquestioned obedience, my nine-year-old frame mirroring a measured defiance, and Ma’s quivering lips, silently praying for peace between us. It was the day that Pa pulled me out of school, the day he trampled my dreams.

As I hurriedly dressed for the breakfast service, I tried to shake off the resentment I felt. After all, it had happened nearly twenty years ago. Three hours later, the ship docked in New York and I headed straight for the grim Harlem rooming house I called home. I was dead tired.

I had been in this city for nearly two years, coming from everywhere you can imagine, and had landed a waiter’s job on the People’s Nightline Steamer, which plied the Hudson River between New York and Albany carrying both passengers and freight. The pay wasn’t much and I had been laid off during January and February when the river froze over, but it was better than shoveling coal and the tips and free meals made it well worth my while. To tell the truth, I was dispirited and tired. I was tired of roaming, tired of living at that dreadful Harlem rooming house, but most of all tired of being alone. Years ago when I was working at a West Virginia coal mine, an older miner advised me to find a good woman to love. Well, I had traveled clear across this country, around the world in fact, but I still hadn’t found her. And I had no idea of what she even looked like.

Portrait of Rudean grandparents
Portrait of Rudean grandparents, Albert & Evelyn

The following afternoon I climbed out of bed, reluctant to face another day. My tiny room, with its peeling pea-green walls and threadbare carpet–home to all manner of vermin–was ugly and uninviting. As I stretched out my stiff frame, the smell of stale bacon grease and cabbage from the nearby kitchen assaulted me, so I threw open the window and took a deep breath. I needed to hurry. I was due at the pier at half-past five, and the ferry would push off promptly at seven. It would be another long, tedious night.

The upriver trip went as expected and after the passengers disembarked in Albany early Saturday morning, I cleared the tables, ate breakfast, and took a nap until four. At six-thirty that evening, the New York City-bound passengers began to board and the whole routine started again. I waited tables for the festive dinner crowd until ten when the dining room closed for the night.

At five o’clock Sunday morning, I stood alert at my station, waiting to greet the breakfast diners. We would dock in New York in two hours. Then I saw her. She was standing at the dining room entrance wearing a green satin gown with a matching shawl loosely draped about her shoulders. Her small hands were encased in spotless white gloves, gray pearls adorned her ears, and a black velvet ribbon encircled her neck. She was my dream come true with deep bronze skin, soft as down, almond-shaped eyes, pink-blushed lips, and high-boned cheeks. Accompanying her was an attractive, conservatively dressed, older woman, perhaps an aunt or a sister. I hurried over and escorted them to a small table and waited while they decided on their order. When she looked up, with her soft brown eyes, and fluttered her long eyelashes, I felt a disturbing tremor.

Albert & Evelyn
Albert with Evelyn in their home garden, 1939

“Can I help you young ladies, this morning?”

“Yes, I’ll have a cup of tea with toast,” she said, smiling sweetly. “How about you, Jennie?” she asked, glancing over at her older companion.

“I’ll have the same and a fried egg as well. Evie, why don’t you take an egg too? My goodness, you eat just like a bird.”

Evie! Her name is Evie, I thought as I caught a whiff of her delicate passionflower perfume.

“No thanks, Jennie. I just want tea and toast this morning.”

“Well, I certainly hope you don’t waste away.”

“My dear, let’s not quarrel,” she said, patting her companion’s gloved hand.

“Jam and butter?” I asked, trying to recapture Evie’s attention.

“Yes, that would be lovely.”

I brought their order along with a dish of butter, an assortment of jams, a jug of hot milk, and a bowl of sugar. After I poured the tea, I had no excuse to remain at their table any longer. Besides, other patrons were trying to catch my attention.

Albert & Evelyn with family
Albert & Evelyn with family, 1939

“I hope you enjoy your breakfast,” I said as I walked away. They smiled and nodded.

I waited on the other patrons, but I watched Evie. I watched as she buttered each slice of toast and spread it thick with jam. I watched as she cut each slice into four pieces and delicately bit into each one. I watched as she licked traces of jam off her lips and dabbed her mouth with the white cloth napkin. I watched as she put three cubes of sugar and a bit of milk into the flowered teacup, lifted it to her lips, and sipped the tea. When they had finished eating, they asked for the check. Evie opened her green satin purse and paid the bill, leaving me a whole dime for a tip. Jennie, on the other hand, threw me a withering look. She must have noticed me watching Evie.

A half an hour later the ship docked in New York. I was still attired in my white waiter’s jacket when I left the dining room and raced to where the passengers were disembarking. There were Evie and Jennie, chatting merrily and lifting their long skirts as they descended the ship’s ramp. I watched her and felt a deep stirring in my chest. It was as if my senses were awakening and my inner walls of indifference and dissatisfaction were crumbling. She skipped off the ramp and by chance dropped her green purse. When she bent down to retrieve it, she glanced over her shoulder and for a glorious second our eyes met. Then she smiled at me. Seeing this, the ever-vigilant Jennie clutched her arm and steered her away from the ship.

Gripping the ship’s rail, I thought. Could she be the one I’ve been searching for?

I returned to the dining room, and while I cleared the tables, I recalled the places I had traveled, sights I had seen, and women I had been with since leaving Virginia over ten years ago. Evie was special and I desperately wanted to get to know her. As I rode the trolley back to my room in Harlem, all I could think of was Evie eating hot buttered toast. Then a cold shiver ran down my spine.

Oh Lord, what if I never see her again.

Four generations. Baby Thomas sits on his grandmother, Joella’s lap, his mother Rudean (r), and his great grandmother Evelyn (c). 1960s, ca.
Four generations. Baby Thomas sits on his grandmother, Joella’s lap, his mother Rudean (r), and his great grandmother Evelyn (c). 1960s, ca.

To read the full story of Albert & Evelyn click here

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