They say each person has only one life to live, but that depends on how you measure a lifetime. Life expectancy for men born in the United States in 1909 was just under 50 years. So how about Harold Bankston, who will double that number on July 4, 2009, his 100th birthday?
Or you could measure a life in terms of experiences rather than longevity. Harold has had jobs ranging from store window display designer to deck hand on an ocean-going freighter. He has been secretary to a lumber magnate, store room clerk, railroad employee, self-employed TV repairman, artist, house painter, gas station owner, and industrial foreman. Many of his jobs were short-term, but he worked at Steel Car in Greenville, PA, for 45 years.
He has lived in more places than he can count, about half of them in the South and half in the North. And he has been married not once, not twice, but four times.
Harold started his many lifetimes in Roberta, Georgia, where his grandfather had a mercantile store. Before he started school, the family moved to Atlanta. His sister Virginia Estelle was born there. They moved again to Macon, Georgia, where his father ran a store.
“Then Dad became a telegraph operator for the railroad, and we moved several times when the railroad assigned him to different places. We were living in Asburn, Georgia, when the flu epidemic broke out. My aunt, two cousins, my mother, and I all got sick. A cousin died from it, and my aunt died later in a hospital. Dad claimed he never got it because he kept himself covered with Vicks salve.”
Harold went to several schools in Savannah, Georgia. When he graduated from high school, he got a job as secretary to the owner of Penn-Waller Lumber Company, who lived in the house featured in the movie, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
“He was a funny old dud,” Harold said. “He carried his lunch in a paper bag. Once he accused me of stealing a peanut butter sandwich from his desk drawer.”
After working a short time as secretary of the president of another lumber company, Harold became store room clerk for the Savannah-Atlanta Railway. When he moved up to be clerk at the American Railroad Association, life was good.
“At that time it was great to be a railroad man. I was making about $200 a month, high pay in those days. And I enjoyed playing saxophone in the National Guard’s 118th Field Artillery Band.”
Harold eloped to South Carolina with his girl friend, Lula Dempsey. Unfortunately, that was just before the stock market crash of 1929. He was bumped from his job back into the storeroom, then out into the railroad yard, where he painted for 42 cents an hour – less than a third of what he had been making.
Harold’s father also lost his job. Through a friend, he eventually found a job with the Bessemer Railroad in Greenville, PA.
“He came up here and worked a month. Then he sent for Mom and the kids. I had a vacation and railroad passes from when I had a good job on the railroad. So my wife, my mother, two sisters, and I came by train from Savannah.”
Harold found a job painting at Steel Car Company for 80 cents an hour, twice as much as he was earning in Savannah. But before long, his wife Lula was pregnant, and she wanted to back down south so her uncle, a doctor, could deliver the baby.
“It was bad down there,” Harold said. “I couldn’t get a job. I got $25 for my saxophone from a pawn shop, and my mother-in-law gave me $20, so I headed back up here on the bus with $45. It was so warm when I left that I carried my dress coat over my arm and had my sleeves rolled up. When I arrived in Greenville about midnight, it was ten degrees below zero, and I just had that dress coat. I nearly froze to death.”
A month later Steel Car Company reopened after one of its many shutdowns. Harold drove his father’s old Chrysler down to Savannah to get Lula and their new son, Jimmie. Before long, Steel Car shut down once again, and Harold got a job painting houses.
Lula wanted to move back to the South, so Harold bought an old Model T Ford for $25.
“The transmission made a lot of noise,” he said. “I tried to fix it, but there were no shims in it. So I put a pound of cork in there and that stopped the noise. I fixed a place behind the seat for the baby.”
It was quite a trip. In Ohio, he had to fix a loose spindle on the front wheel with wire. In West Virginia, they stopped by a stream where Lula washed their clothes. In South Carolina, the radiator went dry. On dirt roads, the mud would come up through the cracks in the floor. Just before they got to Savannah, they got a flat tire.
Jobs were still scarce, so they started up a little laundry business. They used the Model T to pick up clothes from garages, hauled them home, and boiled them in the back yard.
“Then I worked two trips on a freighter out of Savannah to Philadelphia,” Harold said. “I sold the Model T for $25, the same amount I had paid for it.”
On the boat, Harold worked eight hours and was off sixteen. He used his spare time to do homework from a course he was taking on drafting.
Next, Harold got a job making signs and dressing windows, first in a grocery store, then at Grant’s. After he and Lula were divorced, he married Marie Bacon.
He got word that Steel Car Company was going to start up again, so he, his wife Marie, his mom and dad, and three sisters headed back to Greenville. While waiting for Steel Car to resume production, Harold painted signs and dressed store windows.
His artistic abilities landed him a couple of unique jobs.
“A guy in a band wanted me to make a backdrop of a New Orleans scene. I painted a scene and he was pretty pleased with it. Then a carnival wanted a backdrop of a Hawaiian scene, with a couple of life-size girls playing guitar. I only had three or four days to do it. I laid the canvas on the floor and had my sister lie down on it. I got some quick measurements on it, then I sketched it out and painted it.”
Steel Car still hadn’t opened up, so Harold moved up to Conneaut, Ohio, where his father was working for the Nickel Plate Railroad. He started a gas station in East Conneaut. His wife, sister, and mother opened a restaurant across the street.
After Harold worked on an iron ore boat for three trips to Duluth, Minnesota, Steel Car invited him back. He moved to Greenville in September, 1941, three months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. From then on, his job at Steel Car was secure. His drafting training from long ago got him a job as layout helper, then as a foreman supervising eight welders. The company sent him to Thiel College for courses in management and human relations. He worked steadily at Steel Car until he retired in 1974.
Harold also developed a couple of businesses on the side. One was a housepainting operation he started aroung 1950 with his brother-in-law.
“We converted an old two-cylinder Model T engine into an air compressor, and put it on an old Ford truck with a paint tank. It had so much pressure it would run seven spray guns at a time.”
Harold also took a course on TV repair and started a TV repair shop in his basement.
Harold and Marie were married for 57 years until Marie passed away. They had three children: Betty Louise (1933), Thelma Jane, known as Tammy (1939), and Robert Gregory (1946).
Three months after Marie died, Harold went down South to visit Jimmie, his first son. Jimmie urged him to visit his first wife, Lula.
“I said I don’t think so. They kept pestering me, so I said I’d go to lunch. When I went there, it was a different story. There was a big meal, and the family was there. Then she started writing and calling on the phone all the time. The next year we got married again.”
Four years later, Lula died from cancer.
“Then I was up here about two or three years,” Harold said. “I started going with Jean Sutherland, whose first husband was a great friend of mine 75 years ago.”
“I was 82 and he was 93 when Harold and I got married,” Jean said. “We’ve been married seven years this month.”
The youthful newlyweds are still living to the fullest. This summer, they are taking a cruise to Alaska to celebrate Harold’s 100th birthday.
“I still play golf at Loreno’s,” Harold said. “I’ve been playing in the Bessemer League for 36 years.”
Life does have its limits, however.
“Jean wants to make sure I don’t hurt myself before our cruise, so I’m not allowed to play until after we get back.”
But he knows that’s a small price to pay for one more honeymoon.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 4, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2010