Grandfathers: Cumpy

There is a manuscript on my laptop’s hard drive with the title: Growing Up Boomer: One Man’s Misty, Water-colored Memoir. The manuscript’s title, of course, pays homage to The Way we Were, but it also validates the use of misty, water-colored images of my grandfathers for this post’s featured image. My memories of the two men in the image are “misty” to reflect the fact that I have no first-hand memories (save one) of either. George (on the left) drowned in 1939, and the other, Emanuel, died of a heart attack in 1949 around the time of my second birthday.

I extracted George’s misty image from the following photo taken a few years before his death. My mother, Lois, who was ten or eleven at the time is standing next to him.

Lois and Cumpy, sometime around 1936 at Lake Erie

George’s last name was Cumpson, and as was want to happen in much of the 20th Century, good-natured men—and grumpy men too, come to think of it—were given nicknames. Some never stuck, but “Cumpy” did, and it was how most everyone, I’ve been told, referred to him. Cumpson was the surname of a Danish family that immigrated to England to mine coal in County Durham, a place where coal had been mined using drift mines since the Roman times, but in 1819, the first mine shaft was sunk in the vicinity of Hetton-le-Hole, which is where the Cumpsons settled for some years before leaving England to work in the mines of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.

Based upon countless shared stories—and the behaviors of his buddies in a remarkable home movie taken the day before he died—Cumpy was beloved by nearly everyone whose path he crossed. A loving father and devoted husband, Cumpy was also an avid sportsman; he hunted and fished and was a strong swimmer, all of which is made more remarkable by the fact that Cumpy had but one leg.

When Cumpy was twelve, he and some boys were playing baseball in a sandlot, and as boys are want to do, they lost track of time; in order to arrive home in time for their dinners, they decided to take a short cut across a railyard. A few stationary trains lay across their path, which meant the boys had to climb over the couplings between the cars to cross the tracks. Cumpy was the last to cross a coupling between two coal cars in the last train, and even though he could hear the hammering sound of couples engaging that announced the train was beginning to move, Cumpy climbed onto the coupling just as the claw of the coupler of the leading car grabbed the claw of the following car. The jerking pull of the leading car caused him to fall onto the track where he lay stunned for a moment too long. A wheel of the following car crossed his ankle and effectively welded his flesh and bone to the steel rail.

Horrified, the boys ran off to get help, save one who was too stunned to move. Each time a wheel crossed Cumpy’s leg, his body was drawn closer and closer to the rail. Still conscious and understanding what would ultimately happen if nothing was done, Cumpy called out to the remaining boy to give him his pocketknife. The boy opened the knife and handed it to Cumpy who—the wheels having advanced to his knee—used the knife to sever the flesh in his leg just before he lost consciousness, thereby saving his life. Help arrived in time, and despite the loss of blood and the trauma and the amputation of what was left of the leg, Cumpy survived. And by all accounts, he came to accept his loss and the burdensome wooden leg that he relied upon for the remainder of his life.

Unable to find work that was a “man’s work” in the mill town of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, he found a job as an elevator operator at the McKeesport Hospital, a position younger readers may be surprised to learn was once a thing. It was in the elevator that he first met my grandmother, Mary Smith (a.k.a. Golic), an initial meeting that involved an apparently shocking moment of familiarity that normally would have ended any future romance; however, Cumpy was nothing if not persistent, and my being here to compose this post is testimony to it.

The 1920’s were good years for Cumpy and Mary. They were able to eventually buy a big home at 1614 Lincoln Way and brought my mother into the world in 1926. Then came the Great Depression and the bankruptcy of a small store Cumpy had opened near Hillside, the unincorporated village where Mary’s mother, father, and some siblings lived. According to Lois, it was Cumpy’s good nature that doomed the enterprise: like so many other small business owners who failed during the Great Depression, Cumpy had extended credit to people who had no intention or capacity to pay off their debts.

Kept afloat during the Depression by Mary’s constant employment as a registered nurse, by 1939 Cumpy had become a prime mover in a sportsman’s club and the center of a boisterous group of men who sometimes traveled to Lake Erie to fish from heavy wooden dories powered by oars and the efforts of the men. The home movie already mentioned was taken the morning after the group had arrived at the one-season cabin in which the men stayed when on their fishing expeditions. The film revealed an impish Cumpy play-acting an irascible cook—complete with chef’s hat—calling the gang to breakfast by banging on a frying pan with a spoon. That scene was followed by footage of several grown men wrestling the one-legged cook to the ground in a writhing mass of men gleefully acting like young boys.

Latter that day, the men rowed out onto the lake despite threatening skies, and those who are familiar with the shallow waters of Lake Erie will attest that a storm can quickly generate dangerous seas. When the storm broke, the dory was tossed about by steep waves, and somehow, Cumpy was thrown overboard. What happened next was unclear in Lois’s memory of its retelling, but what was clear was that Cumpy’s friends were unable to save him. Four days later, his body was recovered, and he was laid out in the parlor of the Cumpson’s McKeesport home. A piece of translucent cloth was placed over Cumpy’s face, which Lois remembered had not succeeded in meeting the undertaker’s goal of shielding mourners’ eyes from the ravages that had been caused by days of immersion in Lake Erie.

Lois, then thirteen, had the emotionally devastating experiences of losing her father, having to be present as people came to pay their respects to the shell of the man who was laid out in the parlor, and knowing that the last thing she had said to her father in a teenager’s thoughtless pique over his refusal to grant permission for a trifle had been, “I hate you!” Those seven days in 1939 may explain much about the demise of Baby Jane, and may explain why the Lois I knew all of my life was emotionally “at sea” and constantly searching for the perfect piece of flotsam that would save her.

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