Last week, I told a story about how a little circled X in the 1940 Iowa Census led me to a big discovery about my grandfather, Ralph James‘s life. I found out that in January of that year he’d resigned his position as Council Bluffs Assistant County Engineer during a meeting where the board was approving raises for him and his coworkers.

Wait. During the meeting? Who would resign from their job while their salary was being negotiated? Personally, I like to hear the cha-ching before I decide to quit a job. It didn’t make sense, so I dug a little more.

My first find told me my grandfather was competent at his job. In September 1937, Ralph and his crew were loading sand when the mound collapsed on them like some backwards quicksand pit. Two men were hospitalized and later released; thirteen others were unharmed because my grandfather, the foreman, gave warning.

The next article I found was Ralph's replacementpublished in March of the same year. It introduced my grandfather’s replacement and explained that he was actually fired. I know from discussions with my dad that Ralph blamed for his job loss the Work Progress/Projects Administration (WPA)—a government program during and after the Great Depression that hired unemployed men to improve the nation’s infrastructure. But his dismissal and the relatively fast replacement make me think there must have been other factors involved.

Oh, Ralph, what did you do?

That 1940 census I mentioned before was taken in April. It listed him with his wife Gladys (my step-grandmother), and his children Barbara, 12, and Geraldine, 8.

In October 1940, the Council Bluffs newspaper published the fourth installment of draft numbers. The list of local men started with No. 1,861; Ralph was No. 1,951. I know he never fought in WWII, but having that number loom over him must have added more pressure to an already shaky situation. Drafts are fascinating and mind-boggling to me, knowing that the government could trump any plans I have for my own future. I suppose that makes me naive. . . and lucky to never have experienced it.
Petition for divorce
The next article I found confirmed that my grandfather’s life continued to fall apart. It was an announcement that Gladys petitioned for a divorce in August 1941. It gave the date and location of their marriage, new information to me. But I noticed that it introduced a story problem you’d hopefully never find in a junior high math book:

If Gladys and Ralph married in 1931 and, according to the 1940 census, their first born daughter was born in 1928, then was Barbara born out of wedlock or was she some other man’s baby girl?

I had another mystery to solve. But I have answers. Read the next installment.

Sources for the documents mentioned in this post can be found here.

Ralph James is the second man on the left in the featured photo. His sister Eva is behind him. His brother, Bill, is the other man in the picture. The women in between are Bill’s wife and daughter.

Connecting with My Grandfather

I’ve never met my grandfather, Ralph. My father didn’t really know him either. He was an alcoholic and he abandoned my dad at the age of 8. I assumed that was all there was to know.

Dad only told one story about him. The story took place on the roof of what would become my childhood home. After years of repeatedly disappointing my father, he was trying to reestablish a connection. Ralph chose to reconnect by helping my father build our house.

CCC working
CCC men dig a ditch.

It was 1970. Ralph was in his mid-60s. He and my dad were putting the roof on the house. While they were hammering and tarring, Ralph started talking about how the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) ruined his life. It was the reason he lost his job, and the reason he started drinking. The CCC was part of President Roosevelt’s economic recovery plan for America during the Great Depression. It allowed the government to hire three million men to build roads, plant trees, and dig ditches across the country between 1933 to 1942.

The story has always confused me. How could a program whose sole purpose was to hire millions of people put my grandfather out of work? I had no idea.  I decided to look into it, hoping to understand him a little better.

In the 1930 census, I found him listed along with my great-grandparents. He was working for a county in Iowa as an assistant engineer three years before the CCC began. Mystery solved, I thoughtThe CCC, being a national program, must have made the County guys, like my grandfather, obsolete. Roosevelt formed the CCC; Ralph lost his job.

In the 1940 census, I found this:

Screen shot 2014-09-15 at 3.54.32 PM

So, my theory was wrong. My grandfather wasn’t let go when the CCC started. He kept his job well into its heyday. Not only that, somewhere along the way he had picked up a wife and 2 daughters I didn’t know about. Holy cow!

Using phone directories (which listed peoples’ professions alongside their addresses back then), I find out that Ralph was let go as an engineer sometime in 1941. With that information, I had to form a new theory: the CCC must have finished all the work a county engineer would be hired to do. When the CCC started to disintegrate, the county probably realized there was no more work for my semi-educated 36-year-old grandfather.

I say semi-educated because the censuses consistently list Ralph’s highest level of education as 8th grade. ‘Engineer’ was just a title; he didn’t have a degree.

In 1942, Ralph was divorced from Gladys, broke, lacking purpose, and living in Flint, Michigan. The directory states that he was running a pool hall there. Before, I would have blamed him for allowing himself to be near the alcohol in the pool halls, accelerating his and his second family’s self-destruction. But I realize now that if I had lost both my job and my family in less than a year, I might start drinking, too.

I don’t like that he took such a long time to get his act together, but I’m grateful that he eventually did it. That he was there in 1970 on that rooftop with my dad. That he tried and succeeded to connect.

(l to r) Bill James, Eva Burns, Ralph James
My grandfather is the man on the right.