Inside America; A Retrospective

Mr. Russell always wondered if there wasn't marble under his land. He told me about it one hot night in Childersburg, Ala., in the mayor's office as the beetles zoomed through the open doors around the expensive new fluorescent lights. You could hear hammers outside. He sat tie-less and shirt-sleeved and told me about the famous Sylacauga marble that comes from nearby that he had heard about 40 years ago when he bought the land. But he never got 'round to testing it out.

Mr. Russell runs an ''eight-horse crop'' meaning four tenant families with eight mules. Childersburg is a one-filling-pump village feeling the common curse of Southern poverty. The whole tenant family works all day in the fields, even to the littlest child who totes water if she can't pick, for 10 cents an hour. The whole family, you understand, gets the 10 cents, not each member. Yes, if cotton sells for 10 cents a pound at the end of the year the share-crop ratio works out at 10 cents a pound per family. Mr. Russell is mild-spoken, kind-faced. Some proprietors divide profits at the end of the year 50-50. Mr. Russell gives his four families three-quarters from the cotton yield.

Everything changed Jan. 3, 1941. Word flashed from Washington that Childersburg with 439 people had landed one of the biggest defense contracts of the country, a five-year, $50 million powder plant.

The neighboring town of Talladega got the $19 million ''bag-loading'' plant, where Childersburg's cotton, turned into explosives would go into silk bags since silk destroys itself when it explodes, without clogging gun barrels.

Childersburg was picked by Du Pont scouts because it had cotton, running water, coal, and sulfuric acid supplies, and three railroads crossed it and there was plenty of labor at Birmingham, 40 miles away.

It was a scene out of a gold rush. Real estate signs appeared. Cotton fields were staked out ''Avenue E'' and ''21st Street.'' Mr. Russell's 529-acre farm lay within the new 21-square-mile government reservation. Previously he thought he had retired. He came back with a jerk when he rented his three store parcels on what would have been ''Main Street'' if there had been any competitor, for $ 237.50 a month. He had been getting $25 for all three.

Mr. Russell looked out into the hot summer night. Late as it was, the sound of hammer and saw came in, throwing up new structures. For his cotton land the government initially offered $17.50 an acre. But how about that marble?

A few days before, Army engineers came out, took a boring and at 18.9 feet struck - well, that remains for the court to decide. It is certainly rock of some kind. Mr. Russell thinks it's marble. They hit the same thing on his neighbor's property, a few feet lower. He tried to get a core but the engineers were as secretive as diplomats. The whole thing is coming up before federal Judge Murphy's condemnation commission, with maybe a jury trial afterwards.

''Good marble land is worth $150 an acre,'' Mr. Russell said.

Negro tenants have been crop-sharing at 10 cents an hour. On this new 18,000 -man job the minimum hourly wage is 40 cents.

I talked to Vance Jameson, steam-fitter foreman, who just arrived from Louisiana in a trailer costing $1,495. He will get $1.75 an hour and the AFL union (which arrived with him) says he can't work for time-and-a-half overtime. No sirree; it's got to be double time or nothing.

There is no hint of advance planning in the Childersburg formula. Suddenly the United States is arming. No arrangements were made for the 18,000 at what will be known as the ''Alabama Ordinance Works.'' You can rent a cot in a cubicle in a made-over barn, with another man, for $4 a week. . . .

At the parachute factory at Washington, Ind., it's another story of defense. It's the story of how gossamer from caterpillars is made to float booted, armed men to safety as they dangle in the sky.

It's also the story of beady-eyed US grasshoppers menacing the handiwork of the self-same caterpillar who meditatively munches his mulberry leaf in far off Nippon.

It tells, too, why American housewives can't get cheap ''help'' in the defense crisis.

You are standing in the airy, well-lighted upper story of the Reliance Manufacturing Company, makers of men's shirts and women's dresses. Now there is the million-dollar contract to stitch parachutes. There are 65 yards of silk in a parachute; two yards in a man's shirt. Few garments have ever been made with such meticulous cross-checking as these silk sails that float through the air with the greatest of ease.

In the busy loft 200 girls at electric sewing machines drive two or four needles at a time. Every inch of every seam is examined. A man's life hangs by a thread. As I watch an eagle-eyed young inspector puts her finger on a spot and pins on a ''repair tag.'' I examine it. It doesn't look that serious to me. One of the four parallel lines of sewing has run off the edge. But back it goes. It won't rend and tear above the head of one of the young soldiers whose descent I have watched at aviation schools. They drop like a plummet a second or two. The pilot chute above pops out like a child's toy and has a spring in it. Then the great chute opens out like a blossom and they waft down slowly like an ant riding a dandelion fluff. Every chute must be drop-tested from a plane before the government accepts it - at 100 m.p.h., at 500-foot altitude with the dummy weighing 150 to 200 pounds. The dummy is called ''Rudolf'' (for Rudolf Hess).

I mentioned grasshoppers earlier. It wasn't long before they discovered that Japanese silk parachutes and Indiana grasshoppers are incompatible. Every barefoot farmer's boy has noticed the brown liquid that a grasshopper ejects if you pick it up. Maybe it helps digest food. Whatever it is, it's bad for parachutes. And since there is hardly a flying field that isn't alive with harvest grasshoppers, it provides a problem for the United States flying service.

If the stain is cleaned off fast enough it doesn't weaken the filament, experts say. So that is an extra care of the Reliance Manufacturing Company which used to make lingerie and women's wear. Now they make gossamers of safety for soldiers. And some 200 young women of Washington, Ind., sew and shear for Uncle Sam in this parlous year of 1941.

The reporter of the defense year 1941 found the federal government extending its authority everywhere. Here is a condensed excerpt.

I had nine hours to spare at Dallas and went to the manager of the big telephone building. I asked for the telephone book of December 1932, and turned to ''US Government.'' There was a modest array of entries. Some of them revived old memories like ''Prohibition: Deputy Administrator.'' But on the whole there were relatively few.

Then I asked for the latest directory - ''Summer 1941.'' I turned to ''US Government.'' What a difference! Columns of entries. The list was twice as long in smaller print. In 1932 the Department of Agriculture needed only three phones; the Commerce Department with Hoover as president had one phone. In addition there are dozens of new alphabetical agencies.

Where is Washington's growth taking America? I find people considering that, not excitedly but earnestly. Some shrug and say, ''Our problem just now is Germany.'' But most want to talk about such things. They are extraordinarily open-minded right now. The depression undermined individualism; dust storms shook faith in natural resources; the war exploded isolationism. Now the button has been pushed and America is going into full production. Great plants and shipyards, airplane factories, and parachute works - they all look to Washington . . . boys in Army camps, trade union leaders, and industrialists; low-cost housing renters and resettled farmers; families in irrigation areas and people drawing electricity from federal dams.

Powers once taken by government are apt to remain. That is the first observation that occurs in a quick survey right now. Go out and see it yourself! A great silent revolution is occurring in the United States. While our eyes are across the street something strange is happening in our own backyard. There is a grudging acceptance, I think, of the new world. Maybe it is best described by the comment of R.H. Tawney, characterizing Europe's middle class after the French Revolution: ''They walked reluctantly backwards into the future, lest a worse fate should befall them.''m

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