Vivian Shipley

February 1, 2004: Mae Keane, 97, Speaks to Men

Cleaning Enterprise Apartment 507, Waterbury, CT

 

 

Wear white lab coats, plastic masks and rubber gloves

while you vacuum radioactive dust from wooden floors,

scrape then scrub radium from the ceiling and walls,

 

but you will still inhale my history. This Cherry Street

room was a radium dial studio from 1919 to 1927.

Waterbury Clock Company owners dressed like you

 

inspected this room, knew radium could kill me

and my 17 girlfriends who died with bones crumbling,

jaws rotting. 1926. I had just turned 19, thought painting

 

glow-in-the dark watch faces would be respectable.

Paid 8 cents a dial, my boss said work faster, sharpen

bristles with my lips. Lippointing bitter taste of radium

 

made me gag. The day I made 62 cents, he growled,

find another job. I wanted to trample dials underfoot,

let him know I was on the way to better things, but I

 

was dazed, a toad. To breathe clean air, take a break,

go to Timexpo Museum just a few yards away. Sure,

you’ll see 150 years of timepieces, Timex’s torture test

 

commercials, but you won’t find a word about us,

the Radium Girls. Timex never has admitted we’re part

of its history. Out front is a 40 foot Easter Island statue

 

but no black marble monument chiseled with birth

and death dates for girls whose futures contracted, who

dreamed in past tense: Elizabeth Dunn, Marjorie Domschott,

 

Louise Pine, Mildred Cardow, Marion Demolis, Helen Wall,

Ann Mullenite, Ethel Daniels, Edith Lapiana, Mabel Adkins,

and Florence Koss. Statistics, their sores did not heal,

 

their tongues were not freed. Canaries in the coal mine,

song in their throat was a prayer their deaths would save

others. Memory, more bitter than radium that tunneled

 

into their hearts, is in this room’s walls you are disturbing.

Awakened, voices of girls who worked here are not erased,

will not be stilled any longer. They are filtering through.

 

II.  Frances Splettstocher, 21

 

February, 1925, first dial painter to die in Waterbury, I had

lippointed for 4 years, did think it strange that my handkerchief

glowed in the dark when I blew my nose, but church members,

 

makers of Waterbury’s Dollar Watches, wouldn’t let young girls

like us do anything harmful. First I mixed glue, water, radium

powder to make glowing greenish-white paint, then applied it

 

with a camel hair brush to dial numbers. A few strokes, brushes

lost their shape and I couldn’t paint accurately. My teacher told

me to point the brush with my lips. I did this about six times for

 

every watch dial. The paint didn’t taste funny—it didn’t have

taste. Next to me racks of altimeters and clock dials waited

like upturned faces of children I would never have. I was

 

proud of Marie Curie who won two Nobel Prizes for discovering

liquid sunshine. How could I know it would be my embalming

fluid or that in 1922, Amelia Maggia died in Orange, NJ,

 

jawbone so rotten that the dentist lifted her entire mandible out

of her mouth. US Radium recorded cause of death as syphilis,

didn’t mention chemists used lead screens, masks and tongs

 

to handle radium while Amelia sucked in death. My friend Elsie

told me not to have a tooth pulled but in February,1925, I did.

The hole in my cheek would not heal; my uncle would pay

 

me a dime to go away so he did not have to look at it.

At least I wasn’t like Katherine Moore who slapped radium

around like it was cake frosting. With a grapefruit size tumor

 

jutting from her chin, her jaw was so deformed she didn’t go

out in public without pulling her coat collar up. My family

worked in the clock factory, my father had spelter shakes,

 

my uncle metal fume fever, my brother brass founder’s ague.

Quailing, my father was sure radium poisoning was killing me;

he dared not make any kick about it because he’d lose his job.

 

My own words dogpaddled, even when I listened to my heart,

cold disc of stethoscope on my chest, blood punching chambers

like fists in kid gloves nice girls like me wore in the 1920s.

 

III.  Edna Steberet, 35

 

Only 21, my friend Frances went to a better place with no

numbers to paint for men with hearts that beat like wind up

watches that ticked off her days. I still remember her standing,

 

one foot behind the other calf, rubbing her shoe on seam

of her silk stocking. It was the publicity, not her death,

that caused Waterbury Clock company to officially ban

 

lippointing, but not the use of radium. For a time our boss

gave us bowls of water to rinse brushes before putting

them in our mouth. Hard to keep water clean, we wasted

 

too much time and paint, and he took away the bowls.

I never stopped wetting my brush with my lips—I wanted

money for clothes to attract a special guy. Cobbling a life

 

together, I knew watches I painted were going to troops

overseas. I scratched my name and address on the back of dials.

Lots of GIs were lonely and wrote to me. I hoped a soldier

 

or sailor would visit, find me all dolled up, my hair rolled

into finger curls, pink silk dress, feet skewered into patent

high heels, hose without runs. I was young, filled with life.

 

Was it so wrong to want fun? After work, I was covered

with luminous powder, my clothes, fingers glowed, hair

shone in the dark. Some nights, I’d invite neighborhood kids

 

to come over to play watch Edna glow in a closet. First, there

were holes for my tongue to probe; at the end, I’d lost all

my teeth, could not sit up or walk. No man wanted me then.

 

In summer, positioned on the front porch, if I sat facing road,

I wanted company, sidewise profile to the street, friends could

say hello, my back to the road, I was in my housecoat, hair

 

uncombed. Night swallowed my voice. Needing to fool

my weary heart, like wise men going to Bethlehem, I searched

sky for a word, for a star to guide me to what would come next.

 

IV.  Margaret O’Brien, 39

 

Proud that at 15 I could earn up to $24 a week compared

to $5 anywhere else, I was also learning a decent trade. Long

dusty tables were in this room you are cleaning. Air was stale,

 

hot as a kiln, motion baked out. Vain, I wore a shirtwaist

and skirt, had bobbed hair because I liked the night life.

After work I played the piano or like a packrat, I organized

 

my hope chest just like penny poppy shows I had put on

as a girl—I saved odd things, a cork from Portuguese port,

snake skull, piece of blue sea glass. I dug a hole in ground,

 

lined it with shards of broken mirror around my treasures,

then covered it with a piece of cardboard. Boys had to pay,

a caramel, a penny to see my show for a minute. Pop it open,

 

pop it shut. Even then, boys said I was delicious with lashes

dipping onto freckled cheeks. My high school year book

labeled me Peg. Soft-spoken, I was a bookworm, prone to

 

giggling fits in the library. Around Halloween, to take

a break from working, have a laugh, the other girls and I

would paint our face and turn off lights in this Cherry Street

 

room. It was playfulness that killed us, what we put between

our lips without knowing. My boss told me, Not to worry.

If you swallow any radium, it’ll make your cheeks rosy.

 

I had a good time while I could, was a hit on St. Patrick’s Day

when I painted my buttons, nails and teeth with green radium

to surprise my boyfriend. Then, the doctor’s stethoscope

 

vined my back. Breathe. Breathe, he said, trying to teach

me how I could live on will, on desire. Biting back panic,

how could I pray for inner peace? I couldn’t control my heart.

 

Even though I was tempted, I never drank like my father,

head tipped for amber to numb my throat, kitchen chair

wedged under a doorknob so I would not be surprised.

 

V.  Josephine Pascucci Lamb, 79                                             

 

One brief burst of blood into air and I’ll be free. 1974.

In and out of bed for 50 years, I went blind at 24 before

I set eyes on my only child, William. I knew I was a beauty—

 

wavy onyx hair, Italian complexion. I don’t know if the color

of my eyes changed from brown to opal. Delicate fingers,

still it was not easy to paint tiny numbers on watches. I was

 

quick, didn’t earn enough to pay for college but could buy

a silk dress and shoes each week. That’s how I caught the eye

of Will’s father—he left when our son was 5. I can’t blame

 

him. What man wants to be a nurse? My sorrow did not stop

the leaves. At first, I lumbered through, tried to wear down

the clock, prayed to be released, for sound to leave my body.

 

My mother taught me I was here to wait for death, pleasures

of earth which she never discussed were overrated. Why try

to be stouthearted? My answer—to make sweet memories

 

for my Will. The iceman had a wooden truck lined with zinc.

Snow rained as he sawed blocks of ice. I taught Will to cup

his hands to catch it, then run home where I’d put vanilla,

 

lemon extract, grenadine, or molasses on it. Son unlike father,

Will has read me the Waterbury American each day so I

could check off names in obituaries of 16 girls I worked side

 

by side with in this room you are cleaning. Can’t you hear

voices bumping like bats at these windows? Waterbury Clock

compensated 16 of us for illness or our families for death,

 

promised free medical care. Even though the president never

admitted I was maimed by radium poisoning, my medical bills

were paid all these years. My weeks have been punctuated by

 

at least three visits from the doctor or the dentist and I’ve gotten

half my pay. Afraid Timex might take my $8 a week away, I

don’t mention being labeled A Guinea Pig for the Atomic Age

 

by scientists at MIT and Argonne Labs in Illinois who studied

me in 1950 to set up standards for nuclear and atomic safety.

Amnesiac already, some days the tangles in my mind smooth out

 

and I remember 1947, open trolley car, No. 119, the last one

to bring fans to the Harvard/Yale game at the Bowl. A caravan

of cars crawled up Chapel Street, bumper to bumper. Football

 

fans held on to trolley straps like flies. One of them gave me

a seat. My son held my arm, put pennies in my hand for me to

 throw to kids waiting on the streets. At Oak Street Cemetery,

 

the trolley leaned as if into a grave—my son told me it was

from weight of three sailors on leave, white hats cocked,

their arms around two women in steamed stockings.

 

I am 79. Will it ever be my turn to ring the trolley bell?

 

 

 

from All of Your Messages Have Been Erased © 2010

 

 

 

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