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
Site content © Vivian Shipley 2010. All Rights Reserved