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Larry Itliong, Leader of One of the Nation’s Most Successful Strikes

On September 8, 1965, about 1500 Filipino workers walked off the wine and table grape fields of Delano, California. The Delano grape strike, as it would become known, has been heralded as one of the nation’s most important labor struggles, thrusting the fight for Latino civil rights into the national spotlight—but the Filipinos who started the strike, especially leader Larry Itliong, have long been overlooked.

Larry Itliong was born in Pangasinan, the Philippines on October 25, 1913, one of six children of Artemio and Francesca Itliong. At the time, the archipelago was a territory of the United States, meaning Itliong didn’t have to go through immigration when he arrived in America in 1929. His timing, however, could scarcely have been worse—the United States was entering the Great Depression, and jobs were scarce.

Like many other Filipino-Americans, Itliong turned to seasonal farm work to survive. Filipinos traveled from salmon canneries in Alaska to farm fields in Washington, Oregon, and California, following the often difficult and low-paying jobs. Itliong learned quickly how dangerous the work could be—he earned the nickname "Seven Fingers" after losing three of his digits in an on-the-job accident (there are conflicting stories of whether the injury occurred while harvesting lettuce, canning salmon, or working on the railroad).

It was with the lettuce workers that he got his first taste of labor organizing, when he joined a strike in Washington state. In the salmon canneries of Alaska, he helped to organize the Alaska Cannery Workers Union. He was also involved in a failed asparagus strike in Stockton, California, in 1948, but by 1953 he was vice president of the Local 37 of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehouse Workers Union, which was based in Seattle.

Like other effective Filipino labor organizers, Itliong had a useful tool: a grasp of several languages. Filipino-Americans came from all over the Philippines, and spoke dozens of different languages and dialects. Itliong himself spoke Tagalog, Ilocano, and several Visayan dialects, for a total of nine Filipino languages, according to Dawn Bohulano Mabalon in her book Little Manila Is in the Heart; he also spoke Spanish, Japanese, and Cantonese, his son told The New York Times.

Itliong had other strengths, too: He was active in his community outside of the fields, as a member of a local Filipino Masonic organization, as an officer in the Filipino Community Organization of Stockton, and as the president of the Filipino Voters League in Stockton in 1957.

His experience as an organizer and his deep ties to the Filipino community may have been what led the newly formed Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to recruit him as a paid organizer in 1959. It was there that he met Dolores Huerta, AWOC’s secretary-treasurer and founder of the Stockton chapter of the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights organization. Though Huerta left AWOC shortly after its founding after to join Cesar Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), she and Itliong remained friendly—a link that would later prove key in Delano.

Itliong, along with other activists including Philip Vera Cruz and Ben Gines, quickly became key Filipino leaders in AWOC and in the San Joaquin Valley, Matt Garcia writes in his book From the Jaws of Victory. Just five years later, the largely Filipino AWOC and the primarily Hispanic NFWA would join together and become a force to be reckoned with during the Delano grape strike.

"I think Larry probably will always be remembered for his role in the Delano grape strike," Marc Grossman, a spokesman with the United Farm Workers, told mental_floss in a telephone interview. "Many people, when they think of the Delano grape strike, they only think of it as Latino farm workers, and that’s not true. One of the hallmarks that made it so successful, and led to the triumph in the grapes, was the solidarity between the races."

By the time of the Delano strike, Cesar Chavez had already made a name for himself in California as an advocate for Latino rights. The Delano strike thrust Chavez’s union and Latino farm workers into the spotlight, but it was Itliong and the other Delano manongs—an Ilocano term of respect for older male relatives—who actually started the strike.

In 1965, grape growers in the Coachella Valley pushed California legislators to revive the recently ended bracero program, citing fears of a labor shortage. The bracero program had been a series of diplomatic agreements between the U.S. and Mexico allowing U.S. growers to hire and "import" Mexican workers, with supposedly guaranteed rights and a minimum wage. The government complied and restarted the program, with braceros making $1.40 per hour—and Filipino laborers making $1.25 or less.

The Filipino laborers turned to AWOC, Itliong’s union, who permitted a strike; 10 days later, they were given equal wages. But the growers repeated the wage inequality farther north. By the time the fall harvest began in Delano, California, Filipino workers were earning only $1.00 per hour, and this time, the growers refused to reconsider. Workers turned to AWOC again.

"We told them, maybe you’re going to get hungry, maybe you’re going to lose your car, maybe you’re going to lose your house," Itliong recalled in The Fight in the Fields, by Susan Ferriss, Ricardo Sandoval, and Diana Hembree. "They said, 'We don’t care.'"

The Filipino workers voted to go on strike on September 8, 1965, and for a week, they were alone. There was no reason to believe other farm workers would join them. Growers had a history of pitting farm workers against each other on ethnic lines, Grossman says, hiring Latinos as scabs during Filipino strikes and vice versa. But both Itliong and Chavez were very aware of this history, according to Grossman.

Itliong and Dolores Huerta had also continued to communicate after she left AWOC for Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association, and their communication had created a bridge between the two groups. So when Mexican workers began crossing the lines, the Filipino strike leaders knew they needed to reach out to the NFWA.

"Larry Itliong and I decided to take action by seeing Cesar Chavez, the leader of the National Farm Workers Association. We met to come up with a plan that would be beneficial for everyone, including the Mexican workers," strike veteran Andy Imutan wrote on the 40th anniversary of the Delano strike.

At first, Chavez was reluctant; he didn’t think the NFWA was ready for a strike, Grossman says, but he knew that the invitation was a rare opportunity.

"When Larry Itliong and [activists] Pete Velasco and Philip Vera Cruz and Andy Imutan went to the NFWA and said 'Join our picket lines,' I don’t think there was much debate," he said.

By the time the growers began evicting farm workers from grower-owned housing, Chavez and his union’s board offered their support, and called a general meeting in Delano on September 16 to make it official.

Not everyone wanted the unions to work together, Grossman notes. Some of the Latino members of the NFWA didn’t want to share kitchen facilities or strike on the same lines, he says. And Andy Imutan wrote in later correspondence that some of the Filipino strike leaders quit and became scabs after the unions merged. But for others, such as Huerta and Chavez’s wife Helen, there was no question of joining the strike.

"Cesar Chavez, Larry Itliong, and the other Latino and Filipino leaders of the UFW brought together the two races and cultures that growers had historically [pitted] against each other to break strikes," Lorraine Agtang wrote in a column about her experiences as a strike veteran.

In 1966, after a 400-mile march to draw attention to the strike started with 70 farm workers in Delano and ended with more than 10,000 supporters on the steps of the state capitol in Sacramento, leaders decided to merge the two unions, creating the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC).

As assistant director of the UFWOC, Larry Itliong was Chavez’s second-in-command, and he proved an able right-hand man. He personally answered many of the letters and donations that poured in to support the strike, and traveled with other strikers all over the U.S. to spread the word and ask for support. He also took the lead on organizing a boycott of grapes—now considered one of the largest and most successful boycotts in U.S. history.

"The boycott was a way to transfer the battle from the fields, where the odds were stacked against the strikers, to the cities, where the strikers had a chance," Grossman says.

Itliong also sometimes served as a stand-in for Chavez at rallies and with the press. In this role, he rebutted growers’ claims that strikers were negotiating in bad faith, as well as their request for federal intervention. He and Chavez were also able to help secure an anti-poverty grant for the California Rural Legal Assistance Association to help picketers.

The strike even spread to college campuses. "If you were on a university campus in '60s or '70s, you were boycotting on behalf of farm workers," Grossman says. Car caravans traveled to Delano to join the picket lines on weekends. Itliong and other leaders helped to secure students’ support, speaking at Filipino and student conferences and teaching organizing tactics to the next generation.

The strike and grape boycott lasted five years. In June 1969, grape growers reached out to the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, indicating that they would consider negotiations, and in 1970, the strike finally ended. Itliong sat at the table beside Cesar Chavez as the union and growers signed the first contracts, according to Grossman.

In the wake of the victory, the United Farm Workers worked to ensure better conditions for farm laborers throughout California and beyond. The union created a standard contract that it presented to growers, with the threat of a strike or boycott should growers not accept it.

"We, as Filipinos, are not alone anymore," Itliong said at a rally in 1971. "We have brothers among the Mexicans and the Blacks and in the conscience of the American people."

But the solidarity that sustained the strike didn’t last for everyone once it was over.

According to Mabalon, the UFW focus on nonviolence ran against the Filipino farm workers’ pragmatic sense of self-preservation. They had faced violent racism in the fields and in beatings and bombings in Watsonville, Stockton, and elsewhere, and had no qualms about defending themselves. In other words, Itliong wasn’t shy about being militant when needed. "I have the ability to make that white man know I am just as mean as anybody in this world," Itliong once said. "... I feel we have the same rights as any of them. Because in that Constitution, it said that everybody has equal rights and justice. You've got to make that come about. They are not going to give it to you."

The UFW also did away with the labor contractor system the Filipino farm workers had used for decades, and with Latinos outnumbering Filipinos in the new union, many Filipinos worried they would be ignored. Many of the Filipino AWOC members eventually left for the Teamsters or other trade unions.

Itliong left the UFW in October 1971, when he began to question the direction of the union. "I left at my own accord for many reasons," Itliong told fellow organizer Bill Kircher [PDF]. "But my biggest disappointment is that the Organization I participated in to fight for Justice and Dignity is not turning [out] as planned."

Itliong used his new free time to found the Filipino American Political Association. He also focused on improving life for aging Filipinos. The law that gave the Philippines its independence in the early part of the 20th century also capped the number of Filipinos coming into the country, and most of those who immigrated were young, single men looking for work. A lack of Filipinas living in the U.S. might not necessarily have stopped these men from starting families, except that state anti-miscegenation laws barred whites (including Mexican-Americans) from marrying African-Americans or Asians. It wasn’t until 1967, mid-way through the Delano strike, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled all anti-miscegenation laws illegal in Loving v. Virginia.

According to Grossman, by the time the grape strike began, many of the farm workers were older men and childless. Many were also homeless by 1970, because they had lived in housing provided by the grape growers before the strike and were evicted. They were too old to go back into the fields.

"You don’t see a lot of older farm workers," Grossman says, pointing out the poor pay and hard work. "That was really the impetus for the Agbayani Village."

Itliong and others had dreamed of a home where these men could live comfortably in retirement. Before he left the UFW, Itliong had left behind plans for a retirement home. The union took these plans and turned them into Paolo Agbayani Village, named after a farm worker who suffered a heart attack and died on the picket line. When finished—construction was overseen by Cesar Chavez’s brother Richard and included 1000 volunteers from all walks of life—the Agbayani Village had 60 apartments, a communal kitchen serving Filipino meals three times a day, a garden, an arcade, and more.

"It was a godsend for the residents," Grossman says. Agbayani Village still stands today at the Forty Acres in Delano, the original headquarters of the UFW, though it no longer has residents. The Forty Acres, including Agbayani Village and other buildings at the site, is now a National Historic Landmark and can be visited year-round.

Larry Itliong died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 1977. He was 63.

In 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill declaring October 25 to be Larry Itliong Day in the state. It’s an honor the bill’s author, Assemblyman Rob Bonta, hopes will spread beyond the state’s borders.

"Larry Itliong deserves a national day in his honor," he said. "We're proud to have started with a California day in his honor and there will be celebrations up and down the state—not just this year, but for many years to come."

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15 Reasons You Should Appreciate Squirrels
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Even if you live in a big city, you probably see wildlife on a regular basis. Namely, you're sure to run into a lot of squirrels, even in the densest urban areas. And if you happen to live on a college campus, well, you're probably overrun with them. While some people might view them as adorable, others see them as persistent pests bent on chewing on and nesting in everything in sight. But in honor of National Squirrel Appreciation Day, here are 15 reasons you should appreciate the savvy, amazing, bushy-tailed critters.

1. THEY CAN JUMP REALLY, REALLY FAR.

A flying squirrel soars through the air
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In one study [PDF] of the tree-dwelling plantain squirrels that roam the campus of the National University of Singapore, squirrels were observed jumping almost 10 feet at a stretch. In another study with the eastern ground squirrel, one researcher observed a squirrel jumping more than 8 feet between a tree stump and a feeding platform, propelling itself 10 times the length of its body. Flying squirrels, obviously, can traverse much farther distances midair—the northern flying squirrel, for instance, can glide up to 295 feet [PDF].

2. THEY'RE VERY ORGANIZED …

A squirrel digs in a grassy field filled with fallen leaves.
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In fact, they may be more organized than you are. A recent study found that eastern fox squirrels living on UC Berkeley's campus cache their nuts according to type. When given a mixture of walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts, the squirrels took the time to hide each type of nut in a specific place. This method of "spatial chunking" may help them remember where the nuts are when they go to retrieve them later. Though the study wasn't able to determine this for sure, the study's results suggested that the squirrels may have been organizing their caches by even more subtle categories, like the size of the nuts.

3. … BUT THEIR FORGETFULNESS HELPS TREES GROW.

Looking up a tree trunk at a squirrel climbing down
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Tree squirrels are one of the most important animals around when it comes to planting forests. Though they may be careful about where they bury their acorns and other nuts, they still forget about quite a few of their caches (or at least neglect to retrieve them). When they do, those acorns often sprout, resulting in more trees—and eventually, yet more acorns for the squirrels.

4. THEY HELP TRUFFLES THRIVE.

A man holds a truffle up for the camera.
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The squirrel digestive system also plays an important role in the survival of truffles. While above-ground mushrooms can spread their spores through the air, truffles grow below ground. Instead of relying on the air, they depend on hungry animals like squirrels to spread their spores to host plants elsewhere. The northern flying squirrel, found in forests across North America, depends largely on the buried fungi to make up its diet, and plays a major role in truffle propagation. The squirrels poop out the spores unharmed on the forest floor, allowing the fungi to take hold and form a symbiotic relationship with the tree roots it's dropped near.

5. THEY'RE ONE OF THE FEW MAMMALS THAT CAN SPRINT DOWN A TREE HEAD-FIRST.

A squirrel stands on the knot of a tree trunk looking down at the ground.
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You may not be too impressed when you see a squirrel running down a tree, but they're actually accomplishing a major feat. Most animals can't climb vertically down head-first, but squirrel's back ankles can rotate 180°, turning their paws all the way around to grip the tree trunk as they descend.

6. SEVERAL TOWNS COMPETE FOR THE TITLE OF 'HOME OF THE WHITE SQUIRREL.'

A white squirrel in Olney, Illinois stands on its hind legs.
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Squirrels are a more popular town mascot than you might think. Surprisingly, more than one town wants to be known as the "home of the white squirrel," including Kenton, Tennessee; Marionville, Missouri; the Canadian city of Exeter, Ontario; and Brevard, North Carolina, the location of the annual White Squirrel Festival. But Olney, Illinois may be the most intense about its high population of albino squirrels. There is a $750 fine for killing the all-white animals, and they have the legal right-of-way on roads. There's an official city count of the squirrels each year, and in 1997, realizing that local cats posed a threat to the beloved rodent residents, the city council banned residents from letting their cats run loose outdoors. In 2002, the city held a 100-Year White Squirrel Celebration, erecting a monument and holding a "squirrel blessing" by a priest. Police officers wore special squirrel-themed patches for the event.

7. THEY CAN AID STROKE RESEARCH.

An illustration of different regions of the brain lighting up in blue
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Ground squirrels hibernate in the winter, and the way their brains function while they do may help scientists develop a new drug that can limit the brain damage caused by strokes. When ground squirrels hibernate, their core body temperature drops dramatically—in the case of the arctic ground squirrel, to as low as 26.7°F, possibly the lowest body temperature of any mammal on Earth. During this extra-cold hibernation, a squirrel's brain undergoes cellular changes that help its brain deal with reduced blood flow. Researchers are currently trying to develop a drug that could mimic that process in the human brain, preventing brain cells from dying when blood flow to the brain is cut off during a stroke.

8. THEIR FUR MAY HAVE SPREAD LEPROSY IN THE MIDDLE AGES.

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If you always warn your friends not to pet or feed squirrels because they can spread disease, put this story in your back pocket for later: They may have helped leprosy spread from Scandinavia to the UK in the 9th century. Research published in 2017 found a strain of leprosy similar to a modern variant found in squirrels in southern England in the skull of a woman who lived in England sometime between 885 and 1015 CE. The scientists suggest that the leprosy may have arrived along with Viking squirrel pelts. "It is possible that this strain of leprosy was proliferated in the South East of England by contact with highly prized squirrel pelt and meat, which was traded by the Vikings at the time this woman was alive," one of the authors told The Guardian. That may not be the most uplifting reason to appreciate squirrels, but it's hard not to admire their influence!

9. THEY'RE MORE POWERFUL THAN HACKERS.

A squirrel runs across a power line.
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While energy companies may worry about hackers disrupting the power grid, squirrels are actually far more powerful than cyber-whizzes when it comes to sabotaging our electricity supply. A website called Cyber Squirrel 1 documents every public record of squirrels and other animals disrupting power services dating back to 1987. It has counted more than 1100 squirrel-related outages across the world for that time period, which is no doubt a vast underestimate. In a 2016 survey of public power utilities, wildlife was the most common cause of power outages, and for most power companies, that tends to mean squirrels.

10. THEY CAN HEAT UP THEIR TAILS TO WARD OFF PREDATORS.

A ground squirrel sits with its mouth open.
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California ground squirrels have an interesting way of scaring off rattlesnakes. Like cats, their tails puff up when they go on the defense. A squirrel will wave its tail at a rattlesnake to convince the snake that it's a formidable opponent. Surprisingly, they whip their tails at their foes whether it's light or dark outside. Squirrels can control the blood flow to their tails to cool down or keep warm, and they use this to their advantage in a fight, pumping blood into their tails. Even if the rattlesnakes can't see the bushy tails, researchers found in 2007, they can sense the heat coming off them.

11. THEY HELP SCIENTISTS KNOW WHETHER A FOREST IS HEALTHY.

A squirrel runs down a tree trunk toward a pile of leaves.
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Researchers look at tree squirrel populations to measure just how well a forest ecosystem is faring. Because they depend on their forest habitats for seeds, nesting sites, and food storage, the presence and demographics of tree squirrels in an area is a good bellwether for the health of a mature forest. Studying changes in squirrel populations can help experts determine the environmental impact of logging, fires, and other events that alter forest habitats [PDF].

12. THEY CAN LIE.

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Gray squirrels know how to deceive. They can engage in what's called "tactical deception," a behavior previously only seen in primates, as a study in 2008 found. When they think they're being watched by someone looking to pilfer their cache of food, the researchers discovered, they will pretend to dig a hole as if burying their acorn or nut, but tuck their snack into their mouth and go bury it elsewhere.

13. THEY WERE ONCE AMERICA'S MOST POPULAR PET.

A man in a hat kisses a squirrel on the White House grounds
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Though some states currently ban (or require permits for) keeping squirrels as pets, it was once commonplace. Warren G. Harding kept a squirrel named Pete who would sometimes show up to White House meetings and briefings, where members of Harding's cabinet would bring him nuts. But keeping a squirrel around wasn't just for world leaders—the rodent was the most popular pet in the country, according to Atlas Obscura. From the 1700s onwards, squirrels were a major fixture in the American pet landscape and were sold in pet shops. Despite Harding's love of Pete, by the time he lived in the White House in the 1920s, squirrel ownership was already on the wane, in part due to the rise of exotic animal laws.

14. THE MERE SIGHT OF JUST ONE COULD ONCE ATTRACT A CROWD.

A historical photo of nurses leaning down to feed a black squirrel
Library of Congress // Public Domain

The American cities of the 1800s weren't great places to catch a glimpse of wildlife, squirrels included. In fact, the animals were so rare that in the summer of 1856, when a gray squirrel escaped from its cage inside a downtown New York apartment building (where it was surely living as someone's pet), it merited a write-up in The New York Times. According to the paper, several hundred people gathered to gawk at the tree where the squirrel took refuge and try to coax the rodent down. In the end, a police officer had to force the crowd to disperse. The paper did not document what happened to the poor squirrel.

15. IN THE 19TH CENTURY, THEY WERE TASKED WITH TEACHING COMPASSION.

A boy doing homework with a squirrel on the table.
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In the mid-1800s, seeking to return a little bit of nature to concrete jungles, cities began re-introducing squirrels to their urban parks. Squirrels provided a rare opportunity for city slickers to see wildlife, but they were also seen as a sort of moral compass for young boys. Observing and feeding urban squirrels was seen as a way to steer boys away from their "tendency toward cruelty," according to University of Pennsylvania historian Etienne Benson [PDF]. Boy Scouts founder Ernest Thompson Seton argued in a 1914 article that cities should introduce "missionary squirrels" to cities so that boys could befriend them. He and other advocates of urban squirrels "saw [them] as opportunities for boys to establish trusting, sympathetic, and paternalistic relationships with animal others," Benson writes.

But young boys weren't the only ones that were thought to benefit from a little squirrel-feeding time. When the animals were first reintroduced to parks in the 19th century, feeding squirrels was considered an act of charity—one accessible even to those people who didn't have the means of showing charity in other realms. "Because of the presence of urban squirrels, even the least powerful members of human society could demonstrate the virtue of charity and display their own moral worth," Benson writes. "Gray squirrels helped reshape the American urban park into a site for the performance of charity and compassion for the weak." Even if you were too poor to provide any sort of charity for someone else, you could at least give back to the squirrels.

BONUS: THEY USED TO HATE TAX SEASON TOO.

A colored lithograph shows men and dogs hunting squirrels in a forest.
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Though notably absent from big cities, much of the U.S. was once overrun by squirrels. The large population of gray squirrels in early Ohio caused such widespread crop destruction that people were encouraged—nay, required—to hunt them. In 1807, the Ohio General Assembly demanded that citizens not just pay their regular taxes, but add a few squirrel carcasses on top. According to the Ohio History Connection, taxpayers had to submit a minimum of 10 squirrel scalps to the town clerk each year. Tennessee had similar laws, though that state would let people pay in dead crows if they couldn't rustle up enough squirrels.

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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
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Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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