Hard to imagine what it's like to be working on a church steeple and have the scaffolding give way. Joe Werner doesn't have to imagine it, because it happened to him during construction of the Church of the Holy Communion on Walnut Grove.
Harder still to imagine that there was a skid row on Poplar east of Danny Thomas that was once Memphis' version of Hell's Kitchen. Joe Werner doesn't have to imagine it either, because he lived it and writes about it in The Tinsmith's Son (Author House). What the book lacks in professional polish, it more than makes up for in vividly, movingly described scenes of a Memphis in its yesteryears and of one hard-working family working its way up in the world.
The focus here isn't only on J.P. Werner Sheet Metal Works, founded in 1902 by Joe Werner's grandfather and where the author learned the tinner's trade. It's the nearby businesses too: a shoe-repair shop owned by a Russian Communist; a competing sheet-metal company owned by Abe Chlem; a butcher shop; a diner; a house of prostitution. It's Werner growing up working-class Catholic, throwing newspapers to earn the money to go to CBHS, boxing to earn his Golden Gloves, marrying his sweetheart (a girl named Amelia) from Sacred Heart, and seeing his wife through the birth of a son, Steve, and, after a series of miscarriages, a daughter, Ruth.
It's Memphis during the post-Depression, post-war decades -- construction booming and young marrieds struggling. It's a valuable look into the city at its urbanized best and not so best. The Flyer recently spoke to Joe Werner.
Flyer: You're 75 now, a retired contractor. Tell us why you decided to write The Tinsmith's Son -- why it's important for your family to have it and for Memphians to know about it.
Joe Werner: It started as short stories for my grandchildren. When we'd drive around town, I'd say, "See that church? I climbed the steeple." Or: "In high school, I was a boxer." Plus, the grandkids just don't know how poor we were back then. "Poor" isn't the right word. In those days, everybody was in the same boat. As far as completing the book: I can get pretty impatient. I'm not one of those guys who like to sit around. But I was thinking of my health. Am I going to get this damn thing finished and published or not? I certainly didn't write it to make money.
You've gotten great feedback, though, from readers.
I can't get over how many people, young people in their 20s, have responded to the book. It's floored me. They ask, "Where were these places you're talking about?" And as soon as I say the Union Mission on Poplar, they know. The KFC at Poplar and Danny Thomas, that's where Werner Sheet Metal was. The tall house off Poplar near that corner? That was the house of prostitution I describe. But once a neighborhood disappears, you can't get it back.
I still don't know if the dinginess of skid row comes across in the book. How dark it was, all the time. Rows of buildings so dingy it felt like the sun couldn't get through.
How difficult was it for you to write about your wife's miscarriages and the treatment she received because of the Catholic Church's teachings on birth control?
I was still mad when I was writing. I hate to use the word "unfeeling," but some of the nuns on staff at St. Joseph Hospital [site of today's St. Jude Children's Research Hospital] were almost that. My wife still remembers the head nun. When we were in trouble, she almost turned her back on us.
That's the way it was. Today, if a woman goes through what my wife went through, she'd have her tubes tied. But if the Church had allowed it back then, how would we have had our daughter? There's good in there somewhere.
Still, I wanted to express how badly I felt about -- for -- my wife during those years. The guilt I felt over what she went through.
Guilty or not, you were at fault when you climbed that church on Union Extended [since demolished], in the wind and rain, to fix a leaking steeple.
Somebody had to do it, and I was stupid. But I was lucky. Lucky I wasn't blown off. I've been lucky a number of times. Lucky I wasn't killed.
I recently had a young guy ask me, "When you were working on those steeples, didn't you have a hard time with the harness?" Hell, I never saw a harness.
Today, the sheet-metal business is nothing like it was. For example, we used to cut the sheets using hand snips. It was like being a seamstress. They do it by laser now ... a real shame. You miss out on being what a real tinner was -- the craftsmanship and pride that went into the work.
The men who worked for Werner Sheet Metal, who worked on projects such as the Sterick Building, the Peabody, Idlewild Presbyterian, Rhodes -- the "rounders" you describe in The Tinsmith's Son: They're long since gone?
Oh God, yeah. All dead. These guys, these drunks, they were real characters. Men like Early and Grinder. But they were all so damn good-hearted.
I don't want them to come off like they were always drinking and up to no good. They were hard workers. They gave you a full days' work for a full days' pay. If they had 30 minutes more on a job at quitting time, they finished the job. If you got into trouble on the job, they'd pitch in and help. They took me under their wing. But we had our fun. Me: 14 years old and driving these guys in a damn '38 Dodge.