THEY'RE NOT CELEBRITIES. THEY WALK PAST YOU ON THE STREET, BRING YOU YOUR FOOD AT A RESTAURANT, AND LIVE IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD. THEY'RE EVERYDAY PEOPLE. JUST LIKE YOU.
DECEMBER 2003: GEORGE & MIKA ROCKNAGE
MY GRANDPARENTS ARE MY HEROES. EVER SINCE I WAS LITTLE, I’VE BEEN FASCINATED WITH THEIR STORIES, AND I PLAN ON USING THIS SPACE TO GIVE THEM THE FIFTEEN MINUTES OF FAME THEY DESERVE. GEORGE ROCKNAGE IS MY ONLY LIVING GRANDFATHER (OR, AS WE SAY IN SERBIAN, “GEDO”), AND WHAT FOLLOWS IS TWENTY-EIGHT MINUTES OF LIFE-STORYTELLING OVER EARLY-MORNING COFFEE WITH HIM AND MY GRANDMOTHER (OR “BABA”), MIKA.
Vinnie: When did your family first come to America?
George: My family? Oh, God,.. I don’t know for sure. Back in the early-1900s is when Baba Rackinack came from Europe. My parents were born in this country.
V: They were?
G: My mom and dad, both. Mama, she was Polish, so, I don’t know,.. she was born somewhere in Dillonvale (Ohio)? Smithfield? I’m not sure. And Dad was born in this area; born when Baba Rackinack first resided here, when she’d come to this country.
V: So, you’ve lived here all your life?
G: Myself? Yes. All except from 1952 thru 1955. I moved to Canada because my wife, Mika, was a Canadian, and she didn’t like living in this country then. So I moved to Canada. I was collecting unemployment-- I left the steel company here. Mika’s father was a superintendent down at the open hearth in Canada, and I thought he could get me a job there. But things were rough in 1950. They weren’t hiring anybody. So, Baba’s Uncle John worked for Eaton’s of Canada. He was a truck mechanic. I asked Uncle John if he could get me a job. He says, “Well, I’ll put your name in and let you know about it.” In the meantime, I’m collecting unemployment from the state of West Virginia while I’m up in Canada, because I’m unemployed!
G: I moved to Canada in June. In September, I got hired at Eaton’s of Canada. I was working as a helper on the truck until I learned the routes. It was like the UPS trucks here in the United States.
G: And, after driving the truck for a while and running the routes, I got my own route. Then, in 1953, our son was born-- Stevo. He was a premature baby at birth, and it was touch-and-go for,.. (To Mika, his wife, seated at the table with us) five months was it, mom?
Mika: From June ‘til September.
G: Stevo was in the hospital because he was a premature baby. So, after we got Steve home, which was--
G: --September of ‘53, he was sick all the time. We were taking him to different doctors, different specialists. He couldn’t drink the milk in his bottle. We had him on a special formula. To make a long story short, in 1955 my father passed away, and I went to my wife and said, “I’m going home to bury my dad.” I says, “You make your mind up what you want to do, ‘cause I don’t think I’m going to come back to Canada.”
G: I drove back to Steubenville, buried my father, and got associated with my uncles, who I hadn’t seen for four or five years. They were in the gambling business. We had a cigar store, and were running numbers, parlays, football plays, you name it. So I came back to Steubenville and buried my father, from July of ‘55 'til October-- which was when I was able to get (citizenship) papers for Mika, Barbara-- my daughter-- and Steve. We moved back to Steubenville. The Rackinack family owned some property on South High Street, which is Route 7 today, and we rented one side of the duplex from Uncle Ronnie and Baba Rackinack. I went to work with my uncles as a clerk in their cigar store. The cigar store was a hole in the wall, and we had four gambling machines in there: nickels and dimes. We used to gross, net profit, from four machines, $2,000 a week! And that’s back then!
G: And then, in 1958, the city of Steubenville voted the machines out of the city. Illegal gambling! So, my uncles decided to make a different move, and they bought The Copa Lounge, which was a bar and restaurant. It was called LaBelle Grill before then. We changed the name. I went up there and learned the trade, and became manager-- did the hiring and firing. We had a beautiful business there. Plus, we were still booking numbers!
G: In fact, in that day, if you had a Federal Gambling Stamp, the federal government didn’t bother you. It was just the locals you had to worry about. I tended to that place of business with my uncles until 1970. In 1970, our church choir was going to California. My wife and I both sang in the choir, and we were going to go; I also wanted to take a vacation while we were there. So, I asked my uncles for a few weeks vacation. One uncle said, “No. I can’t afford to let you go.” He says, “You can’t go.” So I say, “Well, I’m going.” The oldest uncle, Uncle Dan, was like a father to me. And he says to me, “Where you going?” So I told him. I said, “The choir’s going to California. I wanna go, and I want to take a week's vacation.” So he hands me some money. He says, “Here. Go.” And I says, “When I go, I’m not coming back to the business.”
G: We went to California, had a good time, and came back home. My wife says to me, “What are you gonna do for a job?” I said, “I’ll find a job.” So, I had friends,.. when you’re working in that kind of business, the restaurant business, you meet different kinds of people. This gentleman I’m talking about, Charles Ballato, was the superintendent of the Starvaggi Coal Company. I called him and asked him for a job. I worked as a night watchman for four months, and then there was an opening at the coal tipple up in Weirton (West Virginia). I went up there, learned how to pick up coal off the conveyor belt. As things progressed, I got promoted from there to working down on the river loading coal barges, which is a lot better. You’re out in the open air all the time. You’re not cooped up inside with all that black dust and grime in your mouth and your lungs and whatever.
G: (coughs) Well, after a while, some of the guys that I’d been working with that had 20-25 years with Starvaggi were talking about organizing a Union, because we were not Union at that time. My immediate boss at that time was a Serbian fella; I think his name was Robert Milosh. His nickname was "Buzzy". So I says, “Buzzy, you’re gonna have some problems here.” He says, “Why, George?” I says, “They’re talking about getting a Union here.” He says, “Oh, my,.. I hope you didn’t get in it.” I says, “Yeah, I got in it with them.” He says, “Oh, the old man’s gonna fire ya.” But not fired-- laid-off. He said, “He won’t have no more work for you.”
G: Sure enough, that’s what happened. And just before I got laid-off, my daughter Barbara was getting ready to get married to your father, Bob Zori. I wanted to help the two kids out with their wedding, so I borrowed $4,000 from Mr. Starvaggi. He said it was, “No problem. I’ll just take it out of your paycheck every payday.” Which he did. So, in 1975, when this came out about the Union, he laid us all off!
V: Oh, man.
G: So now I have no job, a wife, two children, and my daughter’s getting ready to get married. I had a friend that worked for the City of Steubenville. I called him up and said I needed a job. He said, “Well, you’re up in age now.” And I was-- I was up in my 50s. But he said he’d see what he could do. So, after a few weeks, I get a job in the Water and Sewage Department. Now, I don’t know if you know what “Sewage Department” means-- it means climbing down into manholes and cleaning out shit and stuff piled up to where you can’t hardly breathe! You gotta wear a mask in order to clean these things out, so the sewage can flow beneath these manholes. I worked there until May 1988. On, I think it was my birthday-- May the 23rd-- I retired from working for the County. They threw a little party for me 'cause I was retiring, but I was still doing work at my church as a custodian. It helped me with my finances, you know. Paid some of my bills and whatever. I did that work until 1992, I think. I had to make a decision to quit, or have an operation on my shoulder. I tore my,.. what is it you have up there? Rotor cuffs? Whatever. I tore it because I was using this heavy-duty machine to wax and clean the floors. So, I just figured it was about time to give it up. I retired from the church, I retired from bowling, and I just helped around the house whenever my daughter or son-in-law needed it.
V: Did you ever win any bowling trophies?
G: (laughing) Oh, we had trophies like you cannot believe! We even traveled all over the country. You can ask my wife.
M: He had a lot.
G: And when I retired as a bowler in 1992, I was bowling about a 190 average. And I only bowled one night a week! That’s pretty tough to bowl a 190 average bowling only one night a week. We had a lot of fun. We won some money at times, made some good friends. We met people from all over the country when we went to these bigger tournaments.
M: (nodding) We had a good time!
G: And, like I say, you know, my wife and I, we’ve been married 53 years. My daughter and my daughter-in-law threw a party for us in September of 1950-- No! (laughing) September of 2000!
G: September of 2000! And you can’t believe the people we had at our house! My daughter-in-law, she booked an orchestra,.. it was just a beautiful day, with all our family and friends. A great day. And I have never-- believe me, as far as married life goes, everybody goes through ups and downs, and we had plenty of ups.
G: Money’s not everything. If you can’t get along with your wife and your kids, money don’t mean a damn thing. And I wouldn’t trade my wife and my family for all the money in the world. That’s how I feel today. I’m pushing 78 years old. I enjoy myself; do the little bit around the house that I can do. I used to be a heavy smoker. I smoked for 62 years. I quit smoking two years ago, and I feel fine. I’ve gotta watch my weight now, because since I quit smoking, everything tastes beautiful!
G: But that’s part of life. I have six beautiful grandchildren. Three on my daughter’s side, three on my son’s. We enjoy ourselves at the Holidays, and get together as much as we can. I just wish that my--
M: You forgot one important thing: we also enjoy gambling.
G: Oh, yes. My wife enjoys gambling. I enjoy it, too, but she’s more into it, like, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” We went to Atlantic City so many times, and we’ve been to Vegas twice. I’d like to go one more time before I pass away.
V: Do you ever look at Vegas and think your uncles might have been able to get to that level?
G: Well, the one uncle wound up working out there.
V: He did?
G: Oh, yeah. The older uncle got into a lot of trouble. Real violent. He served time in the pen. In fact, my sister was going to become an FBI agent. They sent investigators down when she was going to school in Washington, D.C. because that’s what they do-- they go into the neighborhood and ask questions about your family-- and they found out that Uncle Dan had served time in the pen. So, they asked her to resign, and she had to leave.
V: What was he in the pen for?
G: I forget whether he was involved with the Mafia then or not. There were so many shootings back then. The shootings alone that he was involved with,.. I don’t want to get into that.
V: Well, is that why you got out of the restaurant business?
G: Yeah. The one that was the biggest mouth of the three brothers, he’s the one that drank himself to death. His name was “Fox”-- George Stephen Rackinack. Uncle Dan, I would say, was a little more mature. He was older, too. A very rough man-- he stood about 6'4", and had big arms and shoulders like a football player. He played football with your Gedo Zori, on that undefeated football team--
V: They were on the same team?
G: Yeah! He played tackle. Uncle Dan was a fine man. He also worked in the steel mill. And in 1936, when we lived on Wall Street, his wife worked at a business as a receptionist. We were taking care of their son. Their son got sick, and we lived on the second floor of this house. And I had to run about two blocks from our house to the mill to get Uncle Dan. He came running home out of the mill, and their son, Robert, died. After that, that’s when he left the steel mill and got involved in the rackets.
M: You better delete all that!
M: You’ll have the FBI come down and have Gedo questioned!
V: I doubt it.
G: I doubt it, too. (laughs)
V: So, is your last name really “Rackinack”?
G: My dad changed it after this all happened with my sister, because of my Uncle Dan. My dad changed it from “Rackinack” to “Rocknage”. This was back when I was in school, because I was a Rocknage in school. Everyone knew us though because of the Rackinack family. I was a bastard in school.
G: I’m serious! They threatened to kick me out of school a couple times-- take me out, lock me up. My dad was an alcoholic-- he drank so much-- and we were in debt up to our ass. So, I got a job at Weirton Steel. I asked the school if I could work part-time and try to finish school, but it didn’t work out, so I quit school my junior year. Then I met your Baba. I was singing with the Cleveland Choir then, and we went up to Lackawana, New York to put on a concert, and I spotted her. So I went up to a guy that was in charge of the booth, and I says, “Who’s that beautiful young lady over there?”
G: I asked him to introduce me to her, and he did!
M: And I saw his money! This humongous wad of money!
G: She thought I was rich. I had a roll of money-- it was maybe $100-- mostly one dollar bills with a couple of tens and twenties thrown in there. She thought I was made of money!
G: She got fooled! (laughs) And when I met her, I told her, “I’ll be seeing you again.” She was like, “Ah, get out of here,.. whatever.” But I knew. And I came up on a train, didn’t I, mom?
M: Yeah. Tell him about the gifts! (laughs)
G: (laughs) Oh,.. I came up one Christmas,.. what year was it?
M: I don’t care what year it was, just tell him about it!
G: I told her I got robbed on the train! That’s why I didn’t have any gifts for anyone!
M: And I felt so bad for him! You liar! And my mother, oh, she felt so bad for him. (laughs)
G: Her mom and dad never thought we were going to last.
G: Her dad complained, “He’s from a gambling town. They’re all racketeers over there--”
M: “He’s no good.”
G: Then we bought that property on Cleveland Avenue in 1958, and that money came from gambling. I got lucky, won some money, borrowed some more from my mom. That property was up for sale, and we bought it for $12,000. Unbelievable! We got the house, and the lot the house was on. And that’s where this family was raised. Right there. And that’s the story of my life.