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My American Century Essay, Research Paper

My American Century

In Studs Terkel s My American Century the aspect of personal evolution and

change surfaces through the characters. Change as the American Heritage Dictionary

says is: To give a completely different form or appearance; to transform. There are many

different ways that one change, and My American Century explores a few of them. One

way was the way that Claiborne P. Ellis transformed. C.P. Ellis chaged himself from the

exalted cyclops of the Durham chapter of the Ku Klux Klan with a racial and parocial

outlook on life, to an openminded, educated business manager of the union. One can

chage in the manner that E.B. Sledge did. Sledge was a World War II veteran and had

been transformed from an innocent boy to a war torn veteran. Wallace Ramussen

evolved as well. Starting off as a Nebraskan country boy growing up in the Great

Depression and working his way up to become CEO of Beatrice Foods and a winner of

the Horatio Alger Award. Between these three characters in Studs Terkel s My

American Century, personal evolution is portrayed in both the moral sense and the

financial status sense as well.

Claiborne P. Ellis rough life started at the age of seventeen. His dad worked in a

textile mill in Durham and died at the age of forty-eight. Somebody had to support the

family of three. So C.P. Ellis quit school in the eighth grade to support his mother and

sister. From the beginning C.P. Ellis life was difficult. His father never made very much

money, could barely afford clothes for C.P. Ellis, and had a drinking problem on top of it

all. To make a little money C.P Ellis got a job pumping gas. Eventually He got married

and felt the need to have children. Four to be exact, one was blind, and one was retarded

which did not help his financial status. to support the family he went on a bread route on

top of working at the gas station. After barrowing money from the bank and buying the

gas station, he had a heart attack. Nothing ever seemed to go right for C.P. Ellis.

Tryin to come out of that hole, I just couldn t do it I really began to get bitter.

I didn t know who to blame. I tried to find somebody. I began to blame it on

black people. I had to hate somebody. Hatin Americais hard to do because

you can t see it to hate it. You gotta have somethin to look at to hate. The

natural person for me to hate would be black people, because my father before

me was a member of the Klan. (pg 64)

So C.P. Ellis joined the Ku Klux Klan. He was wanted there, he fit in among the

low-income whites. He started off as a member and ended up as exalted cyclops

(president). It got to the point where he was holding guns to black kids heads. Once he

found out that low-income whites, and low-income blacks were being used by the

wealthy so that the wealthy could maintain power. Eventually C.P. Ellis got elected to

the school comittee. Infact he was co-chairman with Ann Atwater a large black activist.

So now a Klansman and an civil rights activist were co-chairpeople of the school

comittee. C.P. Ellis decided that he was sick of fighting. So him and Ann Atwater set

their differences asside and they did their best to fix the schools. He had evolved. C.P.

Ellis had started to see people for who they are, and not for the color of their skin.

C.P. then decided to get his highschool diploma, so he went to afternoon classes

in a Past Employment Progress program. He got his diploma, and was working maitnence

at Duke. Finally C.P Ellis ran for business manager of the union. At first people used his

past Klan life against him. In the end his transformation made more people believe in

him. The change from an eighth grade drop-out, president of a Klan chapter, to a union

business manager hiring low-income black people is pretty remarkable.

E.B. Sledgehammer Sledge starts his story about World War II in a negative

manner. He was just nineteen when he entered the war and mst of his colleagues were

under the age of twenty-one. All of them were pretty young and had alot of life left that

was now on the line.

The only way to get it over with was to kill them off before they killed you.

The war I knew was totally savage. The Japanese fought by a code they

thought was right: bushido. The code of the warrior: no surrender: you

don t really comprehend it until you get out there and fight people who are

faced with an absolutly hopeless situation and will not give up. If you tried

to help a Japanese, he d usually detonate a grenade and kill himself as well

as you.(pg 197)

E.B. Sledges description of the war shows how primal it actually was. Is was a fight for

suvival. The only ways home were if you were injured, dead, or lucky enough to be

relieved. At the end of the Okinawa campaign the found a Japanese soldier with nothing

but a G-string on. Assuming that he could not get up they did not take him as threat. The

Japanese soldier than pulled out a grenade from his G-string and pulled the pin to try and

kill E.B. Sledge, his buddy and him self. He probably would have been successfull in

doing so if Sledge s buddy had not shot him between the eyes first. The Japanese had no

mercy and all of the unsportsmanlike warfare turned the American soldiers, including

Sledge to become savages, . . .you became callous. (pg198) Sledge talks about the

soldier thowing chunks of coral into a skull, just like a little kid throws stones into a

puddle. This was just a mild mannered kid who was now a twentieth century

savage. (pg201) The other war story that sledge tells us is about an old Japanese woman

with a large wound in her abdomen which had been infected with gangrene. She

requested for Sledge to shoot her but he would not. On the other hand his friend was

happy to shoot her. We had all become hardened. Sledge explained. (pg 202)

Not only Sledge, but the rest of the young soldiers went into the war has young american

soldiers, but came out of the war as war-torn, calloused, savages.

Wallace Rasmussen started his life in Nebraska, growing up in the midst of the

Great Depression. My only ambition in life was to be just a little bit better off the next

day than I was the day before. And to learn a little more than I did the day before. From

the begining Wallace had a gift for fixing things. He would read Popular Mechanics

whenever he could. If things were broken people would bring them to Wallace even in

school. Eventually Wallace left Nebraska and went to California. He got a job delivering

handbills after that proved to be unsuccessfull he got a job on an alfalfa ranch which

payed ten dollars a month with room and board. They gave me a letter that they owed

me twenty dollars to take to the owner of the ranch, and he d pay me. Dumb me, I gave

him the letter and I never got my twenty dollares. Through all of these hard times

Wallace was learning how to get by. Due to the failure in California he moved back to

Nebraska and got a job shucking corn, one putting cedar chests together, and one cutting

out jigsaw puzzels. All of these jobs he had worked, all of which to fail yet the made him

a little money and taught him a new skill. At the age of nineteen Wallace got a job at

Beatrice Foods. He started out pulling ice out of a tank. He was using an electric hoist to

pick of 400 pound cans. The maximum weight the hoist could pull was 100 tons, but

Wallace wanted to pick up more. He was not afraid of breaking it because he could fix

it. He kept up all the equipment in his ssection. The chief engineer recognized his

mechanical ability and gave hive the job of maitnence in the creamery. Wallace was

allways persuing work. After he found out how the creamery worked he went to his boss

and said he did not have enough work to do. The chief engineer put him incharge of the

dairy and the creamery and when that was not enough work Wallace began to work

maitnece in the ice cream deparment as well. Eventually Beatrice Foods offered him a

job as chief engineer at the plant in Vincennes, Indiana. On July 1,1976 Wallace had

worked hiself up to CEO. Going from a farm worker in Nebraska to the CEO of

Beatrice foods is a respectable accomplishment. This financial transformation, and

evolution in status effected Wallace s life dramatically. He had learned many lessons

and many skills along the way. He was always a little, and sometimes alot better off then

he was the day before.

C.P. Ellis, E.B. Sledge and Wallace Rasmussen have all gone through a personal

evolution. Their final person was greatly effected by the expieriences that they had been

through. There are moral transformation as C.P. Ellis and E.B. Sledge demonstrated.

Then through mental determination there are status evolutions as Wallace Rasmussen

showed. It is never to early, or ever to late for a person to change the lifestyle to become

a better person.

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