Monday, September 03, 2012
Morning Thanks--The working stiff
For the first time in 21 years, I'll celebrate Labor Day in America in the fashion it's meant to be celebrated--as a holiday. I've always understood why the college where I taught for all those years couldn't afford a three-day weekend: the students had just arrived, some of them fighting homesickness. Give 'em the day off, and who knows how many will hightail it back home? What's more, tons of them--upperclassmen probably--simply wouldn't show up until after the holiday, fouling the administration's attempt to keep the process from descending into chaos.
The college's simple neglect of the holiday wasn't meant to dishonor working class men and women--and their unions, even though the college is seated comfortably in the heart of the most Republican county in the nation. No such conspiracy existed, although our not observing the holiday may well have made us more handsome to wealthy GOP donors, of whom there are more than a few. Newsweek rated Dordt College the 6th most conservative college in the nation recently, something the school's PR machine chose not to broadcast, interestingly.
My Labor Day labor for all those years was legit, I'm saying. But today I'm celebrating, even though I don't know what I'll do--could just as well teach, maybe.
My parents were not rich, but my father made wise investments with what he had, and it never dawned on him that others wouldn't or couldn't do likewise. His Christian piety was extraordinary, but he hated unions and tended to see the world from the vantage point of management, but then he worked in the office. For much of my life I saw the world the way he did--I trusted management and distrusted unions. They were, after all, thugs. I was a boy during the Kohler strike.
The glorified image of "the working man" meant precious little to my father. Those old pictures of sleeves-rolled working stiffs smelled to him like socialism, like power to the people, something Marxist. I remember him explaining how to spot a WPA projects--just count the numbers of guys leaning on shovels.
But almost a quarter century ago now, I met a man named Bass Van Gilst, Minority Whip, Iowa Legislature, Des Moines, Iowa, a tough-minded Dutch Calvinist Democrat, if that combo can be believed. In an interview for a book I was writing, I asked him how it was that he came to be a Democrat. He told me that without the WPA, the CCC especially, his family would have perished because in south-central Iowa in the Thirties, there was no work and it didn't pay to feed cattle or hogs. There was no money. Families faced starvation, even church families.
"Ever since FDR, I wouldn't think of being anything else," he told me.
What's more, he was just as pious as my father, just as much a man given to leaning on his faith in Jesus.
We watched a couple of episodes of an American Experience series on The Thirties last night--a look at the stock market crash of 1929 and another about the CCC. All of that is ancient history, of course, but if you like a little shot of de je vu once in a while, you might find the whole series fascinating. In the 1930s, those who hated the WPA thought Roosevelt a communist. Not Senator Bass Van Gilst, D-Oskaloosa.
I honestly don't know whether not working on Labor Day honors "the working man" any more than standing in front of a college class; but this year, for once, I'm going to enjoy the holiday. Today, Labor Day, when I think about him (and her)--"the working stiff," I think of Bass Van Gilst's father somewhere out in some wilderness cutting trails and planting trees, with the WPA, not all of them leaning on their shovels.
For the lessons he taught me, this morning's thanks are for a long-gone Iowa legislator, a tough old Dutch Calvinist named Bass Van Gilst.