Monday, September 02, 2013
Morning Thanks--Labor Day
The only comeback I had was almost mean-spirited, but then I was, at the time, really thin-skinned when, over and over, guys at church, all of them working stiffs, used to make fun of professors like me. You know, "What the heck would a professor know about this, that, or the other thing?"
"Some of us are smart enough to get an education," I'd say, or something similar. "Smart enough not to have to work outside when it's thirty below," or "smart enough to get an education and stay in out of the rain." That kind of thing. Not really mean-spirited, but spirited. After all, I didn't start the fight--some other day laborer with callouses did, and I wasn't interested in apologizing for being a teacher, dang it.
All those years of education cost me dearly, as a matter of fact, money and seed time for which a Ph.D., never took in much of a harvest. Oh, we're not poor--don't get me wrong; but most retired teachers I know don't vacation on the Riviera.
But then most working stiffs don't either, and we all survive. On top of it, if we're healthy, we're happy. Most all of us still pack a lunch, or, if we're lucky, sneak home at noon. We're ordinary people with ordinary jobs, and many of us work extraordinarily hard.
For most of his life, my dad worked in the office, not the factory out back; but he never was much more than a working stiff. Sometimes I wish he would have invested into some cottage up north like most of the rest of the state of Wisconsin, but he didn't. I don't think he had those kinds of aspirations, and, quite frankly, he didn't have the cash. We weren't poor, but we weren't rich either.
I grew up in smokestack America around a way of life that was vanquished when corporations decided they could much more easily make a buck by hiring cheap in Singapore or Shanghai and paying the transportation dollar. Once upon a time, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, made shoes--lots of them. Good leather. Good shoes. No more.
Most of the people in the church I grew up in were in construction--dry-wallers, painters, cement people, carpenters, tradesmen who owned a hundred tools they packed into their vans or trucks. They started off every morning to a job site around 6:30 or so, and returned for supper ten hours later, full of sawdust or paint, a scuffed pair of Red Wings on their feet.
When I graduated from college, without a job, I took a variety of temps and ended up for a week at a lumber yard, stacking two by fours with a guy I'd graduated from high school with, not necessarily a friend, but someone I knew. I must have told him I found the work tedious. "What's the matter?" he said. "You don't like to work with wood."
I hadn't really considered it a calling, I guess.
If I say we're building a house, don't get the wrong impression. I haven't lifted a finger. Someone else--a succession of day laborers, a succession of craftsmen, a succession of working stiffs--they've been building our house, a whole company of men with skills that, these days, I'd love to have. I have not in my life felt as useless as I feel when I stand around while they are putting in switches or an air-conditioner, painting or insulating or sheet-rocking. They've got all the tools and they know how to use them, and they do. And there I stand, looking and feeling like prissy landed gentry, or a professor.
I told my wife just last week that I was really taken by the way they work--really, all of them. I don't know the origin of the phrase, but doggone it, they work like nailers. They really do. They even clean up after themselves. Both my father and my step-father could have helped 'em. They knew how to work. I was too busy reading Thoreau and thinking about people whose lives were full of "quiet desperation." I'm an educated man who missed an education.
Anyway, it's their day today--it's a holiday for the people who are building our house. Labor Day doesn't celebrate the Walton family, nor techie entrepreneurs, nor venture capitalists. They've all got their lake homes. Today is a day for working stiffs, for people who pack their lunch and head off to work.
They deserve a break. We'd be nowhere without them. This morning, this ex-professor's morning thanks are for the guys who are building our home.