Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Salt tablets, leather aprons, and work shirts

He was management, not labor, but images from the factory behind the office are what I remember. If I'd drop by, he'd take me on a path through a labyrinth of machines where men in coveralls or blue shirts were standing or sitting at jobs I don't remember, jobs he never really wanted his boy to covet.

The painting stall had a piercing smell; but I remember that part of the factory best because everything was orange, not fluorescent orange, a sold, dull orange like all the cement mixers that came out of the place. 

Around the corner and near the door stood the pop machine--put in a nickle and slide a bottle out some chutes through cold water, lift the cap on an opener above a little bucket on the side. Up on the wall was a big glass jar of salt tablets my dad let me sample when I came in, bitter things but interesting. Salt tablets for those summer days when the men in blue shirts sweat right through the  fabric. More clearly than anything else, I remember that jug of salt tablets. That whole factory was all-male.

At noon, Dad would stay around on summer days for a game of horseshoe during lunch. He knew the wizards, but he wasn't bad himself for some white-collar guy from management. Post-war, most the guys who worked at Gilson Manufacturing, Oostburg, Wisconsin, were vets and friends. There were problems, even fights. Once in a while, a blue shirt had to be fired, I'm sure. Life in a factory wasn't just a cold bottle of soda on a hot day. There had to be problems. 

But going to work there was what my father did for most of his life. For a time, at least, he rode across town to a factory by the tracks where maybe thirty guys put cement mixers together for thousands of vets who, like my dad, were building their own family homes on their way to the American dream. When it was hot, they took a soda from the cold water and grabbed a couple salt tablets. At five, they quit. That was the working day. 

Nobody made big money, I'm sure. Maybe the owners--I don't know. But Gilson was, for a time, a way of life for men who never dreamed of much more than an hourly wage to bring home to a family, men who needed only a few blue shirts, a leather apron maybe, rolled-up sleeves, horseshoes, and a July picnic. And it's long gone. 

Researchers at Princeton have determined that for the last fifteen years, middle-aged, white Americans with a high school education or less have died at an astounding rate, like nothing seen in the industrial age. Death rates climbed from 281 to 415 per 100,000, a phenomenon those researchers characterize as "death by despair"--drug overdose, suicide, alcoholism.

Mechanization, computerization, and globalization closed the doors on factory jobs that once gave meaning to life for lots of men in Oostburg, Wisconsin, in the post-war years. Those jobs no longer exist. 

What people call "the opiod crisis" only makes things worse. Half of those men who are not presently in the working force are taking pain killers. Minority members of the work force today suffer unemployment at a similar or higher rates, but not the same rate of death, an amazing fact. Why? No one knows for sure. 

Perhaps a history of factory life creates higher expectations among white men whose fathers pitched horseshoes on their lunch hours at a thousand factories around the nation. Perhaps the sons of those white men expected more of themselves than in possible today, or so researchers speculate.

J. D. Vance explains his people's hatred of President Obama on the basis of white folks' thwarted dreams. What made Obama's ascension to the Presidency painfully galling was that he was rising--a black man--as they were falling off a cliff. 

Those men are, often as not, disciples of the President. They voted Trump. He said he'd bring back jobs to coal country, to the rust belt, to American steel. Maybe he's a miracle worker. 

But what those Princeton researchers suggest is that this downward spiral among America's old working class won't be reversed easily. Those who risk "death by despair" won't suddenly find themselves in a brand new world of leather aprons and salt tablets. 

There just ain't that many places to work in those tough old blue shirts.

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