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Working Class Heroes: A Lyrical Essay
Thoughts of the Past
My father was a blue collar worker his entire life. He dropped out of school when he was but a sophomore in high school, and for the next two years he rode the rails in search of odd jobs. You see, it was the Great Depression, and his family needed money, and back then family came before education.
When he was old enough he enlisted in the Army, fought in five campaigns in Italy during World War II, and then came home to start a family. He then worked twenty years in a sand & gravel pit, lifting gravel, testing it, shoveling, rain or shine, day in and day out and never complained. He died three days before his fiftieth birthday.
My mother worked as a seamstress during the Depression, and then when the war broke out she was a welder in a shipbuilding factory in New Jersey. After the war, married to my father, she worked retail jobs for twenty years until health forced her to retire early.
My grandparents were corn farmers in Iowa. Up at dawn, working until bone-tired at sunset, then they were back up the next day to repeat the pattern for twenty-three years until they lost their farm during the 1930’s.
I come from hardy stock; honest, hard-working people who understood that there are no free handouts in life. They were determined to make it on their own, and if life dealt them a rotten hand they just played it out and hoped that the next deal came up aces. It never did, but not a single excuse ever left their lips.
This article is for my family, in their memory and written with love.
Dan Fogelberg "The Reach"
The Sea Giveth and the Sea Taketh
You do not punch a clock when your life is the sea. Ask a fisherman to describe their normal day and they will just laugh. How does one describe a life in tune with the rhythm of nature? Where does one begin? It’s the way it’s been done since the old days, passed down from each generation.
Pull in those nets, hand over hand,
Keep your eye pealed to the horizon, son
The seas roll, the wind howls
And good Lord willing the catch will be delivered.
Some will die at sea and quite frankly it is expected by all. On those quiet mornings when the wind has died and the sun rises slowly in the east, and the gulls screech overhead and the promise of bounty is five miles from shore, those are the times when the fisherman thanks God for the life he’s been given, and can’t imagine why anyone would take a city job and miss out on a higher calling.
Spar Poles, High Climbers and Lost Fingers
Work hard and die young; that was the legacy of loggers in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the 19th Century. Thousands of immigrants headed west to answer the call. Civilization needed those trees and by God there were millions of them in the mountains of Oregon and Washington. Dangerous work for sure, but work that paid an honest wage for an honest day’s labor, and hard work was nothing new to those Swedes, Poles and Irish.
These were men who had worked hard since they were twelve, and they understood that life gives and life takes with no degree of malice.
No sunlight today, boys, a storm moving in
Check the wind, boys, she’ll shift on you and
Leave you runnin’ for your life on a bad cut
Makin’ widows of your lady folks.
Two men to a saw, back-breaking labor from early morning fog to scorching afternoon sun. Fall into bed after a quick dinner then up the next day to start again, for there was no end to the forest, no end to the dream and certainly no end to the Manifest Destiny. This was God’s land and he willed it to us, a secret handshake between mortal and immortal.
Mass Production, Assembly Lines and the Building of an Empire
Massive buildings throughout the Midwest, mostly deserted now. Blocks long in size, windows now broken out or boarded over, but once vibrant and carrying the dreams of a new industrial giant. Ideas carried across the Atlantic. Toss in some steam power, then electricity. Row after row of machines, each producing a specific part; then row after row of working stations, where men fitted the whole puzzle together into a functioning machine or product for purchase.
Off to home after a long shift, and dinner with the family in a row house deep within the bowels of the Italian, or Irish, or Norwegian neighborhood. Watch the kids play stickball after dinner, listen to the Yankees or Cubbies take on their rivals, then lay me down to sleep.
Can’t hear what you’re saying boss.
The screech of those pullies is drowning out your words.
What’s that you say? Overtime, boss? You betcha, boss?
Gotta make it while there’s still life in these old bones.
Neighbors looking out for each other in a microcosm of the old country, that’s how it was in the inner city. A man worked hard and often died hard, but complaining was unheard of and unacceptable. There was pride in those factories, as if each automobile was individually made by each worker. They would point to a washer, dryer or new Ford and proudly tell their kids that they made that product and by God it was the best made on Earth.
Deep in the Bowels of the Earth
From the hills of West Virginia to the forests of Minnesota, and a hundred spots in-between, men kissed their wives goodbye and trudged down a dark hole bored into the Earth. Picks and shovels were their tools of trade, as normal a part of life as Black Lung. Punch through that vein, load up that car, cough up that phlegm and pass it down to your children. As long as the Earth was offering her treasures then men were there to gladly accept. We needed those minerals. A whole country was depending on them and we can’t slow down the business of doing business.
Airways, ventilation, backfills and bearing plates.
Conveyor belts, black damp, deposits and detonators.
One hundred fathoms down into the sea of black
And hope that canary don’t die!
Who knows what the average age of a miner was at death. Thirty? Forty? How many ounces of coal dust does the average lung hold? Life was measured by the number of weddings and funerals, births and injuries, and if you couldn’t show up the job was handed over to the next able body. No use whining and bellyaching; it’s just a fact of life…and death.
Are there hard-working blue collar workers in your family?
The Legacy Continues
They are out there among you. Do you see them? The wheat farmer in Cheyenne, the waitress in Topeka, and the long-haul driver crisscrossing the highways of this country, all out there doing what needs doing. Do you see them? The machinist in Detroit, the utility worker in Portland and the oil-rigger in Stillwater, all singing a song as old as this nation.
They are the backbone and lifeblood of our society, grateful for a job and never giving an inch despite the hardships and disappointments of life. Sharecroppers and clerks, firemen and textile workers, side by side and hand in hand, carrying on a legacy as important as the Constitution and every bit as reliable.
These are America’s blue collar workers. I am proud to be their descendant and I salute them.
Blue jeans and Carhartts, no high-brow fashion here.
Rags around the neck to soak up the sweat and RedMan in
the back pocket. Church-goin’, truck-drivin’
Ass-bustin’, easy-laughin’ and loyal as the day is long.
Thank you mom and dad, grandma and grandpa. I love you all!
2013 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)