By: John Carlson—
From the moment we began watching him, Nancy and I saw this fellow as nothing less than the Rudolph Nureyev of excavator operators.
It was a few years back in the Village, where a block of businesses had been razed to make room for a huge new apartment complex. The two of us would grab our morning coffee across the street at The Cup and drink it outside, marveling as he put his excavator through its paces, loading construction-site detritus into the dump trucks that hauled it away.
As befits a ballet superstar like Nureyev, the operator never made a misstep. Indeed, every move of the excavator and its shovel seemed perfectly choreographed. No doubt, the man at the controls was a master of his work. One day as he climbed down from his cab for a quick break, I hustled across the street and yelled through the fencing, asking if I could interview him for a feature story.
He just laughed and waved me off.
That guy still strikes me as a perfect representative of the American working man and woman who, come Monday, we’ll be honoring for Labor Day. He’s far from the only one of his kind, though.
Certainly, your speculators, investors and regulators all have their place in the big picture. But it’s the workers who have made the United States the economic powerhouse that it is today. Blue collar. White collar. No collar. What’s key has been their dedication to working their own way through life, never shirking their responsibilities, whether they love what they do or grit their teeth and tolerate it for their family’s sake.
This means whether they are pushing brooms, pushing pencils or pushing anything in between. Teachers. Farmers. Cops. Electricians. Plumbers. Nurses. Truckers. Firemen. Physicians. Construction workers. Flight attendants. Pastors. Funeral directors. The list goes on and on …
Still, when I think of “labor,” it’s usually the classic physical act, and the ones who engage in it, that first come to mind.
Early on I had some experience with that. Grinding welds in a foundry. Cleaning mis-painted auto parts in huge acid tanks at Guide Lamp. Spot-welding metal grills back in the Sixties when you wore your jeans frayed at the cuffs. Sometimes the frays caught fire from the sparks thrown by the welder. It was one day as I stood there with my pants burning that I first decided I was better suited to newspaper work, where all I’d have to do was type.
But there were many times on a frigid winter’s day when I’d stroll into the newspaper past construction workers out busting their humps in the cold. Invariably, I’d think, man, there’s no way I could do their jobs. That thought was always accompanied by outright feelings of admiration for them.
It seems to me that for a number of years, though, the American working man and woman haven’t been given their due. Now? At long last it’s obvious that a change is happening, as people who staked their financial futures on student loans spend years getting out from under that debt. Meanwhile, the allure of trade schools – of learning how to earn a good living using both your brains and your hands – shines ever brighter.
If there was ever a feeling that the folks in trades weren’t as smart as the folks populating offices or even the halls of academia … well, whoever decided to promulgate that belief was the true dullard.
In fact, the opposite has always been true. Think of Abe Lincoln reading by candlelight, eking out a self-taught education while clearing trees from a forested homestead. Considerably later, I remember a nice but quiet older guy I worked with at Guide Lamp, whose lunch pail was never without a book in it, and I’m not talking about literary pap. He’d read whenever he had a break.
Equally inspiring was the example of Eric Hoffer. He’d been a miner, a migrant worker and a denizen of Skid Row before finding work as a longshoreman in San Francisco at age 40. His later published works included a novel of little repute, followed by some brilliant, highly regarded works of philosophy. I was still a kid when I picked up a paperback copy of his “Working and Thinking On the Waterfront” in a drugstore. I can’t say it changed my life, mostly because it was too deep for me to totally grasp. Tell you what, though. The fact Hoffer wrote that book, and others, during his off hours from loading and unloading ocean-going freighters, forever disabused me of the notion that working folks couldn’t also be brilliant.
So Labor Day will be the day to honor the dedicated working men and women in our lives who came before us, who paved our way, whether they be bankers, bakers or barbers.
As for me, come Monday I’ll think of two great guys – my beloved grandfathers, one of whom was a tool-maker in a gargantuan steel mill, and one who was a machinist in a small northern Ohio factory. That factory was sold out from under him to a company that stole his pension. Gramps, a stroke victim, ended his working years as a high school janitor. Bad as that was, he finagled me my first part-time job as a student-janitor, working alongside him after school every afternoon.
How many kids are privileged to do that?
Unsteady from his stroke, his speech slurred, Gramps was still a great worker, a great example, as he shakily climbed tall ladders to change light bulbs in my high school’s hallways. Could I climb up there for him? Forget it, he’d insist.
As for the people who stole his pension, a lifetime of literary work has given me plenty of words bad enough to describe that soulless, money-grubbing lot, but I could never get away with using them here.
So, what the heck. Here’s to the honorable American workers who predominate. Have a happy Labor Day, folks.
Editor’s note: The photos below represent just a few of the many laborers—in many occupations— that have appeared within the pages of Muncie Journal.com. We wish you, and them, a wonderful Labor Day holiday.
A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three. John’s columns appear on Muncie Journal every Friday.