Fellow blogger Indiana Jen called my attention to a Smithsonian article about a famous photograph, “Men at Lunch”. It was taken in 1932 New York City 850 feet above the street, long before anyone ever thought of OSHA. Although the iconic photo was familiar I immediately flashed on an old photograph in which my father appeared along with other oil-field men. Sadly, I haven’t been able to locate it, but it was similar, except for the elevation of course. A bunch of workers in their grimy work clothes.
My father was a worker like the men on the girder. Those men built the RCA skyscraper (currently the GE building), but they weren’t entrepreneurs, nor were they heroes in the conventional sense of the word. They were working stiffs, coming to a dirty and often dangerous job every day for a paycheck. Only after the fact were they likely to look back on their experience and reflect with pride on what they did, and there’s evidence that they did. As the article indicates, many of their descendants note with pride the presence of an ancestor in the picture. And there can be no doubt of many similar stories of workers, the ones who built dams for example, another highly dangerous class of jobs. There were numerous deaths in the the building of the Hoover dam. Out of 112 deaths associated with the project, sixteen men died from heat prostration alone in the summer of 1931 when the temperature got as high as 119 degrees.
Ray Wheeler was born in 1905 Oklahoma, the son of an oilfield worker whom my grandmother eventually divorced because of his drinking. When Dad’s stepfather sent him to a “military school” for boys, he rebelled and at the age of 15 with a 9th grade education ran away from home. Just how he managed is unclear, but there were hints in the few stories he did tell. He said he learned welding just from watching other men do it and when he saw a welding job advertised he assured them that he could do that too. And he did. After my mother died I found among her effects an old company photo badge of his from a welding job in North Carolina, a place I hadn’t known he worked.
I can only imagine his adventures. He said he had tonsillitis so bad one time when he was on his own that he thought he would die, and after he recovered a doctor asked him when he had had his tonsils taken out. He hadn’t – he guessed they must have “rotted out” that very sick time so long ago. At the age of 26 he met my mother during a visit home – a country school teacher who was one of my grandmother’s boarders, and they married soon after. I however was purposely put on hold for five years, a financial decision of the Great Depression.
My father was a taciturn man, and apolitical so far as I knew. I never heard him even discuss politics, but this isn’t surprising because he was naturally pragmatic just like his mother, his sister and his half-brother. He accepted the world as it was, with no illusions. He was honest more by nature than by creed. He cared for his family, always; we never lacked for any need. He loved to hunt and fish, those were his particular pleasures, but he worked for money and I recall him expressing pride that he had the kind of job that afforded a “good wage”, meaning better than most. The rate of $2.12 an hour is the one I recall and he often sought overtime, time-and-a-half, working 12-hour shifts. I remember many times his struggle to sleep by day to prepare for night shifts. He rose to the grade of “driller” which was the senior worker position on a cable-tool rig.
His jobs were temporary by design and lasted only until a well was completed, at which time he had to look for another. There were no benefits, no health insurance, no retirement, a tremendous deal for the oil companies. During the war he worked as a welder. We moved around and he welded at a government project near Oak Ridge Tennessee for a year or so, and then at Douglas Aircraft in Tulsa. But after the war, he returned to the oilfields.
What are we to make of such men, these working men? They don’t create jobs, they seek them. They take life as it comes and they make the best of it they can. They accept responsibility. I am reminded of Michelle Obama’s father, Fraser Robinson, of whom a National Review article said,
According to Michelle’s convention speech and to published accounts, her father was a pump operator at the city water plant in Chicago. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis as a young man, and still got up to work every day. The first lady described how she watched him “grab his walker, prop himself against the sink, and slowly shave and button his uniform.” When he came home, he’d reach down to lift one leg after another to make it up the stairs and greet his kids.
Such men serve society not by great inventions, nor by creating jobs, nor by setting records, nor by investing cleverly. They serve by showing up, on time. The serve by hard work and determination and by acceptance of family responsibility. They serve by being so reliable, so determined, so trustworthy that it would never even occur to their children that anything bad could ever happen to them. Yes, I know that not everybody in “the 47%” is like that, but many are and I’m proud that my father was one of them. And the saving grace of his years of labor, after he died of cancer at age 58, was Social Security and Medicaid which enabled my mother and sister to continue their lives in dignity.
When politicians argue about what society owes to “the 47% that pays no income tax” they need to remember that a big part of America’s success is due to the unsung heroes who faithfully show up, face their responsibilities, and keep the economy going. To discount such people is to discount who we are as a nation.