Some came here as immigrants. Others were born into the newly-arrived families or grew up among later generations, listening to their elders tell mysterious and compelling tales of those early, shadow-riven years.
A tangled knot of humanity, my family uprooted themselves from England’s Staffordshire hills, fled Ireland’s sweet, green County called Down and sailed away from Baltic seaports, searching for a better life, a richer life, a life more suited to an increase in well-being and independence.
Arriving in Virginia, Philadelphia or New York, they worked their way north, west and south by wagon and by boat. A handful paused in Ohio. Others followed the rivers to Kentucky and Tennessee.
A few sought true adventurer, like my Great-great-grandfather David. He panned for gold in the Colorado Rockies, fought the Civil War from Vicksburg to the Rio Grande and then returned to Iowa, where he took a sweet girl named Annie as his bride and persuaded her back to Texas. They camped here on the prairie, just to the east of a rail town called Melissa, until the lure of familiarity and visions of deep, loamy soils enticed them back to Iowa, to family and to farm.
Decades later, Annie and David’s grand-daughter, Mabel, became my own mother’s mother. Heartbreakingly beautiful, Mabel accepted a proposal of marriage from one of the Elliott boys, but refused to live either on his Nebraska prairie or in any of the efficient if inelegant soddies built from its soil.
While some of the family traveled north to Saskatchewan and others moved south to Louisiana, Edd and Mabel remained in Iowa, raising their family in a little town not far from David and Annie’s old farm.
It was in that town that my mother met my father. The eldest son of Swedish immigrants, Dad took pride in being the first family member to be born on American soil. He often laughed at the family joke that his parents had been forced to travel separately to Minnesota and set up separate households in Minneapolis before they could meet one another and marry.
Why they chose to move on to Iowa remains a mystery. Perhaps they followed friends. Perhaps word of steady work in the central Iowa mines was spreading. But move they did, and they never seemed to regret it.
More stolid and far less romantic than my mother’s people, Ella and Alf could have been Everyfamily, laboring to bring their long-cherished dreams to fruition. They raised six children, adored their grandchildren, survived mining tragedies and the near-demise of their town during the Depression. They gardened and canned, worked with fabric and wood, gossiped in Swedish, read stories in English and generally lived a quiet, Midwestern life.
Like my family, most people in our towns were “working class” folk – farmers, coal miners, draymen and carpenters. Perfectly aware of their position on the lower rungs of the social and economic ladder, they were determined to move upward.
Stung by her shanty Irish label, my mother imagined a lace-curtain life. Injured by falling slate, my grandfather vowed never to allow his children to mine for coal. Embarassed by their Depression-era need for assistance, neighbors said little but often swore, quietly and out of the presence of children, that one day they would free themselves of want. Already honest, they dreamed of respectability. Dignified in their insecurity, they lived to provide security for their children.
Limited by circumstance rather than ability, my own parents received only high-school educations. When the lack of further schooling prevented my father from moving up the corporate ladder, he was deeply frustrated and became determined I never should endure such humiliation. After her experience of true poverty during the Depression, my mother saw education as a meal-ticket, a means of ensuring economic security, and she wanted me to have that ticket.
Like many parents, both were pleased to see me take joy in learning. Still, joyless learning did just as well, since the purpose of a degree was to impress future employers. Knowing this, I did well in high school and then became the first of my family to attend college. One degree led to another, and both made possible an assortment of jobs with respectable paychecks.
They also made possible a different sort of education. Working among masters of office politics, backbiting, dishonesty and bureaucratic maneuvering, I became increasingly frustrated and restless. Eventually, I’d had enough. I banished my high heels to the back of the closet, moved aboard a boat, printed five hundred business cards and went shopping for sandpaper. I was about to become a varnisher.
It took years for me to discover what my mother had kept hidden – that she often helped her dad during a time when he made his living varnishing woodwork in homes. Despite her experience – or perhaps because of it – she viewed my career change with a combination of exasperation, chagrin and terror.
“What will I tell people when they ask what you do?” she said. “Tell them I varnish boats,” I said. “If that doesn’t sound fancy enough, tell them I’m a Brightwork Specialist.” She wasn’t about to be put off, and tried a different tack. “For this, you got all that education?” Trying not to laugh, I said, “Look. If it weren’t for all that education, I wouldn’t have been smart enough to turn myself into a varnisher and start hanging around boats.” My mother was not amused.
On the other hand, boatyards and boat workers terrified her more than my occupation embarassed her. Every night, something was added to the litany of possible horrors. “They’re going to find you on a boat with your throat slit.” “You’ll get pushed off a dock and drown.” “You’ll fall from a mast and break your neck.” ”Those people are going to take advantage of you.”
“Those people”, of course, were products of my mother’s over-active imagination – stereotypical boatyard laborers assumed to be uneducated, insensitive, unwilling to better themselves and morally corrupt. The reality was quite different.
Not everyone working the yards was honest, but most were. Not everyone spoke English, but we learned to communicate. Some men weren’t sure about working alongside women, but women who could do the work were accepted. There was less profanity than I’d heard in most offices, less gossip and far more easy humor.
When someone drank too much and landed in jail, his friends bailed him out. If someone without resources had a need, others extended a hand. Always there was a general willingness to give a day’s work for a day’s pay, an enjoyment of the camaraderie of the workplace and a deep pride in producing quality work.
As time went on, I began to pay closer attention and found qualities I admired in boat workers popping up elsewhere - among construction workers, framing carpenters, farmers and mechanics. After Hurricane Ike swept through Texas, the steady stream of tree trimmers, linemen, crane operators, electricians, divers and salvage experts who followed in his wake exhibited many of the same qualities.
Coming from every part of the nation, as a group they were direct, open, confident and proud of their skills. Problem solvers at heart, they didn’t whine about conditions or complain about the difficulties piled up around them. Effective and professional, they’d come to do a job and when they left, the job was done.
Watching them work was mesmerizing. Often using nothing more sophisticated than two-way radios and hand signals, they moved, heaved and unpiled buildings, boats and piers with a kind of understated grace usually reserved for symphony conductors or surgeons. Their work was their “team-building exercise”, and nothing that could harm the team was tolerated.
On this Labor Day weekend, I remember them all, grateful for having had the opportunity to work with them. The working men and women of this country – stereotyped, ridiculed for lack of formal education or lack of manners, called by dismissive names and often imagined to be something they are not – are still, to a degree fewer and fewer people appreciate, the people who make this country work.
They are the ones who have a visceral understanding of cause and effect. They understand that inattentiveness may lead to the death of a co-worker, or human error bring the collapse of a company. Tolerant of one another, they have little tolerance for sloppy work or nasty behavior, and they still can experience the pride of a job well done.
Some years ago, as I watched the process of recovery after Hurricane Ike, a fellow standing next to me on the bulkhead said, “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Thinking he was referring to the boats tossed and tumbled and strewn about, I said, “It’s pretty bad, isn’t it?” “No,” he said. “Not that. The crews. I’ve never seen so much hard work look so easy and even enjoyable. Those guys really have class.”
“Yes,” I said then and think again today. “They really do. They have all the class in the world.”