We more or less live in a time where we have come to expect a quantum of leisure time and a variety of experiences. I recall early in the primary grades reading comments about how Americans had more time and more money than ever before to pursue relaxation and generally fun activities.
What was not stated and I have come to recognize, is the generations before ours had no such illusions about what life was to be like. Emerging from the Second World War, the generation born into the Great Depression understood only that life was about work, and prudent retention of hard earned gains.
There is a certain heroism I see in these men that were my grandfather’s peers at the mill in my hometown that no longer stands. Most of them were veterans of that war, came home and were happy to have the job at the mill that paid well enough, but most of all was steady.
The pride they had in the plant was almost religious. It provided for their families, and allowed them to send their children to college.
Their expectations were no greater than that. And perhaps taken for granted, like the steel girders of the plant they worked in, they were mutually supporting; if a man could only earn the respect of his fellow man, that was enough. Wealth was for someone else.
I was taken into this space as a child regularly by my grandfather. A man at the front gate with a hook for an hand opened the guardrail for us then closed it behind us. It is not that there was some dark secret the man with one arm was to protect. Instead it was a job they made up for him in all likelihood, to preserve the man’s dignity; he had a place to go each day that had value to the rest of the community.
We would stop and get out of the car, my grandfather would pull open the huge gate to allow us to enter the vast elevator that was built to hoist machinery to the machine shop, where men stood at lathes and flashed the lightening of welding torches behind dark curtains in a kind of hell. We would leave the way we came, next to check on the vast paper machine my grandfather helped build and now was in charge of maintaining.
Now we live in a time where the heavy industry is done elsewhere, we work in fields that have no cathedral like structures whose product is tangible. At best we attend services each day in skyscrapers and push papers around for other people. One cannot leave the office, look back at the work place and think about the goods one has created for the country. Instead it is only services, here today, gone today. And some dignity is lost in it.
More than this, the structure of the community, of men who had shared work and experiences before this time grew organically, without prescription or artificial invention. This society of trust and mutual respect likely cannot be repeated in our globalized economy.
They took care of each other and their families. Their lives were dedicated to that objective and contained no hubris. We long to emulate their values and their courage.