Before I found my way in life and ended up slap-ass lucky with what my father would have called a “pencil-pusher’s job,” I did manual labor. In addition to the farm work that I helped him do, I worked on a Christmas tree farm, and in a shoe factory, a garment factory, and a tire repairs manufacturing plant. The latter required me to be at work at 6 a.m. and to stay there until 4:30 p.m., making rubber patches and plugs in the press room. The work was hot, repetitive, monotonous, and dangerous. Each day was the same as the one before, and each evening found me bone-tired and barely able to eat my supper. Each morning, I woke in darkness and went back to work because my choices were few. I needed the money, and I knew I was lucky to have this job. It was mine to do, and I did it. I’m convinced that what I learned from this work has helped me countless times in my writing and my teaching. Manual labor taught me to show up each day and to persevere. It taught me that things aren’t always easy. It taught me to put my head down and go, moment by moment. It taught me to do the work. So on this Labor Day, I want to pay tribute to all those who put in the time and do the work by reprinting these excerpts from my essay, “Such a Life,” (from the book of the same title)—a piece that recalls my father’s own labor at the end of his days.
I find the card in a drawer at my parents’ house, a union card that identifies my father as a member of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, a fact that surprises me since I’ve never heard him talk about this part of his life.
It was during the Great Depression, he tells me, when the bottom fell out of crop prices and he left the farm in southern Illinois and went north to East Chicago where my uncle got him a job at Inland Steel.
All my life I’ve watched him wear down his body working our farm. He’s wrestled with machinery, hefted hay bales, feed sacks, wagon tongues, stock racks. He’s spent days in the summer sun, cultivating corn and beans, cutting wheat and hay. Winters, in sub-zero weather, he’s chopped ice at our pond and hauled water to our hogs. I’ve seen his shoulders sag as he comes in from the field, his boots shuffling through the dust as if he can barely lift his feet.
When I was young, I never really appreciated the work he did. Although I would come to feel the same strain and weariness in my own body days I spent riding a tractor or later working in factories, I always thought it something I would one day escape. Like my mother, who taught grade school, I was in love with books, and, as I grew into my early adult years, I set my sights on how far away from farms and factories my imagination and words could take me.
My father sits slumped in his chair, his face weathered, the skin loose on his neck. He’s sixty-nine years old. “Now that was work,” he says to me. “That steel. That was damned hard work.”
These autumn days, he slithers beneath his combine each morning to grease the fittings, forcing his heavy body into tight spaces. His toe joints ache from gout, so he gingerly places a foot on the tractor’s draw-bar and pulls himself up onto the seat. That International M bounces over the rutted fields, jostling him. He has to keep getting down from the tractor, whenever he has a hopper full of beans, to empty it into the bed of his truck. Then, again, he has to climb back on the M and start another series of passes around the field. He wears narrow-toed boots, and his toe throbs inside them each time he pulls himself up onto the M, each time he walks over the rough ground. He doesn’t think about stopping; that isn’t a possibility. It’s harvest time, and, as he has done so many years, he has a crop to bring in. It doesn’t matter how he feels. He can rest come winter. That’s what he always says. Plenty of rest come winter.
Then one Monday evening, I come to my parents’ house, and I’m surprised to see my father’s truck parked in the driveway since there’s still daylight left and I can’t imagine why he hasn’t used every bit of it before pulling the tractor and combine into the machine shed and calling it quits for the day.
“Your dad’s not feeling well,” my mother tells me.
He’s in bed, rolled over on his side with his back to me. “I’m sick,” he says when I ask him what’s wrong.
We’ve reached a point in our relationship, that point that men so often reach, where the only way we can show each other affection is through good-natured teasing.
“Sick?” I say. “What do you mean you’re sick? You sure you’re not just gold-bricking?”
“I’m sick to my stomach.” His voice is as flat, as weary as I’ve ever heard it, and I can tell from its sound that indeed something is ailing him. “I’ve been sick all afternoon.”
“Do you want to go to the doctor?” I’m ready to take him, ready to help him to the car and drive him to the hospital, ready to call for an ambulance if that’s what we need. “Don’t you think you should?”
“I’ve just got an upset stomach,” he says.
But it isn’t just an upset stomach. It is, as my mother tells me when she calls me late the next evening, a heart attack, his first. He worked that afternoon with the pressure in his chest. He threw up in the field and kept working. He broke out in a cold sweat and still kept working. It took him the rest of the day and that night and most of the next day to finally admit he was in trouble. “
If you’d waited any longer,” the doctor tells him, “you’d have ended up dead.”
Three years later, he’ll be mowing the yard on one of the hottest days of the summer and his heart will give out for good. That’s what work does to a man. At least the kind of work my father did. Breaks him down. Kills him.
Such a life, I would say to him if I could, as I didn’t that evening when he lay in his bed, his heart seized in his chest. Such a life of toil. All our straining. Such a life of work.