After struggling to complete my junior year of college, I withdrew from school, went back to southeastern Illinois, and got a job as a pressman in a tire repairs manufacturing plant. I ran presses that molded rubber into plugs or patches. Day after day—eight hours a day, and sometimes ten—I loaded my press with slabs of rubber or sheets of patches, and “cooked” them until they were done. Unloading each batch of plugs was the worst part of the job. I wore protective sleeves on my forearms and two pair of cotton gloves on my hands. I had to tip the tray that held the rubber up on its tracks and, while holding it there, use the heel of my right hand to rub the plugs off into a cardboard box. The tray and the plugs were hot, and despite the protection offered by the gloves and sleeves, I always managed to burn myself. Day after day, tray after tray. I opened the press machine. I closed it. I opened it. I dislodged the plugs. I started again. It was monotonous and hot and risky work. Only months before, I’d sat in classrooms talking about poetry and novels and plays and essays, only a good part of the time, I didn’t sit in those classrooms because I had a motivation problem and wasn’t going to class. I was young and stupid, and I came close to throwing away the chance of a lifetime.
I came from a part of the state that was working class. If you didn’t farm, you might work in the oil fields, or at the refinery, or at the shoe factory, or the garment factory. You might build bicycles at the AMF Roadmaster plant, or gut chickens at Kralis Poultry, or you might make chain link fence at Master Halco, or work for Kex Tire Repairs like I did. And, if you went away to college and couldn’t make it there, you could come home and do this work, and no one would think anything was out of the ordinary because you were from this part of the world where most people made their livings from manual labor, and college and a life beyond it was meant for other people instead of you. So when I came home, my parents and those who knew me assumed I’d settle into this working life, and it would be mine until I became too old or too sick to do it anymore.
Let me make it clear that I have nothing but the highest regard for the people who do this kind of work. My father farmed our eighty acres until his heart gave out. My mother worked as a housekeeper, cook, and laundress in a nursing home after she retired from teaching school. At Kex, I spent my days with good people who knew what it was to put in a honest day’s work for an honest wage. I felt their dignity each day and admire their perseverance even more now that I’m years beyond the time I spent in their company.
But I knew—in fact, I knew right away—I wouldn’t stay. It didn’t take too many days of that kind of work to convince me that I had to find a way to get back to college. I saved my money, and I went back, and, when I did, it was with a renewed determination and purpose. At the time, I didn’t know where this dedication would take me. I only knew I was going. I graduated with my undergraduate degree, and then, over the years that followed, I completed three graduate degrees. I find myself now in my thirty-seventh year of teaching at the college level. I’ve published five novels (with a sixth forthcoming), three memoirs, two short story collections, and a craft book for writers. Still, to be completely honest, there are times when I complain about the work I do—when I moan that the writing is hard, that the teaching demands too much of my time, that the work goes underappreciated.
That’s when I think about those days at Kex, and the hot presses, and the burned arms, and the exhausting tedium of that work. I think of the men and women there who were working to keep a family housed and fed even when their bodies were sick or broken. I think of the way they all wished me well when I told them goodbye, even though—I know this now—they knew they were there for the duration.
So, this Thanksgiving week, I look back on those days of hard, manual work, and I give thanks for what it taught me, and I give thanks for the fact that for more than thirty-seven years I’ve had the good fortune to be able to spend my time doing what I choose to do rather than what I have to do, and I remember the men and women and all they taught me about work and what it takes to keep your dignity and your capacity for joy through this labor that wears you down. I give thanks for what I love and for the struggles that have allowed me to spend the years writing and teaching. If I could somehow speak to each person with whom I worked that year and a half at Kex, I’d tell them they’re never far from me. I call upon their will, their strength, their courage, and their grace in everything I write. I may have left them, but they never left me, and for that, above all, I give thanks.