|Auglaize River, Wapakoneta Ohio. |
Photo by Linda Kneer
Tuesday, March 27, 2018
VIGNETTE FOUR—HARD WORK
I sometimes wonder why I’ve worked as hard as I have in my lifetime. I’ve thought a lot more about this recently since I’ve started taking it a little easier. I still work fairly hard and am very busy with projects of my own besides those of my select clientele, but I no longer kill myself jamming my days with more work than I can safely handle and driving myself to the limits of my mental and physical capacity.
When you have time to think, and not just to work until you drop, you start to ask yourself why on earth you used to do that, when life could have been so much more fun and rewarding if you’d always picked and chosen what you did the way you do now. After all, if you look back, most of the “work-work” you invested so much time and vital energy in was, seen objectively, of little or no consequence, and certainly not worth squandering your youth and good health on it.
But then again, when you start having such thoughts, you realize that they’re futile. Then was then, and now is now, and you’re not the same person you used to be back then, and, as Willie Nelson sagely sings, “I could cry for the time I’ve wasted / but that’s a waste of time and tears / And I know just what I'd change / If I went back in time somehow / But there’s nothin’ I can do about it now.”
If I analyze my subconscious drives, they, like a lot of other things about me, can be traced back to my father, Whitie, and certain thoughts and traditions that he managed to instil in me, no matter how hard I tried to rebel.
Whitie, my dad, was forever telling me about how hard he’d had it as a kid. And I didn’t doubt that he had. Those were the Great Depression days and his father, my Grandpa Murel, had, like many other people, lost everything by entrusting it all to a single bank, which closed its doors overnight and left him holding the (empty) bag. Banks weren’t backed by the Federal Treasury in those days and if an institution went belly up, you were simply screwed if you had money in them.
I once heard that the amount my grandfather had lost was twenty thousand dollars. In today’s money, that would be pretty close to three hundred thousand bucks or more. A lot of savings for a thirty-something barber and later grocery store owner, and a traumatic enough loss that for the rest of his life, Murel always had accounts spread around in numerous banks and sometimes carried as much as a couple of thousand dollars in cash in his wallet, just to make sure he was never again left wiped out and penniless.
Grandpa Murel figured he’d had to work for every dime he’d ever made and that everybody else should do the same. It didn’t much occur to him that a parent had certain responsibilities toward his offspring, and already as a little kid I’d heard stories about my Grandma Alice fleshing out her meager household allowance by turning out his trouser pockets while he was asleep to get whatever roll of smaller bills and loose coins he had there that weren’t in his wallet, which he carefully put away at night.
As soon as a boy was strong enough, he should be earning his keep, Murel figured. So, according to Whitie, from the time he was about ten, his father made sure he was never idle in the summertime when he was out of school. Often the jobs involved a long bike ride out past the city limits to clear land or to pick fruit and vegetables. Other times it was ditch-digging for field-tiling. And at the end of the day, he said, there was only a shiny quarter or fifty-cent piece for his trouble.
There were some Depression Era parents I knew who spoiled the heck out of their kids because they never wanted them to have to make the kind of sacrifices they themselves had. Kids, they felt, should be going to school, devoting time to extracurricular activities and having fun with their friends, not being saddled with the drudgery of work from a young age. But Whitie was of a different school. Whatever had been good enough for him was good enough for me. The only way you learned the reality of life was by earning your keep from a young age, the way he had and the way his father before him had. What hope was there for you if you thought money grew on trees? You’d only end up taking a fall once you’d been kicked out of the nest and had to fend for yourself.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think I was above hard work. On the contrary, I tended to enjoy physical labor and often volunteered for it at home and to help out my Grandma Alice whenever she was doing the heavier yard and garden tasks, like spading, mowing, weeding, etc. With me it was kind of the Zen thing. You know, before enlightenment, chopping wood, carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood, carrying water. I didn’t mind or think that kind of labor was beneath me. In fact, I considered it noble and adult.
But some of the things Whitie got me saddled up with were above and beyond. I remember “a little yard job” he got for me when I was about nine or perhaps ten. It was at the home of a lady who worked in the kitchen at Whitie’s business, the Teddy Bear Restaurant, on Blackhoof and Main in Wapakoneta, Ohio, my home town. The most she could pay me was fifty cents. But, hey, like Whitie always said, fifty cents was fifty cents. It was “a lot if you didn’t have it.”
Turned out the lady lived in a little house behind a rocky flood wall, on the north bank of the Auglaize River, which ran through our town. It was a nasty, stony, gullied, spit of low land recovered from the river, seeded with a tough, wide-bladed growth that looked for all the world like pure quake grass. It had been a while since anybody had mowed it and the grass was ankle high. I’d asked Whitie if I could use his mower to do the job but he allowed that hers would be “better suited to the terrain”, and besides, I “might hurt myself” working there alone with a power mower.
The lady’s “better suited” mower turned out to be a relic, an ancient push mower that had seen a lot better days. At that age, the handle came to just beneath my chin and the grips, when I would lean forward to push, were at about the height of my ears. Maintenance was conspicuous by its absence. The mower’s blades were somewhat rusted and less than sharp. The wheels appeared never to have been greased. So when I would push, the hand-mower would often jam so that neither the wheels nor the blades turned and the thing would just skid on the grass and make me cuss under my breath. Then I would have to unjam the blades and wheels by hand and start again.
The ill-kept, dull mower was no match for the deep crabgrass and multiple gullies, and as such, the job turned into a slow-progress nightmare that quickly exhausted me. The sun was going down when my father—at the behest of my mother—showed up to take me home for supper. He found me frustrated to the verge of tears, still trying to shove the ancient manual machine through the thick grass to no avail.
“What’s the story?” he wanted to know. “You should have been done long ago.”
“Not with this piece of crap mower,” I said, my voice shaking.
“Can’t be that bad,” he said.
“That’s easy for you to say.” I said.
With that, he took the machine from my hands and started manhandling it through the dense grass, as if to show me how it was done. I was beside myself with glee when the mower jammed on him and I heard him mutter “What the hell?” The lady wasn’t home. So Whitie went up to her tiny tool shed on the carport and helped himself, scrounging around until he found an oil can and brought it back to where the mower had hunkered down and refused to budge.
“You’ll tell her I didn’t take her oil, right?” I asked. I didn’t want her accusing me of being a thief. But Whitie didn’t answer. He was cussing under his breath and abundantly lubricating the machine in the failing light. Suddenly, after a few experimental pushes, the clattering antique started to function.
I thought Whitie would give it back to me and tell me to finish the job I’d started, but he didn’t. Instead, he curtly said, “Go back to the car and wait. I’ll finish this up quick so we can get the hell home to supper.”
It was the beginning of autumn and almost dark by the time he hustled the old mower up to the shed, put it away and climbed into the car.
“Sorry, Dad,” I said, not trusting my voice to get out around the big lump in my throat. And when he said nothing, I said, “Sorry you had to help me out. I just couldn’t get that darn thing to work.”
Then he said, “At least the job’s done. That’s what’s important.”
But I could tell he wasn’t happy with me. I’d failed him once again. And I promised myself never to do that again. Whatever job I took on, I’d finish it, even if it killed me.
But the worst job by far that Whitie ever got me into was when he hired me out for a summer job painting a picket fence around the property of a breakfast customer the Teddy Bear. The guy was a union tool and die man at the Ford plant in the nearby industrial city of Lima. He lived on the east edge of town and could be to work in a hop, skip and a jump from there. He made his home in a nice old two-storey brick house, which, I can only guess, had once been part of a farm before the land was divided up into lots and a housing addition built up out there. The house was surrounded by a typically small-town American white picket fence.
Anyway, it seems this customer had been asking for estimates from painters to get that fence re-done—adult painters, who charged real living wages. He was griping to Whitie about how high their prices were while waiting for his eggs and bacon. Whitie, who was known for being thrifty, was commiserating with this guy, but one of the other patrons sitting at the long front table, where many of the town’s movers and shakers had their morning coffee together, piped up and said, “You union guys are all alike. You think what you do’s worth a fortune, but then when you ask for a labor estimate for some job you want done yourselves, you scream highway robbery and cry like babies.”
So the guy clammed up and let the subject drop. But he’d left Whitie brainstorming. School was out and a summer job would do me good, since, in his view, I refused to play baseball or anything and “wasted” all my time banging on the drums, reading or hanging out at the pool. This was actually not true, of course. That year I was ushering and cleaning at the movie theater, mopping the dining room after closing at the Teddy Bear, playing a few teen dance gigs with a little rock ‘n’ roll band called The Trees, and taking care of a few yards on the residential end of Auglaize Street, Wapakoneta’s main thoroughfare. But my father clearly believed this was way too little to make profitable use of my time.
So when this guy got up to leave, Whitie said, “Say, Jim, my boy’s not doing anything much. Maybe he could paint that fence for you.”
“Well, does he know how to paint?” the man asked.
“Oh yeah,” said Whitie, “he started helping me paint when he was ten. Helped me scrape and paint that big old house we owned on West Auglaize. He’s pretty good and does a nice neat job.”
Indeed, that tall gabled house had had old slate roofs and Whitie hadn’t wanted the two adult painters he’d hired to help him walking around on that roof and cracking the fragile slate tiles. I was tall for my age but still, compared to the men, I didn’t weigh more than about seventy pounds back then. So Whitie handed me a paint scraper and a wire brush, showed me how to set and steady the extension ladder, and sent me up to the lofty heights of the gables to start chipping old paint.
Now, I was fourteen, and I’d painted a lot of things in the four years since then.
“How much will he charge me?” the guy asked.
“How about forty bucks?” Whitie said, grabbing a figure out of the air without having any idea what the job entailed. The guy was probably pleased since any professional painter would have charged him way, way more, but he couldn’t help haggling.
“How ‘bout thirty?” he tried, and Whitie said, “Sold!”
That night, Whitie said, “Hey Danny, I found you a neat little odd job so you can make a little extra money this summer. I figured it’d make a nice little difference for you.”
“What is it?” I asked a little suspiciously.
“You know Jim, the Ford guy who comes in for breakfast every morning at the Teddy Bear?”
“Well, he’s got this little picket fence around his place that needs painting."
I didn’t say anything.
“He’ll pay you thirty bucks to do it. Hell, you’re a good painter. Shouldn’t take you long.”
“You think I’m a good painter?” I asked incredulously, since I seldom got anything like a compliment from Whitie.
“Hell yes you are!” he said enthusiastically. “And let’s face it, thirty bucks is thirty bucks. How long can it take to paint a little fence?”
After the first morning of meticulously scraping and brushing the badly peeling paint from a section of pickets, posts and rails, I started to realize how long. In that entire morning of painting-chipping and wire-brushing toil, I had managed to prepare about twenty pickets and their corresponding sections of rail and posts for painting—the actual painting would only come when the entire fence had been scraped and wire-brushed. When I broke for lunch, I gazed down the long rank of pickets that I was working on and decided—probably unwisely, since once the job had begun, it would have been unthinkable for me to quit before it was finished—I decided to count how many there were in the entire fence surrounding the house.
The answer was devastating for my morale: There were four hundred fifty pickets, thirty four by four-inch posts, and fifty-eight sections of two by four-inch rail, all with paint in a similarly disastrous state of disrepair. Clearly, the job would take most of the summer, since, having other obligations, I could only work mornings on it.
It was obviously a losing proposition. Even if I brown-bagged for lunch and didn’t let myself be tempted more than once a week or so to get a foot-long hotdog and a slush or a root beer at Mayor Max’s dairy bar a block up the street, there was no way the economics on this project worked. And if I did a meticulous job, I would have to put up with the owner of the fence and Whitie constantly asking me when I was going to finish. By this time, however, I had read Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, which detailed Michelangelo’s arduous struggle to complete the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and it was clear to me that patrons never appreciated the work of true artists—whether they were painting the Sistine Chapel or a picket fence. Like Michelangelo’s Pope Julius II, they would forever be badgering the artist to hurry up and finish, oblivious to the fact that quality took time and patience.
I lost money and the free time to enjoy with my friends that summer, but I gained the self-respect of carrying a hard job through to the end, and of doing the highest-quality job I was capable of. Every job I did from then on would be done the same way...right up until today.
There have been times when well-meaning friends have encouraged me to take a more mediocre attitude toward “work-work” and to save my energy for my own creative projects. Perhaps I’m obtuse, but I’m afraid I don’t know how to do that and I’ve always suspected that if you take a slovenly attitude toward one job, that will end up being your attitude toward every job. In other words, practice working badly and when it comes time to work well, you won’t know how. Perhaps the trick is, then, as I said earlier, to choose the projects you undertake better, making sure that they fit within the focus of what you love, rather than what you think you need.