During one of his fifteen days of vacation from the dark heat of the power plant, on his way to the acres he had purchased in the hill country south of his home, he gave advice to his son, who was in danger of failing to graduate from high school. Between moments of coughing up phlegm black with coal dust and cigarette tar, and swiping his mouth against his shirt sleeve, he said, as he had a number of times before, that I should go to college and become a teacher in order to have my summers off. He added, though, that to carry out such a plan I would need to cease taking so much time off from my high-school studies.
My father was in his early forties and had worked overtime for decades. Yet in the jostling pickup he told me on our way to his forty acres that, except for the truly poor, he’d never known a dying person who wished to have made more money. The dying wished for more time with family or whatever else they truly loved. Although he knew he had cancer, and that it was inoperable and untreatable, he was driving to his land in order to labor there on a vacation day. To buy the land, he had needed to work long and hard, and now, to build his dream cabin in the country, he needed to work more. And to hurry. He expected me to work with him.
At least, I saw it as work. I believe that in his way my father—who most likely had never read a poem or novel in his life—thought of himself when working with his hands as a poet of the School of Hard Knocks, his cabin a creation that would grace his lost time and the cancerous pain in his bones. I realize that some MFA poets and professors of literature will sneer at my favorable comparison of an ordinary building, a small structure subject to decay, to a poem. And yet, one morning two decades after my father’s death, I found myself thinking about his creation. I was conversing with a guy who had retired early from his job as a phone-company linesman, and whom I had hired to add on a bedroom to my home. His teenage son was with him when he said—I suspect more to the boy than to me—“If I point up at a phone line and tell somebody I spliced that line, what does it mean to them? But if I point to an addition on a house where a family lives, and I say I built that, well, it means something.”
I felt that the carpenter was no longer standing outside my home as he spoke, but inside. Come on in, he seemed to be saying to his son. It was what a good teacher of poetry might say to her class.
I took my father’s advice. I liked the idea of time off in the summer during which I could stay out late on the town, sleep in, and compose doggerel. I passed chemistry and trigonometry the second time through, and was accepted by a college with low academic standards. I became a fairly good high-school teacher, but I thought of teaching as work and longed all autumn, winter, and spring for my summers off. And yet these days I no longer think of teaching as work that I long to escape. I now teach at a college where many of my students are children of immigrants, and one afternoon a Dominican-American student told me that the reason he wanted a college degree and well-paying job was so that his parents could quit their minimum-wage jobs. Finally, I understood that teaching is not work. Not that kind of work, anyhow.
IF a family in my neighborhood went to a restaurant, it usually signaled that a special occasion was at hand, such as the high-school graduation of a child who would be attending college rather than following Dad into a plant or mill or Mom into the kitchen and laundry room. Most families didn’t “do without,” but they also didn’t have much more than they needed. Except when my father owned the rusty pickup truck used to carry supplies to his cabin-in-progress—a truck he would later sell to a guy who fled town before the check bounced—I can’t recall any family that owned two vehicles. Siblings of the same sex were expected to share a bedroom, as one of my friends and his three brothers did, their dirty clothing piled on the narrow floor space between the bunk beds abutting opposite walls, the mound of muddy and grassy denim and cotton providing a good cushion when each morning the brothers in the top bunks would ignore the ladder and leap down. Of course, women did the laundry. Women prepared the meals. Women changed the diapers. Women cleaned the house. Even the women who worked fulltime at Harrison Radiator, one of the few local industries that would hire them for jobs other than typing and cleaning, they too did most of the housework and childcare and cooking.
If women’s liberation came late to my neighborhood, perhaps in small part it was because it was difficult to be envious of a man who came home coughing up foundry fumes or whose skin was yellowed by the chemical plant, and who, during weekends and vacations, had built the house the family lived in.
MY uncle Al punched the time clock at the power plant for the first time a mere two mornings after his high-school graduation, when my father was still a junior-high-school student. By the time America entered World War II, Al had been trained to weld at the plant and therefore was eligible for a military deferment as a skilled employee of an essential industry; but he enlisted in the army anyhow, and was wounded in Germany. Before his wound healed, the war ended. Eventually he went back to work at the plant, welding broken-down machinery and leaky boilers until the day when his foreman—who had been deferred from military service—began to chew him out for loafing on the job. Al didn’t tell me what he said in response. He told me only, “I didn’t let him finish.” He walked midday from the massive oven that was the power plant, from its air peppered with fly ash and coal dust, from its rattling, banging, whining conveyors and crushers and turbines, from its dingy lighting. The next morning, he went to work on a construction job as a steamfitter.
When I was paying for my education by working summers at the plant, I was tempted to quit college to take a full-time job there—to endure where my paternal grandfather had until his retirement and where my dying father had until he could no longer climb the stairs to the time clock each morning—though I might just as well have moved into a casket to lay in the dark and count the shovelfuls of dirt as they thumped and rattled the lid. “Come on, now,” Al said. “Can you imagine walking into that place for the rest of your life? You better think, boy.”
Back then it was taken for granted that a lad could go to work where his grandfather and father had. He would assume that his own sons and grandsons could work there as well. So many graduates of my high school took jobs on the mass-production line at the nearby Harrison Radiator plant that we students liked to say our school had signed a labor contract with Harrison, a joke not so absurd when you consider how well the petty rules and generally numbing instruction at American schools prepare their graduates to function like androids. Yet, by now, anyone who remembers the joke must think of it nostalgically. Mass production lines all over the country are increasingly run by actual robots—which decline to join the union, don’t take lunch breaks, and never cuss out the foreman. If I had gone to work at the power plant, I eventually would have learned that the plant was closing and that I could have more than summers off.
Most of the plants and mills surrounding my childhood neighborhood have closed, moved, or downsized—Bethlehem Steel, Chevrolet Foundry, Killinger, Trico, National Gypsum, Buffalo Envelope, J. H. Williams, Fisher Price, ConAgra Maple Leaf Milling, Nabisco, and many more—and in the meantime the politicians repeat mechanically, like the Chatty Cathy dolls manufactured by the Mattel corporation, the word “retraining.” The unions now plead: Please help us, Chatty Cathy. Because denied the opportunities and hazards of work for the company, how do men and women buy the supplies needed for adding on a bedroom for a new child? How do they live in their work?
Al built his own house. He built an addition to his daughter’s home, a garage for my childhood family when my father was near death, and a storage shed for me and my wife, and would accept no money, not even for the supplies. He hummed a lot whenever he was constructing a building, although if something went wrong, he would mutter, as if the split board or bent nail were alive, “You son of a bitch.”
During his retirement, Al asked whether I would let him “put a vacation place” on the land where I lived, the property where two decades earlier my father had built his cabin, and of course I said yes. Every other week or so my uncle would drive seventy miles south of his home near Niagara Falls to spend several days in a row working on the old and rundown house trailer he had bought and moved to my property—remodeling the interior, reroofing, hanging gutters, replacing the plumbing, painting the interior and exterior, putting down new flooring, adding more insulation. The trailer was unshaded and he would take breaks inside, where he kept a ceiling and floor fan whirring, kicking back sweaty and shirtless in a lounge chair to drink cold beer until he felt cool enough to go back outside.
My father hired no help when he built his cabin. No excavator or cement truck arrived at his cabin site. We dug the footer with picks and shovels, shoulders and backs; the cement mixer was powered by a gasoline generator, fed with gravel shoveled from the box of the pickup and watered by buckets hauled from the pond; he chiseled and laid up the stone for the fireplace. My wife and I moved into the cabin a decade after his death, and, a few years later, as I was replacing paneling, I discovered an inscription on the underlying block wall: “This cabin built by Jim Phillips in the Years of Our Lord 1966–1971.” It appeared to have been written with a piece of charred firewood, the lettering and numbering as black as the power-plant coal.
Quite a few men of my acquaintance are too damaged to go on working hard, their joints grinding or lungs wheezing after decades of labor. My friend Terry was a dairy farmer and logger, but at age sixty-four he finds it nearly impossible to walk—to limp—more than a hundred feet at a time and can no longer work in the barn or woods. Opioids help, sometimes. He owns a bulldozer and takes excavating jobs when he can get them, assuming his dozer is running or that he has enough money to buy the parts necessary to repair it. He complains little about the pain or his inability to earn money. He complains a lot that he can’t work. Two years ago, when his dozer was running but no excavating jobs were available to him, he decided to build a pond on his land. He finished the job except for plugging the dike where the dozer had pushed out the excavated soil and stone, and the gap remains to this day, the pond but a three-acre hole in the ground thick with goldenrod and ragweed in summer and deep with snow in winter. Occasionally I ask him when he plans to finish it; he shrugs in reply or changes the subject. I suspect that he needs to know there is always work yet to do. If he finishes the pond, then what?
I wonder if is it possible for my daughter and son, college graduates who are the children of teachers, to understand what work means to those who could not attend college. During his break following his first year of college, my son labored for his uncle’s landscaping business, and one day, out in punishing summer heat, the college kid screwed up an assigned task. “What happened?” his uncle asked. “Don’t they teach this in the Ivy League?”
SOMETIMES I forget what hard physical work is like, what it must have been like day in and day out for my working-class ancestors, and what it must be like for immigrants and others who now perform the hardest, dirtiest, and lowest-paying jobs that remain. Yet last winter, during my break from teaching, I cut firewood and managed to recall a little about work. I recalled what I was taught about woodcutting by my maternal grandfather, who was simultaneously a farmer and highway worker and who, when I was a teenager, took me to the woods with him. He showed me how to fell a tree; how to recognize a widow-maker; what to do if a tree hangs up on its way down; how to know whether a length of log should be cut into pieces from the under or top side; how to split a large chunk of wood by working my way around it, knocking off outer pieces, squaring the chunk before attacking the core. He explained what a “face cord” was and how to pile one—a four-foot-high by eight-foot-long stack of firewood, each end perfectly perpendicular to the ground—without using end posts.
Snow and mud prevented me from driving my truck up the steep lane behind the house, where my children liked to sled before they grew up and left home. I lugged chainsaw, ax, and peavey up to where I would begin thinning the stand of two hundred black locust trees I had planted when my wife and I were still childless. The split and stacked wood would dry all spring and summer and warm my home throughout the next autumn and winter. I pulled on muffs to protect my hearing from the eventual violence of the saw, and circled a bole, judging its lean and the wind direction and determining where the tree was most weighted with limbs. I set the choke and yanked the saw rope. It purred. It screamed. Steel teeth chewed a wedge into the trunk, the rakers spewing yellow heartwood, before I moved to the opposite side of the tree and made a cut through it inches above the triangular gap, thereby forming a hinge to prevent a ton of wood from rocketing backward off the stump and into my legs. The crown nodded and I shut down the saw and hurried to put distance between the bole and me. The tree creaked and whined. Through packed snow and the thick soles of my boots, I felt the collision of sky with ground and remembered in that instant the crashing rhythm of physical labor.