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?”