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June 16, 2014

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My dad's childhood memories of Akron Ohio include taking the trolley to the edge of town, walking out into the countryside, and fishing. Then bring home fish for dinner. A good memory.

He got a Jesuit education and joined the army immediately after graduation. He went to the Philippines for the mop up and lost his religion which he hadn't much believed anyway.

In the Philippines he saw Americans mistreating prisoners mostly out of inexperience and confusion but sometimes out of sadism.He didn't have much sense of soldiering as being super noble or any of the soldier fetish stuff that is so common now.

But he got solid support for his service; went to college on the GI bill. Lots of men from poor backgrounds rocketed into the middle class that way. It's a lot harder to do now, even for a vet.

He became a college professor. I had an amazingly rich childhood full of camping trips all over the West, family trips to the library, family dinners and card games, family Christmases...

He was hero at the end of his life: he cared for my mother up to the moment of her death even though she had dementia and became very hard to handle. He said that those last years were harder than WW2 had been for him.

He was a wonderful daddy..

My father grew up poor in rural GA during the 20's and 30's. He regularly ate stuff like cow brains and squirrel. His family had some land, so they actually ate pretty well, because they ate what they grew. They traded stuff like eggs for stuff they couldn't grow - coffee, salt. No money for other stuff, though.

What he wanted more than anything was a bicycle from Sears.

My mother grew up poor-ish in Brooklyn and Queens. Poor-ish because my grandfather had a job and everybody except my grandmother worked outside the house and brought some money in. At some point they had chickens. Earlier on my grandparents worked as supers in their building, so they got a break on rent. My uncles apparently used to collect coal from the rail tracks.

But to be honest, neither of them thought of themselves as particularly poor, because nobody they knew had any more money than they did. Everybody was pretty much in the same boat.

My grandfather (whom I never knew) delivered ice for ice boxes. He and my grandmother subsistence farmed. His kids went to college, and further, and joined the middle class. Hail the olden days.

I read and enjoyed what you've written so far. I'm glad your Dad's eager to explain things... and I too had no idea that Shinola was a real thing!

My father grew up in the UP. His parents were a housewife (not sure if she worked outside the house when he was younger; probably not) and a logging truck driver. His dad was killed when he was about 8 years old, just as he was about to go off to war. After that, his mother fed those four boys as well as she could giving piano lessons and finding ways to scrape by. She baked bread and sold it, which is something she continued to do well into her 70s. The house he grew up in no longer exists, as it made the modern concept of "shack" look rather plush. They were, in short, living in poverty; they were some of the poorest people in a part of the country where people didn't have much to begin with. They certainly didn't have indoor toilets. As late as the 1960s, grandma still had a integral washtub and hand-cranked wringer that she still used.

But there was hunting and fishing aplenty in the unfrozen months, so he and his brothers did that. As well as fighting, because there was plenty of that as well.

A few years went by, and his mom met a man that she married after a while, and they had three girls. Sounds a little bit like a lower-1-percent version of the Brady Bunch, but I think their lives actually took a turn for the better. Curt worked on the railroad, and he earned fairly good money, and I believe he had a pension as well after he retired. They had at most one automobile the whole time I knew them, and depression-era cooking still heavily influenced the cuisine at grandma's house.

Of those seven kids, five are still alive. Six of the seven had children, and there are far too many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and, yes, great-great-grandchildren to count. My father was one of the first in his family to ever attend college, even though he didn't earn a degree until the late 1980s. In my house, half are college graduates. And all of us; every single one, is far, far better off than was that widow supporting four boys in the 1940s.

Are we happier? More fulfilled? Different questions. Not answerable, I think.

My grandfather (whom I never knew) delivered ice for ice boxes. He and my grandmother subsistence farmed. His kids went to college, and further, and joined the middle class.

My stepmother's father was an ice man, on the West Side of Manhattan. No subsistence farming there, just subsistence.

My great-grandfather dug holes in the ground, which became subway tunnels. One of his kids worked at Bell Labs.

I wonder what our lives will look like to our kids and grandkids.

Are we happier? More fulfilled? Different questions. Not answerable, I think.

Agreed.

my dad just retired after 40 years of teaching English at a small community college in small-town upstate NY. now, he's devoting his time to traveling, wine, and guitars.

(i too was an ice man, in college. it was obviously a good job to have in the summer, but it was minimum wage, and long hours. not something i would want to have to live on, though a couple of the guys did. i still carry the IPEC (Ice Plant Equipment Company) keychain that i found behind some boxes. )

Are we happier? More fulfilled? Different questions. Not answerable, I think.

My parents grew up in what I suppose would be a "small town, middle class" subset. Both went to college. Grandparents all went to college too, though none achieved anything remarkable financially, school teachers for the most part and one lawyer.

Some of my extended family farmed. I found myself working as a farmhand and in construction in my early years. I'm fine with indoor work, no heavy lifting, modern medicine, computers, the whole range of modern stuff. Farming was hard and we had tractors. Construction was hard and we had power tools (pneumatic hammers were not yet available).

Busting your ass all day long outdoors and in bad weather is no fun, at least not for me. However, it was a great motivator.

All of that notwithstanding, if you and your family have known hunger, and if you've gotten to the point where hunger is no longer or much less of a risk, the relative satisfaction if eating regularly vs not regularly or not well is probably much greater than someone like me playing a round of golf at his golf club.

The point is: life was objectively very hard back in the day, for just about everyone. It is much less so today. We take a lot for granted, me as much or more than most folks.

The point is: life was objectively very hard back in the day, for just about everyone.

I don't dispute this, but FWIW I largely enjoyed the manual labor gigs I've had.

So, house painting, basic construction stuff including tear-outs, roofing, basic framing, and general labor.

In all four seasons.

I probably spent about a year and half doing that stuff, all in. I liked it. I was (ahem) much younger than I am now, and probably wouldn't want to do it now, in my late 50's, but most guys in trades graduate out of grunt work before they get to my age.

I didn't have a head for heights, so I went back to coding. Which was, no doubt, a financially advantageous choice, but I have no complaints about having done physical work.

Lots of folks like doing that stuff, assuming they get to the point where they graduate from pure grunt work to something more skillful.

Lots of folks like farming, for that matter. In absolute numbers (of people, not dollars), my impression is that most folks that farm in this country do so on the side, partly because they make (or save) a few extra bucks that way, but mostly because they like to do it.

Not disputing that we have conveniences now that our grands would never have dreamed of, just saying that white collar ain't the only game in town. Even now.

My grandfather studied electrical engineering at Saint Petersburg University shortly before it became Leningrad State University. At that time the U.S. was on the cutting edge of electrical engineering so Nikolai Romanov sent him and a classmate to America to see what they could learn. When their benefactor met an untimely death Popop and is partner decided to buy a couple of Indian motorcycle and check out what America had to offer. He ended up getting a good job with PP&L and was able to raise three sons in relative comfort through the great depression. When the U.S. joined in WWII all three joined the military. One uncle flew with the Flying Tigers and went on to make a career with the USAF surviving Korea and Vietnam. My other uncle joined the Navy and went on to become a vice president of AT&T in Europe. Dad being the youngest missed active duty in WWII but went on to serve as CMO at Williams AFB, cleaning up the remains of young men trying to learn how to fly jets.

The point is: life was objectively very hard back in the day, for just about everyone. It is much less so today. We take a lot for granted, me as much or more than most folks.

I agree with this wholeheartedly, at the same time as I, personally, enjoy a bit of physical work (but not as a means of survival).

The problem (assuming that there is a problem) is that we "take a lot for granted". If we all had to do a stint at hard physical work (not just in our glorious youth, but later, when it hurts a lot), we might take the comfort of "coming inside" as the luxury it is.

I am personally ecstatic that I eat some food grown by me. Summers that it works out, there is nothing better. Summers that it doesn't work out, I'm glad for the grocery store. One summer, I hurt my back terribly. I would have been SOL had I been relying on my physical prowess for sustenance during those months.

Oh, and jeff, your story is amazing. Thanks for it. And for everyone's.

Also, amazing how many icemen cometh.

Just a little more about Dad, he lived an amazing life and was a hero to many, not just me. Dad was a freshman premed student when Pearl Harbor was attacked and followed his eldest brothers lead in signing up with the air force. They told him to skip college and go directly to medical school. Thank heaven WWII was a short war, he graduated just as it was coming to an end. Jets were still experimental when he was directed how to serve. He became a pioneering surgeon and inventor and in the 60's traveled to Japan and Europe particularly Germany sharing what he knew.

I, personally, enjoy a bit of physical work (but not as a means of survival).

To each his or her own. Ideally, we would all do the things that we are good at, that we find interesting and satisfying, and that lets us make the best use of our working lives.

The reason I replied to McK's comment is that, when folks talk about life 100 years ago, as compared to now, they often comment on how technology has made it possible to not have to work so damned hard.

I agree with that, and applaud it. It's great that nobody has to spend an entire freaking day washing clothes, or many many days chopping enough wood to get through a winter.

All good, no reservations.

But I also think we've come to undervalue work that involves plain old physical labor and effort. The sense seems to be that anybody who can possibly find a way to get a white collar job, should do that, and leave the physical stuff to folks who either don't have the intellectual goods, or can't get their sh*t together enough, to do something better.

I'm not specifically ascribing that point of view to McK, or to you, I'm just noting that it exists.

My own opinion is that work - of all kinds, not just physical work - is undervalued in our society, and work involving physical effort is undervalued more than most. And by "undervalued" I mean financially and also from point of view of simple, basic respect.

My reply to McK was simply to point out that, while it's fine that he preferred to be an attorney, many folks actually like to do work that involves physical labor. Not because they can't find anything better, just because they like it.

And not just as a hobby, but as their livelihood, because they feel (likely correctly) that they will create more value, and be more satisfied with their lives, at a physical trade of some kind than doing some white collar job that they don't enjoy, and aren't especially suited for or good at.

There's nothing wrong with that, and we'd be a lot better off if plain old physical work was not seen as some kind of lesser path in life.

My opinion, nothing more or less.

But I also think we've come to undervalue work that involves plain old physical labor and effort.

Not me, I'm just damn glad I don't have to do it for a living, realizing full well that plenty of people like working outdoors. I may have left a mis-impression: I did voluntary, weekend carpentry, ranch work etc up until about 10 years ago. Heavy emphasis on weekend and voluntary. Here's the point about taking stuff for granted: even physically demanding jobs today end, for the most part after an 8 or 10 hour day. The vast majority of Americans go home to indoor plumbing, A/C, and a kitchen with a refrigerator and a stove. Grocery stores are everywhere and so on. Today is unlike and not comparable to any other time in history. Life is easy-peasy for those living western industrial democracies. Not perfect, but by any objective historical standard, it is freaking amazing. Which is taken for granted by just about everyone.

The sense seems to be that anybody who can possibly find a way to get a white collar job, should do that, and leave the physical stuff to folks who either don't have the intellectual goods, or can't get their sh*t together enough, to do something better.

I at least know why I was spared that attitude. When WW II started, my dad was working at GE, in what was a war-critical, draft-exempt job. Except that the paperwork got lost, and he got drafted anyway. We was bright enough that the Army put him into the cryptography unit -- which is where they put their brightest guys. And they decided that, although he hadn't graduated, he had gotten enough classes at Northwestern that he was eligible for OCS.

So he came out of the war a Captain. And joined an apprenticeship program to became a carpenter. He built houses the whole time I was growing up, and we were all quite clear that he was doing so because he enjoyed the work. Just as we were clear that our parents had bought a small farm because they had spent summers on relatives farms and loved living in the country and raising stuff.

Both are hard, physical work. In fact I would go so far as to say that, having done farm work growning up, no job I have had since has counted, for me, as "hard work." I've done hard work, and office work ain't even close.

That's also why I have little patience with those who get hysterical about working conditions in third world factories. If they had a clue what subsistance agriculture is like, they might understand why people queue up to work in those places. It's also the reason why people come the America and are happy doing the kind of farm work that most Americans couldn't cope with -- compared to where they are coming from, it's a walk in the park. (Not to mention that minimum wage American farm jobs pay a whole lot more than they could make at home.)

... even physically demanding jobs today end, for the most part after an 8 or 10 hour day. The vast majority of Americans go home to indoor plumbing, A/C, and a kitchen with a refrigerator and a stove. Grocery stores are everywhere and so on.

All true. And I don't know anyone who thinks about it for more than a minute who isn't grateful for it. Or, oughta be, which I think is much of your point.

Thanks for your reply McK, and also for your comments wj. And also yours, sapient.

I once set out to spend a morning in the GA sun with my uncle, helping him weed the ridiculously large garden he kept well into his 70's.

I lasted about a half hour. That was it for me, I was done. I like building stuff, but farming is not my bag.

Uncle came in at noon, soaking wet with sweat, had some lunch and sweet tea, watched a soap opera, then went back at it until dinner.

We all have our thing.

My own opinion is that work - of all kinds, not just physical work - is undervalued in our society, and work involving physical effort is undervalued more than most. And by "undervalued" I mean financially and also from point of view of simple, basic respect.

I agree with this.

Since our economy has become more efficient, I wish that it would become the case that we could all work less instead of dreaming up ways that we can all work more so that we can earn a living. That's not to say that we wouldn't "work", but we could do things that we enjoy with more of our time, in other words, nonremunerative work. Instead, it seems like the opposite is happening for many people.

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