The Backbone of America
I grew up in a small, blue collar town. My dad, who is 91 this spring, would still be working if he were able. He had a tenth grade education, is a World War II veteran, married for 75 years. He didn’t always like the job he had, didn’t always have nice bosses, never made very much money. But my dad was never without a job. It was the source of his pride. His dad, my Grandad, my children’s great granddad – some of them still remember him – was a farmer. When my dad, the youngest of the boys, was a small boy, they moved to town. Grandad went to work at the Fairbanks and Morse Company. It was so important to them ....
Growing up in the 50s the thought trending at the time was the best thing you could do for your kid was give him a college education. I’m grateful for the education I worked hard to get, and extremely grateful Dave had a full scholarship. We’ve had a wonderful life. But, now I’m seeing other little towns like the one where I lived for eighteen years; now that I’m meeting people who aren’t doctors, lawyers, business managers, I’m relooking and rethinking.
I was in Iuka, Mississippi, last summer. Those who follow my blog may remember this is where I ate the slug burgers. A nice young man came by my table at the reenactment and we talked. He was local, lived in Iuka all his life. “Where do you work?” was what I wanted to know, my father’s daughter, after all.
“I own the bucket truck,” he said. I wondered what that was exactly. He talked on about the bucket truck then he pointed up over my shoulder. “That’s it.” I turned and followed his point. “Ooooh. That’s a bucket truck. I always called them cherry pickers. I guess that’s because I’m from Michigan and that’s what they do with them. Pick cherries.”
He told me he has three brothers and a younger sister. “When we were all young our dad told us, don’t be counting on any inheritance. I’m giving you your inheritance right now. I’m going to show you how to work. And he did. When I was about to get done with high school dad said, ‘there’s a bucket truck for sale. I’m thinking of buying it.’ None of us was very impressed about it, why would he want a bucket truck anyway? Then he said, ‘I’m buying it for you. But then you are going to buy it from me. And when you got good steady work and got your truck paid for then you help the next brother. You understand me?’ So my dad bought me a bucket truck and I got me some work.”
At that moment his bucket truck was sitting in the middle of the battlefield with the bucket – oh, buy the way, it’s a double-bucket bucket truck – both buckets raised high as they go, and a huge American flag, the size of the Chevy dealer flags, fluttered over the field. There were loud speakers attached to the buckets. Later in the day we’d hear the National Anthem, followed by the play-by-play of the Battle of Iuka.
“What does one do with a bucket truck?” I asked.
“First, I have a firewood business. This started really when I was twelve. We had a tornado rip through here and our school playground was littered with trees and they asked men to come with chain saws and clean it up. I wanted to help. The school called my dad to see if it was true that his twelve year old kid could use a chain saw. My dad said, ‘Of course. He’s been using tools since he was eight.’ So they let me. I worked all day out there and all the men left and said the trees were done. The teacher wondered why I was still out there. She thought I was hanging out so I didn’t have to go to school. I told her, ‘No sir, Mrs. Penn. It’s not done. It’s not done until they are cut into proper lengths and stacked. My dad would never let me leave a mess like this.’ That’s how my dad taught us. You aren’t finished with a job until it’s done. So now I had a firewood business. I cut the wood into stove lengths – lots of folks here have wood stoves – and now my bucket truck helps with all that. I learned about tree trimming. I paid my dad back for the bucket truck in three years. When my brother graduated he decided he wanted to have a painting business. He’d painted a neighbor’s house one summer and the neighbor said he’d never seen such good trim paint. He didn’t know it but my dad went over every evening and inspected my brother’s work. If it wasn’t right my dad sent him to fix it up and said not put it on his time. You only get paid for doing it right. Well, I used some of my money and set him up in his paint business and now he’s got so much work to do he can hardly keep up. He painted a new condo over in Corinth. We used my bucket truck to help him out and my brother and I worked as his crew to help him get it done. And that’s good because when we have a bad storm the power company hires me and my truck and my brothers help me out. When my sister graduated she wanted to open a little café in town. So my brothers and I bought this little hole in the wall, he painted it and we put a new roof on it. She sewed curtains and painted it up did all this and she made the best blueberry muffins and coffee. She paid us all back in three years. The thing is, none of us has ever been out of work. We all know how to do about everything and my dad made sure we learned to do it right. We make enough money, we pay our bills, we have everything we need. And that’s about all anybody needs, don’t you think?”
Yep. I think that’s about all anybody needs. I’ve met several people like this and have enjoyed signing their books and shaking the hands of the backbone of America.