Class Ring

My Dad did independent contracting jobs in the 1970s to earn extra money.  When I turned thirteen he drafted me as his laborer for glorified donkey work.  I dug ditches for foundations, scraped wood siding on houses before painting them, hauled bundles of shingles up ladders, trundled wet cement in wheel barrows, and cleaned trash and discarded belongings out of abandoned rental units.  He paid fifty cents less than minimum wage, but I knew better than to complain.

Dad landed a cement job the summer before my junior year.  A man who owned a frame house in east Dayton wanted a front porch.  I helped dig a trench for the foundation.  The project was on time and profitable until a neighbor saw that my father hadn’t posted a work permit on the site.  He reported us to the authorities, and they did a surprise inspection after the foundation of concrete blocks had been laid.  They fined Dad and told him that the foundation was a few inches too shallow.  We had to pull out the blocks and dig deeper.  The foundation was reset, and a cement mixer truck rumbled up the street early one morning and poured a load into the wooden forms Dad had built around the foundation.  He and I spread and smoothed the heavy, gray sludge with shovels, rakes and trowels until we had a fairly uniform slab.  The cool, overcast weather kept the cement from hardening quickly.  Dad decided to knock off for lunch figuring that we’d have plenty of time to do the final surfacing work that afternoon.

While we were away the sun came out and the temperature shot up five degrees in an hour.  We discovered when we returned that the cement was nearly rock solid.  He and I worked frantically with our tools but couldn’t properly trowel and edge the slab.  Dad swore at the concrete, at me, at his edger, at the sun.  We all had conspired against him.

The owner refused to pay for the porch.  He knew a shoddy job when he saw one, and so did my Dad.  The next week we took sledge hammers, broke it up and hauled away the debris.  Then we hired a cement mixer to dump another load into rebuilt forms.  This time we stayed on the job until the surfaces were slickly finished on the edges and across the whole expanse of the porch.  At the end of the day the owner finally handed my Dad a wad of cash.

I hadn’t gotten a cent up to that point, but when we got home Dad kept his wallet firmly wedged in his pants pocket.  A few weeks later school started, and the juniors got order forms for class rings.  My sister had gotten one, bought and paid for by my parents a few years earlier.  But Dad’s company was in the process of laying off workers, and our family finances were about to take a severe blow.  I didn’t know how my parents would react when I showed them the photo of the gold and garnet ring I favored.  A few days went by before my Dad spoke to me about the ring.  He grumphed, “I took a loss on that porch job.  That’s why I didn’t pay you.  I’m going to buy you your class ring, and we’ll call it even.”  I nodded in agreement even though I knew that he was shortchanging me.  I figured that something was better than nothing.

Dad got laid off in November right before Thanksgiving.  His former employer mailed him his twenty year pin a few days after giving him a pink slip.  The pin came with a letter thanking him for his loyal service.  Dad decided to turn his back on finding another factory job and attempted to grow his part time work into a full time business.  We scraped along for the next eight months on savings and the cash he brought in from remodeling and light construction projects.

I got the ring and enjoyed wearing it until I lost it midwinter.  It snowed one night in January, and on the following day the weather stayed frigid and dry.  My brother and I fought a snowball battle in the side yard after school, and we had to take off our gloves and use the heat of our bare hands to pack snowballs that held together when thrown.  I bombarded Tony for as long as he was willing and taunted him when he retreated inside.  That evening I noticed that my ring was gone.  I searched my bed covers, the kitchen counter and table, under my bed, on my dresser.  Then I remembered the fight, how cold my fingers had been, how my ring slid up and down easily on my wet finger.  I realized that I must have thrown it off my hand when I whipped a snowball at Tony.

I desperately searched the yard the next morning but couldn’t find it in the melting snow, mud, and needles from a nearby evergreen.  When I went to school I noticed guys twiddling their rings on their fingers, tapping them on tables.  I saw girls wearing their boyfriends’ rings on chains around their necks.

I reported the lost ring to my parents that evening and asked them if it could be replaced.  I wasn’t surprised when the answer was “no”.  They weren’t going to pay for a second ring when I had been stupid enough to lose the first.  I didn’t argue that I had paid for the first with my labor. At that time our grocery supplies came up short by the end of each week, our cars were old and dying, and Mom wore a strained look on her face whenever the topic of finances came up.  A ring could wait.

That spring my Dad gave up on his dream of self-employment.  He couldn’t afford the necessary equipment to make his business profitable enough to support a family.  He took the first of a series of dangerous and unpleasant factory jobs while still doing small projects on the side.  I continued to work for him in the summer.  He bought us lunch and cheap beer for the end of the day, and he paid me fifty cents less than minimum wage.  I took it, saved it.  Something was better than nothing.

I met my first girlfriend while working with Dad building another concrete porch.  Marge brought me lemonade and asked if I wanted a radio to listen to as I shoveled and hauled.  Dad let me off early one afternoon a few weeks later when she invited me to come with her to a swimming pool.  I gave him a look of stunned disbelief as we pulled out of her driveway, and he grinned back.

I spent all the money I earned that summer on dates with Marge and forgot all about buying myself another ring.


The Fake Controversy: How to Start a Fight

I’ve been coming across a lot of posts recently that are aimed at starting a fight, written with the intent of inciting anger and outrage.  I’ve noticed two techniques that the controversy mongers consistently use to raise the blood pressure of their readers.

The first is to make a false connection between two unrelated issues.  Back in early winter I saw a post that said that refugees shouldn’t be taken into the United States until every homeless veteran was given food and shelter. There was no discussion in the argument about how a stymied Congress would come up with the money to help vets, but that wasn’t the point.  The intent of the message was to cancel out concern for refugees while allowing the authors to hide their callousness behind a sanctimonious stance.  Homeless veterans were simply used to create a wedge issue, and any expressed concern for their welfare was meaningless lip service.

I saw a post yesterday that made a disingenuous connection between a proposed raise of the minimum wage and the low level of military pay.  The author claimed to be a military man who was outraged that “burger flippers” would earn a lot more in a year than a soldier, Marine or sailor if the minimum wage was raised to $15.00 an hour.  His anger was based on his assumption that any job in the military should be compensated at a higher rate than an entry level civilian job.  I thought that it was odd that the soldier was advocating that current poverty levels be maintained in the civilian population.  Wouldn’t a charitable man cheer the possibility of a minimum wage raise and argue for higher pay for members of the military?  He must be aware that the Pentagon’s budget is bloated with waste, and that some portion of the defense funds could be directed to increase the salaries of our noble fighting men and women.   And why didn’t he think things through and come to the realization that civilian workers contribute more to national defense when they earn more money and pay more taxes?  And isn’t he going to be leaving the military at some point?  Wouldn’t he be heartened to know that the worst job he could find in the civilian job market would still pay him a living wage?  I suspect that our angry soldier is either a fool or a fictitious character.  But in either case, a wedge issue was created out of thin air once again.

The second technique is to attack people in other groups while claiming to have the moral high ground.  This stance allows the holy elect to question the motives, morals and innate goodness of their opponents, which leads to intolerance of opposing religious and political beliefs.  Every word that comes out of the mouth of members of an opposing camp is suspect, and every action can be linked to a conspiracy theory.  Folks on both the far right and the far left are guilty of this practice.  And both sides want to have their own versions of politically correct speech at the others’ expense.  The right takes umbrage whenever anyone suggests that there might be a few things wrong with the country.  They label critics of the American status quo traitors,  criminals,  communists, and effete intellectuals.  The ever so sensitive folks on the left demand torturous speech gymnastics that provide words that strain to offend no one while communicating little.  And the ardent lefties assume that all of their opponents are fascists, greedy corporate automatons, and ignorant Bible thumpers who deny science.  Communication between the two camps is negligible seeing that common ground is neither sought nor actually believed to exist.

So what shall we do?  How do we want to live together?  Do we want to live together?  Will our addiction to outrage and political/religious fanaticism turn us into vicious packs of dogs tearing at each other?

I want to live in peace and be left alone for the most part.  I say what I think when I find it necessary, but feel no need to impose my beliefs on other people.  I’m grateful when my relatives and neighbors do not try to force their opinions on me.  The only traditional American tenet that I wish I could demand of everyone was expressed in Lincoln’s second inaugural speech when he said, “With malice toward none and charity for all…”  If we took those words to heart we just might reclaim a genuinely exceptional American trait:  friendly civility.

I Am a Lineman for an Asshole (With Apologies to Glen Campbell)

After I graduated from the University of Delaware I moved to State College, Pennsylvania to be reunited with Judy. We had spent my last year of schooling apart, she working as a post doc in a plant physiology lab at Penn State, and I painting and playing politics with my faculty advisers. I relaxed for a week or two and settled into my new environment, but then began to look for a job. I was weary of academia and didn’t bother to search for a job on campus, but found a help wanted ad in the newspaper for a tour guide for an attraction about fifty miles north of town. Tours of a water filled cave were given by boat, and the guides would be responsible for pointing out the wonders of an underground fairy land. I had taught a lot of classes at Delaware and figured that it wouldn’t be much of challenge to deliver a standard spiel while pointing at a stalactite or two. I sent in an application.

A week later I got a call and a woman told me that I was hired as a lineman at a tiny airport adjacent to the tourist center. I asked the caller to explain my duties and she said, “You work around airplanes…stuff like that.”

I hesitated to accept. I had learned that when someone offered me something out of the blue I was sure to regret taking the deal. I also wondered why I hadn’t been considered for the other job. I told the woman on the line that I had no experience with airplanes and that I wasn’t much of a mechanic, and she said, “You’ll get trained. Can you come in tomorrow?” I was curious and a little desperate to find a job, so I agreed.

The last country road on my sheet of directions ran between two mountain ridges. Farms and small woods lined either side, and as I drove along I occasionally saw an Amish homestead. Stern looking men wearing beards and black, wide brimmed hats tended their fields of hay and corn. Heavy draft horses pulled wagons and ancient looking farm equipment. The airport lay in a flat and wide section of the valley and consisted of two hangers and a low slung administration building. There was no tower. There was only one runway that ran about 100 yards between the hangers on either end of the strip.

A heavy set, fussy man named Ken explained my duties to me. My work would include cleaning airplane interiors, gassing the Piper Cubs used by our two pilots to give rides to tourists, sweeping and mopping the hangers, cleaning toilets and urinals, hauling garbage to a landfill on the property, mowing the lawn, vacuuming and dusting the owner’s office, etc. A lineman was a glorified janitor.

I had no other prospects at the time and wanted to earn back some of the tuition that Judy and I had spent on my degree. I began to work under Ken’s close and somewhat obsessive supervision. At his direction I mowed lawns that didn’t need mowing and cleaned airplanes that were nearly spotless. He told me that I must never under any circumstances put more than two spare rolls of toilet paper in the main hanger’s guest bathroom. It wouldn’t have been unlikely if he had counted how many new urinal cakes I put out on a monthly basis in hopes of catching me wasting our supplies.

The owner was an ex-military blow hard who still liked to shout commands. One day as I vacuumed the carpet in his office he told me all about his aunt. She painted flowers and dramatically lit studies of the Nittany Lion, the cougar mascot named after Mt. Nittany, the rounded, ancient peak that overlooked the Penn State campus. He showed me a few of her stiff, amateurish paintings hung on the wall opposite his desk, and we suffered through a stilted conversation about their merits.

The mechanic was a twenty something, bow legged man who stood about five feet four. He was heavily muscled, spent a lot of time grousing about his job, and seemed to enjoy throwing his tools down in disgust when a repair went wrong. He owned a plot of land on which he was starting an orchard. He told his fellow underlings at lunch that he hoped to quit the airport once the orchard turned profitable, but that the “goddamned Amish” were undercutting his prices. I understood from him that the English speaking locals despised their peace loving, anachronistic neighbors for reasons that he didn’t bother naming. They were self evident. One day he revealed that he had been forced to hit his wife the night before when she got mouthy with him. The rest of us sat in shocked silence for a few seconds before I managed to say, “If I did that my marriage would be over.”

The secretary/air traffic controller was in her late teens and was visibly pregnant. She had recently become an ardent Christian and confessed to us that her wild days of partying and running with boys had lead to her predicament. She had faith that her shotgun wedding would last and that she and her husband and baby would have a happy life now that she had found Jesus. She was a sweet kid and I felt sorry for her. Her sense of guilt and shame about her past  seemed disproportionate, and her newfound piety appeared to demand that she constantly remind herself of her shortcomings.

The job, of course, was physically taxing, tedious and sometimes a little scary. I was responsible for determining whether the underground gas tanks had any water in them. A water bubble in a fuel line could stall an engine and down a plane. I stood on high ladders and cleaned airplane windows with a noxious solvent that could eat through the rubber housing them in place if I was careless. The fumes from the solvent made me slightly dizzy and a little high, and I often had to catch hold of the ladder when I swayed or leaned too far. But the most troublesome job was to drive the fuel truck from one hanger to the other. The only route was the narrow runway that served both for take offs and landings. I was told on my first day to look above the big oak tree in the field to the south to check for incoming planes, and then to look in the opposite direction for aircraft coming in off the mountain. If I still had a bad feeling about the possibility of being struck by a bogie and instantly incinerated when the truck’s tank full of gasoline exploded, I could always drive my vehicle on the grass median on the side of the runway.

Several things led me to quit after a couple of months. Ken continued to drive me crazy with his nitpicking. Judy hated how useless I was when I came home exhausted. The Japanese manager of the cave tours had begun to have one-on-one sessions with the employees for the purpose of “attitude adjustment”. I was temporarily exempt from brainwashing, but wondered when the manager would escort me to his office in an attempt to make me more cheerful about earning minimum wage as a fetch it boy doing donkey jobs shortly after earning a masters degree. But one incident finally induced me to give them my two weeks notice.

It was a gloomy Saturday and no one else was on the grounds. The sky looked threatening in the northwest, and I was surprised when a small airplane came in for a landing. It wobbled as it descended on cross winds shooting through the valley. The pilot was a man in his thirties, and his passengers were his wife and two young kids. He came into the office and asked me to come up with a flight plan for a trip to St. Petersburg, Florida. I told him that I had no idea about how to do that, but showed him into a room where our secretary listened to a radio for weather reports and where maps were stored in a desk. I called the owner for help.  He lived in a large, two story house near the south end of the complex.

When the blowhard arrived he glared at me and explained how simple it was to develop a flight plan. Any idiot, including me, could figure it if he just took the time and was just a little bit logical in his approach, and then he, the owner, wouldn’t be bothered by such trivialities while he was busy watching baseball. The owner took the pilot in hand and gave him a flight plan, and I made my exit.

I went back to sweeping up a hangar and wondered what my employer would have done if I had randomly advised the pilot and sent him and his family to their deaths in a gale over the Appalachians. I told Judy about the incident when I got home, and she thanked me when I told her that I was going to quit.

I had the pleasure of announcing to Ken that I was leaving. He moaned and said, “Just when I’ve got you trained. Now I have to find someone else before the weather gets cold!” My coworkers kept badgering me to find out my reasons, but I kept mum even when the mechanic repeatedly said, “It’s Ken right? Am I right? It’s Ken.”

A week after my last day Judy walked in the door and told me that she was pregnant with our first child. I was elated for about 30 seconds, and then I felt an oppressive weight settling down on my shoulders: I desperately needed to get another job. I briefly considered phoning Ken and begging for my job back, but knew that Judy would kill me if I made the call.