Monday, September 05, 2016

Labor Day

            Like other American holidays, Labor Day has come to mean a good many things that have little to do with its origin.  It is the closing of the summer season, usually a time when prices drop for beach rentals, a signal that the school term has begun or is about to begin, an excuse for a picnic if one needs an excuse. 
The Builders

Somewhere in the last several decades, American labor took a nosedive in popularity.  Labor unions have steadily lost membership and influence (though most recent years have seen a leveling), even as workers, unionized or not, have groaned about stagnant wages and loss of jobs shipped abroad.  Somehow a great many working Americans seem to believe that corporate management has their fate and wellbeing at heart, even while factories rust and benefits wither.  They buy with surprising enthusiasm the notion that it is really their own government that is to blame for gouging poor struggling corporations with taxes.  Tax cuts for the rich and for companies never seem to trickle down to the working masses, but no matter.  The masses want badly to believe that business is the American savior, and therefore their hope. 

I am a laborer.  Most of us are.  I became a laborer when I went to work at my first real job in high school.  I had a part-time job at Waccamaw Lumber and Supply Company in my hometown of Conway, South Carolina.  I did menial work.  I organized and filed papers.  I cut tabs for files out of posterboard.  I stamped envelopes in which statements were mailed.  I ran errands for the women who worked in the office. 

I was paid so little that I don’t even remember what the minimum wage was, but I think it was fifty cents an hour, and I think I got a raise of ten cents after awhile.  What I do remember is that I was paid in cash, not check.  I had a little cloth sack with a lock on it.  I carefully banked all my earnings in that white bag, which I kept hidden in my bedroom.  Like Silas Marner, I would sometimes count to see how much was there, gleeful at the mounting total.  At the end of a couple of years I had about $125. 

I badly wanted a car.  Mama, my mainstay of support and chief planning agent, was all in agreement.  We went shopping at Archie Lee’s Used Cars.  Archie puffed on his big old stinking cigar as we walked around the sandy lot overstrung with 100-watt bulbs.  We found it.  An old blue 1951 Studebaker,  straight-shift, four-door, with white walls and a radio.  I don’t remember what Archie’s handmade sticker price was, but I remember that I paid $107 for what my brother Jim came to call “The Battering Ram” when I accidentally backed into his Opel one unfortunate and embarrassing day. 

1951 Studebaker 4-door sedan 
Hauling friends, going to work and church, parking it along Laurel Street in front of the high school, I drove it as proud as I’d ever been with anything I’d ever had.  Until the transmission wore out, the heater went on the blink, the radio stopped playing.  Then Daddy traded it at Archie Lee’s and I got my second car, a Studebaker Lark, much classier than The Battering Ram. 

When people talk about the American Dream sometimes a wave of heartsickness wells up inside me.  I think that it is a flight of fancy into a world that once existed but now is largely a romanticized memory.  But for me, having a job, making what was then a lot of money, and buying a car put me in the world of grown-ups where I was on my way to being a real bread-winning man. 

I think that the chance to do that in their own way is what American laborers want.  Maybe on Labor Day some will see it actually happening.  Maybe others will renew their hope.  And perhaps still others will have the generosity to understand.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, September 5, 2016.  All rights reserved.

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