News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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September 5, 2011

MIKE LUNSFORD: The value of hard work goes well beyond a paycheck

Years ago, I used to drive into Rosedale to get my workday started with a big cup of black coffee. Every morning, Monday through Friday, until the town grocery store’s business dried up and blew away, you could have found me slipping through a back door — left unlocked for the early birds — of the old Red and White, 15 minutes before it opened for official business. I’d quickly pour a travel mug of hot determination, leave my quarters on the counter, and speed off to face the classrooms and quizzes and organized chaos of a school day. I miss it.

I make my coffee at school now, sharing it with a few of my teaching buddies, and I do it well before most of my co-workers get to work, the parking lot quiet and growing darker as these weeks pass into fall. I like to be there early in the morning, like to get after my jobs right away and in solitude. It’s just the way I am.

But I do miss running into town for my coffee, perhaps stopping for a moment’s conversation with Wendell Jenkins, who often beat me there to get his day under way with a plate of biscuits and gravy. I also noticed that nearly every morning a pair of men, sometimes in heavy winter overalls, shuffled into the bakery to eat breakfast and gab and smoke before their workday started. I knew they’d be working a lot harder than I would that day — physically, anyway — and I would often quietly mutter a simple thanks for having a job in which I wouldn’t freeze in a bitter wind or suffer under a brutal sun or test a creaky back that had by then betrayed me.

I believe I work hard, harder than most folks who don’t teach probably think I do; certainly harder than some of the folks at our state’s Department of Education believe. I recall a day even more years back than my coffee story when a teacher-farmer buddy of mine needed help with his hay. I told him I’d come down after school to help him throw a few loads into the loft before supper, and I met him, gloves stuffed into the back pocket of my blue jeans, just like they were when I was 16 and in need of gas money. 

As we stood in the August heat summing up the courage to either be the one who tossed the bales on an ancient rusting hiker or the poor chump who’d arrange them lengthwise in the sauna of the barn, my friend’s dad, a grizzled tiller of soil and chewer of tobacco, who had worked hard his whole life, walked up to us. He offered his help, but as was most often the case, he offered his opinion, too: Neither of us, he said, should be tired at all. We’d spent all day inside; that wasn’t “real work,” he added.

My friend nearly came out of his boots. “You don’t have a clue, Dad,” he said in a tone of voice that was as harsh as I’d ever heard him speak to his father. “I am more tired right now than if I had put up hay all day,” he said, and he bit his lip and turned to throw a bale onto the hiker with deeper attention than was needed, I suppose so he wouldn’t say anything else.

I think that is the case for most of us; no one, unless he’s walked a mile or two in our boots or wingtips or heels or orthotics, understands what our job is truly about. Some of the hardest work I have ever faced was done behind a fast-food counter, in a grocery store aisle, or on a maintenance crew detail as a teenager or young, young man. I don’t think anyone saw the “unskilled” tasks I handled as being “hard,” but they were, and I was determined to do them well, whether it be cooking a hamburger or sweeping a floor or digging a post hole.

I have said it before in this space, and I’ll say it again: We don’t appreciate the work the average American laborer does anymore.  We often want our children to grow up to wear white collars and striped ties and carry briefcases and make the big bucks, and that is admirable, but we have almost reduced getting dirty to being dirty, and I think that’s too bad. Many of my heroes, my dad and my grandfathers, my mother and grandmother, and a few of my good friends, too, never got college educations; some never finished high school. It was a different world in which they grew up, that is for sure, but one thing about them made me love and respect them all the more: They were never afraid to work for what they had, and they expected me to do the same.

This day, today, is for anyone who has ever waited tables, taken on the task of caring for ailing and elderly neighbors or parents, cleaned a house, or kept our electrical power on. It’s for those who patch and plow our roads, trim our trees, dig our ditches, and watch our children. It’s for those who take our blood pressure and stock our store shelves and deliver packages to our doors. It’s for carpenters and teachers and store clerks and janitors, and it is for those who sit behind desks and clack on keyboards and man the phones. Labor Day is for those who work at their jobs and value their labor for more than a paycheck.

To me, Labor Day is a celebration of generations of hard work, not a recognition of my own life of earning a living. Like my family did years ago, I will stay home today to work at chores I can’t usually get done during a regular work week. I won’t be heading to a union rally or cheer on a speech, but I’ll work a little, and I’ll sweat a lot, and hopefully, I’ll remember those folks who put me in a position to sit down when I want to.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at http://tribstar.com/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com. His third collection of stories, “A Place Near Home,” is due to be released in October.

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