My Grandfather, Walter, never really discussed his being young, so for me he just was as I saw him: tall, with silver hair, blue eyes, and clothed in a workman’s garb. However, occasionally, he would let things slip out about when he was a young man.
One time he told me how he was working a shovel on a road crew somewhere in the upper Midwest during the Great Depression. I want to say he was in Chicago at that time, but I think my memory is adding a false detail. However because I like the idea of him being young, handsome, and bouncing around America I am sticking with this as fact, much like the mud that must have stuck to his boots on occasion.
Now, during that time wages were collapsing, and with an abundance of men hungry for food and purpose ready to take your job, saying anything to the bosses, when you were nothing more than a common laborer, was near impossible. Still, even under those conditions, there comes a time and place when a man’s back can take no more threats and fear. I guess you either pony up the courage and be a man or fold.
Eventually and inevitably, that time and place arrived when the bosses came through and killed off a few of the weaker guys by canning them on the spot and sending them off to whatever fate had waiting for them down the road. They then turned to the remaining men and told them that their wages would be cut by a third. Starting tomorrow. Take it or leave it. I guess they figured they had the upper hand especially having just displayed what power they wielded.
What the bosses failed to realize is that their unnatural selection process had left only the strongest, gutsiest, and bravest guys on the crew. And since Darwin’s boys had run out of cushion, all the weak having been culled out, they knew it was just a matter of time before they too would be used up and then sent packing.
I cannot say if it was desperation, foolishness, or guts that started things off but word quickly went down the line from man to man, shovel to shovel: trim the ends. And so they did. By a third.
My Grandfather never said how far they men were willing to go but I got the impression from his fist, all clenched up from just speaking about the confrontation all these decades later, that they were ready to reduce the shovels to sticks and then use them as clubs on the bosses to make their point.
It went like that for a few days, a cold war of wills and shovels between the bosses and the men, with everything reduced by a third. A few days on a rumor went down the line, from man to man, that the bosses were ready to fold. And they did. And the men got new shovels and the old wages.
Sometime later, most likely a few months and certainly less than a year, he ended up back where he was born: Minnesota’s Iron Range, a place of rough people who came from Scandinavia, South Eastern Europe, and Italy for the most part. It was a red rough place dominated by big open-pit mines and bigger winters.
He started out in the mines where he previously left off: at the end of a No. 2 shovel, small, light, and guaranteed to make your hands as hard as steel. It was hard work but at least it was consistent work for the most part and the bosses never really risked reducing the men or the corporate assets by a third.
It was at this point in his life that everything settled into an endless groove of work and providing for his family. And so he did in big and small ways. If something failed, he would craft a part and make it work – a mechanical Mozart if you will.
Or like the time he won a bid on an old school. He tore down that building by hand saving every piece of usable material he could. From that pile of lumber, doors, moudling, windows, and whatever else he found useful he created a fine new home with plaster walls and a white picket fence out front.
And the living and digging continued nonstop even when the raw material included sons along with the iron, both forged into weapons that killed Nazis and Japs.
After the crimson rivers had soaked into the earth, the mines went on and on, the red ore now ending up in cars, washers, earrings and other such things. He never made clear to me how he progressed through the ranks at the mines but I think that happened because he was a natural engineer and leader: the other men respected him.
Eventually he ended up in heavy shovel maintenance, a place he would remain for the rest of his working days. These heavy shovels were the backbone of everything and they were huge, with buckets big enough to hold two, three, or four cars worth of raw iron gouged out in a single pass from the rich earth.
And so it went, year after year, in arctic winters and humid summers, fixing the beasts that made America rich and the land all bumpy with the slag pulled from the open pits, canyons really, that were craved into the otherwise flat and featureless terrain.
He found pleasure and pride in taking out-of-town visitors to the pit overlooks and letting them marvel at these northern grand canyons. My Grandmother, with a small town pride, having seen the one in Arizona, never varied in her opinion that these were just as beautiful. Now having seen both and having lived long enough to reflect on life I am not sure that I disagree with her anymore.
And so went this unremarkable life of shovels and ore that defined him, and his wife, and sons, and the men that respected him. And yes, to a great degree, he defined me.
My Grandmother, Violet, came out of her mother in a small farmhouse, wedged in between several mines on that same Iron Range. Like many houses at that time, it was full up with her parents, brothers and her. From what I can tell they didn’t live rich but they didn’t starve either; let’s leave it at everyone always had something to get done and earn their keep.
As time went on, she grew to be stunning, touchy and ambitious. The stunning part, as my Grandfather would later notice, was luck and the rest were partly the result of the climate, living poor, holding her own in a male dominated household, and dreams of being the first to make it college. To deal with all this she developed some formidable weapons: a razor edged voice that pinged off a shovel sharp tongue backed up by a raised eyebrow and a crooked finger that could smell your fear a mile off. A handful to keep happy and satisfied you might say.
Now about the time she was old enough to escape from the busted up land to a place where fine linen and crystal goblets were normal the speculation on Wall Street crashed into her dreams: there would be no escape as the whole country collapsed into the Great Depression. You just had to make do with what you already had. Still I don’t think she was bitter, yet, as that would be saved for another time.
In the midst of the crashed dreams and economy, my Grandfather showed up on his motorcycle and began to take her to dances and lazy afternoons with friends and family. Now I don’t really know the details of how her and my Grandfather’s courtship developed but I do think they really loved each other. What I do know is that she got knocked up and they did the right thing and thus began the rest of their lives together.
Somewhere between this time and the third son she did become bitter, complicated, contradictory and some might say mean. Not all the time but enough to bury her husband and sons with those formidable weapons: the crooked finger, the raised eyebrow, and the tongue, shovel sharp. I think it fair to say that this was not a male dominated household. She also had a vault like memory that saved everything whether it be a slight, a fight, or a kiss.
I can still hear her beautifully modulated voice, over evening coffee, recall an inconsequential event from decades before. They often began with touches of humor about people and events and all too often and predictably would end with how she got it over on someone. My sense of her during those earlier years is of hurricane that took years to reach shore and blow itself out. My aunt, a gentle soul, years later summed her up in one word: “phew!”.
But she also had other sides. A fierce loyalty that could be blind to reality, a willingness to invest in you so you could succeed where she didn’t, an ability to make things out of nothing whether it be bread, food, or clothing, and how she worked for years while running a household. She could and did give herself up generously. Just below that eggshell thin protection was an unconditional love.
When I arrived unannounced at my Grandparents, I was living proof that you do inherit everything that went before; no generation is spared. And at the same time I, and my cousin after me, became living proof that hurricanes do reach the shore and that shovels can be used to till the soil.
Oh, she still railed on from time to time, and waged a cold war for a while with my Grandfather but for the most part she and him gently prodded me along into the rest of my life. At the time she died all those early years were still in play with two sons living with her, one a broken man and the consumed by drink, and the last, still feeling the gale winds skipped her funeral.
And so went this unremarkable life of shovels and love that defined her, and her husband, and sons, and all the others with whom she was generous or not. And yes, to a great degree, she defined me.
Copyright 2012 By Katherine Johnson – All Rights Reserved.