Mortals at Labor 

Could even Hercules have lasted five more years?

I worked with Tiny in my first full-time, year-round job 37 years ago. After school, I'd trekked east, seeking adventure in the wild Ohio territories. For the next 10 years, I lived as a Buckeye--which is infinitely better than passing as a Hoosier, believe me.

I found a job with a construction company owned and operated by a family who remembered FDR with slightly less admiration than they had for Judas Iscariot. Judas was bad, yes, but at least he hadn't started Social Security. This construction magnate and his sons didn't have much use for anything in the way of worker accommodation: unions, unemployment benefits, workmen's comp, and particularly the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The old man, who had largely excused himself from the day-to-day functions of the company, spent his time looking for cheap deals on used equipment--extension ladders, come-alongs, lathes, drills, grinders, band saws, sheet metal brakes--and the further out of compliance with OSHA regulations, the better. He was determined to show those feds they couldn't tell him how to run his business. Were a man to lose an arm, an eye, maybe worse, it was for a godly cause. And besides, there would always be another man along.

The workers themselves, almost to a man, were from across the river. They owned or rented in Ohio, but every Friday night, they and tens of thousands like them would clog I-75, going back to their native hills and hollers, to Kentucky homes they had never stopped thinking of as home, even after years or decades working in Ohio. Sunday night, they scooted back in time to report to work in steel mills, paper plants or construction jobs of varying scale. (Derisively, they were called "briar-hoppers"; the hills below the Mason-Dixon line of the Ohio River are swathed with thorn bushes thick enough to hide bankrupt farms. In southern Ohio, all those Polish jokes the rest of the country was telling translated to briar-hopper jokes.)

They were not a highly educated lot, these guys. Most had never finished high school. There was no end to the work to be found in the Ohio factories, mills and plants; it paid far better than anything they could find in those Kentucky briar patches; and little of that work required a thorough grasp of reading, writing and 'rithmetic. So they usually started young and stayed long. I worked with several sets of fathers and sons, none of whom had ever seen their name on a diploma.

Tiny wasn't tiny. In a painted hood and bathing trunks, he could have passed as a TV wrestler. His biceps were as big around as my chest and I once saw him lift one end of a 20-by-2-foot I beam so we could get a chain under it. He was admired by the others for his strength, but I could see early on that his strength would probably be the ruin of him. The heavier something was, the more likely it would fall on Tiny to lift it. Steel beam and concrete block, jackhammer and rock drill, these were Tiny's materials and tools, if not his destiny. And of course, he was proud to be the most reliable muscle in the crew, even if it had him looking--and walking and breathing--like he was 20 years older than he was.

Not that Tiny was the only one who worked like a mule. Unless you moved up into a supervisory position--and those were generally reserved either for men with some training or someone's nephew--everyone had to work like a mule. That could well be the job description: "Work like a mule for eight hours, then be back tomorrow." There was nothing subtle about it. If the wet concrete had to be pushed 100 yards through mud in wheelbarrows, that is what you were there for. If you had to spend a month toting tools and material up and down 60 feet of scaffolding, so be it. If a 150-year-old floor had to be jackhammered out of a disgusting paper mill sub-basement with a 5-foot-high ceiling and filthy water pouring down your bent-over back? ... well, it's not like they were going to bring in Alan Simpson or Erskine Bowles to do it for you.

I did this work for three years. Many of the men I worked with had been at it for 20 years--a few for 30. I question how many of them lived to be as old as I am now, judging by the stoop in their backs and the drag of their feet. And if they did reach retirement age, it would surprise me to learn they survived long enough to find much joy in their leisure. No matter how strong a man is, there is still many a job that will grind him down and crush him.

I owe this column idea to John, an old Navy salt I met recently. John was steaming mad at Erskine Bowles, Alan Simpson and the rest of the Deficit Reduction Commission, which has recommended the retirement age be extended to age 69 or 70. "I tell you," said John, "those suited-up sons-a-bitches don't know what a lifetime of real work does to a person."

Fact is, I don't either. I can only extrapolate from my few years of real work what happens to the human body after a lifetime of it. But before we go to making men and women hang on for another four or five years before they can rest, we need to understand that a great many people won't have that long. We need to question if wealthy politicians and policy wonks whose most exhausting daily task is picking out a tie are appropriate judges of how long other men and women should slog through life. We need to acknowledge the difference between a career and what a hell of a lot of citizens put themselves through for decades to feed and house a family. And we need to ask ourselves, once more, if some people are less deserving of a little peace than others.

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