5. Labor Day

By the time you get to the end of this post, you will see its connection with Labor Day.

There are six libraries within driving distance of my home; I use two of them frequently and the others on occasion. There are five used book stores, and another five have come and gone in the last few decades. I have access to others through the internet, and to a major remainder house through mail-order.

It isn’t enough for a truly herbookverous beast.

I recently stopped at a yard sale and browsed through boxes of books. It was a good find, full of the books I like best, old ones with hard cloth covers and faded spines. One was The American by Howard Fast.

Would-be writers, hear me! When you can write like this, heaven will open before you.

I found I’d read the book before, decades ago. It is the story of John Peter Altgeld whose later career as a Progressive governor of Illinois gained him the hatred of the upper crust for championing those who were demonstrating for an eight hour day.

I first flipped open to Altgeld in his young manhood laying down rails. It is an old story, celebrated in folktales, of the opening of the west. But as told here, it becomes a tale of corporate greed that turned the growing tracks into killing fields, where the immigrant workers were used up, destroyed, and cast aside.

Then I returned to the opening, and lived with young Altgeld through his childhood and youth, to his entry into the Civil War. He was isolated in the newly settled forests of Ohio, tied to a desperate father who beat him unmercifully. He was young and strong; he was driven to work, and the work made him stronger. He was driven by vague dreams, and he spent his youth planning his escape.

It felt completely familiar and completely different. My father never beat me; he hid his desperation as best he could through drought and storm, usually behind crusty humor. My father worked me hard, but he worked himself harder. Algelt felt like a slave. I felt like a man, a working man at twelve, and I was proud of my contribution. Altgeld, overworked, was driven to the ground. My work was long, but light enough to allow for dreaming. Work was the best part of my childhood.

Today we have the eight hour work day, but with wage levels that frequently leave full time workers in poverty. We have a nation full of hungry men and women for whom there is no work, or not enough work, and hungry children for whom there is not enough food and often little hope. It is a new-old story; completely familiar and completely different. Some of them will find their escape. Some will not. And for those who fail, society will point judgmental fingers and say, “You didn’t try hard enough!”

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