The Cumberland Post

The Cumberland Post
My Backyard, Six Miles from the Cumberland River

Monday, September 6, 2010

Late Labor Day Post: A Work History and Some Country Anthems

To answer CCR's lyric, I was a "fortunate son." Fortunate to be born in the U.S. of A. But I wasn't born with "no silver spoon in hand." My family was working class.

If you detect a bit of pride in the following history, you're right. I'm proud of the work I did. All of it. It helped me understand what it is to work for a living, to exchange your time and your physical and mental effort for pay to be used for sustenance.

I cussed some here and there, but at the same time came to understand that beside the pay there was pride, dignity, and honor in what you were doing. That understanding stayed with me throughout my academic career and became the personal safety net that caught me and sustained me when my illusions about the liberal political philosophy came crashing down. Looking back, this understanding of the nature of work is probably what made me at times very uncomfortable with some of the liberal elitism I sensed in academia.

First, my family. My dad worked as a fireman on a steam locomotive for the Tennessee Central Railroad in 1939. In the early 40's he drove a city bus in Nashville, and from the late 40's through the late 50's he drove a truck. During those first years as a truck driver he drove for a company and was pressured (threatened) to join the union, which he never did. Later he owned his own truck, a cabover White, and continued to haul loads all over the country--New York City, Chicago, Miami, Omaha, etc. From the 60's on till his retirement he worked in construction, most of that time for a pipeline company.

My Mom began work as department store clerk when I was in high school. She made sure our breakfast was made and our sack lunches were ready before she got on the bus every morning. And then, after working all day, she still had a hot supper prepared and ready in the evenings. She worked five days a week, standing on her feet, dealing with customers, and replenishing stock for twenty years.

Mom and Dad both worked hard and their example gave my brother and me our work ethic and taught us a few things about survival.

In high school I worked clearing brush for the county ($1 per hour) for a summer, and I clerked at a dry cleaners for a year and a half. I drove a short haul truck during the summer I graduated high school and saved every penny to go to Junior college. It paid for my whole first year (tuition, room, board=$700).

The second summer I worked for the Nashville Electric Company as a ditch digger. Most of the time they made us wear green or yellow hard hats. The senior guy in front me in the ditch (his name was Coleslaw) used a high tech hydraulic device called a clay digger to break up the earth. I used a similarly high tech manual device called a shovel to remove the dirt from the ditch. I got home at 3:00 in the afternoon, bathed, and went to work at the local grocery until 10 P.M., sacking, facing canned goods, and sorting empty soft drink bottles. The money I earned in those two jobs paid for my second year of Junior college.

At the end of my second year of college I worked again at the electric company and the grocery to pay for tuition at Middle Tennessee State U. While I attended MTSU (my 3rd year of college), my wife worked as a receptionist at a Ford Dealer. When she had to quit three months before our son was born, I had two semesters to go so I got a job that summer selling tickets at what was called a Trampoleena (trampolines at ground level stretched over holes dug in the ground). After that, to finish my last unergrad semester I got a job as a cashier at a drug store; my hours began when my last class ended and I stayed till closing time, around 9:30 P.M. There were also a couple of other short term gigs in there including a two week stint as a Santa at a local strip mall.

We used what was called a federal "Defense Loan" for would be teachers and a loan from my parents' church (both loans paid off long ago) to finance my first year of grad school. We were going to try to make it (pay tuition, rent, buy groceries, etc.) on just the loans. But those were some lean times. During this time, my wife went back to work for a couple of months for the state in downtown Nashville and later worked two weeks picking cotton with her parents to tide us over. She came from a working class family too. In my last quarter at Peabody (fall 1962), I worked as a drug store delivery guy (I drove a hot Chevy II wagon) and then as a short order cook in the same drug store. I'm not ashamed to say that we also searched for and collected deposit bottles to turn in for small amounts of cash. Like the man says, every little bit helps.

After graduating that December in 1962, I worked as a college instructor, except for the summer in '66 before my second year in grad school when I worked at a construction company driving a grease truck and operating a steam cleaner to clean the heavy equipment. That was a jolt of reality for a "prof" who had spent the previous three years in a shirt tie in front of a class.

I'm not going into my academic work history here, since it's mostly a different kind of work from the kind I'm celebrating. I will include this little poem I wrote back in 1983 which was published in our college's literary journal, Number One. It's called "English Lab Tech" and I think you'll see why I included it here.


Another hard day's light
in the English Lab.

I sit on the bench
By my own locker.

Bone tired, smelling
My own sweat.

My coveralls are dirty
And smudged with

Verb grease and
the gunk of prepositions.

I remove my
Safety glasses.

They are flecked
With punctuation grit.

I remove the grimy
Steel toed boots.

Again today,
They saved me.

Two low-down,
Base sentences

Suddenly fused
At my feet.

I peel off
The heavy work gloves

And whack
The cuffs against the bench.

Fragments shake loose
And drop to the floor.

I open the locker
And hang up my hard hat.

Some young techs
Don't wear them.

I do. You never know
When a whole

Damn paragraph
Will fall on you.

Sutton, late
For the next shift, enters.

"It's a dirty, dangerous
Business," he says.

"But I love
The challenge, the risk."

He grins, and buckling
On his tool belt, rushes out.

Sutton is
A wiseass.


Country Music has had many songs celebrating the working man (and woman) over the years.

Johnny Cash sings Merle Haggard's "Working Man Blues."

Mo Bandy and Joe Stampley sing "Let's Hear It For The Working Man."

"Mama Was a Workin' Man" by Mary Duff

And the last one, "Working Man's Ph.D." by Aaron Tippin

"If it works
If it runs
If it lasts for years
You bet your bottom dollar
It was made right here."


  1. That was a most enjoyable post, Dan.

    "[T]his understanding of the nature of work is probably what made me at times very uncomfortable with some of the liberal elitism."

    Bingo! Like you, I came from a working class family (paint salesman and nurse) but was educated beyond them and found myself among the "liberal elite." Problem was I still had to work - mostly menial jobs. Their disrespect (disdain I should say) for the working class is what saved me from becoming like them.

  2. Great work, Dan (pun intended on more than one level)!

    The Ol' Man tried to get me a summer job with his company (Northrop) when we moved to El-Eh in the way-back... it was supposed to be in General Maintenance. That never came to pass but I remember well his words to me: "I want you to learn what it's like to carry a few desks before you sit behind one." I DID learn that lesson, but the USAF was my teacher.

    A couple o' years ago there was a blogging meme goin' around where ya had to list all the jobs you held. Mine's here, if'n you're interested.