Sunday, September 4, 2011

Labor Day

When Labor Day comes around each year, I always think of my father, one of the hardest working men God ever created. He began life on the family ranch, La Panza. The day he was born, my Granny looked out her bedroom window at a towering rock formation, Castle Crag, that loomed above the ranch, and named him after it, Abram Cragg. Something of that stony promontory lived in his bones, all his life, granting him a stoicism and dependability that earned him the nickname Honest Abe.

As a teenager, he moved eastward with his family, during the Great Depression. He picked cotton in Louisiana and was a blacksmith’s apprentice in Pennsylvania. He rode the rails to California and back, twice. Tall and blonde and handsome, he was also physically tough, inured to hard work, heat and cold and hunger. Yet his arduous beginning never hardened his heart. He could never pass by a hitchhiker, because he’d been down on the road with his thumb out, himself, many a time. Nor could he let a stray dog pass by without being fed and fostered, because he knew what it was to be hungry and without a home.

During World War II he was in the Signal Corps, with top secret clearance to work on code breaking. He had a huge intellect, an inventive turn of mind and a surgeon’s or sculptor’s hands, which he turned to pattern making when, after the war, he worked on top secret development of jet and rocket engines.

With my mother, he pioneered on the mountain where I still reside, bringing water by re-digging a mile of ditch originally dug by Chinese labor during the Gold Rush. He felled trees and adzed beams for the house he built us, raised hogs, hunted for venison, grew a vegetable garden and put in an orchard, all while working as a union carpenter, first, and then as an independent building contractor.

One day my mother turned on the tap in the kitchen and maggots flowed out. My father walked the ditch path to discover a dead and rotting horse lying in the water. Soon after that, with our neighbors the Hatlers, he built a water system to supply all our homes with filtered water. As the neighborhood grew, more and more people wanted on the system, until my parents were owners of a full-fledged water company.

This was a boon to everyone but my folks, who remained saddled with the company into their eighties. My mother kept the books and did the billing and my father, every day of his life, did the maintenance of the filtration system and of the miles and miles of pipeline.

It is at this phase of his life, in his seventies and eighties, that I most vividly recall his work ethic. His knees were almost crippled but I can see him, in my mind’s eye, straddling a 4-inch water main in evening snow. All about him were pitched-up gobs of snow bloodied by red clay, as he dug to find the leak that was bleeding the water system dry.

Gloveless, hatless, his thin blond hair lifting in wind like spun ice, a mud-spattered down vest, shirt sleeves rolled up and shirttails hanging out, he would be grateful for my invitation to come in for coffee--and almost too cold and sore to do it. Ten minutes by the fire and he’d be gone, going stiff-kneed down the icy stairs to his truck, still steaming under the snow-bent pines. Women downhill in trailers were struggling to make dinner without water. He’d dig by flashlight, if necessary, until the hemorrhage was staunched.

I don’t know if he ever knew how much I loved him. How, all my life, I loved his clarity of purpose, the absolute fidelity he brought to life, some infusion, perhaps, of the long winds of his childhood, sweeping across the Carizzo Plains with rumors of frontiers, of work to be done, of endless possibilities.

So he built, the curls of wood shavings ankle-deep like fall leaves; working the long grain like some men soothe the quivering flanks of horses; smoothing the grain, cutting and fitting, sawing and hammering and sanding. Beauty fell from his hands like meteors showering the summer night skies: houses and doors and paneling and horses rearing from the sawn hearts of Philippine mahogany. Wood obeyed him because it sensed his love.

When I was a small child, standing beside the forge, I watched his ball-peen hammer working the tonged red iron and delighted in his splendid curses, flying with the red sparks. He was Hephaestus, god of the forge, shaping the reluctant iron like bakers shape dough. In his dark shop littered with lumber, pipe fittings, old tools, the smell of grease and wood and gritty with steely filings, he was king of an arcane kingdom of chaos in the process of becoming ordered. I envied his competency, then, and the sweating and swearing over the coals or the laden saw horses. And I envy it still.

At the end of his life, with chalk line and plumb bob, he laid a course into the cosmos, probing the inside of black holes and questioning the Red Shift and the depletion of the ozone layer, with the authority of a life lived reading, and of thinking and living free. With his new tool, the computer, he tracked the warps and wavers of pure space and matter, like a musician taking musical notation. He was a pioneer in time, who scarcely left the county in fifty years; a pioneer on the frontier of human thought, with a heart like a war horse and the courage and stamina to match.

That big, calloused hand with the chipped and blackened nails—did it really carve the delicate swelling belly of a violin? Or grope tentatively along its strings, learning to play, when he was in his seventies? Or massage my flu-ravaged head, when I was a child?

I can still see him, climbing into his battered old Jeep, slowly, trying to avoid the inevitable pain that movement brought. And, God bless him, turning to wave and smile, as he slogged off through the darkening snow. Always, he turned to us who looked to him for aid and wisdom, with a greeting and farewell, as if we really mattered to him. And I wonder if he ever knew how much, how very much, he mattered, in return?

My father’s life as union man and independent was about honest work. He was not alone in this. His generation was an upstanding one that built a nation and then saved it, during a long and terrible war. He was not unlike my husband’s grandfather Gus, who walked all the way from Michigan to California, in his youth; who drove a mule team hauling gravel that built the streets of Oakland; and later, in a shipyard, the barges that plied the Bay. Or my neighbors, the Hatlers, who built and operated a sawmill each part of which, the woods, the machine shop, the mill, was manned by one of the sons.

On this weekend that honors labor, I honor the men and women, past and present, who have given their lives and their honest sweat to create, maintain and feed a nation, to house and transport it, to aid its communications, maintain its civil integrity and uphold its laws. How the bones of those departed must be spinning in their graves at the monstrous greed and corruption that is devouring our nation and that dishonors the honest toil of those who built it. Not all the billions that these corrupt ones siphon off can buy them one day of the honor my father and his like, with their calloused hands, upright spines, work-hardened muscles and battered tool boxes have earned. Today, let us be reminded, and then not forget, who really built this nation, and who keeps its integrity, still.

1 comment:

John Van Dam said...

Your words paint such a lovely portrait of your wonderful family. I hope these aren't just fading echoes of the many generations who cherished good, humble labor.
I'd like to believe that the rampant greed and self-absorption of today is only a brief and unsettling detour on our incredible journey into tomorrow. But, my view of our frontier is increasingly bleak and this rickety ole stagecoach seems to be picking up speed....