My father worked hard all his life. The work changed over the years, but it was always physical, usually dirty, and always hard. And he never gave up and never quit.
During the election campaign of 2012, I thought a lot about my father. About his hands, hands scarred from his work, sometimes raw and bloody from years of working with cement. About his stubborn, lined, sunburned features that faced each day, just as the sun was rising, with grit and determination.
About the way he collapsed in his much-patched chair when he finally was home again in the evening, too tired even to take off his work clothes until he’d rested a while. About his pride in his work, in his skill, in his insistence to always do the best job he could, despite the pressure and despite exhaustion.
The cards, he often said, were stacked against the working man. The rich got richer and men like him got kicked in the rear end. But he never quit.
My father was proud that he could take care of his family. He was old fashioned in many ways. My mother never worked. That was another time. Today, she probably would have some kind of a job. In fact, today she’d probably need to work for the family to get by financially. Back then, it was possible for my Dad to support us – except, of course, when he lost his job. Fortunately, that wasn’t too often, but it did happen.
Paul, my father, came of age at the beginning of the Great Depression. His years from 19 to 29 were a horrific struggle for survival. As I was growing up, I heard a lot about the Depression, from the Crash of October 1929 when Herbert Hoover was president, to all that Franklin Roosevelt did to get the economy going again, to his own frustrated hopes during those terrible years – years that were so bad that teenage kids left home and wandered the country just so their parents wouldn’t have to try to feed them, years that drove whole families to sit on railroad tracks waiting for the next train to end their miseries.
My father was determined to give his children, my sister and me, the best life he could. When I was 11 years old, he bought a 24 volume set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, plus oversized atlas and bookcase, and paid for it over time for a year. When I was 12, he rented a piano and arranged for me to take piano lessons. He paid for dancing lessons for my little sister and gave my mother money to buy fabric so she could sew dancing costumes for her.
Credit cards didn’t exist then, but he wouldn’t have approved of them. Cash was his style – except for that encyclopedia and a few other items that were big ticket, at least for him. Occasionally, my Mom would put a dress for her or something for me or my sister on lay-away, paying the store a dollar or two a week until she finally could bring it home. She stretched the dollars my father gave her until they snapped back in her face.
It was hard work coming out of the Great Depression, Dad often told me. Those bankers and stock market guys of the Roaring Twenties had messed up the country so badly that it was a miracle it survived, at all. It very nearly didn’t. Roosevelt saved the country from revolution, Dad often said. But then he usually added: and the guts and determination of the ordinary working man. It was the plain people, he said, who brought this country back from the edge: their backs and their hands, scarred hands like his.And yet, his hands could be surprisingly gentle and do wonderfully delicate work.
On the rare occasions when he could take time for himself, he loved to go trout fishing. Fly fishing was his obsession. He cared for his old fishing rods as if they were made of gold. Sometimes, he condescended to fish with bait, but he never pretended that it compared with fly fishing.
When he could find the energy after a hard week on the job, he loved to spend a Saturday afternoon tying his own flies. I hovered behind the wide, stained shoulder of his undershirt, watching the delicate dance of his dark-nailed hands as bright thread wrapped around feather fragments and became luxurious, complicated knots. His many-compartmented tin boxes already buzzed with scores of flies of every imaginable color and form, yet he continued inventing, imagining, perfecting.
He was an artist, never satisfied with his labors. Sometimes, he sold flies that he made to other fishermen, but more often he gave them away, to friends, to folks he met on the stream. The act of creation was what mattered, second only to the fishing itself.
As a boy, he won prizes for his artwork. He inherited his talent from his grandfather, who’d been an accomplished painter. Some of the old man’s oil landscapes still hang over my desk. During World War II, Mare Island Navel Yard, where my Dad worked then, held a contest, asking the workers to submit designs for a new shipyard logo.
My father drew a handsome, proud horse rearing up out of the waves, but with a fish’s tail rising from the foam behind him. That drawing won second place and a $100 U.S. War Bond.
When I was a kid, he tried to go to night school several times, studying commercial art and other courses after work, but he never could follow through. He was simply too exhausted after the long days of physical labor. His personal dreams may have been frustrated, but he never gave up the battle that he fought for his family.
“It’s the working people,” he always said, “who made this country great. Not the greedy Fat Cats. Not the millionaires. Not the Big Bosses who think they own the world. The people who build things, who grow things.” And he would show us his bruised, scarred hands again.
I didn’t appreciate until later, the man my father was. And all the other fathers like him. Is it any wonder that now, all these years later, at this time, during this election season, that I find myself thinking of him? I don’t know if I can call him a hero, but I do know that he never gave up. I also know that he was proud of the books I published, even if he didn’t read every single word in them. He respected work, even at a typewriter.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, Texas Review Press. Available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Texas A & M Consortium.