Hard Work: An Appreciation

I have always been in awe of those who do hard work. I am not talking about working hard—I have done a little of that myself. I am talking about work that is seemingly unending, that is relentless, and unforgiving, such as farming (not gardening), and mining (not digging a hole) can be. There are many less obvious examples, but the relentless aspect is the key: unceasing, unyielding, unremitting. There is no end to it. There is no abatement. How do they do it?

I have enjoyed many such jobs, but only briefly. Kitchen help (a lot of that). Moving boxes of shoes, or roller bearings from one place to another. Painting houses. Actually digging ditches. But I was always on my way somewhere else. Temporary work can be hard, but it is not true hard work. What I am in awe of is being able to get up and go to work each day at a job that is unpleasant and exactly the same as the day before and has no other reward than a paycheck. I suppose this can cover some office jobs too, but “unpleasant” has to be understood.

For eight weeks I once worked in a cotton mill. I was on work-study break from college. I knew there was an end to it. The job I had was specific: the assembly of looms which had been moved from one mill to another in pieces. I knew exactly how many looms there were to be assembled and the time it would take to assemble them—eight weeks.

Some of the iron parts were quite heavy but I was stronger then. The process was tiring and repetitive—but again, I was always aware that there was an end to it. I was in an enormous room where hundreds of looms were already in operation. Looms are quite loud; deafening, in fact. Loud enough, despite ear plugs, to have given me tinnitus, which I still enjoy. It is a ringing reminder of that time.

Looms are bare iron frames the size of small automobiles, all set in a row of 30 or so, and bolted to a cement floor. There were at least 20 rows. These frames held a flattened warp of threads drawn from a row of spools, which played out through thin fingers of steel into a geometrical intersection—a shed—at an angle through which a shuttle carried a perpendicular thread—the weft. That’s the best I can do with that recall.

The machines move at a steady quick pace, and women—they were all women when I was there—tend to the consumption of thread by the rows of looms, replacing the spools and unjamming the shuttles when they jammed, repairing breaks in the threads and making sure that when the take-up roll was full the fabric was cut loose from the weft as necessary. Men carried in the spools of thread—the containers weighed over 50 pounds, and carried away the rolls of fabric, and repaired the looms themselves. This was done continuously, every day, seven days a week.

The air was thick with moisture and cotton dust. Clammy. Your sweat adheres your clothing to your body and the dust irritates your skin. Large fans hung from the ceiling, but their noise was drowned by the looms. The smell of the air is somewhat sweet at first, before it becomes sickening. By the third day you do not look forward to the smell. And in that room, hundreds of people worked every day, 24 hours a day on three shifts. 

None of these people were in college. Many had never finished high school. None of them had any prospects beyond some good fortune happening, such as the death of a relative who might leave them some property they could farm and thus escape this room. The relative was likely someone they loved—someone who fed them when they got home, who washed their clothes, and comforted them when they were sick—so it was a difficult thing to wish for. The ones I spoke to longed to simply run away, but they could not because their pay covered the taxes on the land where they lived, or the payments on the truck, or whatever. So, they stayed, day after day, year after year, working in that room. 

The men congregated in the lavatory, of all places. This had a changing area and benches that were always filled by the workers who were on break. They even ate there, from their little metal boxes, in the air soured by disinfectants and ammonia and urine and whatever offal was clogging one of the toilets. There was always one that was clogged. Cigarette smoke was thick enough to bring up a cough as soon as you entered, even for those who smoked. 

In that thickened atmosphere, the men spoke of hunting, and fishing, and trucks, and Lee Petty and his son Richard, who were stock-car racing heroes or villains depending on whether you liked Fords or Chevys or Dodges. Many of the men owned dogs for hunting. Most of them owned a pickup truck—purchased used, of course—and this battered fleet filled a dirt lot next to the mill. They often traded secrets about keeping the trucks running or what pup to keep from a new litter. I had absolutely nothing to offer these conversations, so after a bit of kidding they at least let me listen.

The women seemed to talk continuously about men. That might just be a function of my being close enough to overhear, but I could often catch parts of these conversations over the din of the looms, as well as on the loading dock, where they congregated for breaks—this was midwinter and the sun was warm on the docks, away from the noise and the candied air. 

As I understood it, one option for escape was to marry a man of means: one who owned his own truck, or, best of all, his own house, or his own land. After work, there was fairly regular traffic to several local bars, or clubs, where the women went to meet men. Once or twice, I was asked if I might meet someone, which I had to decline. There was a fair interest in me at first, until it was understood by all that I was not there for long enough to matter. Besides, I was in college. I was “from New York.” which was to them a foreign country. They all called me “professor.”

This was in Pickens, South Carolina. That cotton mill has long since been repurposed after my brief time there in the 1960s. I think it is some kind of technology firm now. Those looms were later dismantled by someone else and the parts—those eternal iron parts—were shipped to China, or perhaps India, where they were reassembled once again and are likely the objects of love for thousands of other people who do that hard work today (and dream of their own escape). Maybe the fabric for some of my clothing was made there. But I am in awe of them now, too. 

Most of the world still lives by hard work. They farm and toil their lives away with few prospects. They mine coal. They work the fishing trawlers I see in the mist from the beach where I swim—although, in my imagination, being a fisherman must be a step closer to the good than working in a coal mine. The elemental difference that I have noticed is that these people have fewer prospects. They tolerate this use and abuse of their lives because they have been raised to it. Given options, they would not accept their roles. 

Many of us escaped that grind in a post-World War II economy built by our parents and grandparents, and we found employment doing things that we liked doing because we were given larger prospects over the dinner table as well as in our education. Given at great cost. The new possibilities open to us were graphically revealed in movies and books. And though perhaps we worked hard at our new jobs, in truth, it was not hard work, because we had chosen it. If we grew tired of it, we changed jobs.

For many of us, such freedom of choice was assumed. It was a given. But like children living in a perpetual Christmas, we had no clue of the true cost of our presents. And by that I do not mean just money. Money is a transfer agent for value. The real cost was that some people worked jobs that others would not do—so that we could eat, and stay warm, and take a holiday.

Now, if a recent Forbes study has got it right, there are about 50 million Americans of normal working age who do not work. At the same time there are a good deal more than 50 million jobs that go unfilled. That means we have about 15 percent of the working age population who are deciding not to work at all. I suppose that’s one benefit of the welfare state. But it is also a benefit provided by those who are still doing the hard work. 

Because many of us have been taught to avoid hard work and look down on those who do it, we have developed a de facto class system. Our schools of “higher education” have ensured this disparity through colleges that teach specialties while neglecting the trades that make things run. Most college graduates cannot build a fire, or a proper shelter, or grow their own food, or defend themselves. All that nasty stuff is left to others. This is a world that was well described by Aldous Huxley some 90 years ago in Brave New World. And the example is made even more poignant by our pervasive use of drugs to survive our difficult days. 

That 15 percent reminds me of the upper class in the South who once lived off of slavery. As an intellectual concept, slavery may be everywhere the same, but in reality, it was not. Hard work was common to most of the population, but for slaves it was a singular fact of life. In 1860, in a total U.S. population of approximately 31 million, there were about 4 million slaves. That is, about 12 percent of the total population were slaves and producing the cotton that was then manufactured in Northern mills to make the clothing we all wore. That was a generation or two before those mills were moved South. A few generations after that, the mills moved to China. 

Now, I must ask: where do they move the mills next? 

Will robots be able to do all the hard work? And what exactly are the human beings to do with that extra free time? Will they simply double the number of football teams to keep us preoccupied? But I think we can see a partial answer to this on the 6 o’clock news. Might the value of our humanity be inflated as well as our currency? Could this lead to a purge of a population that has made itself superfluous? (Of course, wars and viruses have that benefit, too.)

Now, I am wondering whether a better appreciation of hard work might be an answer to some of our problems. Maybe we should reverse the paradigm and pay more for hard work than for optional labor. It might help.

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About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

Photo: Cotton Mill at Preston, Lancashire, 1939. Daily Herald Archive/SSPL via Getty Images