My dad always thought Labor Day was a big deal, but I don’t think he connected the hard, physical work he did on our farm with the notion of real, you know, labor.
If Dad were alive today, I imagine a fair number of folks would consider him a radical leftist, even a Socialist. He wasn’t radical at all, in truth. He didn’t want government to control everything. He did believe that government programs had their place, that electrical power never would have come to the prairie without cooperatives and that the early labor unions were responsible for many of the gains and protections workers enjoyed. Maybe that’s socialism these days. I think he just thought it was being a Democrat, which is what he was.
I’m not writing a political piece, though. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about the Labor Day holiday we’re about to observe and about my dad’s misconception that as a farmer, he wasn’t a laborer. He was, of course. He worked long and hard his whole life, first with his parents and brothers on the farm they settled when they moved from Nebraska in the early 1900s and then on his own farm, which he and his brother Frank turned into a pretty successful operation. Dad just thought laborers were people who had actual jobs.
I grew up that way, too. I worked on the farm from the time I was old enough to gather eggs and scatter chicken feed until my senior year in college when I got my first real job. During my farm years, I pitched hay and shoveled grain and worked cattle and did all sorts of other hard, physical chores. It was work, but I didn’t consider it labor, not in the sense of Labor Day and being honored as an American worker.
When the end of the school year would come around each spring, I’d know I would be out on the farm again. I used to hear my buddies talk about the summer jobs they were chasing – life guard, grocery store stocker and bagger, lawn mower and the like – and I’d envy them. They had real jobs. I especially envied some of my friends in the late high school and early college years when they’d hook on with the state Transportation Department or one of the construction companies building the interstate highway system. Here they were doing real labor while I was just going back to the farm for another summer.
I only felt like I’d joined the labor force when I got hired by the Chamberlain Register the summer of my last college year. I worked fairly hard there, doing some reporting, photo work, ad sales (really, really poorly), back shop tasks and even sweeping the floors a couple of weeks after the press run had finished and the papers had been sent to the post office. Working for E.J. Buckingham Jr. and Hubie Alewel at the Register meant I had bosses, starting and quitting times, holidays when they came around even if there was work that should be done, time cards and paychecks issued by the paper’s business office. I was somebody’s direct report, for land sakes. That sounds like real labor, right?
I realize, of course, that farming is labor, just like the more “official’’ work force jobs. Over a lifetime as a newspaper reporter, I came to understand that working in journalism was more than a real job. It was a job worth doing, and worth doing well. I didn’t get rich, but I was able to raise a family in a place we wanted to live. That’s what farming did for my dad, even if I didn’t see it at the time. So, it wasn’t just a job. It was a good job, worth doing well.
I suppose few people read the author Pearl S. Buck these days, but sometime during her life she said, “To find joy in work is to discover the fountain of youth.’’ I guess that just means being happy in your work is a good thing.
Taking a day once a year to recognize the value of labor and laborers is a good thing, too.