On Giants' Shoulders

Friday, August 25, 2006

My Father's Example

My niece Laura recently encouraged me to read a book entitled Nickle and Dimed. I didn't find it in our local libary immediately, and I seemed to be always at my book limit before I could look for it at the UVM library. The other day I mentioned to our local librarian that we didn't seem to have that book (I was sort of hoping she'd offer to buy it so I wouldn't have to). As it turned out they actually already had it and she waxed eloquent about what a wonderful book it was. So I brought it home and last night I read it, in one sitting!

When I finished the book I was sad and angry about what the author had described. I thought about what bothered me so much about it all morning. As I was driving to Rutland I was pondering some more, and I realized some of what made me so angry was that what was happening to the people the author was telling the story of would not have happened had they been my father's employees back in the 1950's and 1960's. My father did not grow up in a wealthy family. He didn't go to college. He didn't even finish high school. Before World War II he worked in a gas station, but not as a mechanic because he didn't have those particular skills. After the war he came back and opened his own Mobile station. He had to hire a mechanic to work for him and he usually had at least one or two other people working at least part time. He worked along side them, took the dirtiest jobs, took the worst shifts, and always treated his workers with respect. He co-signed loans for some of them, and when they defaulted he paid off the loans himself. He bought a farm when I was a year and a half old and had hired men run it for him for the most part. However, he worked on the farm too, when he could get away from the station. Again he took the hardest jobs, and worked harder than his employees. He went to the farm on Sundays so that the hired help could have a day off.

When I was 13 he bought a second farm, and we moved onto it when I was just about to turn 14. Again we had a hired man and he and my parents worked together. Again my father was up earlier, to bed later, and worked harder than his employee. The hired man got a day off, my father didn't. The summer workers always said that my dad could out work any 20 year old he hired. My father made sure his farm workers got hefty meals, and produce and meat that we raised. When he died, people who had worked for him who served as some of the pall bearers.

In Nickle and Dimed the workers are not only not paid a living wage and have to live in terrible conditions, they are treated disrespectfully by their supervisors and patronizingly at best by corporate higher ups. As children we saw an example of how to treat employees that I believe has always stayed with me. I still occasionally see someone running a family owned business who seems to have a similar attitude, but it certainly isn't the attitude of multi-national corporations.

My father was not a perfect person. As I mentioned earlier he had a pretty hot temper. But he gave us examples of hospitality, compassion, and the need to respect even people who weren't very lovely that I sometimes think is lacking today.

When my father was running the gas station he often went out of his way for people who were in trouble. One time a family's car broke down and my father didn't have the necessary part to fix it. The place where the part was sold wasn't open that late, so he couldn't get the part until the next day. The family had no place in town to stay. So my father opened our home up to them and we went and spent the night at my grandparents'. The next day my mother drove to Montpelier and got the part and soon they were on their way. My father wouldn't even take any money for giving them a place to stay. Another time some gypsies came through town and he let them park overnight at the gas station lot because they didn't have anywhere else in town that they could park where there would be toilet facilities (they had a camper type trailer). Again, no charge. The other gas stations in town were much more reluctant to help someone out after hours, so if the police found someone in vehicle difficulty they called my dad. He didn't call his employees to come in, or go out to tow a car in, he did it himself. If the difficulty wasn't so serious that it required the mechanic he took care of it himself, then and there.

My parents handed out food, they rented to people with less than stellar reputatons (and often lost money on the deal). They treated even drunks and felons with respect, despite the fact that both of them were convinced teetotalers. I may have learned Christian doctrine only from my mother, but I certainly learned Christian example from my father as well. When I look at what now gets called compassionate conservatism I have to wonder whether some of its proponents have any idea what compassion really is. Giving money that doesn't really hurt your own lifestyle significantly is not the example of my parents. Giving money when it means that your own kids are going to get their school clothes at the thrift store and that you aren't going to get a new winter coat for a decade, now that requires compassion. We didn't live like Dorothy Day exactly, and my father would have found much of Dorothy's philosophy foreign to him. He didn't like unions, he always voted a straight Republican ticket, and he thought FDR was one of the worst things that ever happened to the country. Yet in his personal life he behaved with far more real sensitivity to the real needs of his employees and customers than a lot of the Democrats who were pro-worker.

I sometimes wonder what my father would make of the current political scene. I suspect he'd probably not want to vote Democratic any more today than he did then. Yet, I don't know that he'd have a whole lot of respect for the current crop of Republicans as well. He wouldn't like what our governor just did with resepct to GMO seed, he wouldn't like what he's proposing relative to property taxes. Of course he never did have a whole lot of respect for politicians in general. I'm pretty sure he might well get up and have something to say at town meeting.

My father-in-law was similar in many respects. He also hired the guys who were down and out. He, however, was a Democrat and a union man through and through. Still he taught his children similar lessons.

I hope that my children, my sister's children, and my brother-in-law's chldren carry on that heritage. I suspect that the very fact that Laura recommended that book is an indication that she learned some of those lessons from her mom. She listed it as one of the books that changed her life. I can certainly understand why.

Thanks for recommending it, Laura. I hope some of the readers of this blog read it as well. And thanks to my Dad for being an example of the best kind of employer.


At 10:06 AM, Blogger shenyuen said...

I LOVE it!!! Bag End!!!!

~moi :)

(now ya'll just have to come visit)

At 7:29 PM, Blogger brrrtquacker said...

Wow, I'm really glad that you enjoyed the book. I never heard those stories about Grampa, although I picked up, as if it were normal and expected, that Grammie cooked for the men who worked on the farm, and that they loved her cooking. However, I think Mom did encourage those kinds of lessons with Ethan and me. That's why we always clean up after ourselves in public places, and part of why she carefully re-hung clothes that other people had thrown on the floors of department stores, and why she and Dad randomly invited a family (whom I never met) to stay the night in our house. Dad does that, too, by letting a mentally disabled rock buddy cut the grass and whatnot, even though Dad really enjoys mowing the lawn himself. I've never really appreciated those little things, but your stories about Grampa make me proud of our family.

I really love making these connections on ethics and personal accounts with you, Aunt Liz. I think you made my day.


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