Song of the Working Man

Rick Santorum, though he himself is a wealthy man and a former Senator, shows working-class audiences that he understands them by talking about his grandfather.  His grandfather was a miner, and Santorum's Iowa speech talked about the old man's funeral.  Looking at the corpse, at the funeral, he focused on the hands:  "Those hands," he said, "dug freedom for me."

I feel inclined to tell a few stories this morning, about some men I know.

The first one of these is the father of two kids, both special-needs.  Between their needs and surgeries, he's a million dollars in debt.  To carry that debt he works two jobs.  He's an officer in the US Navy reserves, which means he has to travel out of state for duty on a regular basis.  His full-time job requires him to rise and leave by four AM some mornings every week, and keeps him at work until six or seven at night most nights.  His boss is a miserable human being who can't be bothered to speak civilly to him, even though it's my friend's willingness to come in early that sets the boss up for whatever success he enjoys in the day.  I hear he just took a pay cut.

I once told him I thought what he was doing for his kids was noble.  He laughed, rather darkly, and went on to talk about something else.  Last Christmas he sent me a card with his family's picture on it.


Another man I know grew up much as I did, racing fast cars through Appalachia.  As a young man he joined the Army.  He became a sergeant, and then got out; he and his wife had some kids and he went to work for a company.  He tried to move up the ranks, but never got very far, ending up in middle-management.  His wife decided she didn't like being home with the kids, so she went back to work as soon as she could; then she decided she didn't like the job, so she wanted to go back to school.  He supported her through all that, and her failed business venture.  One day she got angry with him over something, some fight, and left for a while.  He later told me that he'd been dressing for work that morning, and happened to see his pistol laying on a shelf.  He told me he thought, "If I shoot myself, I won't have to go to work today."

Fortunately he had an upbringing that steeled him against moments of despair.  Things worked out with her and him.  Still, I don't know if she ever knew, or understood that it was really only ever all for her.  When it didn't look to him like it mattered to her, he'd rather have died than face his job even one more day.


One of the men I like best in the world not only was but is an Army sergeant, at this point a senior NCO.  He was a man who came from a working-man's background, never did well in school.  He had never managed to read a whole book in his life when I met him.  I don't know why the education system didn't figure out how to help him, but it never did, and when he got married and had a few kids there was a long time when he couldn't find work.  This would have been about the time of the economic downturn from the first Bush administration:  the one that caused him not to get re-elected.  My friend was a casualty of that recession.

One day he was at home, waiting for his wife to get off work, having almost given up hope of ever being worth anything to his family.  An Army recruiting commercial came on television, and promised him all the good things those commercials do.  He went right then to a recruiter, who assured him -- being as how he was a husband and father -- that the Army would take care to station him close to home so he could support his family and still be with them.  He signed that very day.  His first duty station was Korea.

He went on to serve in Somalia, Bosnia/Herzegovina, and Iraq.  He had sixty-six kills in OIF 1.  Along the way he was blown up by a mortar round, and had to be retrained for a support position.  The Army picked one for him that required a lot of skill at reading and writing.  When I met him -- in Iraq again, in his new role -- he was gritting his teeth and fighting to make it work.  He finally did, due to nothing but hard work and dedication.  I thought he would like Louis L'amour's Sackett novels, so I gave him one, and it was the first book he ever read all the way through.  He went on to read all of them.  He understood them and they spoke to him, he told me, because "These books are all about guys who are fighting for their family."

It happens he and I share a birthday.  We could almost be brothers, except he has blue eyes.


I could tell you about my own family:  about my great-grandfather, who was a farmer in rural Tennessee around the turn of the last century, but who somehow managed to put his eight kids -- all sons -- through trade school.  Or I could tell you about my grandfather, who was a welder, who managed to put his sons through college.

Each of these men is a kind of tragic hero.  They've suffered, greatly, in the service of those they love.  I don't know how many people have taken the time to understand just how much their sacrifices have cost them.

I think I chose the right word when I told my one friend that he was noble.  This kind of sacrifice in the service of the beloved is the mark of a man of the highest honor.  It is the mark of true nobility.


AndrewC said...

Love these stories and the men that write them, Grim.

I'm curious - since you study fables and myths - is there a Forgotten Hero archetype?

Something I've been thinking about lately - it seems to be the most noble of ventures to do heroic things and then to be forgotten, remembered not even with words but only by the effects of your deeds. To do a hero's job and not even claim the fame befitting such a task.

It's a contradiction in that the point of our heroic stories is to remember such deeds - but hopefully you get the sense of what I'm looking for.

Elise said...

These stories remind me of a song that never fails to make me cry: Barbed Wire Boys by Susan Werner. You can find versions of it on YouTube; the lyrics are here: Lyrics

Grim said...

Andrew: You may be on to something. It would explain a fact about mythology that has always mystified me.

One of the very common tropes in mythology is the child who is secretly the son of a great hero or king (or, more rarely but occasionally, the daughter of one). I've always wondered why these stories are so popular. Generally people telling them would have known their ancestors back at least a few generations, so it can't be that people have commonly identified with not knowing who their parents were; but we see the myth at work again and again, from Oedipus to Fionn mac Cumhaill, and indeed worldwide.

Maybe this form is so popular because it speaks to a deeply-felt sense that we're all the sons and daughters of heroes we have forgotten how to name. In that case, as in many cases, the myth will often prove literally to be true.

Grim said...

That's a beautiful song, Elise.

Elise said...

I'm glad you like it, Grim.

And thank you for this post. I was thinking about it this evening and realized these stories are my cousin's story. I never really saw it before and I'm ashamed that I didn't. I will tell him I see it now - and perhaps print this post off and send it to him.

douglas said...

The older I get, and as I gain experience as a father, the more I realize how much credit is due a man who simply provides for his family and loves them, and gives them the example of a hard working honest man to follow. I've also realized that as much as I try to give such an example to my son and daughter, I know my failings and it's tough sometimes to believe I can do it- but I've also realized that even men like my father have their flaws (is my admiration for him so obvious?), and I'm sure I don't know the half of them- but he gave me the mythology to understand what we should try to be.

I don't think I know many folks with the sort of drama you've illustrated here in their lives- or at least it's not come up- but for all that we credit true heroes that we're all aware of, there are so many unsung, and unfortunately, so many also tragic.

Noble was indeed the right word- just slogging through what life sends your way with any dignity, purpose, and love is noble.

Grim said...


Please don't feel ashamed.

If the post was of such service to you I am deeply gratified. Please convey my respects to your cousin, who must be a fine man.

Anonymous said...

Virtue is its own reward, because there isn't any other.