Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Friday. Payday [views]

Every two weeks whether I need it or not, I get a paycheck. And as the year winds down, with all the taxes and deductions maxed out, there's the sweet taste of extra cash. Plus, my daughter is now married, in her own home, with her own career, and all my money is mine, all mine! I love liquidity.

This year, I bought my wife some truly deluxe gifts. She lost her wedding ring years ago, so I commissioned a jeweler artist to fashion one anew. It is truly beautiful. Oddly enough, I lost my ring, too, in the Army. But I offered a reward of $25.00–a year’s salary in those days for the average Korean– and got the ring back from the Head Houseboy (“Me House Man, no house boy.”) Screw him, and don’t get me started on those thieving houseboys. Men.) Plus, I’ve bought a Frank Romero print we’ve admired for a few years, and piece de resistance a pastel by Margaret Garcia that is just stupendous!

Did I say I love liquidity?

Yet, as I sit in my fancy office staring across the lobby at “my” receptionist and “my” two staff trainers, I am not entirely satisfied. Sure, writing and talking for a living is fun, profitable, and for the most part, easy. But something’s missing. And I know what it is.

Hard work. Muscle strain, sweat, danger. Not that being the Corporate Human Resources guy is a no-sweat job; it is, for the most part. But those days when it falls to me to discharge a failed worker, that is ugly and kills all the joy around me for the rest of the day. And always lurking in a small paranoid corner of my mind the phrase “going postal”. I’m sure my Army hand-to-hand combat training will keep me safe. Did I bring my pugil stick today?

Danger. In the Army I had several near-death scrapes. Talk about heart-pounding blind fear. There was the drive up the mountain in a blizzard. The deuce and half stalls as it negotiates a switchback and we start sliding backward toward the whited-out abyss. Ok, that wasn’t exactly hard work per se. That same blizzard went on for days, stranding us up on top, and so cold that the main commo line snapped. Splicing a twisted pair of light gauge copper wire is not hard work but this one took me over an hour to strip and wrap the four broken ends. Peel off a glove, manipulate the wire until the hand is totally numb. Retreat to the lee of a hut and blow into the re-gloved hand until feeling returns. Then back to the wire. Shivering in the commo hootch when I’d finished, I looked down to see my hands covered in frozen blood. I hadn’t felt the skin tear because it was so goddamned cold. I vow after having spent a winter on top of Mae Bong, I never want to be cold again.

Give me puro sweat-bringing hard work. A couple of undergraduate summers, I worked at Kaiser Steel in Fontana. Now here was totally satisfying work! Shoveling slag out from under roll lines that only 8 hours earlier had been transporting two ton ingots of red-hot steel. A couple of the lines sloped to within a few inches off the floor. Cleaning out these raceways put us on our knees for hours, forcing the shovel under the crap, lift, then carefully bring the handle back far enough to provide leverage to fling the slag behind me toward the starting point. In those days, it was a joy to “Double Over”, report for swing shift at 4, then work graveyard from midnight on. Sixteen hours of shoveling.

My muscles yearn for those strains and stresses, those insignificant yet magnificent accomplishments. Then I remember the lesson I learned from Kaiser and from working with guys who’d been laborers for five years already and had that to look forward to their working lives: stay in school, menso. And I did, until my Uncle Sam said, “here I am.” But that’s for another Friday.

So, what’s the hardest work you’ve ever done?


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