The Archaeology in Tennessee blog is pausing for a moment to wish a happy and safe Labor Day holiday weekend to all of its many readers and followers here in Tennessee and around the nation. Although Labor Day (or some rough equivalent) is not celebrated on the same date in other parts of the world, we nonetheless extend warm greetings and wishes for peace and happiness to our international readers.
I would also like to say a few words about my dad on this occasion. My dad died on Labor Day way back in 1986. He was a short, trim guy who liked to wear striped overalls and looked very much like a gentle cross between Humphrey Bogart and Bruce Willis. He was also friendly, talkative, honest as the day is long, and generous to a fault—even when he had little to give. He quit school in the 8th grade, lost his first child (about 3 years old) to death in 1936, and came down with Type I diabetes at age 27.
My dad worked a 40-hour week and some rare overtime all of his life up to age 65. He never made more than minimum wage at any of his jobs. My dad was never on welfare, food stamps, etc. He did not drink alcohol or take drugs, and he was never in jail or prison. He was not fast with women, and he was never divorced. He gave up smoking his Camel cigarettes cold turkey on the first try in 1964 and did not smoke for the next 22 years (until his death).
The fact that my dad made only minimum wage might suggest to you that he was a slacker, but you would be dead wrong. He was one of the hardest working people I have ever known. He would work all day long on a hot summer day with no air conditioning, walk nearly a mile from work to home, and work in his vegetable garden every evening until sunset. Put simply in terms you can better understand, he was the type of guy that would stay until sunset to finish taking down the 2-meter squares to get the project back on schedule when all of the other archaeologists had left for a cold shower and beer at 3:00 p.m.
However, my dad was not an archaeologist, He was a carpenter and for most of his career a master cabinetmaker who specialized in custom cabinets and furniture. He had obtained his woodworking skills on the farm while still a child under the tutelage of his father Charles and his uncle Matt who used their winters to help a man by the name of Fate Gray make furniture for the families who lived in northern Sumner County, Tennessee. Fate Gray and the Brown boys knew the old time 18th and 19th century furniture-making skills and methods—hundreds of things you would never even encounter in a modern high school shop class. In fact, my dad was not only the best woodworker on the floor in later years, he often had to teach his fellow employees (who had been through high school shop class) how to apply these old woodworking techniques to custom orders that came into the workplace.
Considering all of his rare skills and his strong work ethic, how did a man like this make minimum wage all of his life? I asked my dad about that on several occasions as I was growing up. His answer was always the same. Apparently, Type I diabetes was much harder to manage in those days than it is now. They did not have blood sugar meters and test strips. You had to eat right and “feel your way” through a day to stay in the safe zone between insulin shock and deadly high blood sugar—and you could easily “misfeel” your way into trouble. Apparently, the insurance companies knew this. According to my dad, his assorted employers over the years told him that they could only afford to pay him minimum wage because it was too great of an insurance risk (and expense with insurance premiums) to have a Type I diabetic on the shop floor. They apparently had to “compensate” by paying him rock bottom wages. When all of the employers in town were telling him this, he concluded that he had to work for minimum wage or not work at all.
Just in case you are wondering, my mother never worked anywhere outside of our home because she was perennially sick. So my dad somehow managed to support a family of three on just minimum wage and with no health insurance benefits. In three words, we did without. We did without damned near everything. We had no hot running water and no telephone. We had few clothes. We had no automobile. We gave up the outhouse and Sears catalogs only because the landlord decided on a whim to add bathrooms to her low-rent housing in the bad part of town. We had no air conditioning in the summer and no insulated walls in winter. A rare, ice-cold Coca-Cola for 5 cents or 10 cents was our spring trip to Paris. For my dad, it was a very tough, difficult, and hard existence filled with work—and the hard labor lasted relentlessly for his entire life.
My dad and mom were members of a rural United Methodist Church all of their lives, but they were not churchgoers after they moved to town in the late 1930s. Nonetheless, they were people of deep faith all of their lives. Although they never said anything to me about it, I feel sure that they wondered on the backburners of their minds how a loving God that they held to so tightly over the years had so thoroughly abandoned them to a life of such hard work and misery. Then again, maybe He had not. Maybe God was the only way a person like my dad could sustain a family on nearly nothing.
My dad died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 74. As mentioned at the start of this post, he died on Labor Day in 1986. Some might think this is mere irony. However, I have another take on it. I think that particular Labor Day was dedicated especially to him, and the message was, “C’mon home and spend some time by your new pool at Versailles. We just finished the house for you, and this is moving in day.”