On a shelf in my office is a large piece of coal. It is there as a reminder of where I come from and where my roots are. Those roots are solidly amidst what is now referred to as “blue collar” workers, i.e., men and women who wore work shirts not white shirts. My blue collar roots include coal miners.
Several of my male relatives started out as coal miners. Some got out. One of my uncles became a fireman. My great grandfather became a cobbler. Another uncle didn’t make it out, dying of black lung disease.
My father picked slate from coal heaps when he was a boy. He had a high school education and worked for a trucking company as a claims adjuster. We would go back to work with him in the evening and play hide and seek on the freight docks with truck drivers named Jake or Skinny or Buddy.
Part of what I learned from these blue collar folks has to do with work. I grew up with an understanding that that’s what you do. You work, preferably starting at a young age. Thus I had my first job when I was 14. That job was golf caddy. It lasted one day. I got there at 6AM and did not get called until 4 PM. I then lugged some woman’s golf clubs around for two plus hours and got paid $.50! Thankfully a parish priest got me a job at the library of a local college.
In subsequent years through high school and college, I worked as a mailman (a job I loved!). I also worked in a plastics factory where most of the men were missing fingers from plastics presses. I worked in a paint factory. I met many people who taught me a lot about hard work and enduring boredom. Like the steel worker in Stud’s Terkel’s Working, these people were working so that their children could have a better future than they did.
What became important to those men and women was that their sons and daughters would go to college. I remember what a big deal it was when my cousin Bob Ruane (son of my uncle who died of black lung disease) graduated from college, the first in my mother’s family to do so. Similarly, it was important to my aunt who ran an elevator at the electric company that I attend the local Jesuit high school rather than the parish one.
These blue collar men and women were usually people of faith, drawing on that faith to persist in trying to build a life for their families. They sometimes coped in other ways too. Thus many of my blue collar relatives were two-fisted drinkers.
I am aware that the work I do now as a psychologist has its own inherent meaning and rewards. I am aware of how fortunate I have been to receive the education that I did. I understand that I am more than what I do but the fact is that, for most of us, what we do becomes a major part of who we are. Thus, the discomfort that can come with retirement.
I am grateful to all the blue collar men and women who made it possible for me to have a better life. Here is a poem celebrating my blue collar roots
At The Old Folks
So now you know.
This is where we old coal miners come.
Oh it’s not so bad.
The sisters …they feed us well.
Nurse us when we’re sick.
Bury us when it’s time.
But here’s the joke.
Somewhere in the bowels of this building
A boiler room works day and night to keep us warm.
That boiler runs on coal.
But they won’t let me go down there.
I who know so much about those black rocks.
They won’t let me go down there anymore.
They say I might get hurt.
That’s the joke.