It was a horrible job. The young man wasn’t much more than thirty, but he had a wife and two young sons to support. Each day he would head reluctantly to the sawmill to put in another ten or twelve hours for the few cents which manual laborers were paid for a day’s work in the 1930s. The sawmill was powered by a self-fueled steam engine, with the boiler fed by the scraps and sawdust which the operation generated. That wimp, Mike, of modern television’s “Dirty Jobs” had nothing on EJ. This was no setup, with a few shovelfuls of dirt strewn here and there to make it look like it was hot, dirty work. This genuinely dirty job entailed standing in a pit below the huge saw, with the sawdust and scraps dropping down from above, and shoveling the filthy stuff into the open door of the boiler. The steam produced by the heat turned the huge gears and the long belt, which spun the saw blade as it sliced through the pine logs, showering still more debris on his head. The humid, East Texas heat turned the hole into an oven down where the young man stood caked in sawdust and sweating from the heavy labor. And, still the men who fed the saw up above, a job not much easier than EJ’s, called for more power. The fellow cursed the heat, cursed the men up above and, on at least one occasion, cursed God and dared Him to blow up the boiler and kill him as he worked. As he cursed, he fed it faster and raised the pressure higher than the metal tank had ever been tested to, even when it was made. The tiny prison was almost more than the young man could bear, but day after day he returned to the job he hated, to leave after his shift, discouraged and angry at the world.
My father tells the story of his own father, and I feel the heat, and the anger, and the disappointment with life. When I knew my grandfather, physically, he was a shell of his former self. Hard work and hard living had taken its toll on the once strong and vigorous man, leaving him gasping for breath and moving slowly. I would ride with him in the old 1949 Pontiac late at night, to wait for my grandmother who was getting off work from her job as a nurse’s aide at the local nursing home. Emphysema had left Grandpa unable to work at all, so Grandma worked to supplement their meager pension. I had always thought my grandfather was a little lazy, since he never worked in my lifetime. I might have viewed him a little differently if I had known how hard he had worked to support his little family when he was younger. But, as I listened to Dad tell the story, I not only gained a new respect for my grandfather, but I was struck with the dichotomy that was represented by the job he did for that sawmill so many years ago.
If he did his job well, the sawdust came down that much faster. Think about it. The faster he worked, the faster he had to work to keep up. If he let the boiler get low on steam, the saw ran slowly and the debris which rained down on him slowed to a sprinkle. But, if he purposely slowed down, the floor began to fill up around him and he would be hampered in his attempts to shovel it into the firebox. The situation we commonly call a “catch-22” was his constant milieu. Work harder, and you make more work for yourself. Work less, and soon you can’t do your job. Can you imagine the hopelessness that grew, day after day, knowing that your boss could never be satisfied, that you would never be able to look at your work and say that the project was completed? The only reward for your hard work (besides a meager paycheck) was more hard work.
The Lovely Lady was peeling sweet potatoes for Sunday dinner one recent afternoon, and I noticed that quite a number of peels had fallen to the floor. Being the sweet, considerate husband that I am, I stooped down and picked them up, only to have more fall as I tossed the first batch in the trash. In her defense, she did make some comment about efficiency and picking up after the job instead of during. It didn’t really matter, because my brain was already drifting elsewhere, to a time seventy years ago, and the feelings of that young man as he “cleaned up” while the workers above him inconsiderately made a perpetual job as he slaved away down in the pit. No, I don’t want you to think that I deserve some kind of sympathy because of the peelings dropped on the floor; it just made me think about it again.
“Life is hard and then you die.” I remember my older brother telling me that when I was much younger. He thought it was cute; that I would quit my griping about whatever little annoyance was irking me. I don’t think he realized how true it actually is. One might even say it is Biblical. Genesis relates the words of the Creator to a sinful man; “By the sweat of your brow will you eat your food until you return to the ground…” Now, that’s something to look forward to! But, you know, the longer I consider it, the more I realize that it’s not such a bad system. We work to be given more responsibility, more work. It seems that maybe that’s the way character is developed. Solomon said it this way, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all of your might.” If we don’t become discouraged and quit, the character we develop through hard work will shine through.
I’m not sure why our society tells us that the reward for hard work is the chance to do nothing. I’ve heard about more people who become sickly and die soon after quitting their jobs to”retire”. The more I think about it, the less I like this idea of working hard all my life, just to drop out and act like a bum for the final few years. I think maybe my dad has the right idea. At eighty-one, he is still hard at work pastoring a church full-time. No tee times or fishing trips for him. He’s hoping to do the work he loves until the day he dies. It seems like a good plan to me.
I think I’ll keep shoveling for another year or two and see if the work keeps dropping on top of me. You never know either; I may rethink the retirement thing some day, as well. Why don’t you check back in another fifteen years or so?
“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”
(Seneca~Roman philosopher~First century AD)
“…If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”
(2 Thessalonians 3:10b)