December 1st, 2019
“Work is the curse of the drinking classes.” – Oscar Wilde
“I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” – Jay Gould
Stefan and I get together at times. He’s our youngest son, and he works as a welder. He never wanted to go to a four-year college. He knew early on in his life that he wanted to work with his hands. He knew that he wanted to make things. Stefan took every shop course that was available to him in high school. He was never comfortable in a classroom, and he would never be comfortable in an office.
Stefan is only twenty-five. However, he’s already done many things. He worked as a auto mechanic right out of high school. Then he went to Texas, on his own, and worked in the press room of a newspaper in Bryan. He returned to Wisconsin, and he worked in a body shop. He worked in a place that refurbished old furniture. Eventually, he went to a local tech school to learn welding. He joined the Iron Workers Union. Now he walks on top of steel beams one hundred feet up, and does welding in the snow and the cold.
Stefan works hard, and he makes good money. His work is difficult and dangerous. In his profession people get hurt. He told me about one of his co-workers who had his leg crushed by a forklift. That got my attention. I had my right leg crushed by a forklift ten years ago at work. I know exactly how that feels.
Stefan is working class. He has the virtues and the vices of that tribe. He runs with a rough crowd, because the men (they are almost all men) who are Iron Workers are by necessity kind of rugged. Stefan once told me,
“Everybody on my crew has a felony rap, an addiction, or an OWI (drunk driving)…except for me.”
This is nothing unusual. When Stefan was working in the press room down in Texas, he got into a heated argument with a co-worker. Apparently, the other guy accused Stefan of being lazy. That is not one of Stefan’s shortcomings. The argument turned into a screaming match. Eventually, they wore each other out.
Later, Stefan found out that the man had done time for murder.
Stefan’s current compatriots are of the same mold. These other Iron Workers may not be murderers, but they have led interesting lives. These are men who have probably just done the things that most of us are afraid to do. They have lived on the edge. The edge is an exciting place, but rather unforgiving.
Stefan told me,
“We all went out to breakfast one time. First, the guys wanted to order some Bloody Mary’s, then they wanted to get some beers. Then they said, ‘Hey, let’s go to the titty bar, it’s open by now! Fuck, I didn’t even want to see what worked there on that shift.”
That made me remember.
I was in the Army in 1981. I had just finished flight school, and I had been assigned to a helicopter unit in Germany. I arrived in Hanau in December, and I knew nobody. A couple pilots took me under their wing, but I was alone when Christmas came.
A couple guys from the unit found me on Christmas Eve. Their idea was to take me to the red light district in Frankfurt. Frankfurt, like many other European cities, had decided that it was best to keep sexual vice within certain geographical limits. I went there with these other soldiers. I had never been to a place where prostitution was legal, so there was a perverse sort of excitement.
We went into one of the houses. It was actually lit with a red light. The women there were not particularly attractive. Well, maybe they were physically attractive, but the fact that they were selling their bodies like used cars made them seem ugly. It made me feel ugly. I felt dirty being there. I didn’t buy anything. It felt wrong, way wrong. It had nothing to do with love. It hardly had anything to do with sex. It was just a business transaction.
That is what I remember.
“Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails just call me Lucifer
‘Cause I’m in need of some restraint”
from “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones
My father was working class, but he tried so hard to move up in the world. He spent his entire life with a chip on his shoulder. He wanted so much to prove that he was as good as, or better than, other people. He failed.
My dad pushed hard to send me to West Point. I got a scholarship there, and I did well. However, I never became the son he wanted me to be. He was could never decide what he wanted me to be. Sometimes, he would yell, after I went on a drunken binge,
“What is wrong with you? I thought that they were going to make you into an officer and a gentleman!”
They did make me an officer. The gentleman part was always optional.
Then, at other times, when I showed off my education, he would say with bitterness,
“So, you’re a big guy now? Are you better than the rest of us? You forget your roots?”
Now, It’s my turn.
Sometimes Stefan tells me things that a parent perhaps should not hear. It’s okay. I don’t mind. He’s honest with me, and that is all that I want.
Stefan is rough and crazy and street smart. He is also loyal, compassionate, generous, and brave. He is a good son. He is a good man. I love him as he is.