I have worked since I was twelve years old. I grew up in a laboring household in the 1940s and 1950s. My earliest childhood desire was to emulate my father and work as did he. He was a logger, working in the New Hampshire forests. The New England lumber industry provided a good living for most of those years. We enjoyed a middle-class life. My father worked for his father from the mid-1930s until his father sold his businesses and retired in the mid-1950s. My grandfather got out of the business at the right time. The local forestry industries began their decline then, when West coast lumber undercut them. The mills went silent and the great paper town of Berlin, the destination for much of the grandfather's logging output, began to die. Grandfather had been very successful. He was known as the lumber baron of New Hampshire. His life would in itself provide an interesting biography. He had no schooling after the eighth grade. He worked in the woods as a young man, then sold houses in Rhode Island, developed suburban property around Boston before World War One, and returned to New Hampshire and his home town, Plymouth, after 1919. He moved his family from Brookline, because his physician told him he was going to die from cirrhosis of the liver. He was an alcoholic. But he did not die. He curtailed his drinking, limiting himself to a single drink of whiskey at dinner. He planted his wife and seven children on a farm in Holderness, then another farm in Plymouth, and entered the lumber industry.
My father grew up on the farm and began working for his father, as a crew boss, after graduating from high school in the mid-1930s. My grandfather believed in education and insisted that each of his children go to college. The three girls (as the daughters were always known) went to two year college or four year college; three of the boys (as the sons were always known) went to four-year college. My father did not. He wanted to work for his father without going to college, and, for some reason, my grandfather accepted that. So my childhood after the second world war (I was born in 1942) was filled with the experience of the New Hampshire woods, of winter labor camps, deep in the forests in the snow, the ring of steel wedges being hammered into trees, distant rasping of chain saws, the sweet smell of fresh tree cuttings, sticky pine sap, percherons pulling logs along narrow trails to skidways, groaning log trucks grinding along muddy mountain roads, American and French-Canadian loggers, working from dawn to dusk, swearing every second of the work day with colorful and inventive curses and dead drunk on weekends.
In the background of our lives was the evidence of the success that laboring could bring: my father's father's wealth. In the early 1940s, grandfather purchased a large estate, nearly 5000 acres with a beautiful mansion, stable and carriage house, gate houses, and pastures, on a mountaintop with a spectacular view of New Hampshire's lakes region. At the same time, grandfather set up a horse racing stable in Saratoga, New York. Grandmother lived at the estate, May through November, and grandfather lived in Saratoga. My father's large family, by this time with marriages and children, gathered in summers at estate. Life at this estate was, too, part of my childhood world. Grandfather logged the vast private forest and here I often accompanied my dad to work. In deer season, my father and I hunted the estate's woods, provisioning the table with venison every year.
In the mid-1950s, this colorful world--fabulous for a child--ended. My grandfather retired. My grandmother had cancer and wanted to return to the family home in Plymouth. They sold the estate. My grandfather did not sell his businesses to his children. The family story is that he said that the boys could never agree on anything to run a business together. My father was out of a job. He started his own logging company, continuing the only work he knew. He was able to make a living for a few years, but the declining New England economy worked against him. My mother's health entered crisis, she went blind. Sometimes my father could not make the home mortgage payment. Eventually, he lost our home to the town when he could not pay the taxes on it. I remember riding with my parents and my sister in the family car, when my father drove around our village and neighboring countryside looking for another house. My father was an alcoholic, like his father. The distress of our disintegrating lives reinforced his alcoholism; home life became confusing, unpleasant, and frequently ugly. This was the context in which I began my working life.
I was twelve. A paper route, for the Laconia Evening Citizen, opened in my home village. I begged my parents to let me take it. They did. I wanted to contribute to the family. Working was the only way I knew. While I was in the seventh and eight grades, I delivered papers after school and on Saturdays. I had between fifty and sixty customers. Walking the route required three hours a days. On school days, I got home just before dinner. I made a few dollars each week. I kept each customer's account on a 3x5 card in a small metal file box. I was not a particularly good paper boy. I often forgot to deliver the paper to one or other customer. I daydreamed a lot while walking the route. But walk it, at least, faithfully I did. I delivered through snow storms when the streets hadn't been plowed, through a hurricane when the river streets were flooded, and always against the opposition of local dogs, running loose as the town had no leash law.
I opened a savings account at the local bank. I had decided I wanted to go to college. I had heard many family conversations about the decline of the logging industry. I knew the great, red brick mills, that populated New Hampshire towns making yarns and textiles, shoes, wood products, lumber, and paper were closing. No one I knew saw a future except for further economic depression. No one thought New England would have the economic renaissance it eventually entered in the 1970s with the electronic and computer industries. My mother encouraged me to read, perhaps because I was a sickly child. I liked my school teachers. They were, I suppose, my inspiration to go to college. By eighth grade, my dream was MIT. I'm not sure why. I was not a strong student, seldom obtained A grades, and was weak in math. I surely wouldn't have been admitted to that great school. My savings slowly accumulated. Several times, I gave my savings to my father, so he could pay the home mortgage.
I gave up my paper route when I was fourteen. I obtained a federal work permit for under-age work and took a job as a farm laborer. I worked on a farm outside my home village from May through September, basically from just before the last frost of the Spring to just after the last frost of the growing season. I rode my bicycle to the farm after school in May, then daily to work from seven in the morning to five or six in the afternoon. I made minimum wage, which was, I think, 25 cents an hour. Mostly I worked with a hoe--planting, weeding, harvesting. It was difficult and tiring labor. At the end of a day, I was filthy with dirt. My ears got so filled with dirt, my hearing was impaired. I had to have a doctor flush them out, which he did with a small wax removal hand pump. I was not a good farm worker. The farmer assigned me to weed a large field of a crop I cannot remember. The farmer showed me the small plants sprouting above the soil and how they differed from the weeds. He showed me how to handle the hoe around the small plants, how to pile the dirt into small mounds. Then, for a day, I systematically cut down with the hoe every single sprout of the crop and left the weeds carefully cultivated. I was fired that evening. I bicycled home in disgrace.
For most of my first year of high school, I had no job. In the small village, there were few jobs. Everyone knew me and my family. I was not esteemed as a laborer. Then my mother convinced a new neighbor to give me a job. He was the new owner of a local hardware store and lumber franchise, called Grossman's. Toward the end of my freshman year, I was hired as a stock boy. Initially, I worked Saturdays; some months later I began to work weekdays three hours after school as well. The company generously let me come in late if I had after school obligations. I started in the paint department, bringing cartons of paints from a warehouse on an elevator, unpacking them, placing them on the labelled shelves, and marking inventory cards. When I learned how to do that, my responsibilities moved to other departments--nails, screws, carpentry tools, flooring materials, doors, hardware, outdoor furniture. In my second year, I was shown how to make simple sales involving cash. I worked summers, as well as after school. Eventually, I was permitted to make sales on accounts, which involved learning the tiered pricing arrangement, by which some contractors were permitted to charge to account and had the lowest prices, walk-in customers paying cash had the highest prices, and several other categories of customers had price categories in between. I learned how to calculate board feet and how much lumber was required to meet a blueprint. I learned how to do set-ups. I set up kitchen displays, which involved installing cabinetry and water and sewer plumbing. I learned how to take apart and reassemble faucets, electrical outlets and junctions, lawn mowers, outdoor utility sheds. I helped unload the company trucks that brought lumber, bags of cement, concrete blocks, roofing tiles, siding, sewage pipe, and other building supplies to the yard's covered storage buildings. It was an invaluable education in home building materials and I loved every second of it.
I felt I was close to the secrets of life. I drew blueprints of cabins and houses and fantasized living in them. I realized that I could, and envisioned myself doing so, build my own domicile with my own hands, fill it with books, friends, and experiences, and live a satisfying life. I was, by this time, writing poetry and deeply enthralled by the English romantic poets. I imagined myself building a small cabin in the mountains in Northern New Hampshire. It would have large windows looking out over the Jefferson intervale. I figured the costs at $800, with water, plumbing, sewer, and heat. I had picked out a small stove. I layed out a floor plan with a separate sleeping area and a small sitting room. I could live there, eat cheese, bread, and venison, a home base from which to walk the meandering dirt roads, a seclusion in which to write poetry. I knew that I was going to spend my life writing. I knew I could make my life, all on my own.
I saved my wages. By the time I finished high school, in three years of work at the store and yard, I earned enough money to pay half the costs of my freshman year of college. I was admitted to the University of New Hampshire--good fortune, because I was a B student and tested poorly on the SATs. I must have earned a decent reputation that gave others faith in me. I received a scholarship from a local club that paid for most of my first year tuition. When I left for University, after my last summer of work at the hardware store, it was not the end, but the beginning of the end, of my life of blue-collar labor. Summers in college, I worked variously, again without outstanding success, delivering milk on a summer seasonal route, providing tours at a local geological attraction, tending golf greens on a hotel resort golf course, and working as a waiter at a dinner club. Once in graduate school, I began teaching and research and lived the secure professional middle class life my parents could never have dreamt.
Education did not leave the blue-collar life behind. I learned in manual work something that has stayed with me. My teenage life as a working laborer taught me how to build a life. The laboring jobs were, of course difficult and tiring, but also a metaphor of planning, constructing, and shaping my life with my own hands. My career as a professor merely filled up the blueprints that I had drawn earlier.