My dad worked in the mills around Pittsburgh before he started driving a truck. Most of the men in the family worked in the mills their entire lives before they retired, burned out, laughing like a driver I saw once who had fallen asleep and rolled it over into a ditch and walked away. It was the kind of laugh that told you the man’s nerves were shot, and he could not control the impulse to laugh until he cried.
My grandfather started when he was 12 and retired when he was 65. He made a quarter a day when he started, and when he retired, he had a little house above the Ohio River, an old car and a family who’d never known a hungry day despite growing up through the Depression.
By the time my grandfather retired he had done nearly every job in the mill and had risen to the position of crane operator. He was the kind of man who stuffed his car tires with newspapers rather than buy new ones.
When the mill shut down, he ran a jackhammer for the Works Progress Administration for $28 a week and helped build the Montgomery Island Dam across the Ohio. He would walk the 12 miles to the dam, wearing ill-fitting boots that he got from the charity wagon. When he came home, he would ring the blood out of his socks.
My father took after him quite a bit. He lives on a small pension from his years in the mill and military service. He was in the Navy during the war. He was a gunner’s mate in an outfit that lost more guys in proportion to the size of their outfit than the Marines. When I was 12, he re-upped for another four years at sea. Then he went back to the mill and joined the Air Guard. He went to active duty just in time to make senior master sergeant and retire. In between he drove a truck.
When I bought my truck in the early ’90s, my father loaned me the down payment. I put that old Freightliner on with a heavy-haul outfit, and we ran together when we could. My truck had a 40-inch bunk. We didn’t haul the kind of freight a team could keep moving with, and sometimes we slept toe to eyeball back there, laughing the crazy laughter of men stuck in spots where they’d rather not be – the same kind of laughter a lucky driver laughs after he walks away from a crash-and-burn. You might call it hard times. We didn’t.
You might call trucking hard times these days, too. But we’re not stuffing papers in our tire skins yet or ringing blood out of our socks.
Every week I talk to guys who are making excellent livings. Your personal times may be very hard, your job may not be the one you want, your truck may need a major repair you can’t afford, but there is a way. Somewhere there is a laugh that is not the laugh of fear. Somewhere there is a laugh that is not the last laugh you will ever have.
Consider Paul Fillinger, a steel man from my father’s day. Paul worked a peel, a short, flat handle hung by a chain used to lift steel into the furnace. Paul had a hot ingot on his peel one day when the chain broke. The steel came down and shoved the end of the peel Paul was holding up through his face. He lost the whole side of his face, half his jaw and his left eye. When he came back to work, he had a glass eye.
Sometimes Paul would take out his eye just for the fun of it. One day big Dutch Heiberger asked Paul to keep an eye on his lunch. Paul took out his eye and put it in Big Dutch’s lunch pail. When Dutch walked back to the table, everybody ran for cover. Dutch just laughed and returned Paul’s eye. Everybody laughed, especially Paul.
Black humor. Humor born from misery, humor made from the relief of being alive and in possession of all the flesh with which you were born. If you can find a smile in this, there is a laugh waiting for you that is not the last laugh you will ever have.