Wednesday, October 01, 2008

By The Sweat of Thy Brow

One of the things my wealth has robbed from you and the entire family is the privilege and satisfaction that comes from doing an honest day’s work.” – Ultimate Gift

I was visiting Jayne’s family on the Pennsylvania/ Ohio border for Christmas. We had spent a few days all huddled together, and I needed to get out, and breathe from the busyness of all the activities.

I did not know it at the time, when I met my wife in a Starbucks in Colorado, but I was born just a few miles down the road, along with my entire Hood family. We had left when I was too early to even remember the place, as my father had greater opportunities down south. We had fled the north, like an exodus of sorts, leaving much of the great north to abandoned factories and operations.

I was driving on the Interstate through Youngstown, on my way to the gravesite of many of my
relatives at an old Methodist church in Ohltown that I had visited as a kid. With so much stirring in me, I wanted to go back to these roots, and being the reflecting and writer type, I thought it would be do good for my soul, and where God was leading me.
I was passing through the city of Youngstown, on my way to the grave, when I saw a sign.

Labor Museum.
Next exit.

Ok, not exactly Disneyworld, but it had my curiosity. A museum about work? I wondered if this was some sign from God, or at least I had hoped. Maybe an invitation into all of this. Ohio and my past, my grandfather, and great-grandfather had grown up, worked, and raised their families here. The gravesite I was headed towards contained a whole bunch of the Hood clan, maybe 15 or so gravesites with their name on it.

I think when we had left their as a boy, and moved to a larger city, and more influence, and affluence, in some ways, so did my appreciation or understanding of my place, and history, and roots. Like so many of our generation moving to jobs, away from family, and community, for greater opportunities, something there went missing in me. A part of me, and where I came from, that I did not know the history of. It seemed part of this journey of finding myself, was actually coming back to where I was born, and where my family had began. This was some way of moving back in that direction. God leading me into it, I think.

I got off the exit, and found my way to this rather new building, compared to the rest of the city covered in old steel, and rust. I went inside. It was a weekday, and the place was dead. I paid my entry fee, and soon found myself alone in the massive building. Not a soul in the museum but me. It felt haunting, but almost appropriate. I bought my ticket, and soon passed under the large display from which the whole museum took its inspiration.

“By the sweat of thy brow.”

The words were more symbolic, that I knew at the time. Almost a baptismal moment. I walked under it, straight into the stories of my past, and into a world I did not know or was to ever appreciate till I would leave.

It was personal because the roots of this work, and steel ran deep for America, and my own blood. My family had put their own sweat into steel mills, and the lumber industry just a few generations before me, right here in Ohio. He had told me these stories, and pushing me to work forty hours a week over the summer. Telling me of how when he was a kid, what he went through. This was like the places he worked. I was somehow connected to this foreign place, even though I avoided those work weeks, and those jobs. This was my heritage, I had been born just a few miles down the road.

The mid-size town of Youngstown had boomed in its day because of this industry. Home of many of the steel factories that produced America’s cars, machines, and rail road ties. Even the Pittsburgh “steelers” is a short drive down the interstate.A result of globalization, technology, and overseas production, Youngstown has changed. The place feels like a ghost town. 25,000 lost their jobs to overseas production in the early 80’s. The town wears this on their faces. The museum is a dismal reminder of “what used to be.” The rusted out buildings that were the place of so many men’s live, is now barren. The gray pictures seem to carry over to the city, and the people. America had moved from labor to technology and the areas of Silicon Valley and Seattle. Youngstown, just the city, is in itself a museum of the past. This place like the inner temple of that story.

It felt as if I was walking back in time as I saw the displays of miniature steel factories, and iron ore tools used in the production of steel. It seemed a similarity to that movie Field of Dreams. It was a different era of men, and their world. I was so curious. There was something wonderous about it all. As if the world has stopped, and I had been placed in this building to pause, and reflect on what was. The corn fields, which were these walls surrounding me, leading me into each exhibit—into something much deeper of a mystery than I had ever asked for when I entered. I was really enjoying it.

The black and white world of pictures told the stories of men in the steel mills, grinding away and sweating. Walking into an old locker room where they showered, and removed all their clothes covered in black ore. The images around me, were so familar from a family history photo album my father had given me of our ancestors. And in fact, this was the town some of them had worked—in this business. My father in fact, had worked a summer in a steel factory, in the summer heat, where they poured molds of steel to ship west. This place was becoming much
closer to my story than I had first realized.

The grayish walls of old pictures breathed something from the rusted metal, and iron ore factories they spoke about. There was something to this place—like a life to it. Almost magical, but to be honest, very far removed from my life, and my growing up in a suburb of a nice growing and progressive town in Nashville. Something that felt lost to my life. And story.

Something that was very connected to my heart, my fears, and why I felt so young, and afraid to step into the world, and be the man I knew I needed to become.

As I meandered through the labor museum, I was invited back into a story that helped make sense of it. It was the world of working men of the 1800’s, and the steel industry in the Youngstown Valley of Ohio. Pictures, and displays and items from a time we had come from just a few hundred or so years. The industrial revolution. The boom of steel, factories, and machines, and 70 hour work weeks. Men were tough and hard as the steel they formed, and their faces too.
As I meandered deeper, I came upon a statue of a man. Standing around six feet tall, wearing worn leather boots, and ragged overalls, dirtied by the hours of dust, and burn-off from the steel, and coal fires. He had a leather thick apron around him. His face was aged, and the lines of his labor were visible on his face, like that of a grandfather. He seemed like a relic. I stood staring, gazing from below him. The boy inside of me wondering, and admiring him. There was something in him, I respected. And wanted.

But I must admit. There was a great sense of distance of me and this man. A holy respect for his place, along with shame. There had always been. Of blue collar men. Landscapers. Painters. Mechanics. Illegal immigrants working on job sites. Working men. Men who seemed to use their bodies, and their hands to make something for a living. There was something of that world of men that felt far from my experience. What I should say is all men. A look in the eyes always was a reminder. Whether I thought it, or they showed it the message seemed, “You are not one of us.” And where I eventually took this was, “I was really not a man at all.” “You really don’t know how to work.” You are a son of privilege, entitlement, a son of Brentwood, and white collar success. I had run with it, used it to my advantage for so long, but I couldn’t help feeling this place had the thing I had longed to find. The worth of myself in even just labor.

The word I felt here was work. Men who worked. Worked long hours. Who worked to feed their familes. Who worked to pay bills. Worked because that was what a man was to do. How did I miss that? I felt the words in the book, Ultimate Gift, “One of the things my wealth has robbed from you and the entire family is the privilege and satisfaction that comes from doing an honest day’s work.”

I moved on past that man in the museum to an old black and white picture of a group of men in a steel factory all gathered together. Maybe 20 or so. Old and young men huddled around the steel factory for a group picture. It was a picture similar that my father gave me of my grandfather, and their three generation milling business (picture here, maybe?). The men in this pictures were peddlers of metal. All sitting together on an old bench outside the mill. Young and old, with tools and faces hardened by their long days of the fire. I kept looking at the boys in it.

Maybe 15 years old or so, some close to my age.

I sat, while their faces burned in my head. I couldn’t move on. There was too much in the picture. I grabbed a chair close by, and sat down in front like an art connosieuer might do with a Van Gogh, or a great masterpiece. I stood at it, starring, wide eyed, wondering, and feeling all of it, and my life. There was a quote of one of the young boys in the picture that read, “James Davis was taught the art of puddling iron at the Sharon Iron Works in Pennsylvania by his father.” The boy Davis wrote, “None of us ever when to school and learned the chemistry of it from books. We learned the trick by doing it, standing with our faces in the scorching heat while our hands puddle the metal in its glaring bath.”

This picture, and those words gripped me. I read it again. Starred at the words. Looked back at the pictures of both old, and young together, in a simple job—working. I just stopped and felt them. Let them fall over me like the black dust on these men’s faces. They spoke something deep. Men, fire, sweat, craftsmen. A place I did not know. I began to wipe my eyes, hoping no one would walk by. More tears came. As I sat in this museum, alone. On this bucket—wondering what the hell was happening to me.

God had brought me to a museum, looking at these men’s life I was assuming that I was supposed to avoid. Hard work, real sweat. And yet, something in me, staring at the men and the boys, wanted their life. I don’t know what their spiritual life was like, if they had great families, or were even good men, but something in me wanted to jump through time, and through these displays and pictures, and find myself in the mills, with men, and fire, and sweat working next to him. There was something in there, I needed. Something that all my school papers, and tracks to success and significance, and my life in America, and private school teachers, and bible leaders had not mentioned or had not told me about.

I sat a while longer. Regaining myself. I just knew, as crazy as it sounded, there was something there, something deeply spiritual, something rooted in God’s design I needed to find.

It was the thing I had been trying to avoid all my life.

I walked back under the title, “by the sweat of thy brow,” and back to the confusion of what I was going to do with it all.

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