Manual labor

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(HOST)Commentator Willem Lange looks briefly back at all the jobs he’s had, and finds the best ones far down on the totem pole.

(LANGE) When I was a kid, I was taught that manual labor was an honorable and godly pursuit. But nobody seemed to aspire to it. It was either a stepping stone to something better or the appointed lot of the lower classes. My first jobs appeared to affirm that: diving for pots and pans in scalding water; working assembly lines; digging ditches. None of these pursuits helped in defining what
I wanted to do with my life, but they were powerful guides to what
I did not want to do with it. A career of lucrative cerebral activity beckoned, but only vaguely.

And then a friendly fate stranded me in the Adirondack Mountains. Too poor to leave and too old to run home, I went to work in the woods for some local old-timers. Their lives were bound to hard physical labor, but they seemed to be the happiest men I’d ever met. They worked from dawn till dark. After supper they relaxed around a cast-iron stove and swapped stories.

These men were in their sixties, so I was the laborer. But they shared the felling and the hauling in the woods. They showed
me how to use an old leaf spring to peel spruce logs, and worked beside me to get it done. They showed me how to carry stacks of balsam fronds on forked sticks; how to muscle the ponderous cabin logs up into place and lay them just so. They left everything just so each evening for the next morning.

There’s no longer much call for the skills I learned from those old guys. Nor do I use the tools they used – broad ax, auger, and beetle. But it wasn’t the skills that were important. It was the pleasure they took in specialized and demanding physical labor.
I measured them against the other men of the village who worked in domestic jobs, and they seemed giants by comparison. They smelled of sweat, wet wool, tobacco, citronella, pine tar, and whiskey. But I loved those old guys, and I visit their graves whenever I go back to the valley where they spent their lives.

I thought of them today, as I framed in the walls of a new kitchen. It’s fussy work, and so enjoyable, I hate to rush it. But the electricians and plumbers are coming tomorrow. In spite of its repetitiveness, its surprisingly satisfying, too, something I’ve never felt about office work. How those old-timers would be intrigued by my cordless screwdriver, the nailing gun, and the laser level. They wouldn’t need a tape to check my work; they could do that by eye. I try to ask myself the questions they might ask. I hope they’d be pleased that, having done my time behind a desk, I’ve honored their memories by coming back to the king of professions – and I’ve left everything in order for tomorrow morning.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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