I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the choices we make as young people–kids, really–and how they affect our futures. I’ve often thought how ludicrous it is for an eighteen year old to decide on a field of study or a job that will determine the trajectory of his or her entire life. My husband and I have had many discussions lately that, while not being quite the same thing as regret, have at least been of the “if I’d know then what I know now” variety.
It is with the hum of these conversations in my brain, as well as own personal experience as a Southerner, that I read and continue to ruminate on [book:The Most They Ever Had|7173565] by [author:Rick Bragg|31122]. I’ve been a Bragg fan for years, loving every book I’ve ever read by him: All Over but the Shoutin’, Ava’s Man, and The Prince of Frogtown . This slim volume seemed just the thing after finishing The Clockmaker’s Daughter–-a nonfiction palate cleanser of sorts.
A reader can’t get much more realistic than Rick Bragg.
The Most They Ever Had is a collection of related essays about the end of an era, of a livelihood, in the Deep South–the shuttering of the textile mills that had brought stability and even comparative prosperity to the former sharecroppers and subsistence farmers of northeast Alabama for decades. While I grew up on the other side of the state, I can relate at least peripherally to much of what he shares. While no one in my immediate family ever worked in a textile mill, my family certainly experienced some of what he discusses in the economic downturns of the 1980s that affected our lives in similar ways. And while, again, my family (to my remembrance) was never as poor as the families Bragg profiles in this collection of essays, I understand his defense of why they chose to continue to work in places they knew could kill them:
[T]hey were bound, many of them, to these mountains with something longer and harder than nails or even chains. Few of them owned more than a few acres of the land they loved, and some of them, as their ancestors had, still went to sleep in rented houses. But the highway led no place they wanted to go.
Indeed, the highway led no place we wanted to go, either, which is what led my daddy to quit a job he had worked for almost two decades, giving up his retirement with that international company to finally come back “home” to work after “getting on” at a near-to-home paper mill, starting over in an industry in his mid-forties after working in another for so many years. My mother and sister and I had lived back “home” for four years by then, long enough for me to traverse the entire circuit of my high school career, back with many of the same kids I’d started kindergarten with before lay-offs and transfers took us out of state twice. It was worth it to my parents to live this divided life–daddy living a state and five hours away from home, traveling home each Friday night after finishing his shift only to get home in the wee hours of Saturday mornings, just to turn around and drive back to his job on Sundays sometime after church. Four years of that. Living back home, not two hundred miles from the places Bragg writes about with such affection, was that important to my parents.
I get him, which is one of the reasons I read him.
Another reason, which doesn’t require one to be a native Alabamian, is that he writes with such empathy, pathos, and lucidity about an existence that other people might disdain. I know these people.
Outsiders like to talk about the working people of the Deep South in cliches, like to say their lives are consumed by football, stock car racing, stump jumping, and a whole lot of violent history. But it is work that defines them. You hear it under every shade tree, at ever dinner on the ground, whole conversations about timber cut, post holes dug, transmissions pulled.
They do not ask for held from outsides, unless it is from a preacher, a lawyer, a doctor, people who have skills they do not possess. They can, most of them, lay block, pour concrete, swing a hammer, run a chainsaw, fix a busted water line, and jerk the engine from an American-made car with muscle, a tree limb, and a chain. If their car breaks down at the side of the highway they do not call AAA. They drive the roads with a hydraulic jack, a four-way lug wrench, and a big red tool box that takes two hands to lift and jangles with one thousand leftover screws. They have installed a million radiator hoses by the glow of a Bic lighter, and would have no more left the house without jumper cables than without pants. They know how a septic tank works, how to wire a laundry room, how to safely pull a tick off a two-year-old, and how to unravel a bird’s nest from a Daiwa reel.
Yes, I know these people. They are mostly not of my generation, for better or for worse. I’m not saying they don’t exist in my generation–just that through choices we’ve made, mostly of the educational variety, doing most of these things would be, by turns, a burdensome necessity or a luxury for us. Maybe they felt the same way, at least about them being a burdensome necessity. The luxury of paying someone else to do many of those things haven’t come easy for those of us raised this way–we grew up watching all the adults in our connection do these things themselves. Isn’t this what adulthood means? And yet, the very choices we made to get an education that would take us out of the mills and the assembly lines, etc., also limited us to careers that sometimes pay less than the skilled labor force but with often greater demands on our time. So something like unraveling a tangled fishing line or even DIYing many household projects lies within the realm of people who have more free time than those of us with careers. And I say this with not one bit of disdain for people who have the mental space for doing the physical work–sometimes I think it’s the smarter of the two choices.
Of course, this doesn’t account for the real problem in the book, which is that in addition to the fact that these textile mills often closed without any warning to the workers who depending on them for their livelihoods, the conditions within the mills were so dangerous and toxic that those who weren’t injured usually ended up with brown lung that eventually took their very breath from them. (Sometimes it resulted in both.) Bragg describes it like this:
The lint crawling up their nose, down their throat had driven them mad. It swirled and floated, light as air, specks and hair-fine tendrils, flung off the ropes of fat cotton in the card room and whirled off the bobbins in the spinning room. It draped their eyelashes, stuck in the corners of their eyes, and found its way, like something alive, under the bandanas they tied over their mouths and noses. Over minutes, hours, it clogged their nasal passages, stuck in their throats, and was drawn into their lungs.
So, my personal philosophical and economic ruminations aside, this is a rich book that evokes the spirit of specific group of people. Some people might see them as stuck, without choices in a world that was harsh, forced to choose the lesser of two evils, either or which would work them into the ground (without much to show for it), chew them up and spit them out, or shorten their lives and reduce the quality of their health to the point that maybe the other two results were better. Still, because staying in communities they loved with people they loved was the most important thing to them, most of them considered the trade off worth it.