I met Rob in the hotel lobby. He is a stick-welder. He is tall, lean, pale-skinned, from Virginia.
He is proud of his work.
“Been welding half my life,” said Virginia Slim. “Been fifteen stories up, upside-down, hanging by a cable, spinning in circles, earning overtime. And I’m damn proud of it.”
Stick-welders are a proud lot.
Welding is an art. If Michelangelo had lived long enough to see a TIG machine, he would’ve been a union man.
Every day of my father’s adult life, he towed a welder behind his truck. His trade took him wherever the money was. He built skyscrapers. Churches. Auto plants. He watched friends die while creating skylines.
If that’s not art, I don’t know what is.
Then there’s Danny. He cleans toilets at the airport. He is short, with tattoos everywhere.
Danny is studying to be an accountant. He is forty-one. He and his girlfriend just had a baby.
He shows me pictures of Danny Jr. on his cellphone.
I ask if Danny likes his job.
“You kiddin’?” says Danny. “Pays for my college, helps me raise my son. Man, I’m blessed.”
Chuck—a heavy-equipment operator. He travels with labor crews all over. I met Chuck at Hartsfield-Jackson airport. He was flying to New Hampshire for a big job.
As a boy, Chuck’s father ran hydraulic cranes. His father would take him to the jobsite and place him in his lap while hoisting seven hundred tons through the air.
“Sat in the cockpit watching my dad build stadiums and buildings. All I ever wanted was to be like Dad.”
And who can forget Patty. She is a fast-food employee. She runs the drive-thru window. She has rough skin. When she laughs, it sounds like unfiltered Camels.
“Been working the window for a year,” she says. “You meet all sorta people here. Some’re nice, some are total you-know-what holes.”
Patty had breast cancer a few years ago. Before this job, she worked on a commercial painting crew. She retired when she got her diagnosis.
Then: a double mastectomy, chemo, and radiation.
“My sister quit her job just to nurse me,” says Patty. “We thought I was gonna die. My mom pretty much planned my funeral.”
Patty has been cancer free for four years.
So if you’ve read this far, you’ve figured out that I, too, came from rough stock.
My father was a laborer until he died. My mother worked hospitals, wore a Chick-Fil-A uniform, cleaned condos, scrubbed toilets, served hot food, and threw newspapers.
She bought my clothes at thrift stores, yard sales. And for Easter Sunday finery, we visited K-Mart. We never missed a breakfast. We never wanted.
As for me: I’ve followed in the family business. I’ve laid tile, hung drywall, thrown sod, planted shrubs, crawled on roofs, painted houses, installed heart-pine floors, pulled Romex, cooked on a kitchen line, washed dishes, and played a guitar for peanuts.
And for a big part of my life, this lowly work embarrassed me.
I’m sorry I ever felt that way. For I am kin to a proud lot of fine Americans. I am blue collar. Always will be.
I am the son of a stick-welder.
And I’m damn proud of it.