Friday, August 19, 2011

Memories and Melodies

Ever notice how strong of a connection certain songs make to episodes of your life?  Last week I heard "Veronica" by Elvis Costello on the radio.  I either haven't heard that song in a long time, or just haven't noticed, but this time it evoked a flood of memories.

The summer after my sixteenth birthday my parents expected me to get my first job.  They always agreed that I wouldn't have to work during the school year if I could find full-time employment during the summer that paid a decent wage.  Growing up in Bassett, Virginia, the easiest option was the factory.

At the time, Bassett was home to at least five furniture factories.  My mother's three brothers, my father, brother-in-law, and nearly every other male I could think of in my family worked in the furniture business.  Factories were wide and tall brick buildings with smokestacks and tiny windows hiding most of what went on inside.  The only clues about what happened in a factory came promptly at noon and three-thirty every weekday, shortly after the horn that was heard across the entire town.  Worn, tired, and dirty men and women would rush out of the buildings, their demeanor and appearance making it clear that whatever went on in a factory, I didn't want any part of it.

School started at 8:20, so getting ready to punch the clock at 7:00 on my first day of work was no small task.  I worked in the same building as my father, but we didn't ride together.  His routine involved getting to work early enough to read for a while in his car, gather briefly with friends in the break room, and punch the clock at 6:55 to make sure he wasn't late.  (Punching in earlier meant you'd have to be paid for the time and the company didn't allow that.  Punching in later than 7:00 meant your time would be docked and my father wouldn't allow that.)

I intended to roll into the parking lot, exit my car, proceed straight to the time clock and punch in when the horn sounded official Bassett time-- 7:00.  Riding to work that morning, "Veronica" played on the radio.  The lyrics have nothing to do with the memory, but I found it catchy enough to stick in my brain for the summer.

The tasks required on the assembly line were mind-numbingly monotonous.  I couldn't help but sing "Veronica" over and over.  My brain was empty and idle within minutes of my first day of work.  Gluing the same wooden block into piece after piece of furniture.  Screwing identical blocks into identical dressers for hours at a time.  Standing in the same spot, rotating at the hip to retrieve drawers from a stack to shove them into the moving dressers until the entire line had run.  I knew that I wasn't going to like the job and I didn't.

So why does this song that reminds me of working in a drab, dark factory in my youth?  That experience of several summers taught me so many life lessons.  I worked with people whose lives were stuck in a dead end.  I learned the value of persistence and hard work to pull out of the holes you find yourself in.  I also learned to love the people who were stuck.  The people who no one ever saw behind the brick and mortar, working like bees every day to produce.  I learned what it was like to work for the sole reason of earning a paycheck and knew that working for money alone could never lead to fulfillment in life.

Most of all, I learned to appreciate my father.  I think he worked for Bassett nearly 50 years.  I loved working in the same building as him and watching the respect he'd earned.  On paydays, I heard so many people complain about how little they made in one breath while talking about how much they'd spent on alcohol in the next breath.  I never knew how he managed to keep his mind and body fresh, but somehow he found a sense of pride in a job well done and created life-giving relationships with co-workers.  He retired on the day that I finally finished college.  He'd never even made it to high school.

I worked in a factory for three summers and hated every minute of it.  My father endured what I could not for one reason alone: a loving commitment to family.  I would have never understood the depth of this commitment if I hadn't experienced it myself.  So while I hated every minute, I wouldn't give back a single second.  It's why I smile when I hear "Veronica" today.

I've been absent from A Pot of Stew for over a month now.  Mostly because I've spent so much time travelling this summer, but I've also been doing some other writing.  I've been working on a few articles, of course I've written a few posts at The Teaching Underground.  I've also been working on a novel.  No idea where that will go, but I'll let you know if it gets off the ground. 

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