Work­ing with their hands

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OPINION - Froma Har­rop Froma Har­rop’s col­umn is dis­trib­uted by the Cre­ators syn­di­cate. She can be reached by email at fhar­rop@gmail.com.

A best-selling sports book, “The Boys in the Boat,” de­scribes the un­likely path of work­ing-class blokes to gold-medal glory at the 1936 Ber­lin Olympics. There’s lots about row­ing, but what struck this reader most was au­thor Daniel James Brown’s ac­count of the tough lot of la­bor­ers in the North­west dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion.

This is a Se­abis­cuit story star­ring hu­mans in­stead of a horse. What the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton row­ing team had in com­mon with the un­promis­ing small stal­lion was their sta­tus as rugged Western­ers who, through grit and bru­tal work, bested the fancy ath­letes of the East.

Th­ese were men who worked all day and into the night with their hands. They farmed, mined, fished, logged. They lost fin­gers. They grew their own food with their hands and, for en­ter­tain­ment af­ter din­ner, used their hands to make mu­sic on gui­tars.

One heard echoes of Jack Lon­don’s youth as a “work beast” two gen­er­a­tions be­fore in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. At age 13, the fu­ture nov­el­ist put in 18-hour days at a can­nery. Lon­don never over­came his rage at hav­ing been forced into un­remit­ting toil for dirt wages.

One of the boys in the boat was Joe Rantz, who, even as a cham­pion rower, never got over his feel­ing of be­ing “ut­terly dis­pos­able.” Rantz’s fam­ily moved away, telling the young teen not to join them. Rantz car­ried trays up and down hills to a cook­house to put break­fast in his stom­ach.

The De­pres­sion was as de­press­ing in Seat­tle as ev­ery­where else. How did guys such as Rantz get through? A com­bi­na­tion of re­solve, work ethic and govern­ment pro­grams. Through the Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps, Rantz lucked into a job lay­ing as­phalt for the new Olympic Highway. He also found work on an­other fed­eral project, the Grand Coulee Dam.

The hard­ships fac­ing to­day’s dis­tressed work­ing class don’t hold a can­dle to the life-and-death strug­gles th­ese men faced. Nowa­days, work­ing Amer­i­cans have far higher ex­pec­ta­tions re­gard­ing qual­ity of life. But men who work with their hands th­ese days seem less hope­ful.

There is noth­ing Don­ald Trump can do to stop the au­toma­tion of fac­tory work. And a sloppy re­nun­ci­a­tion of trade agree­ments would kill far more jobs than it would save, econ­o­mists say.

“The Boys in the Boat” is, at bot­tom, a his­tory about a sport. But the sto­ries sug­gest at least two plau­si­ble ways to en­hance eco­nomic se­cu­rity for blue-col­lar Amer­ica. One, noted above, is a gi­ant fed­eral pro­gram to build and fix the in­fra­struc­ture. Trump cam­paigned on that. Whether small-govern­ment con­ser­va­tives so op­posed to stim­u­lus spend­ing will let that hap­pen re­mains to be seen.

The other fol­lows the tra­jec­tory of Ge­orge Po­cock, the mas­ter builder of rac­ing sculls. A prod­uct of the English work­ing class, Po­cock learned boat build­ing from his fa­ther. The art of turn­ing trees into sleek sculls didn’t re­quire a univer­sity-type ed­u­ca­tion, though in many ways, it took a far more ad­vanced skill set.

Po­cock de­rived enor­mous pride from his work. For him, the prod­uct was all, and he would not make more boats than he could make with per­fec­tion and beauty.

“No one will ask you how long it took to build,” he said. “They will only ask who built it.”

Mass-mar­ket sculls, as with other boats, have since moved to plas­tic. But there re­mains a cult­like de­vo­tion to the wooden works of boat build­ing art. As long as it lasts, there will be a need for the Po­cock type of boat­maker.

Like­wise, there re­mains a ded­i­cated clien­tele for hand­made fur­ni­ture and gui­tars and sweaters. The la­bor go­ing into th­ese prod­ucts must be paid for, and the la­bor­ers must be paid well. Skilled hands can do a lot more than tap at screens.

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