Feeling displaced by the modern world? Suck it up like my grandpa did.
One hundred years ago this month, my grandpa joined the Army as the U.S. entered World War I. I’ve thought of this ornery old guy lately as I listen to politicians who say that our country is experiencing unprecedented turmoil because so many Americans are being displaced by technology, globalization and a system rigged to keep the rich rich and the poor poor.
Every generation thinks its hard times are unique, after all.
But we’re wrong.
Charlie Carman was a legendary storyteller, so his opinions were well known, and they have echoed in my head as I read about the challenges facing non-college-educated white men who can no longer find work in manufacturing, mining or whatever, and blame the brutality of the modern world for their hard luck.
If he were still around, Charlie would pull the lever on the La-z-boy, lean back and tell his story.
His enlistment papers identified him as a 26-year-old horse-shoer in 1917. By the time he joined the war effort, he had worked half his life in his dad’s blacksmith shop. He dropped out of school at 13.
He was a child of the Gilded Age, when rapid industrialization had dramatically changed the economy and the culture, producing appalling income disparities with the Robber Barons — the top 1 percent — holding roughly half of the nation’s wealth.
He came of age in a period of hostility toward immigrants, who mostly came from Europe, and were considered dangerous threats to the economy, public safety and the dominant culture. Then, after risking it all in the war, he came home to a country that he believed had insulted his sacrifice and undercut his position in the established power structure by giving women the right to vote. He had no choice but to suck it up. The disruptive technology of the automobile derailed his career path as a horse-shoer and seller of horseshoe nails. He got a job selling Buicks, and then went to work for a company that made oilers for farm machinery.
Alas, that job disappeared with the invention of oil pumps for gas engines and he was once again unemployed.
He moved from job to job for a while, and then opened Carman’s Alley Garage, repairing the automobiles that had put him out of work as a horse-shoer. That gig ended when the Depression came and nobody could pay for car repairs. Grandpa picked up what he called “odd jobs” for which he was paid with a chicken, a bottle of milk or a dozen eggs.
When Prohibition ended, he leaped into a new frontier of opportunity, first working for a brewery and then selling liquor, a job that finally carried him into retirement. Even after retirement, he picked up a sales job for a few years to access health insurance since this was long before Medicare and he had developed some health problems that even back then were unaffordable.
He was proud of his life, especially that all three of his kids graduated from college. And he never hesitated to tell his grandchildren about the good times he had even during the hardest of the hard times.
Now, I appreciate that a lot has changed in 100 years, don’t get me wrong. And I don’t mean to suggest that Charlie was a noble character. He did what he had to do, paid his debts and counted friends as his most valuable assets.
But when I hear that the widespread anger, disaffection and sense of victimization that have characterized public debate in the past year somehow justify the bitter political dysfunction, I find it preposterous.
I can’t accept that somehow workers are more displaced, frustrated, exploited, broke and scared than my grandpa was 100 years ago.
When Charlie was honorably discharged from the Army in 1919, the handwritten records from his commanding officer described his character as “excellent” and his service as “honest and faithful.” There was no standing ovation. He went home to Madison, Wis., and went to work. He was an extraordinarily ordinary man.
What he did is not unusual. It’s what we’ve always done. It’s what we still do.
That poor pitiful white guy narrative — it’s a myth. I don’t buy it for one minute.
Diane Carman is a communications consultant and a regular columnist for The Denver Post.