What I Owe Two Men

Thanksgiving’s here and some important things are going on. My son is getting married and he’s probably losing half of his business at the same time, closing one of his restaurants before he loses them both. It’s a dicey dance, the pivot from getting out to getting in. Meanwhile, I head toward my 73rd birthday. Despite the economic confusion and social/political anomie besetting the rest of the country entering 2014, I am ok. Not that I am without regrets, but they are of the woulda-coulda-shoulda varieties. If I choose, I can address some of them in the fifteen or so years I see ahead of me. If I don’t—well, that’s on me, isn’t it?

That I am in this position is a consequence of more than a few variables and one or two seemingly fixed properties. The fixed properties are something like a goodly store of basic intelligence and a surprisingly good memory. I did nothing to acquire them nor do I “deserve” them in any micro-or macro-historical sense. The variables are similarly arbitrarily factored in. For example, my second marriage, difficult as it has been, put me daily in the presence of a woman who is a model of discipline and rigor. These two qualities were obviously lacking from my makeup until I hit my late thirties and met her. I’d say, in passing, that I got the better of the deal on this because what now work as “virtues” for me were and remain obsessions in her. I wish I could lighten her load a bit, but after 30 years I see that’s just not in the cards.

But all that I have learned from her would be useless to me were it not for decisions made by two men. Each in his own way made it possible, most likely probable, that “history” would turn in my favor. I think each knew that.

In the summer of 1957, when I was sixteen, between my junior and senior years in high school, I served an apprenticeship with my father. He was forty, a veteran of the Second World War, who had turned down a commission and the GI Bill’s education benefits to get back to his job in the glass factory. By 1957 he was beginning to feel the consequences of those decisions. The job he had, industrial glass cutting, no longer exists, all the men so employed having long since been replaced by machines. It was a physically hard job and mentally exhausting. It was also dangerous. A glass cutter worked in an open stall roughly ten by eight feet “square.” In front of him was a waist-high table about eight feet long and almost two yards deep, covered in green felt. A rule ran the length of its near and far edges. To start the day carters brought a stack of ten to twenty plate glass sheets, each roughly ninety by forty inches, and stood them on end along the wall of the stall to the right of a right-handed cutter. On the table would be a sheet of paper with the orders for the day. The company might want 100 “lights” of glass 9 x 12 and 50  of 10×14 and so on. The cutter’s job was to extract from the raw sheets the sizes and quantities of the order. Besides the obvious visual imagination called for, the job required a kind of judgment that only experience could provide: each sheet of raw glass was flawed by stones left unmelted in the furnaces and blisters caused by an uneven draw. The cutter had to find those specific lights around and between the blisters and stones pitting the glass he was given. A very small stone here or one blister there might pass but the inspector, who came around regularly throughout the day, could reject some or all of a pack of ten lights, a fate called “rammycacking.” Since the cutter was paid on a piecework basis, he could ill afford a half-morning’s work thrown into the scrap bin at the left of his stall to be taken back to the furnaces and melted down.

This mental strain, the constant demands of instinct and judgment, was in addition to the physical strain.  Glass is heavy and a sheet of glass 90 by 40 is very heavy. The cutter would turn to his right, facing the stacked glass and take one sheet in his hands, about halfway up its length. He would lift the sheet and turn to face the table, the glass between him and the table edge. He would then turn the sheet ninety degrees to the right so that his hands were at the top and bottom of the now horizontal sheet. Lifting with his bottom hand, his right, and loosening the fingers of his left hand at the top of the sheet, he would then flip the sheet of glass into the air ever so slightly so that it would fall exactly flat on the felt top of the table. From there he could begin to cut.

Most cutters were wounded men. Everyone I knew had scars on their hands, faces, or arms. Some has lost an eye, a finger or two, a couple of toes. There was safety equipment but not everyone wore it and in my father’s day men of the generation prior to his had worked without much gear at all, through the Depression and the war and some even before that. The trade had come to America in the late 19th century with Belgian glass makers and most older cutters had names like Desire and Hermes and LaBenne. Since this was a guild trade, most entered by serving apprenticeships with their fathers or brothers or uncles. A few, like my father, had been “adopted” by single men with no families. The man who took my father in had lost a hand to the glass and worked with a two-fingered metal claw that was fitted with rubber tips. A safety-conscious cutter wore a thick leather apron that covered him from his chest to just below his knees. He wore steel-toed work shoes, thick leather gloves, and padded cotton sleeves set with steel grommets that reached and covered his shoulders. Most wore a cap of some kind. You can imagine how hot this outfit was in the summertime. That we lived in Louisiana that summer made it even worse. That is why some of the younger cutters worked stark naked beneath the equipment. Walking down the workroom past the stalls where the men faced their tables and turned their backs on the world was quite an experience.

Once the cutter faced the glass on the table, the game was on. The cutting tool was an industrial diamond set to the precise angle in the tip of a cartridge held in a beveling clamp at the end of a small rod. The length of the rod and the swiveling clamp allowed the cutter to set the right attitude of his draw down the glass, from the far edge of the table toward him at the near edge. And so it went, for eight hours a day: lift, turn, turn, flip, measure, cut, pray for the best. Radios played, men sang, told jokes and stories, cursed the inspector. This was the world I thought I wanted to enter.

It took some convincing to convince my father to take me on, as he had done both his younger brothers in the past, but many of the sons of my father’s friends were starting, boys I knew from high school and from years of company softball games and picnics. It was almost a rite of passage, I suppose. My father eventually gave in and one morning in June of 1957, union card in my pocket, badge on my ball cap, apprenticeship book in hand, I walked with my father through the factory gates. I have to tell you that I loved it, for all the boyish-mannish reasons you can think of. I loved watching my father work. He was a patient teacher by example and instruction. He was well-thought of by his comrades and moved with ease through the factory. We sweated through the summer together and as school approached I asked him how the apprenticeship worked in the school year. Only then did he tell me that I would not be coming back. He had let me work with him because he knew it was necessary for my growing up, but he said it was not necessary that he deceive me. He told me that he knew I thought glass cutting was a good job but he wanted me to know that it was not.  Piece work pay for a dangerous job was the worst kind of life. The job was seasonal, as well, a fact that I had understood as we moved around the country year after year, from factory to factory, chasing open furnaces and unfilled orders, but I had no idea what that meant financially, he said. I remembered nights we had slipped out of town a car length ahead of the landlord—or the sheriff, probably. There had been a few flush periods, a few months at a time. Once we had owned a house, but once we had lived in a three-room shack with no hot water and a bathroom shared with the people next door. I don’t know if my father thought of himself as a happy man, a fortunate man. He seemed so to me. But by many measures his life was hard and worrisome and unrewarding. Whatever was the case, he did not want any of it for me. “You’re going to college,” he said. And I did.

In the spring of 1972, George Worth called me into his office. George Worth was chair of the English Department at the University of Kansas where I was a graduate student. That semester I had finished my orals and writtens and had drafted the prospectus for my dissertation. My plan was to refine the draft and start researching and writing in the fall while I taught Freshman-Sophomore English as a senior assistant instructor. It was how it was done there. Three, maybe four years stretched out in front of me, years of teaching and writing and enjoying one of the best kept secrets of academia: the pleasures of life in Lawrence, Kansas, university town par excellence. Then, as the script went, I would apply for assistant professorships all over the country, take just such a job somewhere in a small town, start smoking a pipe, and settle in to a storybook life. I was already married and had three kids and a house. Like my father, I was a veteran. I had gone to college, married, joined the Air Force, gone to war, got out and, unlike my father, had taken the GI Bill and headed off to graduate school in pursuit of a PhD. While in graduate school I bought a house and we adopted a son, a young prince to be spoiled by his two sisters who had come along biologically some years before. My daughters were in grade school and my wife worked at the university library. Lawrence was inexpensive, safe, and comfortable. One could live there on two small salaries and, in fact, many doctoral students stayed forever, never completing their formal work toward a degree, content to be of the university and the town.

So, my father had been right, although I missed the masculine world of the factory; the Air Force had filled that gap a bit, but the Officers’ Mess is not the same as the factory floor. Neither was my carrel in the stacks of the library anything like my father’s work stall; it was smaller and darker and lonelier. Academic life is an exercise in delayed gratification; its pleasures are a long time coming and even then are few and far between. But if you are fit for it, its rewards are satisfying and the excitement of ideas is every bit equal in value in the search for a good life as the sense of a cut well-placed across an expanse of clear glass or the feeling of release that comes on disconnect after a mid-air refueling at 35,000 feet. What separates a life of scholarship from the factory and the flight line is its solitude. In the humanities, ironically, the creation of new knowledge is undertaken alone, in isolation from your peers for hours every day. Decisions are made alone, attempts at meaning are crafted alone, failure is absorbed alone. So it was that George Worth’s act of singular kindness stands out for its very performance.

Professor Worth had just returned from a national meeting of chairs of departments of English when he asked me to drop by his office. I did not know him well, had taken no course from him. Because I was a bit older than the other students, I had chaired the graduate student organization and sat on a few committees in the department, this, of course, being the new egalitarian Seventies on campuses everywhere. As a consequence of all this, I knew him, but only at a distance. Graduate students were, then as now, still mendicants, seeking knowledge and comfort where they could, one course after another, until finally they were allowed to form a dissertation committee. This group of faculty would, in theory, guide the student through the writing of his dissertation. In fact, it was usually only the chair of the committee who had anything like a real power to shape the thesis. This person was usually the man or woman with whom the student had taken the most courses or the latest course in a given specialty. Some such relationships were good, and some, too many, were not. But George Worth was not on my committee and I had never been in his office on personal business of any kind. I had no idea what he wanted to see me about.

The gist of his desire to see me was simply that he had become convinced that there would be no jobs for new PhDs in our field for years to come after the next year. He had never, he said, wanted to send his department’s students on to the job market without their having finished their dissertations but he was, he said, almost certain that these were extraordinary times. I haven’t any idea how many of us he warned, I think none but me, actually, and I am not sure why he singled me out. It was clear to me, however, that I was at risk. I had three children and I had not written one word of my dissertation. What if I never found a job?

That semester I sent out 150 letters of application. Some of the jobs I applied for seemed to fit like a glove, if I had actually had a degree, but many were shots in the dark. The return on my effort was startling. Without a word to show except a hastily drafted proposal, I got seven interviews and three and ¾ job offers. I took one, the one in New York. (The fractional offers—not part-time positions but offers tendered yet at the same time withheld—deserve their own little stories). The next year, and for almost a decade thereafter, the market for PhDs in English dried up and half  of a generation of scholars was lost.

I went to New York, stayed there, got tenured, got promoted, eventually retired. Had it not been for George Worth, none of that would have happened, I’m sure. The strange thing is that, except for formal occasions and the annual holiday party, I never spoke to George Worth again. We would pass in the hallway during the year before I left and he would smile and nod and I would smile and nod. He was a pleasant man but unknown to me, really. And me to him, I am sure. What kindness prompted him to call me that day?

So, two men told me, don’t stay; go. Go now while you can. Knowing when to leave seems to be the trick. But then, knowing when to stay might be harder. I wish I really knew. I’m thankful, nevertheless.


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