I grew up in a union town. Although our wee isle, with its farms and artisans, didn't boast a union hall, thousands of workers left each day for union jobs on the mainland. The ferryboat workers were union folks, too, and I was raised to respect all hard-working people. My dad was--and is--one of them.
He never talked much about the union. He didn't have to. It was just part of life in a regional economy dominated by timber, airplanes, farming, and fishing. We understood the risks and hazards of these industries. The news was full of stories: migrant workers poisoned in the apple orchards, women maimed in the fish-packing plants, men felled along with the massive trees out in the woods. I was thankful my father's job as an electrical engineer kept him safer than some. Every time we went to the mainland and drove past Boeing Field, I would look for the planes on which my father worked, and I'd feel proud--proud of him, proud of his job and the work that connected him to so many other workers, all around the world.
I only remember one strike. The details are hazy--I was pretty young. But even then, I knew the union was a Good Thing, like church was a Good Thing: a place where people supported each other and worked together for fairness and safety and health. Sometimes Dad would sing, "Sixteen Tons," and the joy of singing was due, in part, to the secure knowledge that, in our life, we did not suffer that hard. My Father's job was safe, his income was decent, and these were things we could pretty much count on.
The long commute and frequent overtime kept Dad away from his family, I'm sure, more than he liked. At home he was often tired, but still found time to share the workings of his engineer's mind. He took the time to explain electrical circuitry, taught me how to maintain an engine, let me experiment with his tools and play in his workshop. Never once did he tell me these things weren't for girls. He only explained the hazards, reminded me to wear goggles and gloves, asked that I use tools wisely and put things back when I was done. Together, we stacked wood, butchered chickens, fixed a succession of lawnmowers rescued from the dump, and played with model trains.
When I reached my teens, I bristled at his precise and measured ways. I often blazed back at him, in the midst of his careful explanations, "Dad, there's not JUST one right way to do things!" It must have been a relief to go back to work, back to drawing out schematics and troubleshooting wires and switches that hummed and clicked instead of talking back. Like most almost-adults, I was struggling to find my own place in the world, my own meaningful work. I knew I wanted to get my hands dirty, to work creatively with tools, but I also felt the early stirrings of a vocation to ordained ministry. All those big theological questions, mixed in with the soaring joys and terrors of late 1980s headlines... perhaps I was a bit jealous of my father's work, with its clarity and standardized forms!
Now I live far away from my childhood home. My parents still live on the same little island and my father still endures a long commute by car, bus, and ferryboat. Most days, I have no commute at all; my work begins at my own threshold. Yet my heart still travels. Every time I pick up a saw, I hear my father's reminders about proper alignment and angle and using the full length of the saw, not just a little bit. I feel thankful for his instruction every time I strip and splice wires, clean the underside of the mower before I put it away, or fix a leak. And I know these skills will serve me well even in ministry--name me a church no workers attend, in which the sound system never needs adjusting and the boiler never breaks!
Peggy Seeger once wrote a feminist anthem about a woman who wants to be an engineer. All the men in her life mock and discourage her. While I love the song--full of irony and humour--I've never lived it out. My father and mother both supported and encouraged me in all matters, both the practical and ethereal. If I had wanted to be an engineer, Dad would have helped me. My father taught me to dare, to practice, to try. (He may be surprised to hear that I actually paid attention!) To him I also owe the difficult lesson that there can be no successful adventure without the unglamorous work of maintenance, planning and preparation.
I grew up in a union town. I learned to respect all working folk, to pay attention to their contributions and their stories. I hope you know, Dad, how much YOUR work has mattered. I hope you know that your own story matters, and I appreciate everything you took the time to share. I hope you know how much I love you.
Happy Birthday, Dad!
woman engineer: Cascade Pass
union button: Syracuse Cultural Workers
women with wings: Seattle municipal archives