Remembering the Quiet, Unsung Heroes

W.J. Astore

Six years ago, I posted this article for Memorial Day 2011.

This Memorial Day, let’s remember and learn from our heroes who are gone from us. For me, my heroes are my parents, both of whom grew up in single-parent families during the Great Depression. Let’s start with my Mom. Our concept of “hero” today often works against moms; our culture tends to glorify our troops and other people of action: police, firefighters, and other risk-takers who help others. But to me my Mom was a hero. As a young woman, she worked long hours in a factory to help support her mother. She married at twenty-seven and quickly had four children in five years (I came along a few years later, the beneficiary of the “rhythm method” of Catholic birth control). As a full-time homemaker, she raised five children in a working-class neighborhood while struggling with intense family issues (an older son, my brother, struggled with schizophrenia, a mental disease little understood in the early 1970s).

honeymoon
My parents on their honeymoon

Despite these burdens and more, my Mom was always upbeat and giving: traits that didn’t change even when she was diagnosed with cancer. She struggled against the ravages of that disease for five long years before succumbing to it in 1980. Cancer took her life but not her spirit. I never heard her once complain about the painful chemotherapy and cobalt treatments she endured.

My father too had a difficult life. He had to quit high school after the tenth grade and find a paying job to support the family. At the age of eighteen, he entered the Civilian Conservation Corps and fought forest fires in Oregon; factory work followed (where he met my Mom) until that was interrupted by the draft and service in the Army during World War II. After more factory work in the latter half of the 1940s, my Dad got on the local firefighting force, serving with distinction for more than thirty years until his retirement. He died in 2003 after a heart attack and surgery, from which he never fully recovered.

America’s heroes are women and men like my Mom and Dad: the factory workers, the homemakers, the blue-collar doers and givers. And as I think about my Mom and Dad, I recall both their loving natures and their toughness. They had few illusions, and they knew how to get a tough job done, without complaint.

There’s so much we can learn from women and men like them. Personally, I’m so sick of our media and our government telling us how scared we should be — whether of violent crime or violent tornadoes or bogeyman terrorists overseas. My parents recognized the hard-won wisdom of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

But today our government prefers to abridge our rights (see the latest extension of the so-called Patriot Act) in the name of keeping us safe and less fearful, a bargain for those who exercise power, but not for tough-minded people working hard to scrape a living for their children (thanks again, Mom and Dad).

My parents weren’t worried about threats emerging from left field. They had real — and much more immediate — challenges to deal with right at home. In this spirit, I still recall my Dad talking somewhat heretically about the Cold War and the Soviet threat. His opinion: if the Americans and Soviets are stupid enough to nuke one another, a billion Chinese will pick up the slack of human civilization. No bomb shelters or ducking and covering for him. It was back to work to support the family by putting out fires in our neck of the woods.

willy
An old polaroid of me and my dad, circa 1980

And that’s what we need to do today as a country. We need to put fear aside and band together to put out fires in our neck of the woods. Together we can make a better country. In so doing, we’ll honor the heroic sacrifices of our families and ancestors: people like my Mom and Dad.

God bless you, Mom, Dad, and all the other quiet and unsung heroes of America.

Four Sayings from My Dad

My Dad in Oregon, 1937
My Dad in Oregon, 1937

W.J. Astore

We tackle heavy subjects at this site, but occasionally we throw in a change of pace.  My Dad was a fount of homespun wisdom and sayings.  Three of them immediately spring to mind. “Water seeks its own level,” meaning (for him) that you don’t have to coddle talented kids—they’ll find their own path in life. “The peaches don’t drop too far from the tree,” meaning kids are often a lot like their parents, even when (especially when) they take pains to deny it.  And “The cream rises to the top.”

That last one is less than obvious to today’s generation.  In these days of homogenized milk, many people have no experience skimming the cream from the top of a glass bottle or bucket of milk.  But my father did.  He recounts his experience in a short anecdote he titled, “A full mess cup,” when he was in the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937:

We were in a rest area [in Oregon] when the pickup truck loaded with five gallon cans of fresh milk came in.

I was first in line with my mess cup.  I guess it held more than a pint.  Those days milk wasn’t homogenized.  Being first my cup was filled with 100% cream.  Who thought of fat and cholesterol in those days?  What a taste treat.

Sometimes it pays to be first in line, especially when you can skim the cream from the top.

My father’s fourth saying?  It’s one of my favorites: “The empty barrel makes the most noise.”  I think of this whenever I encounter blowhards — someone like Donald Trump, perhaps?

Fewer American Snipers, More American Workers and Builders

Role model to young men?
Role model to young men?

 

W.J. Astore

Former Army Ranger Rory Fanning has a thoughtful article at TomDispatch.com on why young men should not join the Army to fight the war on terror in distant lands.

Here’s an excerpt:

Believe me, it [the Afghan War] was ugly. We were often enough targeting innocent people based on bad intelligence and in some cases even seizing Afghans who had actually pledged allegiance to the U.S. mission… I know now that if our country’s leadership had truly had peace on its mind, it could have all been over in Afghanistan in early 2002.

If you are shipped off to Iraq for our latest war there, remember that the Sunni population you will be targeting is reacting to a U.S.-backed Shia regime in Baghdad that’s done them dirty for years. ISIS exists to a significant degree because the largely secular members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party were labeled the enemy as they tried to surrender after the U.S. invasion of 2003 … Given the reign of terror that followed, it’s hardly surprising to find former Baathist army officers in key positions in ISIS and the Sunnis choosing that grim outfit as the lesser of the two evils in its world.  Again, the enemy you are being shipped off to fight is, at least in part, a product of your chain-of-command’s meddling in a sovereign country. And remember that, whatever its grim acts, this enemy presents no existential threat to American security, at least so says Vice President Joe Biden. Let that sink in for a while and then ask yourself whether you really can take your marching orders seriously.

Fanning makes persuasive points here: How the U.S. military bungled its wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan; how often Iraqi and Afghan innocents were killed due to bad intelligence and the usual deadly mistakes associated with war; how the wars fed, and continue to feed, a cycle of violence that is perpetuated by new U.S. troop deployments and weapons sales (with respect to weapons sales, see this excellent article by Peter Van Buren, which details how the U.S. is hawking M1 Abrams main battle tanks to the Iraqis).

Yet persuading young American men against joining the military, let alone convincing them not to strive to be elite Rangers, is not, sadly, an exercise in logic.  In American society today, young men, especially from the working classes, seek an identity and a status that affirms masculinity.  They want to earn the respect of their peers, parents, and prospective dates (and mates).  American society provides few options for such men, especially if they’re living in straitened circumstances in dead-end jobs.  Consider that many physical jobs, such as working in a warehouse, pay only slightly better than minimum wage, with weekly hours curtailed so that employers don’t have to provide health care.

Military service, which exudes masculinity while conveying societal respect (and free health care, among other benefits), is in many ways the most viable option for working-class men (and more than a few women, obviously).  Like it or not, young men often aspire to being “the biggest and baddest,” or at least serving with a unit of such men.  They seek community and a sense of belonging within unapologetically masculine settings.  They may also have dreams of being heroes, or at least of proving themselves as capable within a community of likeminded tough guys.

American society bombards such impressionable young men with images of soldiers, often deified in movies like “Act of Valor” or “Lone Survivor.”  Consider the popular success of “American Sniper,” with its depiction of the resolute sniper as avenger and punisher.  Movies like this are powerful in persuading impressionable youth to sign on the dotted line as volunteers for military service.

Military service, which conveys personal dignity, adds a dash of grandeur.  By joining the military, you become part of something much larger than yourself.  A sense of masculine challenge, especially in elite units like the Army Rangers or Navy SEALs, combined with societal respectability prove alluring to young men.  Sadly, no amount of logic about the lack of wisdom and efficacy of America’s war on terror will convince them otherwise.

Some will say there’s nothing wrong with this.  Why not encourage young men to join the military and to fight in foreign lands?  Yet if those fights serve fallacious causes that amount to strategic folly, our troops’ sacrifices amount to little.

One thing we can do: American society should provide more jobs for young men that convey respect within masculine codes but which don’t require donning a uniform and killing an enemy overseas.

For nearly a decade, I taught working-class students, mostly young men, in rural Pennsylvania.  My students came to class wearing camo fatigues.  Many looked like they had just climbed down from a tree stand in the woods (a big holiday for my students was the first day of rifle deer season).  They drove pickup trucks, listened to country music, dipped Skoal or smoked Marlboros.  They’re not guys who aspire to be metrosexuals sipping lattes at Starbucks.  They’re looking for a job that screams “man,” and sometimes they find it: in welding, as a heavy equipment operator, in residential construction, and so on.

But for those who can’t find such “masculine” vocations that provide decent pay and benefits, military service is powerfully alluring, and almost impossible to resist, especially when there are so few alternatives.

In September 2008, I called for a revival of the Civilian Conservation Corps, national service that is dedicated to rebuilding America.  We need to instill an ethic of national service that goes beyond war and killing.  An ethic that inspires young men with patriotic pride and that conveys societal identities that appeal to them as men.

What we need, in short, are fewer “American snipers” and more American workers and builders.

“The Harder I Worked Physically, the Less Money I Made”: The Harsh Reality of Life in America

My father after being drafted in 1942
My father after being drafted in 1942

W.J. and J.A. Astore

My Dad, Julius Anthony Astore, was a child of the Great Depression.  Born in 1917, he had to quit high school in 1933 to help support his family.  In 1935 he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, working in forestry and as a firefighter in Oregon until he left in 1937.

Finding a job after he left the CCC was tough, but eventually Dad got one working at F.B. Washburn’s Candy Company during the Christmas rush.

Here’s how Dad described his job:

I was hired for a five week job starting at 6:00PM and my night shift would be over 6:00AM the next morning.  I would have Saturdays and Sundays off.  My work hours would add up to sixty hours a week and I would get twenty cents an hour.  Total twelve dollars a week.  Those days there wasn’t any time-and-a-half after forty hours.  It was quite a grind.  I had to sugar hard candy that was shaped like a small peach stone.  I won’t go into detail but it was a very tiring job.

From my life’s experience I’ve found that the harder I worked physically the less money I made.

Time goes by and I thought I was going to be laid off at the end of five weeks [but] I was put to work on the day shift permanently.  That was in 1938, four years before I was drafted into the Army and introduced to World War II.

At Washburn’s candy factory, Dad operated a lollipop machine, candy cookers, and he mixed sugar.  His starting salary was $9 a week (working forty-five hours).  By 1942 he was making $17 a week.  As with most factory jobs, the work was tedious, physically demanding, and unrewarding.  Writing ruefully to his brother Gino in 1938, and comparing factory work to his time spent in the CCC, Dad wrote “The CCCs are a helluva lot better than that place [Washburn’s].”

When Dad was drafted into the Army in February 1942, he took a major cut in salary.  From making roughly $70 a month at Washburn’s Candy Factory, his salary dropped to $21 a month as an Army private (which was still $9 less than what he had earned in the CCC in 1935!).  When he was discharged from the Army in January 1946 as a corporal technician, he was finally making what he had earned at Washburn’s, about $69 a month.

Although it’s true that the American soldier was paid better than his British counterpart, it’s still shocking to hear that U.S. privates were fighting and dying in Europe and the Pacific for less than $30 a month basic pay.

The truth is simply this: Even the richest, most prosperous country in the world grossly underpaid its frontline troops.  While contractors got rich on the homefront, never risking a hair on their precious necks, young Americans fought and died for peanuts.

Hasn’t it always been this way?  Today, Americans are uncomfortable calling attention to pay discrepancies and exploitation because it smacks of Marxism and class warfare.  Yes, some of the worst abuses of workers have been curbed since my Dad suffered through the Great Depression, but today’s workers are simply scared: scared that their jobs will be outsourced, scared that they’ll be “downsized” (i.e., fired); scared that they’ll be replaced by robots.  Thus they put up and shut up.

For all the rhetoric about the dignity of work in the USA, Dad’s words still ring true: so-called unskilled labor, or demanding physical work, is still undervalued and disrespected in our country.  And for all the talk of “supporting our troops,” those young men and women sent into harm’s way are still paid little when you consider they’re risking their necks.

Which makes me think of another one of my Dad’s sayings: “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”  Especially if we don’t work to change them.

Remembering the Quiet, Unsung Heroes of America

My Mom and Dad
My Mom and Dad

W.J. Astore

On this Super Bowl Sunday of 2014, doubtless we’ll be hearing about the “heroes” of the gridiron.  Whichever team wins will have its “heroes” (Peyton Manning, perhaps?).  Meanwhile, remote feeds will show various military units watching the Big Game, and doubtless these troops will be touted as American heroes.  (They’re indisputably a tad more heroic than a multi-millionaire quarterback who shills everything from pizza to cars.)

But who are the real heroes of America?  I tackled this question on Memorial Day 2011 at Truthout.  For me, it’s loving, hard-working, self-sacrificing people like my parents.  I recall learning in Catholic catechism class that love is all about selfless giving — giving of yourself, freely and generously, without expecting anything in return.  That is assuredly one characteristic of a “hero.”

Here is what I wrote back in 2011.  My thanks to Truthout for publishing it back then.

This Memorial Day [2011], let’s remember and learn from our heroes who are gone from us. For me, my heroes are my parents, both of whom grew up in single-parent families during the Great Depression. Let’s start with my Mom. Our concept of “hero” today often works against moms; our culture tends to glorify our troops and other people of action: police, firefighters, and other risk-takers who help others. But to me my Mom was a hero. As a young woman, she worked long hours in a factory to help support her mother. She married at twenty-seven and quickly had four children in five years (I came along a few years later, the beneficiary of the “rhythm method” of Catholic birth control). As a full-time homemaker, she raised five children in a working-class neighborhood while struggling with intense family issues (an older son, my brother, struggled with schizophrenia, a mental disease little understood in the early 1970s).

Despite these burdens and more, my Mom was always upbeat and giving: traits that didn’t change even when she was diagnosed with cancer. She struggled against the ravages of that disease for five long years before succumbing to it in 1980. Cancer took her life but not her spirit. I never heard her once complain about the painful chemotherapy and cobalt treatments she endured.

My father too had a difficult life. He had to quit high school after the tenth grade and find a paying job to support the family. At the age of eighteen, he entered the Civilian Conservation Corps and fought forest fires in Oregon; factory work followed (where he met my Mom) until that was interrupted by the draft and service in the Army during World War II. After more factory work in the latter half of the 1940s, my Dad got on the local firefighting force, serving with distinction for more than thirty years until his retirement. He died in 2003 after a heart attack and surgery, from which he never fully recovered.

America’s heroes are women and men like my Mom and Dad: the factory workers, the homemakers, the blue-collar doers and givers. And as I think about my Mom and Dad, I recall both their loving natures and their toughness. They had few illusions, and they knew how to get a tough job done, without complaint.

There’s so much we can learn from women and men like them. Personally, I’m so sick of our media and our government telling us how scared we should be — whether of violent crime or violent tornadoes or bogeyman terrorists overseas. My parents recognized the hard-won wisdom of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

But today our government prefers to abridge our rights (see the latest extension of the so-called Patriot Act) in the name of keeping us safe and less fearful, a bargain for those who exercise power, but not for tough-minded people working hard to scrape a living for their children (thanks again, Mom and Dad).

My parents weren’t worried about threats emerging from left field. They had real — and much more immediate — challenges to deal with right at home. In this spirit, I still recall my Dad talking somewhat heretically about the Cold War and the Soviet threat. His opinion: if the Americans and Soviets are stupid enough to nuke one another, a billion Chinese will pick up the slack of human civilization. No bomb shelters or ducking and covering for him. It was back to work to support the family by putting out fires in our neck of the woods.

And that’s what we need to do today as a country. We need to put fear aside and band together to put out fires in our neck of the woods. Together we can make a better country. In so doing, we’ll honor the heroic sacrifices of our families and ancestors: people like my Mom and Dad.

God bless you, Mom, Dad, and all the other quiet and unsung heroes of America.

Thanksgiving Day, November 26th, 1936

My Dad's Menu from Thanksgiving, 1936
My Dad’s Menu from Thanksgiving, 1936

W.J. Astore

In 1936, my dad was nineteen and serving in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, fighting forest fires in Oregon.  Due to a dry summer, 1936 was an especially bad year for fires, and my dad fought a killer one at Bandon-by-the-Sea in Oregon.  After a tough fall, he and his fellow CCC boys sat down to a well deserved Thanksgiving Dinner at Camp Brice Creek in Disston, Oregon.  My dad was a pack rat who saved everything, so I have the menu from that Thanksgiving Day.

Dad in Oregon (near the Snake River)
Dad in Oregon (near the Snake River)

So, what were the hungry young men in the CCCs eating 77 years ago?

Puree of Split Pea Soup/Ripe Olives/Hearts of Celery

Roast Oregon Tom Turkey with Cranberry Jelly, Kellogg’s Dressing, and Giblet Gravy

Snowflake Potatoes, Candied Sweet Potatoes, and Creamed Onions

Hot Rolls and Butter

Shrimp Salad

Mince Pie and Pumpkin Pie

Bananas, Apples, and Oranges

Coffee and Cider

Mixed Nuts, Assorted Candy, and Cigars

Now that sounds like a fine Thanksgiving meal.  And these men, who put their lives on the line fighting wildfires, truly deserved it.

Wherever you are, I hope readers of The Contrary Perspective are enjoying a fine Thanksgiving meal.  And let us give thanks to the men and women of our firefighting corps, who risk everything to keep us safe.

Thanks, Dad.