Friday, January 14, 2011


Not much had come his way in life that he hadn't worked for. He had been a full-time laborer since he was 14, the year his father died. This was only two years after he lost his mother to consumption. He worked as a "wiper" in the belly of a large coastal freighter. Stuck in the engine room for year after year. Eventually the darkness had taken a toll on his eyesight and his hands were now permanently stained with oil. Where once he used to stand straight and tall, he now walked with a noticeable hunch due to the 5 ft clearance of his working compartment. Twelve hours a day for weeks on end he shoveled coal and kept the boilers clean. The work was thankless and he had never seen any of his superiors, given how far down in the bowels of that ship he labored. With all that he endured in that dark cave, he never complained or uttered a single regret or lament. It was honest work that needed to be done and he was thankful for the job, especially in a time when so many were out of work. Soup kitchens, poverty, long lines at the government offices. No, he had no complaints and he usually could be found whistling a sweet song he learned from his mother.

He likely would have continued on in his toils until someone happened along and found him expired face down on the steam controls, yet that is not what fate had in store for him. A freak accident and his left leg was essentially rendered useless. He was let go with nothing more than a small severance package for his 28 years of giving all that he had. One moment he was doing his usual set of duties, and the next moment he was out on the street. As he ambled up the dock away from that familiar steel hulk, his life and home for so long, he looked back one last time. Many folks would have been filled with anger or bitterness or felt betrayed and unappreciated. But instead a broad smile spread across his face revealing a toothy grin. He felt a certain freedom that he had not expected. He also felt gratitude for the opportunities and the experience.

As he had no family, he decided to travel westward. He had it in his mind to take advantage of the homestead land tracts that had become available. After more than four months in transit and two months working through the government bureaucracy, he sat on a rickety old chair on the front porch of a cabin that had not been habitated in more than 20 years. Most of the windows of the shack were broken, you could look up through the ceiling and see the night sky, and the outhouse was quite a walk from the back. Yet he was so thankful. The old potbelly wood stove was a blessing, and the two old oil lanterns that he purchased gave him enough light to see all he needed to see. As he sat on the front porch looking out over that barren landscape, he didn't see the rocks or the nearly dried up creek. He saw nothing but lush fields and promise in all directions.

Sometimes I wish I had the eyes of this old laborer. Though many would view his life as joyless or harsh and empty, he always sought out the positive when everyone else only saw hardship and darkness. I had a brief glimpse into this mindset recently when we had an unexpectedly warm day in the otherwise long march of winter. Although spring is still months off, the warm breeze across my face caused me to see things in a different way. The land was still brown and there were still piles of blackened snow on the sides of the roads, but I looked up and saw the trees covered with leaves and the grass lush and green. I don't know, maybe it was just a subtle change in perspective, a gentle reminder to stay positive.