May 11, 2008–I just retired and am 62 years old today, so I guess it’s natural to reminisce a little on this birthday. All youth seem to share a disbelief that someday they actually will reach this ripe old age. It certainly was true of me in my early teens.
In fact, I especially could not visualize my contemporary celebrities aging. Not Elvis, Bob Dylan, the Beatles or, my favorites, the rebellious Rolling Stones who never would force a smile just to sell a record.
Certainly not Chicago Cub Ernie Banks who hit 40 home runs each year. Or New York Yankee Ryne Duren who threw nothing but ‘smokin’ fast balls that terrified even the best hitters.
As a young teen, my imagination just couldn’t fathom what these public figures would look like in fifty years. I used my own personal boyhood heroes as reference markers for my own aging process. I figured as long as they were still around, I had nothing to worry about.
Then ever so slowly and somewhat imperceptively, things began to happen. Mortality became reality.
My youthful heroes began dropping from the front pages only rarely appearing on the public stage they had dominated just a few short years before. And then, as the years inched forward, some began dropping from the scene entirely.
I recall Mickey Mantle famously saying before his 1995 death that he would have taken better care of himself if he knew he was going to live so long. When Mickey died, I realized right then and there that I was getting old for sure.
I found myself screening the obituaries looking for more names that coincided with various important stages of my own life. I was always told this was a sure sign of growing old and tried very hard to resist my secret temptation to peek at these back pages.
But there is no denying, it’s time now to contemplate my own mortality as more and more recognizable voices are silenced and as I am just about ready to collect my first social security check.
As I do so, I find myself pondering certain themes that have stood out over the years in my life.
Could I actually pinpoint childhood influences that aroused my early distrust of authority, soon to flower into four decades of consistent rebellion against the rich and their greedy system?
Why was I always so proud to be working class and still to this day so confident of it’s potential to change the world for the better?
Thus, I began my search.
The Big Brain Theory
We now know that the most critical development of the brain actually occurs in the first three years after birth. Sensory stimulation is essential during this formative stage. I can only hope the lore of both my mom and dad playing accordion and singing in Italian as our cradles rocked back and forth were good influences on us three kids.
Of course, individual conscious choices shaping our personality and character occur a few years later. In my case, I recall one early pre-teen observation that greatly affected my adult life.
My dad’s way of teaching us how lucky we were living in our comfortable Chicago northwest-side neighborhood was to drive us to the old inner-city area where he was raised and I was born.
Barely 10 years old, I distinctly remember scruffy, hunched-over homeless men wearing thick coats, bulky rain boots, and large scarves draped over their wool caps and wrapped around their ears. They were huddled in freezing temperatures around rusty, dirty fuel-oil drums discarded from gas stations.
Old, tore-up, worn tires and wood scraps would be burning. Ugly, black, toxic smoke bellowed out but nobody dared stray too far from the direct heat of the flames.
The image is burned into my memory. Lesson number one, life just didn’t seem fair. Why were these men outside in the cold when I could return to my warm house?
I didn’t have the answers quite yet but I already had lots of questions from my limited experience living in my working-class neighborhood. Soon, broader social and political ideas began affecting me that reflected the new world taking shape before my eyes.
Maybe now I could get some answers?
Blowing in the Wind
I was very much influenced as a young teen by the rebellious attitude of the 1960s. I listened to every voice of dissent and watched every protest.
I began to deepen my instinctive dislike and even hatred of Chicago cops who always were hassling us kids "hanging out" and I easily extended these suspicions to the upper crust of society.
I didn’t trust the rich and powerful. I didn’t think they played fair. We used to say they lived on ‘easy street.’
I already pretty much understood that living high on the hog and having lots of money had little to do with how hard you actually worked. Heck, I figured my family should have easily been millionaires the way my parents worked so long and hard.
I was also beginning to see that the rich had more career options than working class folks. You see by this time, shortly after John F. Kennedy became President, my older brother was already a Marine fighting in Vietnam. He left high school early and joined up at the tender age of 17. This happened to lots of guys in my neighborhood.
In that kind of social environment, I naturally sided with the underdog.
It also probably had something to do with being a Cub fan. When I would ask my Dad sitting in his living room recliner watching the game how it was going, he would mostly say despairingly, "the usual."
Sometimes he would change it up with "the Cubs are ahead, getting ready to lose." Nonetheless, he stayed an avid fan all his life.
Another sport was also a big influence on me. There were no rich guys in the boxing ring. Even my athletic dad tried his hand in the ring during the depression just to make an extra buck. It was not uncommon in those days.
Almost all fighters came from working class backgrounds. It was another situation where I found myself rooting for the person who didn’t start with much but who tried with all their heart to get ahead.
The fight game was a huge spectator sport in my youth. I can still see the grace, talent and good looks of Sugar Ray Robinson. But I also remember the busted up, pushed-in faces and cauliflower ears of Carmen Basilio and Gene Fullmer.
Like many of my generation, I greatly admired those who had the guts to step into the ring. In boxing, fighters who got knocked out received sympathy but those who kept getting up from a knockdown got respect even if they ultimately lost the decision.
I think we all prefer respect to sympathy.
This boxing image came to mind as a young boy when I watched other young kids standing up to fire hoses and racist harassment at lunch counters. I recognized that Black youth were getting back up each time they got knocked down. They were fighting for a fair shake. As a result, they received from me something far more profound than sympathy.
Respect is basic and fundamental for working class youth so I was able to instinctively grasp the essential meaning of the civil rights movement perhaps even more intensely than other more-educated observers.
I made the same comparisons with the Vietnamese youth who never let up. I was very impressed to learn they persistently fought for national independence against the British and French long before opposing the interference of my own powerful country.
My head was changed forever.
And then Muhammad Ali arrived. He dramatically blended the attractive warrior aspect of boxing with the fighting spirit of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements.
He remains one of my heroes, an athlete who by resisting the war sacrificed earned privileges in order to help those of us who never would make it to the center ring of society.
Life Outside my Neighborhood
I continued to change as I grew out of my teens and it was again a direct result of listening to the debates and discussions appearing everywhere about civil rights and Vietnam. Eventually, I became convinced to actually throw myself directly into the political ring as an activist fighter.
Like most working class teens with limited education, I was accustomed to confidently basing my decisions almost exclusively on practical street smarts and personal experience. But more and more I began to realize that there were other ideas and conceptions outside of my limited neighborhood existence that should also be considered.
Around the age of 21, I recall two ideas that I knew would affect my life forever. They were quite simple but, nonetheless, for me extremely meaningful.
The first new idea that exploded into my consciousness came from reading about the great 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts Textile Strike. I thought a lot about what would make so many thousands of poor immigrants leave their jobs.
The working class is often unfairly ridiculed for wanting little more than a few extra dollars in their pockets.
The despicable notion attributed to both JP Morgan and Jay Gould that "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half" is the most repulsive example of the condescension and arrogance of the rich class.
But on the contrary, against the odds, the Lawrence strikers shut down the east coast textile mills for "Bread and Roses," symbolizing their desire for both decent wages and fewer work hours. Workers wanted more time to enjoy life. At times when I would get buried in my own work over the years, I would often recall the desires of these impoverished toilers to "smell the roses."
I always thought it was a remarkable example of the working class representing the best of the human spirit. I was proud of my origins, strongly identified with my class and saw none of this noble vision from the elites.
My next major influence occurred soon after learning about the Lawrence strike. I had the accidental, good fortune of reading a 1883 pamphlet by socialist Paul Lefargue provocatively titled "The Right to be Lazy." True to his theme, Lefargue only wrote a brief four chapters.
Nonetheless, it was an inspiring message arguing to free the working class from the drudgery of daily work; a theme echoing the same desires of the Lawrence strikers.
Written in 19th Century prose, the words spoke eloquently of a vision neither realized nor even much considered even now into the 21st Century.
"0 Laziness, have pity on our long misery! O Laziness, mother of the arts and noble virtues, be thou the balm of human anguish!" writes Lefargue.
At my age, it is now time for me to enjoy more fully the "Roses" of the Lawrence Strike and the "Laziness" of Lefargue. How sad that our society requires we postpone these dreams for so many decades of our life.
Today’s youth may themselves sometimes imagine what they will look like fifty years from now. But, as I have described, it is more important to ask yourself who you will be once you get there.
Carl Finamore is former President (ret), Air Transport Employees, Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW. He can be distracted from his many leisurely pursuits and awakened from his frequent naps by writing [email protected]