By KEN WINKES
(June 24, 2015) — Want to know how vital unions are to working people? Let me tell you a story about an old man and his dreams.
Now near 90 years old, he lies in bed, wishing he could live somewhere else, maybe in a carpenter’s home. That’s what he told me last week.
I’d guess Mike (not his real name) is about six feet tall, but it’s hard to tell as he lies there, watch cap pulled low over his forehead, his body covered by blankets to his chin. At mealtime, I watch his gnarled hands slowly place the straw in his toothless mouth so he can suck the juice he seems to live on, and I think of all the things those hands have touched and done over his long lifetime.
He has told me some of those things.
He grew up on a small farm in central California. Bright and energetic, he learned early how to work. With some vocational schooling under his belt, as World War II neared its end he joined the Army and graduated at the top of his class, an expert on heavy equipment ignition systems. Later, as a union pipefitter, he worked on dam powerhouses on California’s Kern River. He continued his studies and taught in a one-room school. While teaching, he became a part-time handyman on a central California ranch, stringing and welding fences, pouring concrete, and mowing hay for neighboring farmers. For a time he was a union carpenter, working for a contractor in the Bay Area.
Wherever he went, people learned he could fix anything, so he always had work. And he was always thinking of better ways to do something, of new uses for old things, of the future that in those days still stretched before him.
Now, trapped in a body he can no longer control, he is not doing much of anything. He can’t. But his mind is still active. Last year he sketched rough outline of a windmill, which could be built from materials scavenged from old pallets, but the sketch was all he could manage.
These days, he thinks mostly about escaping from his intolerable present. “They’ve taken my money,” he says, and he is right. His Social Security and small union pensions are deposited directly to the nursing home that cares for him.
Together, those payments don’t begin to cover the cost of his care. He’s stuck, like millions of our elderly, able to do nothing but plan his escape.
Mike has two plans, each a twisted, impractical version of events from his past, when he was doing what he wanted to do, working to build a secure future for himself and his family.
He’s told me many times he’d like to get back to the California ranch he worked at 60 years ago. He hasn’t been there for 45 years, but he believes if he could just get there he could run the place efficiently enough to make plenty of money, enough to pay all he owes to the nursing home, and more.
He’d raise alfalfa, he says, build a hammer mill — he has the design in mind — to mix the hay and just the right amount of molasses, and turn that acreage into a giant feed lot. That feed lot on that ranch he so obviously loved would be just the ticket.
Lately, though, I don’t hear as much about that plan.
Sensing, though not yet admitting to himself, that running a California ranch is not in his likely future, Mike is calling on dimming memories of his union days for help.
When he talked about moving to a carpenters’ home, I thought he knew of some union-sponsored California facility that housed and cared for retired carpenters who could no longer live on their own. A great idea, I thought. But Mike didn’t have anything so institutional in mind. He just wanted to live with a carpenter who had an extra bedroom and maybe a wife who could stay at home and take care of him when he needed help.
Of course, that’s not going to happen either. Mike’s airy dream of living with a carpenter tied to him by a craft and a union, someone who shares his experiences, willing also to share his home, a family almost, is just that, the airy dream of an old man stuck in a failing body in a place he doesn’t wish to be.
But dream as it might be, that carpenter’s home is worth thinking about.
Though too arthritic to work, Mike’s hands still feel the wood he touched and the metal he cut and shaped. He still feels the comradeship of fellow workers, aiming toward the same goals, joined together in a union that gave him the strength and security he did not have on his own.
Mike’s current desire to find a home with a carpenter is little more than a touching dream, but it is rooted in solid reality. We are all products of our past. We are what we have done, and what we did we did not do alone. Now, solitary and almost helpless, Mike pines for the safe haven only solidarity with his fellow workers might provide.
I confess, sometimes when I am sick I still want my mother.
In his last days Mike wants his union. To me, that speaks volumes about what unions have been and should be.
A large family, powerful enough to protect its members and caring enough to provide a safe and friendly home to which they can always return.
Ken Winkes is a retired teacher and high school principal.