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Elmer in Dairyland

 

Between college and graduate school, I worked for a year in a factory in Verona, Wisconsin, which is a few miles and a paradigm shift outside of Madison. It wasn’t the worst place to work. We had a union. We had benefits. We chopped, folded and riveted large sheets of metal and turned them into the air diffusers that you can see in the ceilings of theaters and other large buildings.

I did the night shift for a while with a guy named Elmer. In his fifties, Elmer had been a farmer and hunter for most of his life, and in 1974 was operating a giant sheet metal shear. Elmer would cut it, and I would stack it. After our orders were filled, we’d sit around and get drunk, because there wasn’t any supervision at night. Sometimes we got drunk before the orders were filled, and we were both lucky to escape the shear with our fingers still attached to our hands.

As we drank peppermint schnapps at 4 a.m., I listened to Elmer’s stories about his life with great interest. Most of my friends in Madison had parents who worked for the government or the university. Elmer seemed to be as smart as any of them, but with a life experience that put him on another planet.

It was obvious that Elmer hated his job. He wanted to be outside, trapping muskrats and selling their pelts. I hated the job too, and ruminated about why anyone would think that hard work was a virtue. What was worse--having a job, or not having a job? If you worked eight hours a day and then got drunk, or watched television, to forget about the grinding assembly line, what kind of a life was that? What about raising your kids? Taking part in your community? Culture? Why not organize labor in such a way that that everyone had a useful job for four hours, and then could pursue their own happiness? Was there any lack of things that needed to be done? Was there any lack of people who wanted to make contribution in some way? What was the point of overworking some while underworking others?

Wisconsin workers were ready to fight, ready for a general strike call, but the Democratic Party just wanted a recall electionWisconsin workers were ready to fight, ready for a general strike call, but the Democratic Party just wanted a recall election

 
I thought of Elmer as a friend. That he wasn’t became evident one night when Elmer and I got drunker than usual, and he accused me of looking down on him. “I hate college boys,” he snarled. He hated the entire University of Wisconsin. He hated the anti-war movement, especially the New Year’s Gang who blew up the Army Math Research Center in 1970. He hated music. He hated reading. He hated listening to me ruminate about better ways to organize labor.

I don’t know. Maybe I did see Elmer as an anthropology project, and he resented it. Or maybe he resented that I had a way out of that factory, and he was stuck there for the rest of his life, if he didn’t get laid off. More factory, then death. It wasn’t much to look forward to. We were the opposite of the Neil Young song: “Old man, look at my life/I’m nothing at all like you.”

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