from Children of Vallejo
It is amazing what you remember from your childhood, the scenes you can never erase from your memory. Nick could close his eyes and see his mother kneeling on the dining room floor, lacing up his father’s work boots and tying them in neat double knots. His father’s back hurt so badly he couldn’t bend down to tie them himself. Take a day off? Call in sick? That was out of the question.
“I’m a working man,” his father would say.
That’s all the explanation that was needed. He would drag himself off to catch the bus, that old, beat-up lunch pail in hand. He was a boilermaker, a trade he learned in the Navy, and he was proud of the fact that he could work any two men into the ground. Nick would see him come home at night with his overalls covered in brick mud, and he knew he'd been crawling in and out of those tiny openings all day, replacing the fire brick in a boiler. He'd take off his dirty overalls out in the garage and make his way to the dining room table, and Nick's mom would help him take off his boots. Nick wanted to tell him to stop, that it was a young man's job and he should let a young man do it, but he knew what the answer would be.
"I'm a working man."
Nick could still hear his father’s voice saying, “The only things a working man has going for him are his union and the Democratic Party.” Cross a union picket line? Never! Vote for a Republican? You’ve got to be kidding!
Once the bakery workers went on strike for two weeks and Nick’s mom baked bread at home until the strike was over rather than buy non-union bread at the market. He could still remember the smell of fresh baked bread and how it tasted warm from the oven with real butter.
Nick voted for Ronald Reagan once, but his hand shook as he punched the hole in the ballot with the little metal stylus. He’d take a sick day every now and then, but always with a sense of guilt, as though he’d let his father down in some fundamental way. More often than not, he’d shower and shave and go to work, no matter how rotten he felt.
Once he was faced with crossing a picket line. He stood on the corner in front of the office building for a long time and watched the pickets parading with their signs. Finally, he hurried past them and into the building, his eyes fixed on the pavement. Then he rushed to the first men’s room he could find and threw up in the sink.
Funny, the things you carry with you from your childhood.