By Jim Wheeler
Special to The Globe
JOPLIN, Mo. —
The famous photograph “Men at Lunch” is the subject of an article in Smithsonian Magazine this month.
Taken in 1932 in New York City, long before anyone had ever heard of OSHA, it shows 11 men sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on a girder above the urban abyss. The iconic shot was familiar, but it reminded me of another image — a photograph in which my father appeared alongside other oil-field men.
Sadly, I haven’t been able to locate the picture, but it was similar, except for the elevation of course; a bunch of workers in their grimy work clothes.
My father was a worker, like the men on the girder. Those men built the RCA skyscraper (now the GE building), but they weren’t entrepreneurs, nor were they heroes in the conventional sense of the word. They were working-class stiffs who went to a dirty and often dangerous job every day for a paycheck. Only after the fact were they likely to look back on their experience and reflect with pride on what they did.
As the article indicates, many descendants of the “Men at Lunch” have noted with pride the presence of an ancestor in the picture. There were many other workers like them, of course. There were those who built dams, for example — another highly dangerousjob. There were numerous deaths during the construction of the Hoover Dam. Out of 112 deaths associated with the project, 16 men died from heat prostration in the summer of 1931, when the temperature got as high as 119 degrees.
Ray Wheeler was born in Oklahoma in 1905. He was the son of an oil-field worker, who my grandmother eventually divorced because of his drinking problem. When dad’s stepfather sent him to a “military school” for boys, he rebelled. At age 15, with a ninth-grade education, he ran away from home. Just how he managed is unclear, but there are hints in the few stories he did tell. He said he learned to weld just from watching other men do it. When he saw a welding job advertised, he assured the employer he could do it, too.
And he did.
After my mother died, I found an old company photo badge of him from a welding job in North Carolina, which is a place I hadn’t known he worked.
I can only imagine his adventures. He said he had tonsillitis so bad one time when he was on his own that he thought he would die. After he recovered, a doctor asked him when he had had his tonsils taken out. He hadn’t. He guessed they must have “rotted out” while he was sick long before.
At the age of 26, he met my mother during a visit home. At the time, she was a country-school teacher who was one of my grandmother’s boarders. They married soon after. I was purposely put on hold for five years — a financial decision brought on by the Great Depression.
My father was a taciturn man. He was also apolitical, so far as I knew. I never heard him discuss politics, but this isn’t surprising because he was naturally pragmatic, just like his mother, his sister and his half-brother.
He accepted the world as it was, with no illusions. He was honest more by nature than by creed. He cared for his family, always. We never lacked for any need. His particular pleasures were hunting and fishing, but he worked for money. I recall him expressing pride that he had the kind of job that afforded a “good wage,” meaning “better than most.” The rate of $2.12 an hour is the one I recall him mentioning. He often sought to work overtime so he could earn time-and-a-half. I remember his struggle to sleep during the day as he prepared for night shifts. He rose to the grade of “driller,” which was the senior position on a cable-tool rig.
His jobs were temporary by design and lasted only until a well was completed, at which time he had to look for a new job. There were no benefits, no health insurance, no retirement — a tremendous deal for the oil companies. During the war, he worked as a welder. We moved around and he welded at a government project near Oak Ridge, Tenn., for a year or so before heading to Douglas Aircraft in Tulsa. After the war, he returned to the oil fields.
What are we to make of such men — these working men? They don’t create jobs — they seek them. They take life as it comes, and they make the best of it. They accept responsibility. I am reminded of Michelle Obama’s father, Fraser Robinson, of whom a National Review article was written:
“According to Michelle’s convention speech and to published accounts, her father was a pump operator at the city water plant in Chicago. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis as a young man, and still got up to work every day. The First Lady described how she watched him ‘grab his walker, prop himself against the sink, and slowly shave and button his uniform.’ When he came home, he’d reach down to lift one leg after another to make it up the stairs and greet his kid.”
Such men serve society, but not by creating inventions, or by creating jobs, or by setting records, or by investing cleverly. They serve by showing up on time. They serve by working hard — through determination and acceptance of family responsibility. They serve by being reliable — so determined and trustworthy that it would never even occur to their children that anything bad could ever happen to them.
Yes, I know that not everybody in “the 47 percent” is like that. But many are, and I’m proud that my father was one of them. The saving grace of his years of labor, after he died of cancer at age 58, was Social Security and Medicaid, which enabled my mother and sister to continue their lives in dignity.
When politicians argue about what society owes to “the 47 percent that pays no income tax,” they need to remember that a big part of America’s success is due to the unsung heroes who faithfully show up, face their responsibilities, and keep the economy going. To discount such people is to discount who we are as a nation.
Jim Wheeler lives in Joplin.