"By far the smallest of that sinewy bunch, I struggled to keep up, my back and thighs aflame from heaving bales, my forearms scratched, my hands raw from the twine. But I would have died before quitting. I wasn't just a useless boy anymore--I was finally working among the men."
Scott Russell Sanders
A Man's Life:
When I was a boy growing up on the country roads of Tennessee and Ohio, the men I knew all earned a hardscrabble living with the strength of their hands and arms and backs. They raised corn and cows, felled trees, split wood, butchered hogs, mortared bricks and blocks, built and wired and plumbed houses, dug ditches, hauled gravel, overhauled cars, drove bulldozers and backhoes, welded broken parts. They hunted game for the table in season, and sometimes out of season. Some of them had once mined coal in Appalachia or trolled for fish in the Great Lakes. Many had fought in Europe or Korea. They arm wrestled at the volunteer fire department, smacked baseballs over fences at the schoolyard, and at the county fair they swung sledge hammers or hefted barrels to see who was the mightiest of the lot.
A brawny, joking, red-haired southern charmer who often won those contests was my father. He had grown up on a farm in Mississippi, had gone to college for a year on a boxing scholarship, had lost the cartilage in his nose during a brief Golden Gloves career. After moving north to Chicago, where he met the woman who would become my mother, he worked by turns as a carpenter, a tirebuilder, and a foreman in a munitions plant, until he eventually graduated to wearing a white shirt and sitting all day at a desk. He never liked the fit of a desk or a starched shirt, however, so as soon as he came home from the office he would put on overalls and go to work in the shop, garden, or barn. He could fix every machine we owned, from the car to the camera. Although he grumbled when the tractor threw a belt or the furnace quit, as soon as he grabbed his tools he began to hum. He took pleasure in using his strength and skill, and I took pleasure in watching him. He could tame a maverick horse, hoist an oil-slick motor out of a car, plow a straight furrow in stony ground, transplant a tree with its root ball bundled in burlap, and carry my sister and me both at once in his great freckled arms.
My mother had strengths of her own, but they did not depend on muscle. She read books to me and gave me drawing lessons and hauled me to and from libraries and science fairs in the fervent hope, later fulfilled, that I would make my way in the world by my wits. She wished the same for my sister, who patterned herself on the women as I patterned myself on the men. Although I have a much greater appreciation now for the bodily strength of women, as a boy I saw only their finesse, their ability to get by on little money, their competence in the face of calamity, their insistence on kindness and fairness, their hunger for beauty.
While I valued those traits, and wound up being deeply influenced by them, as a boy I fixed my sights on my burly father and his buddies.
My father, meanwhile, waited for my body to fill out so I could be of some earthly use. As soon as I was big enough, he put me to work raking leaves, weeding the garden, stretching barbed wire, setting fence posts, clearing brush with a hatchet, carrying water to the ponies. At first I staggered between the pump house and the pasture lugging a gallon bucket. After a while I could manage a five-gallon bucket half full of water, then a full bucket, and finally a pair of them, one in each hand, the water lapping at the brim. None of this labor was mere exercise; it all had a purpose as clear as the sound of the ponies lapping at their trough or the taste of sweet corn fresh from the garden.
Before washing off the sweat from chores, I studied my scrawny frame in the bathroom mirror, looking for signs of the muscle I saw in my father and the other men. I might think of the welder whose ropy forearms were speckled with scars from drops of molten steel. I might think of the roofer whose shoulders tightened into knots as he carried bundles of shingles up a ladder, or the farrier who stopped by our place twice a year to shoe the ponies, his bare arms rippling with a muscularity as impressive as that in the pony's lifted leg. To hurry my body along, I began doing push-ups on the oily floor of the garage, doing chin-ups from a rafter in the barn. Yet no matter how tightly I flexed my arms before the mirror, my biceps hardly bulged, my chest remained a blank slate.
I was impatient to grow strong so that I could work alongside the men. When my father didn't need me at home I rode my bicycle to nearby farms, offering to do any job for 50 cents an hour. I doubt my labor was worth that much, at least to begin with, but a kindly old Swede paid me anyway to help milk his docile Guernseys, fork silage into their feeding troughs, and shovel their manure. In spring I worked at his sugar camp, hauling buckets of maple sap. In winter I trapped muskrat along the river that ran through his bottomland and sold the skins in the county seat.
The summer I was 13, a man who baled hay hired me for his crew. I climbed into his pickup at five each morning wearing a long-sleeved shirt to protect my skin from the sharp stubble and to hide my skinny arms. We towed the baling machine to a field where the hay lay combed into windrows and where six or eight older boys and men stood waiting to lift and load and stack the boxy bales onto wagons and then unload the wagons into the barn. We sweltered. Between sunrise and dark we stopped only for a hot lunch served in the farmhouse and a cold drink guzzled between loads in the barn, the men drinking beer and the boys drinking soda. By far the smallest of that sinewy bunch, I struggled to keep up, my back and thighs aflame from heaving bales, my forearms scratched, my hands raw from the twine. But I would have died before quitting. I wasn't just a useless boy anymore-I was finally working among the men.
The following summer I got a job setting pins in a bowling alley. From a narrow seat between two alleys, I would leap down first to one side and then the other, returning balls along grooved tracks, picking up scattered pins and setting them in overhead racks, all the while dodging the next ball. I went home with shins black-and-blue from flying pins and hands numb from gripping the wooden necks.
Those aches and bruises were mild compared to the ones I acquired in later summers as an apprentice carpenter. A local builder, a friend of my father's, hired me to carry lumber, mix mortar, push wheelbarrows, and drive nails. At night I could barely lift my arms to strip the sweat-soaked T-shirt over my head. I would lie in a tub of hot water until the cramps began to ease in my arms and back, my head throbbing with visions of studs and rafters rising against the sky.
After a summer of building houses, I started college with callused hands and a body tuned by hard work. A scholarship carried me to a place filled with young men who had spent their summers clerking or sailing or sightseeing. Overhearing their chatter about ski trips and stock options, about Dad's firm and Mama's trust, I soon realized that muscle did not matter there, except as ornament for attracting mates. Brawn was necessary for laborers, but nobody in college aspired to become a laborer. On the contrary, the men I met on campus expected to earn handsome salaries by means of their fingers and tongues, guided by their well-furnished minds. They were training to become surgeons, brokers, attorneys, businessmen, psychiatrists, architects, journalists, salesmen, or teachers.
Even though I worked in a factory during the summers of college, I knew such work was only temporary, a way to pay for books, and that I was destined to earn my living by my wits, as my mother had always hoped. When I returned to school each fall my calluses soon grew soft and my body grew slack. Following graduate school I became a teacher, rather to the dismay of my father, who held by the view that "those who can, do, and those who can't, teach," but to the satisfaction of my mother. I also became a writer, one who pushes around nothing heavier than words. If all but my neck and jaw were paralyzed, God forbid, and my brain were still nimble, I could carry on my work by holding a pencil in my teeth and pecking at a keyboard.
Since finishing my last shift at the factory, I've had
to make an effort to use those muscles I longed for while growing up.
To fight flab, once again I'm doing push-ups and sit-ups, nowadays on a bedroom carpet rather than on the oily concrete floor of a garage, and I swing dumbbells while watching nature videos, careful not to pinch a nerve. The men I knew while growing up in the country, including my father, would have been amused by this spectacle. Their jobs, their farms, their big families, their ailing machines gave them more than enough exercise. Why would a grown man need to work out, they might have asked, if he did an honest day's work?
In the recreational sports palace at my university, thousands of young men exercise religiously, lifting weights, sculpting their bodies, studying themselves in floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Their goal in cultivating these muscles, so far as I can tell, is to impress their girlfriends and to swell the shoulders of their suits. Except for athletes with dreams-more often delusions-of playing professional sports, these husky young men would shun any career that requires them actually to use their showy strength. The same divorce between work and workout could be witnessed, I'm sure, on campuses from coast to coast. One principal aim of higher education-as evident in the state university where I teach as in the Ivy League college where I studied-is to make irrelevant the kind of strength and skill that I spent my boyhood admiring.
Our machines, likewise, tend to make muscles superfluous. Who needs strong legs in a world of elevators, escalators, rolling sidewalks, and cars? Who needs a strong back or powerful arms when leaves can be gathered with a blower instead of a rake, trees can be felled with a chain-saw instead of an axe, ditches can be dug with a backhoe instead of a shovel?
There is still heavy work to do, of course. As I write these lines early on a December morning, while the temperature hovers around zero, a garbage truck rumbles down our street. Two men balance on platforms near the back of the truck, and at each stop they jump down, jog to the sidewalk, snatch the loaded cans, rush back to the truck and dump the contents, then replace the cans on the sidewalk and climb back on board. They will do this on street after street, for eight hours, lifting tons of trash. From a distance I hear the bump and grind of boxcars coupling, the rat-a-tat of a jackhammer, the wail of a fire engine, and all of these sounds remind me how many hard and dangerous jobs remain.
Countless men still labor on farms and roads, in mines and mills and quarries. Yet they form an ever-shrinking portion of the workforce in this cybernetic age, and much of the hardest work, even in these primary trades, has been turned over to machines. Hay is now bundled in fat rolls that are handled entirely by tractors; one man pulling levers can put up more hay in a morning than a crew of six or eight, lifting and stacking the old boxy bales, could put up in a day. A single robot on an assembly line supplants a dozen workers who once bolted and welded parts together. An earthmover replaces hundreds of men pushing wheelbarrows. Forklifts do the he-man loading of barrels and crates.
If technology and education alike tend to free us from the need for muscles, what are we to do with our bodies, especially those of us who carry a Y chromosome and a charge of testosterone? I used to wrestle with my two children when they were little. For my daughter it was always a lark, make-believe, hilarious. But for my son, as he got up around 12 or 13, it became deadly serious, and he put all his might into throwing me off balance and pinning me to the floor. He would hurl himself at me with a fury and we would thrash around on the living room carpet. Eventually I called a halt to the wrestling, much to his regret.
Like sap rising in the trunks of trees in spring, strength still rises in the bodies of boys as they become teenagers, whether or not they grow up among laboring men. Boys today must spend more years in school than their fathers or grandfathers did, and the jobs they eventually find will make more use of their brains than their backs. So what are they to do with all that strength? Some cruise around town in souped-up cars with sound-systems booming. Some tear up phone booths, play violent video games, fight in bars. Some deal drugs, risking a jail sentence or a bullet in the head. Some beat up their girlfriends or their wives. Some join the armed forces. Some join gangs.
Fortunately for the peace of society, many boys play sports, and thereby gain some of the benefits offered by hard physical work. What sports can't provide, however, is the satisfaction of doing something useful. Although they offer entertainment, they don't build anything, raise anything, fix anything, or make anything. At their best, they inspire in athletes a respect for discipline, skill, and cooperation. At their worst, they foster a brand of narcissism, most visible in the overpaid and pampered egomaniacs of the professional ranks. Hitting so many home runs, throwing so many touchdown passes, making so many dunks may be impressive, but it is also only a game, a child's pastime even when it is carried on into adulthood.
How might boys and young men--or, for that matter, men of any age--use their muscles for something besides recreation or mischief? Suppose we quit buying the latest "labor-saving" gadgets for our households and do more of the labor with our own hands. There is pleasure as well as economy in painting our own walls, fixing a leaky faucet, or changing a part on a car; and if we don't know how to do such things, then let us learn from someone who does. Suppose, instead of playing yet another sport or watching one on television, we dig up a patch of the yard or a plot in the community garden for a crop of vegetables. Suppose we bicycle or walk instead of driving whenever possible. Suppose we volunteer to help build or rehabilitate houses for needy people. Suppose we help a land trust maintain its property by clearing trails and picking up trash.
There is no shortage of work to do. We could fix up schools and meeting halls, clean up rivers and streets and parks, restore wetlands, plant trees. We could do small repairs for the elderly, deliver groceries for shut-ins, shovel snow for folks too weak to do the shoveling themselves.
The physical power I saw in my father and in the other men I knew while growing up was not for show, not for playing games, but for carrying on the necessary tasks of life. Since fewer and fewer of our households or jobs demand such power, those of us who still inherit the old hormonal rush, acquired by our male ancestors over thousands of generations, may now use our muscles to serve others. Freed from toil, we may choose to make our strength a blessing for our neighbors and our neighborhoods.