Change Often Sucks

Summer’s end is in sight, at least as far as summer vacation for my kid is concerned. He’s been trying to get a job all summer, but hasn’t been successful. I think part of the problem is that a lot of the typical “summer jobs” around town are currently filled by adults who lost their jobs in other industries. That sucks for everybody. Missoula, and Montana, certainly isn’t alone in this. Joblessness is the current plague in the USA, and I know plenty of people — smart, productive people — who are out of work. Hell, even my hours have been reduced all year, but not drastically. Julia’s too; her day job is finding jobs for other people, and they just aren’t out there. Sid interviewed last week at Muse Comics, and I hope he gets the gig. That would be a cool job since it’s not only close to home, but it’s also close to where he goes to school. Plus he needs the money. I dropped $90 to replace broken drum heads last week — the punk needs to generate his own income!

We were out at my folks’ place a couple weekends ago, and I was thinking about my own teenage employment. Back in the day, during summers kids of my generation could count on work bucking bales, changing sprinkler pipes, flood irrigating, etc. I did that kind of stuff for three or four summers. Nowadays, you don’t even see bales like this out in hay fields anymore; farmers are putting it up in those big round bread loaf-looking things, and kids aren’t out sweating in the heat like we used to, wearing long sleeves to avoid scratches, and heaving bales of hay sometimes ten feet — or higher — into the air to the top of a stack being built on the deck of a moving trailer.

I learned how to work, and work hard, doing this kind of labor. I learned how to drive a tractor. I got strong during the summer. I got up early. Lunch breaks became a thing to look forward to for a reason other than boredom. I learned what it was like to chew tobacco (hated it) and had my first beer handed to me (hated that too; I didn’t start drinking beer really until I was in my 30s) by the older ranch hands that would oversee our work. But it was still a rite of passage that most of the guys of my generation and locale went through, and I think it was a good thing. That opportunity just doesn’t exist for Sid and his friends, at least around here, and I wish that isn’t the case.

Julia and I were talking yesterday about how the whole agricultural bent of rural areas has changed. Is every other girl still obsessed with horses? I don’t know. Driving by pastures with a handful of them grazing — horses, that is, not teenage girls — we wondered who was riding them anymore. Horses can be purchased for dirt cheap these days because people can’t get keep them, or get rid of them, due to cost of ownership. When they aren’t being abandoned to starvation, that is. 4H isn’t as popular as it used to be. Fewer families have gardens and livestock, things like that. However, can that change? As work gets harder and harder to find, as the economy continues to stutter and stagger, will more people get back to these old practices out of necessity, just to provide food for the table that they aren’t buying at the grocery store? Personally, I don’t think of that as a step in the wrong direction.

This is a picture I found online of the Smurfit-Stone Container mill between Frenchtown and Missoula. Frenchtown is where I went to school K-12. My dad worked at the mill, which existed under various owners, for something like 44 years. He retired last winter when the company, currently in bankruptcy, shut the damn thing down. No, the place wasn’t pretty, pulp and paper mills never are, and yeah it made the air in the valley a little ripe sometimes. Yes, I think my views from the top of Mount Sentinel are better now without the haze from all the clouds of steam belching from its various pipes. But the mill was a backbone of the economy here, employed people in the hundreds, and raised a lot of friggin’ kids — including me. That mill provided a good life to my parents, and to me and my sisters. I hated to see it go, especially for the guys too young to retire, but too old to really start over. That is a grim situation to be in.

We took “the scenic route” from Missoula to Frenchtown the last time we went to my parents’ house, which took us right by the mill. I hadn’t been up so close to it since it shut down. It’s freaky to see it like this, when for my entire life it was always a bustling place of activity. As a kid there was always someone waving at me as I drove by, thinking it was my dad behind the wheel of whatever old van or pickup I was driving. Now it’s dead and quiet. The fence out front is hung with hard hats, and that image was surprisingly poignant.

The ranch I worked for used to own the fields all around the mill. Who knows, maybe they still do, though I don’t know that that ranch exists as a going concern anymore either, for that matter. I spent a summer flood irrigating those fields, and hauling the hay that grew out of them in the form of big, smelly bales. At a couple transitory moments of my life I considered trying to get on at the mill, but never pursued it. I’m glad I didn’t. But I can’t deny the impact the place had on my life, and still does, because whenever my dad buys me a greasy breakfast, or slips Sid and I a $50 bill after shoveling snow off their roof in the winter, that mill was the provider. I’m sad to see its corpse every time I drive by it. The demise of good manufacturing jobs for people who are of proud blue collar stock really friggin’ sucks.

It’s like that all over the country, everywhere I go. It is a disturbing trend, no doubt about it.

14 thoughts on “Change Often Sucks”

  1. >As always, great post, Chris.It's horrible what's happening to our workforce and I've seen reports that it might take a decade to get out of this.My story is small beans compared to what other folks have suffered – job loss and inability to find new work – but I endured a 13% salary cut a year ago. And they haven't reinstated it. It doesn't seem like much but that 13% made my me totally readjust my life.On the bright side, I've totally learned how to manage money and be frugal. I've expunged all the superfluous crap I didn't need anyway. No more restaurants, no more book buying sprees, no more frivolities. If I need something, I have the money. If I want something, I save for it.I go to the library. That's the part that hurts. I like buying books. But, life is better this way.

  2. >Wow, they shut that thing down, huh? That's kind of a shame. Lots of kids I growed up with had dads that worked there, and apparently made a good living. Including Pops LaTray, apparently!I remember riding w/ my dad west on Mullan past that place as a kid and being blown away at the enormity of it. Back then I think it was called Hoerner-Waldorf or something, but everyone just called it "The Mill." Yeah, it stunk up the town much of the time for sure.

  3. >Good post, Chris.Regarding summer work, I grew up on a dairy farm in northern Vermont and so always had a built-in summer job. Plenty of work, and looking back I wouldn't trade it for a thing–even bucking bales and shoveling mucho manure (no gutter cleaner went in until my brother and I were grown and gone!). Most of the year I used to envy some of my townie friends who lived nearby. But come summer they had to work at a mini mart or fast-food joint. And I might have sweated more, smelled a bit ripe at times, but I never wanted for gas money–or a car–and my mother always showed up in the barn at just the right time with a big glass of iced coffee. Now I live in Maine and while there are plenty of summer opportunities for kids to work, very few want to rake blueberries by hand. Migrant laborers are getting the work, and glad for it. And we're lucky to have them. I can't be sure, but I'm guessing there must be money in playing an Xbox….Cheers,Matt

  4. >Thanks for putting this together and talking about work that used to be and is no more – and also about fathers and sons. I appreciated the pics, too. The hard hats on the fence were a blow to the gut.Like Matthew, I grew up on a farm and did all that work for no pay at all. What you got for it was a kind of self-respect, though I dreamed of the day when it would be all behind me and I'd have another kind of life. I suppose it was good for me, but looking back, I'd say it diminished any immunity I might have had to becoming a workaholic. I wouldn't last a week without something that feels like "work." I had to go 9 nine months between jobs once, and it about killed me.

  5. >Thanks for all the comments!John: Yeah, between the two of us our household is down too — about 10% each, so it ain't pretty. Then again, I only have the one kid whereas you have . . . two? Our random spending is way down, though probably still too much. There are definitely some good lessons to be learned from it all, that's for sure. Yale: You got it, "The Mill" was Hoerner-Waldorf back in the day, then Champion, then Stone, then Smurfit-Stone. Hell, there might have been another one in there too. But for those of us who have lived here a long time, it was always just "The Mill." It's hard when I call out to my folks now too, after a lifetime of planning stuff around whatever shift my dad was on. It's a habit that's hard to break, asking mom, "What shift is Dad gonna be on, then?"Matt: I'm sure looking forward to making it up to your part of the country one day. Have been to just the smallest SE part of New Hampshire, and never to Maine. I can't say I grew up on a farm, but we always had a menagerie of animals and 4H projects to be taken care of. I'm glad I got to experience all that.Ron: What's funny now is I long to quit the white collar gig and go back to more hands-on work. Like split wood for people. Blacksmith some stuff. Eliminate the middle man when it comes to food coming out of the ground and onto the table. I don't want to do it for a living, but when I think of how I'd like my life to be, it would be a moderate writing income supported by "honest" labor. That's my fantasy, anyway, heh.

  6. >Sad really, how things really do change.Similiar issue out my way with Pratt & Whitney battling it out in the courts with the unions to close a couple of manufacturing plants here and ship the work to cheaper parts of the country.So far, Pratt has come out on the losing end, but they still plan on cutting jobs just the same.

  7. >My kids were always able to find jobs in the late eighties-early nineties and we needed them to. I assumed things were great in Montana, but not so much I guess. My son has taken paycuts as a prosecutor over the last two years and furlough days but we always assume Detroit is worse than anywhere else. Kids here are not able to find work-nor are their parents, I'm afraid. Great post, Chris.

  8. >Great post Chris. Got me thinking about the changing nature of work in our country. Where are the good-paying jobs for the middle class going to be in the future? it feels like they're all going away.

  9. >Tim, you're right. Think about my dad and that 40+ year gig he had, and it was a good one. Who can provide that these days? Is there much of that kind of blue collar industry? I get to go to lots of manufacturing companies every year, and I sure don't see many.

  10. >Great post, Chris.I did buck bales once and it was darned hard work. I don't think there are any jobs like that – hard, outdoor, tangible result i- n the urban / suburban environments these days. Most of my summer jobs in SoCal were flipping burgers or working in a gas station. Typical, I guess, for the late 1950s – early 1960s.Like some of the other commenters, I did assume the rural economy was a little better than the urban one, but I guess that was naive.

  11. >That was a great read and certainly a reflection of the environment here in Georgia as well. Hell, I have an ivy league education (not bragging of course) and gave up a job hunt about a year back I was so disgusted. Couldn't even find entry-level work. On a side note, I've had a strange obsession with Montana since I was a kid, although I've never been. I know I'm not alone and I'm sure there's a colorful name for folks like me…haha. I even played in a band from Connecticut that used to write songs about Montana. I guess it represents a state of mind…an ideal? The prospect of being left the fuck alone?

  12. >Hey ChrisI read an interesting article recently in Time (pilfered from Jiffy Lube) about summer vacation and how it's a holdover from our farming days. "The Case Against Summer Vacation," it's called. They say that our youth is falling behind the rest of the world by having so much idle time over the summer, especially poor inner-city kids. The solution, it appears, since even schools are cutting back on their funding, are "summer enrichment programs." How about "Farm Camp?" Put them to work out on farms in the country and they can learn about growing food, etc., while staying active (instead of sitting around playing video games). And if they are so poor, why is it they can afford cable tv and video games?Anyway, I live in Frenchtown and we are concerned now about the funding for our schools, since The Mill contributed so much to their funding through property taxes. So far, my kids are still having a great experience there though. Now that my youngest is off to kindergarten this year, I am looking for work after being out of the job market for 5 years. No luck so far, and I have 2 bachelors degrees and tons of varied experience. Maybe I'll start a summer enrichment program.

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