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.