Things were booming in Central Pennsylvania, as I like to say “Coal was King”, and my Dad had worked his way from dozer operator to foreman. He had a company truck and gas and was making about $35,000 a year (1980 $s). The house we lived in was paid for as far as I can recall, we vacationed at Disney World, spent the summers and Easter in Benson and Wrightsville, and Christmas was spectacular.
We had a tradition that started in those years of going out to a nearby tree farm, walking through the woods and rows of trees looking for just the right one. We even got to the point where we could afford those big, beautiful, blue spruce trees and still to this day I consider THAT a Christmas tree. My mom was nuts about Christmas, we had tinsel on the tree, every ornament we’d ever made, garland up the banister, the stockings were hung with care, a Santa outside upon whose plastic list my mom had written the names of every kid in our town – you get the picture. Christmas was magic, pure magic, the whole season. The cookies, the pies, the cakes, the turkey, ham, nutbread with cream cheese. Uh, it was awesome.
Until we stole that Christmas tree.
Eventually, in Pennsylvania, the blue-collar economy disappeared. The steel mills shut down and with it much of the demand for coal went away. Natural gas, oil, and electric heat replaced the ever present coal furnace and the site of piles of coal stacked against the sides of houses also went away. The mines began to cut back, and eventually they shut down. (Why that lead to a decade-long hatred of unions is another story that I have written about here) When the mines shut down, times were tough. There had been other slow-downs, I was too young to remember but have heard the stories of how my dad was laid off for 4 months one year. There were no other jobs and there was talk of the layoffs ending, so he did what he could, he got up every morning and walked a huge loop through the forest hunting for dinner. But, this time it was different. There was a kid in college, another kid soon to leave for college, and another kid in junior high. And, there was no hope. Hope was lost in Central PA for those coal miners because the mine was gone, shuttered, empty, all the equipment auctioned off. Bye.
My recollection isn’t perfect, but what I remember is that it took my dad quite awhile to find any work and when he did it was selling tires. I remember hearing later that he earned a whopping $5000 that year selling tires, in addition to whatever unemployment he had collected. I don’t know if we had health insurance, I doubt it, the mines had always paid for that. These were the times that we discovered “generic” food, which only I seem to remember, but it was a white labeled food with big black letters saying things like “Potato Chips“. I remember one day we got a big block of cheese and I was so excited and couldn’t figure out why no one else was, we all loved cheese. I didn’t know it was “welfare cheese”, I just liked cheese.
Then, it was Christmas time. Before I go any further, I need to tell you about this piece of land that was out near one of the strip mines. It was owned, supposedly, by a church in Philadelphia – about 5 hours away. It had been posted no trespassing, no hunting, and such but over time the signs had faded away and/or fallen away. Still, people were polite enough to walk into the woods adjacent before cutting back into the prime bottom land for good deer hunting. For the years that the adjacent property was being mined, no one ever saw a soul come and visit that property, and the mine ran 24/7. Once upon a time, that church had planted a bunch of Christmas trees and each December they would pack up in cars and bring a dump truck to the land. There, the kids would run around, they would eat a picnic lunch, and cut down that year’s Christmas trees. But, the trees were gone and no one had seen the Christmas caravan in years.
Well, MOST of the trees were gone. What was left was the second generation trees, scrubby, untrimmed, wild pine trees. THIS, is where we went for our Christmas tree that year. We parked on the adjacent land and hiked down into the bottoms with our handsaw in tow. We looked and looked and finally found our Charlie Brown Christmas tree. My memory fails me here, but I seem to think it wasn’t even a pine tree, it was a hemlock – I could be wrong. Either way, it was quickly dispatched and drug back to the pickup.
When we got it home, I was never so embarrassed. It had huge bald spots, it was two feet too tall, so we lopped it off and were left with a flat-top Christmas tree, some branches were twice as long as others so we trimmed them back. It was awful, did I mention I was embarrassed? Well, I was young enough that I wasn’t very good at hiding my feelings and instead of being thankful – I was pissy.
I didn’t want my friends to come over and see this tree and I certainly didn’t want to decorate it. So, my mom and dad went about the business of decorating the tree and hanging lights while I grumbled, pissed, and moaned. When the tree was done, I was astonished. My mom had turned that tree into….well, Christmas. Lights, popcorn and cranberry strings, every decoration we kids had ever made, my favorite elves. She had artfully filled in holes with large ornaments and you know what, that hemlock-looking Christmas tree was beautiful. On Christmas day, things were lean. I remember getting a lot of things from Value City. Shoes from Payless, back when they sold real, imitation, pleather shoes. I remember socks, underwear, a pair of pants with the pockets sewed shut (irregulars they were called, 50% off). I’m sure there was a game in there somewhere, but I don’t remember what it was. What I remember most was my mother saying over and over again how sorry she was that there wasn’t much this year and my dad looking pissed. Dad never gets sad, he gets pissed. Pissed at the world for opening trade with China and Japan (back then, Japanese cars in Pittsburgh were often “misplaced” into the furnaces), pissed at the coal mines for closing, at himself for leaving the Army after Vietnam (he could have been retiring with a full pension at the time). I tried to make the best of it, to be extra excited about the things I received, and to hope they liked the small gifts I was able to give them in return. Mom and Dad gave each other a kiss that year, that’s all.
Things got better, things are good for my family now, even though we did skimp and get a bit of a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree this year (50% off), we accomplished what our parents wanted. We’re all better off than they were.
Now, living in North Carolina, I get to see this happen all over again. Somewhere in North Carolina there are two parents sitting down wondering how they are going to do Christmas now that the mill has closed, the unemployment has run out, and they’re making $8.50/hour at McDonald’s or Wal-Mart. Some of those people might take it upon themselves to venture into the Christmas tree farms of Western North Carolina and look for that Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. I’ll never forget what that was like. Never. I live in a nice, expensive house, in the most expensive neighborhood in most of North Carolina. We drive a new Honda minivan. We bought our kids WAY too many gifts this year. But.
I. Will. Never. Forget.
It’s because of this history, this memory, that I support a man with a similar life story for President. I support John Edwards. He has a $5 Million house? Great. He’s worth millions? Great. He was also raised in a poor mill village, then his family worked hard and moved up in the world, into middle management. Just like my dad, who eventually went on to manage a logging equipment and supply company. That’s what is supposed to happen if you work hard. But.
You. Never. Forget.
Some people question John Edwards focus on poverty, his focus on universal health care. I question why it took so long and I have my answer. Senator Edwards has said that in his last run he was worried too much about how he looked as a candidate, how his speeches sounded, how his ideas “fit” the campaign. As he famously said in his New York Times Op-Ed, “I was wrong.” And, he was. Maybe he did forget, for just a little while, what it was really like in that mill village. But, he’s back there now, and isn’t that the important thing? He wants to win, badly. Why? What’s he fighting for?
He’s fighting for people who don’t have a voice, because Washington only listens to one thing, money.
He’s walking picket lines because the loss of unions meant the loss of the middle class.
He’s offering college for everyone, because he and I both know that it’s a leg-up on getting out of poverty.
He’s mandating universal health care, because he knows that at any time a person’s whole life could be ruined by a bad fall or a faulty pool drain.
I’ll never forget what it meant to grow up “blue-collar” and I’m sick to death of leaders who were born with silver spoons in their mouths, who have Harvard and Yale law degrees on their walls, and who claim to “understand the issue” of poverty. It’s time for a real, working-class American to lead this nation, back from the politics of creating wealth to the politics of creating a better life for the next generation. Remember that, remember the American Dream? That we will leave our children with a better world and a better future than the one we inherited? This seems to be the only inheritance that Republicans believe in taxing.
Your time is almost up, your time to decide on the best candidate to fight the powers-that-be in Washington and move us back towards the New Deal Society that we deserve.
There’s no need to be afraid
At Christmastime, we let in light and we banish shade
And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy
Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime