This Labor Day Weekend there will be beer in the cooler, burgers on the grill and grim acceptance on my teenage children’s faces that summer is, in fact, over.
Looming over my holiday – the one that honors good old-fashioned hard work - is a gnawing question. Does today’s typical American teen do chores – real chores -- like we did?
I’m not talking about making your bed or loading the dishwasher. If it can be done wearing a dinner jacket, it doesn’t count. I’m talking about real labor - the kind you shower after, not before - and feel in Latinate-sounding muscles you didn’t even know you had.
I try to expose my kids to the grueling Saturday morning ritual of my youth, but I’m no Roy Hobbs, no Natural. If you need to practice your game-face before breaking it out on your adolescent children, they’ve already won.
Rather than dwell on my shortcomings, this Labor Day I salute the old-school men of my father’s generation, eldest of the baby boomers. These taskmasters flat-out knew how to dream up work.
Get Off My Lawn? This was the Get On My Lawn (and Do Some Work) Generation.
It must have been upbringing. Their grandparents confronted evil in the First World War, and their parents stared it down again in World War II. In between, both generations endured the Great Depression together, for good measure.
So raised, how could such fathers fail to insist that we, their strapping sons, make hay while the sun is shining? These men could concoct Sisyphean labor out of thin air:
Dad: “After you mow the grass, don’t just bag the clippings. Wheelbarrow them down to the ravine. Betcha we can fill that valley.” By ‘we’ he meant me. By ‘valley’, he meant valley.
Me: “That will literally take years.”
Dad (with a satisfied smile): “Years.”
Other neighborhood dads were no different. They had a bat-like ability to home in on each other’s needs. Tommy’s father teased with the smell of coffee cake early Saturday morning, hinting at a consequence-free breakfast. Next thing you know, you and Tommy each had a pail in your hand, and spent the morning picking up stray rocks in his yard.
Open garages were another honey trap. Everyone knew Chris’s dad stocked his outside refrigerator with both kinds of Gatorade, green and orange (there were only two flavors then). Once caught in his web, Chris’s pops would close in from the driveway, a triumphant “drink up; my mulch beds aren’t going to weed themselves” look on his face.
Worst of all was Grant’s father. Thankfully, his ever-present cigar served as an early warning system. You avoided walking by Grant’s house at all costs. You didn’t even trick-or-treat there.
Grant’s old man wanted his backyard at all times as clean as his kitchen. His was an ordered universe in which sticks and leaves should no more sully his lawn than his living room. Even today, I tense up around cigar smoke.
Still, I salute these four men, the foremen of my youth. We, their middle-aged sons, have adjusted reasonably well to manhood. Sure, I’ll never own a wheelbarrow, Tommy doesn’t skip rocks with his kids, Chris hates Gatorade and Grant prefers apartment living.
But I see now what these dads were trying to do. Like Frederic Remington’s Bronco Buster, they stood tall in the saddle and stayed on us blooded colts, as long as it took to turn rebellion into love. With each chore, they redirected our youthful understanding of freedom from the negative – freedom from any outside interference - to the positive – freedom for something greater than ourselves. Through discipline, they taught us that until you live for another, you’re never free, but once you live for another, you’re never captive.
Simply put, they made us men. That they got a pristine backyard in the process, so much the better.
That’s what I’m grateful for this Labor Day. That’s the lesson on freedom I learned so many years ago, paradoxically, through involuntary labor. That’s why when I lose my foothold and backslide, I try to reclaim the better path of “freedom for” and press on, semper prorsum, ever forward.
All this from childhood chores. I intend to thank my old man this Labor Day Weekend. By telephone, mind you, not in person. That ravine in his backyard is nowhere close to filled yet.