I was 10 or 11 years old when I started learning lessons around the impact of a man losing his work and his place as family breadwinner. I knew something had gone wrong but was too young to know what. Little did I know the interruption of my dad’s livelihood would destine our family life to chronic unhappiness.
My dad was a physically strong man in all ways. He left Norway for the U.S. in his early 20s, much like three of his brothers who had no chance for work in their then poor birth country.
He was welcomed here for his strength because he did hard physical work, which included mining in Alaska and commercial fishing.
In the early 1950s, he tested positive for highly contagious tuberculosis of his lungs in my 10th or 11th year and spent three or four months in a sanitarium.
Fortunately, his stay coincided with the successful use of drugs to treat the disease. Less fortunate was the belief at the time that those who had lung TB could no longer do hard physical labor.
Counselors advised him to learn a trade such as repairing TVs, toward which he put a solid effort. He could do the repairs but had little idea of how to market a business and little desire to learn. I worried about him and about my mom, who trained as a nurse and had stoically become the family breadwinner.
Tension rose as weeks and months passed. My dad became more frustrated and angrier, often directing it at my mother’s management of money. He didn’t think we needed that piano, or that we could afford the cost of driver insurance for a teenage boy needed so my older brother could drive.
My brother and I both started part-time jobs around age 15. He rarely came home and I spent time in my bedroom when at home. It seemed my mother spent long hours at work and grocery shopping. Any pretense of family melted away from the heat of a bitter man with no useful work.
That is, until he decided after a few years that he would return to the work he loved regardless of health consequences. He borrowed money from my grandmother, bought a gill-netter and started fishing out of La Push.
He was back, but remained bitter.
The family never made it back. The damage was done and the divides and distances that obscured our caring were permanent.
Trails and trails of tears
We were on a road trip in the southwest and stopped at a museum, the name I can’t recall, dedicated to tribal history which featured the story of the “Trail of Tears.”
The story of the fate of thousands of relocated Indians was new to me; I am far more familiar with the stories of the Oregon Trail and displacement of tribes. I was deeply saddened by the families in which husbands, father, sons who not only had their lands taken in a poor trade, but also their roles and purpose as protectors. The things that proved their manhood became more and more remote.
We’ve read too the same of black men who were freed in the emancipation but never freed from the oppression of those who continued to see them as inferior. The “forty acres and a mule” order that gave newly freed slaves farmland was eventually reversed and the land returned to plantation owners.
Sometimes blatant, sometime insidious oppression was generally accepted and not acknowledged until the equal rights act of 1965 and yet still today, we have statistical and anecdotal evidence of continuing barriers faced by black men to freely apply for work or walk the streets. The percent of black men who populate prisons is nearly triple their percent of the population in our country (2018).
Recent examples of men not having access to gainful employment or having it taken from them were the result of trade policies adopted in the nineties that opened trade between nations and allowed for the movement of manufacturing to countries with less costly labor than the U.S.
Towns dependent on a factory dried up when the factory moved. Those mostly impacted were men who had a living wage that put their families well into the middle class.
Once again, policy makers ignored the impact on workers and breadwinners. Displacement plans were as effective as counseling my father to stifle all that he learned and his physical strength to repair TVs.
I can’t help but believe the displacement is an important factor in the hopelessness and anger that we live with today.
Depression, suicide, bitterness, anger, violence
Should we be surprised that the suicide rate for men ages 20-24 is 4.5 times higher than women of the same age (2018)?. Should we be surprised that not all boys want to be bankers or doctors or lawyers (“The Boy Crisis,” 2019).
I know and knew men who would rather fish than just do about anything else. We all know men who are into being highly skilled laborers or craftsmen.
In the face of being ignored and losing purpose and essential dignity, some men turn inward and may become depressed or dependent on alcohol or drugs. Some kill themselves in despair. The suicide rates for men are substantially higher than female in all age and race categories.
Some turn outward. The expression and evidence of anger and violence of men has escalated over the last decade. Obviously, many factors are at play — but for purposes of this point, we can’t miss the numbers of men, mostly white and working class, striking out at government, “elites,” other ethnic groups and any real or perceived barrier to power.
What should surprise us is the extent to which they are taking it out on those most like them in having been denied the dignity of important work. The terrible irony is they are teaming up with the very power block of men that ignored them when they promoted and/or voted for the trade policies as good for business. That is heady stuff.
By the looks of our infrastructure needs, it would seem like good business to mobilize men’s brains and brawn and go a long way in restoring workers to the middle class.
My strongest feeling toward my dad was pity once I stopped being an insubordinate teenager and realized what had happened. He wouldn’t have wanted that pity; he wanted a good job.
Tragically, it turned out the best course of treatment for him would have been to exercise his lungs and be physically active.
I think we will find a similar misunderstanding behind the tragedies of violence passing our eyes every day.
So we live the unintentional consequences of tunnel thinking. We are so much more than one thing.
Bertha Cooper, a featured columnist in the Sequim Gazette, spent her career years in health care administration, program development and consultation. Cooper and her husband have lived in Sequim more than 20 years. Reach her at email@example.com.