Here’s a multi-part post, through which I am trying to understand something via the process of making myself put it into words. Maybe it will be interesting to somebody other than me, I don’t know. So, consider your pardon begged.
For the last 40 years, it seems I’ve been slowly figuring out the huge inside joke of our culture and indeed our world. I’m just slow on the uptake. I find myself making statements as if I’ve discovered something, when in fact I’ve (*finally!*) gotten the joke that is the Modern World.
We’ll get around to the particulars in a post or two. Here’s some family history to set the stage.
I’m the 7th child out of 9 born to a somewhat Methodist farm boy born and raised in Oklahoma and a Catholic Czech (Moravian) girl raised in rural East Texas among the children of Czech immigrants. Grandpa Ira Moore had a huge spread in Claremore, partly assembled through his marriage to Etta Walker, who, being 1/16 Cherokee, got Indian land grant acreage. Their farm stretched up towards Oologah, where it ended and the Rodgers’ spread began.
Dad was in the trailing half of the 14 kids in his family. He was 12 when the market crashed and the Great Depression started. (Here I piece together a story from a variety of sources and run through my unintentional filters, so if any of my siblings read this, pardon any inaccuracies. I’m telling this the best I can with no ill intent.) He experienced the life of a moderately prosperous farmer, then the poverty of losing the farm. He spent time during the winters of his teenage years digging coal to make a few bucks for the family. His father, perhaps broken by all this, got violent with his mom. Finally, dad intervened, effectively throwing his dad out to protect his mom. It’s that scene from City Slickers in real life – the best and worst day of his life, no doubt. So, another one of those horrible Depression era stories.
But Grandpa did pull a few strings to help get my dad into the CCC, around 1935, when he would have been 18. He traveled around the west, and, because he had some office skills (as a result of taking classes at what would now be called a community college – anything to get out of farming!), he kept books and typed letters for the Corps. Eventually, after his stint in the CCC, he ended up at Big Bear Lake, California, where his brother helped out at a riding stable.
Big Bear Lake is a reservoir built in 1912 by the orange growers down in the San Bernardino Valley, but it quickly became a resort area – it’s a beautiful pine forest valley with this beautiful alpine lake only a 2 hour drive from Los Angeles. Any given weekend these days, there might be 100,000 people there – about 20 times the current permanent population. There were about 500 permanent residents back in the late 1930s.
My mom’s dad, Adolph Polansky, married Mary Magdalene Margaret* Popec sometime around 1910 in East Texas near Temple. They were part of an extensive Czech community that had formed in East Texas starting before the Civil War (man, those marketing brochures must have been *killer*). Mary Magdalene Margaret Polansky was the third of seven children and the oldest of three girls.
Unlike almost all the relatives, Adolph was not a farmer – he was a metal worker. His work, part of which was building those charming diners that were all the rage back then, took him away from home a lot. I got the impression that my mom spent a lot of time staying with her farmer relatives as a child, while her dad was off working someplace. I remember her mentioning that sometimes they’d not see him for weeks on end, then get a letter saying ‘come to such and such town’ where he’d have found a place. And so they’d pack up and move.
As the first generation of thoroughly Americanized Czechs, my mom’s generation tended strongly to move away from the hard Depression era life on Texas farms. Thus – and I don’t know the exact story – she found a job and a place to live in Big Bear Lake with a couple who ran the local camera shop. She watched the counter or the kids.
One day, she went on a date with a cousin horseback riding with a couple guys from the riding stables. My Uncle Jesse caught her eye – but my mom was about 5’6″, and Jesse was only about 5’5″ – that would not do. But his brother Dirk (Sidney Curtis Moore became ‘Dirk’ to his family due to little sibling’s pronunciation issue with ‘Curtis’), a strapping 5’9″ would do.
They were married around 1940. Dad converted to Catholicism sometime later. While lovely, Big Bear Lake lacked the opportunities my dad sought. His best gig there was ‘assistant postmaster’ – the guy who got in early and made sure the stove was fired up and the office nice and toasty before the postmaster himself arrived. So, they moved down the hill, and closer to L.A. as the years rolled on, ending up in San Gabriel in the 1950s with 6 kids.
Over the years, Dad took night classes to learn everything he could about metalworking (I never heard if Grandpa Polansky influenced this decision or not.) By 1942, he had already become an expert welder, so he was exempted from the draft in WWII. He worked building patches for ships. He then worked at all sheet metal tasks, from layout to sheering to all sorts of forming and fabricating. He eventually became a foreman.
Around 1955, Dad bought a small corner grocery store near Whittier, California, about 20 miles east of L.A. That’s where we lived when I was born. We moved to a tract house in Whittier proper when I was about 3, and my two little brothers, the last of the 9 siblings, were born while we lived there. In 1963, dad put his couple decades of sheet metal fabrication expertise to work in his own shop, and for the next 17 years he ran Astro Fab, a small semi-precision** sheet metal job shop. We boys, the 5 Moore brothers, all worked at least a little for my dad in his shop. He was quite successful. Financially, I lived a less dramatic inverse of my dad’s experience growing up: lived in a family pinching pennies until age 12, then after that in a family who could write a check for my St. John’s College education.
Why go through all this? Because I can operate a fork lift and use a blowtorch, sheer metal sheets to size and spot weld. I can form metal and run a punch press. These are not insignificant skills, and I respect those who have them and all similar skills. I make a fairly handsome living because I think like a job shop owner: what are we trying to get done, what do we need to get it done, and let’s not screw around or get in each other’s way. (My dad’s oft repeated rule that my customers would do well to learn: get out of the way of the man doing work. It’s amazing how much gets done when people follow this simple rule.)
But: I never heard a rational discussion about politics or philosophy or art or music or foreign policy or economics or any other such thing while growing up. My parents, bless them, both respected education and were supportive of my efforts to learn (including picking up the tab for St. John’s College – I never thanked you enough for that, dad.) But as to what it meant? It meant a better job. To my dad’s hardworking, nose to the grindstone approach to life, what else was there?
I am my dad’s son in many ways. I started building things when I was 5, using saws, hammers and nails. (I was trying to build a boat out of scraps of decorative panelling and finish nails. Very educational.) By the time I was 11, I had built a 2-story playhouse with doors and windows, including a counterweighted ladder that tucked up into the ceiling with a little nudge (a big coffee can full of rocks and system of pulleys made this work). And so on – I’m building a triple-decker bunk-bed now, with the help of my teenagers, from maple veneer plywood. It will be beautiful.
I have friends who can find essays that they wrote in college – I have no idea where any of mine are, it never occurred to me to save them. It dawned on me in college that, to my peers, those papers were *work* – they were the product of legitimate labor, and deserved the same sort of respect that the tables and bookcases and sheds I’d make deserved. Emotionally, this has never stuck with me – I still think of things like this blog, upon which I’ve by now lavished effort equal to any other project I’ve ever done, as essentially frivolous, as Not Work.***
* My mom’s generation was when all the kids stopped using the Czech forms of their names and Americanized everything, as their parents wanted them to become Americans and stop being Czech. So my mom claimed she couldn’t speak Czech, even though that’s all she spoke until she was 6 and went off to public school. And she always went by Mary, and her sisters went by Bea and Verna – whatever no doubt beautiful names Mary, Beatrice and Veronica are in Czech were never spoken. Mary Magdalene Margaret was evidently passed on to the oldest girl through many generations on my mom’s side of the family. She named her oldest girl Annette.
** Semi-precision is a term of art: precision shops produce widgets to within fairly insane tolerances – say, 1,000th of an inch or less. They typically machine parts down using specialty equipment. Regular sheet metal job shops make things like galvanized channel to lay wiring in in skyscrapers – if you’re off an 1/8″ or even a quarter inch, not usually a problem. But what if you need parts that fit reasonably precisely, say, to within a couple hundredths of an inch or less? Like computer cabinets, or parts for a conveyer belt assembly, or even girders for pre-fab school buildings? Astro Fab served that niche. There’s a premium for that kind of work.
*** Work would be converting our garage into a recording studio, which I did about 15 years ago and now wish I hadn’t (recording music is Not Work, either). That’s probably the single biggest project I’ve ever done: raised floating floor (furring strips on little bits of rubber contact the concrete floor and hold up the carpeted double-layer hardboard floor), triple sound-dampening walls, rewired electrical. Then sheet rock and finish the whole mess.