God Bless The Child

Papa may have and Mama may have, but God bless the child who has his own.  My parents had a number of old 78s that they would play in the evening after dinner and the dishes were done.  I think they were wedding presents, I don’t know, mom never said.  My father had been a machine operator for a small machine parts company.  His education had been limited to high school in the early forties and a few shop classes at the local vocational school.  Like many millions of American men in industry he learned how to operate a brake and a couple of presses along with a drill press.  In his spare time he did a little welding and torch cutting for a repair shop down the street.  But my old man never had enough training to move up into the ranks of machinist, you know the types, milling machine or lathe operators.  They were the guys who made the real money then.  Thirty years later and the big manufacturers and machine shops were almost gone.  Not that it made much difference to my dad, he lost half an arm to a big press in an accident.  Not much work for a one armed blue collar worker with limited training.

My mother did some seamstress work and ironing on the side but even that kind of work was declining.  Finally she took jobs with local motels as a maid.  It was hard grueling work.  My younger brother and I did what we could around the house and did odd jobs in the neighborhood.  I remember mowing lawns at the age of ten on weekends and after school, even through the summer heat.  Between inflation and economic downturn work was difficult to find and keep.  When I was sixteen I went to stay the summer with Uncle Jason, my mother’s brother.  He ran a drain cleaning service and need cheap help.  What little I did earn went to mom to help with the household expenses.  I swore I would never for her brother again.  I know it hurt her when I complained about the way I was treated but I was young and didn’t know any better.

Then came the auto accident that claimed dad’s life.  Perhaps it was a mercy, I’ll never know.  I dropped out of high school to join the army, we needed the money I could send home.  Besides, I thought I would be given a chance to learn a trade.  But being a ground pounder wasn’t much of a trade.  To hear the old farts tell it, Vietnam wasn’t much of a war.  I don’t know, my luck didn’t hold and by the time I had entered my eleventh month my foot was blown off.  I had a few minor wounds prior but nothing to send me back to the states.  I suppose it wasn’t much of a war after all.  Oh, the army tried to help.  The usual medical treatment, the rehabilitation with my new foot and half leg, and the brush with pain killer addiction.  Then came the medical discharge and a small pension amount for my pain and suffering, but no civilian training.  The outplacement people did what they could but with no education and a disability I just fell through the cracks.  Worse, my monthly allotment stopped and that meant my little brother would end up enlisting in the service.  At least he had graduated high school and chose the air force.  Now he would provide for mom and me.

The first few weeks I was how was really bad.  Mom was crying every time she saw my foot and I felt depressed, despondent, and dependant.  I was seeing the same change come over me as I had seen in my father and it scared me.  I started to play those old seventy eights on the ancient turntable.  It was a Philco, a real wood model.  It needed cleaning so I took it apart and vacuumed the insides, wiped the chassis down, and inspected the wiring and components.  Then I put it back together and started to listen to my parent’s collection of records.  Pretty interesting, to say the least.  Mom took an interest in my activity and told me that they had been fans of swing.  Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller, to name a few.  All very different from the rock and all its variations that I had become use to hearing on the radio.  “Your father was quite the dancer in his day.  He was such a handsome man then, popular too.  I was the lucky one for he choose me out of all the girls in school.  I’ll never forget the Senior Prom, that’s when he proposed to me you know.  We were married two weeks after graduation.  He had just got that job with Miller’s Machine shop sweeping floor and doing odd jobs.  I had you ten months later and your brother not quite a year later.  Then came the Korean War.  I know he wanted to go but he was married and had two children.  And there was never enough money for both a family and vocational school.  Oh, we tried but we could only afford a little of the training he really needed.”

I was starting to understand that quiet sense of desperation dad always felt.  It all came clear when I pulled out the record with the Billie Holiday song, God Bless The Child.  I think I played and replayed that recording a dozen times that night.  The next day I went down to the local junior college and walked around.  The place made me uncomfortable, too many people walking around with anti-war attitudes.  But I saw a veterans affairs office and walked in.  The guy behind the desk never asked if I was a vet, he just knew.   So I sat and talked to him.  Questions and answers followed.  He showed me the way to take the adult ed classes for my GED and even get in some free college courses such as math and English and a little history.  The GI Bill didn’t pay much for a single man but it was something.  It would take a few years to get through it all but it was a beginning.  I began to feel hope for the future.  The words of that song came back to me time and again.  I would get my own, one way or another.  I would get my own.

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