Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sunday Afternoon Reflections

From July to November - when the well ran dry - he hauled water to his family's home, getting it "wherever we could."

His house, which sat on a steep hill overlooking the town of Livermore Falls, Maine, did not have an indoor bathroom until he graduated from high school - requiring the family to use an outhouse "even when it was 30 degrees below zero."

He started his working life at age 12, bagging groceries at the local market and setting up pins for bowlers at the bowling alley.

He worked to buy his school clothes and to help supplement his family's income...and wasn't afforded the opportunity to play sports or participate in many school activities.

But his childhood was filled with memories of hunting and fishing, of playing outside not with electronic gadgetry or cell phone texting, but with the "technology" of one's imagination.

It was filled with community dances, and passenger train trips, and a strong connection to one's community.

And despite the challenges that were ever-present, he wouldn't have had it any other way.

Referencing the current state of the country, he was firm in his statement that his generation had "done things right."

In listening to him reflect on the passing of time on a sunny Sunday afternoon, part of me knew he was right.

The discussion with my father-in-law Harry came at the end of a week in which I spent time in Waterville, the small city neighboring my hometown, witnessing the subtle yet hard-to-ignore signs of urban decay.

Of a city 60 years past its heyday, when its foundation of manufacturing jobs allowed families to carve out a comfortable life for themselves in an era of vibrancy and hope.

The manufacturing jobs are all but gone now, relegated to fading memories among those who lived these lives and younger generations who will never fully appreciate them.

And Waterville is far from unique. This phenomenon has occured throughout Maine - a state that once had a rich legacy of high-quality work and craftsmanship appreciated throughout the world. It also is a recurring theme in too many parts of the country.

A visit to the Maine State Museum in Augusta - which we also squeezed into a busy school vacation week - confirms the many wonderful products that Maine once produced. Most of these I knew about, but some surprised even me.

And all, expertly presented in various displays, provided countless opportunities for my wife and I to share with our children the rich heritage of their home state.

Maine once was a world leader in many respects - lumber, ice harvesting, boatbuilding, granite quarrying, among others; the "Yankee ingenuity" and strong work ethic of its people solidifying a reputation for greatness.

Those days, sadly, are far behind us. The well-paying manufacturing jobs that once sustained families have been replaced with service sector and retail jobs that lack the salaries, hours and benefits of their predecessors.

Gas, oil and food prices are skyrocketing, while personal incomes remain stagnant. Our country is fighting wars on two fronts - two of them sustained for nearing a decade - with military intervention in a third country.

Our national debt is spiraling and partisan politics continues to cripple our country. Hard times are here...and they seem to be getting harder.

But yet sometimes, out of extreme adversity, a new national identity is formed - one of resilience in overcoming obstacles. An identity that recognizes a need for change and one that inspires the hard work necessary for it to take place.

It happened in the years following the Great Depression, and again in the post-World War II era when my father-in-law was a boy.

We are now at that juncture in history.

I have hope for my children's futures, that despite the many existing challenges, a new "Golden Age" is on the horizon.

And I hope I live long enough to hear them recount their own "good old days."

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