Iowa Writes

ARTHUR W. ANDREWS
A Comfortable Life


My grandfather Michael lives with his wife Dorothy in their house overlooking the Mississippi river.  He sits on his porch most mornings with two newspapers and drinks half-caff coffee.  He has cancer—late stage—which he neither ignores nor laments.  The last time I visited him I asked him what his plans were for the week.  "Just trying to stay above ground," he replied, with a bit of a chuckle.  His cavalier attitude surprises me, but it shouldn't.  Ideas about how the terminally ill are supposed to behave weren't based on people like my grandpa.  He has a lifetime of experiences that have taken him to the extremes of peril and success.  He and Dorothy live comfortably, and they're content knowing the rewards that their work has afforded them.  When he considers his "personal drive" and "desire to improve" himself, he's proud to define himself as successful.  My grandpa seized the opportunity to better himself through hard work, and has reached success through the most rewarding manner: by making his own way.
        My grandpa finds strength in the traditions of his family.  Daily, he rises before dawn and attends morning mass.  Many of his siblings have moved to sunnier regions of the country.  My grandfather, however, has labored his way to the top in eastern Iowa, and he's quite comfortable there.  Michael was born in January 1930 and grew up in Oelwein, Iowa.  He was the seventh of eight kids in a tight-knit Catholic family.  The Depression took its toll on the Clemens clan, but in the end the struggle only pulled them closer to each other.  They shared what they had, even though they didn't have much.  Michael contributed to the household income by hauling away waste ashes for families around the neighborhood and charging fifty cents a load.  It wasn't easy work, but it was surely rewarding for him to take on work in tough times.
        Oelwein was a railroad town in the Depression; its economy depended on the service shops and other infrastructure that supported the rail yards.  As World War II erupted and the nation's industry was shaken from its slumber, the town saw a sudden spike in demand and simultaneous shortage of labor.  That's when Michael started working summers for the railroad.  I can recall my own memories of working through exhausting physical chores; I couldn't call them the highlights of my teenage years.  Michael, on the other hand, remembers those summers with pride and satisfaction.  Of course, his work was more meaningful than mine.  He wasn't helping to landscape a suburban lawn like I was; he was filling the place of men off fighting a war.

My grandfather Michael lives with his wife Dorothy in their house overlooking the Mississippi river.  He sits on his porch most mornings with two newspapers and drinks half-caff coffee.  He has cancer—late stage—which he neither ignores nor laments.  The last time I visited him I asked him what his plans were for the week.  "Just trying to stay above ground," he replied, with a bit of a chuckle.  His cavalier attitude surprises me, but it shouldn't.  Ideas about how the terminally ill are supposed to behave weren't based on people like my grandpa.  He has a lifetime of experiences that have taken him to the extremes of peril and success.  He and Dorothy live comfortably, and they're content knowing the rewards that their work has afforded them.  When he considers his "personal drive" and "desire to improve" himself, he's proud to define himself as successful.  My grandpa seized the opportunity to better himself through hard work, and has reached success through the most rewarding manner: by making his own way.
        My grandpa finds strength in the traditions of his family.  Daily, he rises before dawn and attends morning mass.  Many of his siblings have moved to sunnier regions of the country.  My grandfather, however, has labored his way to the top in eastern Iowa, and he's quite comfortable there.  Michael was born in January 1930 and grew up in Oelwein, Iowa.  He was the seventh of eight kids in a tight-knit Catholic family.  The Depression took its toll on the Clemens clan, but in the end the struggle only pulled them closer to each other.  They shared what they had, even though they didn't have much.  Michael contributed to the household income by hauling away waste ashes for families around the neighborhood and charging fifty cents a load.  It wasn't easy work, but it was surely rewarding for him to take on work in tough times.
        Oelwein was a railroad town in the Depression; its economy depended on the service shops and other infrastructure that supported the rail yards.  As World War II erupted and the nation's industry was shaken from its slumber, the town saw a sudden spike in demand and simultaneous shortage of labor.  That's when Michael started working summers for the railroad.  I can recall my own memories of working through exhausting physical chores; I couldn't call them the highlights of my teenage years.  Michael, on the other hand, remembers those summers with pride and satisfaction.  Of course, his work was more meaningful than mine.  He wasn't helping to landscape a suburban lawn like I was; he was filling the place of men off fighting a war.
        It's hard not to get the impression that the so-called greatest generation possessed a much greater degree of patriotism and purpose than teenagers of the present.  Michael's older brother Bill joined the Marine Corps during the war and fought in the Pacific Theatre.  Michael longed to follow in his brother's footsteps and join the Marines, but his father insisted that he finish high school.  Michael obeyed his father, but he enlisted the very day after graduation.  That summer, Michael was at boot camp completing the initial training for all Corpsmen, where the Marine Corps built a man in place of the scrawny teenager they were given.  If you broach the subject, my grandpa is more than happy to give you his uncompromising endorsement of the Corps; he attributes his strength of character to that brotherhood.  But, though the Corps and its traditions are sacred to him, his experience in boot camp wasn't what created this passionate loyalty.  His allegiance to the Marines was galvanized in a much darker place.
        Michael enlisted in 1948, during a peacetime, but when the Korean War began two years later he was thrust into duty.  After crashing through the initial defenses at Incheon to land on the peninsula, his platoon steadily made their way north, finding little resistance.  By late November they had made their way to the Chosin Reservoir, a man-made lake in the mountains of northern Korea just twenty miles from the Chinese border.  The steep terrain surrounding Chosin creates a basin ten miles in diameter.  The platoon marched into the basin from the south before splitting their force in two so they could move around both sides of the reservoir.  On the night of November 27th, they dug their foxholes in that basin.  Through the night and over the next two days, tens of thousands of Chinese forces overran their positions.  The Korean War was, in principle, a fight between the North and the South Koreans for control of the Incheon peninsula, but both sides of the conflict were backed by major world powers with their own agendas and diametrically opposed ideologies.  The proxy war between China and the US was one of the first engagements of the Cold War, the global struggle to define the nature of society.
        In the chaotic aftermath of the initial Chinese attack, my grandfather's platoon attempted to withdraw from the basin, but was quickly encircled.  The Chinese forces outnumbered them four to one.  The heroism that ensued over the following fourteen days is the reason that mentioning Chosin gives special pause to any brother of the Marine Corps.  In total, seventeen Medals of Honor were awarded for service at Chosin, but many more soldiers who might have written recommendations for awards were killed, seriously wounded, or captured.  Of the 14,000 men who entered the basin, 3,000 were killed, 6,000 were wounded, and 3,000 suffered severe frostbite.
        My grandfather was discharged from the Marine Corps in June of 1952 and, drawing on his training from the military, got a job that year as a linesman for Bell Telephone Company.  Bell Telephone Co. was created by Alexander Graham Bell and was the only major firm providing telephone service in the US in the 1950s.  In fact, for a century after Bell invented the telephone, Bell Co. held a near complete monopoly over the industry, even though government regulations controlled their actions in order to assure widespread service.  Public policy and corporate strategy were coordinated, creating a ubiquitous new technology presence familiarly referred to as "Ma Bell."
        As a linesman, my grandpa worked with construction crews putting up new poles and lines to expand service.  Despite being qualified for the GI bill and a subsidized college education, he doesn't seem to have any regrets.  The same urge that made him want to leave high school, made him trade an opportunity in college for the chance to work purposefully.  Just as he hauled ashes to help his family during the Depression, worked the railroads during World War II, and fought for his country in Korea, he was proud of his work at Ma Bell.  When he took the job as a linesman, he was only making about as much money as he had when he hauled ashes around his childhood neighborhood.  That didn't matter much to him.  At the end of the day, he could come home from the phone company and hang his hat on the fact that he was providing for the woman he loved.
        In many ways, my grandpa was already successful by that summer in 1952.  He married my grandmother Dorothy in August, and he had a job that he found fulfilling enough to forego college altogether.  The path leading him from Ma Bell to his grand house overlooking the Mississippi was paved with a work ethic born of the Depression, an ambition fueled by his burgeoning family, and, of course, more than a little bit of luck.  The baby boomer generation—the generation into which Michael was born—has been studied for its relatively small numbers compared to subsequent generations, and the effects that had on the greatest generation's economic success.  Because of the tough economic circumstances of the Depression, this relatively smaller generation benefited from an excess of school resources and later entered a job market with little competition and a high demand for labor.  My grandfather devoted twenty faithful years to working at Ma Bell, and during that time he received eight promotions, steadily working his way up the management ladder.  That he started in a laboring position and was without collegiate education mattered far less than it would for someone entering today's workforce; in fact, for Michael, his entry-level job and lack of formal education were both boons.  In describing his move up through management, he told me, "I was known in the company as a 'mustang.'  At Bell they called people that if they never had a college education."  When he told me this, I had just started filling out college applications. "There weren't many guys like me who were mustangs," Michael continued.  "I made more money than a lot of college-educated people in the company did.  You had that opportunity if you worked hard, and I enjoyed it."
        The fact that there weren't many "mustangs" points to the fact that most young men eligible for college funding under the GI bill made good on Uncle Sam's offer, but my grandpa made use of an opportune environment to get ahead.  In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell emphasizes the point that major success can often be traced back to extremely fertile conditions that existed in only narrow windows of history.  Birth rates for the state of Iowa were as high as 30 children per one thousand persons in the mid-twenties, but by 1930 this number had dropped to 17 births per thousand.  The post-war economy was ripe with opportunity.  During the first eight years my grandpa was at Bell, the economy experienced a recession that lasted a mere eleven months.  The company expanded exponentially and profited wildly, which allowed them to regularly promote employees.
        As the telecom industry developed further in the 1960s, a push developed from the market to allow for more competition.  The government-controlled monopoly on telephone lines was broken up in an anti-trust lawsuit, which meant that Bell had to streamline its operation.  In 1972 my grandpa resigned from his position as regional manager for the company's outpost in Cedar Rapids to try his hand in the free market.  He bought a beer distributorship in Dubuque on his own dime.  His nearly meteoric rise at Ma Bell had taught him many valuable skills that he used in his new business.  His ability to structure the business model efficiently allowed him to sell his distributing business just ten years later, and enter semi-retirement.  At the age of fifty-two, he had accrued enough wealth to last the rest of his and his wife's lifetime.  Thereafter, he worked only part time on real-estate projects—an industry he developed an interest in out of boredom, more than need.
        Michael and Dorothy have traveled the world over the last two decades.  They've gone to Thailand, Morocco, Europe, Jamaica (which is by far their favorite), and more.  Even though they're both in their eighties, their enthusiasm for adventure and new experiences hasn't wavered a bit.  That house sitting over the Mississippi has expanded over the years, addition by addition, so that their growing army of grandchildren and great-grandchildren can visit with elbowroom to spare.  If a more quintessential example of the American Dream exists, I haven't seen it yet.  If you were to take the uneducated twenty two year old linesman at face value, you wouldn't bet on his success.  But with a war and a global depression already under his belt, it seems his ticket to travel the world would be paid for as a matter of course.  He simply had to take the time to collect the checks.

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Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

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ARTHUR W. ANDREWS

Arthur W. Andrews is a computer science student at the University of Iowa. This is his first publication.

This page was first displayed
on February 20, 2015

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