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FIRST-PERSON: Unemployment’s good side: It gave me back my dad

KENNER, La. (BP)–In the last year, both my sons and a number of our church members found themselves looking for jobs. There’s a lot of that going around these days, as blue chip companies cut back and last year’s start-ups become this year’s anecdotes. It will seem strange to some, but I look back to a time when my dad was unemployed as the best time our family had ever known to that point.

It was 1951 and the news came suddenly. Mom and the six children were in Alabama visiting relatives while dad worked in the coalmines at home, near Beckley, West Va. He would be along in a few days. He came all right — with the news that the mines were laying off half the work force. Our family would be moving in with our recently widowed grandmother until he could find work in Alabama. In many ways it was a dark day, as we moved away without saying goodbye to classmates and our home. To our Alabama cousins, we went from exalted status as northerners with the fascinating Yankee accents to intruders who talk funny and whose father had no job. It was not an easy adjustment for an 11-year-old. But the rewards were almost immediate.

I had never seen enough of my dad. In the Appalachian mining camp where we lived, there were no crops to raise and few chores to be done around the house. When dad ended a shift, he often doubled back and put in another eight hours. At other times, he would be involved in union business. As the middle child in a large family, I had little one-on-one time with him — until the day we moved to Grandma’s farm.

Grandpa’s lengthy illness before his death meant that the fields had lain neglected for years and no one had touched the orchard in memory. Dad borrowed a mule from my uncle and planted some crops, and showed his children how to help. Soon, the six of us would cover a small field hoeing corn, pulling weeds, picking peas, and broadcasting soybean. It was the first time I realized I could make things grow. For a child, that’s big news.

We had great fun — telling stories and singing and laughing. We raced to see who could finish first, and teased each other and dreamed out loud and got to know our dad. We quickly discovered he was a champion in the field. None of us could pick cotton or gather corn half as fast as he. It was the first time in my 11 years I had worked alongside this man, and I found what made him so respected among his peers. Some days he told us about working those same fields with our grandpa — his father-in-law — when he and mom were newlyweds. We laughed as he told of trying to crank a 1934 Plymouth by hitching a mule to it and pulling it down this very hillside, only to have the mule run away with it and end up in the pond.

In the fall while we were at school, dad pruned the fruit trees in the orchard. Every evening for three weeks, as soon as we got off the bus, we changed into old clothes and headed for those groves. Massive piles of limbs circled the base of a half dozen trees, the evidence of dad’s work that day. Our job was to drag those limbs into piles at the edge of the plowed field. Eventually, we ended up with 6 or 8 mounds the size of a small house.

Then, the big day came. On a Friday afternoon, with the approval of the country forest ranger — mom’s youngest brother — we set fire to those mountainous stacks of limbs. For hours we stood in awe as the largest fires we’d ever seen filled the skies. No fireworks display since has given us the thrill of those bonfires that night.

We toasted marshmallows with long sticks and chased sparks into the field. It was a grand evening, well worth all the long afternoons of hard work.

Before long, dad went to work in a coal mine located near Jasper and owned by the Alabama Power Company. Assigned to the evening shift, he would work all morning in the fields, then leave just after noon in order to be inside the mines when the three o’clock whistle blew. But we knew that the next morning, he would be back in the fields alongside his kids hoeing cotton or stripping cane or shucking corn — showing us how to work, talking to us about life, and reminiscing about growing up the eldest of twelve children.

We never tired of his stories or of him.

He’s 89 now, and sits in the swing on the front porch of the house we built across the holler from Grandma’s home, which still sits there, empty since she died in 1963. Dad tells stories to his grown grandchildren and to their little ones. They know him as the rest of us do, as a presence that fills a room and a personality who dominates it. But it was not always so. Some of us remember when we didn’t know him very well and it took unemployment to give us back our daddy.

Not long ago, I asked our seven-year-old grandson how he felt when his dad told him he had lost his job. I was afraid he would feel bad and would worry about how they would make ends meet with only his mother’s job.

“I’m glad,” he said, “I like for him to be home.”

I laughed. I shouldn’t have worried; I know the feeling.
McKeever is pastor of First Baptist Church, Kenner, La.

    About the Author

  • Joe McKeever