For forty years I played by the rules: I went to work, paid my bills, kept up with technological changes in the trade, and even supported the family on my income alone for many years. I have no regrets, not one. Now, before I’m eligible for my meager Social Security benefits, I’m out of work nearly a year. The stock crashes wiped out most of my 401(k). And then some politicians tell me I should “blame myself” for being out of work. They tell me that I’m expressing “resentment and envy” and instigating “class warfare.” I know this much: there are millions just like me. We are not to blame for our situation, and we did not start this “class warfare.” But we will sure as hell finish it! We are the 99%.
The U.S. economy began to crash at the end of 2007. During the three years since then I’m not the first worker to lose his job, nor is my story any worse than thousands of others. Indeed, it was only on 19 November of 2010 that I was given my termination notice, after twelve years of not only faithful service, but of making the company much more profitable and secure, and in fact, even saving it from going under at least once. During the weeks before it happened, I shared several press accounts—one about a teacher who had an advanced graduate degree who was now living in a homeless shelter, and another about an executive who had been earning a salary well into six digits who was now facing destitution. I commented, “there but for the Grace of God…” with the implication that it can happen to anyone, including you and including me. But I didn’t really think it would happen to me. I really believed that my boss was a stand-up, loyal gentleman, who would keep his employees on until the company sank beneath the waves, if it came to that. And in return, I did as much as I could to hold down expenses and produce to the best of my ability, making sure my work was dead-nuts perfect before I turned it over to quality control. But it wasn’t good enough, and, frankly, neither was my boss.
But before I get into my story, I want to make a dedication, if you will permit me. I want to dedicate this account to a man I never got to know, a man named James Boatman, who lived from 1882 to 1943. If his life had overlapped with mine, I would have called him my grandfather. He was a well-to-do businessman in the “brand-new state” of Oklahoma, and with his second wife, Agnes Arlene McCullough Boatman, he had six children, five daughters and a son. He speculated in real estate and kept a store in Warner, Oklahoma, not far from Muskogee. His wife was the oldest of eight daughters and two sons of the local country doctor, who lived in Checotah.
Through the ’teens and the ’twenties he was doing very well. His world came apart when the Depression hit, because in Oklahoma the coming of the Depression meant the end of the Oil Boom of the 1920s. Property that had been selling for wildly inflated prices because of the possibility that oil lay beneath it was now practically worthless. To make things worse, drought conditions began to impoverish the local farmers. Mr. Boatman, being a good Christian and trying to do his best for the people of his community, extended credit at his store to his farmer neighbors. I’m sure he knew in the back of his mind that they could never pay him back, but he could not bring himself to allow them to starve. He was a better man than he was a businessman, and like so many small businessmen in the 1930s, he went broke.
But for Mr. Boatman that was nothing compared to what happened to his own family: after giving birth to her sixth child, his wife took sick with pneumonia and died. His son Bill was clubfooted and mentally retarded; he had been a twin, but his twin brother had not survived infancy. Minnie Ruth, the youngest, was just a baby. He could not care for all his children. The family could not stay together.
The older daughters Marie and Muriel went to his parents. He kept Minnie Ruth. Bill had to be institutionalized. The fourth and fifth daughters, Rilda and Wilma, went to Dr. and Mrs. McCullough in Checotah.
Wilma is the one who told me all this. She gave birth to me.
She and Aunt Rilda went back to live with their father in Warner after my great-grandfather’s death in 1937. But he was no longer a young man, and his heart had been broken so many times that in 1943 it finally gave out on him. He was the same age that I am right now. Mother recalls that 1943 was the year that the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma!” opened on Broadway. It was a big deal back in Oklahoma—ultimately the state legislature adopted the big production number “Oklahoma!” from the last act to be the official state song. But for Mother hearing the songs “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “Surrey with a Fringe on Top,” and “People Will Say We’re in Love” always brought back bittersweet memories of the year that her father passed away.
James Boatman was not a working-class guy. He was a businessman and—something unusual in the Oklahoma of his day—a proud Republican. I suspect he would not see the world as I see it. But he lived in the world that I live in, and he tried to do right by his family and his community to the best of his knowledge and ability. And he deserved better, a lot better, than he got. So, to the good man that I never got a chance to call “Grandpa” this story is dedicated. Grandpa, if there’s a way that you can read these words on that other shore, I just want to tell you “thank you” for being a good man and for bringing up my mother in the best way you knew how.