The Heroes We Forgot

They gather in the smalltown cafe for the usual old guy’s morning coffee session. They have compact, solid bodies even into old age. Their gait as they shuffle in gives away the reason, because they have the walk of those whose bodies took the assaults of a lot of years of hard physical effort. The cafe where they sit is not an attempt at a retro “fifties” theme. On the other hand, it hasn’t seen much change in the past half century and more, either.

On the wall hangs a painting of about that age. It mirrors a slightly younger version of the men sitting there and in fact probably includes many of their fathers. They are gathered in their work clothes, with that same look of determination and pride in what they achieve, and the same evidence of the toll it has taken on them.

The town is a western railroad and mining community, now struggling to thrive in a new age. The fathers on the wall are mostly immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. They carried their heritage to the new land, through replanted churches and fraternal halls, food and festival. Their adult children, now grandparents themselves, have lost the old language, but not the spirit, of the parents.

These are the icons of the real Americans, who built the nation manually, with tools and machines requiring strength to operate, often in adverse conditions and weather, and paid the price in the battered bodies of their old age. You won’t find their pictures in schools, public buildings or corporate headquarters. Rarely are they remembered in film or textbook. Their generations pass in public silence.

No one thanks them for their service, and they would likely be bemused if anyone did, except perhaps for the short years when they served their country in military uniform instead of work clothes, episodes so different from the main thrust of their lives that they are tucked away in troubled but hidden corners of their minds (one of the few major films to document this is “The Deerhunters,” worth seeing if you missed it when it was new).

The nation stands forever indebted, and will stand in spiritual poverty until it properly recognizes these heroes of the making of America. No longer do such people exist in the workforce, because the new context does their tasks easily, electronically, cleanly, in air conditioned and heated comfort. The monuments to their efforts are not in central plazas or great halls. But the real monuments are everywhere, in the achievements they have sculpted with shovel and drill, throttle and brakehoses.

Not many of their children and grandchildren still live in town. They have left to seek other opportunities, internal immigrants within our borders, to urban concentrations and cubicles. Most of the old jobs have gone away, as the lumbering machines of the old order have been replaced by more efficient contraptions needing little human input to run. The products we use are mostly made in far away places, and the new American is more likely to operate a computer keyboard than a living, breathing machine, much less a hand tool. The expertise is no longer required and the old ways now survive only in museums.

Few would want to return for long to the working life of the past. Who wants to trade a life of sitting in a comfortable room clicking on keys in favor of throwing manual switches outside in blizzards and rainstorms? Who wants to jump out of an air-conditioned cab with power levers to pound with heavy hammers and pickaxes?

As a people, we celebrate national heroes. But have you noticed they mostly tend to wear suits and officer’s uniforms?¬† Today’s leaders are good at manipulating great financial sums, of eloquent speech to justify selfish action. They, too, have their heroes of the past, who did that in the old days as well, robber barons and corporate moguls and the politicians who served them.

But they are not my heroes. Quite to the contrary, the heroes of my pantheon were often exploited and oppressed by such. The farmers, miners, railroaders, construction workers, mill workers, loggers and all their ilk persevered through both natural and economic adversities. Perhaps they themselves are too humble to claim much credit for building a nation. The mythology which passes for American history, and especially the tale of the West accords them little place in the progress of things.

But our corner of the Lord’s earth could not have flourished without them. Their stewardship was a noble and dedicated vocation, and not without cost. We, their children and grandchildren owe them immense gratitude, and ought to start saying so before they are gone.

So, if you are ever passing through Helper, Utah, stop by the Balance Rock Cafe on the main drag and thank them for their service while you still can find them. Or stop by any one of a thousand similar spots throughout the country to do the same. Or maybe you can simply do it the next time the family gathers around the old guy who wears the impacts of weather, toil and production on his very body.

“They were the heroes of old, men of renown” (Gen. 6:4).