A Yankee Notebook

December 5, 2016


MONTPELIER – An eminent thoracic surgeon was having his house’s bathrooms renovated. His family of five was using the powder room during the disruption. Then his college roommate came by for a couple of nights on a holiday weekend with his wife and three kids. The overwhelmed powder room toilet plugged firmly, and no amount of plunging could free it.

Frantic, the surgeon called a plumber. “Well,” the plumber said, “I was just gettin’ ready to go ice fishin’. Can’t it wait?”

“No! We need help now!”

The plumber arrived, pulled the stool, snaked the line, and got everything running fine. The surgeon ws so delighted that he grasped the plumber’s hand and said, “Thank you! Look, make out a bill, and I’ll pay you right now.”

The plumber ciphered and scratched for a few minutes and gave the surgeon a bill for $1400. “My God!” cried the doc. “I’m an internationally recognized thoracic surgeon, and that’s more than I make for half an hour’s work.”

“I know,” said the plumber. “That’s more’n I used to get when I was a surgeon.”

I think the original intent of the story was that life in New England is no respecter of dignity. Each of us in his own station earns respect not for the position, but for how well he fills it. In recent months, however, as we read of the travails of young people without the means to attend college or, having attended, assuming a burden of crushing debt at just the wrong moment in their lives, the old question again arises: Who needs it?

It was assumed in our family that we kids would go to college, as our parents did, and take modest places in the middle class. It didn’t work out that way. It took me nine years to trudge through eight bewildering and apparently pointless semesters to a bachelor’s degree; I finished because of the need to support a growing family. In between those scattered semesters, I worked at a great variety of jobs, most of them menial. Looking back now, I’m certain I learned far more by working that was of value later in life than, for example, studying Chaucer or optical crystallography or algebra. I recall the last algebra exam I took, in a course at Syracuse, and praying. “Lord, you get me through this with a good enough grade to pass, and I swear I’ll never take another math course as long as I live!” We got through it together, and I have resolutely kept my part of the bargain.

The American Dream seems to include a vision of gradual ascension to a position of responsibility. Rags-to-riches stories are our stock in trade. Candidates for president nowadays have been handicapped by the lack of a log cabin birthplace in their resumés; James Garfield was the last to claim that. But we still think of humble beginnings as a virtue. Even the current President-Elect is at pains to remind us that he started out with a parental loan of a piddling million dollars.

The recent election suggested that quite a few Americans have been chasing the dream to the point of exhaustion and skepticism, and want a change. There’s no doubt that pots of money, encouraged by the execrable Citizens United Supreme Court decision are influencing the direction of both major political parties, to the point that many of our fellow citizens are, in effect, asking, “Hey! What about me?” And a whole generation of college graduates is coming along soon like a tsunami wondering why in the world the wealthy get tax breaks while they get exorbitant interest on their student loans and no relief in sight.

Both Senator Warren and Senator Sanders are advocating for interest reduction, at least, with so far no effect. Bernie has even recommended free tuition at all public colleges and universities. The usual cry of poverty just doesn’t cut it. But I’d have Bernie go a step further.

European technical schools and apprentice programs produce a competent, educated body of young men and women trained to do the things that professors and thoracic surgeons can’t. Our technical schools have not been attracting the best and brightest of our students. If more young people knew the rewards – psychic, physical, and financial – of the skilled trades, and had a chance to learn them from instructors concerned with values and ethics as well as the skills themselves, there’s no telling where it might lead. But those students need the same breaks on their tuition – perhaps even more – as the others going eventually into law, medicine, or banking.

I’ll never forget the argument up in a woods camp between two old Adirondack carpenters, Bill Broe and Jim Brown. It was about a very modest job: hanging a bathroom door. Either one of them could build and hang a door as beautifully as Stradivari; but which way to swing it? Oh, brother! There were, if you think about it, four options: left or right, and in or out. They argued about it off and on from supper time to bedtime. The next day the door got hung, and without their knowing it, their eager young apprentice, soaking it all up like a sponge, had absorbed a lesson.

The story at the start of this piece, by the way, is not a wild exaggeration. I’ve seen what professors make, and good plumbers, electricians, and dry wall finishers can do just about as well. It’s one of the best-kept secrets of the trades. And you don’t have to wear a tie every day.

Photo by Willem lange