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It happened about a half century after lumber barons and business interests clear cut almost the whole state of Michigan. The lumber companies, they sent the logs on down the Muskegon river, which stretches up into the northeast of Michigan all the way to the West Coast of the state where the massive old growth trees were turned into lumber and sent around the world or the Grand Rapids for furniture. Muskegon was full of millionaires back then, booming, booming, booming right up until the trees in the whole state very literally ran out from the mad lumber dash. And then the monied interests pocketed their money and left, leaving the city to fall apart. That was back in the mid 1880s through the early 1900s.

And more or less 50 years later my grandmother, at the age of 16 was found driving her father's body across the state. All by herself. A young girl. He had been working in a factory building airplane parts, got hit on the head on the job and died outside the factory, somehow.

Having died outside the factory, the company refused to pay a cent in compensation to the family, or to the funeral, or to travel expenses.

Just another dead worker in the early 1940s.

She married young, taking in 3 children from her husband's previous marriage, plus her own birth-son, my father.

She worked in a button factory, breathing toxic fumes for a pittance. Her husband, my grandfather, was a metal bluer, trying to keep the family safe by offering police officers free gun bluing.

Their house was heated by a single small electric heater and the children would take turns huddling around it in the winter to warm up in the morning, or running to it in the middle of the night to heat up, spinning around to warm their front and their back and their front and their back. The home was missing a wall and was draped with a tarp.

In the 1950s, as a boy, my father earned money looking through the city dump, salvaging items he could sell on a street corner or at a pawn shop. And my uncle brought meat home for the family from hunting in the nearby woods: squirrel, raccoon, muskrat.  

My father eventually paid his way through college after running away from home to join the merchant marines where he delivered grain to India in the midst of a border war with Pakistan. Student loans? Forget it. After years dodging pirates and border skirmish bullets and watching rivets fire out of his ship during storms on the Atlantic he took his money and went to college, and paid for his mother to go to college.

...on my Mother's side her mother grew up during the Great Depression. Her father baked bread, made candy, and his daughter, a young young girl brought it down to the local markets where she'd sell the food to "old man Meijer" who told her he would buy up all the bread she could bring him. Meijer is now a major department store in the upper Midwest great lakes states.

My mother's grandfather was a folk doctor as well. People would come to him for medical attention, for ringworm he'd give them turpentine to drink, and a remedy passed down from him that my grandmother would always force me to do for any injury, sliver, or skin condition was to soak bread in milk and strap it on the affected area overnight.

My tiny grandmother on my mother's side lived with her father in law for many years while her husband was away in the war, helping him farm, and one day while she was washing dishes he said to her "There's a soldier walking down the road."

She ran out and saw her husband, gone for many years, walking down the dirt road and ran to him to embrace him.

In the 1940s the city of Muskegon was in manufacturing overdrive, making tank parts, plain parts, engine blocks, making the tools of war to beat back Nazis who were murdering people by the tens of millions. The sky in Muskegon was black with coal smoke and iron. From the foundries, even into the 1960's if you went to downtown Muskegon in a white shirt, you'd go home in a reddish-brown shirt, before the Cuyahoga River caught on fire and before my father was shipped off to Vietnam shortly after marrying his wife, and shortly after watching his candidate of choice Robert Kennedy killed.

Is America falling apart, now?

Are corporate entities now taking over, now?

Did life seem to be on the upswing for the poor and middle class during FDR's administration?

I believe there's a shit ton of work to be done to get this country on the right track, and to preserve America's middle class, and to END poverty in this country.

But I don't believe for a second we're done. That America is Over. That things are worse now than they've ever been.

Think of the image of a 16 year old girl driving her dead father three hours across the state because a factory wouldn't, wouldn't, wouldn't put out a dime in reparations, fifty years after companies cut down nearly EVERY single tree in the State.

Progressivism has come a long way. America has come a long way. We have a lot more work to do. But we're not falling apart. Same fight, different day. Nothing new.

As my grandmother was fond of saying "People talk about the good old days and I don't know what they're talking about. What good old days? I like it better now."

Originally posted to Muskegon Critic on Sat Nov 27, 2010 at 10:20 PM PST.

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