…Excitedly, I told them the whole story. They were very pleased for me yet I sensed a bit of disappointment, sadness, or melancholy perhaps from my mother as I related the story, especially about my new hourly wage. My pop just seemed to take it all in stride. Later, on the front stoop, alone with my mother, I questioned her about my bit of good news.
“Are you not happy about this” I said.
“No, no, no, not at all, I mean of course I am happy for you” she reassured me.
“Then what’s the problem” I pressed
“It’s your dad” she said. “Sometimes I feel so sorry for him. This is nothing against you, don’t get me wrong, but he has been working all of his life and all he has to show for it now is ninety dollars a week. While I am very happy for you, as I am sure your Dad is, it just seems so unfair to me that you are making almost one hundred and forty dollars a week – in this your first real job.”
Suddenly, I wasn’t too excited any more. It did seem so unfair. I was so proud of my dad. He did work hard all of his life. It wasn’t his fault that circumstances beyond his control dictated the path he would take in life. He was a product of the great depression, a World War Two vet, fought for us and his country then had to make do with whatever non skilled work there was in the big city after the war. He and thousand upon thousand of other vets were vying for too few good paying jobs. And while he did luck out as a junior accounts shipping and receiving manager for a very large aerospace company, he became a victim of the vagaries of the cold war with its politics and policies and geopolitical mumbo jumbo and smoke and mirrors. What was lost in translation in all of this political posturing was delusion and the reality that thousands upon thousands of highly skilled professionals, skilled and non skilled workers, lost their jobs in what was to become the city’s, the country’s “Black Friday,” a precedent setting day of a bargain basement deal in the global aerospace industry. The country bowed to international pressures and cancelled a highly sophisticated interceptor aircraft that out performed anything that currently existed or was even planned for. The aircraft was well ahead of its time and that was its problem. No, Black Friday, 1959, was not a day of bargain basement deals but a day of financial mourning. Fourteen and a half thousand direct jobs were lost that day with another fifteen thousand indirect jobs gone that were tied to the company’s supply chain. On top of the financial and employment woes the country lost a great deal of intellectual property and prestige as well as a great many aerospace engineers and technologists as they ran for the exits never to return again. My dad was no engineer but no less vulnerable as a human being as these highly skilled men and women.
I never thought of money, really, or the disparities of a working wage or the harshness, unfairness of life until that very moment. A sixteen year old shouldn’t have to think about these things. To me it was all a lark. We were living the life. Our school, the priests, the nuns, my friends, sports, play, have a good time, smokes, and the movies and on and on she goes. I never contemplated where or how we had the means to have a house in the burbs, a car, food on the table, clothes, or the ability to attend the private catholic high schools at St Basil’s and St Mary’s. Never to want for anything! Always excited and never to be let down at birthdays or at Christmas. Looking back on those days now I marvel at the financial ingenuity and discipline of my parents. How did they do it while managing a host of demands from us kids and responsibilities on such a meagre wage? How did they get by without granite?
Even at a young age in 1959, I sensed that something terrible had occurred to my dad. After all, I remember one of my boyhood friends, “Nibs” Van Vlyman, left our neighbourhood suddenly with his family for California. I couldn’t connect the dots, of course, and I wasn’t exactly sure what it was that happened. To their credit, my Mom and Dad kept this away from us. We did not know or fathom how close we were as a family to losing it all, the house, everything.
My Dad could not afford to be choosy. He had to do anything and everything that came his way to make ends meet. Digging ditches, yes, working for the municipality as a manual labourer, yes, an Orderly in a mental hospital? Yes. Praying hard? Yes. I can clearly visualize his big boots and canary yellow rain gear drying out in the furnace room in our basement. I remember our teachers stressing to us all in those days that if we didn’t get an education all we could hope for in the future was to be a ditch digger for the city. Imagine my thoughts and horror, shock and utter sadness, in seeing my own father doing just that. It wasn’t that my dad wasn’t smart or lacked education. No, he was very smart. He was just a product of his times, a discarded remnant of his government’s folly. Not a real person just a statistic. Yet he was a member of the greatest generation this country ever had. It is no wonder to me, or surprise, that he threw all of his war medals into the city’s harbour.
After a few years of doing many manual and soul destroying jobs, he did manage to get a junior position at one of the country’s major banks. He acquired this position through his brother-in-law, who convinced him to swallow his pride and accept the job. Being a bank it didn’t pay all that well but it was a living wage and being a bank it was very secure. In those days, bankers, especially investment bankers, were not the rock stars or the amoral financial wankers that they are today. At best or worst they were extremely conservative, boring and pedantic…