Labor of Love

Ever since Labor Day I find myself thinking a lot about my father. He was a laborer all his life. Labor Day was not a big deal in my home other than signaling the end of summer, swimming pools closing, back to school looming. Dad displayed the flag on our front porch as he did on all national holidays, but I don’t recall him ever talking about the meaning or purpose of Labor Day.

I think about him with increasing gratitude because, as was the case with millions of American fathers, certainly all the fathers of my childhood friends, he labored – worked hard from the time he was a young man until his death at the age of 59. He was born in 1909, graduated from high school, was apparently lively and popular with lots of friends. His father, my grandfather Buchanan, was a foreman in the Pennsylvania Railroad shops, a relatively stable job with a regular paycheck. A year after dad graduated, 1929, the stock market collapsed, the Great Depression descended, workers were laid off by the thousands, jobs were scarce and in a railroad town almost non existent. So he did what everyone else did at the time: took whatever job he could find, driving a newspaper truck, delivering blocks of ice from the back of a horse-drawn cart. He and a high school friend hitch-hiked west and found occasional work harvesting wheat in Kansas, and returned home non the richer but much wiser. He tried selling men’s clothing and then refrigerators but no one was buying much of anything.

With the beginning of World War II in 1941 the railroad, the major, virtually only, business in our city, began hiring. My father, along with thousands of other young men his age, signed on as a fireman on a steam locomotive for the PRR. By that time he was married and the father of a three-year-old son.

It was hard, filthy work, shoveling coal from the tender, the coal car behind the engine, into the fire box of a steam locomotive, or into the stoker, a large screw-like device that moved and distributed the coal evenly into the fire box. He did it for eight hours a day for years, came home exhausted, covered with coal dust, and deposited his clothes on the basement stairs before falling into bed.

He, and we, lived with the constant fear of lay-offs. When the economy slowed so did freight traffic and the railroad began to furlough employees starting with the youngest in terms of service. It happened several times, always during the winter. He, and we, were dependent on an unemployment check which he explained around the dinner table was considerably smaller than his regular pay and would not go on forever. He must have worried about it a lot. I know I did and asked him on occasion about what we would do if there were no money. He assured me that somehow we would be all right, that he would find work somehow. I worried.

A particularly difficult time was when after an extended furlough we became eligible for government surplus food consisting of a five pound block of butter–a real luxury–a five pound block of cheese, a large can of powdered milk which I swore tasted like chalk water, and several cans of beef stew. The stew wasn’t very good and one of my most vivid memories is of sitting at the dinner table with my mother and little brother trying to eat this dreadful stuff and of my father, his head in his hands, weeping in humiliation.

During furlough time men took whatever part-time work they could find. My future father-in-law, laid off from the railroad shops, was an afternoon usher in a movie theater. My father tried selling men’s clothing again in a shop owned by an old friend.

He put food on our table, a roof over our heads and clothes on our backs, doing hard, dirty work and I think about him a lot these days.

I am blessed to have worked at a job I loved. He was not. While glad to be able to support his family, he told me many times how deeply he disliked working for the railroad, hated the working conditions, hated the uncertainty, hated the seasonal lay-offs, hated the reality that there was no real hope for promotion or advancement or much more of an income ever. I asked him once what he wanted to do when he was young. He told me he always wanted to be a doctor. His father had somehow found a way to send him to college but after one year he dropped out. I always suspected that he was having so much fun he flunked out. So he lived his whole life with regret and the thought of what might have been.

Finally, after years as a fireman, he was promoted to engineer. I was in college by then but I detected a whole new attitude about his work. He was in charge of a huge, three-unit diesel locomotive and had responsibility for a large, maybe one hundred car, train of coal cars between Altoona and Harrisburg, PA. The tender car was gone with the advent of diesel engines. So he came home with his starched blue shirt clean and intact. He began to be proud of his work and told me about it in animated, positive terms when I asked. But then he got sick. His worsening shortness of breath and coughing was diagnosed as emphysema. A life-long smoker, Camels, two packs per day, plus inhaling coal dust daily for decades, finally took its toll. He told me that his first job with the railroad was climbing into an empty firebox of a steam engine in the shops for repair and hosing down the interior with a lye solution that burned his eyes, throat and lungs. He thought that might have been part of the problem with his breathing. The emphysema worsened, finally causing heart failure and death. He had just turned 59. He loved deeply: his family, his community, his nation. His feelings were always close to the surface and I often saw tears in his eyes, in church singing a favorite hymn, listening to and singing the National Anthem. He loved gardening and all of nature and taught me to love them too.

I miss him still. I regret that he didn’t see my five children become wonderful adults, spouses and parents themselves. I regret that I never got to talk to him as many years as I have been privileged to talk to my adult children.

But mostly I am grateful to him and for him. In a very real way he gave his life for his family, for me. He worked at a job he did not much like because it allowed him to take care of us. There were, and are, many like him of course.

From the perspective of years and after the wonderful privilege of working at a job I dearly loved, I am eternally grateful for who he was and for what he gave to us.


  1. Ruth Beckman says:

    Beautifully written profile of an obviously loved and respected Father. You were blessed by him, bringing tears to my eyes.

    Gratefully Ruthi

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Carole Ogden says:

    What a lovely tribute and how blessed you are to have these memories. We are the same age, and my father worked all thru the depression. The difference is that the only emotion he could express was anger which made for a much different childhood experience. So sorry yours was cut so short.

    Carole Ogden

  3. Bert Colter says:

    Another home run, John. My eyes are misty as I remember my father, too.

  4. Molly Britt says:


  5. Easy enough to recall hard times in my family journey. Dad & Mom raised five kids, Dad was a farmer, a retail dairyman, an oilfield laborer, then US Navy. We never shared much personal talk, but thinking back, he would have simply said: “We raised a family.” We’re glad. And we can still “hear” your story, thank you, John.

  6. Diane Buchanan says:

    A beautiful and moving tribute to a man I remember with love.

  7. Your moving personal essay inspires me to write down what I know about my own family’s struggles during my Great Depression. Briefly stated, my grandfather dug ditches for the Fort Worth Water Dept. for a wage of virtually nothing. My father got a paper route at age 10, a job he kept until he was halfway through college. Over the years, my father occasionally re-told the story of how a $20 bill was somehow lost on the way to the grocery store. Dad said the searing impact of that event was almost like a death in the family. Pop and Dad both had a work ethic that I try (but fail) to live up to even now. Thank you, Dr. Buchanan.

  8. Thank you very much. I am blessed to still have my father with me, just as I am continuing to be blessed by your guidance and perspective.

  9. Mike Minter says:

    As you said in your expression of gratitude, there were many men like your father who did what they had to do to take care of their family. My father was much like your father. Change only a few details, and their stories would match. Working for the PRR, hiring on in WW ll, the dirt and dust of the steam era, constant threats of being laid off, the struggles to cope when laid off, putting wife and kids above self, even dying from smoking 40 Camels/day. Thank you for sharing your father’s story. Reading it rekindles gratitude for my father’s commitment to my mother, sister, and me. Mike Minter, long-time friend of Gary Rayl who forwarded your reflections to me.

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