HOW I LEARNED TO HATE HARD WORK

PIERRE BERTON March 1 1968

HOW I LEARNED TO HATE HARD WORK

PIERRE BERTON March 1 1968

HOW I LEARNED TO HATE HARD WORK

For many years I have held the view that a smug minority of Canadians — business leaders and politicians, mainly — have been trying to brainwash the rest of us into accepting the silly idea that work, all work, is noble and that leisure, which is often wrongly confused with idleness and laziness, is sinful.

It seems clear that this Calvinistic attitude must change. All the prognostications suggest the day is coming when there won’t be enough work to go around and leisure will become as difficult to cope with as some work. But there is little evidence that the Establishment is prepared to face that change.

The brainwashing about work is supported by a confusion of terms. Words like “work,” “job” and “toil” are hopelessly interchanged. So are words like “idleness,” “free time” and “leisure.” My own case is a pretty good example. Some of my friends worry about me because they think I work too hard; but actually I rarely engage in real toil. I like what I do and try to do only what I like. For me a golf game would constitute toil; writing a book like The Smug Minority is fun.

While I was working on this book I dug up an astonishing number of public statements uttered about work over the past two decades which I would consider both confused and nonsensical. Consider, for example, these clichés culled from The Royal Bank Letter during the mid-1950s:

“Work is not a curse. The law ‘and by the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread’ may be read as one of the most beneficent laws of life. It was probably because they had nothing to do that Adam and Eve became such easy victims to the tempter ... As every thinking man and woman would admit, work is strengthening, satisfying, and a great blessing. It is essential to human happiness . . . There is a kind of joy and rest after work . . . The good life is not the idle life of a beachcomber who subsists on the bounty, the leftovers, and the wrecks of others. It is a strenuous life of responsibilities . . . One mark of a man who is determined to achieve happiness in this work is that he doesn’t ask, as a preliminary to taking a job, whether the seat is soft or the building air-conditioned. He is in too much of a hurry to get busy ... To be fully prepared for life you must learn to work. Someone has said that idleness is the nurse of naughtiness; at any rate it is the death of progress. Life is not a thing of case ...”

One is tempted to ask the editor of The Royal Bank Letter: What do you mean by that word “work”? Do you mean the kind of work you do or the kind a ditchdigger does? What do you mean by words like “idleness”? Is a monk in a cloister idle? Is a yogi idle? Or a philosopher? And while we’re on the subject, why on earth shouldn’t a man—if he seeks “progress”—seek more comfortable working conditions? Why should he be condemned, to use your own analogy, to spend the major portion of his waking life on unnecessarily hard seats in unnecessarily fetid surroundings?

We forget that there are tens of thousands of jobs in Canada which are degrading, debilitating or just plain foolish. Some of them are described in The Smug Minority; none is worthy of praise.

I was once enslaved by such a job and I have described it at length in my book in a chapter which begins on the next page.

PIERRE BERTON

ON MY 17TH BIRTHDAY, which fell on July 12, 1937, one of the worst years of the Depression, I went to work for pay and there was jubilation among my friends and relatives. In an era when jobs were scarce, I had a job; and having a job was the goal of everyone in those days. Having a job in the Thirties was a bit like having a swimming pool in the Sixties; it conferred status. It didn’t really matter what the job was. It could be unrewarding, mindless, foolish, unproductive, even degrading — no matter: it set you apart as a paying member of a society whose creed was that everyone must work at something, and the harder the better, too.

My job was in a mining camp in the Yukon some 1,500 miles from my home in Victoria, BC. I worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week, and I was paid $4.50 a day plus my board. Almost everybody who learned about my job had the same thing to say about it: “It will make a man out of you!” And when the job came to an end at the start of my university term, almost every adult I knew 'examined my hands to note with satisfaction the heavy calluses. Back-breaking work was considered to be a high form of human endeavor. A man who worked hard couldn’t be all bad, whether he was a convict breaking rocks in a prison yard or an executive neglecting his family by toiling weekends at the office.

I worked for three summer seasons at that same job and it was commonly held that I was “working my way through college,” another laudable endeavor in a society which believed, and still believes, that every individual must pay his own way regardless of position, health, mental ability, or physical condition.

The first year I worked on a construction gang; the following years I worked on the thawing crew, engaged in preparing the ground for the actual gold mining that was to follow. Thawing permafrost with cold water is a fascinating process to almost everyone except those actually employed in it. As far as I know, it is the world’s muddiest job, involving as it does the pumping of millions of gallons of cold water into the bowels of the earth.

In earlier days, steam had been used to thaw the permanently frozen ground so that the dredges could reach the gold; but the lovely, verdant valleys had long since been denuded of their timber and no fuel was left to operate the old-time boilers. So now a new process had been devised to tear the valley apart and convert it into a heaving sea of mud.

On Dominion Creek in the Klondike water-

shed, where I toiled those three Depression summers, the gold lay hidden in crevices of bedrock some 20 or 30 feet beneath the surface. The valley was perhaps a mile wide at this point and it was being ripped to pieces so that man might reach this gold. First, every shred of plant life was sheared off by a bushcutting crew. Then all the black topsoil, most of it frozen hard as granite, was sluiced away by giant nozzles flinging water against the banks at a pressure so high it could cut a man in half. By the time the thawing crew arrived, the sinuous valley, misty-green each spring, flaming-orange each fall, had been reduced to a black, glistening scar.

It was our task to dam the creek anew to build up water pressure and then introduce a spider web of pipes across the newly ravaged valley floor. From these pipes at 16-foot intervals there protruded an octopuslike tangle of hoses. Onto each hose was fastened a 10-foot length of pipe, known as a “point,” because of the chisel-bit at the end. This point was driven into the frozen soil by means of a slide hammer. When it was down the full 10 feet, an extension pipe was screwed onto the end and this was driven down, too, inch by painful inch. If necessary, further extensions were added. And all the time, without cessation, ice-cold water was being pumped through every pipe at high pressure. In this way an underground lake was created beneath the valley floor and, though its waters were only a few degrees above freezing, that small change in temperature was enough to eventually thaw the permafrost.

And so we toiled away, up to our ankles, our knees, and sometimes even our hips in a pulsating gruel of mud and ice water. The men who drove those points into the rocklike soil were soaking wet most of the time, for it was difficult to add extensions or withdraw a point without water spurting in all directions. All day long they labored, with their fingers curled around the handles of their slide hammers, their torsos rising and falling as they drove each pipe inch by inch into the earth. When a point became plugged it had to be hauled up and unplugged while the ice water squirted in their faces. Each man was logged on the amount of footage he had driven in a day, and if that footage was seen to be too low he could expect to draw his time slip that evening. There was a story current in my day that the general manager had come out from Dawson on a tour of inspection and had seen a man standing immobile in the distance. “Fire

that man!” he cried. “I’ve been watching him and he hasn’t moved for half an hour.” Later it was discovered that he couldn’t move; he was up to his hips in mud.

As the water continued to flow into the ground, the floor of the valley began to go to pieces. Immense craters 10 or 20 feet deep began to appear. Whole sections fell away, sometimes taking men with them. The mud grew thicker. The pipeline supports toppled as the soil crumbled, and the pipes themselves — mainlines and feeder lines — began to buckle and break and to shoot icy fountains in every direction. When this occurred it was the job of the pipeline crew, of which I was a member, to replace the pilings, drive new pipes and repair leaks. Sometimes the sun was out and we stripped to our shorts; sometimes a bone-chilling wind swept down the valley accompanied by a sleety rain. It did not matter. We worked our 10 hours (later it was reduced to a merciful nine) day in and day out, without holiday or respite.

When you work for 10 hours at hard labor, whether you are 17 or 57, there is precious little time or energy left for anything else. We rose at six, performed our swift ablutions, wolfed an enormous breakfast, and headed off for the job which had to begin at seven. At noon we started back up the valley slopes through the mud to the messhall, wolfed another vast meal, and finished it just in time to head back once more. At six we were finished, in more ways than one. I have seen men so tired they could not eat the final meal of the day, which was always consumed in silence and at top speed. (It was said that any man who stumbled on the messhall steps on the way in found himself trampled by the rush coming out.) When this was over, large numbers of men of varying ages simply lay down on their bunks, utterly fagged out, and slept. There was nothing else to do anyway: no library, no recreation hall, no lounge, no radio or films — nothing but a roadhouse five miles distant where you could buy bootleg rum. Civilization was represented by Dawson, 40 miles away; we never visited it. We were like men in a prison camp, except that we worked much harder.

Under such conditions any kind of creative act or thought is difficult. I remember one man, a German immigrant, who was trying to learn to draw by correspondence. He had some talent but in the end he had to give it up. He was too tired to draw. I had brought along a pile of books

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HOW I LEARNED TO HATE HARD WORK continued from page 29

“I looked at those weary men and thought, ‘What a waste’”

required in my university course for summer reading, but most of the time I found I was too tired to read. Those who did not immediately go to sleep after supper, spent their spare time washing their work clothes or lying in their bunks indulging in verbal sexual fantasies. I often wondered if this was what the adults meant when they said that mining-camp life would make a man of me. Certainly, I learned a great deal more from these sexual bull sessions than I had at my mother’s knee. It was not until many years later that I discovered most of it was wrong.

It is difficult to describe the absolute dreariness and hopelessness of this kind of job. The worst thing about it was that there was no respite, since—in a seven-day-a-week job— there were no breaks of any kind to look forward to until the coming of winter rendered further toil impossible. There was one wit among us who used to leap from his bunk once a week, when the bull cook banged the triangle at 6 a.m., crying jubilantly, “Thank God, it’s Sunday!” This always provoked a bitter laugh. Without any change of pace, time moves sluggishly; without any break in the routine, a kind of lethargy steals over the mind. The blessed winter seemed eons away to all of us.

Yet for me, in my late teens, life in this mining camp was immeasurably easier than it was for the others. There were men here in their 60s who had lived this way all their lives. There were men in their prime with wives and children to support— families they did not see for half of every year. There were all kinds of men here and few who were really stupid. I worked with immigrants from Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy. Sweden, Norway and Denmark, as well as with Canadians. Most were intelligent and a great many were extremely sharp and able. All were industrious. Each had displayed enough courage and independence somehow to make his way several thousand miles to the one corner of North America where a job of

sorts was comparatively easy to get. But all had one thing in common: according to my observation, none had been educated up to his ability.

There were many men in that mining camp easily capable of obtaining a university degree; and there were many more who might have completed high school and then gone on

to technical school. 1 saw them each evening, lying on their bunks and trying to force their hands open—hands that had been curled into almost permanent positions around cold pipes; I saw them each morning, shambling down to that grotesque mudpie of a valley; during the day I saw them — scores of antlike figures.

bent double over their slide hammers, struggling in the gumbo, striving and groaning; and the thought that came to my mind was ever the same: “What a waste of human resources!” For this “job,” which everybody had congratulated me upon getting, which was supposed to be so ennobling, which was to make a man of me, was actually degrading, destructive, and above all useless. It was degrading because it reduced men to the status of beasts. There was one wag

From a dreary job, one asset: status

who went around with his zipper purposely undone and his genitals exposed. “If I’m working like a horse, I might as well look like one,” he’d say. It was destructive because it reduced a glorious setting to a black obscenity. And it was useless because the gold, which was mined at such expense and human cost, was melted into bars and shipped to Fort Knox in the United States where it was once again confined below ground. Every manjack of us knew this; it was the subject of much bitter banter and wisecracking; each of us, I think, was disturbed by the fact that we were engaged in an operation which was essentially unproductive. If we’d been growing wheat, we would at least have had the satisfaction of knowing our labors were useful. The whole, vast, complicated operation seemed to me to be pointless: even the stockholders failed to profit by it greatly; for years the company was forced to pass its dividends. Would we or the nation have been worse off staying drunk all summer?

For myself, as a teenager, there were certain minor advantages that did not apply to those older men who worked out of necessity and desperation. Certainly, it was healthy enough. Certainly, I got to know a bit more about my fellow men. It occurs to me now, however, that both these goals could have been achieved in a pleasanter and more productive fashion. As for the financial gain, much

of that was illusory. After I paid for my equipment and my return fare home, there was precious little left. The first year 1 scarcely broke even. In succeeding seasons I was able to pay my university tuition but not much more. Like my fellow students, I could say that I was working my way through college, but like most of them I could not have continued a university career had I not been able to board at home and take money for clothing and extras from my parents. During four years at university, I met only a handful of students who were able to support themselves wholly through summer employment.

The one valuable asset that I recovered from my mining-camp experience was status. It allows me to use a line in my official biography which I notice is seized upon joyfully by those who have to introduce me when I make after-dinner speeches: “During the Thirties, he worked in Yukon mining camps to help put himself through university.” When that line is uttered the audience is prepared to forgive me almost anything: outlandishly radical opinions, dangerous views on matters sexual, alarming attitudes toward religion. I am pronounced worthy because, in that one sentence, is summed up the great Canadian myth: that work — any work — is the most important thing in life, and that anybody who is willing to work hard enough can by his own initiative get as far as he wants. ★