Dead Labor: What Lincoln Vet Len Olson Taught His Daughter

June 2, 2020
By

Leonard Olson with his daughter Hannah. Courtesy of the Olson family.

What Lincoln vet Len Olson taught his daughter Hannah. “Think of all the work that was done to this thing by someone’s hands.”

“I’ll hold the nail, toots, you hit it with the hammer. Don’t hurt yourself.” “I can do it, papa. Let me do it.”

Everyone’s favorite picture of me and my father was taken when he came back from his last trip to sea, when I was about 3. My pop has a long, very full beard, which he says he shaved within days because “beards itch when you’re on land.” He’d been gone many months, so he must have become a stranger to me, but I’m on his lap leaning back into his arm with one hand possessively curled around his thumb. We both stare straight at the camera, not trying at all to please.

He worked as a carpenter when I was a kid. But he had been many things and been to many places. I loved to hang around with him and listen to his stories. The only way to talk to him and not have an argument was to ask him questions and then listen to the stories that came out.

He was born in 1902 in Virginia, Minnesota—that’s in the Mesabi Range, where the iron ore is, or was. Northern Minnesota is some of the sweetest country anywhere—rolling hills with a lake around every bend. Small lakes you could easily swim across, with maybe six houses or shacks, each with a pier. Every lake surrounded by forests of small birch—straight, elegant, white birch. And then there is the shock as you come to the mines— great pits the size of a whole town, scars of red earth. At the bottom, you can just barely see the train tracks and roads, the trucks and equipment, scattered around, like some boys had suddenly left to go to supper.

Pop was never allowed to go into the mines—his people ran a boarding house and a bakery, and they were proud that their sons never worked in the mines. The pay was too high, too quick, and young men got hooked on the good wages and then got married, got old fast, and died young.

“That’s no life,” his folks said.

My father was the fourth son of ten children. During the summers, his parents apprenticed him out to lots of trades. He was a barber’s apprentice, a steeplejack, a house painter, a lumberjack. When he was seventeen, he “ran away to sea”—really to the Great Lakes. He was a sailor for much of his life, a merchant seaman. This changed when he met my mother and “came ashore.” He was 41 when I was born. He was a carpenter when I knew him.

I realize now that he wasn’t suited to it—good carpenters have a lot of patience and concentration, like dentists and watchmakers. He didn’t have much patience at all. He swore so much when he was working that until I went to school, I thought there was Jesus Christ and he had a father named “God Damn!” My pop was always working on our house, a shack that was all my parents could afford in the great hunger for homeownership that came after the Second World War. But nothing ever quite got finished, either for lack of funds or motivation, so there would be places where you had to walk around tools and lumber scraps and sawdust. It drove my mother crazy. One time he had the house up on jacks for a new foundation and he dropped one corner and broke all the dishes. But if he wasn’t quite a craftsman himself, he admired craft. He was moved by the effort and intricacy of how things were made. He was always finding old things, picking up things to save. It was a religious feeling for him, and he passed it on to me.

“Honey, look at this old wooden chest with these lovely silver handles. Think of all the work that was done to this thing by someone’s hands. The wood was chopped down by some guy, some slave on a plantation probably, maybe in South America or the Philippines because this is red mahogany. Then it was milled by some poor working stiff at a primitive mill or maybe by hand. Then sailors loaded it on a ship. And that ship was made by lots of men too, probably in Liverpool, England. The trip took weeks and weeks and they stopped and picked up other cargo. It was unloaded by dockers at some port, back east most likely.”

He continued: “Then the wood was driven by Teamsters to another mill where it was finished and planed some more. More truckers took it to a furniture maker; probably not a factory, it’s too nice, maybe a family shop. Then that guy made it. He cut the pieces so exactly, fitted it, glued it, sanded it, stained it, and put on this finish. He polished and waxed it. Think of all those guys, think of their wives and children. Are you thinking of it, toots?”

“Yeah, I’m imagining them in my mind. Go on, don’t stop.”

“The metal for the handles took a whole different route. The silver was mined, maybe in Mexico by some more poor slaves. It was milled, worked. Someone designed these handles, all the work that went into that, sculpture really. Then the silver was poured into a mold. After the new handles cooled, they were sanded and polished. Then they were fastened to the chest. Someone carried it to market, loaded it, drove it, unloaded it. Think of them all, toots, all those men.”

Leonard Olson with his daughter Martha Jarocki, Oakland, 1994. Photo Richard Bermack, from The Front Lines of Social Change.

And then a small event my father never wanted to think about—someone sold it. There was no respect for retailers or salesmen in my family.

“I still think of it, pop, all the time.”

Later, like my father, I would think of workers and add in the women. Like the woman who learned the many steps it takes to leach the poison out of acorns and make Indian bread. Did somebody have to get sick or even die for her to learn this? The Pomo women who wove baskets so dense that you could carry water in them, cook in them. I think of all those women inventing agriculture and all the cooking sciences, midwifery, nursing. I think of them and their children, their men waiting for supper. I think of Pueblo women inventing each step that goes into a rug. The washing of the wool, carding, dyeing, spinning, stretching, then the weaving itself. The tools they designed and made, the threading hook, heddles, treadles, the shuttle and the beater to comb it down tight, and the various looms. The traditional designs, that even today each woman modifies, are a route back to the women before them. The women now dead, the “dead labor.”

Karl Marx called it “dead labor.” He didn’t just mean that the workers were dead. Like my father, he was talking about the unacknowledged contribution of producers to what we call civilization. If you take away the hustle and bustle of owners, managers, and salesmen, you can see that every object contains the knowledge, the experimentation, the skill that workers developed over time. And new objects are made with tools that contain dead labor, so it goes back and back. It’s like when you were a kid and held a mirror up to a mirror and saw yourself inside the mirror, inside another mirror, until you couldn’t think about it anymore.

I try to remember that even the most stupid, wasteful, plastic junk contains dead labor and to respect it and think of the producers. Something so small as a plastic fork at the office picnic, where we could have brought our own from home or eaten with our hands and broken down the formality. It hurts that someone has to give their sweat and knowledge, and their life, to making ugly, useless things that will be thrown away. I think about how these days most things are made on deafening machines, that set a killing pace of work, when workers used to set the pace themselves and could sing and talk while they worked. And they are made out of finite materials, petroleum and chemicals that spoil our land, and make the workers and us all sick.

“I think of it, pop.”

The late Hannah Olson Creighton (1942-1998) was a fearless social and environmental activist with an emphasis on environmental justice. She worked for Communities for a Better Environment and later for the Urban Habitat Program where she was the editor of Race Poverty & Environment, a joint publication with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and the Center for Race Poverty and the Environment. She studied sociology at UC Santa Cruz in the 1970s, where her time as a single mom and waitress informed her oral history of the San Francisco Hotel Restaurant Workers Local #2 (now United Here #2). Creighton was active in the Marin County peace, anti-nuclear, environmental and transit activist movements in the 1980s and 1990s. This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Monthly Review (vol. 71, no. 11). You can find out more at monthlyreview.org.

Share

Leave a Comment