I was sitting at the breakfast table idly watching the garbage truck make its rounds when I felt suddenly wistful. (That’s not quite as weird as it sounds – please let me explain.)
Here in Calgary we have bins that can be picked up, dumped, and replaced at the curb by trucks with mechanical arms. Occasionally the operators have to pick up extra garbage bags by hand, but usually they just drive down the street and let the truck do the work.
It’s a far cry from the way they did it even a few years ago. Each garbage truck used to have a ‘swamper’ who rode along on the rear bumper, jumping off to pick up garbage bags and sling them into the back, then hopping on again to ride to the next stop a few yards away.
Years ago one of my friends did that job, and his co-workers joked that you weren’t a true swamper until you’d vomited at least once at the sight and/or smell of the garbage. It was a brutal job full of heavy repetitive lifting and vile stenches.
And here comes the ‘wistful’ part, because that made me think of my dad.
Not that he was a sanitation worker; although that was part of his job before we got flush toilets. In the summer we used an outhouse, but in the winter there was a pail in the basement. When it got full, he’d carry it out across the snowbanks and dump it far away from the house. He said he only slipped and fell with it once, but that was more than enough.
No; what reminded me of him was the thought of tireless physical labour.
I remember him slinging sixty-pound bales up to the loft of the barn with a single jerk of his powerful arms. Lift-toss, lift-toss; over and over like a machine in the oppressive heat and humidity of a Manitoba summer. The only sign of his effort was the sweat soaking his shirt and dripping off the end of his nose.
He mucked out the barn with a shovel and his own muscle. He worked the fields for endless days in the blazing sun on an old steel-seated FarmAll tractor, without a sunshade or even a backrest.
And when the machines broke down he got out the giant tools. Two-inch sockets. Wrenches as long as my arm and twice as heavy. His days were a punishing round of physical chores.
Looking out at the automated garbage truck, I realized those days are mostly gone. Farming, garbage collection, you name it; it’s machine power instead of manpower now. Chores are accomplished with the press of a button from a comfortable seat in an air-conditioned cab.
I doubt if anybody mourns the change. Those weren’t ‘the good old days’. They were hard and dangerous; heartbreaking and backbreaking. Many men were killed or terribly injured, and bent backs and swollen joints and missing fingers are the visible legacy of their labour.
But I have to wonder: If the work of the future consists of pressing buttons, will the men of tomorrow feel the same fierce pride and sheer primeval triumph my dad’s generation experienced when they fell into bed at the end of a successful day?
And will I be able to give them the same respect and admiration?
I don’t think so. Do you?