News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Where are the Labor Days of yesteryear?

Living in a virtual world has estranged our civilization from some sources of strength and power that have sustained humankind throughout its history.  Acknowledging and celebrating the changing seasons have been essential to understanding the pace and the rhythms of life in making human adjustments and adaptations to the natural universe.  Physical and psychological survival have been geared to accommodating the seasons.

We celebrate Christmas a few days after the winter solstice.  The birthday of Christ, a new hope for humankind, comes when the sun is ascending after its shortest day on earth to carry the human spirit forward to a season of renewal and growth.  As Biblical scholars point out, Christ was actually born during the month of March.  But when early missionaries went into the cold lands of Europe, they found the people there devoting much human endeavor to pagan rituals.  The rituals of the winter solstice, that darkest season of the year, included the use of evergreens and candles to signify the expectations of a coming season of renewal of life and light.  Those shrewd missionaries made the story of Christ's birth part of the ceremony of changing seasons and gave it relevance and power by allying it with the pagan celebrations.  

Similarly, Easter comes shortly after the spring solstice and the celebration of earth's fertility.  Thus, Easter eggs and the crucifix are allied in the understanding of the power of that story.

The rhythms of agriculture are critical to life in America, even though so few people now gear their work lives to actual involvement in the growing and harvesting of crops and raising livestock.  But the urban world cannot escape the change of seasons, even though we have virtual contrivances that push the natural world into the deep recesses of human consciousness.  

We celebrate Memorial Day, which coincides with the time that crop seeds are in the ground and emerging to grow in the summer sun.  It is not insignificant that we acknowledge the dead buried in the earth at the same time we observe the sources of life coming forth to sustain us.  The plants are a metaphor for how the legacies of those who have died sustain us.

We have Labor Day at a time when there is a lull in the agricultural cycle between the intense planting and harvesting of summer crops and the final harvesting of maize and the preparations for winter.  Of course, Labor Day is meant to acknowledge those who toil off the farm in pursuits not necessarily geared to the cycles of the natural world.  However, in South Dakota, people say that we have two seasons:  winter and road construction.  The lives of those who build and maintain roads are much geared to the seasons.

In my life, Labor Day was a tremendously powerful and significant marker in the pace of life.  Not that many years ago, it was unthinkable to start the school year before Labor Day.  There was an agricultural imperative in that custom to permit farm children to be available to their families during the busiest time of the year.  For college students who worked summer jobs, Memorial Day and Labor Day marked the period of time when they made the money that made it possible for them to attend college.  When I was a youth, colleges generally began their year in mid-September, which gave students the chance to make the transition from summer employment, which ended on Labor Day, and prepare for the season of study.  

When I first came to South Dakota and schools were beginning to start in August, a bill was introduced in the state legislature to require that schools not start until after Labor Day so that students would not be forced to leave their jobs before the summer tourist season ended.  There is something poignantly sad about summer ending before Labor Day, and this year it was particularly noticeable.  Aberdeen has a beautiful city-owned water park which gives a gorgeous aspect of summer as people, mostly children, splash and frolic on the slides and in the pool.  But shortly after mid-August, it goes dead because the children have to go back to school and the lifeguards are no longer available because they also have to return to their classes.  In late August and on Labor Day, the water park sits empty of water and life, like a monument to something dead. At a time when people like to relish the last benefits of sun and warmth of summer, a shroud covers that place of light and color and fun.  

The water park on Labor Day
When I was an undergraduate,  Labor Day was celebrated with an intensity.  In those times, celebrating college students got a bit too intense at times and went a bit wild before returning to classrooms for the academic grind.  I lived in a community in which five major manufacturers of farm equipment had factories.  Many college students had summer jobs in those plants between Memorial Day and Labor Day.  Labor Day was celebrated because the drudgery and fatigue from the summer job was at an end and study, consorting with the opposite sex on campus, and all the activities of campus life was about to begin.

My most memorable Labor Day came one summer when I worked in the traffic department of a plant that made and shipped harvester-threshers throughout the world.  I was prepared to go off with my friends on Labor Day who worked in summer resorts and would be ending their jobs.  A man who worked as an attendant at a gate where trucks came and went became ill, and the plant officials were having a very hard time finding  a replacement.  Most people had plans for Labor Day.  I did, too, but because my summer job dealt with the loading of equipment on rail cars and trucks, I was acquainted with the job of checking trucks in and out at the gate.  My boss said they really needed someone to work the night shift over the Labor Day weekend, there wouldn't be that much work, and because I had already put in a full work week, the night incremental and the double-time pay would be substantial.  I consented, and in one weekend made enough money to pay for tuition and books for one semester.

Other Labor Days were spent with my friends who worked in resorts and tourist facilities in the lake country.  While they were winding down their jobs, we went to spend what time we could with them to enjoy as much summer as we could.  One place was a resort town that featured a dance pavilion that extended out into a lake.  Some of my friends played in a jazz band featured there.  A custom had evolved in which musicians gathered on the Labor Day weekend at resorts for the summer bands to play their last gig and to organize for their club and  concert dates for the next nine months.  Many of the members of those summer bands were music teachers and students who would return to their schools.  For jazz lovers, Labor Day weekend promised some special and memorable musical performances.  

Jazz was the favored musical form in those years, and it was common for college students to drive caravans 500 or 600 miles to hear a favored band or performer, such as Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Kenton, County Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, and a host of others.  Those Labor Day weekend performances marked the shifting of college students from laborers to scholars, both identities we were proud to claim.  The music, the attitudes, and the spirit kept cadence and connection with the natural world.

As we now organize human life with electronic devices which are marketing tools designed to change our patterns of life to serve corporate ends, we live in virtual, not natural worlds.  Many people seem to have no sense of the cycles in which the natural universe operates.  That may well be why so many find it convenient and credible to deny science.  It interferes with the electronically induced and controlled universe.  

Many do not miss those markers in the natural cycle of things because they have not known them.  What is never experienced is never lost.  And empty water parks on the glorious last days of summer are facts of their lives. 

No comments:

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States