My pal, Steve Earle was in town last night. He was signing his first novel amid some glowing reviews. I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive tells the tale of Doc Ebersole, who may or may not have given Hank Williams the morphine that killed him (if morphine even killed him) if it wasn’t alcohol or heartbreak or, as they once said of an old friend of mine, massive failure of. . .everything.
Complicit or not, Hank’s ghost chooses to tag along with Doc, hectoring him, cajoling him from the beyond. It is a marvelous novel about a deeply flawed man who, despite all is essentially good; or as good as a dope-fiend, defrocked, M.D. and abortionist can be. Doc is not only noble in his own way, but necessary. It is an unforgettable story.
The book is dedicated to Steve’s dad, Jack, whom I was fortunate enough to meet a few times. Jack Dublin Earle was one of the air traffic controllers whom Reagan fired in 1980 in order to break their union. PATCO wasn’t stiling for more money, but to build in tougher regulations about the conditions they worked in so that air traffic would be safer for you and me. In the anti trade union furor of the early 80s, they were easy to demonize for the great communicator, and thus started the long dismantling of labor’s ability to bargain collectively for rights, benefits and an equitable salary. The unions, some of them, had plenty of corruption of their own that just made this process easier. But the big loser in the union-busting 80s was the American worker, whose progress was undone in very short order by Reagan and his ilk. And after those years, Jack Earle’s life was never easy again. The PATCO workers had been black-balled and branded as malcontents and for a great many of them, years of unemployment followed. Reagan fucked them, but good.
We forget, often, who built America. When we marvel at skyscrapers, bridges, homes and skylines, we forget the human toil that comprised the making of them. The Irish digging the subways, the Native American workers walking the high-steel of great buildings, the myriad of Asian slave-labor who built the railroads, the Germans, Swedes and Italians who built homes, worked in bakeries and butcher shops, the Czechs and Polish who worked in the slaughterhouses and quartering shops. And in our most shameful chapter, the 400 years of forced labor Africans endured before being allowed to be Americans.
Working people and working poor people were also good enough to fight our wars for us, in numbers so great that nearly half of the men who fought in the civil war could neither read or write. Literacy, back then, was the provenance of the wealthy classes; not the great many of our citizens, farm and factory workers, who’d not had the luxury of an education.
We’ve benefitted from the sacrifices of those who came before us. When I think of Steve Earle’s father and my own, guys who are held by the neck by the circumstance of their industries, it makes me sad. I come from a long line of working people. My great grandmother, Nana, was part of the first union for domestic workers just after the turn of the last century. My dad, my mom, my uncles and grandparents. . .all working people. My brothers and sisters, same way. I was taught by my father that work dignifies us; provides us with a role. And if we do it well, an identity.
When I revisit the hobo alphabet and battlefield sketches and native american ledger drawings, even without words, I sense a very different American history is being told. This one by those who had nothing; those who wandered the roads and rails and battlefields. . .the people who live on the other side of the billboards. It is a visual language; eloquent enough to let you know what is going on. Slashes, stick-figures, diagrams and maps testify dramatically to a country taken by force; built by murder, conquest and the genocidal need to conquer. Though the witnesses were illiterate, they still testified. Ledger drawings by native Americans testify to the wholesale slaughter of their peoples and their own desperate slaughter of the buffalo in an attempt to remove the food source from the white man. Gospel songs sing of the whip and the chain and the long, bitter, middle passage of a kidnapped culture. These too, are a history, and now that I’ve paid more attention to these marks and markers, I see a different country.
It is the history that never gets told, as opposed to the lies we have all agreed upon. It is Custer slaughtering Indians–man, woman and child. It is a firing squad executing Joe Hill in Utah despite his innocence. It is the shot-gunning of labor activists in Arizona, and it is Dr.King, staring that long quarter-mile across the bridge at Selma. They, all of them, sacrificed for the America and life we now have. Let us be better stewards of their great hopes for a better country.
This is an etching called. The Map of Mercy