Posted by: johnhourihan | May 30, 2012

The Calluses Of The Poor

Americans have gotten softer, but it’s not our fault. I blame our parents.
Scrapper Jack, my father, was proud of his callused hands.
He had earned them making a quarter of a million dollars in his lifetime, a nickel at a time, shoe working.
He sat at our dark brown, rectangular, over-painted, wooden kitchen table one night after work in the dim light of the one table lamp in the center.
He reached across to me while I complained over my homework, and he unfurled his gnarled hands. They were red, puffy, and two of his calluses were ripped.
“Tough night,” he explained.
I had counted once. He had 13 calluses on each hand. One at the base of the thumb, one on each of the pads at the bottom of his fingers, one on each fingertip and one further down on each finger.
This night his hands were beaten and torn.
He took a tea bag from my mother’s saucer, put it in his hand and closed the fist.
He told of how he had been passing the bank on Main Street and there was a commotion. He looked in and saw a line of men and some office types in suits. It was late, and the bank should have been closed, so he went in to see what was going on.
Two people had been locked inside the time-lock safe by accident, and the men in line were waiting their turns to swing a pick ax at the wall in hopes of breaking through and at least getting some air inside.
He told me how he had gotten into line to help. But he began to worry when the three men in front of him were sent off. The big mick at the end of the line was looking at their hands and saying “Too soft – next.”
When Scrapper Jack got the head of the line he had turned over his hard hands.
I can still hear my old man’s proud voice saying, “And Jocko, this mug looks at me and says, ‘You could probably make up for the three I just sent home.’”
He had swung the pick ax until he got through. It was just a small hole but it was enough to let in air until the safe opened.
I had them once, these calluses, when I was working in the fields, but they are gone now, and when I look at my soft computer hands I am thankful.
Once, when I was about 7 or 8 years old, he woke me up early and instead of going to school he grabbed my lunch and took me with him to Bickford Shoe against my mother’s mild protests.
I sat on the dust-covered stairs that went up to a doorway to nowhere and watch him work the big bed-lasting machine in the corner of the shoe shop.
This was the machine that had cut off his middle finger half way down and put a hole in the center of his right foot the size of a quarter.
But it was our bread and butter, and he worked it better than anyone else.
He asked a few times if I was hungry and when I said, yes, he answered, “That’s just too bad Jocko, It ain’t time to quit yet.”
It was hot, monotonous and noisy, and when we left at the end of the day he asked if I had enjoyed it.
“No,” I said just a little too curtly.
“Then you better stay in school” he said walking faster.
When we got home he showed me his hands for the first time. That was when I had counted the calluses.
“I have them so you won’t have to.” he said.
I didn’t understand that.
I couldn’t see how an American working man’s stigmata had anything to do with whether or not his children had calluses.
I lament today, that most of those hard-nosed factory jobs are gone. The ones an uneducated man could use to feed his family and be proud of doing well.
There was nothing demeaning about the work he did. It was good hard American work. It kept his seven kids alive and paid for their home and school.
And he could show you what he called “intestinal fortitude” right there in his scarred hands.
Now, supposedly, no Americans want to do those jobs anymore, so we have sent them overseas or brought in illegal aliens to do them.
I think that’s why Americans have changed.
It may not be for the better, but at least it’s not our fault.
It is because of our parents. They spoiled us by working themselves ragged so we wouldn’t have to.
And a generation later, no one even knows how to.



  1. Thanks John. I’ve bcome more and more proud of my Mum and Dad and my sibblings every time you put those memories into words. This in some weird way makes me just a bit proud of myself. Thank you Pat Diane Nancy Sheila Johnny and Dennis From the softess most care free of you all!

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