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Commentary: Labor Day - Go to the lake!

By Tom Dodge, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

Labor Day, my favorite holiday, has now lost all of what was left of its meaning. In the hardware store I asked the checkout woman why all the flags for sale. "Labor Day sale," she said.

"By the way," I said, "I wonder what Labor Day actually is?" I have asked this question each year for many years. The last few years that I taught, my students said it meant, "Go to the lake. Yea!"

She said, honestly, she was sorry to say she didn't know.

Schoolchildren, even first-graders, are taught about the other holidays but seldom about Labor Day. One short class period would suffice to let them know that this is a day to celebrate the sacrifices and contributions of the American worker to the strength and prosperity of our country. It's a tribute to the labor movement when working men got beaten, put in prison, and killed for fighting for safe working conditions, eight-hour-days, forty-hour weeks, sick leave, vacations, and minimum wage.

I grew up knowing this because my hometown, Cleburne, Texas, was, in those days a blue-collar town, and working people were its backbone. The Santa Fe Railroad, with its annual payroll of five to seven million dollars a year, was a vital part of the town's economy. My grandfather was a railroader and a union man as were the fathers of most of my friends. Many of us followed in their oily footsteps.

We learned in school that the Cleburne State Park, one of our favorite teenage hangouts, was built by a government work project, as were our football stadium and public swimming pool. The State Park is now in disrepair and the pool was allowed to deteriorate and was replaced with a "water park." The deterioration and disappearance of Labor Day's monuments symbolize its reduction and loss of meaning.

When I got home I checked the calendar for Labor Day. It said, "Fly your flag. Support veterans."

So now Labor Day has nothing to do with working people and their rights. It is, rather, like everything else, tied to the military. The only thing Labor Day has to do with the military is that working men and women fight and die in all the wars and, sometimes come home to no job. Others, because of wounds, traumatic flashbacks, guilt, and other maddening disorders, become disabled and lose their jobs and families. The most dramatic representative of this is Specialist Dwight Johnson, Medal of Honor winner in Vietnam, who was killed in a Detroit holdup attempt in 1971.

Ask veterans how they would like to be supported and I'll bet they'll say that raising the flag is nice but raising wages and improving medical care is better. If you're going to ask young people to risk their lives in combat, pay them a decent wage. Take care of the wounded and sick by upgrading veterans' hospitals. When they're killed, take care of their families. If they make the military a career, raise their pension benefits and improve their retirement homes. Working for the enactment of these changes is something you can do to support veterans on Labor Day.

So, go ahead and go to the lake. But if it's the Cleburne State Park you choose to go to, set aside a moment to remember who built it and what you can do to restore it to its original condition.

Tom Dodge is a writer from Midlothian.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.