My pal Steve Earle was in town last night, 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 it was morphine that killed him, and not 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 fired by Reagan in 1980 in order to break their union. PATCO wasn’t striking for more money, but rather to demand 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 for the great communicator to demonize, and thus started the long, laborious process of dismantling labor’s ability to bargain collectively for rights, benefits and an equitable pay.
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 contributed to their making. The Irish digging the subways, the Native Americans walking the high-steel of great buildings, the myriad of Asian laborers who built the railroads, the Germans, Swedes and Italians who built homes, worked in bakeries and butcher shops, the Czechs and Polish folk who worked in the slaughterhouses and quartering shops. And -- in our most shameful chapter -- the 400 years of forced slave-labor Africans endured before finally 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 nor write. Literacy, back then, was the privilege of the wealthy classes -- not granted to many of our citizens, farm and factory workers, who hadn’t 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 at the throat 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, created just after the turn of the last century. My dad, my mom, my uncles and grandparents -- all working people. My brothers and sisters: same thing. 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, most of them without words, I sense that a very different American history is being told. This one remembered 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 stood witness, and spoke up. 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 deny the murderous White Man of a vital food source. 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 stretching out before me.
It is the history that never gets told, and it stands in stark contrast to the lies we have all agreed will constitute “history.” 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, embarking upon that long, quarter-mile across the bridge at Selma. They -- every one of them -- sacrificed for the America, and for the life, that we now have.
Let us be better stewards of their great hopes for a better country.
TONY FITZPATRICK is an artist from Chicago. For his blog, click here.