Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The real ‘rugged individualists’

When I hear Ron Paul or other Teapublicans talk about “rugged individualism,” I shudder.  I’ve seen it, at least from a distance, and it isn’t pretty.
In 1962 when I was 18, my father took me to Wyoming to meet my grandfather, William O. Mayberry, for the one and only time.  He was 79 years old and lived in a one-room shack on the high prairie near Newcastle, Wyoming.
The shack was an uninsulated wooden shed, a little larger than the one where you might keep your garden tools.  It was furnished with a bed, a small table with two wooden chairs and a wood stove.  No armchair, no sofa, no kitchen, no TV, just a small tabletop radio.  He did have indoor plumbing, an added-on “water closet” with a small sink and toilet.
He also had an old car, a 1940s-something Studebaker, I think, which he drove at a stately 25 miles an hour whether he was on a highway or dirt road.  He never rode on an airplane, never traveled more than a few miles from his home and never saw a baseball game.
My grandfather was so crippled with arthritis he couldn’t stand up straight, but he did odd jobs at a nearby sawmill several days a week to earn money for food and gas and chewing tobacco.  His uniform was bib overalls.  He lived like that until he died at 90 in 1971.  I don’t know what became of his shack, but somebody should have turned it into a museum honoring the western pioneer spirit.
He was the very embodiment of rugged individualism.  In 1893 when he was 11 years old, he walked behind a covered wagon herding pigs up the last remnants of the Oregon Trail, from Red Cloud, Nebraska, to Cambria, Wyoming, where his father and grandfather went to work in a coal mine.
The Mayberrys had gone bust in Nebraska in the Depression of 1893, the worst depression the country had ever experienced until the Great Depression.   I suspect my ancestors had also gone bust in every depression and recession prior to that and just kept losing their land and moving west at each downturn, from Maryland to Ohio to Nebraska and finally to Wyoming.   
When he was 19, my grandfather was a ranch hand on the Flying “K” ranch near Newcastle, according to the 1900 census.  After that, he turned his hand to whatever jobs were available.  He was a lumberjack, a cook, worked on the railroad, caught and tamed wild horses and tried his hand at ranching.
He married in 1911. He had saved enough money to buy himself a herd of cattle and he obtained a land grant from the government in 1913.  His entire herd froze to death that winter and that was the end of his homesteading.  
My grandmother, Laura Belle, died in 1914 from what her death certificate says was “neuralgia of the heart.”  She was 27 and had given birth to twins the year before. 
That land grant, and later maybe a tiny bit of Social Security, was the only thing my grandfather ever got from the government.   Did he have Medicare in his last few years from 1966 to 1971?  I don’t know but I hope so.
(My father and his twin brother had the good sense to join the Navy shortly before World War II and get the hell out of Wyoming for good.) 
So when I hear someone talking about good, old-fashioned “rugged individualism,” I wonder if they have any idea at all what they are talking about?  I can’t help but think they have idealized a way of life they have never experienced and would refuse to embrace today.
Is that what they want?  A one-room shack out in the bitter cold of a Wyoming winter?  A radio for entertainment?  Working into their 80s at one menial job after another?  Living most of a lifetime without modern medical care?
I honestly don’t think they do.
My point is this:  my grandfather was, for me, a living embodiment of the lives of nearly all Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the New Deal created a Middle Class.
Millions of other American “rugged individualists” – farmers, ranchers, miners, factory and mill workers, garment workers – lived in lifelong poverty because they had to, not because they chose to exemplify some wondrous, noble libertarian fantasy. 
Ron Paul and the Tea Partiers seem intent on nothing less than repealing the Middle Class and all the nation's economic gains of the 20th century. 

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