Theory of Alienation

My father was a roughneck in the 1950s. He worked “graveyard shift” — known as morning tour (pronounced as “tower”) in the oilfields. He actually chose that shift so that he could use the daylight hours to build our house in Ventura. He had apprenticed as a carpenter in Oklahoma, before working in series of wartime factories and finally ending up in the oilfields. The real draw of the oilfields was the pension. He grew up in the great depression, so for him the main use of money was security.

As a kid growing up in the 60s/70s, it was always hard for me to understand that my father never seemed to want anything. Money was often synonymous with power, for everyone except my dad. We didn’t understand each other very well, although we both tried. He dropped out of the sixth grade to go to work, his father was a drunk and his stepfather, the carpenter, he just didn’t get along with at all. I suspect he simply hated being “bossed.” In his entire career in the oilfields, he always avoided any position where he had to tell other people what to do. He wouldn’t do it. That doesn’t mean he didn’t want responsibility– he was active in the union and believed in collective action to improve the lot of everyone. But he was also a staunch capitalist and individualist.

His work was dirty, and not particularly interesting. As he grew in seniority, he mainly settled into tending machines, in particular the complex steam injection systems (a precursor to fracking) currently being used to heat crude oil in the ground so that it could be pumped out. The field in Ventura started to play out, and he was forced to take a transfer to Bakersfield to monitor the first steam injection plant there. When he came home, he had a different sort of work in mind.

We had a basic tract house, rather than the elaborate stone and lumber house he built in Ventura. It broke my mother’s heart to leave it. Dad set to work tilling the back yard, putting in berries and fruit trees, and an expansive vegetable garden. Eventually, there was a used camper shell for the pickup that was parked behind this house; he loved to go fishing in the Sierra mountains nearby. It didn’t look this bleak by the time we sold the house moved to the other side of town around 1970.

He was trying to transfer back to Oklahoma to be near his mother, but that didn’t work out. Eventually, he gave up and bought a five acre farmstead to try to figure out how to be happy in California. He was miserable at work, continually bitching about the “college boys” and automated systems that were changing the oilfields. As time wore on, he hated his job so much he could hardly face it.

He drank, a lot, as I turned into a teenager. He was never cruel to me, he just suffered in quiet ways. He brushed me off telling me that I should read more books when I tried to talk to him; he suggested that I read those big thick books by the Russian authors, Shakespeare, as well as Steinbeck and Hemingway if I wanted to understand how the world was. He was the smartest man I knew, even though his education mostly came from the public library. I wanted to learn from him. He thought I should go to school, and look for answers there.

On the farmstead we moved into, dad followed his usual strategy of moving a trailer onto the property while we remodeled the turn of the century farm house to make it livable. It had knob and spool wiring, and a big hole in the living room floor where transients had once started a fire to keep warm. Dad handed me a copy of the Uniform Electrical Code so that I could figure out what we needed to bring the place up to code. I was a bit of a nut about electronics.

I had been studying algebra at the Junior High I attended while we were waiting for his transfer to Oklahoma that never came, but there I was enrolled into a school where students worked every day to add up large columns of figures and do long division by hand. There was a shop class, but rather than build a house (like I did when I got home) the main project was making shaped wall hangings with rasps and hand tools. I was bored out of my mind at that school. I got into fights. Thankfully, this only lasted one semester.

When I got to high school, one of the first classes was “social studies” which was a combination of government and world history. My primary memory from that class was the section of the textbook that dealt with Marx’s Theory of the Alienation of the Worker. Yes, they taught that sort of thing in a dumbed down form to 9th graders. The cold war textbook was targeted at selling the idea that the capitalist market system and democracy was the best of all possible worlds. Therefore, it sought to demonstrate how in a capitalist system, workers would never be unhappy because they were free to work to better themselves.

Even in its stripped down form, I saw that their refutation of Marx was completely ludicrous. I watched it play out every day in my father’s face. Workers, engaged in the earning of money, always operate at a distance– alienated from the thing they are producing. I got in a heated argument with the instructor over it, that resulted in me being ejected from the class.

Sometimes, I think my two main projects in life have been understanding my father, and understanding what it means to be an American. Confronting these things takes time and space; I hope I have a lot more to go. When my father retired, on a tiny pension, he moved back to Oklahoma and built one more house. It was a long way from the main road, which in turn was a long way from any town. He planted his long driveway with tiny seedlings he got for free from the US Forest Service. He lived long enough to see them grow.