Thoughts on an old photo

Labor Day prompts some reflections on a 1938 photo that I recently took out of dusty storage and put up on the wall above my desk. It’s a Gas Company group photo of the entire San Fernando Valley Distribution workforce, not too long after my Dad joined them as a ditch-digger, a lowest rung common laborer. He’s on the top row, second from the left.

My parents were married in their native Aberdeen, South Dakota, on August 25, 1936, and immediately moved to Van Nuys. My Dad abandoned (to his younger brother) the farm he would have inherited, and followed my Mom’s desire to settle in California. Perhaps a fortuitous decision. Although a bit of his heart always remained on the farm, they never really recovered from the depression, and the WWII and post-War years were not kind to them. I could never picture myself a farm boy. There was a big migration from the midwest in those days, and the region was growing and prospering.

A month or two after they arrived, he got a job with the Gas Company – “just to get through the winter” – from which he retired in 1970. I was born September 6, 1942 – early Sunday morning, the day before Labor Day that year – my parents’ only child after six years of trying.

Look at the picture, and reflect along with me what this little slice of life was like four years before I was born.

The first thing I notice is that there’s not a woman in sight. There are some obvious executives and management level men in the picture, and so I’m sure the department had secretaries and switchboard operators who were more than likely women, but I guess they were not invited to join the boys for the photo. The “glass ceiling” was pretty low in those days, even below physical labor in the ditches. Remember that was before Rosie the Riveter.

When the U.S. entered World War II, his job was considered vital to national defense, and so he was deferred from the draft. Another reason it was fortuitous.

I think he belonged to a union, although I don’t remember which one. There were lots of them at that time. The great union mergers and Jimmy-Hoffa-type corruption were yet to come. As a kid I remember his going on strike a couple of times. They must have been successful in their collective bargaining because I recall his always getting overtime pay after eight hours and a five-day work week. I can never remember his having less than a full two weeks’ vacation, and the full set of national holidays off. By the early fifties he was getting three weeks’ vacation and by 1960 a full four weeks every year. He also had a benefits package that included full family health coverage with Ross-Loos Medical Group.

During my grade-school and high-school years, very few of my contemporaries had mothers who were working at jobs outside the home, or needed them. As an ordinary laborer my Dad made enough to purchase a nice two-bedroom home in Van Nuys in 1947, and a new car every six or seven years.

Not only are there no women in the picture, but very few non-whites. I see one man on the far right who is obviously African-American, another who may be five down to his right, and three standing in the back row who appear to be Mexican. Not an Asian in sight. But look at the rest. There are clear distinctions based on uniforms – or lack of them – but also facial expressions. It’s not hard to imagine the ordinary laborers in the top two rows being fresh off the farms of the Midwest, and the executives and management types in business suits being sophisticated city-slickers from New York, Chicago, or Boston.

A lot of changes in the last 80 years or so. Some wonderful and welcome. Some not so much.

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