Thursday, March 24, 2011

Faces of the Land

The land in polished by clouds, no mountains exist to block the efficient sweeping of soil with the ragged, torn wet edges of a huge cold front.

Still even scrubbed clean by yet another thunderstorm, the land shows every scratch, each dent, gouge and rut born by tractors that run in the same lanes where years ago, pioneers crossed here.

The midwest is a land shaped by the storms, the boarded up storefronts, behind whose doors leaves huddled sidewalks no longer tended, heaved and broken, grass growing through the cracks like crabgrass on a forgotten grave. Windows of closed businesses turning their bright shiny faces to the sun, only to darken with approaching clouds, for the sun is a ways off.

But the storm here is not the design of mother nature, but the state of living here where the land is rooted in the hard work, of which little is available.

Unemployment is up at almost 10% here. If you add in the number of people who have jobs, but their hours have been cut drastically, the number of people affected is over 20%. Others say that statisticians quit counting people after theyhave been on unemployment for one year, as they assume "they're happy that way". The Vice President stated after the stimulus, after billions of the hard working taxpayers money has been spent, "I guess we underestimated the economy."

Last year, I drove out West to visit family, rather than fly. I expected to see some signs of the economy, but was absolutely amazed by how many businesses along the former bustling interstate were closed. Mom and Pop restaurants that had been open for years, gas stations, even hotels. Places I remembered seeing for years, shuttered. All I could think was, "I don't think the media is telling the whole truth"

In my travels this last few months, I spent some time in a city in Northeast Florida, a former thriving area when I'd been three years ago. Many of the places I once shopped or dined at were vacant. I ran into a lady at the library there who remembered me from the last trip through, and she asked about my family, and I hers. She said, in her home town county, north of Daytona, unemployment was up at over 20%.

She still had a job, though many of her coworkers had been laid off. But things were tough, as she was helping her adult children, college educated, smart, hard working people who could find no work in the area.

There will always be those that do not wish to work. Those, sound of limb and health, that would rather stand with their hand out, expecting those that do work to pay their share to them, simply because they occupy space here. I will fight tooth and nail to keep my hard earned dollars from going to the lazy and the greedy, something that's happening much too much recently. But what about those people like my friends, my neighbors, who have worked all their lives , want to work, and work HARD, and there's nothing for them

In my state, the Elkhart-based Indiana National Guard's 1538th Transportation Company returned from Iraq last year to cheers and tears of pride as their family members greeted them as they marched, these 182 citizen-soldiers marked, in formation, into a hangar at Indiana's Stout Field.

I know none of them personally, though myself and a friend sent a number of care packages over that way when they were overseas. We are proud of our soldiers, for stepping up. We were happy to see them come home unharmed, for the 1538th sustained no casualties during almost 10 months in Iraq, providing security and ferrying numerous supplies for U.S. military convoys. Perhaps as they said, it's because their unofficial motto is,“Drive it like you stole it.” Perhaps it's because these men and women know how to work safe, and work smart in the worst of environments. Certainly someone I would want to have on my team, or my payroll.

For ten months they put their lives on the line, crossing landscapes distant and impenetrable, with little in the way of daily comforts, things we take for granted at home or at work. There was no comfort from the blazing desert sun other than a small wind that might come from nowhere to thin the smoke and the heat, wind that might carry on its back, enemy fire without warning. In the far distance, gunfire flicked across the hard, unforgiving land, like hail on a metal roof. But the distant sound didn't stop them. They moved and worked, bringing needed things to others who served. Hours across landscapes fought with dangers, clinging stubbornly to hope as they crossed the churned soil, among scraps of burnt out life and remnants of liberty. Fueled by hope, that soon they would be home. Back to their jobs, their families and their lives, things that when they left, were whole and sustainable. Sometimes those thoughts were all that may have gotten them through the days and nights.

But in a area which has been devastated by the economy, they come home to find their jobs were gone, many of them receiving the termination letters not too long after Christmas. The employers had honored their military commitment, their civilian jobs protected by the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, but that is no help when massive layoffs occur in the the total work force. The local economy was as flat as a penny placed on a train track. The RV industry, a prime employer in the area along with other key manufacturing sectors, had limped to the side of the road, it's tires flattened by soft sales, high gas prices and the reining in of spending by anyone with common sense.

Elkhart-Goshen's unemployment was up at 17.5 percent this time last year. It's higher now.

When interviewed, the soldiers spoke matter of factly, not looking for handouts, simply looking at options, for they are fighters, some having to move back in with parents, some likely having to delay much awaited plans for marriage and children. Not all of them were young, some were in my age group, serving our country later in live, coming back to jobs they'd held for a lifetime already, only to find the doors shuttered, weeds growing up around once profitable local businesses.

The face of the poor and the homeless used to be a stereotype of laziness and poor choices. That has changed. We as a nation have changed. The face of the unemployed is more than the lazy or the uneducated or the young. It's the educated and the motivated. It's our friends and neighbors. But for timing, a choice or two and luck, it's you and I.

In the past few years I've volunteered at both a woman's violence shelter and a shelter for the homeless. Not always the most pleasant of tasks, dealing with the homeless, the battered. Many people would meet these people on the street and instantly turn away, a pivoting of one's whole self back towards the sanctity of their safe little world. I can't say they were all pleasant, or thankful, or people I'd want as a friend. Yet, who was I to judge them on first appearance, or their lack of things we all take for granted, a job, food on the table, the ability to get up each day and pay our own way, supporting ourselves and our family.

One night I was there when we had a severe storm and the power went out. It was in early spring when winter had not yet given up its hold and ice pellets rattled the roof. The old building got cold quickly. With the wind still howling, it wasn't safe to drive home yet, so we sat together in the kitchen area, with blankets, trying to keep warm til the power came back on. I was sitting near one of the homeless women who was staying there after living in her car after losing her job and running out of benefits. She had just found some work at minimum wage, but still did not have enough to rent an apartment. Coming here was a last resort during the cold remnants of a Midwest winter. She sat off by herself with a warm fleece blanket, locked into her own healing place. I sat on a chair, shivering, as there were not enough blankets for all of us.

After a time, the woman came over, soundlessly, and put her blanket around me, wrapping it around our legs as she sat next to me, to help keep me warm. Her clothes were worn but meticulously clean, her too thin arms still showing the muscle definition of someone who worked strong, her fingernails clean and short. On the surface, someone that some people might dismiss, but when I looked in her eyes I could see it, someone who has battled life and survived with determination and pride.

If I had met this person on the street, poorly dressed, needing a decent haircut, I too might have have passed without caring, taking little notice. Yet on that night she shared one of the few things she called her own, with me, a stranger. I don't know what happened to her, but with these words I have to say to her. Thank you. I can't make up for the way people may look at you or treat you or save you from what has happened to you in your life. I can only blanket you with these few words to cover you with reassurance. Reassurance, that you are strong, you are a fighter, one worthy of the rest of us taking a deeper look at you and and what you can offer.

To the soldiers returning to no jobs. I can offer you a prayer that you will soon be able to apply those resources that helped you come home to our state whole and healthy, as you find work for someone else. We as your neighbors are behind you, we as your State are proud of you. Simply telling you "sorry, we underestimated the economy" is NOT a welcome home sign worthy of your service.

To those newly elected, look hard at the landscape. Listen to those who voted for you. Listen to those who labor, for not just ourselves, but for our country. For the economy is not just a landscape, it has a face. We are not statistics, we are not overpaid, underworked and lazy. We are the American people, we want to work strong and proud. But we can't do it with promises and outsourcing, bailouts to the greedy or self serving and financial admonisments to the hard working taxpayer.

We are the American worker. Don't forget that as you work for us.