“It got bent when I was still young”

Briefly revisiting something I brought up in response to A’s excellent “Um, YEAH” post yesterday, about historical precedents for politicians going against the tide in order to accomplish something and being repaid in political capital. This, unsurprisingly, as it relates to the debate on health care reform.

Also unsurprisingly I’m going to drag Robert Caro off the bookshelf again. Sorry folks, the Caro series on LBJ is just that good. Even if you despise the very idea of LBJ, don’t let that keep you from reading the series because it’s about so much more, about the the whole freaking nation, pretty much.

So anyway, Book 1, The Path to Power, Chapter 27 is namedThe Sad Irons, and the entire chapter is spent describing, in detail, the daily lives of the men, women, and children working on the farms and small ranches of the Texas Hill Country during the late 1930s. LBJ was 28 in 1937, just elected U. S. Representative for the 10th District comprised of Austin and the surrounding Texas Hill Country. Outside of those in Austin, almost no one in LBJ’s district had electricity.

Think about that for a second. Or, just read Chapter 27. It’s epic: “because there was no electricity” runs through it over and over, and it starts off explaining why that was. Even though we’re talking about nearly 100,000 people, they were spread too far and wide across 30,000 square miles of rugged back country to string the tens of thousands of miles of cable between and folks were too poor to pay for it anyway.

Then we hear how hard it was to run a farm, break land, raise animals, keep milk and produce fresh for market, because there was no electricity, how that ran the men and boys ragged from sun up to sun down. Then we move on to the women and girls, hauling water by hand, bent over woodburning stoves in 110-degree kitchens, cooking constantly because everything had to be cooked fresh or canned, because there was no electricity, ironing with 7-pound solid irons heated in the fire.

the irons would burn a woman’s hand. The wooden handle or the potholder would slip, and she would have searing metal against her flesh; by noon, she might have blister
atop blister—on hands that had to handle the rag that had been dipped in salt.

The women of the Hill Country never called the instruments they used every Tuesday
“irons,” they called them “sad irons.”

Caro wrote later about his research, a “New York boy” trying to wrap his head around Americans on the eve of WWII living in 19th-century conditions.

I didn’t know what this meant. They had to show me. Those women would
say to me, “You’re a city boy. You don’t know how heavy a bucket of
water is, do you?” So they would get out their old buckets, and they’d
go out to the no-longer-used wells and wrestle off the heavy covers that
were always on them to keep out the rats and squirrels, and they’d lower
a bucket and fill it with water. Then they’d say, “Now feel how heavy it
is.” I would haul it up, and it was
heavy. And they’d say, “It was too
heavy for me. After a few buckets I couldn’t lift the rest with my arms
anymore.” They’d show me how they had lifted each bucket of water. They
would lean into the rope and throw the whole weight of their bodies into
it every time, leaning so far that they were almost horizontal to the
ground. And then they’d say, “Do you know how I carried the water?” They
would bring out the yokes, which were like cattle yokes, so that they
could carry one of the heavy buckets on each side.

Sometimes these women told me something that was so sad I never forgot it. I
heard it many times, but I’ll never forget the first woman who said it
to me. She was a very old woman who lived on a very remote and isolated
ranch–I had to drive hours just to get out there–up in the Hill
Country near Burnet. She said, “Do you see how round-shouldered I am?”
Well, indeed, I had noticed, without really seeing the significance,
that many of these women, who were in their sixties or seventies, were
much more stooped and bent than women, even elderly women, in New York.
And she said: “I’m round-shouldered from hauling the water. I was
round-shouldered like this well before my time, when I was still a
young woman. My back got bent from hauling the water, and it got bent
while I was still young.”

LBJ was the son of a legislator. He’d been taught by his father that “the duty of government is to help people who are caught in the tentacles of circumstance.” He later described his first campaign as consisting of a one-word platform: ” Roosevelt.” Elected at 28, he brought electric power (with FDR’s help) to the Hill Country by the time he’d reached 38.

Power? Political capital? Imagine the payoff from bringing 100,000 people out of the Dark Ages in less than a decade.

Now, let’s come back to where Athenae started, withmcjoan‘s quote:

would Obama get his strength and leadership numbers up if he directly
took on the insurance industry and the Republicans? I suspect so, and I
suspect that the best, most popular way to do that is by embracing a
strong, trigger-free, public option.

2009 ain’t 1937, Obama isn’t LBJ, and we should never underestimate the entrenchment of the corporate state, rooted as it is on our own bent backs. That’sour yoke. We are America’s round-shouldered wage slaves.

And it’s not just that they want us to stay bent over. More than that, they don’t want a competitor, be it president, party, or mindset that allows us finally to stand up straight. If just the freakingpromise of change got us here, imagine how actual substance might pay off. It should go without saying I’m not just talking about Republicans or Conservatives here. A lot is riding on our bent backs staying bent, including the aspirations of way too many Democratic politicians invested in the status quo.

Which is why we sit here now, not knowing who or what we can trust.

8 thoughts on ““It got bent when I was still young”

  1. I understand that Republicans don’t want the Democrats to enact health care for everyone because that would mean those people would forevermore vote Democrat.
    And you know, that’s a valid complaint. Politics and policy do have to live side by side.
    But you know what, Republicans?
    Capture those voters for yourselves with something other than fear that the queers are gonna make them worship Black Jesus without guns. Or whatever your appeal is. You think that those people in the Texas Hill Country wouldn’t have voted for LBJ no matter what? He could’ve been caught with a dead male Russian hooker, and they would’ve cast those votes for LBJ, all the way.
    Then you’ll have truly enviable job security, and a more-than-passing chance to avoid Hell.

  2. Oh, and my grandmother (mom’s mom) had a back like that. She picked cotton in Clay County, Mississippi, instead of going to school. She died in 2004, having somehow survived for over 80 years.

  3. Damn, V-tex, that’s a hella post. My grandmother is from Corpus Cristi, and she’s 95. I think I need to talk to her about her past some more.

  4. so, when we were a the cottage, grandpa use us grandkids as slave hauling the water up from the lake? hmm, my shoulders are strong.

  5. I remember some of this. I have an old newspaper clipping of LBJ and my grandfather, from 1938, when LBJ was running for his second term, and giving a speech in San Angelo.
    I think REA brought in electricity to the farm in 1943 or `44, but my grandfather had some before that. Not much, mind you, but a little. He’d installed a 6v WinCharger to charge the radio’s batteries and so my grandmother could have a light in the chicken coop, and they could have maybe one light in the house.
    There were hand pumps for water, but, fortunately, they were fed from a concrete tank filled by old Aermotor windmill (which are still being built by Aermotor in San Angelo).
    The hand-cranked, party line telephone was probably the last legacy of those times to go. It lasted until the late `60s.

  6. Hard to imagine but a lot of poor folks couldn’t even afford a windmill. My mother grew up north of Mason and one set of her grandparents couldn’t afford a windmill OR a well (paying someone to dig through 70 or 80 feet of rock) plus there was no guarantee of wind. They hauled all their water from the river.

  7. Absolutely. My mother (who’s only 70) didn’t have electricity on the farm till she was about ten, even though the high lines ran within a half-mile from the house. “No profit” the utility company said, to run a line to them. So my mother hauled buckets of water as a little girl.
    Public utilities should NOT be private. They should be public. Private utilities are theft.

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