Thankful for work digging ditches

NEMiss.News Thankful for digging ditches
November 25th, 2021     Editorial Opinion Featured News


Manual labor is considered low value work. Digging ditches may be the lowest of the low. Dirty work. Parents urge their children to “get an education, so you won’t end up digging ditches.”

I have never understood that. I grew up in a family of farmers in Callaway County, Missouri. For my father, my uncles, most of my cousins, and for me, manual labor was part of everyday life. None of us considered it undignified. In fact, we looked down upon people who were unwilling to work with their hands.

Even members of my family who owned a great deal of good farmland, big herds of livestock and nice comfortable homes, prosperous people, thought nothing of getting their hands dirty, shoveling manure out of barnyards, digging post holes with a human-powered device with two long wooden handles, and so forth. We “bucked” hay bales, 40 – 60 pounds each, throwing them onto flatbed trucks or wagons, then stacking them in barn lofts, where the temperature regularly exceeded 120 degrees under a tin roof in July. It was a regular part of life.

During high school, many of us hired out on hay hauling crews. We earned two cents a bale, cash of course, and at the end of the summer it amounted to what was, for teenagers at that time, a nice little pile of money. Those who played high school sports were in condition to push around the town boys who had been lying about the country club all summer, swimming, playing golf and tennis. A few of the town boys got smart and hired on as hay hands. Some of them held up to it fine.

All of this was, of course, a long time ago. The family farms were bought up by Union Electric Company of St. Louis in the 1970s. UE built a big nuclear power plant with a hundred-foot concrete cooling tower more-or-less in the middle of 3,600 acres my great-great-great grandfather had received as a government grant in 1816.

UE pulls water out of the Missouri River two miles away to keep the thing from overheating and blowing up.

Progress. No one of my family actually farms any more. A few own farms, but they put the land into government programs that produce a little cash or tax write offs or both. The land of course grows in value.

As in North Mississippi, dirty manual labor is pretty much a thing of the past for most people in Callaway County.

Although I’ve never made a living at it, I have never entirely broken the habit of digging in the dirt. Maybe a genetic thing.

Recently, my wife and I bought a house, which we are renovating. The previous owner had neglected the property, including allowing the lawn around the house to “degrade” as lawns may do over time, with multiple layers of grass clippings, poorly maintained gutters and so forth. The house has a “conventional” foundation, so water had pooled under the house, causing dry rot in some of the timbers.

A few weeks ago, a carpenter and crew spent several days repairing the damage, replacing some floor joists and timbers with “treated” lumber.

Having spent a good deal of money on that, we didn’t want the water to keep running under the house. We needed to repair the grading and dig some trenches, so water would run away from the building, not back under it.

I decided to dig the ditches myself. The ditches didn’t need to be very wide or deep and will eventually amount to less than a hundred feet in total length. I got a couple of shovels out of my tool shed, one of which I believe my father used 80 or more years ago.

Before going any further I should mention that I have been treated for congestive heart failure for 25 years. I have a related problem with an irregular heartbeat, probably congenital. I have been cared for by two cardiologists, Dr. W. B. Calhoun, Jr. and Dr. James E. Stone, of Cardiology Associates in Tupelo. Bo Calhoun and Jim Stone and their associates have done close to 20 total hours of heart surgery and procedures on me during those 25 years. Two years ago, Jim installed the fourth implantable cardio-defibrillator (ICD) in my upper left chest; the first three had worn out.

My family and friends told me I had “no business out there digging ditches.” Calhoun and Stone, however, basically told me not to “overdo it,” and reminded me that my ICD limits my heart to not more than 72 beats per minute.

So, I dig slowly. Dig for 15-20 minutes, then rest for 20-30 minutes to give my heart time to catch up. It has taken a month of digging and resting to accomplish the 70 or so feet of ditches I have dug.

As ditch digging goes, it’s not pretty work. One ditch runs directly perpendicular to the street, so is noticeably crooked. (I recall my Uncle Clifford telling the story of my grandfather making him and two mules plow under and re-plant five acres of corn, when the the bright green little corn shoots came up in crooked rows. S. P. Shiverdecker was mortified that his neighbors might observe such work in one of his fields.)

However, on this Thanksgiving Day I am profoundly thankful that I have been able, nearing my 74th birthday, to do my little bit of manual labor, digging my little ditches, imperfect as they are.

I am thankful for the health that I do have. I am thankful for Bo Calhoun, Jim Stone, Todd Sandroni and all the others at Cardiology Associates. I am thankful for all those smart boys and girls, who work as electrical engineers at Boston Scientific and elsewhere, designing the electronic devices that give me, in significant part, an artificial heart.

I am thankful for a great wife and daughter, for friends, for plenty to eat, a library full of books, a comfortable home, for having all I need and more.

And I am thankful for my little dab of getting my hands dirty digging ditches. Not much water is running under that old house on this rainy Thanksgiving Day, 2021.


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