Opinion

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Warren's World

Twelve Cents an Hour

Lurching from one near disaster to another ...

It can only rain this hard in Washington, Oregon or Guadalcanal. The tires aquaplaned on the river running down the middle of the eastbound highway headed for Mount Hood, just east of Portland. We had passed dozens of automobile agencies that were devoid of customers and drowning in unsold merchandise. For a weekend, at least, we would be able to ignore the TV pundits talking about the worldwide financial crisis.

Our destination was Timberline Lodge, one of the best examples in America of rugged western architecture and construction. Its massive beams, fireplaces and hand-crafted ironwork are something that you will never see built again anywhere in the world.

I was traveling to give a speech to The Friends of Timberline, who have raised a lot of money and refurbished the lodge to its pre-World-War-II status.

I talked that night to a group of supporters of this national treasure. It is hard to believe that all of the work was done in the mid-1930s in the middle of the worst depression in the history of America.

This was a time when 25 percent of the men in America, who had a skill and could work for a living, could not find a job because there were none. President Roosevelt had inaugurated the Work Progress Administration. It created projects such as Timberline and offered jobs to the men who could somehow get there. They came from all over America, walking, hitchhiking or riding the rails. Mississippi, Connecticut, Georgia, California – it didn’t matter where they came from there was work here and a day’s pay for a day’s work. These skilled men were paid with a place to sleep along with three meals a day and $20 a month. That $20 in most cases was mailed home to their families so they could somehow survive. Their wages were an hourly rate of approximately 12 cents. That’s right, 12 cents an hour for hand hewing timbers, mixing and pouring concrete and building rock fireplaces. But they created a spiritual and architectural treasure that skiers and visitors from all over the world can still enjoy 365 days a year.

The morning after my speech I was talking to the children of a friend of mine, and telling them about my life during the Great Depression and what it was like to work during that time. Of course they couldn’t conceive of someone working for just over 10 cents an hour. They couldn’t believe that I once worked in a grocery store on Saturdays for 10 cents for an entire day. I was the only kid in my fourth-grade class at the time who had a job. I went on to tell them that when they are my age, 70 years from now, they will be telling their grandchildren that they really worked for slave wages of only $15 an hour mowing lawns when they were in high school in 2008.

The kids I talked with were up at Timberline to start another ski season. As we drove down from Timberline Lodge later in the morning, I listened to a radio interview of a pro football player who had just lost a game somewhere in a stadium full of people who paid upwards of $100 each to watch him. I knew that he was earning $12 million a year smashing into other people once a week and in this three-minute interview he used the phrase “you know” 37 times. I wondered how someone could earn that much money playing every Sunday afternoon for four months a year and not bother to learn how to communicate. Will he be affected by the current financial crisis? Of course not, because he has enough money and enough managers to take care of his money. He has a very special talent in the entertainment business and apparently is entitled to earn that hourly rate of pay. But his rate of pay is a far cry from the man who rode the rails from Alabama to build the Timberline Lodge.

If you are anywhere within driving distance of this great lodge, set the time aside and visit it. Study the photos of it in all of its winter grandeur and be thankful that you live in much better times than during the Great Depression, when it was being built by men earning $20 a month or about 12 cents an hour.

For more stories and stuff: e-mail Warren @WarrenMiller.net