Hard Times

Empathy is what makes us human

By Mike Jopek

The old lady was at the grocery store coin machine. She was cashing in a gallon-sized coffee can full of coins to get a coupon that was used at the food store. The machine kept 12 percent for its usury troubles.

If the can held silver coins it would have been worth hundreds. It was full of copper looking coins. The amount could hardly be enough to get much food for the two slender boys that helped the elderly woman push coins down the slot.

I was at the store to get scallops for mom’s dinner guests. The deli clerk wanted to know if I wanted them packed in ice for the hot trip back home. Florida is sweltering, even as winter approaches.

Mom’s friend’s husband worked in the lumber industry. Plum Creek had sold out in Florida. The new owners didn’t need the help of many of the locals. Times were tough. Many people were told that their skills were no longer needed.

A Canadian had bought a timber operation down here to avoid the tariffs that were imposed on imports from across the border. It didn’t seem to slow cheap imports much, lumber just seems more expensive at the yards.

He now hauled for a three-person independent operation on small tracts of private land. Some of the wood they cut was hardwood that was turned into firewood. The better grades went to veneer and crane mats.

Crane mats were logs sawn square and bolted together to float equipment from sinking into the sand. Much of Florida is sand, though inland has some great agricultural lands. Producers grow things like tomatoes, melons, beef and milk. In the Panhandle, it’s silage for struggling dairy operations.

Much of where my parents live feels swampy. The dark water intimidates me. Mom’s dinner friends told me not to worry, gators can’t bite underwater as they’ll drown. But be careful getting to shore, that’s the trouble zone.

I don’t know. I’ll take the grizzly bears and mountain lions of Montana. We laughed. Before departing the Big Sky State to the Sunshine State our outdoor night camera caught a video of a cougar slinking in the yard.

Old-time stories like how people got turpentine to drip from the pine trees are intriguing. The old trees are still out there, carved with vee channels from where the metal was cut into the bark to allow the sap to drip into tin cups.

At dinner we joked about biting sand ants and air boats that cost $40,000. That price can’t be justified by the limit wildlife experts put on silvery fish like mullet. One hundred per day can’t pay for a boat.

Mom has two dogs, a standard poodle and a Jack Russell mix. Her friends had three, named Sugar, Peanut and Gator. The names stuck in my head. My pronunciation seems wrong.

Every time I visit my parents in Florida, I’m reminded how hard people work. People down here work as hard as Montanans. It seems just as much a part of who they are as who we are up north.

I wish the D.C. people who can make a difference in the lives of working people would notice how hard Americans work. Policy makers would do well to come into the swamp country, to visit up north in the mountains where trees grow, or the farmlands where food is produced.

Much manufacturing has vanished, along with it the good paying jobs that build a nation. Replacing high-wage jobs with low-wage service jobs won’t much help pay for food or keep a roof over people’s head.

The old woman in the grocery store counting her coins needs help. Giving is a kind thing to do. Empathy is what makes us human.

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