WELCOME TO THE CHAIN GANG, by Art Smukler, author & psychiatrist

The term “Chain Gang” brings to mind an image of Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. Bare-chested, sweat dripping down his forehead, he swings a pickaxe as guards with dead eyes and no sense of humor stand ready with their shotguns cocked and loaded. Summer in Mississippi is not pleasant.

How about another image? Picture a 15-year-old student in a cold basement, shadows projected on the hard cement floor from mufflers hanging from the ceiling, sweating as he crimps together long rows of chain with connector links. After he completes two rows of chains, he places the chains in sturdy cardboard boxes labeled snow chains, and then does it all again, all day. His knees burn, his back aches, and his mind is on a different planet. It’s storming outside, and upstairs in the store, there’s a run on chains. In the background a deep baritone sings Old man River, but only in the mind of the 15-year-old. December in Philadelphia is not pleasant.

Yeah, it was tough down there in the basement of GI Joe’s Auto Accessory store, my uncle’s business. It would be nice, as an author, to extol the virtues of how I overcame torture and abuse to become the man I am today. Sadly, my uncle didn’t provide any torture or abuse. He was one of the sweetest men I’ve ever known. He gave me the opportunity to make money, bought us all lunch, and treated every employee with respect and dignity.

So what did he give me besides a person to respect and emulate? He gave me the chance to dream. Down there in the dark basement filled with cobwebs and dust, I survived the unpleasant hours with an active fantasy life — the dark-haired girl with the ponytail who maybe glanced at me for an extra second, the Chevy Impala with white-wall tires and dual exhaust pipes, and the smile on Doctor K’s face when I asked him how the heart worked. For two bucks an hour, I learned how to do something I hated, to never give up, and to grudgingly feel a sense of accomplishment. To achieve anything in life, we have to learn to do things that are distasteful.

The fantasies of our youth are the foundation of our stories and who we eventually become. Are children today being given the opportunity to dream? Is there any time left between, iPads, computers, organized sports, TV and play dates? Do they have anytime to actually figure out who they are?

Don’t forget to subscribe to Inside the Mind of a Psychiatrist.

7 thoughts on “WELCOME TO THE CHAIN GANG, by Art Smukler, author & psychiatrist

  1. Although my son has all the gadets any kid desires, my husband and I make it a point to talk to him every day and listen to him and ask him questions. His responsibilities grow each day and we stress accountability. He’s in first grade and asks for chores to do. It’s kind of funny. Great post!


  2. Those people who have the tough childhood with some benevolent mentor such as your uncle still exist. It’s just that we don’t see them. Our kids and grandkids and all their friends are the cyber generation. They have their difficulties, but they are not the same problems we had as children, but hopefully they will still become good citizens as long as we keep working at instilling the values that Uncle Joe taught. Have faith!!


  3. Children need to left to be bored once in a while, that way they learn to use their own minds. There are too many people these days who think you have to fill their children’s days with ‘educational’ experiences, they drive them all over the place to one thing or another and never give them a chance to sit and think for themselves.
    There should be classes in daydreaming in schools 🙂 Although I used to do that anyway no matter what the subject… except biology of course, my mother taught that one.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s