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?
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