To the Editor of the Atlantic: —
Most of the people who get letters printed in your magazine are not like me, for I have never been to college, and at present I work in a Greek restaurant as a waitress. Besides this I have three children to look out for. Just the same I have feelings. I don’t need anyone to tell me the world could be a whole lot better. For instance, I would like to be free once in a while, for I am only twenty-five years old after all, but no matter how I break my neck working this never happens. It is wrong, it is not fair. But I will tell you something. Please don’t depend on me for a way out. I can only put down what I feel.
I am a Russian. My father and mother used to work in a Finishing Company in Norwich, Connecticut. My father worked in the dyehouse. All day long he stood in the wet with rubber boots on. In time he bought a farm so he could live the way he used to in the old country. I was born on this farm. As soon as I was old enough I took turns milking before going to school. How romantic I was, like the girl in the movies. In the summer when I had to pick millions of those striped bugs off our potato plants I used to watch the airplanes and wish one would land and carry me away with it. I was tall and very strong for my age, with light hair. I wore dungarees like a boy. My mother called me jivaya. You can picture it. The soil was cool and damp under my bare feet on summer mornings. I will never forget it.
When my father died my mother married again. My brothers left home, for my stepfather, who was a Russian too, was hungry for money and had a bad temper. The first summer after leaving high school, when I was eighteen, I married an Italian boy. I left Norwich and came to Massachusetts. For a while I lived with my husband’s people. In this house I found out how hard others can be simply because they are too lazy or too busy to understand.
While living with my husband I had three children, two sons and later a daughter. That is all I have ever accomplished, and that just happened. But what is the difference, really? It would be so nice if I could be a doctor, a lawyer, or a private secretary in a nice office. And yet I notice that educated women pay no attention to me at work or anywhere else. Not one has stopped me on the street and asked how things are going. Educated women are not so wonderful. I saw them all the time when I worked in a Johnson stand. It is foolishness to be so afraid, for that is what is wrong with them. It would do us both good to talk to each other.
But I have my three children anyway. They are healthy like me and maybe some good will come out of them. It is worth the risk. Like the other women who write letters, I am afraid my sons may die in a war. But, looking at it from the other side, perhaps they can stop war. Why not? Besides, I would be ashamed to have no children. That is the way Russians are.
All the important people here are Yankees. They are Republicans, and they want to hold down those who came last and make them scratch like starved chickens for what is left. They never try to even things up. That is why I never vote Republican. I don’t believe much in politicians anyway. Men who earn their living by talking give me a headache and make me afraid. If they had to work one month every year in the dyehouse it would sober them up.
The Yankees don’t bother me, though. I have a job. I earn eight dollars a week and my meals. I have two rooms — my dungeon, as I say — and someone takes care of the kids when I’m away. Once in a while when I think of them I almost faint, but that goes away. My back gets tired, and when I get home I could sleep on the floor. Sometimes the oil burner runs out, and I can’t get to bed until it is going again. But here I am.
You will think, ‘What a queer life she has!’ Just the same, I can be happy. I like to sing songs in the house and to be near my children. I even like to wash the floor. Then it is nice to walk in the woods, especially in the rain when it is mizzling. I like to go swimming and get tanned and see the people in bright colors on the beach. But to tell the truth it is the spring of the year I like best. Then I am a new person, as if I had taken a bath. Russian children walk round the church three times on Easter morning and afterwards sing together — Christ has risen. I feel like that in the spring, like laughing to myself and smiling over nothing at all.
But I will tell you something. What a woman like me needs most of all is a man to stand by her. A Russian woman without a man might as well be half crippled. I can’t be looking up into the sky all the time, and I can’t talk to the clouds. We say in Russian that love holds the world on its back. This is true. If a woman has someone to think of her first she feels safe even if she isn’t. Then she can take care of her family, and a small part of the world can be good. Then she can have time to think in the evening.
Perhaps for some women my way is no good. But you would be surprised to know how proud I am inside. Nobody orders me around too much. It works for me. We all change with time, but this is what I think at present when I am twenty-five.
To the Editor of the Atlantic: —
I graduated from one of our large Midwestern state universities in 1934, with a Master of Science degree in physics, at the age of twenty-two. I am now employed in the development department of one of the large oil refineries here in northern Indiana.
I should like to tell a few unemployed people how I got that job. I simply wrote a letter and asked for it. I had seen some of the boys in my class lamenting the fact that they had no jobs waiting for them when they graduated. I had seen something else too — they did not seem to be hunting a job very diligently. I found a magazine on the shelf of our library listing over 1500 industrial laboratories in the United States. I chose the addresses of five of them and wrote them each a letter simply stating I wanted employment, and asked them for application blanks. Out of those five I was successful in getting a position and was on the job within two weeks.
I am now one of the thousands of shift workers in the industrial system of the United States. We are the men who must work at night — not just until late at night, but all night. We are the individuals who keep the necessary processes going in factories that cannot be shut down. Our oil refineries have stills that must be kept in operation twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a common year, and 366 days on leap year. Our steel mills have furnaces that must be tended continuously.
In the plant where I work, we work five days a week, in cycles of three shifts, shifting once a week. The first week we call the day turn, 8 A.M. to 4 P.M. The next week we work from 4 P.M. to midnight, and the next week from midnight to 8 A.M. in the morning. This last is the shift I was referring to when I said we work all night.
The first time I ever worked this midnight shift, as it is called, I nodded and blinked until it was unbearable. I was appointed to take readings every hour on the ‘gravity’ of the fractions of oil coming from the experimental still. The operator of the still has little more to do than watch certain gauges and instrument dials, so we tell stories, read magazines smuggled in, or play battleships. We are subject to immediate discharge if found asleep by the night watchman. I often wonder who keeps him awake.
First I tried eating lunch at two o’clock in the morning, but that seemed too early. Then I reasoned I should eat it at four in the morning because that would correspond to noon on the day turn. But that was too late — I hated to wait that long. No matter what we try, it is still sleep that every fibre in a person’s anatomy cries for. I finally compromised by eating at three o’clock.
The first night on each series of midnight shifts is the worst one. There is a sort of friendly feeling among men out for this shift. One of the main questions on it is ‘How many more midnights have you?’
About six in the morning there is definitely a lull in the progress of the whole world. It is similar to that I have read of in articles about soldiers on the firing line. They claim that just before the sun rays start to brighten the eastern sky there is a lull — a certain hesitancy in the atmosphere — time seems to stand still. It seems as if something were going to burst all of a sudden, but it never does.
But soon after the lull the world begins to awaken as the sun rises. Then by eight o’clock we have washed and are wide-awake and anxious to get home.
That is the trouble — we are too wideawake. At first I tried going to bed without breakfast, but I felt so miserable that I ate a bite just to try something different. But, breakfast or no breakfast, I could not sleep through the day a decent eight hours. I would wake up about one o’clock with a dull tired feeling across my forehead. My tongue seemed too large for my mouth. My muscles ached, and I would try to recall how sleepy I was just before the sun rose, but it did not do any good.
Since I got no sleep during the day, I tried waiting until the afternoon to sleep from one until nine that evening. But I was so tired and irritable waiting for the afternoon to come that I thought I might as well be lying down.
It is surprising to me that so many men work this kind of schedule without being given any advice, scientific or otherwise, on how to adjust themselves to it. You feel as though you were battling all the instincts a million years in the making when you try to stay up nights and sleep days. The system rebels, your heart flutters, your ears ring as they have never rung before, you dream wild dreams; and when the time comes for you to go to work that night you would take a dime for your job and give a nickel back for change. But on the results of the labors of us shift workers lie the products of industry on which our modern civilization is based. We make it possible for civilization to have cars and gasoline to burn in them. We make electricity available, steel trains and rails, and many other articles of heavy industry. We hope the world appreciates it.
CARL A. BENZ