After I finished my daily tour of world news on-line last night, and after asking myself for the millionth time what do people think they’re doing, a totally forgotten image floated into my mind: I’m driving down a deserted street in a tiny farming village, all of the buildings are empty, and abandoned, some are boarded up, yet old maple trees line the street, and it looks comfortable and attractive. Where did the people go? What happened here?
It wasn’t a dream. During the summer of 1958, I worked for the Allis-Chalmers experimental department in LaPorte, Indiana. I drove a farm tractor on the hay-making crew, testing — read breaking — new prototype farm implements. I guess the engineers figured a seventeen year-old could reveal design defects quicker than adults. I did that, all right. They put me to work on some restored hay fields at the Kingsbury Ordnance Plant, some six miles out of town.
The place gave me the creeps. Mile after mile of these long, brown, anonymous buildings, each one isolated from the other by hundreds of feet, each one surrounded by chain link fences topped with barbed wire, and then miles of earth-mounded concrete bunkers, with rusted railroad tracks crisscrossing everywhere, it looked like something out of WWII movies. That isn’t far from the truth.
The site consisted of 13,454 acres of prime farmland — that’s 21 square miles — in the American breadbasket. I don’t know how the government stole the land, but they had to have done it during the late Thirties, because the plant was up and running six-months before Pearl Harbor. The plant produced artillery shells, 20 mm to 105 mm, and had a peak employment of 20,785 in 1942, half of them women.
That number is hard to explain. The total population of the nearest town, LaPorte, wasn’t that much, so people must have come from all over to work in this plant. I do recall ranks of barracks across the highway, which I now presume housed a good many of them, but many must have braved the bad roads, and awful winters, to commute to work there. Why? It’s a job.
I haven’t experienced a Federal Reserve—induced, FDR friendly, Depression in my lifetime, yet I share the common American concern about jobs. But there are jobs, and then there are jobs. I mean, is taking care of an asthmatic child the same as making white phosphorous artillery shells to burn children to death? We routinely condemn the merchants of death, while we routinely rub elbows with the working stiffs who manufacture their products. Why do they do it? It’s a job.
You know, it isn’t slave labor, and there isn’t a sign that says Work Will Make You Free over the plant entrance, yet, so our munitions workers can quit. I wish they would.
By the way, welcome to Kingsbury: