My next battle started around the dinner table on Christmas Day, 2016, and I’m not talking about the fight for the last piece of Aunt Sabra’s blueberry pie.
It began when cousin John asked me what I thought I was going to do in the way of earning a living. Hartland wasn’t exactly a boom town, and hadn’t been for a good hundred years. I said I was thinking of farming. That, along with sailing or soldiering, was what we Rumfords usually ended up doing, and like most Marines I’d seen enough of boats to last me a while.
“What you gonna faam?” John asked, the flat, nasal “a” instead of “r” suggesting he hadn’t been outside Maine much.
“Waal,” I said, talking Down East myself, “I thought I might try soybeans.”
“Don’t see them much up heah.”
“Didn’t see wine up heah either ‘til Wyly put in his vineyard. I gather his wine is selling pretty well now,” I said.
“I’ll tell you why you don’t see soybeans up here or on many other family farms,” said Uncle Fred. “It’s oil from soybeans that makes money, and the federal government makes it just about impossible to transport soybean oil or any other vegetable oil unless you’re a big corporation. Under federal regulations, vegetable oil is treated the same as oil from petroleum when it comes to shipment. You’ve got to get a hugely expensive Certificate of Financial Responsibility to cover any possible oil spill. You’ll never get the capital to get started.”
“But vegetable oil and petroleum are completely different. That doesn’t make any sense,” I replied.
“I didn’t say it made sense, I just said that’s what Washington demands. It makes no sense at all. Spilled vegetable oil is no big problem. It’s biodegradable. But the federal government mandates a spill be cleaned up the same way for both, even though that’s unnecessary. You need to scoop up any petroleum product if it spills, especially into water. But if you just let vegetable oil disperse, bacteria will eat it up. Anyway, the government doesn’t care that we lose hundreds of millions of dollars each year in vegetable oil that isn’t produced or exported. The bottom line is, as a small farmer, you can’t do it.”
Great, I thought. First politics gets me thrown out of the Marine Corps, now it’s trying to keep me from farming. “Okay, I’ll grow potatoes. We certainly grow enough of those here in Maine,” I said.
“Only land up at the Old Place that’ll grow potatoes is the bottom land. Government won’t let you do that neither,” said cousin John.
This was starting to get old. “What do you mean the government won’t let me grow down there? That’s the best land on the place. The rest is just rock,” I replied.
“It’s the EPA, the so-called ‘Environmental Protection Agency,” answered Uncle Fred. “They declared all that ground a ‘protected wetland‘ a couple years ago. It’s yours, or ours, but it might as well be on the moon for all the good it does us. We can’t touch it.”
Protected wetland? Hell, I didn’t plan to grow potatoes in the ponds. “That’s our property. We’ve owned it since Andrew Jackson was President. And most of it’s dry. How can they tell us we can’t farm it?” I asked, betraying how much those of us in the military got out of touch at times.
That got the whole table smiling the thin smile that passes for a good laugh among New Englanders. “Property rights don’t mean squat any more,” said Uncle Earl, who was the town lawyer. “The government just tells you what to do or what not to do and dares you to fight them. They have thousands of lawyers, all paid by your tax money, and they can tie you up in court for years. You got a few hundred thousand extra dollars you’d like to spend on legal fees?”
I didn’t, nor did anyone else, I gathered. “So we’re helpless, is what you’re saying?” I asked.
“Pretty much, unless you’ve got a lot of money for lawyers or to buy some politicians and get them in on your side,” said Earl. “It doesn’t even matter if the law is with you, because you can’t afford the fight and they can. If they lose, it means nothing to them; they still get their paychecks from the government. If you lose, you’re finished, and even if you win, you’re usually finished because the legal fight has left you bankrupt. What it comes down to is that we’re not a free country any more.”
“What King George III was doing to us in 1776 wasn’t a hill of beans compared to this,” I said. “We didn’t take it then. Why are we taking it now?”
At that point, the women turned the conversation to how Ma’s stuffing was the best they’d ever had. It always was.
Early next year, that year being 2017, I stopped in at Hartland’s one industry, the tannery. My old high school buddy Jim Ebbitt was the personnel department there, and this matter of earning an income was beginning to press a bit on my mind. But I knew the tannery always had some kind of opening, and after my years in the infantry I didn’t mind getting my hands dirty. They didn’t call us “earth pigs” for nothing.
Jim was glad to see me, but he couldn’t give me any good news. “Sorry,” he said, “but like every American company, we’re having to cut jobs, not add ʻem. The problem is this “free trade” business. What it means is that American workers are up against those in places like Mexico, Haiti, and now all of central and south America, since they expanded NAFTA into AFTA and took in the whole hemisphere. Labor costs now get averaged across national boundaries; it pulls their wages up and pushes wages here down. Of course, we don’t actually cut wages, but with inflation rising, we don’t need to. We just keep wages steady and cut the number of jobs. Maybe that will keep this plant in business. Then again, maybe it won’t. In any event, it means if I had a job to offer you, and I don’t, you’d quickly find yourself getting poorer, not richer, if you took it.”
“But you just put a lot of money into this plant,” I replied. “Hell, it used to stink up the whole town. Now you can’t smell it. Maybe that EPA does some good after all.”
“You think so?” asked Jim. “You’re right that we had to clean up our processes here, and we did put some money into the place. But the main thing we did was move most of the work on the fresh hides to Mexico. That cut 23 jobs here, jobs now held by Mexicans. I guess you can’t make Mexico stink any worse than it already does.”
“And the EPA still isn’t done with us,” he added. “They’ve got another investigation going now, which will cost us tens of thousands in legal fees even if that’s all it does. Seems they think we’re still doing something to the river.”
“River looks clean to me,” I replied.
“It is clean. It’s cleaner than it’s ever been, at least since industry, and jobs, first came to this valley. But that doesn’t count to bureaucrats in Washington. They’ve told us we might have to build a full water treatment plant, which would cost us millions. If they rule that way, it’ll be the end of the company here. It would take us 50 years to pay off that debt. There’s not that much money in leather any more, not up against the foreign competition.”
I thanked Jim for his time and drove back to the Old Place. My mind was no easier. Next day I’d pull my last ace out of my sleeve and go see my cousin, who had a car restoration place down near Pittsfield. I knew he was doing well, restoring old cars and selling them to the Summer People.
“Sure,” Ed said, when I stopped in on him, “business is good and I need a couple folk. I know you’d do good work. But I can’t offer you or anyone else around here a job. EEOC won’t let me.”
“EEOC?” I’d heard the initials, but didn’t know much more about it.
“The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They come around and tell you how many blacks, Hispanics, women, whatever you have to hire. Of course, all my employees are white, because everybody up here is white. I guess Maine winters are kinda hard on black folk and those from south of the border. Anyway, that doesn’t count with them. They’ve issued an order that the next six people I hire must be blacks. The effect, of course, is that I can’t hire anyone, not even you.”
This was the nuttiest thing I’d heard yet. “You must be kidding,” I replied. “How can they make you hire blacks where there aren’t any?”
“I don’t know,” Ed said. “But I can’t fight the EEOC in court. I’m a small business and can’t afford it. I just can’t expand, is what it comes down to. And you know how badly we need jobs up here.”
I did, from growing personal experience. “But someone must care that this is completely absurd,” I said. “There has got to be a limit somewhere to what Washington can do to us.”
“If there is, I don’t know where,” Ed replied, obviously a beaten man.
“You and I, and most folk up here, are members of the middle class. That means the government doesn’t do anything for us, it only does things to us. If you know a way to change that, I’d like to hear it. But these days, unless you’re some kind of “minority,” you don’t have any rights. Frankly, it’s just not our country any more.”
That summed it up pretty well. Somewhere along the line, in the last 30 years or so, somebody had taken our country away from us.
We remembered what our country was like. It was a safe, decent, prosperous place where normal, middle class people could live good lives.
And it was gone.
I was beginning to think that what I wanted to do was help take our country back. How I could do that, and how I could earn a living, were both puzzles. But where there’s a will, God often opens a way.