Having recently joined an organization that exists to save a particular species of trees, the American Chestnut, I thought how odd that their main product on their online store are books. Then I remembered that it was once said in Kingsport, Tennessee, that you could go to town there with a tree and leave with a book.
I grew up at the waning of the Industrial development of the Tri-Cities, in northeast Tennessee and neighboring southwestern Virginia. We used to call it “Upper” east Tennessee. In fact, my dad, two of my mom’s brothers, and my mom’s dad, his brother, and several others in our extended family, worked at “The Press.” In Kingsport you usually worked in one of four places, “The Press,” “The Eastman,” “The Mead,” or “The Glass Plant.” Our family were closely aligned with “The Press.” This place took up more than a whole block of downtown. It had a rail line running beside it to service the freight needs of the plant. Busses took workers from Gate City by our house on the main thoroughfare, to the industries of Kingsport. The Press was a sprawling industry that made books of all kinds. Most of the nation’s books created in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, came from there. Bibles, magazines, textbooks, anything you needed in print, could be produced at this place.
My grandfather ran a book binding machine. He carefully explained to me more than once how he shaped the pages of the book, which were bound in multiple sections, into a flat, curving collection of parts. He glued a saddle across the end, and then applied the covers. He had to service the machine as it ran in production as well. This took expert listening and watchfulness. A kind of shift-work Advent.
Loggers could bring pulpwood to “The Mead” and sell it for paper production. Other wood could go to the chemical plant lying along the banks of the Southfork of the Holston River, “The Eastman.” Some of the chemicals probably went into the dyes used in the various inks of the printing process. You literally could go into town with a tree and come out with a book. I always wondered was it more important to make the book, or have the knowledge to read it.
One day in April, 1963, the Pressman’s union, a subsidiary of the United Steelworkers, broke off talks with the company and called a strike. The strike lasted for years. The fact that there is exactly nine months between the time the press strike began and the time I was born in January, 1964, has not gone unnoticed by me. Strikers have to find things to do with their time.
My grandfather very dilligently plowed gardens in the spring, then went back and disked them. From house to house in Morrison City, up Carter’s Valley, down towards Hawkins County, and back up the streets around our side of the state line, he made himself busy during the strike. He would walk the picket line on days he needed to. Then he’d find something to do. His hopes and dreams were vanishing right before him. He salted the cattle. He sold the calves. He hauled calves for other people who needed them taken to market. He gardened. He hoed. He kept bees. He talked with neighbors. He laughed. He kept quiet solitude. He chewed tobacco, and planted it, and stripped it of its leaves, and hung it in the barn, and graded it, and took it to the warehouse and sold it, and paid taxes to keep the place where he was living, all the while dreaming of his own place on his father’s hill near Bell Ridge.
The labor dispute disrupted his dreams. He lost all his pension. He survived on odd jobs and a small Social Security Check at the time he could retire. He never spoke evil of the union. He never spoke to those he knew of who had crossed the picket line. He tried to play the hand he was dealt. He was able, by God’s grace to get through it. He was the epitome of strength to me.