It’s a dirty job, but…

I was cleaning the bathrooms today, and started thinking about the Navy. There might not seem to be a connection, since I’ve never been in the Navy, but trust me, we’ll get there.

It’s Wednesday, and that means it’s household-chores-day for me. My wife and I have an understanding about these things. First, they have to be done, and done on a weekly basis. Sue is a meticulous housekeeper–just as good as my mother was, which is saying something–and when we moved into our house together in 1994, I knew that I’d have to step up my game in that department. Since leaving home for college 19 years before, I had been, shall we say, somewhat lax in that very important department. There are a lot of reasons for keeping a house clean and neat, and not too many to let things get dirty and cluttered. But, I was coming out of a relationship in which my spouse didn’t place a lot of importance in that area, and I had to shoulder most of that burden myself, along with raising two kids and holding down a full-time job. Something is going to give in that kind of setup, and usually that was housekeeping. What should have been weekly chores turned into biweekly chores, and so on. You know how that goes. The longer you wait, the worse it gets. So, in many ways, I was ready and eager to step up to a new standard.

My main chores on Wednesdays are, in no particular order: get the garbage ready for tomorrow morning’s pickup, clean the main floor and upstairs bathrooms, make the bed (Sue puts the sheets in the washer before she leaves for work), empty the dishwasher if it’s done a load, and assorted other items that may have presented themselves. It’s a roster that keeps me busy for one or two hours, which is okay, because I will get home from work and my noon-hour swim about three hours before Sue arrives. So, the house is pretty spick and span when she gets home. Husbands discover pretty quickly that wives are always happy to come home to a clean house.

My main floor bathroom, after today’s cleaning. I even puffed up the Kleenex in the dispenser.

I know that some men would be put off by their wives requesting them to clean even one bathroom, much less two, but I don’t mind. Somebody’s got to do it, after all, and if it’s done once a week, nothing gets terribly dirty. Both jobs tend to go pretty quickly, perhaps a little too quickly for Sue’s taste, but she’s never timed me and as long as it gets done properly, she doesn’t care about the time involved.

How much housework should a husband do? When I was growing up, my parents had clearly-delineated areas of authority. My mother was in charge of keeping the interior of the house clean and neat, and my dad handled the exterior, which included the yard. He was also the one who had to keep the garage and the basement in some measure of order. Dad also kept the family’s cars clean and serviced. As our family grew, Dad got a break because Mom bore him three boys, who all had to pitch in with “guy chores” as we got older. I started mowing the lawn at age 8, for example. If one or two of us had turned out to be girls, undoubtedly they would have been drafted into the indoor cleaning brigade. But Mom soldiered nobly on, occasionally asking us to help out with things like dusting, vacuuming and washing dishes. And we knew better than to say no to those requests, because if we did, Dad would quickly get involved, and we knew whose side he’d be taking.

Tradition sometimes plays a big role in how newly-married couples divvy up the work, other times it’s just a matter of convenience. A few years back, somebody actually took an academic look at the situation:

These days, couples share the chores a lot more than their parents or grandparents used to.
In the old days, women did almost all indoor chores, and even though they (apparently) looked quite stylish while cleaning, they probably could’ve used some help from hubby.

About that Navy connection…

So there I was, scrubbing the toilet, when for some reason I recalled a news story from some years back. It might’ve been on 60 Minutes, or some other TV newsmagazine, about a new recruit’s life in the U.S. Navy. Apparently the TV crew had spent some time on board a ship, an aircraft carrier if I recall, and profiled some of the jobs held by the sailors. Even on a small ship, there’s a lot to do, and most of the jobs aren’t as glamorous as the ones we see in the movies–flying fighter planes, launching missiles, tracking submarines. Those kinds of jobs require very specialized skills that are developed only through years of training. While those sailors have the jobs that get all the press, there are a lot of other crew members who have jobs that aren’t nearly as exciting, but still have to be done. Like scrubbing toilets, for example.

The TV piece showed a young male sailor cleaning the head. He wasn’t happy. This wasn’t what he signed up to do, he told the camera. I don’t recall if he said what he actually did sign up to do, or what his goal in the service might’ve been, but the implication was that this poor fellow had somehow been hoodwinked by the brass, and instead of being a hotshot pilot or ace radar operator or maybe a nuclear engineer, he was stuck cleaning toilets. How demeaning.

I also recall that the reporter then interviewed the captain of the ship, asking him specifically about this young sailor. The skipper replied that everybody has a job on the ship, every job is important and this particular seaman would have plenty of opportunities to advance to more consequential jobs if he worked hard and stayed focused. That seemed perfectly logical to me. I don’t remember the reporter’s reaction, but I doubt if he was impressed.

The USS Gerald Ford, the newest of our 11 active carriers, was commissioned in 2017 and carries a crew of over 4500 sailors.

With all those people in such an enclosed space–the Ford is 1100 feet long and only 256 feet across at its widest point, on the flight deck–there’s going to be an awful lot of activity, going on 24 hours a day. The ship doesn’t shut down at 9pm so everybody can watch some TV and get a full night’s sleep. Just feeding all those sailors three squares a day is a monumental job. Imagine running a food service where you are open around the clock and prepare over 13,000 meals every day, and that doesn’t include snacks. A Nimitz-class aircraft carrier has 130 bathrooms containing a total of 430 commodes, and they all get extensive use, I’m sure. As inventive as the U.S. Navy is, they haven’t yet invented a toilet that cleans itself.

So, it should be obvious that this particular sailor’s job, while he thinks it is degrading and beneath him, is important. If I’d been the skipper, I might’ve expanded on that to the reporter. Perhaps he did, but it was edited out, probably because it made too much sense: “That sailor may not think so, but he has an important job. There are over 400 toilets on this ship, or one for every ten or twelve people. They’re used around the clock. They have to be cleaned at least once a day. If they don’t get cleaned, what happens? They get dirty, germs accumulate. Sailors who use dirty toilets and bathrooms are more susceptible to sickness. When a sailor gets sick, he or she has to take time off duty. That sailor’s job doesn’t wait for the sailor to get well, it has to be done by somebody else, who is still responsible for their own job. Suppose toilets don’t get cleaned, and a lot of sailors get sick? The ship’s combat readiness suffers. Sailors who are doing extra work to cover for those on the sick list get more tired, and they’re more liable to make mistakes. You can’t have that on a warship. We could be ordered into action at any moment. An enemy missile could come over the horizon any second. If we don’t have as full a complement of healthy, rested, well-fed sailors on duty as possible, at all times, we might not survive an attack, we might not be able to complete our mission, and that will put a lot of American lives at stake, on other ships and perhaps even our families back home. So yeah, that kid’s job is important, wouldn’t you say?”

Wow. I was pretty impressed with myself, I must say. So I finished my bathroom chores–I was doing Sue’s at the time–with a flourish. The defense of the country probably doesn’t rest on whether or not my wife’s bathroom is sparkling-clean, but by God, I was going to do my part.

Colin Powell, our former Secretary of State and, before that, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, wrote that “all work is honorable.” I read that some years ago and never forgot it. I made sure my kids understood what that means. We’ve all had “scut-work” jobs in our time. Hey, I cleaned toilets for a living myself, for my first summer after graduating from high school–and it was at my own alma mater, where I worked as a janitor and groundskeeper before going off to college. It was far from my favorite job, but it put money in my pocket and helped pay for my freshman year at UW-Platteville, where I got a fine education that launched me on the career that I still enjoy today, 46 years after that long, grubby summer.

Everybody’s job is important, no matter what it is or how much it pays.

We’re now finding out just how much those supposedly-menial jobs really mean. As our economy tries to recover from the pandemic, thousands of jobs are going unfilled. Some say it’s because the boosted unemployment benefits many people are getting have stifled their incentive to get out and work. I’ve talked to people in that situation myself. Employers are filling every available advertising space to entice people to come to work, offering high wages, lucrative benefits and even bonuses worth a thousand dollars or more. But apparently, that’s not enough for a lot of the newly-unemployed to come back. As a result, we have to wait longer for our meals at restaurants, we see our supermarket shelves more sparse than they used to be, we wait months for a piece of furniture to be manufactured and delivered. Some commodities have seen prices skyrocket, at least temporarily, due to shortages on the manufacturing end. We are all getting a crash course in Economics 101, and for some people it’s a rude awakening. For others, it’s a ride on Easy Street that they don’t intend to get off as long as the politicians keep shoveling other people’s tax money into the trough.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll rise at 4:30 and head off to the radio station. It will be another day on the air, another day of creating commercials for businesses, many of whom are all but begging for employees. At some point during the day, I might idly wonder why I’m not retired. I was, for a few months in 2019, after leaving government service, but then the siren call of radio lured me back in, and one football broadcast a week quickly led to more sports work over the winter and then part-time studio work and then, as of last March 1, a full-time position. As I’ve told people, there are days when I would just as soon stay at home and write, or maybe just relax on the deck with a good book, but that paycheck I get every other week goes a long way toward tamping those thoughts down.

All work is honorable, and these days it’s more important than ever. Tomorrow, a lot of people will be relying on me to give them the latest news, the weather forecast, the details of last night’s ballgame. They’ll want to hear some catchy music and laugh at a joke. Our clients will be relying on me to produce effective ads for them. My wife will go to work at her travel agency, helping her clients realize their dreams of getting out there to the exotic lands they weren’t able to visit last year…and she’s been very busy, let me tell you. We’ll do it again on Friday, and then take it easy on the weekend, at least a little.

I’ll be going to La Crosse on Saturday for a memorial service, honoring an old radio colleague who passed away recently, and on the way I’ll have lunch with an old high school buddy, maybe two. And there will be the usual chores for both me and Sue, perhaps with some requiring attention before the weekend. A thunderstorm is ripping through our area as I write this, meaning there will be branches down in the yard and driveway tomorrow. Maybe a tree or two will come down, and I’ll be deploying my chainsaw. In a lot of ways, out here in the country it’s like we’re on the frontier, except we have electricity and running water, which our pioneer ancestors didn’t have.

If you have indoor plumbing, though, that means you have toilets, and they require cleaning. Next Wednesday is only a week away.

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