He Was Essential


In this time of Covid-19 I have found myself thinking of my paternal grandfather, Paul Ulrich, more and more often. He came to the United States on a steamer from Germany around 1912. I never got to meet him because he died at a rather young age a few months before I was born. What little I know of him is garnered from stories from my mother and a cousin who was old enough to have actually met him. I have always wanted to know more about him and painting a picture of him is almost akin to putting together an all red jigsaw puzzle. I’ve had to infer a great deal but I’ve also found documents and scraps of evidence that tell the truth of the kind of person he was.

According the family memories much of the work that he did was typical of immigrants even to this very day. He spent time working on a big farm near what is now the Houston Ship Channel and doing lumbering work in the Beaumont area. Eventually he got a job at the Houston Meat Packing Company that operated on Navigation Street just east of downtown Houston. His job was to clean the area where the butchering of the carcasses took place. It was backbreaking work that bore heavily on his health. My mother often spoke of how her father’s legs were riddled with varicose veins so painful that he had to wrapped them in bandages before going to his job each day. In spite of the hardships his children always boasted that he never missed a single day of work until he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that ultimately lead to his death at the age of sixty five.

I have been reading a great deal about the outbreaks of the coronavirus in meat packing plants across the United States. The essential workers there are on the front line of keeping the supply chain of meat products moving to supermarkets across the country. Sadly conditions in those places have lead to contagion on a massive scale. It is as though the environment of a typical meat packing production line is the perfect place to incubate a virus. The process requires workers to perform their duties without benefit of social distancing in very cold temperatures. Without proper protective gear such places have become like petri dishes for growing Covid-19, making the carrying out the duties one of the single most dangerous jobs in terms of contracting the virus.

As I have heard about the numbers of illnesses and deaths associated with meat packing and Covid-19 I have thought back to my own grandfather who was so much like the people who today work in such places. It is a job that has brutal effects on the body even in good times. During a pandemic it is dangerous, and yet we expect to see our grocery stores filled with our favorite cuts of meat without much thought of the people who are responsible for processing the products. They are all too often simply faceless persons, numbers on a data sheet that mean little to us. I suppose that because my grandfather was once one of them I find myself wondering who they are and how they are doing. My guess is that missing work is out of the question for them just as it was for my grandfather. They not only lose income whenever they are absent but in all probability they will be replaced if they choose not the be present too often.

We take so many of our remarkable resources for granted until they are not available and then we fret and complain, rarely thinking of the people who have been delivering our goods to us. We want whatever we want even as we shelter safely in our homes. The inconveniences bother us and we tend not to associate the hardships of others with our own personal needs. It’s natural to take things for granted when they have always seemed to be there. Ours is a land of plenty that is often the marvel of people the world over. Suddenly the smooth functioning of our systems is struggling to keep up with demands and it is as novel and frightening as the virus itself.

I don’t think that we always fully understand or appreciate the contributions of every person involved in the supply chain of goods and services in our world. We don’t see the long process that brings what we desire to our homes. We don’t think of the slaughter houses or the assembly lines or the person who cleans up the leftover entrails and blood. It’s difficult to imagine how grueling such jobs would become after performing them day after day. Many like my grandfather spend their entire adult lifetimes engaged in what must be terribly unsatisfying and difficult labor.

My grandfather was a collector of books. Each Friday after being paid his wages he would visit a bookstore where he purchased a new volume that he would read in the evenings. His interests were in science, mathematics, agriculture. I learned from perusing a box of old paperwork that he had once purchased land in Richmond, Texas. He told one of my cousins that he hoped to retire and create a farm there. The deed for the property was among the receipts but somewhere along the way, no doubt from necessity, he had to sell the acreage and along with it his dream.

My grandfather was not particularly respected in his neighborhood. He was an immigrant who spoke English with an accent. He had eight children crowded into a tiny house and he never made much money. Some people assumed that they knew him. They even went so far as to say that he and his family were dirty and uneducated and low status. They did not see that he was a man who worked dutifully every single day. He paid his bills, owned his home and died without a single debt in the world. His house was lined with the bookshelves filled with volumes that he had read. He was so much more than just someone who cleaned up a sickening mess over and over again. He was an essential worker in our society, and now because of Covid-19 we should all understand how important he was.


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