Ludwig Van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.4 in G Major, Op.58

The summer of 1975 saw me returning to my home town of Mishawaka, Indiana to find work to pay for the upcoming year of college. The factory where I had worked the year before announced they would not hire any college students this summer. So I spent a few weeks looking through want ads and driving around the industrial parks of Elkhart, Indiana.

Elkhart had about a million factories, which had sprung up during the 1960s around the mobile home industry. Back in the late 50s, some guy had the bright idea of building motor and mobile homes outside that town. This was perfect timing–the Eisenhower administration had started funding and building the interstate road system. In the post war boom period, people had a renewed “westward-ho!” spirit and the recreational vehicle (RV) business boomed. Brands like Holiday Rambler, Airstream, and Skyline sprang up and put thousands to work in northern Indiana. The timing and location was right for several other reasons as well. The biggest industrial plant–Studebaker’s auto–went bust in 1963 and put a large chunk of the population out of work. Many of these workers migrated twenty miles eastward to Elkhart.

Choosing Elkhart was a stroke of genius for one final reason–it lay on the northern edge of Amish territory. The Amish had a strong work ethic and would toil away for long hours without organizing into trade unions. They were faithful employees and the minimum wage they earned gave a needed shot of capital into their otherwise barter economy. It allowed them to trade with the outside world. Since they weren’t heavy consumers, they didn’t drive up the prices for the rest of us heathens, so life was pretty cheap.

By the summer of 1975, however, after the OPEC oil embargo, the RV industry hit a slump. The price of gasoline soared–doubling, then tripling–and people started buying smaller cars and cross country travel became more expensive. So there was no work to be had with the big mobile home manufacturers. That is why I felt lucky when one of the place where I had filled out a job application–a lamp assembly plant–called me back and offered me a job.

This position turned out to be a sine cure, that is a cushy job. The plant assembled cheap table and swag lamps from molded glass and brass-plated tin parts that came from Mexico. The plant had three main areas–a loading dock, an assembly line and a storage area. They offered me a job as a jack of all trades, and my duties were to sweep, keep the assembly line stocked with parts, and help load and unload trucks as needed.

I spent most of my time with “the girls.” The girls worked the assembly line. Most of them were high school drop–outs, poor and from the wrong side of the tracks. Some were cute; some were single; some were my age and were married and had a brood of kids; some were older, married and had quiet, sullen husbands. All of them were very nice to me. Their boss was a small dark lady, with long black hair, a squat, wide torso, and a deeply lined rugged face. Doris. She was a kind boss who never yelled. In the morning, she would get the day’s quota from the president and send me to round up the parts and stock the bins for each person on the line with swags, shades, chains, harps, bases and cords. Someone would tune the radio to the local “Light Rock” channel and production would begin.

For the women, the assembly line served as a kind of sewing circle for them. They kept up a running conversation for almost the whole day. They discussed their kids, their husbands or boyfriends, their sex life, recipes, their joys and sorrows. The only time they ever stopped was when a popular song came on that they all liked.  Doris once floored me by singing along to James Taylor’s cover of “How Sweet it Is to Be Loved By You.”

The women didn’t censor their conversation because I was around, and they sometimes talked louder when they wanted to see how I would react. Every so often someone would make a risque remark and everyone would look up to see my reaction. Let’s face it: I was an airhead back then. The job held little that you could call intellectually taxing, and so I spent most of my time lost in day dreams about the wonderful semester I had passed in the French House.

One of my jobs was to assemble cardboard packing boxes. I would fold these into shape and then take them over to an upright stapling machine to reinforce them. One day while stapling, I went into a little reverie and stood motionless for several minutes before the machine. The voice of the foreman brought me around followed by the laughter of the women. “Kurt! What the hell are you doing?” the foreman yelled. “Looks like he’s gone into one of his trances again!” one of the women shouted. But no one punished me for that.

The foreman was generally pretty nice to me. Technically he was in charge of the loading dock but he really knew how everything worked–he understood the flow of goods in and out of the place and how to keep it running smoothly. He would schmooze with the truckers and then come over to the assembly line and joke with the girls to keep them happy. He was maybe 5 or 10 years older than me and was about my size but was a little more muscular. When we weren’t too busy he’d have me sweep or sometimes ask me to help him and his Mexican assistant load or unload a truck.

The loading dock was where the “Men’s Sewing Circle” met. Sometimes the president would come over and swap dirty stories with the foreman and the truckers. My friend Eric Tollar told me that he had read a study about the language of truck drivers. He cited a statistic that said that over 40 percent of a trucker’s speech is made up of swear words. I did a considerable amount of field work that summer and I’m happy to report that my statistics corroborate that earlier study.

Now my father swore a lot. But he rarely used any sexual imprecations. Of course, he swore a lot in Hungarian, which I didn’t speak and which I am told contains the filthiest swear words of any language on the face of the earth. So maybe he was as foul-mouthed as the truckers, but I never knew it, and the truckers’ language would sometimes make me blush. And since I was still a virgin–at 20–their description of their sexual exploits made me feel woefully inadequate.

That is another reason I spend most of my time on the girls’ side. The most sexually charged conversation there happened one day when one of the girls–let’s call her Jenny–described “doing it” in cars and how she had once “done it” in a Volkswagen Beetle. Being around my age, Jenny was the prettiest of the girls and the most extroverted. Given the right background, she might have gone to college. Instead, she had probably been labeled as “wild” or from the “wrong side of the tracks” and ended up here, doing unskilled labor in this factory. I think she might have been an unwed mother. The other girls liked her, perhaps finding in her stories of her exploits and boyfriends the fantasy life they longed for.

One day, at quitting time, I happened to find myself driving out the parking lot behind Jenny. She was driving a Volkswagen Beetle. It just so happened that she took the same route as me. She turned off before reaching the main road, and I saw her pull into the yard of a ramshackle, tar paper-covered shack. I knew the type of place. My neighborhood had a number of places like this. Poverty breeds ignorance and the children who came from these kind of homes–often with step parents and step-brothers and sisters–usually did poorly academically and rarely had a bright future ahead of them.

Poor people, however, sometimes have bigger hearts than the rich. The women on the assembly line often cut me slack. If they sometimes ran out of parts because I hadn’t kept up stocking the parts, they’d tell me, but never in an angry way. And when the summer came to an end and I announced that I was returning to college, they took up a collection, which they enclosed in a huge, sappy farewell card on which they all signed their names. It was one of the nicest gifts I have ever received.

After that, I don’t know what to say about Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Number 4. I find a lot to like in all of Beethoven’s piano concertos. The first sounds like it could almost have been written my Mozart. The last had Beethoven’s unmistakable profundity of emotion. The fourth starts out with a nice quite reverie-producing set of chords played by the piano before the orchestra takes them and swells up into a passage that sounds straight out of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The piano solo that fill the middle section starts out with a lovely lilting melody before Beethoven starts showing off his extreme fluidity by weaving the instrument up and down and in and out and around the other instruments. He pits this against a semi-serious melody that the orchestra brings back several times. Each time he acknowledges the serious concerns that melody, but he then always mulls it around and resolves it on an uplifting note. The second movement by contrast is much more serious and reflective. It starts with a very serious statement by the strings before the piano comes in with all quiet, meditative and spiritual. This is someone with a deeply religious sense. The movement ends with a kind of musical question–“is life worth all the pain and struggl?” The last movement answers that question, however, with a resounding “yes!” No matter how miserable you circumstances and what crap life deals you, it is also full of possibilities. Some people born in squalor or from broken homes or subject to horrible setbacks have emerged triumphant. One must never give up.

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