The Picnic

Happy Labor Day to you. Whether you labor in a field, a factory, an office, or a home, this is a day to honor you.

My father was a factory worker. He worked on the assembly line. He was a United Auto Worker, and fiercely proud of it. In retirement he rode in the parade wagon that tossed candy to the future laborers lining Market Street in downtown St, Louis.

I think one of the biggest days of the year for my dad was the annual United Auto Worker’s Union Picnic. I can’t remember whether this was held on Labor Day. I believe it was earlier in the summer. What I remember well was the location.

Chain of Rocks Amusement Park is pictured above. From our south city home we would trek up to the north end of the city near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Long before Six Flags over St. Louis, and with Disneyland being more fantasy than reality, Chain of Rocks seemed to me, and I’m sure my siblings, to be the largest, grandest, weirdest collection of rides, attractions, junk food, and exotica anywhere.

Mind you we didn’t get to many “wheres” when I was a kid. Therefore, the annual Union Picnic was something to look forward to.

Sort of.

The Terror

Chain of Rocks, I’m guessing, was built prior to stringent amusement park codes. This place did not enjoy the obsessive oversight of a perfectionist like Uncle Walt (the one who had a park of his own in Anaheim, CA). The rides were a bit on the rough side. The Chain of Rocks’ attractions were still of the weird variety of old school amusements that lingered into the 1960’s. Like the Spook House, an evil roller coaster called the Mad Mouse, and a bizarre, oblong type of Ferris Wheel that looked to be constructed out of an oversized Erector Set.

I dreaded the Spook House. Entering it was nigh obligatory, and yet I hated it. If you are too young, or coddled, to have experienced a Spook House, let me explain. A roller coaster type conveyance, remaining sea level, takes you via its tracks throughout a large, ugly, darkened building occupied by spooks, monsters, evil creatures, dreadful sights, and sure perdition.

I’m sure there are modern day counterparts to this hideous attraction, but I’m guessing they would be so high-tech, so computer graphic driven, that they would barely raise a pulse. There’s something about the obviousness of computer generated thrills that betray any real sense of danger.

The Spook House terrified not only with its mechanical horrors but every bit because of its shabbiness and slipshod construction. I doubt it was Union made. If the decrepit zombies lunging from darkened corners didn’t get you, the faulty wiring probably would.

Mind you, I don’t really know whether it was shabby and slipshod; that’s my selective memory of the place. It probably was duly inspected and perfectly safe, but to an eight year old any establishment called a Spook House was probably operating under the radar.

The Finer Things

The Spook House, Mad Mouse, and strange, oblong Ferris Wheel may have tried my courage, but Chain of Rocks Amusement Park also offered the finer things of life. Like Modern Art that you created yourself!

Move over Spooks, Eddie, the budding artist, was in the park.

The booth that offered budding artists like myself the opportunity to create Modern Art was one of my favorite Union Picnic activities. Again, if you are too young, or too coddled, to have created your own Modern Art, let me explain once again.

A guy or gal sat in a booth that had a motorized turntable with a tall spindle. The Modern Art facilitator would, for a dime, punch a rectangular piece of cardboard onto the spindle. Before you, the budding Modern Artist, lay an array of plastic squeeze bottles filled with paint. The guy or gal running the works would turn on the turntable, and you would, at your aesthetic discretion, squeeze paint onto the spinning cardboard, thereby creating one of a kind, Modern Art.

I can barely express how much I loved this booth. I approached the turntable and its spinning canvas with a seriousness befitting my self image as a garret dwelling Bohemian gracing the world with Art so Modern, so Wondrous, so Beautiful as to erase any memory of Spook House disorder.

Each year I took my creation home and proudly tacked it onto the knotty pine wall of my bedroom/garret.

The Workers

Spook Houses, fine art, junk food and the excitement of being more than five miles from home was all made possible by the Union. I’m not about to get into the yeahs and nays of organized labor and collective bargaining. All I knew was that Dad was a firebrand Union man, and this picnic and all its exotic offerings, was an annual celebration of the men and women who bolted down the seats, affixed the chrome bumpers, and sprayed that year’s color options onto your brand new Chevrolet.

Dad lived long enough to lament the dwindling of organized labor and smokestack America. Dad didn’t at all regret that none of his kids worked in factories. In fact, I think he was glad we didn’t. He did want us to respect those who did, and he was right to want that.

I myself don’t parse work. I respect that Labor Day is generally thought of as a time to honor manual laborers: tradespersons, assemblers, electricians, painters, contractors, concrete workers, carpenters, et. al. I’m good with that. These men and women build the world you and I enjoy.

I also respect those who manage, imagine, create, sell, buy, argue, and heal. In short, all lawful work is good and noble and I honor those who do it.

But I confess that every Labor Day I experience a soft heart for those who get their hands dirty, their lungs filled, their skin roughened, their backs sore, and sometimes their lives shortened, so that we, the consumers of their handiwork, might enjoy life a bit more than if we depended on ourselves for the building of our comforts.

I especially remember those who spent 30 years assembling our automobiles.

Happy Labor Day everyone.

The Chain of Rocks Postcard  image is from