In Honor of the Workers

In Honor of the Workers

On June 5, 2019, a ceremony was held in Portsmouth, England, to mark the 75th anniversary  of the launching of the flotilla that was to become known as D-Day.  A number of world leaders were at the ceremony, including Angela Merkel from Germany, but the focus was on those who served, including some two hundred veterans, those who built the landing craft, manned the radios and the radar, deciphered the German codes, packed the parachutes, and flew the planes that pulled the gliders carrying the parachutists (one of whom, aged 97, repeated his drop into Normandy the next day.)  Yes, Donald Trump read a poem and Theresa May read a letter from a soldier who did not survive, but there were no self-serving speeches - the focus on ‘the workers,’ whose courage, heroism and sacrifice was unquestioned, gave it an emotional power that was universal. 


With remarkable simplicity, Queen Elizabeth, herself 93 and of that generation, said “It is with humility and pleasure … that I say to you all, thank you.”  


Similarly the third week of July was the 50th anniversary of Apollo XI and the moon landing. The space suits worn by the three astronauts were composed of 21 layers of nested fabric, meticulously stitched together by teams of women from Playtex, the company that brought us the “Cross Your Heart” bra.   The capsule was heat-proofed by filling 370 000 cells with a special epoxy, sealed one at a time by ‘gunners’ who trained for two weeks before having access to the heat shield.  With re-entry speeds of 25 000 mph and temperatures of 5000 degrees Fahrenheit, just one bad cell could have been fateful.  Apollo’s parachutes were sewn and folded by hand; the three people licensed to do this were considered so essential that NASA forbade them from traveling in the same car together. 


The story of the race to the moon is told invariably from the perspective of the astronauts, which is enthralling and adventurous but also narrow.  More than 410 000 people worked on the Apollo mission (more than the number of Americans who fought in Vietnam over the same period,) yet their various roles have been largely forgotten.  Every hour of the spaceflight was supported by one million hours of preparation,(the latter is equivalent to the work of ten individual life times) and each of those workers, in each of those hours, knew that their product had to be perfect if the mission was to be successful.   Which is was. 


Two weeks prior to the D-Day celebrations and seven weeks prior to the Apollo commemoration, Mary and I were in Rochester, NY, for a wedding. Mary toured the Susan B. Anthony Museum (the house in which she spent the latter part of her life) after which we went in search for Ms. Anthony’s grave.  Born into a Quaker family, Susan was a social reformer, abolitionist and women's rights activist who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage  movement  ( 2019 is the centenary of women gaining the right to vote in the US.)  In recognition of her many achievements  Susan’s 80th birthday was celebrated in the White House at the invitation of President William McKinley and she became the first female citizen to be depicted on U.S. coinage when her portrait appeared on the 1979 dollar coin.


She is buried in the Hope Cemetery in Rochester, a 200 acre plot with literally thousands of graves, most of them marked with steles 20 feet high, big gated crypts, or massive blocks of engraved granite.   Susan, by contrast, lies next to her sister, their headstones perhaps 2’ high with no more than their names and dates of birth and death on them. Apparently this had been her insistence before she died. 


Coincidentally Frederick Douglas is buried not far away, and he too had a simple memorial although his children later enlarged it. 


The irony was startling.  Susan B. Anthony is literally surrounded by the massive tombs of clearly affluent people and yet she, who had achieved so much of national importance, lies in humility allowing her achievements to speak for themselves.   She was a Quaker to the core - modest, lacking in pride or vanity, her pleasure coming from the work she did for the benefit of others.  ”I do not care what you believe,” Thich Nhat Hanh has written,  “I do care how you behave.”


The term ‘queen bee’ is a misnomer in that she does not rule the colony; rather she is a superb ovipositor with no maternal instincts. Control of the colony rests with the workers : they are the ones who determine cell size and thus the ratio of workers to drones; they select the larvae to feed extra amounts of royal jelly if a new queen is needed; they determine when to swarm and who will leave the hive with the existing queen; they determine if and when new queens should be released from their cells; it is they who control the proportions of resources brought into the hive, and it is they who keep the queen and the drones alive. 


This is not to say the queen is not important.  After all she carries 50 per cent of the genes that will be transmitted to her female progeny, and the traits of those genes, together with her fecundity, are vital in determining the success and health of the super organism. 


The point is it is the worker bees that we need to celebrate, with both ‘humility and pleasure.’  


“9,388 Americans, husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, sweethearts either died at Normandy or in the liberation of France” according to Mark Shields, on the NPR Newshour program  one day after the D-Day anniversary,  "And it was a time in this country of the we generation, not the me generation.  We had 20 million victory gardens that civilians built that provided 40 percent of the vegetables for the whole country.  We rationed everything from gasoline to liquor to cigarettes to butter to meat. And we did it. And all Americans were part of the collective effort, the collective sacrifice.”   


That sounds like a bee hive to me - the we generation with both a collective effort and a collective sacrifice. 


There is one critical difference.  Unlike a bee hive, those at the top of the we generation set a personal example that was hugely influential..  Consider, for example, the decision of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to stay at Buckingham Palace in the fall of 1940 during the London Blitz, against the advice of the king’s ministers.  In the US, the four sons of President Franklin D Roosevelt all served in combat with distinction. Or the millionaire son of a multimillionaire who asked his father to use his contacts to get him into combat.   That son, who did not qualify physically to serve,  was John F. Kennedy.






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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

Its pleasure to read about Boy Scout here. He plays vital role to serve humanity. I will share after my