When I was in graduate school at Michigan State I got a job with grounds maintenance because the graduate assistantship wasn’t paying the bills. In the morning I was a garbage man, riding around on the back of the truck and humping trash and incinerator ashes into the “packer,” as it was called – the technology hasn’t changed. It was dangerous but interesting work. You can’t believe what people throw away. I salvaged a perfectly good night stand, a kid’s tricycle and a baby bed that was missing only one small piece of hardware that cost a quarter. We supplemented our wages with deposit soda bottles.
Most days Larry drove the truck but when he was on vacation Tex drove. You could always tell when Tex was driving. Tex chewed Red Man and would let fly out the driver’s side window whenever he felt like it, so both of us riders would be on the tiny platform on the back on the right to stay out of the way. It looked weird but we were not interested in a Red Man shower.
Lunch involved good natured ribbing, card games and union guy chatter – no females anywhere. This was the summer of 1968, the Vietnam War was at its bloodiest, the presidential campaign was raging and some of the chatter was about politics. I had a professional curiosity about how my coworkers intended to vote, so I just asked them. Many were for the Democrat Hubert Humphrey, a few were for the Republican Richard Nixon and a few were for George Wallace, the segregationist third party candidate.
One I asked was the driver of the pickup we rode in in the afternoon to go to landscaping job sites on campus. He was an older guy and had the fabulous name of Ortis Gaukel. He was a good old boy Michigan redneck, sharing his racist, sexist and homophobic opinions whether or not you wanted to hear them. Based on his views about culture and society I assumed he was going to vote either for Wallace or Nixon. When he said Humphrey I told him I was surprised and asked him to tell me about it.
He said in 1935 his father was out of work and Franklin Roosevelt created jobs and his father got one of them so he could feed the family and Roosevelt was a Democrat and Humphrey is a Democrat so he was voting for Humphrey.
Ort Gaukel had not had to think about politics for 33 years. All he needed to know was: Who’s the Democrat?
And in the larger sense he represented the blue collar working class at the time, voting its economic self-interest. 1968 was one of those inflection points in American political history, when millions of Americans began voting their cultural and social interests. George Wallace was a way-station for southern voters on their way to the Republican Party. Five years later abortion began working its way to the top of the list of voter concerns with the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision. And good blue collar union jobs began to disappear.
Ort Gaukel is long gone but were he alive he’d be wearing his red Make America Great Again hat to work every day.
Dr. Terry Smith is a Political Science Professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.