Community: What Work Is

Smith Mountain Lake Dam

Looking back, It’s hard to believe that I believed it, but the story that sticks with me from my community is a story about this dam being built. 

When I was a kid, my grandmother told me the story like this: When they built this dam, one of the workers fell in while the concrete was filling up a form. It was a long fall, and the concrete was so deep that when he fell in they couldn’t stop it, so it covered the poor man while everyone looked on, helplessly. 

She left off with this image, and looked down as if she was thinking about something. (Looking back now I wonder was she trying to stifle a laugh?) But from there she would start talking about work, and how important it was to work. Some people go to war, some people go to work. It’s all a risk, but it’s an adults’ job to work. 

Both she and my grandfather had worked at the American Viscose, a rayon company. My grandfather was a machinist and my grandmother worked sewing rayon. 

Workers at the American Viscose in Roanoke, VA (not my grandparents), courtesy of Roanoke Public Libraries

I heard the story about the dam more than once, from more than one person in my family and also from some of my friends at school, who added that you should never swim near the dam, especially at night, because that man’s ghost haunted the water and he’d drown you there. It had happened to an unmarried couple that Johnny’s cousin knew, etc. 

But my grandmother never focused on any cautionary tale about sex or about a ghost. The message from her was clear, as when she told the story she would eventually get around to what for her was the point, that his family decided that the dam would be a suitable monument for that man and the power company still provided for that family, even to this day. 

The value there was clear. A man was his work, and in this case literally. There was no question that I saw that value in my community, in my family, as the story was often told that my grandfather, who died before I was born, had literally worked himself to death so that my grandmother would have enough money to buy the house that they raised my father in. 

And that’s what a man was expected to do, and little beyond that. If he failed to do that, he wasn’t a man, and being a man wasn’t anything more than that. 

This value permeated where I grew up, but honestly I haven’t really found any work culture that was all that different. In the 80s and early 90s, we had slacker culture, which called the idea of giving away your entire life to work into question, and I’ve been happy to see Gen Zs bring about their own version.

But even identifying with that movement at times in my life (I could tell a different story about academic culture, losing myself there and eventually having to find a better work/life balance), the story of The Smith Mountain Lake Dam just lived in my consciousness. I never really questioned it. It was only when I was recounting this story to a girlfriend that I brought home once and she started asking follow up questions about it that it occurred to me to research it. 

The only evidence I could find about any story even resembling it was a story about the Hoover Dam, and it’s made clear by those that carry on the history of the Hoover Dam that there are no dead bodies in it. Concrete is poured too slowly, so if anyone had fallen while the dam was filling up, he would no doubt have died from the fall, but his body would not have been buried. 

So the Smith Mountain Lake Dam story was just a shadow of another story, but one that felt true to me regardless, and in my mind I can still see that poor man being buried, looking up at his coworkers as he’s being covered in concrete, losing himself in his work.

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