Monday, June 01, 2009

To Saturn and Back

Mrs. Fabrizio stood at the front of our eighth grade class and told us she was setting aside our regular lessons. The UAW local asked the English teachers to make a special assignment.

“The union wants you to write letters to GM.”

A classroom full of the children of unemployed laborers gave her, perhaps for the first time, their undivided attention. The union! Letters to GM! From us!

As one of the few kids without an unemployed father at home, without a man with a sweat-stained shirt, stinking of Kools and Iron City, it was another one of those Youngstown moments where I knew that I wasn’t really a part of what was around me.

“GM is building a new car. It isn’t supposed to be like the others.”

This sounded promising. The last car we bought was a Subaru. This was after the catalytic converter in the family’s ’75 Buick Century had burned a hole through the floorboard.

“A new car?”

“Yes, GM is starting a new division.” And I heard the name Saturn for the first time.

The union wanted us to write letters to GM Chairman Roger Smith, asking that he locate the new Saturn factory in Youngstown. Nothing says pathos like a bag full of letters from kids, begging for jobs for their families.

“Tonight, go home, talk to your parents, and write a letter to Mr. Smith, explaining why GM should build the plant here.”

That night, I brought it to my mom. As I explained the assignment, I could see her processing once again her decision to take the larger apartment on the south side of the city proper, instead of the smaller apartment in Boardman. You’ll be the poor kids if we’re in Boardman. But living in Youngstown, we were still the outsiders – the only new kids in our classes.

I interrupted my mother’s silent brooding.

“Mom, what should I write? I don’t want to work in a car factory.”

“Don’t you think it would be good for the city if there were new jobs here?”

I thought about Joe’s dad, three doors down, and his perpetual stupor since being laid off from the steel mill.


“Write about that.”

After dinner, I went to the small school desk in my room, and tried to write a sincere letter to Mr. Smith. I couldn’t rightly beg for a job for my dad, but I could tell him that the people here want to work, that they would be grateful for the opportunity, and that I hoped he would consider Youngstown for Saturn.

Saturn! It didn’t even sound like a car. It just sounded like someone’s idea of something futuristic and cool -- someone whose vision of futuristic and cool was dully limited to the immediate solar system. The one with the rings. Saturn. Yeah, reach for the stars! Or maybe just a planet. What kind of a name for a car was that? Oldsmobile – that’s a name.

The next day in class, Mrs. Fabrizio asked if anyone would like to read their letters. Matt never spoke in class, and not only had I never seen him raise his hand before, I hadn’t seen anyone raise his hand so fast.

He read his letter with determination. He wasn’t a great reader, but it was a righteous effort. Please Mr. Smith. Please bring Saturn to Youngstown. I would like my dad to have a job, and I would like to have a job someday.

I didn’t volunteer to read my letter. Not after Matt’s letter. I imagined Matt’s dad sobering up enough to help him write it. Or not.

Mrs. Fabrizio collected our letters and told us that she was delivering them to the union hall. They would mail them to Mr. Smith. Her face was brave, as if she didn’t want to betray that she already knew that this really wouldn’t make a difference.

It wasn’t mentioned again until after winter break, when someone broke the news in class that the new Saturn plant would be in Tennessee. Someone else added that her dad had said that Tennessee was a right to work state, and that the unions were too strong here. I didn’t know then what that meant. I only wondered how it could be that the unions were really so strong, when there weren’t any jobs here anymore.

Twenty-five years later, GM is in bankruptcy. And the Saturn brand – the brand that was supposed to be GM’s new way, the way the Japanese made cars, a “different kind of car company” – stands to be retired or sold. And if that Saturn plant had gone to Youngstown, it would now be the latest chapter in that sad city’s lingering demise. And Matt would be out of a job. Mrs. Fabrizio was right. It really didn't make a difference. Not then. Not now.

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