Bob Neal

Trying desperately to hang onto their audience, over-the-air television networks a couple of decades ago turned to “reality” shows, thus mimicking PBS by importing a British idea.

Most “reality” programs paint a picture of no reality that most of us would recognize. No, I don’t mean NBC’s pretending Donald Trump was a successful businessman. I mean the highly produced nature of the shows. How many miles of video tape — the measure today is digital bytes — fall to the floor as directors put together 42 minutes of “content.”

Many reality shows, including “The Apprentice” (Trump) and NBC’s “Fear Factor,” have landed in the circular file. Others hang on, including the grandma of the genre, “Survivor,” and the awful “Big Brother.” Both feature self-absorbed people preening and scheming to out-nasty competitors on a Pacific island or in a California mansion.

But in 2020, CBS came up with a winner, “Tough as Nails.” If it survives and thrives, it could reverse big television’s nearly total inability to portray accurately the people who work with their hands. “All in the Family,” trail blazer that it was, gave middle America a negative portrayal of working people, who are not all Archie Bunkers.

We who may not gather how working folks can vote for the likes of Trump and Mitch McConnell can learn a lot by watching the “Tough as Nails” teams, called Savage Crew and Dirty Hands, compete at real work every Wednesday (9 p.m., Channel 5 or 13).

These are real people. Watching “Tough as Nails” and reading the bios of the 36 contestants, my takeaway is that they defy the stereotypes that wander through the heads of us middle-class folks. They choose to work with their hands, not for lack of education.

Several have spoken of their college time. Most are able to meld quickly into a team and to meet one another on level ground. Several have talked about the importance and camaraderie of their labor unions. Family comes first in almost all cases, and none quits until the job is done. Some have a keen focus on the future.

More than a few have said they see their work as an everyday classroom. DeQuincey Walker, a diesel mechanic from South Carolina, put it this way. “I’m always working on something different so I’m constantly learning new things about my job.”

Walker reminded me of the late Noel Perrin, an English professor at Dartmouth and a part-time farmer, who said, in paraphrase, that the average farmer makes more intellectual decisions in a day than the average professor does in a year. He oughta know.

Their choice to work physically resonates here because I left the newsroom and classroom after more than 30 years to farm for another 30. Nor was I alone. Our slaughter crew, assembled for 15 to 20 days each year, had people with college degrees from UMF, the University of Texas, UMaine, University of Missouri-Kansas City, Brown, Sarah Lawrence, Pacific U. in Oregon and others. One is now a physician.

The late folk-singer Bruce “Utah” Phillips asked why the people who say it’s harder to work with your head than to work with your hands are always people who work with their heads. They have no idea how hard it is to work with your hands.

When you see the contestants at the start of each show, the word “tough” seems to apply to physicality. But mental and emotional toughness are there, too. Sarah Ham, a concrete worker in New York, said, “I haven’t always chosen the most popular or acceptable route, but I’ve embraced the obstacles and still pushed forward because I’m determined.”

Melissa Burns, an Ohioan, credits her toughness to, “getting up every morning and putting in the work. I am a tough farmer, a tough female farmer.”

Anyone in Maine can appreciate Mike Shaffer, a lineman in the snow belt above Syracuse. “What makes me tough as nails is working in any type of weather and playing with electricity in my hands every day. Being away from my family for long periods can be very hard at times, but I’m doing it for them.”

These are workers who join unions to advance themselves since, unlike, say, public employees, they have no civil-service protection or benefits. Lamar Hanger, a retired carpenter from California, said this week that he wanted to show the world what union carpenters can do. A couple of female ironworkers have lauded their unions for supporting them and have said they want to draw more women into iron work.

Maybe a dozen have talked about their dreams for the future. Callie Cattell fishes salmon every summer in Alaska. Her dream is to own her own salmon boat. Others talk of owning their own businesses or rising through the ranks. Kelsey Reynolds already owns a crop-dusting business in Illinois.

Let’s give the last word to Hanger, the retired carpenter, who said he worked six days a week, “staying strong both physically and mentally, strapping on my tools and receiving the opportunity to work … for 31 years and never once complaining.”

Bob Neal liked the “Tough as Nails” early slogan, “dirty hands, clean money.” And it seemed to resonate with the contestants, who used it often. Neal can be reached at [email protected].


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