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Progress


Sundays we'd stroll to the railroad track,
My white-collared father and I,
Where he'd gaze after freight trains billowing past
And deliver himself of a sigh—

"If I still worked for the railroad,
I'd retire with a pass. I could ride
To any place in the country,
And the country, they say, is wide."

Yet for thirty years my father
With fountain pen wielded power
At the boiler factory in Dover,
Keeping track of each man-hour:

He would total up columns of numbers
In a flash with astonishing skill
And never a man's pay envelope
Fell short of a dollar bill.

He would hike to the bank every Thursday
To fetch payroll cash in a sack,
The insurance company insisting
That a blue steel pistol he pack.

How the neighbors would taunt and tease him—
"Hey, Joe, would you pull your gun
And shoot it out with that stickup man?"—
"No, I'd throw him the money and run."

He continued to add up numbers
In his head till there came on the scene
A formidable robot rival,
The Burroughs adding machine.

My father saw that his number
Would be up soon. As he feared,
Anybody could tug on a handle
And an accurate total appeared.

They broke the news to him gently,
They professed their profound regret
And presented him, not with a pension
But a pen-and-pencil set.

For a time he displayed it proudly
Till the pencil had to be tossed,
When it wouldn't quite twist as it used to
And the cap of the pen got lost.

For more than eight thousand mornings
He had walked to his job past a sign
Where the Women's Christian Temperance
Union had posted a line

Ill fitting the situation
Of the obsolescently skilled:
Life is no goblet to be drained
But a measure to be filled.


X. J. Kennedy

The Sewanee Review

Summer 2012


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