The host of the Travel Channel's "John Ratzenberger's Made in America" presents a collection of thought-provoking essays on what makes America the great nation that it is today.
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We've Got It Made In America
By John Ratzenberger Joel Engel
Copyright © 2006
John Ratzenberger and Joel Engel
All right reserved.
LIFE: A REALITY SHOW
As I write this, my television crew and I have just completed
filming the third season of John Ratzenberger's Made in America.
That means we've taken our cameras to 120 factories (and workshops)
of all sizes-colossal, large, small, and dinky-and gotten to talk
with hundreds of people who work in the plants, as well as the
managers and owners who run them. Truly, it's a pleasure for me to
do that kind of work, which doesn't seem at all like real work.
Besides seeing how some great stuff gets made, I feel honored by the
fact that ordinary people across the country open up to me, telling
me things they'd never tell a journalist. They believe they already
know me from television and sense that I'm one of them, which is
true. You can take the boy out of Bridgeport, but not Bridgeport out
of the boy.
I consider myself Everyman. Yes, I'm lucky enough to walk with kings
when I want to, but in fact I feel more of a bond with my gardener,
Ignacio, than I do with, say, the men and women who determine what
we all watch, and when and where I collect a paycheck.
Why? Well, here's a true story that's typical enough for it to be
labeled a defining moment. A while back I had a meeting with a
high-rankingnetwork executive to pitch a series I wanted to do that
would center around life at a truck stop. The executive had been
born and raised in Los Angeles, the son of a studio executive, so
you can presume that he didn't lack for sophistication. But he had
never heard of a truck stop-had no idea what it was. And when I
explained what it was, he said excitedly, "And nobody knows about
I took a deep breath.
But I should've taken two.
Because being the son of a truck driver and the veteran of more
manual-labor jobs than Jimmy Hoffa, I figured I owed it to both Dad
and myself to insult him before walking out in disgust.
As soon as I got to the elevator, I knew that it had been a
mistake-more, a missed opportunity. Instead of saying, "No, Dave,
everybody outside area code three-ten knows what a truck stop is," I
should've gently educated him by pointing out that if New York and
Los Angeles were, through some calamity, to disappear one day, every
other American city would shed some tears and then quickly adjust
with the day-to-day work of living; but if, by some catastrophe, Los
Angeles and New York were the only two remaining American cities,
both would quickly shrivel and die, having lost the heart they
didn't know even belonged to them.
"And that," I could've said, "is why they call it the heartland."
Too bad I didn't have the presence of mind. Frankly, it's appalling
to me that a man who decides what America will be watching on the
tube, thereby shaping how children and the impressionable see the
world, has never been to the United States. The real United States,
anyway. Too much of what he produces, markets, sells, and shows to
billions around the world is, at its core, contemptuous of the
country that gave him a better life than nearly 100 percent of
everyone who's ever lived on this planet.
No wonder they hate us over there.
If I could, I'd grab this guy by his collar and drag him not just to
truck stops, but also to factories where, sadly, fewer and fewer of
the things we use every day are made. I'd force him to shake hands
with the people who make those things-assuming they'd deign to shake
his hand. And then we'd walk around the town so he could see how, in
many places, factories are a town's lifeblood, and the companies
themselves a kind of miner's canary. In Oaks, Pennsylvania, the
Annin flag factory has been in business for more than 150 years. In
Amesbury, Massachusetts, Lowell Boats has been around even longer.
If either company packed up and went offshore, or closed down, the
towns themselves would be sadly diminished and could even die.
That's why, on the show, I often ask management why they don't
follow the trend and move. "What keeps you here?" I ask. Invariably,
the answer is that the factory and community are nearly
indistinguishable parts of each other.
Look at Mansfield, Ohio, where the Carousel Magic factory makes
old-fashioned, hand-carved wooden horses for carousels instead of
the plastic ones that, well, have no magic in them. Until about
twenty years ago, Mansfield was a heavy manufacturing city, but when
the plants started moving offshore, the downtown and much of the
rest of Mansfield began to decay, and the cancer kept spreading.
What saved Mansfield was a simple carousel-the first new one erected
in America in decades that was constructed of wood, not plastic.
That seemingly simple act, which was the brainchild of a local
dreamer, has had far-flung consequences. Mansfield townsfolk came by
the thousands to ride this carousel that somehow represents
childhood and magic and a kinder, gentler time in our history. And
you didn't even have to be old enough to remember that history to be
affected by what was going on. Without some bureaucrat social
engineer coming in to decide what Mansfield needed now, the
residents took care of the rest-and reinvigorated the downtown area,
with vitality spreading to the rest of the city.
That's the kind of urban renewal we need all over America. We need
to get back to being the industrial giant that not only won world
wars, but also created thriving communities where people put their
hands to something useful and took care of their families. It's not
about me or anyone else returning to their childhoods. It's about
returning America to its golden age.
Believe me, I didn't suddenly discover a love of manufacturing
because of my TV show. The truth is that I decided to do this show
because of my love of manufacturing-and because I want to do
everything in my power to make everyone aware that our factories and
the people who work in them are treasures, our national heritage,
and, God bless us, our future.
If you tune in to the show, you'll see me at my happiest. I mean,
who wouldn't want to go to the Gibson guitar factory in Nashville
and watch an authentic Les Paul electric being made from scratch? Or
to the Airstream trailer factory in Jackson Center, Ohio? Or how
about the Allen-Edmonds shoe factory in Port Washington, Wisconsin,
to see how to get soleful? Nothing better than that. Ditto the
Corvette factory in Bowling Green.
The list goes on. We've visited Hartmann, Campbell's, Crayola,
Zippo, Welch's, John Deere, Louisville Slugger, Steinway, Everlast,
Kohler, GE, Wilson, Caterpillar, Toro, et al.- timeless, name-brand
American products, rich with American know-how and American
But we've also visited an equal number of factories and workshops
that turn out products used and heard of by far fewer people, each
one no less imbued with knowledge, ingenuity, and dreams.
To watch these products come to life, and to learn how and why
they're made the way they are, is a privilege-not least because the
people who actually do the work take such noticeable, palpable pride
in it. And at the end of the day, that's what work is supposed to be
all about-knowing that what you do matters, and that you're part of
something that both predated you and, thanks to your creative
efforts, will survive you. Nothing beats pride of workmanship.
A few years ago, after my family and I moved into a new house, I
asked our gardener Ignacio to dig a four-foot hole so that I could
erect a pole for the flag I wanted to raise. He said he would, and
in the meantime I took my kids out for the afternoon. When we got
back, our backyard was home to a perfect hole-so perfect that it
looked like a giant apple corer had descended from outer space,
plucked out the dirt, and whisked it all away. Not a fleck had
spilled on the grass surrounding this magnificent thing. It was
I called the kids over and gushed, "You see this hole? It was dug by
a man who obviously takes pride in his work. Look at it. Fantastic,
They gave each other that sideways glance that means Dad's ready for
the loony bin, and insisted I was making too big a deal out of
nothing-literally nothing: a hole.
But it wasn't nothing. Or if it was, it was nothing in the sense
that in the world in which I make a living-the world of executives
who don't know truck stops from rock quarries- pride comes only with
paychecks, ratings, and trophy wives, so I'd temporarily misplaced
my perspective. And seeing Ignacio's job done perfectly had restored
it. Which is why I have more in common with Ignacio than I do with
people whose hands are callus free.
You know, moviegoers don't seem to mind sitting still for another
five minutes after the feature ends to watch a list of names of
people who did jobs that don't even make sense to them-jobs like
gaffer and craft services and grip. Why anyone not connected to the
movie industry is interested in that, I don't know. And yet, every
building we walk by every day, they're all works of art that stand
there in anonymity. Me, I'd like to see a credits plaque on every
building that lists the names of the electricians and drywallers and
roofers-everyone who worked on it. And when I buy a car, I'd like a
little plate on the dash with the names of all the workers who put
In other words, it's time to start honoring the people who build
things-the ones who make America great and keep it free. Because
when you come right down to it, it's all fine and good to be
interested in which film wins Best Picture, but in the real
world-which won't be here much longer if we don't care for it-it's
nowhere near as important as who wins best plumber.
Excerpted from We've Got It Made In America
by John Ratzenberger Joel Engel
Copyright © 2006 by John Ratzenberger and Joel Engel.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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