The last best-paid place in the West

  Every winter my brother Tom goes to a muzzleloader shoot in central Oregon, where he camps out in a large tent, dons his feathered hat and buckskin leggings and fringed jacket, and shoots his black powder rifle at targets tucked away in the junipers and sagebrush.

He usually calls me in Idaho after he returns to tell me the news. This year, he said, he senses there will be a shift in the Western political winds, because of what happened to our friend Pete.

Tom describes Pete’s politics as "my guns and your womb."

A National Rifle Association member long before he became a born-again Christian, Pete sat sipping Irish coffee with Tom beside a campfire during the weekend. He had, Tom said, "the most serious look I’ve ever seen on his face. I ask him what’s going on, and he says, ‘they stole my money.’ "

It turned out that the thieves were Oregon’s State Legislature, which last year changed Oregon’s retirement system law so that Pete, who had counted on being able to retire at age 55, now cannot gain a pension until he is 58. In the meantime, money contributed to the system by his employer is being diverted to the equivalent of a 401(k) account, while his old account is frozen and his future retirement benefits reduced. For workers hired after 1996, the system becomes still less attractive, and for the most recent hires, it essentially ceases to exist.

Pete’s 25 years with a county road department, of which he has been proud, have turned to ashes in his mouth. He sees his retirement benefits dissolving before his eyes, because the system is broken, the state of Oregon is broke and a national government with a $500 billion deficit is in no mood to help.

"I took some ribbing from my high school buddies when I went to work for the county," Pete says. "Logging and working at the lumber mills were paying a lot more to start back then. But I told myself that health insurance and a good retirement plan would make up for that, and a year ago, there I was making $20 an hour and going to retire in five years, and feeling good about it.

"But now I know — I’m the last of a breed. The local contractors are hiring heavy equipment operators for $10-$12 an hour. They’re not paying any more than that, because they know they don’t have to. It’s only a matter of time before the county decides it’s cheaper to contract out my work."

"What happens to you then?" Tom asked.

"Oh, I’ll still have a job, somewhere, with the county. But there won’t be any young kids coming up after me who’ll be making $20 an hour someday. That’s over. There was a one-time good deal for working people in this country. It started about 1945, and now it’s running out."

Pete continued. "I started voting Republican because I thought that was how I could keep my guns. So now I’m thinking, how long before they take our guns anyway?"

My brother said he told him, "Oh, until a bunch of angry $10-an-hour guys take those guns and try to use them to change things. The first time they march on the government with their .30-.30s, saying no, you’re not going to send those jobs overseas, and you’re not going to take away our Social Security… well, after that nobody’ll have .30-.30s any more."

Lanterns glowed inside other tents now, and around them more campfires threw light up on the dark junipers. Pete waved his arm, taking it all in: the camp, the weekend mountain men. "And what do you think they’d call guys like us, if we all decided that things had to be different?

"They’d call us terrorists, and that’d be the end of us," said my brother.

"So how do you think Pete’ll vote this year?" I asked Tom, after a pause, to take in the idea of my brother as a rebel and Pete’s disillusionment.

"Hard to say," my brother said. "But the amazing thing is, all these years Pete was perfectly willing to vote on just guns and abortion, and now everything’s changed."

"Because?"

"Because they stole his money. Now it’s different."

Louise Wagenknecht is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She writes essays and books in Leadore, Idaho.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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