Community Spotlight: Al McMichael

If time were space, and the months and years we’ve lived through were visible in inches and feet, then the residents of Camphill Ghent would be giants. In a certain sense, although it can’t be measured spatially, that is exactly the case. Al McMichael is

one example. Viewed ordinarily, he’s just a man sitting in his chair, on a Monday morning in late July, telling me stories from his life. No big deal. But when you consider where we traveled in the course of our conversation, and how far, and how a single human life can span the centuries—the adults he knew as a child were children of the nineteenth century, my own children, who know and love Al, and will remember him through their lives, could well see the twenty-second—then the greatness all around us, disguised as the seemingly ordinary, starts to shine through the veil of conventional consideration.

“Al, I’d like to talk a little bit about your life with you, if that’s OK.”

“Fine. There’s not much to say. I was just a working stiff all my life.”

“What sort of work did you do?”

“Mechanical work, worked on cars, operated heavy machinery, drove a truck, electrician, plumbing, carpentry . . .”

Al’s family was originally from southern Pennsylvania, but they moved to Long Island in 1930, when Al was just five years old. All his father’s brothers wound up there, and even his grandparents came eventually. Al’s father, somewhat like Al himself, seems to have been a no-nonsense kind of guy.

“Pop always worked. Even through the depression, he always worked. Even though he only went to school to the fifth grade.”

“What did he do?”

“Different things. Mechanic for one. Nobody wanted to mess with their cars. If you had the [nerve] to get under the hood and figure something out, you were a mechanic.”

When the U.S. entered World War II after the attack at Pearl Harbor, Al was ready to sign up, but his father forbade it because of his age. “When your eighteen, you can do what you want,” he told him. He had to wait a year.

In the meantime, walking home from school one day, Al spotted an old Model- A Ford for sale in somebody’s front yard. Among other issues, it didn’t run, needed a new roof, and had a bad timing gear. With his father’s permission and help, Al bought the thing for fifteen dollars and they towed it home.

“Pop gave me the tools and told me what I needed to do. Then he just walked away.”

Soon enough, he was the only kid in school with a car.

Al joined the Navy on his eighteenth birthday, October 14, 1943, and served until 1946. “That was an adventure.” A kid who had never really been anywhere got to see the world and then some. It was an adventure and an education.

Not everyone who went came home, of course, and Al had the chance to reckon with his own mortality at a young age. Down in the engine room of a ship loaded with ammunitions in Naples Harbor, in the middle of an air raid, you stop entertaining the illusion of the immortality of youth.

Back home after the war, Al began his long and distinguished career as a “working stiff,” working for others and, later, being his own boss, becoming a father, husband, motorcycle enthusiast, and honest observer of the world.

“I tried to be a good mechanic. I tried to do a good job at whatever I did. It just makes sense. Do it right the first time, then you don’t have to do it over.”