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Of Heroes and Helpers

July 7, 2011

continued from the previous post…

It’s hard to imagine how becoming a steelworker could serve my quest for heroism, but I followed the money and a lifetime of curiosity. Sitting on benches beneath the banners of Armco Steel and the United Steelworkers of America, twenty-six men and two women, most of us in our twenties and thirties, shuffled our feet on the polished tile floor and waited for the personnel officer. He strode in, clipboard in hand, wearing a white shortsleeve shirt and a crew cut. We straightened up while he passed out intake forms and told us he would see us after our physical. As we filed out, he chatted up most of the other men, saying things like, “hey, you’re Mickey’s kid, right?  Used to work with him down in bar mill. Good to meet ya.”

Standing in line in my underwear reminded me of every story I’d heard about military induction. But in this situation, I prayed to pass. We submitted to the anticipated thumping, peering, and coughing on demand, dressed in blue shirts, work pants and white socks, and padded back into the meeting room. The personnel officer gave us safety glasses and black boots with a steel shield that ran from the toe to the top of the tongue.

Amid the smell of aftershave, floor wax and the leather of my new boots, I turned around and everyone and everything looked familiar. Behind my dreams of skiing the Alps, sailing the Caribbean, buttoning a Roman collar behind my neck, and arguing before a jury, lay the likelihood of this scene. It had always been possible. And because of the high wages, I had hoped for it over the last couple of years.

The personnel officer explained that some of our jobs might only last through the summer, but the best of us would be welcome to stay on. Consulting his clipboard, he told us to step forward when we heard our names

“Kosis, Joe; Byoriak, Tom; Rossi, Bruno; Sokolowski, Chuck.” He stopped, handed each of them a new white hardhat and a badge with a four-digit number, sequenced in the order they were called. These numbers reflected seniority, so that Kosis had seniority over Byoriak, and on down. “Hot mill,” he announced, and they headed out the back door.

He called names for the bar mill, the threading mill, the finishing mill and the piercing mill, until only four of us remained, and all the white hardhats were gone, leaving four that had been painted orange. “Zelinski, Steve; Spolarich, Harry; Hertneky, Paul and Sammartino, Emil; Mechanical Department, labor gang.”

Labor gang didn’t sound good, and my next-to-last seniority number made it sound worse. A nearly toothless veteran escorted us to the Mechanical Department and told us to wait for the foreman who sat in a glass enclosure finishing paperwork, ignoring us. He seemed old enough to retire and scowled as he rose, as he met us, and as he glanced at our files. He looked around as if to trying to find someone to blame, then walked away without a word. His name was Frank Razano, known as “The Razor” behind his back.

I had only one man to pity more than myself: Emil, a pudgy family man who was thrilled to have a job. Without him, I would have been the lowest-ranking steelworker in a mill where 2,498 others could refuse an assignment before it came to us, and most jobs required two workers. The Mechanical Labor Gang was the last chance for morons, creeps, fighters, potheads and drunks who had washed out of production jobs that required advanced skills like counting and cleanliness. They were the filthiest and most dangerous men in the mill and they all ranked above me and Emil.

That Sunday and every Sunday following, the two of us dropped into the bowels of the mill, dragging canisters of black goo, lubricating the mechanical beast overhead that heated and processed megatons of steel. On other days, we jackhammered, sometimes inside furnaces, drove spikes in the rail yard and shoveled mountains of metal shavings.

The mile-long plant stood on a bluff above the river. Its towering steel roof and black walls admitted light through tiny windows near the roofline. The operations on the floor were lit by hanging lights, preserving an overall gloom. For scale, picture a shopping mall, minus the stores, with black walls and ceilings, its concrete floor a maze of machinery and catwalks.

From the rail yard, I could see Aliquippa’s Jones & Laughlin plant, making steel downriver, where workers cast blooms from iron ore and coke, then finished them into cans, wires, and sheets. At Armco, we made seamless pipe from raw billets, but instead of buying the steel from the mill within sight, Armco bought them more cheaply from Korea and Japan.

Oil companies, drilling in new fields all over the world, bought Armco pipe as fast as we could make it. After two months, working seven days a week, sweating in greasy holes, breaking concrete and bending rails under the thumb of The Razor, I needed a change of scenery. Outside the mill, I found no time for anything but drinking and sleep. My parents saw it wearing on me. Milt knew the drone and the danger of mill work, which is why he eventually found his way out. He never discouraged me from entering the mills because he knew I needed the money and he respected the way of life. But he also had deep doubts as to how long the industry might last.

photo: Thomas D. Mcavoy

Emil, or Emilio, as his mother called him, intended to make the mill his life. I checked with him as The Razor announced a high-paying millwright helper’s job at roll call. Everyone was refusing it and Emil shook his head, resigned as he was to his affection for a 60-pound jackhammer. He slapped my back when I snapped up the job. To me, helping a millwright, a skilled mechanic who kept the mill’s machines running, promised a way to tolerate the desperate rut of jackhammering and shoveling, greasing the mill on Sundays. Any change of routine would do. At the same time, I worried why the job had drifted, unconsidered, down to me.

Through family connections, patrons or protectors, my cohorts on the gang either knew the millwright or had been tipped off. I found out for myself that Rocky Marschuk, one of the oldest millwrights and one of the best, had no friends. His sullen nastiness repelled anyone who dared approach, and he went through helpers like a weasel in a warren of bunnies.

I waited for Rocky in the millwrights’ shed, a ten-by-ten cell with benches along two walls, adjacent to the piercing mill. When he walked in with his lunch bucket (literally, a pail, with a lid), I hopped to my feet and introduced myself. He ignored my offered hand, only jerking his chin upward a quarter inch and glancing at me through the crossways buttonholes he had for eyes. He turned away and pulled a Dutch oven from a shelf, dropped it onto a hot plate, reached into his bucket and extracted a can of sauerkraut, cranked it open, and shook it into the pot. Then he threw in a loop of keilbasa, covered the pot and flipped on the burner. His routine.

“Ever done this job?” he asked while untying a bundle of shop rags, stuffing one into his back pocket. I told him no, and he shook his head and looked out the door at the racket of the mill. Then he walked out, scratching his stubble and mumbling “’ets go.”

He issued a silent order by pointing to a grease canister like the ones I used on Sundays, and then strode ahead of me, silently touching the fittings—nipples on the mill’s machinery that accepted grease. Their shiny brass stood out against the black motors and massive armatures. To service some fittings, we had to descend into a pit designed to catch errant pipes that were twenty feet long and glowing orange at two thousand degrees. That part of the routine scared the hell out of me. I watched and deduced that the trick was to quickly grease those machines before the pipes began to roll.

When we finished our tour of Rocky’s section of the mill, he led me back to the shed where he examined a clipboard on the wall. I stepped out of the doorway as he noticed a man wearing a blue hardhat – a production foreman – and intercepted him. Jabbing the clipboard with his finger, Rocky barked in the foreman’s ear, who nodded. All I could hear was the roar of the mill.

Behind me, ten-foot long bars traveled slowly around a donut-shaped furnace that heated them until they glowed like bright orange glass. At the end of their go-round, they fell into a slot of rollers that squeezed and stretched them as they passed through. Waiting for these nearly molten bars were the men who operated the piercing mill. One of them worked levers and pedals in a glass booth inside an A-framed structure that towered over the rollers. He controlled the propulsion of a long ramrod at the base of the machine that reared back, waiting for a soft bar to approach. Straddling the ramrod was a true roughneck, who used long tongs to fit the end of the piercing rod with a bullet-shaped bit. Once he placed the bit, the rod began spinning furiously under a torrent of cold water, then vaulted forward, ramming directly into the end of the oncoming orange bar. It reared back and rammed again and again, boring deeper each time, flakes of hot steel flying as the bar, clamped by rollers, picked up the spinning motion and finally gave way, and the piercing rod punched through, and then quickly backed out through a cloud of steam. The tortured new pipe rolled down the mill for finishing and cooling.

Howling machinery and high speed collisions made a racket that would have drowned out a submachine gun. Rocky wore no ear protection and appeared to deliver his message clearly before turning away from the worried foreman. Calmer now, Rocky stepped back into the shed, hung his orange hardhat on a spike above the hotplate, folded a couple of shop rags into a pad for his head and stretched out on the bench along the wall. The aroma of keilbasa and sauerkraut had crowded out the smell of grease and smoking steel. With closed eyes he said, “Hit the fittings at two and four-thirty. Follow me when it blows five.”  Seconds later he was snoring.

I had to leave the shed to find an older production worker and ask him what Rocky meant. The production men and women wore white hardhats. Millwrights and grunts like me in the labor gang wore orange, so we could be easily spotted deep within the mill’s darkest holes and shadows.

“Oh, you’re Rocky’s helper?  You poor bastard. Listen, do not fuck with him.”  He bowed, shook his head and spat, smearing the tobacco juice with his left boot.

“What he means is, when a piece of machinery breaks, we shut down the mill and call the millwright, givin’ the whistle five shots.” He reached up and touched a loop of steel cable attached to a steam whistle. “Time is money, and he’ll be on the move. You better fuckin’ be behind him.”

“Does he just sleep until then?”

“Pretty much. Good luck,” he said, walking away.

Everybody walked away from me. Nobody wanted to look at me, or stand near me, as if I didn’t have long to live, or at any moment, they might catch a piece of shrapnel. Back in the shed, I sat on the bench along the wall perpendicular to Rocky, leaned back against the cinder blocks and stretched out my legs, crossing one heavy steel-toed boot on top of the other, rested my hardhat on my lap and closed my eyes.

Downtime punctuated every job in the mill. Lulls and waits and periods of boredom made the days longer. On a shoveling detail, for instance, I might fill a “bucket” – a dumpster-size box – with shavings, yank the rope of an air horn, calling the overhead crane, then wait and wait for it to come by and bring me another, taking the full one away. Millwrights, though, waited to be called and the best way to bide the time was sleeping. Arcane rules prohibited card-playing and reading. And something about the rules seemed reasonable; you wouldn’t want to get too absorbed in a game or a novel.

Regardless of exhaustion, sleeping in a steel mill takes some getting used to. I stuffed my ears with soundproof fiber that looked like cotton. Wearing it was a sign of a short-timer, scared to lose his hearing and willing to risk ridicule. It made naps possible and I could hear enough. So, on this and one or two other matters, I took a hard posture inside the mill, like a convict, trying to protect myself. The attitude worked—against hazing anyway. Other rookies suffered more abuse, adding to the cruel mystique of the labor gang. In the showers, a greenhorns careless enough to bend over could be playfully violated with a bar of soap. As it turned out, nobody messed with me or Emil because they couldn’t afford to lose the two guys at the end of the line. Without us around, someone else would have to take our jobs.

Half-deaf to the mill and Rocky’s snoring, I drifted off. Every time a whistle blew, I snapped awake and instinctively reached for my hardhat. Then I’d see Rocky sleeping and I’d wait for the whistle again – only two bursts, or four. My movement woke him once. “Settle down,” he said.

The next time I woke, Rocky was kicking the soles of my boots. I followed him out, counting five on the whistle. After twenty-five years as a millwright, answering the call of five, Rocky’s subconscious had learned the drill. One of his neighbors told me that when Rocky slept on his porch across the river from J&L in Aliquippa, he woke up cussing when one of the mill’s whistles blew five. Every time I slept through the call, he gave me hell, as if I should adjust, too. “And get the goddamn cotton out of your ears.”

I stopped trying to sleep and stayed out of the shed, happy to grease my fittings on schedule and watch the mill in operation. At least once a shift, I noticed how a newly pierced pipe protested against the rollers and flared at the end, making it wobble down an incline toward the edge where I stood. One in a row of several armatures that rose up like forearms caught it, though, and sent it to another set of rollers, forcing it to comply, which I found comforting, especially because I had to stand in a pit at the bottom of that incline to grease the armatures.

Over two weeks, Rocky and I got by on fewer than ten words a day. I was happy for the break from the jackhammer and railroad maul, the insipid shovel. Rocky treated me as dismissively as he treated everyone. I found peace in it.

We were passing the pit on the way back to the shed one night when Rocky noticed a leak in one of the hoses connected to the piercing mill while it ran at full tilt, maximum production, no time for shutting down the operation. I had fixed dozens of those hoses with him, meaning he had fixed, oh, sixty thousand. Amid the hellacious racket, he fished a clamp out of his pocket, a screwdriver and channel locks from his belt, and hopped into the pit. The operation was routine, a reflex. I crouched on the wall of the pit, ready to jump in behind him but he didn’t want to be crowded, so he pushed me away with the back of his hand.

When I looked up, I saw one of the curled pipes flop out of the piercer. It jumped the first set of armatures, but I’d seen that before. The interruption in timing caused the second set of armatures to miss it entirely and allowed it to pick up speed. Guys may have been shouting at this point; I don’t know, my eardrums were protected.

By the time I screamed, Rocky was already watching the glowing three thousand-degree, one-ton pipe rumbling toward him, confident that the final set of armatures would catch it, never considering otherwise. Its flared tip canted the entire pipe into the air and sent it slamming down, dashing hot flakes through the sloping metal grate. The final set of iron arms reached up, corralling one end but slinging the other, and the pipe hopped over the armatures like a tailback at the goal line.

Rocky dropped his tools and spun, clutching the wall of the pit. I reached down, grabbed the shoulders of his shirt and fell backwards, taking him on top of me. The pipe crashed below us. He jumped to his feet, offered me his hand and yanked me up, then turned to look at the sizzling pipe, lying in the pit. “Yeah,” he said. He squeezed my arm and shook his head. I trembled from heels to hardhat.

The shift ended and word got around the locker room that Rocky had nearly been cut in half. Guys asked me questions, but I was still shaking and tried to say it was nothing. The men and women in mill prayed against all surprises, especially injury and death. Suddenly becoming a hero sounded stupid; I reeled between relief and residual terror. Adrenaline wouldn’t let go. Over and over, I kept seeing that pipe drop past Rocky’s feet. The guys rubbed my head and slapped my back, joking that maybe I should have let him die, that even in death, he’d probably wake up at the sound of five.

But Rocky knew the truth, and so did I. He thrust himself over that wall like a gymnast over a vault. I felt his raw strength. And because I felt his power, I knew he had saved himself. That’s why it was okay that he hadn’t thanked me. I hadn’t even screamed in time.

Among my fellow workers, talk held little purchase. Every time I tried to explain that I did nothing, they told me to cut it out. “Nobody’s gonna hate you for lettin’ him live… except his wife,” one guy said and everybody laughed on the way to the showers. That morning, as rare as it was for me, I had nothing to say.

Rocky, the cruel and selfish antithesis of how I saw myself, robbed me of a chance to save him. He didn’t need a hero. All these years I had been following a thread through a labyrinth, looking for every chance to slay a monster, and here I stood with only a child’s fantasy lying at my feet. Feeling Rocky’s wiry frame landing on top of me knocked the wind out of me, and cut a part of me loose. I had been freed from saving others. I could have been in that pit myself.

I drove home in my pale green Fiat, a comical hatchback I had bought for $650 earlier in the summer, and went to bed. When I awoke at three in the afternoon, I dressed for work. I could still think of nothing to say, apart from telling Betty that I was heading for the river until my shift started at eleven o’clock. She asked me what was wrong. I said I was tired. On impulse, she packed me three meatloaf sandwiches.

At the river, I found an old utility pole that had eddied out, just the way the logs had washed up for the tribes at Logstown. I sat on it and stared for a while, skipped a few stones, lay back and watched the clouds. Boredom settled in, then a trance, aided by the thlip-thlip of the water on the gravelly beach. I rolled up my jeans and dragged the log closer to the water, letting the tiny waves tickle my feet.

Christ on the cross, there he was, burnt into my consciousness by kneeling through years of masses, the ultimate hero, undeniably triggering those savior fantasies I had created as a child. In my reverie, Gatsby sauntered in, maybe because I had just read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-up. Jay, Jesus, and Fitzgerald himself—“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy”—all followed that script. I wasn’t up to it.

But, if I could cast myself as a hero, what new role could I imagine? I let the question hang. I had nothing. All my visions of the future suddenly lost their color and slipped into a sepia of overuse and obsolescence. I grieved for them. I stared across river, until the silhouette of the power plant crept over me, its smokestacks piercing the twilight, pressing their outline into my skin like a crude tattoo, marking me as a pipe-dreaming millworker. My lofty aspirations were unreal. The smell of oil and sulphur, the taste of meatloaf and ketchup, the dying light of another day—that was real.

Two centuries earlier, I might have been sitting on a birch or pine log instead of a pole splintered by rung-holes and stained with creosote. Industry had supplanted nature here, just the way my own narrow ambitions crowded out the love that came my way from family, friends, and all those sweet women who let me hold their hands. And yet, in spite of the mills and slag piles, the lost settlements and forgotten history, the river flowed as ever, and when the stars came out, they held their place in the current.

By the time I passed through Armco’s gates again, I felt numb, calm, and vaguely privileged to return. Rich Detz, a craneman and a friend from junior high, spotted me and dropped the iron hook of his crane behind me as I walked to the locker room. He sped up, chasing me. I picked up the pace as the hook closed in on my back. We had played this game before; I ducked and it whooshed over my head. I flipped him the bird and heard him laughing as he rumbled down the roofline of the mill.

Seated in front of my locker, I bent over to tie my boots and, to this day, I can still feel my cheek pressed against the cool grease caked on my pants from the night before. My fingers began to shake. I struggled with the laces and felt the hand of the foreman on my back. “Line up for a job tonight. Rocky wants a new helper.”  My head sank to my shins. I could go back to the comforts of a shovel or jackhammer.

Emil overheard the foreman. Now he would become the millwright’s helper. I sat up, taking a deep breath of the solvents embedded in my uniform and the gooey Go-Jo we used to wash our hands. I had never imagined that stirrings of a new future would appear for me within the walls of a steel mill.

coming: Giving up or giving in — time for improvisation

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Debbie Jones Reeves permalink
    May 17, 2012 7:57 pm

    Hi Paul,
    I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed reading your Rust Belt Boy chapters. I graduated with you in the Ambridge class of 1973 and I too moved away from home and so many of your stories touch my heart and make me feel like I’m back there. My father was a millwright at Armco, His name was Howard Jones but everyone called him Nip and probably also Jonesy. My aunt told me yesterday he was one of the last 15 men left at Armco before it closed. He was a proud man and a hard worker, but he never talked to me about how hard it was in the mill – and I was also a young girl who didn’t know enough to appreciate it. You made me feel like I was there with him – your writing is so amazingly descriptive, the first night I started reading I was up until 3 am and my eyes couldn’t read any more. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart.

    • May 18, 2012 12:54 pm

      No, thank you, Debbie. You’ve pretty much tapped into why I write — to keep people awake until 3 am.
      I remember you from school. And I appreciate that you took time to drop me a note. I’m sorry that I don’t remember working with your father; the millwrights had a tough job, stressful at times. Please let me know what you think of the other chapters here. I’m working on having the book published — to make it easier to read — and I hope it will happen soon. Thanks again.

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