The Washington Post published a short article written by David Montgomery in its ongoing critique of the Trump administration. The demise of the steel towns that used to stand in formation alongside the rivers of Pittsburgh transcends politics. It brings back memories. This article spotlights the decay of the formerly vibrant towns of Monessen, Aliquippa, Homestead, Braddock and Clairton. My parents reminisced of the days when laundry, hung out on the clothesline to dry would become gray from smoke that signaled the unstoppable industrial engines that lined the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio. One of the wonders of my childhood was the transformation of the night sky to bright orange as heated detritus from the iron works was dumped carload upon carload on the slag dump near my home in West Mifflin.
I recall waiting in line for hours in the winter of 1978 at the Duquesne mill, hoping to get one of the precious few summer jobs. Although it may have been my fortitude, waiting in the freezing cold that landed my that job, it was more likely that one of my uncles put in a good word for me. My pay shot up from the $2.35 per hour that I earned at Kennywood (plus an extra 50 cents if you stayed through Labor Day) to over $7!.
Although I always had my eye on college, if I ever had a notion to go straight to work after high school, my experience in the summer of 1979 would have cured me. Getting used to shift work clearly takes more than three months. Thew work was brutal. I was assigned to the iron works. During each shift “we” made three pours. The process itself was clearly antiquated. The oven was plugged with clay at the bottom, then pierced to release the now melted ore. The coke consumed in the process, floated at the top of the lava flow through runners in the floor. My job was to poke at it with a long metal pole to keep it from coagulating and overflowing onto the floor. Eighteen-hundred degrees cools pretty quickly, making this job pretty critical. One night, I was having trouble keeping up. I must have picked my head up for a breath, letting sulphur fumes under my hood. As I choked back the gas, my eyes watered too much for me to see that the plastic window in my hood began to melt. All the while I furiously kept poking at the floor, hoping I was keeping the super-hot stream moving because I was backed into a corner with no where to go if the runner overflowed. God had mercy on me and the flow finally ended, disaster averted.
Three months doesn’t get me into the club (although they took union dues out of my last paycheck), but I did get a chance to see things from the inside. I ate the venison for lunch at 2:00 a.m. for “lunch” that some guy brought in. I drank beer at a nearby bar after the 7:00 a.m. shift and no one gave me a sideways glance about being underage. I got to see what things were really like before it all disappeared – the heat, the noise, the soot in everything including your nose and ears. But most importantly, I saw (mostly) men doing hard, dirty, dangerous work without bravado, without looking for sympathy, without an expectation of thanks. That will never be replaced.