Bethlehem Steel was my war, my trial by fire, or whatever other phrase you want to use to describe the searing, testing experience of a young man that shapes him and gives him the confidence to stand up in this world.
I had remembered the dark feel of the place, dusty gray-brown under giant sheet metal bays two hundred feet wide that ran for a quarter mile. I could hear the rattle of the overhead cranes running along tracks high up in the bay, hear the clatter of table-sized magnets dropping long steel billets onto the cooling beds, and feel the thunder of the electric furnaces roaring through the night as one hundred tons of scrap steel melted to the torture of the electric current.
I remembered how we blocked out the fear as we stood in a pit to position long gear casings; reaching up to guide them as they came down swinging, being lowered too fast into the confining hole by a drunk crane operator. I could feel the metal as I straddled the crane rail fifty feet off the ground, reaching under the trolley to grease the railroad-car sized wheel bearings. And I can still feel the tingle in my leg as I rested my heavy boot on a bar running low beside the beam, which I later learned was the hot rail for the crane’s electric motors, 220 volts of direct current fed by room-sized generators, and I can see my lead-man’s face turning pale in an instant when I told him about it.
But what I had forgotten was the pump house, nearly a year spent off the rotating mill as the plant started to die and they cut back crews, a year of working days by myself, fixing the tall water pumps that were wearing out like everything else, taking apart two to try to make one that would continue to pump the cooling water that kept the searing heat from melting the machines.
How they were lonely days, left to my own devices, mind massaged by talk radio, trying to make usefulness from junk, trying to make sense out of the world and keep the dying plant alive, a year of watching the slow death of something way bigger than myself.
© Frank Kearns 2014