In the 1950’s Steeltown was both a wonderful and terrible place to grow up. It simultaneously nurtured and toughened you, but if you didn’t escape quick enough, it killed your soul.
The town was built on land reclaimed from the Mississippi River. Unlike the surrounding rich topsoil, Steeltown was built upon cinders and broken bits of amber and green glass, like the kind that comes from shattered bottles of beer and Seven Up. One day when I was about five years old, I fell climbing over the fence and a jagged piece of green glass lacerated my hand. The purple scar at the base of my thumb is still visible. More than half century later I can remember the sting of the green disinfect the doctor used to scrub the wound before putting in a few stitches. When I fell, I noticed, for the first time, that the ground was made up of a black grit, peppered with particles of broken glass. It was on this foundation that Steeltown was built.
Three steel mills, two foundries, and a railroad car factory surrounded the little town in its heyday. With foreign competition, only a single steel mill survived into the twenty-first century. The town was part of the great rustbelt of the Midwest and even that last mill was eventually bought by a Japanese company. The younger employees had to learn to operate the automated systems, while the older workers were reduced to hanging around the VFW Hall, nursing beers and wondering just what the hell was the point of World War II anyway.
The town was often covered by a cloud of hydrogen sulfide gas and we took pride in living in surviving such a toxic place, where just inhaling the air was the equivalent of smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. Of course that didn’t stop most residents from adding a pack or two of our own. Emphysema was just another gritty testament of our ability to adapt. The pollution itself was tangible reassurance to our depression era parents that the mill was still running and that there was work to be had.
My own father was an electrician at the same steel mill for over 44 years. Keeping the cyclopean overhead cranes running, unexpectedly turned out to be his life’s work. As a boy he tended his brutal stepfather’s still and before he started work at the steel mill, he had a job dumping waste from a chocolate factory into the Mississippi River.
A lot of things in Steeltown seemed unexpected. The people were mixture of descendents of eastern European immigrants, Appalachian migrants, and African Americans from the deep south, all heading to Chicago or Detroit. No one seemed to have planned on actually going to Steeltown. They just ended up there on their way to somewhere else.
It was all so long ago now, that months past without any thoughts of Steeltown, but deep down, when I feel cinders in my hands or smell something acrid in the air, I know with confidence that these were the experiences that shaped my thinking.