Tag Archives: steel mill

Wayne and the Mayor: Another Steeltown Story

15 Feb

             

               Like many local politicians in Steelyown, it wasn’t exactly clear how Stan Mayer made his living but it had something to do with insurance and real estate, although Stan never seemed to actually transact any business. He spent mpost of his time in back booth at the Trojan Cafe. Wayne Flynn was a harmless and delicate  delinquent and Steeltown’s number one Beatles’s fan.  He was basically too intelligent to work for the cityand annoyed everyone by roaring around town in a silver Corvette he had tricked his father into buying. The deal Wayne made was that in the unlikely event he graduated from high school, his father would pony up for the ‘vette’. 

            Wayne had spent less time in high school than Abraham Lincoln, but somehow   graduated anyway. For four years he never knew his locker combination, which was fine because he didn’t know where his locker was anyway. No one knows how he managed to graduate. The day after graduation he got the silver corvette. He had a local sign shop paint a discreet “Loner” on the back fender and became a local legend.

            The summer after graduation Mayor Stan spotted him in Glik’s Department Store and asked,  “Well Wayne, have you found any honest employment yet?”  Reflexively Wayne replied, “Nope, have you?”

            Despite the  bravado,  Wayne desperately needed a job to pay for the expensive car insurance the fiberglass corvette required, so he went to the Illinois State Employment Office, with his Steeltown High School diploma proudly in hand. Wayne’s diploma would have been more functional if it had been printed on the back of a shop towel. 

            The State Employment Office people took one look at Wayne and quickly sent him to a green block building on the outskirts of town. Inside were dull-eyed men who were taking long metal rods and putting them into a machine that bent them into 90-degree angles. On the other side of the building another group of zombies were taking long metal rods, that were already bent into a 90 degree angle, and putting them into a machine that straightened them out. Wayne didn’t like the looks of the place at all and immediately roared home and and spent then next two weeks listening to the Beatles’s Magical Mystery Tour.  Later he told us  it must have been some sort of government job.

Backyard Diehard: Another Steeltown Story

1 Feb

We were a typical blue collar family in Steeltown. We lived in a very modest three-bedroom brown-shingled house on the corner of Fourth and Ewing, just down from the Russian Orthodox Church with the gold onion-shaped spire.

My father worked as an electrician at the steel mill, but somehow that was never quite enough for him.  It would have surprised his coworkers and the other volunteer firemen to know that he had played the violin in a band, had a failed career as a watchmaker, played chess, invented various electrical devices, and love to read Scrooge McDuck comic books.  Some people might have thought my father was pretentious in some of his aspirations. For example, he had the notion that our backyard could be transformed into a Garden of Eden of sorts. Despite the pollution and terrible soil quality in Steeltown, he optimistically planted an apple tree, cherry tree, apricot tree, and strawberries. Then sat back waiting to enjoy the bounty.

After producing a single apricot, the apricot tree just gave up the ghost for no discernable reason. It just seemed to have lost the will to survive in our yard. The apple tree, however, grew but always seemed degenerate.  The apples were small, green, extremely hard, and usually contained some type of  horrifying insect. When the apples would fall from the tree,  they always seemed to be covered with flies, almost immediately. The apple tree trunk was stippled with holes that boring insects had created and the whole thing wasjust unwholesome. My mother once made an inedible  apple pie using the demonic fruit from the tree.

The cherry tree faired a little better, but yielded extremely sour cherries.  Whenever he had been drinking, which was quite often, my father would prune the cherry tree. It soon looked like a bonsai tree. In the hot summer our backyard would be full of intoxicated birds that had been eating the fermented sour cherries. Taking my lead from the birds, I once tried to make cherry wine, using sugar, gallon jugs, neutral grain alcohol, and a sour cherry mash. Supposedly the wine was ready when the corks popped out of the jugs. One jug exploded and our basement was covered in a sweet sticky fluid.  It had a very strong alcohol smell.  We were all afraid to drink the wine that survived. My friend Bert Armour, a Steeltown connoisseur of aldut beverages, volunteered to test it for us. His main qualification for  this task was that when the  polka band had played   “Roll out the Barrel” in the high school talent show, Bert was the one selected to roll an empty keg  of beer across the stage. I handed him the wine,   he took a big swig,  and then seemed struck speechless. 

The viscosity of this wine was about the same as the popular oil additive STP,  so for about 10 minutes,  Bert was physically unable to open his mouth. When the wine dissolved enough that he could speak, he said it had a good taste and was rather smooth. He declined to drink any more, fearing it might permanently glue his lips together.

My father  seemed jealous that my mother could grow terrific tomatoes with hardly any effort at all. Once she randomly  threw out some pumpkin seeds   and  the next fall, to his dismay, we had a yard full of large attractive pumpkins.

Like most yards in Steeltown, ours had a large porch swing for the adults and a swing-set for children. Only in our case my father had built the swing-set himself out of heavy-duty pipes. It was a bit dangerous because of the many sharp and protruding bolts. He hand made wooden seats and built a rather creative pipe teeter totter.  He painted the swing set battleship gray and we kids  played on it for years.

The backyard  also held a large brick barbecue pit that my father had built. He salvaged some firebrick from a demolished coke oven, and used them to line the pit. So basically our barbecue pit could withstand temperatures of over 2000 degrees.  The only problem was that he built it next to the ash pit, where we dumped our garbage and burned trash. Thinking it unsanitary, my mother flatly refused to have anything to do with it.

Occasionally when no one was burning trash, my father would grill ribs. We would get the ribs form the butcher’s shop just down the alley.   This entire establishment was contained in a meat cooler.  There was sawdust on the floor and year round the old man, who ran it, wore a flat green hat and a thick green sweater with a mosaic of  blood stains on it. Once when I was sent  to buy ribs,  he held two slabs together and told me that ribs came from eagle wings. I was very young and naive enough that it sounded reasonable to me. Intrigued with this new information I told my brother Norman, who called me an idiot.

My father really loved his small slice of Steeltown.

Steeltown Stories Chapter One: An Occasional Feature

4 Nov

Steeltown

Chapter One

Steeltown

          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.