Lackawanna Steel dreaming

By RALPH BURKE

Special to the OBSERVER

I worked at the Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna for 14 years, until the final cut in the early 1980s. The plant was huge. It covered a few square miles and housed many units. At one time, it was the fourth largest steel mill in the world. Mills, coke ovens, storage beds, a galvanizing plant, blacksmith shops, loading docks, an open hearth, a B.O.F. (basic oxygen furnace), annealing plant, pickling plant and other structures made up the giant, all geared toward the manufacture of steel or related by-products. Transportation of much of the output was provided by the South Buffalo Railway. Thousands of workers were employed, as many as twenty-thousand in the mid-1960s. It was large enough that on many of our jobs we were transported by bus to our assigned workplace.

The time I spent there, though brief compared to other employees, was memorable. I can never forget it – the places, the incidents, the people I met. We shared a story or two, had a brief look into each other’s lives and then went on our separate ways. Here’s a few of them. Join me for the tour.

THE PLANT

Bethlehem Steel workers included laborers, millwrights, carpenters, electricians, blacksmiths, boilermakers, iron workers, pipe-fitters, machinists, and other trades were identified by their helmets. When I started, I wore a white hat that said I was a new guy, watch out for me. Others wore green, red, black, brown, yellow, bi-colors and light or dark hues of these colors. There may also have been other variations.

Our locker areas were called “welfare” rooms. Most had the standard door lockers, others had the old style baskets on a chain. You put clothing and other articles in these baskets and hoisted them up out of reach. You then secured the chain with a lock to a metal loop secured in a pillar embedded in the floor. You shared the pillar with other men who had their own separate baskets and loops. (An old system, but it does air out the clothes better than a closed locker). Some of the larger welfare rooms had a janitor. The more enterprising ones always kept a coffee pot going, plus donuts and other goodies.

As a new worker, one thing you learn to do is to look up. Overhead, there’s a lot of traffic. Cranes always on the move, chains and cables swinging and swooshing through the air, some laden with tons of bars, others toting ladles of molten metal, or loads of supplies and materials. One recent employee commented with a sense of awe that “… weight means nothing here.” In a few days you get to be aware of all your surroundings, if you don’t you’re eventually going to get dinged or worse.

All risks did not involve working in the plant. The 40-mile trip from Dunkirk to work, though uneventful most of the time, had its cute little tricks. Sometimes the snow was so deep that it got drawn up and onto the motor belt pulley bringing on the red warning light. I had to pull over, hope not to get clipped, open the hood and clear the fouled area. You didn’t take Route 5 in the winter time, especially near Wanakah. The wind at times was so powerful that your windshield coated up with ice from water blown from Lake Erie. In the summertime around June, going in for a night shift, I ran into swarming hatches of insects that would splatter against the windshield blocking my vision. I would focus on getting out and wiping them up.

STORIES OF THE STEEL WORKERS

Eventually, I got to know a couple of fellow workers from my home area, and we carpooled – not many times though, due to scheduling.

I watched the ironworker, a member of the once great Iroquois confederacy, some dizzying feet high on a beam, upside down, arms and legs cross-braced, tools dangling from his belt, inching his way without a harness to some spot that required attention.

When he finished and came down to earth, I asked, “Aren’t you afraid up there?”

He gave a smile, probably used to such questions from us groundlings, and replied, “Sure, I’m afraid. Don’t let anyone tell you they’re not. The trick is not to show it.”

All I could do was shake my head. He hitched up his tool belt, quietly knowing that what he does for a living, few men would, or could do, said, “See you around,” and left for his next assignment.

Another man seldom smiled; curt, gruff responses were his way of expressing himself. He was captured by the Japanese in the Second World War, and suffered from the living hell of a Japanese prison camp. There were many veterans employed at the plant. Many, as that man, gave their all.

The Germans invaded his homeland and he escaped to fight with the Allies. After the war, he returned to find his country under the communist system. He was watched constantly, and given the most lowly of work situations. They didn’t trust anyone who may have been tainted by the freedom of Western culture. He escaped again. Now he’s married, has children, and is a proud American citizen.

He was a prisoner of the Soviet Gulag, and sent to work in the Siberian gold mines, or was it coal mines (his heavy accent prevented me from discerning the word). He fled captivity with a couple of companions, got to China, avoided detection and even traveled by train, finally reached friendly territory and made it here. A no-nonsense man, skinny as a reed, tough as the steel he annealed, always restlessly moving.

When his homeland was incorporated among the 16 republics comprising the U.S.S.R., he and his grade school classmates were visited by a Soviet commissar. It was an Orthodox Christian school. The commissar stood in front of the class, pointed to the cross on the wall, and told the children to ask the man on that cross to come down from it and give them candy. They did. Of course, nothing. Then he told the children to ask him. They did. He reached into a bag he was carrying, pulled out a handful of candy, distributed it, and informed the little ones of the beneficence of the Soviet system and its great leader, Comrade Stalin.

However, not everyone that lived under communism found it faulty. One man defended their policies. When I told him that Stalin was pretty tough on his own people, he bristled and retorted that he got rid of the parasites.

‘FRANKENSTEIN’ BOOTS

There’s a lot of heat in a steel plant. When you’re at kissing distance with glowing metal you learn certain things, such as not to wear artificial fiber clothing such as polyester, rayon, Dacron, unless specially treated, for it has a tendency to melt and stick to your skin. You wear natural fibers or clothes specifically cut for the job. Long underwear, no matter the temperature, was preferred by some of the men.

When you have to straddle a 600-pound glowing bar on a roller line to turn it over for milling and the heat rises between your legs, you had better protect yourself or you’ll learn some fancy steps and merit a few grins from your co-workers. You’re careful about the cigarette lighter in your pocket. It can heat up and flame. I witnessed one man wearing asbestos gloves working near a coke oven aperture with his hammer, and the handle caught fire! These ovens were so hot that when walking on them we wore what we called “Frankenstein” boots. Thick wooden clogs strapped to our shoes.

One shift, atop the coke ovens, wearing our “Frankenstein” boots, this good old fellow who came from down south and I were hauling some material. As we worked he talked about a recent visit back home to see family and friends.

“That place sure was something,” he said, shaking his head in a way of dismay at the thought.

All I could think about was rickety old shanties and outhouses.

“You know how poor people are?” he asked me.

I didn’t have an answer.

“Ever go crabbing? Know what a crab barrel is?”

I didn’t.

“You don’t have to put a lid on a crab barrel,” he continued, “any crab that tries to crawl out is pulled back down into that barrel.”

He moved like a cat. Quick, sure, precise. He spoke with a touch of gentleness. When our conversation warmed, I found out he was a fighter. He once fought “Sugar” Ray Robinson to a draw at the old St. Nick’s Arena in New York City. Eventually, he left us and went to plant security where we’d say hello now and then when he was at the gate.

I saw his obituary some years back. It was my pleasure to have known and labored with him.

A FRIEND FROM YEMEN

I worked three shifts – days, middles, nights. Probably the loneliest hour to come in to work was 11 p.m. on a Sunday night, an odd time to adjust to. Yet, the nights gave you more independence. There were less supervisors. I liked that. You could generally work at your own pace.

Many jobs required keeping your house clean. If we weren’t scraping up scale from under a roller line it would be crawling in some hole on our bellies deep within the bowels of the plant, and with shovels, rakes and hoes cleared out the flame-hardened and twisted leavings of burnt industrial debris. On some of those jobs I got to know those good, hard-working men from the Middle East. Passing the buckets of stone, grit and ash, we’d keep up a conversation.

One humorous incident was told to me by a young man from Yemen, who, as a newcomer in America and to gambling, tried his hand at the slots.

“All of a sudden, bells and whistles go off,” he related, “and I get scared and start running and people are chasing me, I thought I broke something!”

Of course, what he did was hit the jackpot. We even discussed religion, culture, our differences, our similarities. I was invited to visit their mosque. I felt privileged.

He came from the mountain regions of the Iberian peninsula.. Handsome fellow; he could have been a movie star. He caused a moment of pause when he said that he used to be a shepherd back home. I never met a shepherd before. He had the wagon, horse and a dog. Would stay for weeks, maybe months, tending the flock.

What an idyllic job, I thought. But since he was working for someone else, he wanted to do better than tending someone else’s sheep, so he found his way here.

Part two of this story will be published Sunday, April 21 in Sunday Lifestyles. Send comments to lifestyles@observertoday.com