Memories of the Bethlehem Steel plant

By RALPH BURKE

Special to the OBSERVER

Editor’s note: This column is part two in a two-part series of columns on the Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawana.

NIGHT AND (PAY) DAY

After a night’s losing battle with the bottle, I struggled into work. I changed in the welfare room, got on board the bus. The driver stopped and let me out in front of the assigned job site. The foreman there started to line up my work for the day, but any good sense I had was compromised by a lousy hangover and the only thing I wanted to do was crawl into a hole and sleep it off. So, I told him what he could do with his job. Bad move!

His face hardened, eyes glowered, “You’re talking to the wrong man,” he said, and began rolling up his sleeves.

You knew by the way he carried himself that he was the kind of man who could handle himself. I was in way over my head.

One night shift found me on the loading docks, helping the operator tend the conveyor system that was transporting ore from a ship into storage. It was a warm, summer’s night, insects swarming around the lights, a large rat skittering in and out of the shadows. I found myself drifting off a bit. From this Lake Erie shoreline off Lackawanna, I imagined I could just as well be in distant Marseille or Melbourne.

The operator snapped me out of my reverie, pointing to some spillage that needed cleaning up.

When the ship’s holds were near empty, you descended the ladder-way, grabbed a shovel and scooped up any ore the machines missed.

LACKAWANNA MEMORIES

Payday was something to celebrate. The bars around the plant teemed with workers elbowing and jostling one another, cash clutched in their fists, bellying up to the bar, needing that drink to wash away the soot and grime of their labors. The noise of blaring music, boisterous shouts, laughter, the tobacco smoke, and the initial high from those first few shots was their reward. These were high times in the industry; a few of the men burned the candle at both ends only to pay later on down the road.

“Didn’t cash your check yet? No sweat. Just go to the end of the bar to the walled partition. See that fellow behind the barred window? Give him your check and he’ll cash it for you. But also notice that pistol he’s carrying, just in case you get ideas.”

I don’t know what it is about the city of Lackawanna for me. Maybe it was my memories as a youngster when my parents would travel from Dunkirk to visit my mother’s sister, Aunt Delphine and her husband Harry. He, too, was a steelworker. They’ve been at their rest for a long time now. Maybe it was names like Electric and Steelawanna avenues, or streets called Sand, Clay and Muck – a city that wasn’t afraid to embrace energy and earth and place the names on its corners.

Maybe it was that time I was walking down Ridge and a fire truck went by on call. It didn’t just go down the street, it roared down the street! Siren piercing the air, two helmeted firemen hanging onto the back, coats flapping in the wind. An impressive display of performance and power.

For sure though, it was one cold, November night when I got off the middle shift, showered, changed and left the plant. It was near midnight as I pulled out of the parking lot across Gate 3 and turned onto Route 5. I went a short distance and my car conked out. I wasn’t stalled long before a Lackawanna patrol car, lights flashing, pulled up behind me. An officer got out.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Probably my battery,” I replied.

He returned to his car, said something to his partner and pulled onto the highway, did a U-turn, stopped. Now facing my vehicle he went into his car’s trunk, retrieved some jumper cables, popped the hoods and hooked us up. The engine turned over.

“Good luck!” he said.

I made it back to Dunkirk without incident. I can never thank those men enough. Blue angels.

YOUNG LIONS

At times, we would employ a truck with a strong vacuum to clean up debris, powerful enough to inhale bricks. We called it “Supersuck.”

One day, a man with a bit of the devil in him attached it to the back of a co-worker’s jacket, who became effectively wedded to the “Supersuck.” Arms flailing, and cussing a blue streak, he swore he was going to kill the man once he got released. The prankster had the hapless individual promise not to punch him out if he turned the vacuum off. The man was steaming but he kept his word.

In rare instances, operations in the plant would have to stop due to a breakdown, so it was not productive to keep the men around. One foreman dismissed the men with this advice: “Now when you get home, knock on the front door, then shoot around to the back and catch that (bleep) who’s been putting a smile on your woman’s face.”

We were working the pulpit together (a raised box where you operate various parts of the mill floor below) and my partner was regaling me with tales of his street prowess in the urban badlands. I listened to his scrapes edging on the far side of the law.

“Look at this,” he said lifting up his shirt, pointing to his chest.

I looked and noticed a small round, whitish scar tissue.

“The doc said, half-inch more, I’d be a dead man.”

“I’m glad you made it,” I replied.

“Me, too,” he answered, smiling.

The steel mills were a good place for these young lions. The hot, demanding, sometimes dangerous environment was right up their alley. The work satisfied that wild streak and gave them a sense of satisfaction in being a part of something bigger than they were, and a certain pride in bringing home wages earned through their own labor – other than having to struggle on the streets, and end up nowhere, or worse. Also keeping them in check were others just as tough. No one became king of the hill amongst the thousands represented there.

The one fight I witnessed was on the mill floor; they must’ve had words for they squared off and went at it. One fellow pulled the shirt over his opponent’s head, pulled him to the ground and that was it! No one gathered around them like kids in a school yard. They just let them have a go, and burn out that youthful aggression – seemingly ignoring them, but keeping a watchful eye so the combatants didn’t get too near any dangerous spots. The only damage done was to the loser’s ego.

A major positive influence on the younger men were the older workers. If a younger man overstepped his boundaries, someone would take it upon himself to correct him.

One example was when a man was berating women with denigrating comments to a co-worker. The man halted his talk by asking him if he didn’t have a mother or sister, and how would he like someone to speak of them in that manner? The younger man flustered, hemmed and hawed, and got angry at him, and turned away.

Another incident was where this younger man was teasing an older fellow regarding his age. The older man put his hand on his shoulder and said, “Son, you should know better than that.”

This act threw the younger man off stride and shoving the hand off, he responded sourly, “I’m not your son and you ain’t my father!”

The older man looking him straight in the eye countered, “No. That’s right, but I’ll do for him here in the plant.”

Now both these young men chafed at being rebuked. But they wont forget, and they’ll either learn with aging or find themselves alone and miserable.

REALITY AND DREAMS

The majority of steelworkers, whether in Lackawanna or elsewhere, were God-fearing, family oriented, community-minded, socially responsible individuals who gave their best for the common good of the nation. They labored hard so their families would have it better; they voted, helped out their neighbors, participated in benefits for the less fortunate, and just did what is expected of decent people without fanfare or hopes of recognition.

Steel plant workers, as with miners, foundry laborers, painters, long-haulers or other employments that spew out smoke, chemicals, contaminants, bio-hazards, are rife with health problems. It comes with the territory. Most workers when they began were generally unaware of the long-term picture (or shoved it aside), because when there’s a chance to make a living wage with benefits and a good union behind you, you just forge ahead and hope for the best. You suspect there’s some hurting payback lurking down the road, but like a soldier in combat, hope it’s not you that catches the bullet.

A good time to get to know the men is during a lunch break. If the conditions permit, the work crew will all be together in one spot, breaking bread, talking, griping, laughing. Here is where you’ll meet them without the concentration that work requires.

There were a couple of them who belonged to a magician’s society who performed their illusions. Good enough to elicit a few, “How’d he do that?” types of comment. At another, we were entertained (with some prodding from a fellow worker) by a man who sang for us; considering the place, and no musical accompaniment, it was somewhat remarkable to hear him. The men were silent while he performed.

Here also is where you heard their dreams played out, and their realities. One man talked about how he was working to save enough to head out to the west coast and try out for the forestry service; another, to afford artist’s oils and canvas so he could paint. One who was more representative of the younger men was the one who said that all he works for are his cars.

To some of them, this was a second job. After this shift, they went to work for another outfit. Their families were not going to want for anything it they could help it!

I’ll always remember those workers, their teamwork on a job, the looking out for others and their almost total lack of pretense. They worked together well and never gave the impression to be someone they were not. Also, credit is due to the union which is indispensable for gaining just wages and benefits to the worker and his family. We had a good one there during my working time.

Everything seemed bigger, brighter, noisier, even better in those days: there was work, money was made, people could make goals, life was good. Sure, there were bad times too, as there always will be in the dynamics of just being human, but not like it is today. As the old saying goes, “Don’t cry over spilt milk.” Yet, for the while it lasted, and to this very day, I’ll never forget it.

I hope you enjoyed the tour.

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