Every Sunday morning I look forward to opening my email in order to read the weekly poem Glen Brown sends out to a list of his lucky friends.
I received this one today.
The Price in the Eyes by Fred Voss
As I entered the steel mill at age 23,
far more frightening
than the slam of the 2-ton drop hammer
down onto steel to make the concrete floor quake
and the heart jump
was the look in the eye of the man
who had squatted before it for 34 years,
and the humor
and the toughness to go on with his trembling jaw
and bloodshot eye.
Far more frightening
than the blast furnace with its white-hot flame
turning a ton of steel red-hot
as it roared and seared
the nostrils and lips
was the look in the eye at the man who tended it
for 37 years,
and the strength and the brutality and the desperation
of somehow making it through
the noise and the shock waves and the stink and the heat
of the steel mill
as his hands turned into gnarled claws
and his back bent
and his fingertips shook.
Far more frightening
than all the huge machines and cut steel and flame and poundings
between tin walls
were the eyes
of these men
who had somehow made it through
like I wanted to make it through,
who knew so many terrible
gut and heart and soul-wrenching secrets
I would have to learn.
In 1973 I arrived in Chicago with three cardboard boxes full of everything I owned and nothing in the way of marketable skills.
In 1973 Chicago was a very different city than it is now.
Neighborhoods had neighborhood factories that paid union wages. There was a neighborhood school and a couple of corner bars or package stores, as we called them then. Package stores had a liquor store in the front and a bar in the back.
Today in Rahm’s Chicago the factories are gone and so are the neighborhood schools.
On the east side there were steel mills that hired tens of thousands of steelworkers. The impact of the Civil Rights Movement had reached basic steel as African American steelworkers were being hired into formerly all-white skilled jobs in the mills. For the first time, women were also finding jobs making steel. It was hard work, but at union wages. My union local had elected the first woman ever to head a basic steel local in the United States: Alice Peurala.
I was hired as a millwright apprentice. A millwright fixes what’s broken.
The journeyman I was apprenticed to was a Polish immigrant named Adam Konwerski. At the time, Adam had worked at Southworks for 25 years. He often worked double shifts to pay for the parochial schools and Catholic colleges he wanted to send his kids to.
The 100-year old 96-inch plate mill ran steel on two shifts. Steel plate stopped rolling for eight hours out of twenty-four so that we could cobble together machinery that the United States Steel owners didn’t want to make the investment in to replace for 20th century steel production.
Now all the steel mills are gone.
Adam would stand on a shear, hard-hat cocked forward, a cig dangled from his lips and he would shine a flashlight down into the grease and slag, a doctor making a diagnosis.
“Ka-lonsky,” he would say. “Go to the shop and get two nine-inch bolts.”
And I would run to the shop and get two nine-inch bolts.
Then I would get down into the grease and slag to clean out the area where the repairs needed to be made.
Meanwhile Adam would stand up top, hard-hat cocked forward, another cig dangled while he held the flashlight.
Young and stupid as I was, I would look up at Adam and say, “Adam. How come I’m down here shoveling all this slag and grease and you’re up there smoking a cigarette and holding a flashlight?”
“Ka-lonsky,” he would say. “Dey pay me for vat I know, not for vat I do.”