The return of the native
The summer of 1963 I returned to Clairton to spend my first full summer since high school graduation. I got a job in the U.S. Steel mill – a miserable but well paying job that convinced me to return to BYU and finish my degree. The mill was not for me. I worked at the Irvin Works, a rolling mill. Steel would be delivered in large slabs and when orders came in the slabs were scarfed (rust and debris burned off), heated, rolled, and pickled (a process of sending the slabs through an acid wash to remove any other impurities that might have hitched a ride during oxidation). As the slabs waited to be rolled they were placed in a huge furnace to make them red hot, hence more malleable, then placed within a long line of rollers that would press them ever tighter to become long, thin ribbons of steel. At the end of the rolling line, a machine was attached the ribbon and spun it into a coil that resembled a car cigarette lighter, only much bigger. Coils were marked and cooled, and shipped to auto factories or other clients to be made into everything from dishwashers to irons.
I was hired as an electrician’s helper on a crane crew. Huge overhead cranes – dozens of which ran along rails in the mile-long building, manipulated the slabs from the scarfing process to the rolling process and beyond. When a crane would break down (usually as the result of a cable snapping and whipping dangerously through the air) the crane crew had to get it repaired and back in operation as quickly as possible, as it cost U.S. Steel lots of money to have an idle crane.
As an incentive, the quicker the crew got the crane back in operation; additional moneys were paid to the crews. It was called “incentive pay” and if there were lots of breakdown the crane crew could double or even triple their base pay.
The first few nights were an adventure, climbing up on idle cranes, replacing and repairing items, and undoing bolts that were bigger in diameter than my thigh. Something as simple as changing a light bulb must be done, per union contract, by an electrician or electrician’s helper. I thought that I might drop out of college and do this for a living. That is, until we had the first breakdown of a crane that had stopped above one of the fire ovens that heated the steel slabs. The heat was so intense that it burned our hands through the thick gloves as we climbed the crane to make repairs. We soaked our red handkerchiefs in a water fountain and placed them over our nose and mouth like a bandana because the air was so hot. Once atop the crane the heat seared through the soles of our regulation steel-tipped work boots. The heat was so intense that the crew was divided into three teams of four; one went up on the crane and worked for a few minutes, another stood ready to take their place on the crane, and a third stood on the ground to send necessary tools up in a “nose bag” that resembled a horse’s feedbag, tethered to a rope. The three teams would rotate and work in that fashion until the job was completed and the crane was able to move under its own power. My first experience with a breakdown above a furnace convinced me to return to college and finish my degree.
As a safety precaution, whenever a crane broke down, the first job of the crane crew was to place a red warning light on either side of the disabled crane. This warned adjacent crane operators and prevented overhead accidents. Dozens of cranes ran back and forth the length of the mill on tracks that resembled train rails. Electricity ran through the rails and the crane would complete a circuit by having its metal wheels touch each of the rails. The warning lights were simply red lenses over a heavy duty light bulb affixed to a 2X4 wooden piece of lumber. The warning light was on one side of the wood and on the other side were two L-shaped flat metal pieces which, when placed on the rails would complete a circuit and light the bulb. Of course, if a person were to hold onto the metal piece while lowering it onto the rails, that person would become part of the circuit as well and end up fried! A hole at the top of the wood was the handle from which to properly lower the warning light onto the rail. A simple job of hanging a warning light could end in serious injury or death if not done properly. The mill was a very dangerous place to work.
As the summer wore down and my bank account got fat, my father took me to “Ping” Young, the local Rambler dealer, where I selected a brand new 1963 burgundy colored Rambler American 440H two-door hardtop to drive back to school. The money I’d earned in the mill paid for most of it and my father (who was still trying to figure out how I was doing so well in college when I barely got out of high school) chipped in the balance. I picked the car up on what was to have been my last day working in the mill – a 4-to-12 shift that ended at midnight. I drove my first new car to work and parked it in the unpaved parking lot (none of the lots were paved, but they were covered with rock similar to that of Desert Landscaping rock).
It was a slow night with few breakdowns. About 9:30 the wind began to blow and continued to get stronger. Rain started coming through the huge windows at a severe angle. I did not realize it at the time but the area was getting hit by a rare (for the area) tornado. Somebody yelled, “Close those windows.” And I scrambled up like a little monkey as the windows ware probably 10-15 feet from the floor. As I reached for the bar to pull the windows shut a huge gust hit and I grabbed onto the window pane to keep from falling. The impact pushed all 8 fingers of both my gloved hands through the window leaving holes that resembled bullet holes. I closed and latched the windows scrambled back down and we rode out the rest of the storm.
After the shift we showered and changed clothes. The old vets, who had nicknamed me “Doc” since I was a Psychology major, shook my hand and wished me luck, telling me how lucky I was to get out of this Hell hole, and lecturing me to be sure to finish my education. It was a male bonding moment. When I got to the parking lot I discovered that the tornado had wrecked every car, including mine! Rocks had swirled denting and scratching the body, ruining the paint, and chipping all the windows. Fortunately our neighbor Smokey, who owned a body shop, came to the rescue and replaced all the windows, repainted the car, and had it ready to travel in just a couple of days.
The car was loaded – trunk and top carrier, and three BYU students who rode back with me; which paid for my gas and expenses.