Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Uncle Roy and The Steel Mills

My Great-Uncle Roy came to live with us in Struthers, Ohio, not long after his wife died in the early 70's. He was a kind, jovial old guy with a beer gut apparently earned over the years in one of the many steel mill bars. He retired from a supervision position after 40 years in the steel mill. I was fasinated as a teenager listening to his many stories about how steel mills worked and the crazy things he had to do from time to time to keep things rolling.

I would sometimes complain about the air quality, which sometimes was like a black fog rolling through the city or the fine black granules that were a by-product of the mill furnaces that would cover my beloved GTO sitting in the driveway. 'Don't know what your going on about, Son," Roy would say," That grit and stink put food on most people's tables around here. You sound like those government do-gooders that want to shut the mills down." I knew better than to argue with him, even if I did wear Earth Shoes and put Earth Day Stickers on our front door. Afterall, who else would lend me 20 bucks until payday.

Uncle Roy loved to tell stories about life in the mills. He said a Blast Furnace was the closest thing to being just like a human body. Product in, product out. Tempermental at times. Every now and than, it would need an enema.(an Oxygen Lance to loosen up the slag.) In the Winter, he said he'd have his crews unhook the railcars full of Coke(A Cooked Coal product), and let them roll down a hill and bang into each other to unstick the lumps of Coke that had frozen together. The crew on the next shift tried it and derailed several cars. That's the first time I heard the expression, "I'd rather be lucky, than good!"

Uncle Roy and I shared the two upstairs bedrooms, separated by a partition. Every night I heard him talk to Annie, his dear departed wife. He'd tell her how much he missed her and that he would be seeing her soon. I never said anything about it. I figured after 50+ years of wedded bliss, he was entitled to share his day with her.

Roy was great at telling jokes, often with a selected dialect. He could have been the host of The Dean Martin Roasts. I'll leave you with one of Roy's favorites: A very religious couple was consumating their marriage at a motel on their wedding night. The groom was so happy to have married such a pure woman, assured he had found a Virgin. Off go the lights, they undress, and proceed to do what newly-married couples do. Seconds later, the lights go on and the groom is getting dressed. "Why, Sugar, where are you going?", the bride asks. The groom says," Uhn Uhh, I'm a leavin' you! That Up and Down is OK, but that side-to-side is education!"


  1. Great post! I remember hearing that the horrible air quality was "putting food on the table." You didn't dare criticize the almighty mills.

    I never knew what "coke" was (as in "the coke plant") until I read this. Now I know, just in time for it to be completely outdated information. ;)

    It's just fitting that Uncle Roy would talk to his wife at night. "Good people" we used to say.

  2. To sound like Cliff Claven, the Mailman from Cheers, Coke was made by literally baking coal at a moderate temperature for several hours. This burned the impurities out of the coal and made it burn much hotter when added to the Blast Furnace. The higher temperature was necessary to make steel. Now you know the whole story!

  3. So that's where that saying came from!