Monday, March 29, 2010

Working Until They Turn Out The Lights

Fresh out of high school in June 1973, within two weeks, I got hired at a steel fabrication plant in downtown Youngstown, Ohio called The William B. Pollock Company. This place had started in the middle of The Civil War in 1863 making items used in the steel mills and foundries.

I really had no experience or knowledge of factory life. My dad worked in a food warehouse and my high school jobs ranged from grocery stores to gas stations. The father of one of my good friends was a foreman at The Pollock Company and the head of personnel went to my church and knew my family well. Nepotism never hurts. My initial job there was a Helper, which was just that. Helping some one else in doing their job which could be assembly, welding, or a Fitter. A Fitter built steel fabrications and tack-welding things into place that were completely welded and/or machined by others.

After six months at mostly menial jobs, I was eligible to bid on other jobs in the plant, which were awarded on basis of seniority in this Union environment. I next became a Black Smith's Helper which involved heating an bending huge steel parts like rings that reinforced steel ladles that had a thirty foot diameter or putting rivets in hooks that were eight inches thick that picked up sixty- ton ladles full of molten steel. Many days I looked like a coal miner by the end on my shift. Fortunately, a locker room and showers were there and I didn't have to bring the dirt home with me. Because of the grease and grime, my work clothes needed to be replaced about every three months. That's when I learned about Goodwill and other thrift stores. They sold work shirts for fifty cents and pants for a buck. What a deal!

My next occupation I advanced to was the Burning Department. No, this wasn't where you learned about becoming an Arsonist, this is were steel parts were made by burning out patterns on a sheet of steel on varying thicknesses with a cutting torch powered by acetylene and oxygen.
My initial job was a Scrap Burner, where I cut left over steel pieces into to small sections to be loaded in a scrap box to be recycled. I still have scars where a hot spark shot down my neck, through an opening in my shirt, or the worst, down my boot. When a hot ember went down your boot, you grabbed anything liquid nearby to douse the ember that was now burning your sock. I then graduated to running a Burning Machine that looked like a toaster holding a burning torch. it ran on small portable tracks to burn a straight line on the piece you were cutting.

Bored with that job after a year, I bid on an overhead craneman job and got it. I began operating a small five-ton crane thirty feet high that ran on railroad tracks the length of a hundred yard building. I advanced to a eighty- foot high one, then a crane with two hooks, one capable of lifting forty tons, the other ten tons. It was scary using two hooks at once to flip over a steel ladle that was thirty feet in diameter and thirty feet high. The chains used for such a big lift were huge. One link was two feet long and four inches in diameter. I guess years earlier, a man was killed while standing behind a ladle as the crane man moved the chains to the far side of the ladle. They came together like cymbals, crushing the poor guy who was out of sight of the crane operator. Ever since then, a worker was assigned to guide the crane operator for large lifts.

My final assignment was in the Machine Shop as a Horizontal Boring Mill Operator. I felt at home doing this job. I had three years of Machine Shop in high school and learned how to operate everything. This humongous machine traveled ten feet high and bored holes in casting up to forty inches in diameter, up to eight feet long. It often took an entire eight hour shift to bore one pass through a large cylinder. When milling a large piece of steel with a rotating cutting head, chips flew off the work like red-hot Cheetos. These cuttings were hot enough to light a cigarette on and often found their way into the most inaccessible parts of your clothing, safety glasses, or bare skin. I quickly learned not to wear anything made of polyester or nylon!

My seven years there served me well. I was making over twenty bucks an hour in the late 70's. not bad for a young Buck, still wet behind the ears. It financed my college education and afforded me the chance to study quite a bit during slow periods on the job. This wasn't uncommon for a guy in the Youngstown area.

Making that kind of money was standard in just about any position in the Steel Industry. Most of the steel mills were out of business by the early 80's. No wonder. The strong union environment that was so necessary during the earlier days of organized labor became the downfall of many businesses that could not pay the high cost of labor and afford to modernize to keep up with foreign competition. Union officials will tell you it was greed of the corporations that kept them from modernizing. In any event, twenty three miles of uninterrupted steel mills that stretched from Warren to Struthers was no more. The Mahoning Valley was no longer the "Cradle Of The Steel Industry". We all moved on, but it will never be the same.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ding-Dong, It's The Knife Man

Ding-Dong---Ding,Ding-Dong---Ding. When I was a little kid, the sound of those bells would bring me running to the street. What was it? No, it wasn't the Ice Cream Truck. It was The Knife Sharpener! That's right. A little old Italian man, authentic right down to his Beret and Bandanna around his neck with Half-Bifocals perched low on his nose. If I didn't know any better, I would have thought this was Gipetto.

He would push this humongous green cart up and down the hilly streets of Struthers. No easy task, given the terrain. I couldn't pedal my bike up some of the streets the Knife Sharpener traversed. I would follow him, usually with a collection of other neighborhood kids as he plied his trade.

The unmistakable sound of those loud bells would alert the housewives to bring their knives outside to him to be sharpened in the middle of the street. Quite a sight to see these women come flying out of their houses brandishing large Butcher knives, often waving them over their heads to draw the attention of the Knife Sharpener. I'm sure in this day and age, a Cop seeing this would have plugged them full of lead before they reached the sidewalk. So much for Zero Tolerance in the neighborhood.

Gipetto, as I'll call him, would pull his cart to a halt. I can't imagine how much it weighed, but it took him quite a few feet to stop the cart's forward momentum. The cart itself was ingenious. He had a metal stand he pulled the cart backwards on to, much like a large kickstand. The Covered Wagon size wheels would then be six inches off the ground. This stabilized the cart and he had foot pedals he pumped to turn the Grinding Wheel and operate the water pump that bathed the stone in water as he grinded away. He put a razor sharp edge on anything you brought him. Knives, axes, hatchets, lawn mower blades, scissors, and garden shears all were sharpened to precision. To demonstrate this, Gipetto would take a piece of paper and slice it with a deft stroke of his hand with the newly sharpened item.

Gipetto was a sharp business man. Knowing that crowds often attracted more business, he offered penny candy to the children hanging around his cart. he would sing or whistle Italian Opera while he worked and always had a smile on his face that was infectious. I can recall him being at one spot in a suburban neighborhood for hours, as mothers or their designated offspring lined up to get that precision hone on their item.

Eventually, Gipetto no longer appeared in our neighborhood. I don't know whatever happened to him or his business. Was it a lack of customers with so many moms now working? Did the electric can opener do him in with it's built-in knife sharpener? Did he simply retire with no one interested in taking over his trade? I'd love to know. It was sort of like Puff The Magic Dragon. Another childhood memory that vanished in the mist. Ding Dong--- Ding, Ding-Dong---Ding...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

DECA And Another Dose Of Humble Pie

In the early 70's, Vocational Education was just coming into it's own in Ohio. The premise being to prepare students for a job, especially if they weren't necessarily geared towards going to college. I thought that would suit me just fine. I had no desire in high school to further my education.

I enrolled in Distributive Education and began classes my junior year. Distributive Education, better known as DE to those involved, had a tag line of "Developing future leaders for Marketing and Retail". We learned about a lot of facets of business and it was fairly easy if you paid attention. Another part of the program was obtaining a part-time job in the field of retail or marketing and your teacher would follow-up with your employer on your development.

I worked in a grocery store and my boss never saw my teacher. Too bad, I had a very young guy for a boss and I had him all primed for the visit from my teacher. He was going to tell my teacher what an excellent employee I was and what a fine example of today's youths I was. Yeah right, he wasn't going to tell him we split a six-pack in the parking lot some nights when we clocked out. I did learn quite a bit about running a grocery store, stocking shelves, ordering merchandise, preparing produce, and sweeping the floors. I pushed a pretty mean Dry Mop. We had contests to see who could do it the best and the fastest. It helped stem the boredom.

My class of about fifteen students was mostly a collection of misfits from the junior class. Better known as non-conformists, they could bring a weak teacher to the point of tears. The year before, the Senior DE Class caused the instructor to have a nervous breakdown and he quit half way through the school year. That's when Mr. Frank entered the picture. A burly, no-nonsense kind of guy, he quickly turned the program around and got students involved in all aspects of Distributive Education and got them to participate in DECA. DECA was the Club Portion of DE and had competitions on the local, regional, and state level.

Every student was required to select a contest to participate in. My choice was Job Interview, where a mock job interview was conducted with an area Personnel Director and you were judged on appearance,inter-personal skills, knowledge of the job, and aptitude. Apparently, I knew how to dazzle them and I made it to the state competition in Columbus. a couple of my classmates also advanced and had quite the weekend at a Sheraton Hotel in Ohio's Capitol. I won at the state level and I must have made an impression on the Head Muckity- Mucks of the DECA Program. They convinced me to run for Student President of Ohio.

I first had to be elected President of my Region. I won that one hands down, mainly because my competition of three others showed little enthusiasm. I gave a "Fire And Brimstone" kind of speech. One that Jimmy Swaggert would have been proud of.

Part of the responsibility of the job was to visit all the other Deca Schools in my region of Northeast Ohio at least once a month. I then had a monthly meeting with the adult DECA staff, including The State Director of Vocational Education. I complained at a meeting that my principal would not always let me out of school to visit other schools in my region. the State Director immediately placed a phone call to my principal and read him "The Riot Act". My red-faced Principal called me in his office to tell me I could leave school when ever necessary, I didn't even have to ask! Of course, I never abused the privilege, not me...all I can say is it's amazing how the golf courses are deserted on weekday afternoons.

I had to pass an interview with a panel in Columbus to run for State President. I was ill-prepared and arrogant with my answers. I didn't study about who all the Muckity-Mucks were by name and knew before I left I choked at my chance. Another dose of Humble Pie, served up hot and fresh!

My Senior year consisted of three regular classes of English, Math, and History and then I left school at 11:00 A.M. to go to my part-time job. Surprisingly, I was offered a full scholarship to Kent State if I would major in Distributive Education. At the time, I had no interest in doing that and turned it down. I had a full-time job waiting for me upon graduation, so I thought I was all set. Funny how life turns out, a year later I was enrolled at Youngstown State University, majoring in Business and EDUCATION.