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nuke it
by J D Smith (guest writer)

In Gary, Indiana, l966, during the last spasm of the American steel industry, three thousand of us worked under one roof, turning red dirt into bridge trusses, Kenworth frames, Mustang fenders, and flatcars full of Inconel and Stainless 303.

Five days a week I fought the traffic from my hovel in southside Chicago to the parking lot outside Door South #l6, where I slapped the time clock then faced a mountain of long, thinwall steel tubing. By fitting sizing dies onto twenty-foot hydraulic rams, I pulled one tube inside another, until the mountain dwindled to four tubes. I left those for the next day, as a reminder to the geeks in neckties that the union was running the job.

Repetitive tasks, machinist's yoga, cause the mind to cruise. Those times when my attention to the job disappeared entirely are chronicled today by circular scars on my hands, where chunks of whirling steel snagged my palms while I was lost in fantasy about Estelle.

Estelle drove the maggot wagon, a chromed, quilted steel canteen truck which arrived outside Door South #16 at ten, noon, and two- thirty. She was long and lean, with caramel apple skin. She wore brown coveralls, a coin holder slung around one hip. and a chain on her wallet. She was alive, friendly, and very female. She didn't know me from the other honky millheads who breakfasted on chilidogs while studying her shape, but I lived for those three breaks a day.

The mill closed for three days over New Years l967. We came back to work to find that Central Catering Company's contract had expired, and that mill management had installed refrigerated banks of vending machines filled with food in cellophane. Next to each of these automats were perched six magic boxes called microwave ovens, capable of transforming hardrock cinnamon rolls into gooey pillows in thirty seconds, of boiling hot chocolate in sixty. The welders suspected that we were witnessing a new era in electron- flow arc welding. I missed Estelle.

It was Pogey Nielson, the shop steward, who discovered the entertainment value of the new contraptions when he attempted to warm an Alladin thermos of coffee in one of the devices. Poof! Miniature lightning, smoke, the stink of fried plastic, then silence.

A general microwave meltdown ensued. In February, management posted rules and regs governing the use of microwave ovens, along with fresh signs listing the penalties for willful destruction of company property. In March the Boilermakers' Union began to question the safety of the things. By April it began to sink into the cost-analysis guys that a factory filled with metal lathe shavings might not be the perfect proving grounds for a machine that was allergic to tinfoil.

By mid-June a new contract was negotiated with Central Catering. At the ten-o'clock buzzer, on the first Monday of July, I hustled out Door South #l6 to find that Estelle had been replaced by a chunky man from Tennessee named Walter, with warty hands and teeth the color of Cheetoes. The thrill was gone from building two-ply tubing. By September I was topping trees in California.

copyright 1996...........J. D. Smith

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