Before my junior year of college, in 1972, I worked at the manufacturing plant where my father was a foreman. It was an education.
By Bob Zeni
I was bound for the factory. Adrift in college, I’d spent months moored in the campus library trying to study my way out of a sophomore slump. Manual labor would do me good. Toughen me up. That’s what my father told me. He’d done it for three decades. I could do it for three months.
It was 1972. Dad worked for Mississippi Valley Structural Steel (MVSS) in Decatur, Illinois, which fabricated steel for bridges. Decatur is the soybean processing capitol of the world and, back then, was a manufacturing powerhouse that churned out millions of tires, pumps, valves, carburetors, fire hydrants, manhole covers, tractor parts, engine parts, furnace parts and dozens of other basic components for industrial America.
MVSS hired sons of employees to do vacation subbing or deferred maintenance at ‘the plant,’ as everyone called it. That year, I would be among them. But first, a haircut; it’d been a couple years. At school, I wanted everyone to know I wasn’t ROTC. Next, a new outfit. Five blue, short-sleeve work shirts, several pairs of jeans—not bellbottoms—and a pair of steel-toed work boots from Montgomery Wards.
I’d been allowed inside the vast, corrugated-steel building a couple times as a youngster. It was dark, loud, and stank of sweat and welding-torch ozone. A veneer of grime covered everything. Orphaned steel shavings lay scattered throughout. Steel beams weighing several tons apiece hung from chains overhead, looming monsters swaying as cranes hoisted them from station to station. All in all, mysterious and terrifying.
On my first day as an employee, Dad escorted me to a beam at the marking station. He introduced me to a man I soon nicknamed “Barney,” after the character on the Andy Griffith show. “Bob, remember two things,” Dad said in a somber tone. “Lift with your legs, and steel don’t bleed.” That was it for the company safety program. (Welders and cutters used face shields, but no one wore hardhats, gloves, ear plugs, safety glasses or reflective vests.) He turned to Barney: “He’s all yours.”
Barney described the plant’s process in minute detail. A crane moved a beam out of the warehouse. Barney or one of his cohorts reviewed blueprints and marked the beam. It was then hoisted to its assigned station for drilling, cutting and/or welding. When the skilled worker finished, the Inspection department reviewed the beam and if everything had been done correctly, sent it out to the site where crews built a bridge by assembling beams like an enormous Erector Set. Barney lectured me on the importance of standing stock still and holding the tape measure motionless. If I let the tape measure slip, the marks would misalign, the Inspection department would reject the useless hunk of steel and the slow, painstaking process would begin anew. That wasted beam would be all my fault.
The next day, and the day after that: lecture, stand, hold. To stay awake, I mentally calculated how much I was making. I was union, putting in forty hours a week at $8 per hour, plus eight hours at time and a half every other Saturday. I’d go back to the University of Illinois with $3,000, enough to pay for books, room, board, and tuition for my entire junior year. (A few years before, I’d worked at Sandy’s, an unabashed knockoff of McDonald’s in central Illinois, for fifteen hours a week at around $1.50 an hour. Friends from high school still did.)
The guys at the plant had names like Alfonse, Bruno (my dad), Emil, or Gustav. They’d dropped out of school during the Great Depression to contribute to the family income. They’d marched off to defeat the Nazis in World War II, then returned relieved, grateful to have a job, punching the time clock no matter how sick, tired, sore, injured, or hungover. They made enough to buy a house, upgrade to a new car every year and send a kid or two to college by purchasing U.S. Savings Bonds through the payroll savings plan. Nearly all of them were white. There were few Black people and fewer Hispanic people. Women? Secretaries in the front office.
For my entire life, Dad left for work before I woke up. He’d return in the evening, go directly to the basement, and shower. Then he’d take a nap in the bright yellow, faux-leather recliner in the center of our living room. He’d return to the recliner after supper to silently chain-smoke unfiltered Camels and read or watch TV. He’d go to bed at precisely 10 p.m. Then get up and do it all over again. Like most others in my neighborhood, our family was a strict hierarchy. My brother, sisters and I reported to one another by age. We all reported to Mom who took care of the home and school, our health and education. She reported to Dad who put a “roof over our heads.” He was in charge. He didn’t explain his leadership. We never questioned it.
At the plant, he was a foreman with an office—a shanty with a dented file cabinet and a primeval desk that looked out onto his domain, the warehouse, through a tiny sliding window. The first day at lunch, sitting in a corner on an overturned bolt bucket, eating a PB&J Mom had made and potato chips she’d wrapped in wax paper, I was stunned by the dynamo at the desk. Answering the phone, smiling and laughing. Opening the window to answer a worker’s question. Whipping it shut. Flicking cigarette embers on the floor, then putting them out with a toe twist. Trading a quip or two with a worker. Marking papers with a carpenter’s pencil, then sharpening it with quick strokes from a pocketknife I’d never seen.
Who was this guy? I wondered. I had all summer to figure it out.
At the beginning of my second week, I was transferred to join the crew of other sons: Gary who was quiet; Bill, a motormouth charmer; Dave, a bodybuilder; and Jerry, lazy and careless. (He was gone a few days later after getting his arm caught between a steel beam and the hoisting chains.) Our task: Replace the track, ties, and switch in the company’s three-hundred-foot rail line. It branched out from the tangle of tracks in the industrial quadrant of Decatur, curved across MVSS’s barren factory yard and entered the warehouse. Our deadline: End of summer.
We were under the command and watchful eye—he had only one good one—of Heinie Zientara. Whatever I did, he said, “Damnit to hell, Little Bru, you’re doing it wrong.” If I stopped for a moment: “That rock ain’t gonna dig itself.” If I started to explain: “You giving me attitude?” I was shocked, but silent. I didn’t dare talk back to Heinie or say anything to Dad. My job, my problem.
At the end of the week, just before quitting time, Heinie put his arm over my shoulder. “You’re all right, Little Bru. You took it like a man.”
Wait, what? I thought. This was a test?
I stewed all weekend, ruminating on clever retorts. When Heinie started up on Monday, the best I could do was, “Anything you say, old man.” He laughed and patted me on the back. I’d passed. I was now a member of a fraternal order where derisive, combative profanity was the lingua franca and intrusive gestures meant more than words. A headlock and noogie to establish dominance. A finger jab in the stomach for emphasis. An elbow to the ribs for camaraderie. A fist punch to the bicep for hello, goodbye, or agreement.
As if my body wasn’t sore enough. We used pickaxes, jackhammers and shovels to dig up the old rock bed—coarse gravel compacted into a solid mass. We wrenched out rusted spikes, moved rails with five-foot, solid-steel pry bars, pulled out decrepit ties, dropped in fresh, creosote-treated ones, wrestled rails back into place, pounded down spikes and shoveled new gravel into the bed. All in eighty- or ninety-degree heat, with ninety percent humidity and not a cloud in the sky.
With the plant running at full capacity, a string of two or three railcars carrying stacks of beams were pushed in by an engine every few days, stopping our work. Heinie kept us busy moving wheelbarrows of gravel from the two-story stockpile in a corner of the yard to a spot next to the track. Bending over all day, we struggled to match his grueling pace. If we complained or stood up, we heard, “All I wanna see from you is assholes and elbows.”
I came home the first day, sat down on the stoop to untie my boots, and fell asleep. The second, I made it into the house, grabbed a Schlitz, and fell asleep at the kitchen table before drinking it.
We moved faster by setting the rails without driving every spike or filling around every tie. We’d finish after a car had made its delivery. I was unnerved at first, standing next to steel-laden cars as they rolled in. But soon I was nonchalant. Twenty tons rumbling by, three feet from my head? So what? They’re not going fly off the rails.
Driving spikes looked easy: Lift the twelve-pound gandy dancer sledge (aka spike maul) and swing. The face of the hammer, however, was only slightly larger than the spike head. Heinie had no depth perception yet never missed, driving the spike flat to the tie plate with two swings plus a delicate, perfunctory tap. I missed repeatedly, breaking the handle against the rail each time. Heinie made me gather up the pieces and report to the quartermaster to endure his verbal abuse before getting a replacement. I learned to bend at the knees and guide the swing with my forearms. It still took me at least a half dozen hits.
I had lunch with Dad every day, sitting on the overturned bolt bucket every day, eating a PB&J and potato chips every day. Without Mom and my sisters around, he was chatty and full of surprises. He, like me, opposed the Vietnam War (“Why are we sending all these boys over there to die? We have no business being over there”). He loathed Richard Nixon (“I don’t care if he is the president, I still don’t trust the bastard”). He wanted to smoke pot. Occasionally, he asked me what I thought.
Everyone inside the building worked at a deliberate pace. Too many hazards and no air conditioning. Out in the yard, Heinie pushed us to speed up, leading by example. We responded, figuring out what to do when, rounding into shape. I dropped fifteen pounds, packing 115 on my five-foot-nine frame by mid-July.
We developed rapport through witless distraction. We’d bet on when the rain would start if we saw a thunderstorm approaching—winnings never paid nor demanded. We jogged alongside rail cars, joking we’d jump on. Heinie scoffed, insisting—despite our savage skepticism—that the best way to hop a freight was to run perpendicular to it, then dive into the car door at the right moment. Dave showed off, often carrying a new tie (they weighed a hundred and fifty pounds each) by himself. Once, and only once, he toted two. We yelled Heinie-isms at each other: “That shovel ain’t for leaning!” “Don’t gimme no lip!” and “Assholes and elbows!” Heinie chuckled.
One afternoon, he told Bill to clear a tie, saying “Ya gotta get on your knees.”
Bill jumped up, grabbed a shovel, slung it across his waist horizontally, strummed the scoop and fingered chords on the handle.
“Ya’ got me on my knees,” he sang. “Layla!”
“Layla!” Gary, Dave and I chorused on cue.
“Beggin’ you darlin’, please.”
“That a name?” Heinie asked.
“They think it’s Pattie Boyd,” Bill said.
“Pattie Boyd. See, Eric Clapton’s in love with her, but she’s married to George Harrison, who’s his best friend.”
Heinie looked puzzled.
“Jesus, Heinie. George Harrison! George Harrison? Y’know, the Beatles?” The rest of us burst into three different songs. “The Mop Tops? The Ed Sullivan Show?”
“I know who the god-damn Beatles are. Get back to work ’fore I bust your ass.”
Most deliveries went directly into the warehouse. If the warehouse was full, however, the railcars were shuttled off onto the spur, a short secondary track where cars were parked temporarily. The spur veered off from the main line through a track switch thirty feet or so before the warehouse. We reached it in mid-August. We pulled the rails apart and, as always, replaced enough components to stabilize the line.
As a car rolled into the switch, we watched the wheel flanges press against the side of the rail and begin to rise. “STOP! STOP! STOP!” we screamed, running toward the engine waving our arms. The massive engine and heavy cars moved slow but couldn’t stop on a dime. We gaped as the front of the car crept inexorably up over the railhead and off the tracks. The wheels dove into the bed, gouging the ties until they ground to a halt. The steel beams groaned and clanked as they shifted inside the gondola.
Heinie unleashed a torrent of anger at the railcar. He pointed to Gary and nodded toward the front office. Gary ran. An executive in white shirt, sport coat, and stylish wide tie walked out and sneered. He’d have to call the railroad to send out a derailment team. At lunch, Dad said the incident was the talk of the plant. He asked if I was okay, making sure I wasn’t hurt.
It took a couple days to repair the damage. We pried off the rails, replaced ties, and carefully put the pieces back together. When we finished, a waiting delivery approached. We stepped well back from the track and watched–in horror–as the wheel flanges again began pressing against the side of the rail. We stared, paralyzed as the car again crept up over the railhead, veered off the tracks, and crunched into the ties.
Heinie exploded, spewing an epic eruption of profanity in every direction. Finally spent, he looked at Gary who trudged across the yard into the front office. Moments later, he ran out as the back door of the office slammed open behind him. Carl Dick, president of the Decatur plant, came toward us, kicking the air out of his way with the self-righteous swagger brandished by power and money.
A tsunami of fear surged inside me. My eyes lost focus, my ears rang, my lips twitched, and my fingers and toes tingled. Carl stopped and glared at the wheels, stuck in the gashes they’d made in the ties. “DAMNIT, HEINIE!” he yelled.
“Sorry, Carl,” Heinie said.
Carl marched back to the front office, slamming the door behind him.
My terror subsided. I felt relieved that I wasn’t fired on the spot, and angry that Heinie had been reduced to a naughty twelve-year-old. We waited for the railroad crew. We were silent until Gary muttered, “He’s a dick.”
The derailment team arrived. One of them took Heinie aside and, as we leaned in to listen, explained that both times we’d neglected to remount the check rail—an inconspicuous bar next to the opposing rail that anchors the wheels through the switch. In the final stretch, we took more time to reset the ties, check track positioning, replace all the components, drive all the spikes, and fill the bed with gravel before Heinie would wave a car through.
My summer ended before we reached the warehouse—classes were starting. I was disappointed to leave the job unfinished, glad to escape the toil, and proud to have accomplished something tangible. I was in the best shape of my life—physically, mentally and financially.
I’d also learned a thing or two about my father. Sitting in his office on that damn uncomfortable bolt bucket, I heard comments and opinions I never expected. I’d known he’d left school in the sixth grade, but I had no sense whatsoever of the plant’s rough-and-tumble milieu and the repetitive, debilitating grind of manual labor. Somehow, he’d kept his wits about him and retained the focus to advance from ditch-digger (his first job at MVSS) to foreman. That’s impressive. A brief dip into factory work was more than enough for me. He’d been caught in its maelstrom for three decades, and all so our family would have a better life. I’d had respect for him before, but in three months, it had grown exponentially.
And Heinie? I never saw him again. He passed away in 2004. His obituary noted he’d retired in 1980 after forty-four years at MVSS and, subsequently, “greatly enjoyed…his part-time work at McDonalds.” I can just see him in his red-and-yellow uniform, busing trays, wiping tables, tossing out Big Mac wrappers—looking a customer in the eye, smiling, and, with total sincerity saying, “May I take your order, please?” ■
Bob Zeni is a writer, editor, and designer in the Chicago area.
Cover image: Northwestern Steel & Wire in Sterling, Illinois, circa 1965. Photo by Roger Puta via Marty Bernard (public domain).
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