The Steel Foundry

egore911-heavy-industryThere is something I have always wondered about. Does who you are determine what you will do in life or does what you do for a living determine who you will become?

There is a quality to being a cop, a social worker, a lawyer or a teacher that is recognizable. Sometimes it is hard to spot, other times it is blazingly obvious. People in these professions often speak of being changed by the job and I believe them.

I would never have chosen to work in a steel foundry if not for the pay – but over time I discovered that the job was molding me into someone who would have made the choice.

It concerned me because I saw what the place did to the people who worked there and to appreciate my fears, you have to understand the environment.

First and foremost, there was the heat.

The heat in a foundry has a substance all its own. It hits you like a wall when you first step into it and if you are not used to it, you bounce off. Once on the shop floor, it becomes a medium through which you move, just like air or water.

Aside from the heat, there is the dirt.

The molding sand drifts like black snow. It gathers on the girders, it forms mounds under the machinery and piles up layer upon layer almost geologically. If you do not keep shoveling it back, it will engulf you like the sands of the Sahara. The finer dust never settles, it simply hangs eternally in the air, transforming sunlight into shafts so dense you can climb up and slide down.

And then there is the noise.

A steel foundry is not just loud, it is tectonic loud. All around the casting floor, herds of industrial dinosaurs wage Jurassic combat. Each time they collide, they send shock waves rippling through the building. The waves rattle your bones and jostle your organs and you only realize how hard they hit when you find yourself still quaking throughout an entire weekend.

But a foundry is not without its beauty.

It is a study in shadow and light. The shadows are as dark as a universe without stars – but the light, rising from the glowing steel, is as rich and red as sunset. It streaks upward through the machinery and splashes among the trestles that hold up the great cathedral roof.

Then there are the people.

They are the people who you will become once the heat, dirt, noise and stark beauty of the place gets a good grip on you.

Perhaps it is the power of the place or maybe the nature of the work but it either chooses twisted souls or it molds them into grotesque shapes.

I used to work with a guy who was as tall as he was lean until the day he missed a step climbing down from his overhead crane.

Ed was his name and he fell thirty feet and landed like a glob of clay on the shop floor. The impact left him half his size. It shortened his legs into stumps and compressed his torso so that his ribs rode on his hips. In his crane, Ed soared, silent and graceful as a sea gull – but on the ground he waddled like a querulous old bird.

Ed had but one pleasure in life, tormenting another coworker: Rocky.

The most concise thing one could one say about Rocky is that she was a girl who wanted to be a girl but no one had showed her how.

She had the physique of a refrigerator – which was a bad start but perhaps to compensate for her shape, she applied makeup with a putty knife and splashed on industrial strength perfume by the bucket load. You always knew when Rocky was coming because her scent hit you harder than the heat.

Despite all of this, she was soft-spoken, slow to anger and good at what she did which suited the rest of the crew perfectly. We all liked her, everyone that is but Ed. For some reason, he had it in for her and over the years, Ed’s torment of Rocky became as much a part of our workday as the heat, the noise and the dirt.

The odd thing was, they rarely had an occasion to interact. Rocky drove a heat-treat truck. It was a miserable job. Heat-treat is the process of slowly cooking a casting that is already insanely hot. Think of her job as driving around all day on a gigantic fork-lift with a red hot casting bobbing at the end of a pair of outstretched tines.

Because of the dangerous nature of her work, Rocky was mandated to follow a strict schedule on a rigid path through the foundry – which had one odd quirk. It put Rocky chugging down the center aisle with a red-hot casting at the very moment Ed was headed back to his crane after lunch. It was the only time during the day that they were near each other – and since they worked overlapping shifts – they never saw each other before or after work.

During these moments, Rocky was at a disadvantage. She could neither speed up nor slow down. Neither could she swerve nor stop. Any deviance from her set schedule was a risk to the material, equipment, herself and others.

Ed knew this.

In fact we all did.

So every day, Ed would hide behind a girder waiting for Rocky. As she drew near, he would leap out and zap her with a long stream of cold water from a squirt bottle.

It was Ed’s big joke and there was nothing Rocky could do about it. She was helpless. So she endured Ed’s abuse and shrugged off the guffaws from his buddies, who acted like it was the funniest thing they had ever seen – even though they saw it every day.

This went on for years until one afternoon in mid-winter when the temperature hit a crisp 20 degrees below zero and the foundry closed the big bay doors that led out to the yard.

During these cold snaps Rocky was forced to drive straight at the closed door at full throttle until the very last moment, when about 50 feet short of the exit, she reached out and tugged a rope that triggered the door opener.

That cold day, Ed thought it would be hilarious to drench her just as she blasted out into the arctic weather, so he positioned himself by the door.

As she leaned out to tug on the door opener, he shot her with a blast of cold water – but Rocky let the rope slide gently through her fingers and instead, quick as a snake, snatched a chain dangling nearby.

OSHA requires emergency showers be situated wherever there is a risk of accidents involving white hot steel. Each shower is equipped with a chain pull that activates a head and the head is fed by a high pressure water pipe – measuring nearly a foot in diameter.

Ed instantly vanished into a violent white fog of rushing water. The force of the torrent ballooned out his bib overalls and flushed them around his ankles, exposing a stained pair of tighty-whities – that washed away an instant later.

Without the slightest indication that anything had happened, Rocky swerved around the corner, made another circuit of the galley and went out into the yard to stack her load.

When she came back, she wore a look that told to everyone around her, “You are next”. It’s when I decided that being molded into the object of Rocky’s vengeance was not something I aspired to.

Author: Almost Iowa

33 thoughts on “The Steel Foundry”

  1. I worked in a steel foundry in 1979 with that cast of characters. The Rocky I knew you described to a Tee. Good story!

  2. I’m writing a book that includes a girl photographing a foundry. It took me almost a half hour to finda eb site that had any sensory descriptions of what it was like inside one. Thanks! DMD

  3. “I have a friend who worked as a roustabout on an offshore rig for several years”

    This was in the early 1970’s and there was quite a few women working in the foundry. I worked closely with one woman who was from the Red Lake Reservation. Wonderful lady, exotically beautiful – but I was always careful not to get on her bad side… I would hate to be the person who did that.

    “Tuesday, the heat and humidity were so bad it wasn’t possible to drink enough water to keep going. Finally, a front came through, and we were down to 90 today — everyone was smiling.”

    It has been sweatshirt weather here. In the mornings, it is jacket and sweatshirt weather.

    “It reminded me of the time a so-called friend left me tied off at the top of a mast.”

    Unforgiving environments bring out unforgiving behavior. I never made that mistake again.

  4. Your mention of the iron mines triggered a memory of Hibbing: yet another place we visited on a family vacation when I still was in grade school. For years, I had a tube with the various layers of sand and mineral in it — and a rubber stopper to keep it all in order.

    I have a friend who worked as a roustabout on an offshore rig for several years, before she went over to the railroads. She loved the work, and was good at it, in both fields: but she could give as good as she got, and anyone who pushed too hard had a lesson waiting for them.

    I can imagine the conditions in that foundry, but I’d rather not. It’s been bad enough here the past two weeks. Tuesday, the heat and humidity were so bad it wasn’t possible to drink enough water to keep going. Finally, a front came through, and we were down to 90 today — everyone was smiling.

    I had to smile at that story of the crane operator who pinned you down for an hour. It reminded me of the time a so-called friend left me tied off at the top of a mast. The view was great, but after I while, I was ready to come back to earth.

    1. It is unnerving how easily it would have been for Rocky to do in Ed. The foundry was an incredibly dangerous place. Just the effort of staying alert every second of the day, tired you out.

  5. Interesting story and different than what you usually write. Is this a true story? I thought that the paragraph about Ed’s unfortunate demise might have been better placed at the end of the story, like maybe a sort of an afterthought.

    1. Most of it is true, though as you might notice, I have a tendency to exaggerate. The foundry was Minneapolis Electric Steel Casting Company, located just off University Avenue in Columbia Heights.

      1. I worked at Minneapolis Electric Steel Casting, on the shaker, the summer of 1970, after finishing HS. It was big money at $3.50 an hour. It was incredibly hot, I ate and drank such big lunches on second shift. What I mostly remember is how dramatic it was – just like the movies or pictures of steel mills, giant caldrons of liquid metal. It was very dangerous. The overhead crane operators drank on the job, and carried tons of heavy black silicon sand molds overhead. I am really glad I had the job, though only for 3-4 months.

  6. What a story! Rocky had reached her breaking point and found her revenge. Good for her. Speaking of noise and danger, I worked in a salmon cannery in Naknek, Alaska in the summer of ’89. The smell, the vibrating floor, the infections from fish juice in open wounds, respiratory infections, aching bones, you name it.

  7. Great story. I am always amazed at the horse play going on in the most dangerous of places. i worked in a machine shop in college and was on a lathe for ten hours. The guy behind me loved to take red hot shavings and toss them at me and they would leave holes in my clothes. One day my shirt caught fire. He was so apologetic that it was worth losing the shirt. (no injury due to the shower you mentioned.)

    1. You are right about the horse play – but sometimes it is something other than fun. My first job in the foundry was running chains for a 30 ton overhead crane. The job was simple, two chain loops dangled from the crane’s hook and each mold had two knobs. All I had to do was flip the chains on and off the knobs. One day, after unhooking a mold, I discovered I had been pinned to the floor by the weight of the mold. I let the crane operator set it down on my foot. It didn’t hurt because I wore steel toed boots and the mold merely pushed my foot into the sand – but I was in quite a predicament.

      When the crane operator saw what I had done, he parked his crane and went to lunch. I had to stand there, pinned to the floor, for an hour.

  8. Great story about retribution of the finest kind. Go rocky! I worked in a machine shop that made gun barrels. No heat, but noise and oil and danger at every turn. I understand what that does to people over time. The foundry must have been an order of magnitude worse. I can’t even imagine.

    1. I worked in a machine shop that made gun barrels.

      I only own one gun, a cap and ball Colt pistol replica. I worked around people who carried guns for a living for most of my career but don’t have much of an opinion on guns one way or the other.

      What I like about them though, is the technology. Especially nineteenth century technology. I am constantly amazed at the craftsmanship and depth of techical understanding.

      1. On of the barrels we made was an octagonal steel barrel that was sold for replica rifles. I hated those. I worked on the drills. Most barrels were ok if either end was a little off center as all subsequent operations spun the barrel around the hole I drilled. The octagonal blanks had to be perfectly centered. The technology in the shop I worked in was amazing. Several of the machines had been purpose built by machinists on site.

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