There 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.