Finding My Father at the Steel Mill

FOR 27 years of his life, my father had a regular full-time job in the blast furnaces of the Inland Steel Company, a gargantuan steel mill that in the heyday of this country's industrial prowess employed some 22,000 people. But sometimes I remember him as a part-time barber who cut my hair. Papa had a clientele that included the landlord and his kids, an upstairs neighbor, several compadres, my uncle and cousins, and a small but steady stream of steelworkers who would show up at our tiny basement apartment to ask: ``Is this where the man cuts hair?''

My brothers and I took turns escorting Paps customers into the house. We'd walk them through our living room and kitchen, making sure to tell them to watch our for their heads when they entered the narrow hallway and the bedroom where Papa would be preparing for his work. For the children, he would set up a large oak chair with a wide stool on it, with a pillow above that and another, smaller stool for their feet. From an adjoining closet, he would take out his estuchito, his special barber's case with its professional scissors, brushes, talcum powder, and hand clippers. It would be a few years before he would switch to electric clippers that were as noisy as an electric drill.

My father was a master at haircutting and had many repeat customers to prove it, but I detested haircuts from him. His hands were rough and heavy, and every once in a while the clippers would pinch. He'd also move my head a little too brusquely at times, especially while doing the close work around my neck. But the results of my father's efforts were always pleasing. You never had that sheared look or appeared as though you'd just stepped out of a barber shop. Your hair just looked very natural and meticulously even. Paps work was like that. Sometimes I'd even get compliments from friends and classmates about my hair, though of course I'd never let them know my hair was being cut at home by my father.

I enjoyed looking at all of his accessories, the different fittings for the clippers, the horsehair brushes, the nylon combs with differently spaced teeth, and the variety of scissors. His estuchito was beige, as I remember, with two dark-brown vertical strips that ran down the sides of it. When you opened it, the first thing you noticed was the shiny beveled mirror that reflected your face. Then the wafts of wonderous rose water and the fragrance of the talcum powder would engulf you.

I remember how guarded I was while admiring the estuchito, as I knew my father was possessive about it. When he had you fetch something out of it on occasion, he watched you like a hawk as you chose from among the accessories. You were never to linger much around it. He didn't have to tell you that; you just felt it as you sensed his dark penetrating eyes upon you.

Because my mother was ill much of the time, we sometimes had a lopsided, loveless family life. Papa was strong and incredibly determined, occasionally pushing us four boys a little too far. He was a disciplinarian and wouldn't tolerate any laziness or breaking of house rules. What he said went, and if you didn't abide by it, you heard about it. But we boys were no angels; we fought, we argued, we insulted each other, we misbehaved. To see one or two of us kneeling in the corners of our cramped basement apartment as punishment for wrongdoing was not uncommon.

Despite severe snows, intolerable muggy Chicago summers, and his heavy work in the steel mill, Papa kept two jobs most of the time. I don't remember his missing work more than two or three times in all my teenage years. He was a dynamo, getting up at the crack of dawn, doing his 20 minutes of stretching and exercise, then heading off to work, his lunch bag securely in hand.

As I grew older, working my way through college, I entered the industrial world in which my father worked. I actually got to hear and smell and peer at the fiery animal of steelmaking with which my father was involved. I remember the clanging and the dinge, the waves of heat and the blasts of this cylindrical monster furnace coming to life with its mixture of iron ore, coke, and limestone.

Sometimes I ventured closer to where my father worked and got to see him and the men casting and tapping the furnace while this red-hot molten iron and slag poured our of the mill's bowels. As I swept or shoveled, or just stood momentarily in awe, I'd watch the practiced motion and rhythm of the men as they separated slag and impurities from the iron; relined runners, troughs, gates, and dams, using bars, hammers, and shovels; and cleaned and loaded a clay gun for plugging the tap hole.

As I watched Papa and the men, they seemed like gritty modern dancers on an industrial stage, with a choreography and movement all of their own. I remember glimpsing my father one morning obtaining samples of the molten ore from the cast with a long-handled ladle, pouring the boiling mixture into a test mold. As he worked, I caught the mysterious luminous glow of the steel mill surrounding him. At that moment something happened. I couldn't explain exactly what it was, but it seemed as though my entire family's life trajectory was expressed in the motion of my father's work.

Something resonated deeply inside me as I watched this scene, as I saw my father's outline against the industry that drew him and changed his life. I have an indelible image of him there in his thick shoes, with a shield over his face, and of his precise, dignified movement in the overwhelming heat.

I loved my father. I couldn't say it then or perhaps didn't fully realize it. My love was expressed there through my eyes, very quietly, privately, as if trapped somehow in my emerging manhood - as if I could never put those two things together: love and my father.

I'm sure I had always loved my father, but in that world of his main livelihood, away from family and his haircutting and the confines of a cramped basement apartment, I seemed to fully realize it. I now could understand how my father took his place in this steelmaking operation, where perhaps he found a solace from the trials he faced at home. Here he made a different contribution, and his work would help form an invaluable tempered material. This material would be converted to bars and flanges, rolled steel, I-beams and H-beams, eventually becoming refrigerators, washing machines, cars, or the foundations for the nation's buildings and bridges.

As I think about Papa today, I can see the simple yet profound statement that he and his generation of men made to me and my generation. Papa and these men represented an era of men who lived hard lives, tough lives, and made difficult life-shaping decisions, sometimes amid personal tragedy. Their work is done, their lives sometimes forgotten. Yet through their unspoken belief in this country and their conviction to provide for their families, they set an unparalleled example. These men were flawed and vulnerable sometimes, but they stand out as yesterday's unique providers, ordinary, yet extraordinary men.

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