Sustaining Life at the Shipyard

DAVID H. BRITTON

October 28, 1992|By DAVID H. BRITTON

Each morning the welders, fitters and other craftsmen streamed down Bethlehem boulevard on their way to another oppressive day, passing only a few yards from him as he stood there in the shadow of the overpass next to the steel wasteland.

None of them heard the strains from his bagpipe. Amid weeds choked with dust and slag, he played his silent melody to usher in the day shift, like his Scottish cousins who sent their warriors off to the fray.

This bagpiper in T-shirt and shorts practicing his instrument outside the entrance to BethShip's Sparrows Point yard seemed out of place; but it was summertime down the shipyard, where few details are precisely ordered. Decent men scratch out a living in indecent conditions, while everything -- the workers, their jobs, their hope -- eventually fades into its surroundings.

If one could visit the sprawling site, the empty shells of shops, warehouses and men would speak of distant prosperous times (''a giant jigsaw puzzle'' as one man described it); yet the steel plant and accompanying shipyard exist today as an empty hive, once thriving and teeming, now derelict and nearly abandoned.

Welding lines and air hoses litter the ground in places, and it becomes difficult to distinguish the working equipment from that in disrepair. Scraps of wood, steel and garbage clutter the pier, while cigarette butts and dirty yellow earplugs cover everything like fallen hail. Everything is rusted or, like the bricks and the men, rust-colored.

Of course that includes the few ships in for repair. I spent the summer working on the USS Sustain, a Navy dry dock in for an overhaul at BethShip's dry dock. Built in 1948 as Navy Hull 2014, the Sustain is primarily a collection of ballast tanks, pipes and voids, all designed to lower or raise the ship as needed. Consequently, the interior of the hull has accumulated quite a bit of rust and sea life in the 15 or so years since its last rework.

Crawling through the beams and bulkheads of the tanks was a repulsive experience. Take the filth of rust and mix it with the stench of acetylene torches burning paint. Take the blue smoke from welding and mix it with urine left over from the night shift. Take the piercing whir of a grinder rubbing off metal and mix it with the naked glare from a welding arc splitting the darkness. Take an air hammer underneath the hull sporadically shaking the entire tank and mix it with the awfully beautiful sparks from burning steel spraying like a waterfall into the shadows. Combine all these things in a pitch-black cramped hole, fuse them with the heat of a Baltimore summer, and Hull 2014 transforms from a workplace to something resembling Dante's Inferno.

Scattered among these images were the working men (and women). At first, only a greenhorn on the job, I expected the workers to be as machine-like as their tools: If the torch wasn't burning or the hammer not chiseling, then no work was being done. After all, this was a Navy contract and each hour spent not working was government money frittered away.

I became appalled as I repeatedly saw time squandered: welders would leave their work to get more electrode rods and return an hour later; men would knock off at 11 o'clock for noon lunch; everyone would take cigarette breaks that would last from 10 to 30 minutes (even a fitter wearing a respirator to protect himself from noxious fumes would pull off his mask where he worked and smoke a cigarette).

A shop steward set up a sort of black-market concession stand in his tool shed on the floor of the dock. He'd unlock it around 9:30 each morning to sell sodas, coffee and hot dogs to the men who would come from all over the ship. The Navy brass (''the Man'') tried to crack down by posting placards warning that no food or eating was allowed on the dock, but the operation simply became more clandestine and kept on going.

Sometimes in July, when the temperature hovered at 95 degrees for a week, I began to have a different view of things. These men didn't waste time; they hoarded it. Each hour spent stoking the fires meant time lost from the end of a lifetime. These workers were caught in a hellish system in which hours worked brought rewards like union membership, benefits, vacation and early retirement. The sooner one could earn his hours, the sooner he could have his reward. Of course, layoffs and strikes meant dreams deferred. But machine-like labor meant no dream at all.

Maybe that's why each man had his own way of stowing time, saving it for when it might really be used well. Each Friday the white hats went around and gave each man his paycheck, his compensation, his salt. Immediately each man stopped his work and instinctively opened the envelope. It was painful to see the resignation on some men's faces as they realized the number of hours still separating them from their dreams.

Amid the sounds from the tools were the voices of the men, and I began to listen to what they had to say.

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