A Life's Work

At 12, he did the work of his father. At 19, he struck out on his own. At 39, he saw a man die on the job. And now, at 61, Lewis Blackwell Jr. is retiring. That may be harder than the work ever was.

Cover Story

October 10, 1999|By Story by Larry Bingham | Story by Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

The night his father left for the fishing boats on the Atlantic, the boy cried. His grandmother thought he just missed his daddy, but she was wrong. At 12, the boy had been appointed man of the house. He worried about getting the work done.

His family didn't have running water, so he hauled buckets from the well. He gathered firewood, milked the cow, fed the chickens and hogs, and he followed his mother to a place where he shucked oysters for two hours before leaving for school.

The boy grew into a man who dreamed of simple things. He wanted only to raise a family, to say nobody handed him anything, to put a little money aside so one day, he wouldn't have to work.

After 36 years at the steel plant, the work is finally done.

Now the boy is a man who struggles to adjust, to fill the empty hours. Strength comes from the lessons a working life taught him, lessons learned from his father.

Lewis Blackwell Jr. did not want to end up like his father. He did not want to be a butcher, farmer or carpenter, and he did not want to lose months of his life on a lonely boat chasing oily menhaden up and down a rocky coast.

The life Lewis wanted could not be found in the rural part of Virginia where he grew up, so in 1958 he left for the big city, Baltimore. His first promising job, stripping copper in an acid tank, ended one week after it started when the American Smelting & Refining Co. discovered he was only 19. They told him to come back in two years, but for a young man with a new wife and a baby, two years seemed a lifetime away.

To pay the rent, Lewis tore apart old cars, pumped gas, changed tires and found himself going from one odd job to another, like his father.

He envied men who worked at the bustling factories such as Westinghouse and the huge plants such as General Motors and Bethlehem Steel. They owned homes, they drove to work, they had insurance, benefits, pensions.

When Lewis went to Sparrows Point, to the steel plant, opportunity stretched for miles beside the Chesapeake Bay. Bethlehem Steel was a city of streets named Rod Mill Road, Blast Furnace Road, Tin Mill Road. It had railroads, shipping yards, a power plant. Everywhere he looked, smokestacks belched into the sky.

Lewis imagined that the men who worked there did not worry about $22 for rent. They could pay their electric bills. They never fed their babies by streetlight.

When the company hired him in 1963, to work on the all-black labor gangs that cleaned flues, swept floors and cleared railroads for $93 a week, Lewis was grateful. He was 25 years old and working at one of the biggest steel plants in the world.

Times were good, so he transferred from the mill where men turned raw ore into steel to the mill where molten steel was muscled into rods and wire. America's hunger for new houses and highways had the men working overtime.

"Work hard while you're young and save money while you can."

That's what his father said.

He got up two hours before his 7 a.m. shift, rode the No. 10 bus in the dark through the city, paid 35 cents for transfers, landed a quarter-mile from the mill and walked the rest of the way to the locker room for "coloreds."

In the rod mill, a giant crane fed slabs of steel into a blazing furnace, the molten steel became rods, and men like Lewis made wire by feeding the rods to greedy machines.

One older man in the locker room looked out for Lewis: Tuck in your shirt; if the machine grabs you, you're gone.

Machines ran 24 hours a day, every day of the week, spitting out nails, telephone wire, railroad ties, wire mesh, bridge cables and, during the Vietnam War, shrapnel. Lewis found himself working double shifts, 7-to-3 straight through 3-to-11. He was young then.

He had married Ann, his high school sweetheart, and they had three children, two girls and a boy. He was 33; it was time they had a home. They didn't want to live near Sparrows Point. The red dust from steel-making clung to everything, and even after he showered, his oldest girl could smell grease in his hair.

The rowhouse they bought on Hartsdale Road was 20 minutes from the plant, near Morgan State University, and it cost $12,000 in 1971. It had a porch in front, a yard in back, an upstairs, a downstairs and a basement.

The Northwood neighborhood had shade trees and sidewalks and other families with children, so they joined a baseball league and Lewis coached. Some nights he went straight from work to the ball field. The parents started bowling every Saturday night, calling themselves the Northwood Baseball Bowling League.

Lewis' children knew he was home from work when they heard the kitchen door open and close. Their father always parked in the alley and left the space in front for their mother. They knew their father was tired when he went upstairs and they'd hear the TV playing softly and they'd find him across the foot of the bed, asleep with his shoes on.

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