It was a different labor, a different use of their hands. But the steelworkers from Baltimore took to the curious work. Indeed, they found the new labor addictive, maddening, cathartic, liberating. The pay was no good, but that wasn't the idea. Their stories, that was the idea.
These new writers, like old writers, tried to find one true thing to put into words - words that, as usual, fall short of the real thing. But you write anyway. Write about the company town that was Sparrows Point, write about the meanest bosses, the meanest co-workers, the meanest of work, the best of paychecks, the best of friends, the best of times. These men and women, who as teen-agers went to work at Beth Steel, and who, after looking up from their lives some 30 years down the line, discovered they were still steelworkers.
And now published writers. Six steelworkers from Baltimore wrote stories and poems that are included in a book, "The Heat: Steelworker Lives & Legends" (Cedar Hill Publications, $15). The book was released today, but its stories were made years and generations before.
The men and women wrote stories they can't read out loud because they'd choke up, might be embarrassed by the sounds of their own feelings. The nuts and bolts of the stories from "The Heat" are familiar: plant closings, discontinued product lines, layoffs, occupational hazards, economic realities. But the new writers put faces and names and poetry to all the nuts and bolts.
The Baltimore "Heat" crew is Dwight "Doc" Iler, P. David Woodring, Stanley Daniloski, Jerry Ernest, Sandy Dunn and Norman Brown. They are not best-sellers. They are steelworkers.
Woodring wrote a love letter to the men of steel - his father and grandfather.
Ernest knew a man named Scottie, who accidentally swallowed acid on the job and died days later.
Brown, the young guy in the group, wrote a poem that gets in your face.
Dunn labored in fiction.
Doc Iler wrote about violets and Bill from the union hall who blew his brains out.
And Daniloski hated co-worker "Wild Bill" up until the last moment he stopped hating him. There's a story behind that, too.
The men and women just didn't wake up one day and decide to write about work. They attended writing workshops at Sparrows Point and in Indiana. Led by poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, the 1999 and 2000 sessions were sponsored by the Indiana-based Institute for Career Development, which provides training and education for union steelworkers. Baca also edited the book.
The workers didn't know what to expect at their first writing workshop - maybe they'd be tested in grammar, God forbid. Instead, they learned that they have stories to tell, so they pushed forward and started writing during off hours. This was no assembly-line work, and in the end only one product was manufactured - a slight but durable thing that could fit into a coat pocket. (In their book, it clearly says, "Manufactured in the United States of America.")
Here are pieces of what they wrote and what they were thinking:
We all went to the funeral parlor. ... Scottie's little girl couldn't have been more than five. Her blond hair flowed as she played in the room running around and telling people, "Daddy's sleeping." Looking around the room, I saw pain on many of the faces. I had a hard time being there because of the pain and guilt I was feeling. Scottie's little girl came over to me and looked up at me with those bright blue eyes - the same eyes as Scottie - and she said, "Daddy's sleeping."- from "Scottie"
Jerry Ernest's troubled friend at Beth Steel, a man named Scottie, slipped one day at work and fell backward into a tank knee-deep with sulfuric acid, Ernest wrote. After the crying and his skin "falling off like jelly," there was the funeral with the ex-wives and Scottie's 5-year-old daughter with her blue eyes.
Ernest will be 50 in April. He started as a blacksmith at Beth Steel in 1969 and works there still as a facilitator and trainer. Last year, he started his story about his friend.
"When I started writing, all the emotions came out. I had tried to bury those feelings for 10 years, but once I started I couldn't put the pen down. I'll tell you what I learned. I learned to appreciate my family. When that girl told me at his funeral, "Daddy's sleeping," well, Jesus God, she doesn't have a father anymore, I thought.
"He helped me build a swing set for my daughters."
My mind raced to the people that once helped give life to this place. Almost every one of them had become part of my extended family. ... For 11 years I worked with these people. I cried when their kids got hurt and celebrated when they graduated. ...
I looked at the building, now lifeless, so dark and cold-looking. I came to the gate and waved goodbye to the security guard. As I waved to him, I thought to myself, "This will be the last time, pal. I'm leaving this dark place." That was the day that, just like the African violet, I started reaching for all the sunlight I could get.- from "A Violet in the Light"