Standard stories on old Jean Shepherd radio shows is about his early years of working in a steel mill. On a recent rebroadcast, he mentions that few people have actually seen the inside of a steel mill because of the tight security. From the huge size of the buildings and the hordes of workers going in and out at each shift, it looks like anyone could just walk right in, but not so. The security is as tight as around any military base. There are just too many ways an intruder could kill himself and a lot of others.
I am one of those few who has been inside a steel mill. In the early 1960s at a chemical society convention in Chicago, I took a field trip to the US Steel plant in Gary, Indiana. It is a different world, different than any working environment you have ever seen.
A company bus took us through the gate to a neat, small brick office building where we were led past a lobby with a smiling receptionist to a meeting room with folding chairs and a long table with an overhead projector. All very familiar stuff. No hint of what was to come.
A personnel guy described the steel-making process, then handed us each a hard-hat, warning us to stick together, and led us outside into the bright sunshine of a warm spring day.
We entered the steel mill, but this time not through a lobby with a receptionist. We walked along railroad tracks that led right into the mill through a huge opening partially covered with a curtain of heavy vinyl strips. We stepped aside for a very slow-moving train of a compact, powerful engine pulling a dozen cars that looked like pudgy bottles on their sides filled with molten iron on their way to be converted to steel. The ground trembled as it inched passed us and we could sense the great weight and feel the heat radiating from the cars. The cars had never turned over, but the thought occurred to us all.
You might think the train would have to move quickly before the iron solidified, but the rate of cooling depends on size. As big as they were, the contents would still be molten the next day.
But the biggest surprise was the darkness inside the mill, a single room as huge as an aircraft hanger. It was like crossing the river Styx into a black, Stygian world of perpetual night, lit with only a few bare bulbs here and there, much like a country road at midnight. Some bulbs were over small stand-up desks where someone had to periodically enter data. Other bulbs were strung over high cat-walks, far enough apart that the walkway disappeared into darkness between them.
The entire mill seemed deserted. No one could be seen despite obvious activity—sudden far-off showers of roaring sparks and huge, silent, slowly moving crucibles suspended under the girders of moving cranes, their unseen contents glowing red. It was like being in the sandbox of an enormous child with simple containers doing simple tasks. Occasionally we could catch a glimpse of a distant worker, covered with soot, darting out of the shadows and back again, or suddenly walking wordlessly right past us.
A stream of red-hot molten steel would fill one of the crucibles that would then move off and tip its contents into car-sized molds with deliberate slowness, but it only seemed slow because of the distance. Closer up, it moved with terrifying speed. The feeling was of constant, impersonal, extreme danger that could squash or incinerate any of us without even causing a blip on a meter.
One thing that surprised us I have never seen mentioned anywhere. As the carbon is driven off from the iron, it condenses in the air into eighth-inch, incredibly thin flakes of graphite that continually rain down from nowhere and makes everything, walkways and handrails, black and slippery.
Incinerating heat was always near. A worker totally covered in a silvery asbestos suit, headgear, and gloves, measured the temperature of a vat of molten steel by walking to the edge and inserting a thermocouple, a twisted pair of dissimilar wires that registered a voltage on a meter he was carrying. To protect the wires long enough to get a reading, they were set inside a ten-foot wooden pole. The steelworker quickly plunged the pole into the liquid and let go as the wood ignited with a pop. Just watching from a distance, the brass buttons on my blazer became too hot to touch.
That was just one building in a city of buildings. The still red-hot ingots were lifted from their molds and transferred again by railroad to the soaking pits, large ovens deep in the floor of another huge building where the temperature of the ingots, hotter in their center, had to equilibrate before they could be worked into specific shapes. Jean Shepherd tells of cleaning a soaking pit where he was dressed in an asbestos suit with wooden shoes and lowered into it to scrape the walls for no more than three minutes at a time. The wood of his shoes would char in those three minutes and later be discarded.
The rolling mill, equally dark and deserted, was where the red-hot steel ingots were rolled back and forth under a die that gradually stretched it out into an I-beam that flopped around like glowing red taffy. We were all given ear protectors and it was impossible to talk, even by screaming to someone just a foot away. The whole process of rolling and flipping the beam over and over was controlled by one man suspended in a tiny glass cage high up in the ceiling, the only person visible anywhere. He looked like he was sitting at a desk in an office similar to the cubicles we were familiar with, except we could not see how he got in there. Who cleaned it up at night? Who did he talk to? How could he take a bathroom break? Maybe we didn’t want to know.
The only building that was well-lit was the last where the finished products were waiting to be shipped out. But even this was live with danger. We saw a floor filled with cubes of stacked sheet steel about ten feet on a side separated by aisles wide enough for a forklift to maneuver. We were told a forklift once bumped into a stack, knocking it sideways like a deck of cards, instantly slicing up an unsuspecting worker like lunch meat.
Ever after, I gave thanks for working in a bright, clean office where a paper cut on my pinkie was the biggest danger I faced.