Monday, June 18, 2012

Made of Steel

Updated: This piece won Filson's Second Annual Father's Day Writing Contest; you can see it here.

My dad plans on retiring at the end of this week, which began by us celebrating Father's Day together. The holiday and the momentous occasion of his retirement after a very long career gave me reason to reflect. 
If you look south out the window of my childhood bedroom in the winter, after the summer green has fallen from the trees, you can see the house my dad grew up in.  We were both children of a steel mill town, hearing the same thunder from the blast furnaces just a few miles away. When my dad graduated high school, he didn’t have to look far for work and for 33 years, he had a two mile commute. He parked his truck in the exact same spot each and every day. He is a creature of habit. His habit then, as now, was hard work.

As a kid, my life was defined just as much as my dad’s by his swing shifts. When it was a 3 to 11 week, dad made it a point to wake up early to man the cereal bowls and see me off to school since I wouldn’t see him when he got home; when the shift swung to ‘daylight’ or 7-3, dad was usually in good spirits, able to mow the lawn and make dinner after work. When 11-7, or ‘midnight,’ came around, I remember that my dad’s work week started on Sunday nights, and he spent many of the daylight hours attempting, but failing, to catch up on the sleep he lost from being in front of the #9 rolling mill all night. It was through this ever-changing lens that I came to know my dad.

I remember on Friday nights when dad worked 3-11, my stepmom and I would often put a warm plate of food together from our dinner to take to my dad for his lunch. We would sit with him, while he took his twenty-minute break and if it was nice out, we would sit on a picnic table just outside the plant. But when the weather didn’t cooperate, we went inside the plant, to a table and chairs. I remember fondly to this day what it felt like to be a kid in that factory, smelling the grease that was used to keep everything functioning, seeing the coils of steel that were the lifeblood of the mill. I used to be thrilled when my dad would take me on a quick tour of the plant. I was awestruck; the men who worked there, were to me at least, the modern equivalent of John Henry.   

It was bracing then, the night that my college dorm phone rang and my dad’s voice, laden with the weight of bad news, told me that the plant was closing.   For as long as he cared to remember, and as long as I could remember, our lives had been built of steel. In a few short months, that would all change, and the prospects for the future were hazy. I was studying political science at a small public school in Maryland; it was by no means guaranteed that I would be coming back the following year, at least not without assuming a lot more student loan debt. Selfishly, it was a scary time for me. I didn’t think much at the time of what he might have been going through. The weight he was bearing through it all. 

While there were no manufacturing jobs to be found, in relatively short order dad found a second career as a highway inspector, where because of his commitment to working hard he quickly rose further up the ladder than he likely had any reason to expect. After more than a decade on the ‘new’ job, he now plans on retiring near the end of this summer. To relax, certainly, and to do the things he enjoys doing; but knowing my dad, he will find something to keep his brain and his body working, solving problems, getting things done. Work just appears to be in his DNA.   

My dad is a portrait in the heroism of the everyday. Perhaps not the chest pounding heroism of sports or the medal winning honor of military achievements, but certainly of the kind of toil that every day moves a little bit of mountain, to find one day, the mountain itself has been moved.

As a kid, when my dad went off to deer hunt with his own father, I would wait for his return excitedly. I had a lever-action pop gun that I would pretend to bird hunt with in the backyard. Pigeons became pheasants in my mind’s eye, as I honed my aim for the day when I might be able to join the family deer hunt. When the year finally came, I wore camouflage gear that hung off me comically, but my smiles in those photographs, taken inside my grandfather’s rickety cabin in the woods, show that there was no place I’d rather be. 

At the time, dad likely thought he was doing the same thing that generations of fathers had done with their boys: introducing me to the outdoor traditions of hunting and angling that so many American fathers and sons have enjoyed together. He was only half right. For I am still an avid hunter and fishermen, and while I have had the opportunity to enjoy some epic hunting and angling, whether duck hunting in the flooded timber of Arkansas, or fly-fishing the Henry’s Fork in Idaho, the hunting trips I look forward to the most, are the ones that start with my dad pulling into my driveway at 5AM, ready to join me in the goose fields of the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

And my dad was only half right because he wasn’t just introducing me to a hobby, but to a career. For ten years, my entire professional life up to this point, I have worked in Washington DC as a conservation lobbyist; that future generations of sons and fathers might be able to set out for their deer stands together the same way my dad and I have done. 

From time to time, while working the halls of Congress I ride an escalator in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill. It is an escalator that building renovations over the years have seemingly forgotten, but for me this simple piece of mechanical technology holds a powerful connection. The smell of the escalator, of the grease that keep it forever moving higher, is the same smell as my dad’s steel mill. I am reminded, as I do my job in suit and tie, of the job my dad did in steel toed boots, and it is the type of feeling that can raise the hair on my neck.

As an adult, I can now appreciate better the worry my dad went through trying to raise two kids largely alone. I can now appreciate better the toll swing shift must have had on his mind and body, and the fortitude it took to agree to work the overtime necessary to give his kids the life he thought they deserved. Showing emotion was not, and is not, something my dad is particularly good at, but now I see that he illustrated his love for us in the clearest way he knew how.  

It is through my dad’s own work in a steel mill that I can embark on a career that in some small measure pays tribute to him.    

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