Someone asked me today, “What do you find beautiful that most people do not?”
When I was a young ( I know, I know….and dinosaurs walked the earth) my father worked at Bethlehem steel. Back in those days you could do a lot of things you can’t do now, like take your son with you to the steel plant because Mom had to work.
I remember sitting in the passenger seat of my Dad’s big Buick that rode like a boat and seeing the sky covered in smoke and fire as we approached the plant. It was an amazing sight.
Pops would put me in a corner with the other kids. We had great time while our fathers worked. This wasn’t a closed off corner just a spot the workers had cleared of anything dangerous. I imagine today they would throw all of them in jail for something like that. I loved it though, all the boys did. We watched as our fathers poured molten steel with fire and smoke all around us.
One time we even caught a bat that we named Bruce Wayne (I did not say we had great imaginations or that we where particularly bright). The guys made a cage and I proudly brought Bruce Wayne home. Mom was neither amused nor impressed and poor Bruce didn’t make it through the night.
But the best part of my visit was what happened when Dad’s shift ended. We went to a pub in South Buffalo that had a smiling, friendly waitress with what we call “big hair”in these current times. Cliche as it sounds, the woman’s name was Alice.
Whenever one of the workers brought a son with them she’d squeal with delight run across the pub in high heels, scoop them up and bury their young heads in her ample cleavage. I was no exception, and I’m almost positive the first real erection I ever had was when my head was buried between her breasts. To this day I still remember how she smelled.
Alice once told me she didn’t need a watch, she could tell the time by the shift change, the ever present whistling noise from the steel plant.
Fast forward about 7 or 8 years, I, “got in a little home town jam.” Bags packed, I was a soldier headed to Germany. I didn’t know it then, but it would be 3 years before I returned home. In the days before Internet and cell phones I might as well have been on the moon.
When I got back the steel plants where all closed but for a few small ones that struggled. Along with them went the men that worked in them. Lunch bucket types with names like Pilkarski, Leroy, and Sacco. All of them unofficial “Uncles” of mine. Alice was gone as well, and the Pub was shut down.
Dad was driving cab and selling real estate. Mom had gone back to school and had become an administrator.
I knew all this before coming home. Mom wrote me often, so it wasn’t totally unexpected. Still I felt uneasy on this first trip home. I couldn’t put my finger on it but something just wasn’t right. I told myself it was because I had gotten so accustomed to Europe that home seemed to be a strange place, but that wasn’t it.
One day, years later, while I was on leave, dad drove me downtown. He was reminiscing and asked if I minded if we drove by the plant. I said sure and when we got to the old steel mill we got out of the car, walked through the closed off fences of the plant and looked around.
Out of nowhere I was flooded with a sense of loss and grief like I had never felt before. I looked up and saw how clear the sky was, and tears flooded my eyes. You could still faintly smell the iron and cobalt in the ruins of the plant. It hung there like death.
I bawled like a baby for a full fifteen minutes, Pops standing next to me, his arm around me. He never said anything. He didn’t have to.
The world changed within a matter of years. A way of life ended, and we never saw it coming.
Years later while stationed in Georgia, we would make the drive back home to Buffalo whenever a long weekend or holiday came up.
I especially enjoyed driving through Pennsylvania and the little towns that still had steel plants churning that smoke and fire. We always made a rest stop when I drove by one of these. Ex wife and kids would eat and go to the restroom but I would just sit on my car and stare at the plant.
What do I find beautiful that most people do not?
This is men at work. This is a family being supported. This is diners and pubs and waitresses named Alice with big hair and tight shirts.
This is a way of life that sadly will never come back.
Steven Burton is the owner of Beneaththerainbow.com
If you enjoyed reading this and would like to know when more true stories, essays, and poems will be posted more please sign up for the mailing list. We don’t sell emails and we don’t engage in spam.