Herald Column by Scott Saalman: Steel-toe labor scares student straight

Column: Steel-toe labor scares student straight


The other day, I noticed my son’s steel-toe boots, which he wears for a summer job. Such formidable footwear signifies one thing in my mind: hard, physical work.

Manual labor has been a foreign concept to me, except for one summer when my toes, too, were made to be made of steel. Yes, I donned a pair of steel-toe boots way back between my junior and senior years of college as summer help at my father’s aluminum plant.

Let me sugarcoat that experience as best I can: The aluminum plant was hell on earth.

We formed a line our first day — a couple dozen college kids — and were led by the HR manager into the belly of the beast. The noise was deafening, incessant, scary. Mastodon-like metal stamping machines boomed, rattling our teeth and bones. “This is the entrance…” (boom) (boom) “…into plant one…” (boom) (boom) … “make sure your safety glasses are on” (boom) (boom) . . . “Hey, is that a tooth?”

Through the Australian Outback-like heat and tornado-in-a-can-like drone, we passed massive machines with daunting names like Embosser, Leveler, Crusher, and Slitter used by our swing-shift fathers.

We hesitant college students on summer break were paraded down aisles past the machine operators, frenzied foremen carrying clipboards and hard-hatted workers lifting giant aluminum coils with hand-operated cranes. We’d mysteriously lose a summer helper or two at each stop, as if he or she had been handpicked and pulled, unseen, into the jungle of machinery by some savage supervising the start of their summer enslavement. The stronger-looking students were picked first, as if being drafted for a kickball team. There were hoots and catcalls and whistles. It was like we had wandered onto some nightmarish post-Apocalyptic planet. We dodged forklifts and management’s golf carts under a steel girder sky where the dinosaur of manual labor never became extinct. This was madness, my own personal “Apocalypse Now.”

I recalled a prison documentary from the ’70s, “Scared Straight,” during which a group of juvenile delinquents are forced to spend time with hardened convicts who deliver tough, foul-mouthed talk to encourage the kids into going straight and staying out of aluminum plants . . . I mean, federal penitentiaries.

To survive the first day, I fantasized that the whole summer help thing was simply a guise concocted by our parents, in cahoots with plant management, to make us appreciate and not take for granted our cushy college lives, for surely it was illegal to allow students to be in such a harsh working environment. I imagined the HR manager losing his poker face, smiling grandly, and saying, “This is all a ruse, kids. Ha. Ha. Ha. You all can go home now. Leave your safety glasses, ear plugs and steel-toes in the office. We hope you learned your lesson. Now get out of here you little scamps. Indulge in the hedonism of your last summer of freedom, for you are entitled to do so as incoming college seniors. Sleep late. Laze at the lake. May you never be too far from a cooler of beer.” Then, I really stretched the scenario, imagining our fathers overtaking the aisle in chorus line fashion, tossing hard hats into the stale air like mortarboards and singing in unison, “Cause they say two thousand zero zero/Party over, oops out of time/So tonight I’m gonna party/Like it’s 1999.”

We were led past signs proclaiming so and so days since the last lost-time accident. I never saw a number in double digits on the signs.

We children of swing-shift parents began to sweat. Not the same sweat that formed during intramural, coed softball on campus. Not the same sweat that formed as we took a test that covered chapters that we couldn’t keep our eyes open for while cramming the night before. This was our fathers’ sweat. The hourly wage sweat. The hellish, have-to, hard-work sweat. The end-of-the-innocence sweat.

You don’t know “hot” until you are a crew member on Heat Treat, a thermal process that cooks aluminum. It was 120 degrees near the furnace. We manhandled the heavy metal sheets slickened by mineral spirits and attached them to hangers on an overhead conveyor that fed into the oven. Forklift cages, hammers and heavy-duty clamps were involved. After a load cooked, it was lowered into a pool of the darkest water I’ve ever seen. Steam rose with hellish hiss, engulfing us.

We became dependent on No Doz during the midnight shift. We cursed the flesh-raking itchiness of blue jeans sticking to our sweaty thighs at 2 a.m. We cursed our burning eyes, each eye-blink a cactus bite.

The sweat. The hiss. The zero days since the last lost-time accident. The hard work. The dinosaur stomps of the stamping machines boosting our heartbeats. We were destined to never forget the dirge of our lost, last, free summer, that initiation into a swing-shift world that we all grew up with but never cared to hear the specifics of. We were scared straight.

The aluminum plant taught me to appreciate college more, as well as the post-grad succession of air-conditioned offices to which I remain exiled. Looking back, I have come to appreciate the blood, sweat and tears of that steel-toe summer, to have had a taste of a tougher life, a lesson learned. I am a proud summer help Heat Treat survivor. But please, don’t send me back out there.

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