I remember waking up the day after graduation around 2pm. We’d had one of those school sponsored lock-ins the night before to keep the kids from drinking. We were supposed to pick up our diplomas before noon, but I had chosen sleep instead. Around 2:30 I got a call from a gentleman at Chapparel Steel inquiring if I’d be interested in a summer job. Apparently, as part of the Advanced Placement program at my school I’d consented to have my information given to local employers who were interested in hiring bright kids for summer jobs.
My mom was always complaining about me not having a job so I jumped at the chance to get a job without any effort on my part. Plus they paid $6.50/hour! This was when when minimum wage was $4.25. That was a massive jump. I would have thousands of dollars in the bank at the end of summer. It would be awesome!
But first the physical and drug test at the company doctor in Midloathian. I know. Red flags should have gone off. But I didn’t listen to country music at this point in my life. This involved the most invasive drug test I’ve ever had. The nurse actually came into the bathroom and stood on the other side of a shower curtain. Right on the other side of the shower curtain. Needless to say, I couldn’t perform that day. This was holding up my start date, so I didn’t pee the entire night, or next morning and headed out, ready to burst. After two attempts I was able to check my first drug test off the list. And I think the nurses were only extremely frustrated with me at that point.
I drove out for my first day of work. Starting at 7am. They got me to fill out a ton of paperwork. I had to have an ear test (so they could see how badly they’d screwed up my hearing). Then they got me some ear plugs, 2 pairs of fire retardant pants, 2 pairs of fire retardant shirts, hard hat, and gloves. I got changed and they took me out to the floor of the furnace where I’d be working. I was getting introduced to people on the floor when they dropped some barrels that had a little water in them into the furnace and it flared. A flare I later found out is not that big a deal. But the ceiling of the furnace room is probably twice as high as the furnace and flames shot out above the building. So I think I can be excused if I found it a bit dramatic.
The heat was intense. I ended up turning away because I could feel my face burning a little. The heat keep intensifying and I could feel pain on the back of my ears that were still exposed. The heat eventually got to a point where my boss decided we’d be better off inside the air conditioned control room. We headed in and I felt the back of my ears. They felt a bit like pork rinds. Nice and crackly.
A few minutes later one of the workers came in. He was completely wet and covered in soot. He’d been cleaning next to the furnace when it had blown and was just a tad crispy. He was laughing. Ah the joy of being in a non-unionized steel mill. Workplace safety is for chumps! Those locking procedures are completely optional!
And so began my first week working in a steel mill. I would wear long johns under my clothes to protect me from the furnace heat. This was in 100 degree Texas heat. You’d go out into the sun to cool down. The rule of thumb was that if you felt hot you need to stop, drop and roll because you were already on fire.
It was a 12 hour shift, and the first week I worked M-F 7am to 7pm, before beginning my real shift which started rotating Saturday night at 7pm. So my first week was 7 days of 12 hour shifts, at which point I had 2 days on 3 days off, then 3 days on, 2 days off. Each block alternated between a day shift and a night shift.
We’d work for about 15 minutes on the hour. We’d take a long probe on a pole and put it into the middle of the furnace to check the temperature. Then we’d spend the next 45 minutes awkwardly. I’d read something like Zora Neal Hurston while the guys I was working with read the same 3 pornographic magazines. I still have no clue how they didn’t go completely insane. We’d talk about their personal watercraft. And they’d tell me that I should go to college. It was like one of those movies where the college boy gets a job with the blue-collar workers. Except that awkward scene happened every hour for 45 minutes. 12 times a day. I’d like to say that like some cheesy eighties movie we had a break through where we became fast albeit grudging friends, but these guys were much like some of the programmers I’ve worked with. They just don’t do anything interesting. They’re not really interested in movies or television or camping or anything. It had nothing to do with class. They were by and large just boring people. There were a few interesting people to talk to, but they all worked on the opposing shift.
The second week they shut down the furnace and we did cleaning. I was mostly cleaning up the scrap yard. The same scrap yard that is currently on fire. I remember being out in the sweltering heat at 4am. The whole world quiet, and then watching the sun come up, and the heat staying the same. It was a surreal experience. Like being on the moon.
After working 7 – 12 hour shifts my first week, and 3 night shifts and 2 day shifts my second week I came to a realization. If I worked that job all summer I would never see my friends. I would never go to a movie. I would just work a 12 hour shift. Come home. Collapse into bed, and wake up for my next shift. Even when I did have days off my schedule was so screwed up by the rotating shifts that it was as though I had the worst jet lag ever. So I quit.
Sure two weeks sounds like a short amount of time to give a job. But I did work 144 hours in those two weeks. Which if you consider that a normal part time job is about 20 hours/week, I basically gave it 7 weeks. Which is almost the entire summer.
But it was definitely an experience that made me determined to stay in school. And after the number of frightening near misses and things caught on fire, it made me very appreciative of unions.