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Where Grandad had once settled only lightly into an employer's bondage, he now shouldered responsibility.
"I worked in 35 different rolling mills, East and South," he said, "but after I had a family I'd only leave when the mill shut down. I was never out of work." The family made Pittsburgh home but lived in many houses.
Grandad's craft was puddling iron, now a lost art. He stood before a furnace containing 600 or 1,000 pounds of molten, impure iron. The melting point of impure substances is lower than that of pure ones. At about 2,800� "the iron was like water," he said. As the sulphur and phosphorus burned away, and the carbon was reduced, the melting point rose and the iron began to solidify. "When it started to muck up, it thickened to butter." Working through a hole in the furnace door with a long rod ending in a paddle blade, Grandad divided the iron and rolled and packed it into two or three 300-pound globs.
"At ready heat, you opened the doors of the furnace and grabbed a ball with the tongs," said Grandad. These were 18 feet long, suspended by a chain from a hand-operated trolley. Gripping the medicine-ball-sized sphere of glowing, dripping iron, he ran and danced at the end of the long, counterweighted tongs through the mill to the squeezer, a machine shaped like a huge coffee grinder, which pressed the glob into a billet. If he had allowed any air bubbles to be trapped in the iron, he found out here as they exploded under the squeezing pressure, blowing fragments and sparks through the mill. "You got to duck your head," Grandad said, "you shake it off." Nonetheless, my father told of seeing Grandad home from his 10-hour shift with his shirt burned from his back, my grandmother using tweezers to pick bits of beaded iron from the flesh, muttering softly as she dropped them into Grandad's coffee-can spittoon.
Grandad worked 43 years in the steel mills, puddling, reheating billets for rolling and, during both World Wars, heating artillery shells. No part of him was unaffected by the mills. Perhaps he is here now because of the cardiovascular strength built and maintained by years of straining before the hearth, running with sweat, gasping that smoky air. Yet at present he is threatened by the natural habits adopted to cope with such a life. For almost half a century he salted his food as if he were throwing Parmesan cheese on spaghetti. Now the salt he loves causes fluid to collect in his lungs, straining that once-great heart. The steel mills made him deaf, and in his conversational shout I always hear the under-roar of the furnaces. He was hardened, too, and made fatalistic by the mills' danger. He saw men die. He once told of watching two dozen workers engulfed by a catastrophic spill of tons of liquid steel, men wallowing in a flaming river. "Some of 'em went down and raised up to their knees again, and then they fell and they were gone." When the steel cooled, the entire slab was buried.
The mills were unionized during Grandad's first decades of laboring. He was a union man, but was not caught up in the theory of collective bargaining. He was caught up in the fights. "The strikes in McKees Rocks were the worst. The scabs came in to take our jobs. You had to fight. Those Westerners came in, broke the strike. You had to always keep up your guard. I had a nephew, Cleon Bartch, he was always keyed up, on edge. In a saloon on the west side Cleon ragged some big guy, a black-sheep s.o.b. who said he was a puddler. He went for Cleon and I was in the way. He said to me, 'Are you a puddler, too?'
" 'I am, and I work in a union mill,' I said. 'I don't want to fight, but you ain't going to beat this boy up.' We went outside and he hauled off and I hit him a quick uppercut and knocked him down, knocked him cold on the concrete. Cleon dragged me away, and I went home to Duquesne Heights, and I couldn't sleep that night, but the next day I asked around, and it turned out he just had a fractured skull."
Grandad loved to be in the right and he loved to fight, and he used the one to do the other. "Dad was always a fighter for causes," my father said. "He used the code, the idea that fighting in self-defense, or to save Cleon's bacon, was all right." In truth, Grandad was capable, in his role of defending angel, of goading his victims beyond endurance. "He did tend to arrange his fights," said Aunt Vivian. "The justifications were sometimes pretty thin." My father remembers Grandad saying, "The guy hit his own woman, so o' course I sloughed him." Had he asked the guy, my father still wonders, whether he had stopped beating his wife?
When the mills were closed by strikes or, later, by the Depression, Grandad, scornful of WPA work, fell back on selling. He sold anything he could lift, but his talents were especially suited to the purveyance of steel wool. "I paid 190 a pound for steel wool and got 75� a pound. And boy, I'd sell. I had to demonstrate, and when a sensible person saw what steel wool would do when I demonstrated, he couldn't buy enough." It helped, too, that most of his prospective customers were women, around whom Grandad has always been galvanized into soppy flattery. "In Pittsburgh, of course, all the brass doorknobs were black, from corrosion and soot. I'd ask the lady if I could clean her doorknob and I'd just fold that steel wool on there and do one casual quick wipe [using the several hundred pounds of pressure with which he gripped the puddler's rod]. Why that brass would gleam. I'd remind the lady of the uses she could put it to, the black pots that would shine, the stained floors that would be brand-new wood."
His imagination sometimes took flight, as when he sold steel wool to a man in a bar on the solemn promise that it would cure baldness. "They said he come in a few days later shouting for my blood. Said the scabs was something awful." Thus there was another code that Grandad took full advantage of: caveat emptor.