Terry the scrap-yard foreman looked me over. “Didn’t anyone tell you to wear work boots, for Pete’s sake?”
I’d shown up on my first day clueless and snarky, wearing white canvas Jack Percell Blue Tips and a button-down shirt — with a pack of wimpy Marlboro Lights in the pocket. All of which elicited guffaws and eye rolls from the lifers, who pegged me as a long-haired hippie, raised-in-suburbia pantywaist English major with a II-S draft deferment and related to Fred, the owner.
That day I wiped lunch tables, mopped office floors and pulled weeds. That evening I whined to Dad about wanting a real job, like at a bookstore. Not a scrap yard. He didn’t see it that way.
“Tomorrow when you show up, kiss the ground you’re walking on. This is a real job.”
He further advised me to remove the chip from my shoulder before “those fellas” removed it for me and to “lose those light cigarettes you smoke.” He handed me his pack of more manly Old Gold Straights.
“Take these. And don’t mouth off. Just do your job.”
I got the message. The next morning I came outfitted for work in “the yard.” Probably to test my mettle, Terry perched me atop a dump truck to separate mangled aluminum scraps from a heap of newly arrived junk.
I must have passed muster. After four days and three more dump trucks, Terry assigned me to the smelting team. Its task was to melt the aluminum in a fire-belching, ferociously hot, cavernous furnace and pour the molten liquid into foot-long rectangular cast-iron cradles that crawled on what resembled an oversized oval toy train track controlled by an old-fashioned hand-operated lever.
This operation required the coordinated labor of the “stirrer,” the “raker,” the “spout clearer” and the “flinger,” who catapulted each hot ingot from its cradle onto a plywood platform with another hand lever at just the right moment before it returned for a refill.
I learned quickly about this team’s daily quest to beat Terry’s ingot output quota — despite the glaring absence (in my mind) of bonuses or any other incentives. To my thinking, a lesser amount of aluminum melted meant fewer ingots formed and flung, which meant fewer ingots to stack at the end of the shift, all of which eased the workload and, even more important, reduced the chances of getting badly burned. I’d seen the ugly scars on arms — and faces.
None of this mattered to them. I didn’t understand why.
I also learned quickly that critical to the team’s quota-busting was winning the daily battle against those unpredictable, impish cradles. They seemed determined to derail and spill their molten aluminum onto the tracks where it would harden on contact.
But Ivan — I swear — stared down those ingrates, daring them in Polish to derail just so he could spring into action and stabilize their wobbly wheels with seconds to spare. Almost always he saved the day, shouting “Zwyciestwo!” (“Victory!”) when he did.
Ivan was probably pushing 60, worn and always disheveled, compared with the younger bucks around the yard. He was devoutly Catholic and almost became a priest. He often described in tearful, broken English miracles he’d witnessed throughout his lifetime.
Later, when Ivan and I were exiled inexplicably to the graveyard shift for two weeks, he’d build a small fire behind the tool shed and tell me snippets about his life in Poland, his family and how he — alone — “… sailed to America on the ocean after the Nazis.”
During break time, I watched his shadow stroll beyond the wall of scrap iron, where he’d stare at the barely visible shoreline across the dark Mississippi River. Returning, he’d say, “OK. Work time.”
Randy was a Vietnam War vet, around my age. He chain-smoked and sang Grand Funk Railroad’s “I’m Your Captain” (look up the lyrics if you have the chance) practically all day. Once I asked him, buddy-to-buddy-like, what it was like “over there in ’Nam.”
He mumbled something close to “Pretty messed up,” which really meant, “Don’t ask.”
Randy liked to smuggle a six-pack of Grain Belt into the yard and submerge it in the Mississippi to chill. The owners would have fired him for that, but Terry looked the other way. Randy could repair just about any piece of equipment or create ingenious makeshift substitutes on the spot.
And there was Karl, pint-size but amazingly strong. He barely spoke but would high-five Ivan and Randy when we surpassed the quota. Karl ignored me all summer except twice: the time I tried ingratiating myself to him by showing off the aluminum burn scabbing along my forearm. He told me to “piss off.” And then, on my last day on the job, when he gave me the upbraiding I needed and had coming.
One morning the smelting team punched in and we found our furnace in rubbles. It had exploded sometime during the night. No one knew how it happened. Terry dispersed us to various jobs around the vast yard. From then on we rarely saw each other.
But on the Friday before the Labor Day weekend, my last day, Terry paired Karl and me to sift through a mountain of scrap containing a mother lode of valuable brass. Tossing pieces blindly over my shoulder, I heard a hollow “thunk.” A wallet-sized chunk had nailed Karl square on his head, knocking off his hard hat.
Karl charged me, grabbed my shirt with both hands, yanked me down to his face and said exactly this:
“You don’t need this job, but I do. I have kids. Do that again and I’ll kill you. Understand?”
I told him I did. I really did.
Then Karl released his vice grip, offered me a cigarette and we smoked together, silently.
After Labor Day, fall term began. I ditched my work boots and Old Golds. What remained was that ugly aluminum burn scar on my forearm. I kept it exposed, hoping folks would ask how I got it so I could tell them about my job at the scrap yard.
Later, Uncle Fred told me that he had rebuilt the furnace and that Terry had reunited Ivan, Randy and Karl.
I envied the guy who took my place.
Dick Schwartz, of Minneapolis, is a retired teacher.