There’s an old saying in the steel mill: “When we die, we’re all going to heaven. Because we’re already in hell.” It’s a perfect comparison. Flames are everywhere, in both gaseous and liquid form: shooting out of mysterious valves, sizzling in molten streams, bubbling out of ladles as big as houses, showering down in white-hot sparks, or attacking the sky in flickering orange talons. Black soot, grime and carbon dust coat every surface and the slightest move stirs it up into choking clouds of filth. And then there’s the smell—the sickening, dizzying, rotten egg stench that makes every breath taste like you’re eating a fart.
Don’t forget the constant barrage of noise, the never-ending cacophony of bangs, clangs, thuds, roars, screams, whistles, shrieks, and seismic thuds that torture eardrums and turn every conversation into a screaming match. Or the triple digit temperatures that sear your face and make the entire place feel like working inside of a crockpot. Throw in roving packs of foot-long rats, marauding ladle carriers, remote control trains with no crossing guards, toxic emissions, shards of razor-sharp slag that slice through gloves, and a host of other damnable realities, and the hell analogy is an understatement.
The steel mill is Gary Works, U.S. Steel’s flagship operation. In The Region, U.S. Steel is known as “the big mill.” There are other steel mills in Northwestern Indiana clustered on the southern rim of Lake Michigan—LTV, Bethlehem, Inland, and Midwest—but Gary Works is the largest. Spanning over 3,000 acres, it is a vast nexus of smokestacks stabbing the sky, labyrinthine railroad tracks and pipelines, skeletal ore bridges, endless conveyors, mountains of coal, limestone and iron ore, massive coke ovens, mile-long warehouses, and nightmare furnaces belching clouds of steam, smoke, fire and god knows what else.
It is here where Joe C. and I toil. We are two of the thousands-strong army of contractors who file into the big mill every day to work construction. The two of us are union laborers for Superior Construction, an outfit that’s been camped out in U.S. Steel for decades. It is our distinct privilege to make $13.23 an hour to shovel slag, pour concrete, run jackhammers, cart lumber around, wrestle concrete forms, and risk life and limb to build something known as the continuous slab caster.
The continuous slab caster is a gigantic, slide-like contraption that will swallow molten pig iron from ladles carried from the blast furnaces, form it into a mold, and then birth a perfectly-shaped, eighty-inch wide, twenty-foot long slab of glowing orange steel. It’s basically an oversized version of the Play-Doh Mega Fun Factory, the miniature plastic conveyor belt I had as a kid, only instead of brightly colored, non-toxic clay, this baby punches out 3,000-degree liquid metal. The caster will streamline the steelmaking process; no longer will pig iron be poured into molds called ingots and then rolled into slabs. Nope, once the slab caster is finished, the ingots will be history, and every slab will be born fully formed, before being sent down the line to be worked into rails, reinforcing rods, train wheels, coils, I-beams, wire, and other shapes in the finishing mills.
Joe C. and I work beside the continuous slab caster and its adjoining service buildings, near the line of thirteen blast furnaces. Our chief duty is to build the concrete foundations between the BOP shop and the caster, which will support the rail transfer cars ferrying the ladles of molten metal back and forth. It’s a filthy, smelly, dangerous place that looks like a cross between Dante’s Inferno and a World War I battlefield, with flames billowing out in plumes of fire, cranes screeching by overhead, and huge gaping holes, craters, trenches and other jagged lacerations torn into the earth where our minuscule human figures scramble around with our shovels.
Keep Shoveling is a memoir depicting my experience as a laborer in U.S. Steel. Bracing, bawdy, and full of seedy, unforgettable characters, it’s a rollicking, whiskey-fueled, warts-and-all coming of age story that confirms that not all of life’s lessons are learned in the classroom.