March 28, 2007
JAKE (short story in progress) Part III
Jacob started talking, and as he did, you could tell by his face, that he had transported himself back to memories that were painful and better left alone. But he
would travel back this one last time and then, for evermore, shut the door to the life he once lived. "I want to tell you things you don't know about me, things you should know, only because to know where I was and where I am now, teaches a lesson.
Did you know that my father, your grandfather, was a coal miner in Germany? We were dirt poor, and my papa didn't own a thing. He rented the house we lived in and the bed we slept in, and he could only do that as long as he worked for the Mine Company. I was able to go to school through the sixth grade, but then I was expected to go into the mines too. I, like you, learned many things from my books, and even at age twelve, I wished for a better life. But when you are twelve years old, your life is not your own, and I was preparing myself for a life working underground in the mines. Then one evening after supper, my father took me aside and told me that I was going to live with another family on their farm. He had sold my services and I was going to be forced to live and work on this man's farm until I was eighteen, and then I would be free to leave.
If I felt bad about going into the mines, now I was devastated. I would have to leave my family, perhaps forever at twelve years old. I was sold; can you imagine how that makes you feel? He paused remembering the horror of it. The farmer worked me hard because he wanted to squeeze every penny worth of value from me. But, to his credit, he also sent me to school, where I finished my education. At the end of the six years bondage, I was free to go, but where would I go? If I went home, I would end up in the mines, and although I wanted to see my mother again, I could not. I made the decision to go with a friend to the city of Essen, where I got the job that changed my life. It gave me a trade as a tool and die apprentice. I could have stayed at that factory and made a life, but the opportunity came to come to this country and I took it. I married your mama and you know the rest."
He stopped and looked at his son, and then he said, "There are lessons you can learn from your papas life, even though I am not a great man. There are lessons to be learned from even average men, and if you can learn anything that will give you comfort now, I will be glad I told you." He got up, walked over to his son, and put his hand on his shoulder, "You are a smart boy Jake," he said. "You think about what I told you, and if some of the confusion does not clear, please come to your papa and we will talk some more, I promise you."
The next morning, Jake came down to breakfast, dressed in factory clothes. "Papa, Mama, I'm going to look for work today," he said. "I stayed awake most of the night thinking about what you told me papa. And I think there are several lessons to be learned, but the one I think you wanted me to hear is, if you can't step backwards, then you have no choice but to step forward." And as he stood, he added, "I don't have any idea where this first step is going to lead me, but forward motion is better than inertia, and Papa you are not average, not by any yardstick 1 can think of." As he went out the door, his mother said she had no idea what he was talking about. Papa smiled. He knew.
Jake was hired at the steel mill, located on the outskirts of town. It sat in the middle of a network of railroad tracks. Chimneys belched black smoke and ash covered the houses in the neighborhood. Fences run along the perimeter of the mill property. Inside the open-hearth furnaces stand nearly one hundred feet high and thirty feet wide at the base inside a building illuminated mostly by the fire, which roars inside its open mouth. The temperatures inside the furnace reach three thousand degrees and smoke and steam belch from the opening. Limestone, coke and iron ore are fed into the top of this mammoth oven, and it boils down until it is released by an explosion in the tap hole and runs off into ladle cars, which separates the slag from the iron, and which is finally poured into ingot forms.
Jake stood before the open-hearth furnaces gaping maw, feeling its power and it's intense heat. The fiery red interior bubbled and steamed as if it contained an angry demon trying to escape its bounds. When Jake climbed the ladder to stand atop the monster, to pour the limestone, iron ore and coke into its belly, it seemed as if it was a sacrifice to pacify and soothe the beast. It responded by consuming its meal and doubling its power. The energy under his feet was an awesome example of man replicating the forces of nature and trying to control it to do their bidding. Jake was spellbound by the experience, until he heard,
"Jake, get the hell down here, you're holding us up," yelled one of his fellow workers on the floor below. As he and his group were sitting on wooden benches, gulping down water trying to prevent dehydration, he was still enthralled by what he had experienced, and was babbling over what he felt. He was rewarded with looks from the men like they had just discovered he had two heads. "You sure you haven't been drinking? You sure see things I don't see." And another, "You sure you're working
in the same place I am?" And one of the older workers said, "All I see are guys sweating and working harder than any man should."
The work environment was indeed stark and brutally hard. It took two sweating, strong men to manhandle a wrench especially made to turn nuts large enough to withstand the vibrations a contained volcano can produce. The floor in this man made Hades was a combination of dirt, gravel and concrete. The temperature in the building reached two hundred degrees and the men were under constant danger of dehydrating if they lost track" of the time. The chance of injury or death was a constant reality to these men. The total safety package consisted of long asbestos gloves, tinted goggles, and if you have time say a quick prayer.