For many, the start of a New Year is resolution time: a chance to tidy up life and smooth out rough edges. It is also a time for reflection: to review the bookmarks in our life’s scrapbook and revisit people, places, and events that shaped our life. January not only signals the beginning of a New Year, it is also the month of my birthday. Twenty-one days after parties of “ring-out-the-old; ring-in-the-new,” balloons, confetti, noise-makers, glasses of good cheer, and Auld Lang Syne of New Year’s Eve, I celebrate my personal New Year.
Birthdays are milestones we have a tendency to note. On occasion, there are special birthdays which signify importance and serve as personal landmarks: a coming of age, a transition, a passage from one stage to the next; or extraordinary moments. I remember my 21st birthday.
Employed at Inland Steel, I was in my fourth year as a machinist apprentice. A number of months earlier, along with a co-worker, I decided to pursue a license in radio-television repair in concert with my apprenticeship studies. The school, based in Detroit, had opened an extension in Hammond, and offered flexible schedules for those who worked shift work at local mills, refineries, and factories: working days--night school; four to twelve--day school. Rarely, was I scheduled midnights.
In December of 1961, the apprentice coordinator discovered my attempt at additional schooling outside my trade area and took umbrage. He asked me to quit electronic school and focus on being a machinist. I refused. In retaliation for my obstinate behavior, he directed the turn foreman to schedule me for midnights until further notice. Right after New Year’s I began working midnights.
Not only did I dislike midnights, I hated working Saturdays. Saturday day-turn was almost tolerable, but working four-to-twelve or midnights was something to be avoided. Being off Saturdays became a personal priority. I had not worked Saturday 4 to 12 for over three years. Call-off excuses, switching schedules with co-workers, and whatever ploy I could think of was used so I could be off. The General Foreman asked me how my grandmother could die three times during the year--- all on Saturdays. I mumbled something about pioneer stamina; took the static and paid the price. I learned early that forgiveness is easier to get than permission. Besides, I had more enjoyable things to do on a Saturday evening. Time and again, I’d ask my foreman to be off on Saturday. Time and again he refused using the same refrain: “Follow the schedule posted.” End of discussion.
Now, however, my penance for incurring management’s wrath was set by the general foreman as per the apprentice coordinator. In 1962, the twenty-first of January was a Sunday. Working the “graveyard shift” meant being in the plant around 11:30 Saturday night. On a date with my favorite car hop we loaded up with Karmel Korn, went to movies at the Paramount in Hammond, and, afterwards, enjoyed cheeseburgers at the Fat Boy Drive-In near Woodmar. All too soon it was time to take her home and head for the mill.
January 20th was a cold frozen snow-less winter night. There was a skeleton crew working Saturday night for Sunday and the shop was uncommonly quiet save for the motors and support systems that fed energy to the various appliances. Around 1:30 Sunday morning the guys sent me to the canteen for coffee. Located about 400 feet from the shop one had to walk past the Forge Shop, over the 24” bar mill run-out table and cross Bar Mill Avenue. Before going outside I bundled up. In addition, I also tied the cuffs of my pants to my ankles with twine and found a four-foot stick to carry. Going to the canteen was uneventful. The return trip, however, was always a challenge. Carrying a tray of hot coffees, the resident mill rats smelled the sweetness of the coffee’s cream and sugar. On bitter cold nights, rats search for warmth. Therefore, one tied his cuffs tight to his ankles to prevent unwanted intruders. The stick was used to drive away bold rodents desperate for food. Walking back to the shop, balancing the tray of coffee while fending off brazen wildlife, the bitter cold became a secondary concern. I remember looking up at the bare bulbs lighting the walkway back to the shop. The 150 watts of power fought back darkness but could not defeat the bleak, desolate cold, depressing surroundings that fought for my attention. In the midst of all this I promised: “Some day I’ll laugh about this!” as I continued swinging my staff at cat-sized rats. Just before I reached the relative safety and warmth of the shop, I shouted to the cold darkness: “Happy birthday to me!” I delivered the coffee, untied my pant legs, and enjoyed my coffee, sans rodents.
Full time employment ended August of ‘64. Weekends and summer work, in 1967. It’s been more than forty years since I worked midnights. Looking back, I loved every minute of my time in the mill and kept my promise about laughter. Those youthful experiences amid the grime and grease helped form the person I became. Who knows, on my birthday this year, I just might put on a pair of blue jeans, get a cup of coffee, tie the pant legs to my ankles, find a nice stick to swing back and forth; and sing Happy Birthday to Me! Happy New Year, everyone!