The Roller

an excerpt from The 28 Inch Mill by Robert D. Frantz

After the roller’d finished settin’ up the mill, he’d signal the rougher operator to blow up and he’d blow two and call the pusher on the P. A.

“O. K. Wayne, try one.”

And we’d run a bar through the mill and then the assistant roller, it was always the assistant roller, would walk down to the hot saw to get a test piece.

Didja ever think about that Janos? Anybody could go down and pick up a test piece, but it was always the assistant roller.

He’d come back with the tongs over his shoulder, then he’d plunge the hot piece in a bucket of water. He’d bring it into the roller shanty and put it down on the workbench. Must have been a dozen guys standin’ around. Then the roller’d check it over with the mike and calipers and if it checked out O. K. he’d pick up the P. A. and say

“O.K. Janos, blow up.”

Then one by one everybody who was standin’ around, guidesetters, the foreman, sometimes even the superintendent, would pick up the test piece, check it out, then say,

“Nice bar, Frank.”

And the roller, the roller, he wouldn’t say nothin’, just sort of stand there. You know what I mean, Janos?

Jesus, I would of liked to have been a roller.

Man, the hours we had to work when the mill was runnin’ full out, like durin’ ’55, ’56, and ’57. Six 7–3; seven 3–11; and seven 11–7.

Best thing about it was four days off after 11–7, the famous long weekend. Money hungry guys like you, Janos could even pick up an extra day workin’ labor durin’ repair shift on Monday day turn.

The shift I really hated was 11–7. I’d start drinkin’ coffee to stay awake at the start of the turn and by 3 o’clock I’d have heartburn so bad it felt like I had a knife stickin’ in my chest. Some nights I’d take a whole roll of Tums.

Whenever I’d get a chance to sleep, durin’ a spell or if the mill was down mechanical, I’d sleep, even with all that coffee in me. You know what old Jack Slattery used to say,

“Anyone who has a chance to sleep on night shift and doesn’t is crazy and anyone who says he never slept on night shift is a liar.”

Only good thing about it was none of the big bosses were around.

Once in a while, especially if it was early in the turn and I was on a spell, I’d go up in the pusher and sit with Wayne. Always liked old Wayne him bein’ a farmer like me.

Y’know Janos, guy must’ve been lonely sittin’ back there by himself all night. Anyway he knew all these old hymns my Grammy used to sing; The Old Bye and Bye, Come to the Church in the Wildwood. We’d sit back there and sing at the top of our lungs. Always finished with The Battle Hymn of the Republic. I can still remember all the words. Never did know what they meant by the grapes of wrath.

Well, anyway, one day I was readin’ the paper and I read where old Wayne passed away. I mean he wasn’t sick or anything; he just died. Then I recalled how he loved to sing those old hymns. You know Janos, maybe the good Lord just wanted him up there.

Didn’t like day turn either. Had to get up too early. I know Janos, most of you guys with kids liked day turn so’s you could be with the kids. Too many bosses around though. Couldn’t get away with anything. Never broke any records on day turn. Makes you wonder what good most of those guys were.

Best shift was 3–11. Sleep late and go out after work.

I’d usually stop in at one of those joints in the Heights for a quick drink just to get me started, then I’d head for Allentown or Easton.

’Cept on Saturday or Sunday I’d hit one of the local clubs—always had somethin’ special on weekends. Could be the Hungarian Club, Windish Hall, or whatever.

My favorite was the Holy Ghost, Holy Ghost Beneficial Society. Seems like the Holy Ghost had a younger crowd and better lookin’ girls. I liked the Mexican Club too. Most beautiful women I ever seen, but you couldn’t get to first base with ’em, too clannish I guess.

Had one in my high school English class, name of Rosa. You know, one of these girls knew all the answers. When no one else knew the answer, the teacher useta say “O.K. Rosa” and she was always right.

Well, I gotta admit she was really beautiful, perfect. See Janos, what I useta do when I seen a perfect broad was I’d find somethin’ on ’em that wasn’t perfect then I’d zero in on that and pretty soon they’d stop bein’ so desirable.

Like once there was this girl who was perfect but she had a birthmark on her leg so I’d think of that ugly mark instead of how beautiful she was. Hell, I knew they wouldn’t go out with me, me bein’ a farmer and all. Anyway, made me feel better.

But this Rosa, couldn’t find anything wrong with her. Face perfect; nose just right; eyes, well, you know Spanish eyes; skin the color of honey. Maybe she has thick ankles, hell no, birthmark, no way. How ’bout her chest; maybe her tits are too small, or too big—perfect.

And her hair Janos!

Remember when you were a little kid and everybody burned coal during the winter and you’d wake up real early to the sound of coal comin’ down the chute. So you’d go over to the window and wipe the frost off and there’d be snow on the ground and the sun’d be shinin’ and you’d watch the coal come down the chute and it sparkled so bright it hurt your eyes.

Well, since I couldn’t find anything wrong with her I had to ask her out.

Anyways a couple of guys I knew were havin’ this party over at the D.A.R. House. I figured she’d feel safe there because there were always a bunch of old broads hangin’ ’round. You know, makin’ sure you didn’t pat their daughter on the ass.

“Hello, Rosa?”

“This is Karl. You know, Karl Yoder. I’m in your English class.”

“Say, look Rosa, they’re havin’ a dance over at the D.A.R. House Saturday night and I was wonderin’ if you’d like to go with me.”

“Well, nice talkin’ to ya.”

So for the rest of the year I had to sit in that goddamn English class and look at Miss Perfect.

Never did like English anyhow. Shoulda taught us somethin’ we could use like Russian or Japanese.

(Pause)

Hey, remember those whorehouses up in Reading and Pottsville and that town near Hazelton, yeah, Macadoo.

Boy, the stuff we did when we were young. Drivin’ up there after 3–11 in a snow storm just for a piece of ass—or two, huh, Janos. Well, I guess it was better than gettin’ arrested for F & B.

Cheap too!

No, you got it wrong, Janos, it was five bucks at Reading and Macadoo and only three bucks at Pottsville. ’Course that was colored, Minersville Street, right next to the court house!

I gotta admit I was always partial to the colored. No Janos, not ’cause I’m cheap. It was well, just ’cause they treated you better.

I mean you go into one of the white places and it was always a hurry up deal:

“O.K. Honey, what do you want, French or straight?”

“How much?”

“Five for straight and for ten I’ll give you a little French.”

“Guess I’ll take straight.”

“O.K. Honey, let’s go. Come on Honey, hurry up, you’re takin’ too much time for $5. Gonna cost you more.”

Who wants to listen to crap like that? Besides those white broads had real pale skin. Looked like they had T.B. or somethin’. Never picked up anything though.

Hell, on Minersville Street you’d walk in, some old colored lady’d meet you at the door:

“Like a beer, boys?”

“Sure. How much I owe you?”

“Fifty cents.”

Double what they charged at the bar, but what the hell?

“The girls’ll be down in a minute.”

“Hi, I’m Tina and this is Pearl and this is Cathy.”

“Hi, how you doin’?”

You’d talk for awhile, get acquainted with the one you liked, then maybe she’d say somethin’ like:

“What are your plans for tonight?”

If you liked her you’d say,

“Well, I’d like to date you for awhile.”

So you’d go upstairs with her.

I remember this one, Pearl. I followed her up the back stairs, looked like the circular stairs we had in the gym went up to the track, only these were made of wood. She had real sexy legs. I can still see the muscles dance in her calves as she climbed the steps.

“Nice warm room, cold as hell outside. Oh, here’s your money, three bucks, right?”

“Put it over there on the bureau. Gee, you’re a big guy, must be a football player.”

“Naw, I’m a steelworker.”

“My first husband was a steelworker.”

“Yeah, where’d he work?”

“At Homestead.”

“No, I mean what shop?”

“Coke works.”

“Must have been able to take the heat.”

“How about you?”

“Oh, I’m a roller.”

“What’s a roller?”

“Well, I work on this mill. It’s called the 28″ mill. I’m sorta in charge. We roll steel for bridges and skyscrapers and stuff.”

“You really are nice. You can’t believe the sort of men I usually get.”

“I like your skin.”

“You do?”

“It’s the color of honey. You see there was this Mexican girl once…”

(Pause)

You know Janos, we were born twenty years too late. To hear the old guys tell it, back in the twenties Bethlehem was one big whorehouse. I heard if you ran out of money you could get laid on your brass check.

Down in Florida in this condo I live in we got a lotta ex-New York guys in their eighties. Hell, one guy’s 93, name’s Morris. Well, when you tell ’em you’re from Bethlehem they say,

“Wow, Bethlehem. Used to run excursion buses up there on weekends!”

One guy told me he would drive to Bethlehem to shack up on the weekend in his Packard Touring, and park it in that garage right outside of the Anthracite St. gate.

Hey Janos, you got this organization up here run by a bunch of Harvard guys. You know, they fix up old buildings and charge money to see ’em? Well, why don’t you write ’em a letter and tell ’em to buy one of those old whorehouses and fix it up so’s the younger generation could see what a whorehouse looks like.

© Robert D. Frantz. All rights reserved