an excerpt from The 28 Inch Mill by Robert D. Frantz
Janos, Janos, it’s Karl, yeah, Karl Yoder. Hey, how’re you doin’? Sit down and have a drink. Jeez, its good to see ya. I been thinkin’ about the mill. It’s been over thirty years since they shut down the 28. I been wonderin’ how all the guys are doin’.
We really had our own United Nations down there. Hungarians, Slovaks, Polacks, Italians, Germans, Irish, Mexicans, Romanians, Austrians, Russians, Greeks, Jews, Arabs. You name it we had it. All got along real good too.
It wasn’t always that way though. Back in the 1800’s Bethlehem Steel was started by the Germans and for the first twenty or thirty years they held all the jobs. Then they started to hire the Irish and gave them all the lousy jobs, like the coke works and shovelin’ scale, stuff like that.
Another thirty years or so and the Irish move up and start hirin’ the Slovaks, Hungarians, and Polacks to do all the dirty work.
Funny thing they called ’em all Hunkies, didn’t matter if they was Polacks, Slovaks, Ukrainians, or whatever, they was still Hunkies, unless they was Italian—then they was Dagos or Wops. Killed ’em off like flies, too. Didn’t give a damn, what’s another Hunkie?
Then during the First World War they started hirin’ the Mexicans ’cause they thought they could stand the heat better. So they all got sent to the coke works. The Irish, they became the foremen. That’s why even today, no matter what shop you go into there’s some Irish foreman tellin’ everybody what to do.
When the Union come in they put a stop to all that. I mean they couldn’t keep you down just ’cause you was a Hunkie or a Dago. Lucky for me and you, Janos, we had the Union., I don’t think I could a stood it the way it was in the old days.
Janos, remember that Christmas morning, must have been thirty-five years ago, we were workin’ day turn—seemed like we always worked Christmas, Easter, too.
Anyways, you were on the rougher, Johnny Atiyeh was on the roller line and Louie Silverstein on the strand. Johnny looks over at you and says, “Merry Christmas, Janos.” Then he looks over at Louie and says, “Merry Christmas, Louie.” Then Louie says; Jesus Christ, I’ll never forget it; he says “You know Johnny, only in Americacould an Arab wish a Jew a Merry Christmas.”
You’re so taken in by it, you start blowin’ the whistle like crazy. The roller calls on the P. A. and says “What’s that all about?” And you tell ’em, “Johnny Atiyeh just wished Louie Silverstein a Merry Christmas.”
Then the 32″ mill picks up on it and they start tootin’, then the 40 #1. Then the pits holler down, “Hey, what the hell’s goin’ on down there?” So they told ’em. They start tootin’, then the 48″ mill, the 42, the beam yard. Sounded like the day the goddamn war ended.
Course we useta kid around a lot. I mean like you guys callin’ me farmer ’cause I was Pennsylvania Dutch and yellin’ “Oink, oink” most every time you seen me walkin’ down the roller line.
My buddy Vinnie was the worst at that. Seems every time I walked into the back strand Vinnie’d say somethin’ like “Hey, Karl, I heard you got a maus in your haus.”
Course most everybody else got razzed too. Lotta times the Dutchmen would holler over the P. A. “Dumb Hunk” when they seen one of the Slovaks or Polacks. Everybody took it good-natured though.
Me and Louie Silverstein got the worst of it, him bein’ Jewish and all. Once I asked Louie if he minded all the guys teasin’ him. You know what he told me? He says, “Hell no, its their way of showin’ affection. I’ll start to worry when they stop talkin’ to me.”
Sure enough, couple months later, we got this kid. He come down from the coal regions. You know, Frackville or some place like that. Anyways, we heard that he just got married. So old Frank Kozlosky the Roller goes up to him, you know, just jokin’ around, and asks the kid when he was gonna start handin’ out cigars.
Guess the kid was religious or somethin’, tells old Frank to mind his own goddamn business. I’m tellin you Janos, I was standin’ right there—coulda heard a pin drop. Frank just turns his back and walks away.
Anyways, Big Frankie—you recall how you’d get a new guy and he’d say;
“Why do call him Big Frankie, can’t be more’n 5’10” and 160 lbs.?”
“Cause the roller’s name is Frank, too.”
“Well, why don’t you just call the roller, Little Frankie?”
“Cause he’s the Roller, you dumb bastard.”
So Big Frankie goes up to the kid and says, “Look you hurt the old man’s feelings. Whyn’t you go over and apologize?”
Well, the kid doesn’t say anything, just gives him a smart-ass, screw you look. Like Louie said, everybody stopped talkin’ to him. He lasted about three days and never showed up again.
You know how they useta say that some nationalities were better than others at certain jobs. Well, that ain’t the way it was on the 28. Look at the rollers we had: two Slovaks, a Polack, an Irishman, and a couple of Dutchmen. Same thing for all the jobs. Didn’t make no difference where you come from.
Well you say, how ’bout the Mexican roll builders? See, I asked Manuel ’bout that once; him bein’ the head roll builder. He told me he got hired during the First War as a roll builder, then when his buddies came over, he got ’em jobs as roll builders, too. They stayed roll builders ’cause they couldn’t speak English too good and they wanted to stick with Manuel. Remember the labor gang? They called it the Greeks gang. Same thing. Bunch of Greeks come over ’bout 1925. First one here gets a job on the labor gang and he gets his pals all jobs on the labor gang. He gets to be Labor Leader. Don’t mean that Greeks are only good enough to work labor. Hell, lotta their kids are big shots in town today.
© copyright by Robert D. Frantz, all rights reserved.