The Backstory: Army, Steel, and Tornadoes

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My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.


My dad during his Army service, probably around 1954
My dad during his Army service, probably around 1954

Eventually my Dad made it to graduation – I don’t remember how he scrounged up a suit for graduation, but he did.  He shared a nerve-wracking group dinner with his principal and faculty (he told me), who seemed to like him and encouraged him to pursue further education.

College was out of the question for a poor son of an immigrant, so he tried to sign up for the Marines.  It was 1950 and the Korean War had drummed up patriotism and enlistments.

Dad by this time was working at one of the Pittsburgh steel mills for good money and supporting the remainder of his family since his dad had basically abdicated that role. Entering the Marines would mean trading that paycheck for a military pay, but Dad was ready to sign up.

He went to the recruiter with a friend (Harry, perhaps?) and was told he couldn’t enlist till he hit the 120 pound weight minimum. (Bear in mind, my dad was a shade short of 6 feet tall, so to weigh 117 pounds at age 18 and that height is really sad.)  The recruiter suggested that my dad eat bananas to bulk up.  He did.

Three days later, when he headed to the station to finalize the deal, his friend had decided to skip out altogether.  So dad left too.

I don’t know a lot about his early adult years, but I heard a lot of stories involving his good friend  Ellsworth (who died of cancer when I was very little) and adventures.  Like trying to navigate the unnavigable Youghiogheny River rapids above Connellsville on an Army surplus raft.  Or the time they raced a “woodie” station wagon (wood paneled sides) so fast that splinters were blowing off the side. So the story went.)

Two years later, Dad was drafted, given a waiver because he was considered the primary breadwinner for his family (I think his dad had basically abandoned them financially by this point despite holding a pretty cushy job).  Finding out he had been waived, Dad angrily demanded to enlist since he wouldn’t be set aside as a “4F draft dodger.”

Dad’s military stories boiled down into two epochs:

1. Texas, where he did his basic and advanced training.  I think he was at Fort Hood and Fort Sam Houston.  It was in Texas that my father, the only Pennsylvanian in a company full of Texans, made a few judgments about his new surroundings:

a) “There was nothing so small as a Texan with the wind knocked out of him.”
b) Chiggers were hell
c) The South sucked. (His opinion, not mine.)

In fact, when he finally got to leave Texas and make his way back home for leave after completing his training (on a hellish DC-9 plane ride in the middle of a storm), my dad vowed he would never set foot in the South again. And he kept his word – skipping even my college graduation.

2. Aberdeen Proving Grounds.  As an MP, my dad was assigned to gate duty . Aside from arresting drunk enlisted men and guarding prisoners, he was part of General Montgomery’s honor escort when “Monty” visited the base, I assume in 1953 or 54.

The Aberdeen years were good ones, it seems. I think my dad liked the experience there, and he was close enough to hitchhike home for regular visits.  But the Army didn’t promote him quickly, and he decided to leave once his two years were up.  Still, the marks of military discipline were stitched into his behavior: his shoes were perfect straight tucked under his side of the bed; he did all of his own mending or button-sewing; his schedule was dependably consistent.

Clairton Steel Works, Clairton, PA (part of US Steel)
Clairton Steel Works, Clairton, PA (part of US Steel)

Coming home after his military service, my father fell back into a regular job at the Clairton Mill, the longest steel mill in the world (4 miles of continuous industrial facilities along the bank of the Allegheny River, south of Pittsburgh).  He moved through various jobs, working his way up to running bulldozers, driving buses around the mill (delivering skilled laborers like bricklayers to their jobs around the plant), and a lot of big truck driving. It gave him the ingrained habit of always driving any vehicle with his right hand at rest on the gear shift, even if the car was automatic.

I know he experienced one of the major steelworker strikes of the 50s, and spent his earlier years as a devout Democrat and supporter of unions.  By the end of his career, he’d decided the union bosses were just as greedy as the management of USSteel, and he had little use for either side. But he raged at Ronald Reagan (his first Republican vote) for “breaking the unions” when he ended the air traffic controllers strike.

Dad watched the steel industry transfer from the older methods of steel manufacturing to the computer age –but he spoke with reverence about the almost mystical knowledge that “old-timers” had for looking at the molten steel in the crucible and being able to tell by its color and appearance exactly when to “tap out” the steel – pour the giant bucket of molten metal down the channels into the rolling mill.

In August 1963, a major tornado whipped through the mill, tearing up the steelworks and sending my dad and some of his buddies into a concrete block washhouse to cower in a shower stall.  He said the tornado forced water through the concrete blocks in the shower block. Red lightning (his term for lightning so close that you couldn’t see it) struck all around them.  Though far from God, my dad said he prayed more in those 10 minutes than he had at any time before.

More to come….


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