by Jay O'Calllahan
Reprinted from Storytelling Magazine September/October 2007
Connections. A poem, song and story are always full of connections. In the song, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, the songwriter says, "Buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks" ñ baseball and bagged peanuts go together. He made a connection. How do you make connections when you know nothing about the subject? I was commissioned by Lehigh University to create a story celebrating the steelmaking community of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania because the plant was closing after a hundred years. How would I celebrate all those lives? What would be the connections?
The steel plant in Bethlehem is built along the Lehigh River and runs for four and a half miles.† The steelworkers lived on the steep streets up from the plant. From their kitchen windows they could look down and see the four great black blast furnaces, eighty and ninety feet high, looking like massive steel beasts. The blast furnaces dominate Bethlehem the way a cathedral dominated a medieval city. The blast furnaces turned out molten iron which in turn was poured into the open-hearth furnaces and made into steel. Steelmaking requires intense fire; it's noisy, dangerous, there is smoke everywhere and people often get hurt. It's so loud you can't hear a man shouting at you. Men often lost their legs, arms and feet and some men fell into the molten iron and died in moments. During World War II it was women who were hurt, because they were a large part of the workforce at Bethlehem Steel.
It's all bigger than life. The blast furnaces run twenty-four hours a day. Steel beams are rolled out in the rolling mills making a thunderous sound that's heard all over the South Side, the steelmaking side of Bethlehem.
Who were the steelworkers in Bethlehem in the twentieth century? They were immigrants from Hungry, Russia, the Ukraine, Greece, Ireland, England, Cuba, Lithuania, Mexico, Puerto Rico and on and on. There were almost forty immigrant groups all living on the South Side. The pay was poor; there were no unions and when in 1919 some steelworkers tried to unionize state police were brought in on horseback with clubs. These police, the "Coal and Iron Police", clubbed the workers into submission.
I interviewed steelworkers, union organizers, foremen, superintendents, scientists, historians, waitresses, crane operators, journalists, professors, executives and discovered connections. Bethlehem Steel built over a thousand ships in World War II and thus helped to win the war. They did the same in World War I. Cars were made of steel; appliances, the great bridges and high rise buildings in every city in America were made of steel. So here was a connection between Bethlehem Steel and cars, bridges and buildings in the U.S. And there were larger connections ñ war and peace, justice and injustice.
I had connections but no story. Then I met a retired steelworker and union representative, John Waldony. John, white-haired, eighty-two, handsome and genial, told me of the struggle to unionize Bethlehem Steel and the strike in March of 1941. John was clubbed in that strike but the strikers won and Bethlehem Steel was unionized. In time John became the most important union man in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He also became what was called a "staff man" which meant he traveled and met the important union leaders in America, including John L. Lewis. What moved me most deeply was the way John talked of his mother, Ludvika, a Polish farm girl who came on her own to this country in 1907. John would say repeatedly, "She got us through. Our mother fed us in the Depression when dad was laid off. We had nothing but she got us through." He told me of the small backyard† at 721 Ridge Street on the South Side, that his mother turned into a little farm. She had chickens, pigs, ducks and a garden full of vegetables and she planted fruit trees. Ludvika suffered terribly when her first born son, who had made it to college, was killed in an accident. The shock and pain of his death nearly defeated her, but she recovered and her strength got her family through. Ludvika, like the molten iron in a blast furnace, was transformed by life into steel.
There was a moment, when in my mind's eye, I could see eighteen year old Ludvika on a ship leaving her homeland for America. The unifying theme of the whole story was in her eyes. It was the courage of the immigrant. It was these immigrants from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania who built much of the United States. Toward the end of the story Ludvika herself says of the steel working community, "Our hands are on the New York skyline. Our hands are on the Supreme Court of the United States. Our hands are on the Golden Gate Bridge." That realization was startling and astonishing. Suddenly I felt a connection to the people who built this country. And I also felt closer to my own great grandparents who were immigrants; for the first time in my life, I had a sense of the trials my great grandparents endured as immigrants. I had made a personal connection and Ludvika's story became the story of my ancestors.
After performing Pouring the Sun at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, retired steelworkers remained in the lobby telling stories of their days in steel, celebrating what they had accomplished. As I performed my story around the country people came up and told me about their parents or grandparents working "in steel." An Afro-American woman said, "That was my story." She explained that she was† part of the civil rights movement† and my story was about people fighting for justice. Now my story was out in the world helping others make connections.
Reprinted from Storytelling Magazine