On Labor Day: Memories of My Father

Labor Day always makes me think of my Dad. You see, my father was a steelworker. From the day he got discharged from George Patton’s army to when he retired, he worked at the Bethlehem Steel plant near Baltimore—at that time, the largest tidewater steel mill in the world. Like all of my uncles he was a staunch trade unionist and felt if you owned a car it should be made in America. Like all kids, I didn’t always agree with my parents.

XJ6.BW

As a young man, I purchased a used 1958 Volvo 444 sedan (it cost me $395 at the time) and Dad got upset with me about it. Swedish steel! In those days the largest customer for steel were US car makers, even though Ford made most its own steel in their River Rouge steel mill. Before my cousin could shock the family further by purchasing the then new Triumph Spitfire, I reminded Dad of one of the few times he felt it was necessary to dispense fatherly advice.

While I was in high school, he took me to work with him—this was long before those “take your kid to work” programs started—and introduced me to his workplace in an Open Hearth furnace. There are many ways to turn iron into steel, the Open Hearth being the most brute force way to do the job. Iron is heated in furnaces and then blended with other minerals at extremely high temperatures.

The building where he worked housed several open hearth furnaces and was so huge you could have parked the  aircraft carrier USS Enterprise inside. Both ends of the building were open to the air and inside, creeping along the roof like a demented spider, an giant crane moved back in forth to grab immense ladles of molten metal. The heat was oppressive.

Before introducing me to some of his friends, Dad waved his arms in front of this spectacle as if to say “some day all of this way yours” but instead, he being a man of few words, said simply “don’t work here.” Then it was time to meet his boss, a rough-looking red-haired man named “Brick” and one of his co-workers “Jaguar Joe.” Since my Dad’s name was Joe and he was first on the job , the new guy became “Jaguar Joe” because he had the only foreign car in acres of parking lots brimming with Detroit Iron. His car was an XK140 and while drivers of lesser European cars, the Japanese were not even a blip on our radar yet, were hazed and had obscene remarks scrawled in the red dust that spewed from the smoke stacks and landed on every car on every parking lot, Jaguar Joe was left alone, because his fellow workers admired the style and performance of his Jaguar roadster.

A few years later, while standing on the running board of my 444 Volvo, I reminded Dad about Jaguar Joe and he reminded me that “this was no Jaguar.” Thirty-six years later, I finally got my first Jaguar, a 14-year old Series III XJ-6, but it was a real Jaguar and  Dad was finally proud of this foreign car. He didn’t get to see my second Jaguar, the XJ-S and I think he would have liked it even more.