Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Blasts from the Past

“Be as a tower firmly set; shakes not its top for any blast the blows.” Dante Alighieri
1955 Standard Oil Refinery Explosion

Recent explosions in the Chinese port city of Tianjin and on a U.S. base in Sagamihara, Japan, conjure up memories of the Standard Oil refinery explosion that occurred in Whiting 60 years ago in the early morning of August 27, 1955.  One resident described it as “the end of the world.”  Some thought a nuclear bomb had caused the blast.  A black mushroom cloud 8,000 feet in the air obscured the sun and was visible for 30 miles.  A 252-foot hydroformer blew up, resulting in a fiery inferno that, according to the Chicago Tribune, caused steel oil storage tanks to melt “like ice cream cones as flames licked at their rivets and plates.”  Some 67 storage tanks were destroyed, train tracks curled like limp spaghetti noodles, and fires raged for more than a week. Pieces of flying steel and concrete leveled nearby structures and forced residents to evacuate the area.  A chunk of steel weighing 180 tons flattened a house and grocery two blocks away.  Amazingly, only two people died, a refinery foreman heart attack victim and a three year-old hit by a 10-footsteel pipe that came through the roof where he lived.  The boy’s older brother had a leg severed and his father suffered serious injury.  Archives volunteer John Hmurovic (below) has produced a 30-minute film about the traumatic event entitled, “One Minute After Sunrise.”
NWI Times photo by John J. Watkins
Though Standard Oil’s use of the name Amoco began in the mid-1920s, it was not until after the 1955 explosion that the Whiting facility became known as the Amoco refinery.  In 1998 Amoco merged with British Petroleum, and within three years all service stations used the name BP. 

William Buckley referenced the Amoco refinery in “Lake Michigan”:

I keep running to this lake,
to walk the long shore,
to listen to ships,
and I can’t help thinking of beams,

riveted with words,
verbs for a frame
of certitude.

Chicago sways in steel
the way the brain rocks in dreams,
and in all those Gothic rooms

where prayers are said,
the dark bells still announce
the deliveries, the payments,
the profits.

I work in this lake-light,
riveting words
before they are spoken.

I look out over the cobalt blue waters
and write
under the lights of the Amoco refinery,

and I ask if I am entitled to love
in these winds, that shake steel.

Lake Michigan, a profound force of nature, has made a major impact on the people of Northwest Indiana.  It was an essential ingredient in the coming of heavy industry to the Calumet Region.  How different the lakefront might look had not these industrial giants located on its southern shores.  Still, if the mills shut down, due more to foreign dumping that excessive labor costs, the economic impact would be enormous.
 BP Plant: NWI Times photo by Jon L. Hendricks

Until restarted on August 24, BP’s crude distillation unit had been off-line for weeks, triggering a steep hike in gas prices at the pumps despite the overall drop in oil prices.  Illinois and Michigan public officials have called for an investigation into whether BP was involved in a price-gouging scheme.  No word yet from pro-business Republican officials in Indiana – and none expected.
 Terry Rosendaul and daughter Alexia at Gary rally; NWI Times photo by John J. Watkins

Attending a rally near Gary City Hall, Chesterton Tribune ace correspondent Kevin Nevers interviewed Rob Popplewell. For each steelworker job lost, the Local 1066 Grievance Committee Chairman stated, a half dozen others will be imperiled, not to mention area merchants whose customers include steelworkers.  Signs reading, “Treat Us Fair, Mario,” referenced U.S. Steel CEO Mario Longhi, who had his yearly compensation doubled to over 13 million dollars while the corporation was demanding work force concessions.  Nevers contrasted the dire present situation with 1959 when after a 116-day strike steelworkers received cost-of-living increases plus improved health and pension benefits.  Nevers included an excerpt from Dave Alvin song “Gary, Indiana 1959.”  Here is the full version:
I'm old, weak and grey and I'm running out of time

Yeah, but you should have seen me, brother,
when I was young and in my prime
Back in Gary, Indiana in 1959

I was a steel working man with 2 kids and loving wife
And the Union was strong, smokestacks burning day and night
Back in Gary, Indiana in 1959

But then the accountants and lawyers and bosses at U.S. Steel
Sent down the word that we had to take their rotten deal
But from Birmingham to Pueblo, Oakland to Allentown
The workers got together and we shut the Big Boys down,
The President and Supreme Court tried to force us off the line
Back in Gary, Indiana in 1959

Now the years have disappeared in the blink of an eye
And I feel like a stranger in a world that isn't mine
My dear wife died, my kids all moved away
'Cause there's nothing round here to make them want to stay
'Cause the factories are in ruins, decent jobs are hard to find
And you can't get ahead no matter how hard you try
'Cause the Big Boys make the rules, tough luck for everyone else
And out on the streets, brother, it's every man for himself
But I still remember when we marched side by side
Back in Gary, Indiana in 1959

Don't bury my body, brother, when it's my time to die
Just throw me in that smelter and let my ashes fly
Back home to Gary, Indiana in 1959

Jeopardy contestants were asked to name the first asteroid belt dwarf planet observed by spacecraft.  One guy wrongly said Pluto, and an opponent exclaimed, “I was going to say that.”  The correct answer: Ceres.

In the mid-1950s the word “blast” was similar to today’s ubiquitous “awesome” and reflected an awareness of nuclear blasts producing noxious mushroom clouds similar to what Whiting residents gaped experienced at dawn on August 27, 1955.  Timeless musical blasts from the mid-50s past include Maybelline” (Chuck Berry), “Ain’t That a Shame” (Fats Domino), “Tutti-Fruttie” (Little Richard), and most tellingly, “Sh-Boom” by the Chords.  In an essay on Cold War pop music, Russell Reising explained:
Most lines in “Sh-Boom” conclude with the singing of the explosion sound of “sh-boom,” suggesting that this love song gets sung in the midst of a hard nuclear rain falling on humanity. Given this scenario and in “Sh-Boom’s” hopeful “hopin' we'll meet again” line, the song actually, and very strangely, anticipates the horrifyingly ironic conclusion to Dr. Strangelove. In that film's final orgy of destruction, we witness scores of hydrogen bombs exploding, signaling the complete destruction of the world to the soundtrack tune of “We'll Meet Again Some Sunny Day.” These utopian impulses, of course, get vaporized with every man, woman, child, tree, animal, and building in the world.
Aetna Powder Co. boarding house, circa 1890s

For 4 decades beginning in 1881 Aetna Powder Company experienced periodic explosions that endangered employees and neighboring communities.  One blast involving 3,000 pounds of nitroglycerin could be heard 120 miles away in Fort Wayne.  Another in 1912 killed eight, and a 1914 blast shattered windows in downtown Gary.  With the Steel City’s population rapidly growing, the plant was deemed a menace and demand for its product decreased.  Shortly after he end of World War I, owners gave way to suburban developers.
Nicole Anslover talked about President Harry Truman being relatively unknown at the time of FDR’s death even though in 1943 when Senator he had made the cover of Time.  I noted that Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, ranking Democrat on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, recently declared to Bill Maher that her predecessor saved the country billions of dollars preventing waste and war profiteering by the military-industrial complex during World War II.  That’s why “Investigator Truman” was on Time’s cover, Nicole responded.

At Cressmoor Lanes I cleaned out my locker and turned in the key.  Owner Jim Fowble asked if I wanted to substitute Wednesday evenings, and I suggested former Engineers teammate Melvin Nelson, who didn’t want to switch to an afternoon league.

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