“It’s an honor to be called a steelworker. When I put down my occupation on a form, I enjoy writing down ‘steelworker.’ That’s what I am. Before, millrat could have been a suck-ass or someone who worked really hard or long hours. Now the term has taken more of a positive meaning. I consider myself a millrat, and I’m proud of it.” Pete “Chico” Fernandez, 1990
Chico Fernandez, who was a student of mine, started working at Inland Steel on weekends in 1969 while still in high school. Management was only accepting relatives of employees, and Chico had an uncle with connections. He showed up on a Friday, passed a physical, and was told to report for work the next day. In an interview he described his initiation:
After we got our shoes and gloves, a general foreman toured us around. He took me and this other guy to the floor of no. 2 open hearth, which at the time was the largest in the world. What we saw up there reminded me of a Flash Gordon movie: the one where there is a furnace with fire coming out. He’s in chains with Zarkov. I said, “Jesus Christ, what the hell am I getting into?” The cranes overhead, the charging cars, the high lifts and payloaders plus all these guys who seemed to know what they were doing: I was scared shitless. Everything was new.
In the afternoon they put me inside a checker, which is on the bottom of the furnace. I was positioning brick for the brick mason. I was cramped up; there were furnaces on either side of me. It was hotter than hell, plus all this dust and gas. I was only in there two hours, but it felt like an eternity. I thought, “Jesus, this isn’t what I want to do.”
The next day, they made me safety man. All I had to do was hold a flag and tell the caterpillar driver when the crane was coming by. That was it. I figured, “This job ain’t so bad after all.”
Richard M. Dorson titled his study of steelworker tales appropriately “Land of the Millrats: Urban Folklore in Indiana’s Calumet Region” (1982), capturing both the inhospitable nature of mill work as well as the high wages - “golden handcuffs” – that keep people from leaving. Dorson contrasted the nostalgic depiction of the “Old Days” when laborers never missed a day of work and took pride in their job with the thievery and hijinks prevalent among the younger generation who hired in during the 1960s and early 1970s. Reviewing “Land of the Millrats” 30 years ago for Indiana Magazine of History, I wrote: “One narrative motif concerns deaths and accidents—narrow escapes, close calls, and grotesque fatalities involving freight cars, errant slabs, and falling into "the heat" (molten steel). Each mill seemed to have its cast of near-legendary characters, old-timers and greenhorns, sad sacks and blasphemers, the ugly and the tidy, the saintly and the unsavory.”
In Steve McShane’s Senior College class I summarized working conditions for steelworkers beginning with when they worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Promised “industrial democracy” if they supported the war effort in 1917, workers saw conditions become so dire with the rapid postwar rise in the cost of living that a strike broke out in 1919, ultimately crushed by federal troops. During the 1920s, due to federal immigration restriction legislation, companies recruited workers from the American South and Mexico. While white ethnic steelworkers took advantage of advancement opportunities, blacks and Latinos were stuck in dirty, unskilled jobs. With the coming of union recognition in 1937 at U.S. Steel and in 1941 at “Little Steel” mills such as Inland, workers gradually won benefits (vacation time, medical insurance, pensions) that afforded their families a middle-class lifestyle. Noting the drastic decrease in the mill work force since 1980, I mentioned that while workers went on strike in 1959 for better pay and benefits, during the 1986-87 lockout the union fought a rear-guard action to prevent cutbacks.
When I first came to Gary in 1970, air pollution was so bad that housewives on the North side could put up white curtains in the morning and they’d be black by nightfall. People joked that smoke from mill furnaces was a sign of prosperity. The first City Council meeting I attended, Steel officials were threatening to leave Gary if the Council passed an air pollution ordinance. On Mayor Richard hatcher’s urging, the Council passed such an ordinance anyway. Ironically, it was during the Nixon administration when the federal government began mandating cleaner air. Pollution is less visible now, but the large number of residents with asthma and other respiratory diseases attests to the inadequacy of regulation.
While steel is still being produced at Gary Works, in recent months Steel officials have announced the closing of its tin mill and coke plant. One reason the American steel industry is in mortal danger is foreign dumping by nations that subsidize and protect their companies in order to achieve political objectives and not be dependent on imports, as we would be if trends continue.
James Madison expressed thanks for allowing him to interview me on behalf of the Bicentennial project and noted that yesterday’s interview of Judge Lorenzo Arredondo was a success. In fact, former Gary mayor Thomas Barnes was at the East Chicago courthouse at the time and made some comments on tape. Afterwards Lorenzo took the group to Casa Blanca for lunch, quite a treat.
I had no interest in watching the Republican debate (two minutes of coverage the next morning on the Today show was plenty) but enjoyed the bittersweet finale of John Stewart’s tenure on Comedy Central’s “Daily Show.” Highlights included appearances by Stephen Colbert and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, who performed “Land of Hopes and Dreams.” When Bruce and company broke into “Born to Run,” everyone in the studio, including Stewart, started dancing and hugging each other.
In a journal former marine Derek Pope wrote about returning to Northwest Indiana after two tours of duty.
Derek Pope (left) and Sam Bell in Afghanistan
June 9: Towards the latter end of my enlistment in the United State Marine Corps, I began to plan out what I was going to do education wise, because I thought it would be a great waste not to utilize my G.I. Bill. After some consideration I decided on pursuing a degree in secondary education. One of my best friends, Sam Bell, told me that he was going to be attending Northern Arizona University. After weighing all my options I finally decided to returning home and attend IU Northwest in the Fall of 2014, where my long-time girlfriend was enrolled in the Dental Hygiene program. My plan was to get back into the swing of school from the comfort of my home and transfer to a bigger school the following year. In May of 2015 I visited Sam in Flagstaff and the Northern Arizona campus area and quickly decided to move there. I flew home, submitted my application for admissions at NAU, and today received a letter of acceptance.
June 10: Since returning to the area after having been stationed in Southern California and traveling the globe via deployments, it is hard to pick up where I left off. I have little in common with previous friends, and conversations usually do not go past the courteous “How are you doing?” I rarely do anything else besides go to school and the gym. I was born October 4, 1989 in Valparaiso and grew up in Hobart. I was involved in cross-country, track, wrestling, and basketball. I was a varsity starter in football but decided to stop playing the end of my junior year. I came to the realization that I didn’t really enjoy it, and there was no sense participating for the satisfaction of others. I enrolled at IUN in the fall of 2009 but once again found myself doing something for other people rather than myself. That is why I found myself calling a Marine recruiter. Although close to 6 years ago I still remember that phone call to the recruiter and meeting with him that same very day in Crown Point. I returned home to a very unhappy mother and girlfriend, and a supportive father. I broke up with the girlfriend shortly after I signed my contract.
From August 2011 to March 2012 I was deployed to the Musa Quala district in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The previous six months of preparation were full of hellacious training and partying like there was no tomorrow, the best course of action before you go to the Middle East. The time spent in Afghanistan was the most life-changing experience of my life, for good and bad. With that being said, I would not trade one memory for anything. That was followed by time spent in Okinawa, Australia, and Hong Kong.
June 16: My father, Terry Pope, was born in Tennessee but grew up in Hobart. After attending Indiana State, he became an ironworker and later became involved in the construction of wind farms, which took him to Alaska and the Gulf Coast. He passed two years after retirement. My mother, Regina O’Meara Pope, also grew up in Hobart and went on to become a radiological technician. She met my father at the Bicentennial July Fourth parade in Hobart.
Terry and Regina Pope, 1978
June 21: My mother and I recently were shopping at Lowe’s in Merrillville and on our way home talked about how the area has changed. We agreed that Lake County as a whole has been in a general decline. When I was younger I always heard that Gary was dangerous; my mother would not drive through some parts with us in the car. Then as I got older, crime came to the west side of Hobart and to Lake Station. Now it seems that more and more unpleasant things are happening within Hobart. A couple months ago two of my high school classmates committed armed robbery in a gas station by the lakefront.
June 28: I have been pretty negative about the Region lately so here are some positive things I’ve recently done with my girlfriend Elena. We went to the 49er Drive-in on old Route 49 in Valparaiso, which has been there as long as I can remember. It first opened in 1956. For 10 dollars we saw Jurassic World and San Andres, kind of fitting because I saw Jurassic Park there when I was a small child. We were in my truck, faced the bed of it towards the screen, and had an air mattress in the back. Unfortunately it rained, just like every day this month, so we had to turn the truck around and watch from inside. It still was a great time. Today Elena and I went to Dunes State Park and hiked the trails. Trail 8 is short but has steeper hills, while Trail 10 is longer and more scenic. We spent roughly 3 hours walking, running, and exploring on Trail 10 until the sun started to set and the mosquitoes came out. We saw an enormous amount of birds including two turkeys. We only made it half way before we had to turn back.
Derek and Elena