I have not written a blog for three months. This time of silence has given me the opportunity to act more than reflect on my creative ideas. In September, Nancy and I visited NMIH (National Museum of Industrial History) in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I wanted to explore the possibility of a connection between “Of Mice and Mills”—my children’s story—and a museum that tells the story of industrialization in America. The thought was that their knowledge of factual history might inform my work of imagination.
This visit to NMIH has opened doors I did not expect to discover. My first response to the museum was that it told me too much about the machines of industrial America and not enough about the people who operated them. Here, I recognize that when we think about “industrialization” we naturally begin with machines and how they changed the world. That story needs to be told, and some visitors to the museum will want this focus. I, on the other hand, coming from a family embedded in the culture of industrial workers, I want to tell the stories of the people who operated the machines.
The museum experience has opened the door for me to reflect on my personal and family experiences in the industrial work place. First, a little family history: both of my grandfathers worked their whole lives in the bituminous coal industries of western Pennsylvania—one died at the age of forty-one after an accident in the mine. My father and three uncles worked their whole lives in the steel industries around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And I, personally, worked in two steel mills for short periods of time. One summer, I worked on the railroad track gang at Crucible Steel in Midland, Pennsylvania—the mill where my father worked for forty years. Later, I worked for four years in the rod mill at US Steel in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania.
This history has given me stories to tell about the lives of workers in industrial America. But more to the point today, my visit to NMIH has encouraged me to reflect on the stories from my industrial worker family—no matter how apocryphal they may be. First, a cautionary tale—humorous in our family’s telling of it—from my mother’s father, Harry Fink (Pap), who worked in the coal mines from the age of ten. One day Pap decided to introduce his teenage son to life underground. He took him down into the mine and lit a charge of dynamite to free a wall of coal—we assume he knew what he was doing. Pap ran with his son out of the tunnel, but not too far. The dynamite exploded with a great roar! His son was terrified, thinking they were both going to die, he ran from the mine. They said that day the son decided that he would get a job as a truck driver instead of applying for a job in the mine as he had contemplated. This family story made the point that Pap did not want his sons working with him in the mines. Two of his sons became electricians; the next in line was the truck driver. The fourth son was a minister, and the youngest was a career Master Sergeant in the Air Force.
My father’s family story was very different. My grandfather Gray (Bob) was the one who died at the age of forty-one. It was never clear why he died, whether a mine accident or natural causes. Something happened in the mine, but he died at home. My father, Cecil, was sixteen at the time and there were five younger children in the family. To make matters worse, this was at the time of the Great Depression in our country. After several years of menial jobs, Cecil traveled fifty miles to find work at Crucible Steel in Midland, Pennsylvania. For several days he stood in front of the employment office where men gathered who were looking for work. He noticed that the men who were hired tended to be the biggest and strongest looking of the group. After several days of not being hired, he decided to make himself look bigger and stronger. He put on three heavy, wool sweaters under his winter jacket and went to the employment office next morning. He said it was not a cold day, and he was hot with all of his heavy clothing, but the employment officer picked him out of the group of men for a job as a laborer in the mill. Cecil worked as a laborer for more than a year until he heard about an apprenticeship to work as a machinist in the mill. He took the test and was accepted into the program.
The craft of being a machinist was a source of great pride for my father. He might be challenged with reading and writing, but he could measure the tolerance for a nut fitting on a bolt to one ten-thousands of an inch with his micrometer. When World War II started, and many young men were drafted into the military, my father had a deferment because of his job in the machine shop of the steel mill. Trained machinists were more valuable to the war effort at home than taking up arms to fight overseas. During the war he often worked sixteen hours a day, seven days a week.
A sense of pride in workmanship was given to me as a child. My father always seemed to have his micrometer handy. I cannot remember whether he carried it in his pocket or kept it in his tool box, but I do remember him measuring the thickness of a sheet of paper in the evening newspaper—0.00025 of an inch! I remember one time he took the back off his watch and measured the width of a gear driving it—I cannot remember the details there. As a young boy, I was often exasperated by my father’s attention to detail; as an old man, I appreciate his passion for his work. I have tried to bring a similar passion to my work as a storyteller.
So here we come full circle back to my beginning to volunteer at NMIH and the doors this experience is opening for me. I will continue to reflect on my family stories. I will also search for the stories of other industrial workers and their families. I may even find a place to introduce the mouse story. In the process, I hope to help the museum to tell the story of industrialization in America.