The Old Man had good job in the mine and we had a nice house in a good part of town.
Then the mine closed and The Old Man had no job.
“Time to sell the house” said The Old Man and we moved into a four room apartment over a gas station.
It was a life lived from boom to bust.
Bust had come. No whining. No sympathy. No welfare.
Time to figure out a way to make the new reality work.
We weren’t the only ones to have to “cut back a little”- the euphemism for selling the homestead so your family could eat.
That’s just the way it was living on top of the Red Ore.
A year later The Old Man was working again but in a different mine. We moved to a new town closer to the new pit and took up residence in a new four room apartment – thankfully not over a gas station.
A major quality of life improvement for the nose and taste-buds.
Then it was my turn to head for The Pit.
The work was hard. The pay was good. The union dues were given without complaint.
Everybody knew boom could go bust but it was what it was.
Being young, dumb and full of P & V, I was placed on a Bull Crew with other newbies.
Our job was to “pull horse cock”, the thick, heavy electrical cable that ran from the power-shed topside down the switchbacks and into the pit bottoms. The cable was connected to the gigantic electrical shovels that dug the rock and precious taconite.
The shovel jockeys were the most skilled guys in the pit. Everything depended on the shovel operator’s ability to scoop the red ore away from the slag and load it into the huge dump trucks lined up in a row a half-dozen or more deep.
The job of the Bull Crew was to keep the operator from electrocuting himself by accidentally running the shovel’s steel track over the gazillion volt cable.
Pit logic dictated that the young guys on the Bull Crew were unskilled labor and replaceable. The Old Guy running the shovel was highly skilled labor and the mining company depended on him being healthy (and not electrocuted.)
If one of the Bull Crew got squished by one of the humongous steel shovel treads, well, The Company would send flowers to the funeral.
If the shovel driver got zapped the whole mine shut down and no red ore got dug or shipped. And The Company lost money.
Lots of money.
The pecking order was pretty clear and the pit bosses let you know it.
The Bull Crew foreman was an Italian fellow with a complexion so dark the other Old Guys nick-named him “Satchmo” after the great jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong.
Naturally Ol’ Satch hated it, and the members of the Bull Crew were careful not to let the nick slip out during a cuss-rant lest they be assigned even more unpleasant work.
In a tough a labor job it was also necessary to be multi-lingual.
I learned to cuss in five languages: Italian, Croatian, Polish, Slovenian and Finn.
Diversity was not something to be achieved. It was something that was taken for granted. Everyone was from Somewhere Else.
The banter among the Old Guys was thick with ethnic insult: bohunk, polack, wop (or dago, which was worse) being the primary. The worst was “finlander”, which put the butt of the jibe in a whole ‘nother category of smack-down.
It was mostly good natured and the Old Guys gave as good as they got. Pride and economic survival instinct kept them from being at each others throats over “just words”.
If there was fighting it was saved for the bars later in the evening. The union-scale pay was too good to let a barbed tongue threaten your livelihood.
Occasionally a young cement-head would throw a punch and the mine cop would escort the dim-witted miscreant’s ass to the location gate. When that happened, word got around quickly to the other mines. Nobody wanted to work with a thin-skinned hot-head, particularly in place where steaming anger could lead to an inattention that could result in death in a number of gruesome manners.
Later you’d see the short-fused moron bagging groceries at the local co-op for a third of “pit wages”.
I learned all of the most important things I know not from the books I eventually read in college but from the Old Guys with the calloused hands and big laughs who worked the 700 to 330 shift digging the Red Ore.
Happy Labor Day, Old Guys.
And thank you for the best lessons life ever taught.
Author’s note: this post was originally published on Labor Day 2016.