Dave Micus, Plum Island Sound

August 9th, 2004

By Dave Micus

Driving to work, I listened on NPR as one of their National Geographic Radio Expedition crews prepared for this segment's adventure. Apparently, little is known about the migratory behavior of the giant blue fin tuna, and this crew was going to tag giant blue fins with tracking devices so that the fish could be followed via satellite. Commercial fishermen generally harpoon tuna, which wouldn't work here unless they wanted to track the fish sinking to the bottom of the ocean. What they have to do, then, is catch the fish on a rod and reel, insert the tracking device, and let it go. As I listened it suddenly hit me - catching and releasing giant blue fin tuna on a rod and reel was their job. They were actually getting paid to do this.

Now I've had a lot of jobs in my lifetime, but never anything like this. The most memorable was my first real job at the steel mills in Chicago, which, for someone growing up on the South side, was not only a likely career path but the only career path. When you looked out of the classroom windows of my high school you could literally see the mills, and the standard reply, when asked what you planned to do after graduation, was "I'm going to the University of Wisconsin Steel," which was funny, but, in retrospect, also poignant and sad.

I worked at the seamless tube mill that made pipe for the oil industry by drilling out a solid six-foot billet of steel fresh from the blast furnace. The red-hot billet was driven into a machine with a rotating drill bit, backed out and the bit changed, and drilled again. The process was repeated and the six-foot solid steel billet, with a radius of maybe 8 inches, ended up being a 30-foot long seamless pipe with a radius of 15 inches.

It was someone's job to change the drill bits, swinging the old bit out with huge metal tongs supported by a chain, grasping the new bit with the tongs, and swinging it in place. These guys were working within inches of molten metal, and even in the dead of Chicago winters wore sleeveless t-shirts. The work was so demanding that they would work a half hour on, then have a half hour off, and they all had huge heat blisters and festering sores from working so closely with the red-hot steel. Of course it was a job that everyone aspired to because of the 4-hours-off-a-day benefit.

Another aspiration was to work so long at one particular machine that it became rote. By doing so, you could come to work drunk. There was one machine operator who became so adept at working drunk that the foreman was heard to say, "If he ever shows up sober, I'll have to fire him."

My first real job at the mill, after six weeks of being a laborer, which means you could be asked to do anything and was really a way to weed out the weak, was scrap cutter. Occasionally the seamless pipe would be rejected; some defect in the steel, or a bad transition in swapping the drill bit, would cause the pipe to kink or split. These rejects would be moved by overhead cranes with a huge electro-magnet (the seamless tube mill was one of seven mills at Republic Steel, and was bigger than the Fleet Center in Boston) to the scrap yard. There, I would take an acetylene torch and cut the pipe into four-foot sections. When all of the scrap pipe was cut, the cranes would haul it away to be melted, formed into billets, and used again.

This was considered a great first job, and the foreman of the laborers, a huge fellow known as 'Big Man,' shook my hand as if I'd just received a college degree. And I have to admit that I liked the work. I was by myself, which made no difference because it was impossible to talk anyway due to the noise (we wore earplugs, hard-hats, safety glasses, and metal-tongued boots), and the only conversations I ever had was when a fellow mill rat would lean close and yell "F---- this place," loud enough to hear. I would arrive at work, see exactly what I had to do, and tackle it at whatever pace I chose.

Of course there were some drawbacks. The torch had a lever much like the one on an air pump at a gas station with the exact same purpose. As you cut the pipe you held down this lever slightly to blow away the melted steel. If you didn't, the steel would instantly harden again, sealing where you had just cut. The problem was keeping the right amount of pressure on the lever-too little and the steel hardened; too much and the melted steel sprayed everywhere, getting down your gloves, on your face, and down the back of your neck. The worst was if you sneezed. Then you'd inadvertently press all the way down on the lever and send a shower of molten steel everywhere. I still have a few burn scars from allergy season.

You also had to be conscious of the physics involved, things like angle of repose. The scrap pipes would be piled every which way, and you had to analyze the stacking and begin cutting a pipe that wasn't, say, the keystone that would bring the rest of them tumbling down. One time I was cutting a pipe with a big kink and when the four-foot section I was cutting fell off, the other 26 feet of pipe rolled 360 degrees. Unfortunately, I was sitting on it at the time, but didn't get seriously injured.

After cutting pipe for a while I was promoted to recorder, a paper work job within the mill that recorded production, rejects, and downtime. I walked around with a little pad of paper and a pencil, writing everything down. And while this was maybe the cleanest job in the mill, I still managed to get filthy by just being in the building.

Within a day of my promotion to recorder I was cornered by the union shop steward and a big, burly worker. There are two reasons for downtime; when a machine malfunctioned, or when a worker made a mistake that caused a machine to malfunction. I was supposed to differentiate in my report, as the mill would discontinue paying employees for the duration of downtime caused by human error. The shop steward and burly worker assured me that, in spite of how it might appear, the cause of downtime was never human error. That sounded reasonable to me, and every downtime I ever recorded was due to a machine malfunction.

I left the United Steel Workers to become a Teamster, and it was a good thing I did when I look at the dismal state of the steel industry today. The decline was predictable simply from the fact that I worked there; the men in my family have a long history of being employed by industries doomed to demise (my father worked for the railroad, previous generations were Pennsylvania coal miners), and I think it could be used as an economic indicator to know when to sell off stocks.

I left the Teamsters to go to college, where I worked as an orderly in an emergency room; left that for grad school with a brief stint as a security guard in a casino, nasty work where alcohol and gambling combined to make people very ugly. From there I drifted into higher educational administration, where I remain today.

While not quite Thoreau's "life of quiet desperation," it's not been being paid to catch giant fish, either. But, inspired by the NPR story, I'm putting my resume together in the hopes of spending the rest of my working life doing something I really enjoy.

Dear National Geographic Society,

I note that you are in the process of tracking giant blue fin tuna, and I'm writing to see if you might have any openings...

~ Dave

About Dave:

Dave Micus lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He is an avid striped bass fly fisherman, writer and instructor. He writes a fly fishing column for the Port City Planet newspaper of Newburyport, MA (home of Plum Island and Joppa Flats) and teaches a fly fishing course at Boston University.

Previous Dave Micus Columns

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