.... Lorain, Ohio, 1948-49 What’s Immoral – (An alphabetized laundry list aspiring to become a poem)
Lorain, Ohio, 1948-49
The blue of the sky was painted over
by the topcoat of a choking red dust cloud
so its particles of iron ore, blended with graphite,
gouged out your eyeballs as you drove by
on the Lake Erie highway to the north of the town.
The rust-colored cloud was so thick, the rays
of the sun filtered through as if powered by
the dying batteries of a two-celled flashlight.
The dust, the dust that made your eyes smart,
made you cough up your lungs before their time,
settled on the small wood and brick houses
of the steelworkers and their families.
It coated the lawns, the trees, the shrubbery
like the ravages of diphtheria over the throats of
the dying. It choked the plants, it gagged the people.
We worked in the steel mills, eleven thousand strong.
Most of us lived in the town, many of us walked to work,
Breathing the dust at work, at home, at play, in our sleep.
We were Hungarians, Yugoslavs, Poles, Bulgarians, Russians,
Italians, Scotch-Irish, Mexicans and the gnarled little gnomes
from the coal pits of Cornwall --- plus one lone Finn.
Some of us were called Hillbillies, the lean, stringy lads,
ex-miners, ex-moonshiners, from the Ohio River country,
Kentucky, Tennessee, and points South.
Many of us were newly-recruited Puerto-Ricans, homesick for
our beautiful, but hungry, little jewel of the Caribbean.
We were Blacks from the South, straight from the cotton fields
to the war work in the mills, to churn out steel to make the
tanks and planes and victory ships of World War II.
We, the timid little Puertoriquenos, and the black progeny
of field slaves now made wage slaves had the lousiest jobs.
We were scorned as the lowest of the low by our union brothers
and sisters, higher up the industrial pecking order.
But it took all of us to make the mills run, to turn out the
steel that produced the social wealth that made the steel
barons rich, who lived far, far from our cloud of iron dust.
We drank at the mill gate bars after work, whatever shift — —
We downed boilermakers, double shots with beer chasers,
till we blew half our pay, and all our minds.
We got drunk, we fought with each other, got tossed into
the drunk tank, to puke all over the joint and sleep it off.
And we posted bail, or forfeited same, to make our next shift.
The open hearth was the melting pot where the witches’ brew
of us metallurgical alchemists turned into molten steel, poured
white-hot into the ingot molds down in the cinder pits —
All shoveled, poured, and hauled away by the blood and sweat
of the men and women of the human melting pot:
The open hearth gang, of all nations, all races.
It was a thriving city, plenty of work in ‘48, all the
O.T. you could take. Pull into town, get hired
the same day, go to work the next.
It was a lively, lusty town for the mill folk to cavort.
Saturday nights we drank and danced at the Slovenian Hall
like whirling Slavic dervishes to the accordion blasts
of the Polka King of Cleveland, Frankie Yankovic and band,
who was celebrated in every Bohunk steel town dance hall
from Pittsburgh to Youngstown and all the Great Lakes.
Once we went downtown to hear the young Ella Fitzgerald.
She sang in the only bar in town with live entertainment.
She was the only Black in the joint, standing at her mike
above the burly-shouldered crowd at the bar.
No Blacks could drink at this bar, or any bar in Lorain.
Yet Ella poured her soul into her songs; I loved her,
first sight, through the blue haze of cigarette smoke.
We went to the raucous meetings of Local 1104,
United Steelworkers of America, CIO.
“Throw that commie bum out,” came a bellow from the floor
as a dissenting voice took issue with a decision
from the podium.
Communists and Trotskyists passed out leaflets at midnight
at the plant gates, as the swing shift went off,
the graveyard on.
A mixed reception: “Hey, gimme a machine gun
when you make the revolution!”
“Go back to Russia, you traitors!”
Plenty of debate in ’48. *Who ya gonna vote for President? “
“Truman? Hell, no! I’m voting for Henry Wallace!”
“The guy who killed the pigs in the Depression
when people were starving? You’re fulla shit!”
But the Presidential sweepstakes were but stage whispers
in the plant cafeterias.
The Cleveland Indians were on their way to the pennant in’48!
You went from one bar to another. The same conversation
picked up in the next bar from where it left off in the last.
“The Indians are going to do it! This time we win! It was magic!
The Indians won! Truman got elected after Dewey was declared winner
by the New York Times. Wallace and Thurmond finished way back.
I cashed in at the mills the summer of ‘49.
I drove away from Lorain, Seattle-bound. Go west, young man!
I never looked back at the iron-clad red dust cloud
as I tooled the Chevvy toward Sandusky and Toledo.
I had three bills in my kick, my duds and books in the trunk.
In the mid-1980s I read of a worker demonstration in Lorain.
Steelworkers were protesting the threatened shutdown
of the mill by U.S. Steel. National Tube down the tubes?
Even at this point much of Lorain was unemployed.
Boomtown, Steeltown, USA, was no more.
One by one the stacks of the mills in the Rust Belt states
stopped billowing forth their rust-fouled issue.
The furnaces were banked down for good.
A cloud of desperation, of resignation, intermingled
with the residue of the red cloud of dust.
—By Harry Siitonen, Dec. 6, 1989.
(An alphabetized laundry list aspiring to become a poem)
Ageism is immoral
Animal abuse is immoral
Assault and battery is immoral
Capitalism is immoral
Censorship is immoral
Cheating is immoral
Child abuse is immoral
Child labor is immoral
Corporal punishment is immoral.
Death penalty is immoral
Dictatorship is immoral
Elder abuse is immoral
Greed is immoral
Homophobia is immoral
Hypocrisy is immoral
Imperialism is immoral
Labor exploitation is immoral
Lying is immoral
Misogyny is immoral
Murder is immoral
Polluting the earth is immoral
Racism is immoral
Rape is immoral
Selfishness is immoral
Sexism is immoral
Slavery is immoral
Stealing is immoral
Strikebreaking is immoral
Torture is immoral
Totalitarianism is immoral
Union-busting is immoral
War is immoral
Xenophobia is immoral
—By Harry Siitonen, Oct. 1, 2008