It was the worst job I ever had. And it paid well. I was a “test carrier” at J&L Steel Co. Our next door neighbor was a union shop steward, and he arranged for me to be hired. I already had a job lined up in an inner-city high school in September, but I welcomed the opportunity to make good money over the summer. So, I got my hard hat and safety shoes, and showed up for work a week or two after I had graduated from college in May 1969.
Those who grew up in America’s industrial sector will recognize the massive steel coils that are bent into refrigerators, ovens, car hoods, roofs and doors and other applications. Just a stone’s throw from the Cuyahoga River and walking distance to the Ukrainian neighborhood, I felt the heat from the blast and heard the roar of molten steel being poured into huge ladles, the soup then sent to another corner of the plant to be rolled into coils and from there to the 56-inch shear, a big automated knife that every few seconds chopped the rolls into 10- to 11-foot segments as they unspooled treadmill-style, dropping the sheets to a cradle to be loaded onto a truck, which took them to whatever factory needed them. It was quite impressive and required an army of workers, including a number of fellow Ukrainians.
My job was to cut a disk into the front, middle and back of each roll, and carry it to the metallurgical lab that tested the product for quality.
So why was this such a bad job – the worst I ever had? Well first, I was working “swing shift”: from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m the first week; week two was 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.; week three was 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. the following morning. Week four, you were back to 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and your body clock was wrecked. I couldn’t fall asleep when I wanted to; I couldn’t stay awake when I needed to. But I was cashing generous checks. Only the job was even worse.
It was 1969 and I was starting my career as a teacher back when factories hiring summer help like me to fill in for workers taking their vacations paid better wages than the Cleveland Public School System. It was understood that college kids hired for a few months would move on when the permanent workforce came back
Big problem: On Monday, I’d punch the timeclock and see what grade steel would be running that week. Below a certain quality, there was no need to test. Week after week, the company was running low-quality steel. So there I was: showing up for an eight-hour shift with nothing to do – but still making big bucks.
So I brought a book to read. The foreman rebuked me: No reading on the job! What job? For the next couple weeks, I skulked around the vast plant with my books, hiding in remote corners amidst the noise, soot and heat, hoping not to be caught.
I also engaged with my co-workers: guys who looked to spend their working lives in the mills and then retire in their 50s with a comfortable pension and go hunting, fishing, vacationing with their wives or pursuing an avocation. I remember Chuck Vinci, who operated a crane high above the plant floor, moving coils from the rolling mill to the shear. He didn’t wait, taking vacations to Melbourne in 1956 and Rome in 1960, where he won gold medals in Olympic weightlifting.
Me? I was the wise-guy college graduate, opposed to the Vietnam War and letting my co-workers know. They, for the most part, were patriotic Americans who didn’t question our leaders and invariably had family members serving in the military. One of them opened my eyes.
“Do you know why we’re running low-grade steel and why you’re not carrying disks to the lab for testing?” he asked. “Because we’re cutting the sheets into casings for bombs to be dropped on Vietnam and Laos.”
At that time, my cousin Lydia Wolczuk Holian, a leader in Cleveland’s Plast Ukrainian Scouting Organization, told me they were looking for a head counselor (“komandant”) for cub scouts at Pysanyi Kamin (which translates as Painted Rock and is known as PK), a summer camp an hour outside of Cleveland.
“I know it’s short notice, but could you take this on?”
I was 21, had wonderful experiences with Plast and felt I needed to give back. And so I agreed, swapping a nice income at a lousy job for three weeks of summer breeze, clean air, open fields, forested woods, campfires, songs and mentoring 40-some kids age 7-11. It was wonderful.
The camp paid me $150 for the three weeks – less than what I made in a week at the steel mill. I donated the money to PK. It was a great investment: taken together, my wife, our children and I have been there a thousand times over the past 50 years.
Summer jobs are a rite of passage for young people. In the late 1960s, I worked in two smelly, dirty factories: Alloys and Chemicals for two summers and J&L Steel. Today, those kinds of summer jobs no longer exist. Machines have whittled thousands of jobs down to a few hundred.
But summer camps at Plast and the Ukrainian American Youth Association still hire counselors, and the air is still fresh and clean. At Soyuzivka in the Shawangunks, where I’ve been dozens of times, and other venues, I always see young people working. At the Ukrainian Museum-Archives in Cleveland, where I volunteer, the Nicholas Suprenenko bequest, which he left for the education of young people interested in Ukraine, allows us to hire summer interns to catalogue, prepare exhibits and events, mow the lawn and enjoy the ambiance of the old Ukrainian neighborhood in Tremont. Every summer for more than 10 years now, we’ve sponsored five to 10 interns.
Me? I didn’t make as much money the summer of 1969 as I had expected, but what I gained at PK is paying dividends to this day. How? Times change and Ukraine – like America – is still a work in progress. There will always be the need for new talent, which is why we have to engage young people in summer activities – paid and unpaid. It’s a gateway to meaningful careers and purposeful lives.
Andrew Fedynsky’s e-mail address is