A Life's Work; At 12, he did the work of his father. At 19, he struck out on his own. At 39, he saw a man die on the job. And now, at 61, Lewis Blackwell Jr. is retiring. That may be harder than the work ever was.; Cover Story

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The night his father left for the fishing boats on the Atlantic, the boy cried. His grandmother thought he just missed his daddy, but she was wrong. At 12, the boy had been appointed man of the house. He worried about getting the work done.

His family didn't have running water, so he hauled buckets from the well. He gathered firewood, milked the cow, fed the chickens and hogs, and he followed his mother to a place where he shucked oysters for two hours before leaving for school.

The boy grew into a man who dreamed of simple things. He wanted only to raise a family, to say nobody handed him anything, to put a little money aside so one day, he wouldn't have to work.

After 36 years at the steel plant, the work is finally done.

Now the boy is a man who struggles to adjust, to fill the empty hours. Strength comes from the lessons a working life taught him, lessons learned from his father.

Lewis Blackwell Jr. did not want to end up like his father. He did not want to be a butcher, farmer or carpenter, and he did not want to lose months of his life on a lonely boat chasing oily menhaden up and down a rocky coast.

The life Lewis wanted could not be found in the rural part of Virginia where he grew up, so in 1958 he left for the big city, Baltimore. His first promising job, stripping copper in an acid tank, ended one week after it started when the American Smelting & Refining Co. discovered he was only 19. They told him to come back in two years, but for a young man with a new wife and a baby, two years seemed a lifetime away.

To pay the rent, Lewis tore apart old cars, pumped gas, changed tires and found himself going from one odd job to another, like his father.

He envied men who worked at the bustling factories such as Westinghouse and the huge plants such as General Motors and Bethlehem Steel. They owned homes, they drove to work, they had insurance, benefits, pensions.

When Lewis went to Sparrows Point, to the steel plant, opportunity stretched for miles beside the Chesapeake Bay. Bethlehem Steel was a city of streets named Rod Mill Road, Blast Furnace Road, Tin Mill Road. It had railroads, shipping yards, a power plant. Everywhere he looked, smokestacks belched into the sky.

Lewis imagined that the men who worked there did not worry about $22 for rent. They could pay their electric bills. They never fed their babies by streetlight.

When the company hired him in 1963, to work on the all-black labor gangs that cleaned flues, swept floors and cleared railroads for $93 a week, Lewis was grateful. He was 25 years old and working at one of the biggest steel plants in the world.

Times were good, so he transferred from the mill where men turned raw ore into steel to the mill where molten steel was muscled into rods and wire. America's hunger for new houses and highways had the men working overtime.

"Work hard while you're young and save money while you can."

That's what his father said.

He got up two hours before his 7 a.m. shift, rode the No. 10 bus in the dark through the city, paid 35 cents for transfers, landed a quarter-mile from the mill and walked the rest of the way to the locker room for "coloreds."

In the rod mill, a giant crane fed slabs of steel into a blazing furnace, the molten steel became rods, and men like Lewis made wire by feeding the rods to greedy machines.

One older man in the locker room looked out for Lewis: Tuck in your shirt; if the machine grabs you, you're gone.

Machines ran 24 hours a day, every day of the week, spitting out nails, telephone wire, railroad ties, wire mesh, bridge cables and, during the Vietnam War, shrapnel. Lewis found himself working double shifts, 7-to-3 straight through 3-to-11. He was young then.

He had married Ann, his high school sweetheart, and they had three children, two girls and a boy. He was 33; it was time they had a home. They didn't want to live near Sparrows Point. The red dust from steel-making clung to everything, and even after he showered, his oldest girl could smell grease in his hair.

The rowhouse they bought on Hartsdale Road was 20 minutes from the plant, near Morgan State University, and it cost $12,000 in 1971. It had a porch in front, a yard in back, an upstairs, a downstairs and a basement.

The Northwood neighborhood had shade trees and sidewalks and other families with children, so they joined a baseball league and Lewis coached. Some nights he went straight from work to the ball field. The parents started bowling every Saturday night, calling themselves the Northwood Baseball Bowling League.

Lewis' children knew he was home from work when they heard the kitchen door open and close. Their father always parked in the alley and left the space in front for their mother. They knew their father was tired when he went upstairs and they'd hear the TV playing softly and they'd find him across the foot of the bed, asleep with his shoes on.

The job was good to him, the work was steady, and in those days, they could go on vacation to the Jersey shore if they wanted. They could go out for supper. They could go dancing, shopping, to the movies. They were middle class.

But the work life that provided for them was a mystery to Ann and the kids.

Lewis played on a Dundalk softball team with guys from the mill, and he stopped for beers after work in Fells Point. He hung around with one guy so much that Ann assumed the man was black, and it wasn't until a Christmas party that she learned he was white.

His children never set foot in the mill. They only knew what they saw on a union calendar. Lewis kept his worries to himself.

He knew the rod mill was dangerous the first day he worked between tight rows of clamoring machines, felt heat coming off motors, heard wire whipping around giant spools. But Lewis was 39 before he saw a man die.

He was on the stocking truck when someone pointed to a bundle of rags clogging a wire-drawing machine. Looking closer, Lewis discovered more than rags.

It looked as if the machine had grabbed the man, a bolt had stabbed him in the chest, the wire had kept wrapping around him.

The foreman said the man had just finished training. He had two or three children at home, another on the way.

He was like Lewis not so long ago.

When the foreman cut the dead man loose, Lewis caught him in his arms.

Years later, bad times forced Bethlehem Steel to shut down the rod mill where Lewis worked for 29 years. xxxxxxxx The last time he walked through the place -- it was the size of two football fields -- the machines were idle. He turned off lights, closed the doors, and the sounds echoed through the mill. Lewis sat in his truck and cried.

The house wasn't paid for yet. He was only 54. So while some of his friends retired, Lewis returned to Sparrows Point. In a sheet mill where men fed different machines, Lewis found himself among strangers.

The young men in the new department thought Lewis was an old-timer coming to take their jobs; nobody wanted to train him. They didn't know what it was like to be one of the first black crane operators, to be laid off, to go on strike. They came out of high school making $500 a week, money it took him 20 years to earn.

Lewis was union treasurer, and every time he collected dues, he noted fewer and fewer names on the membership rolls. The company had lost 26,000 people since he started.

Foreign competition and cheap labor stole much of the steel market; other metal companies came up with new products. For 10 gloomy years, it seemed people were losing jobs, steel mills were closing, the bustling streets around Sparrows Point were not as busy.

His heart wasn't in it anymore.

Then, when he had a mild stroke in 1994, he realized he had changed, too.

"Try not to work so hard you run your body down."

That's what his father said.

Lewis had watched his father work day and night until he collapsed with heat stroke while painting the tin roof of their church in Virginia. He never fully recovered, but he kept working, and he worked until he died, at 68.

Two years after his first stroke, Lewis had another.

He did not want to end up like his father.

So when Bethlehem Steel and the United Steelworkers of America signed a new contract this past summer, Lewis retired.

His last day was a Tuesday; by Wednesday, he thought his life was over.

He awoke at 6 a.m., so agitated he couldn't sleep. The first thing he did after Ann left for work was mow the grass, and when he finished, he scrubbed the kitchen floor, and when he finished that, he scrubbed the bathroom on his hands and knees. He made the bed, tidied the bedroom, thought about calling the union to return his keys.

The next days were much the same.

He stripped wallpaper in the dining room, contemplated painting the shed, took his granddaughter to kindergarten, made his wife supper, drove to Virginia, mowed his mother's grass, stayed up late watching "The Dukes of Hazzard," "Die Hard II" and "Nick at Nite" because they were on.

All of a sudden, he had no shift to fill.

There is a plate of food in front of his chair at the head table, but Lewis hasn't touched it. He's too excited. Everyone wants to shake his hand or hug him, and he hasn't sat down since his retirement party started.

He was changing brake shoes on his son's dump truck when Ann told him to get dressed for a birthday party for someone she knew. He put on his navy suit, combed his curly gray hair, pinned down his tie with a diamond tack. Work had shaped him into a strong man, and he had not put on much weight over the years.

He spent two-thirds of his life at the plant, but his body doesn't show all the near misses: the time he almost fell into a 14-foot hole; the time he was nearly run over by a tractor; other close calls. And yet a scar on his right forearm, two inches wide and just as deep, reminds him how lucky he is.

"Surprise!"

At the union hall, Lewis cannot believe what he sees. He sees his father-in-law, who hasn't been out of the house since his own retirement. He sees guys from the plant he hasn't laid eyes on since the rod mill closed. He sees his children, his grandchildren, his mother.

Everyone is here.

A cousin reads citations from the governor, the Maryland State Senate, the bosses at Bethlehem Steel. His union friends tell stories, his co-workers tell bad jokes, someone from the baseball league says a few nice words.

His brother-in-law says a prayer, blessing fried chicken, string beans and his daughter's potato salad, "on this occasion where we come to say thanks for one who has labored so diligently on his job as well as in Your vineyard."

His mother, who is 88, stands up and, in a voice that is hard to hear, says she is proud of her "Bubbie."

There were five children in their family. Lewis was the oldest boy, so he did most of the chores when their father was away. The girls did inside work; he did everything else. The girls went on to college; he worked.

His sister Gladys says: "You deserve this time of relaxation and rest. I can say not only has he worked here at Bethlehem Steel but he has worked from the time he was a young boy."

His sister Lillian hands him three framed photographs, old black-and-white pictures of him as a child. He studies them, and the pictures take him back. He thinks of his father.

He remembers the day his father took off work on a Saturday to come to the ball field and watch him play.

And he remembers another day, so many years later, when he found his father on a ladder painting the house. He looked tired and worn down. "Daddy, get down from there," he told him. "Let me finish that for you."

They were sitting under the shade tree when his father spoke. "You know, son. I never had the chance to thank you for all those times I was gone."

Lewis wishes his father were here now, to see the good life he has made.

Everyone at the party is looking at him, waiting to hear what he has to say.

The DJ stops playing music. The ladies with plastic aprons stop cutting cake. A few people at back tables turn their chairs around to see him better. Lewis is nervous, his face flushed.

He says: "I got to thinking, in my 36 years, there's some people in this room I spent more time with than I did with my family, and I'm going to ask them to stand up. All of you who worked at the rod and wire mill with me, please stand up.

"On behalf of these guys, you got to give thanks to our Lord and savior because each day we went to Sparrows Point, we didn't have to come back home. We could walk in the door and never, never walk back out. So we've been blessed to do that.

"And to the wives who shared their husbands with me at Sparrows Point, thank you. Because we grew up like a family. When people was down, you reached down and picked them up. We didn't step on them or push them aside. If one needed help, the other guy was there for him. And when I went to this new plant, it was sort of different, you know? I guess I could have learned and grown with those people, but I don't have that much time. I'm 60 years old. I'll be 61 next week."

There's a lot more he could say. But much more, and he'll cry.

"I'm proud to be a member of this local, and I'm proud I worked at Sparrows Point with all these people. And I say to my wife, Ann, it's hard for me to adjust right now, but each day is getting better."

The struggle now is one his father never faced.

Tonight, he will celebrate his working life. Tomorrow, he can try again to leave it behind.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
50°