Posts Tagged ‘steel mill’

Working the Tar House: A Steel Mill Poem

March 9, 2018


All day you sit with the pumps
and smell the tar, hot tar on its way
to the power station’s boilers.

Some days they burn gas.
Then if it’s warm you leave
a single pump idling
and sit outside in the shade
of the two-story tar tank.

You set your hard hat on the concrete
and watch smoke trail from the stacks
or stare at the blast furnace lights.

In winter you stay inside.
Tar leaks over everything.
It runs out hot and fluid,
then hardens to asphalt.

Tar on your hands,
tar on your blue-gray clothes,
bits of tar in your ham sandwiches.
Tar and layers of tar
on the pipes and pumps and floor.

Conversation is a call
to add or take off a pump.
Even with four pumps on,
there is little to do.

Each day, for each active pump,
you change the metal filter
that strains out the hard chunks.

First you hammer the valve lever
to divert the flow.
Then you unscrew the nuts
that hold down the filter lid.

You slide a pipe under the handle
and pry up the twenty-pound lid
until you break the tar’s seal.

When the seal breaks, the lid flies up,
snags on the bolts, and falls back down
with a clap and a spray of hot tar.

You raise the lid and set it off.
With a hook you lift out
the steel filter, dripping tar,
and carry it in a bucket
to a bubbling bath of solvent and steam.

You put a clean filter in
and bolt down the lid,
tightly, so the pressure won’t spray tar.

Your buddy has left five-gallon buckets
to fill up under leaks.
Slopping tar on your pants,
you haul them out to the chest-high hopper.

Or nights you dump them
in the waste pool of water and sludge,
the safety pit under the tar tank.

For hours you sit on a bucket
and watch the pressure gauge on the line.
You breathe the vapors and
you sweat among the pipes.

After work you go home with a smell
you can’t wash away.
It clings to you through all your days off.

Some nights you stop along the road
and vomit from the vapors that condense
as a black goo on the hairs of your nose.

Your skin itches where the tar
has soaked your clothes
and stained you black.


First published in New Letters.


Great Uncle Harve at Home - Kept by Viola Smetzer

Great Uncle Harve at Home

Skunky’s Steel Mill Story: A Verse Fiction

June 24, 2017


Wasn’t my department, Mikey. But, God! I’ll never
forget that day. Must be forty years ago now.
Still seems clear as that Pellegrino you’re drinking.

Steve and I were new hires then. Lloyd, our foreman,
had gone off somewhere, so that morning we played
broom hockey with a pint we dug out of a fan mount.

Jack Daniels, Black Label. Pretty good sipping whiskey!
Sometimes we found bottles part full, but this was open
and empty. Except maybe half a teaspoon, dried to a syrup.

I remember it was hot that noon. No breeze off the lake.
I was sitting outside on the loading dock, leaning
on the corrugated steel. That steel felt cool in the shade.

The explosion had to be loud, but I don’t remember. I think
I saw an orange flame. Then the top two thirds of Number 3
Blast Furnace disappeared in churning, black disaster smoke.

You’ve seen that stuff on CNN. Can’t really see much.
What I remember is the little balls of coke. Pea sized.
Coming down all around and bouncing on the concrete.

I had a carton of chocolate milk beside me. My hard hat
was upside down on the concrete with an unwrapped
sandwich inside. Pickle loaf with American cheese.

Next thing I remember, I was standing inside the dock,
listening to alarms going off all over the plant. My hard hat
was on my head and pickle loaf mush was on my hand.

I looked back. Men were hustling down the stairs along
the outside of the furnace and running toward the road.
I remember light shirts moving under a black cloud.

I finished lunch later, inside. Went back to the dock
for my chocolate milk. Bought a Butterfinger and a bag
of Cheetos at the power station canteen. Tasted good.

I have forgotten who died. They posted a list by the clock.
No one I knew. Not my department. But I remember those
pellets of coke, dropped around like petrified bunny shit.

We swept coke balls off the parking, all afternoon.


Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer
A prose version of this story was first published in Staccato Fiction, Fall 2011.



Skunky’s story started with one of my experiences working at the steel mills along the southern tip of Lake Michigan in the 1970’s. I had a job in the power station of the sprawling Bethlehem Steel complex at Burns Harbor, Indiana. Several of us were outside on the loading dock eating lunch when the coke bin of the blast furnace across the street exploded. The scene was as described. All I added was the carnage. I then gave Skunky an audience – a dumb-ass new kid like I was when I started in the mills. So I end up talking to myself again.

Verse novels are an established genre that is growing in popularity, but the use of verse is also effective with shorter works of fiction. I like to use it for some short short stories. Shorter verse fiction does not use as many characters or points of view as are sometimes found in verse novels. Otherwise, it works the same way – by combining the line structure and concentration of poetry with the plot development, syntax, and rhythms of prose fiction.

Mike Smetzer at Harbor - Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

Mike Smetzer at Harbor – Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer