Memories of the working class

An old picture reminded me of my working days at Medusa Cement on KK Avenue in Milwaukee.

In the original posts I wrote that I did not know who the people in the wedding picture were, beyond my father. I learned a little more. The guy in the picture is Frank Radomski. He was one of my fathers best friends. They knew each other as young men and my father helped Frank get a job at the cement company, where they worked together for three decades.

I got to know Frank when I worked a the cement company. He was in charge of filling the bags that we loaded onto trucks and pallets. Our job was hard; his was boring. Imagine sitting all day attaching bags to a funnel and then kicking them down the belt with your left foot, and doing this for twelve hours a day.

Frank was very nice to me, probably because he liked my father, but he was generally a nice guy. I was young and not as nice to him as he deserved. My co-workers at the end of the line, the ones who loaded the bags that Frank filled, disparaged Frank. They call him the dumb Pollack, ironic since about half the cement company’s workforce was Polish, like my father, John Domelski and … well … me party. They criticized him when the bags were too full or not full enough. Guys working in hard and boring jobs can be very cruel to each other, maybe because nobody wants to be there. You look forward to leaving and dread coming back, so maybe you take it out on your fellow workers.

Frank was no great intellect. In fact, he was noticeable not smart. As I said, I was not as nice to him as I could have been, but I did try. My father told me to talk to him and I tried, but it was tedious for me and I think for him. Frank’s nickname was “Hud”. My father told me that he got that nickname as a young man when they used to play baseball. They used to call him Houdini because of his skill at stealing bases. It was hard to picture the Hud I knew ever being able to do that or ever being young at all.

Frank retired a couple years before my father gave it up. We went to his retirement party. It was a sad affair. Frank was ready to retire. His health was not good. But he was sad to go. His job was, IMO, one of the worst possible – physically hard at least for one arm and one leg, environmentally unhealthy (lots of dust), and intellectually enervating – but Frank evidently liked it.

When the cement would stop flowing through the ducts, Frank would shut down the line and pound on the duct with a mini-sledge hammer. My co-workers would yell “bang-bang Frank’s silver hammer,” riffing off the Beatles song. The boss, a big guy called John Broderick, gave Frank that hammer at his retirement party.

This upset my father. He complained all the way home that it was no way to treat a man who had given so much of his life to the company. I did not see it the way my father did. I understand it better now. My father was actually talking about himself. He was could see the end of his own working life – his own productive life – and it bothered him that what his lifelong friend had to show for it was an old hammer.

I could not have known it at the time, but I was working in the twilight of working-class Milwaukee. In 1970, we were a working city, with lots of jobs, lots of industrial feeder shops and a hard-working blue collar outlook. Our breweries were world class. Our steel helped build the world and the cement my father and others filling into truck was building the Interstate system. A guy could graduate HS, get a job and start a family. Ten years later, we were one of the buckles on the rust belt.

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