NPR is running a series on influential summer jobs. This is the essay I submitted:
For two summers, I worked in Hell on earth – the dirtiest, hottest, most dangerous place I have ever visited.
I worked in a foundry. We made disc brakes for cars and kitchen sinks out of molten steel.
As a summer employee, I did the grunt work. On my first day, I worked a line making sinks. I was in charge of breaking apart the molds after the metal was poured. Hot metal would flow down the spigot, and fill the mold. Within a few seconds, the sink cooled enough to hold its shape. I was stationed down the line with a metal rod held over my head. As each new sink was poured, I jammed the rod into the mold, and wrenched apart the dirt.
Each sink emerged from its mold like a glowing alien, breaking out of a shell. I lifted, thrust, cracked over and over. Then, the line stopped for a break. I set the rod down, and jumped from my platform. I was so hot and dirty that rivulets of sweat cut clean paths through my grimy skin.
Immediately, the rod rolled down and cracked my skull open.
On my first day, after forty five minutes on the floor, I left to get 6 stitches in my head.
No one thought I would make it past the first week. During the school year, I waited tables at Shoney’s. I was in college, studying International Relations. With a minor in Dance.
But I came back, determined to prove myself.
Most days, I was responsible for mixing in additives to the raw steel. The chemistry in making metal parts is very precise. So, after the fresh dip of steel came down the line, I measured out 1 cup of zinc, and 2 cups of magnesium. Then I scrambled up the ladder, and stood on the edge of the pool of liquid steel. I dumped in the buckshot metals, then stirred them in with an iron rod that melted in my hands.
After that, I hoisted a jack hammer to the edge of the pool, where metal had started to cool and adhere to the sides, and I hammered off the hardened steel. Pieces of molten metal flicked up and hit me in the face, chest and legs. Every day, I had a pattern of tiny new burns, instantly cauterized by the heat.
It was grueling work. But, at the end of the shift I had a sense of accomplishment because I had made something new in the world. Every day I left, sweaty, gritty and exhausted, with the satisfaction that the world was a different place because of my work.
Now, I build websites and create marketing campaigns. I don’t get paid to do anything tangible or concrete. I work with my hands only to type. I sweat only when I’m at the gym.
But, every time I am challenged with something that seems impossible, I remember the foundry. I remember my sweat sizzling as it dripped onto hot metal. I remember being wrung out and dehydrated, with metal shavings flying into my eyes, and hours to go before the shift ended.
And the new challenge that I face now simply doesn’t seem that bad.
Because at the foundry, somehow I always kept going. I never slowed the line down. And I never caused it to stop.