22. You Understand?

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Monday, March 11, 1918  

Richard Bell shouted, "I'll fire every last one of those black sons of bitches!"

Frank stood in his father's second floor office, located inside the steel mill. As laid out in the original blueprint for the mill, the chief architect wanted to build the executive offices in a separate building, but Richard wanted to stay close to the workers to keep an eye on them. The builders constructed a two-story unit in the heart of the mill.

Frank gazed out the twelve-foot panoramic window at the towering blast furnace, giving off a brilliant orange glow. He imagined this was what Jonah felt like inside the belly of the great whale, his favorite story in the third grade at Calvary Baptist Elementary, but that's where the analogy ended.

Looking through the glass, Frank saw sheet metal walls. He saw massive machines that clanged and rumbled and clattered – a discord of metallic sounds muffled by the office walls. He saw a giant metal ladle pouring molten steel, bright as the sun, into thick alloyed molds on the backs of electric trucks. And he saw hordes of workers, whites and blacks, stationed at the big machines, operating and checking and cleaning and yes, even loafing.

Frank's view of the mill in the window was overlaid by the reflection of Richard stepping up beside him, a fat smoldering stogie sticking out of his puckered lips.

"Hiring Negroes was a mistake," Richard said. "Things were peaceful here before they came along." He inhaled the cigar and blew out a haze of smoke that partially concealed his face.

Frank felt cool air rising from the vent in the baseboard. Heard the hum of the electric air conditioner coming through the vent from the first floor. The cloud of smoke dissolved into thin wisps, revealing Richard's bitter expression followed by a sweet and pungent odor.

"The war didn't give us much of a choice," Frank said. "With all our boys going overseas, we had to plug up a pretty big hole to keep up with our contracts. As it is, we're barely meeting our minimum quota for the army."

"Bah!" Richard shouted. "Damn the quota and those contracts!"

Frank pursed his lips. He knew his father didn't really mean that, but he also understood his frustration.

While adding blacks to the mill had increased capacity, it also created a host of problems.

From the beginning, the white workers argued blacks were stealing good jobs once held by family and friends who had left for the war. The colored laborers complained how the other white workers berated them constantly for no good reason. Even the foremen on the various shifts relished the chance to yell at the blacks for even the smallest of errors.

As the black population in the mill grew, the balance of power started to even out. Eventually, coloreds came to account for forty percent of the mill's workforce. That's when they decided to band together. Black and white factions formed. Then the altercations turned from verbal to physical, and fighting became the norm.

Just a few days ago, Frank caught wind that the white workers were circulating a petition to strike in order to demand higher wages, shorter shifts, and the elimination of all black laborers. Things couldn't get much worse. Or could they?

"I won't have those animals work alongside white folk any longer!" Richard shouted. "I'd rather see the mill fold! You understand?"

Frank remained silent for a moment. Richard Bell often ended his most controversial statements by saying, "You understand?" But Frank knew that it wasn't a question.

Richard leveled a stern gaze at Frank. "You have one week to fix this problem."

"One week?" Frank said, the heat rising in his cheeks. "That's impossible!"

Richard turned away and took a few steps away from his son before looking down at the hardwood floor. "Then you'll leave me no choice."

Frank cocked his head, one eyebrow raised. "What are you saying?"

Richard took a puff of his cigar. He just stood there, back to his son, for a long while.

Frank felt frustration swelling in his throat. "What did you mean, I'll leave you with no choice?"

Richard turned around slowly, his jaw quivering. He waved the glowing cigar at his son.

"No choice ... but to find your replacement. You understand?"


Author's Note

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Author's Note

Hope you enjoyed this chapter!

In 1918, life in American steel mills was horrible. Fourteen hour shifts, six days a week for fifty cents an hour. Crazy!

Interestingly, in other countries back then, shifts were only eight hours.

In the next chapter, Maurice finds himself in some hot water. It's all setting up for a major shock for Henry in seven chapters. Of course, there will be few other surprises along the way.  ;)

Thanks for reading!

Tom

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