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Bethlehem

A share in this exciting future will come to those who best supply the dreamers.
- from a Bethlehem Steel Promotional Film
I

Steel. Even the word is hard. Resolute.
All that need be said,
'I work at The Steel'.

To labor in the mill was
To consciously embrace the raging, igneous marrow
Burning heart of a planet
Where the mother of all furnaces roils,
Making gravity; magnetism...
Dwarfing every hearth and heat,
Until that final bucket pour
Number three furnace
November, nineteen and ninety-five.
Upended, like knocking over the milk jug
On a flowered tablecloth
A sunny Sunday morning after church,
In a kitchen a few short blocks above Third Street.

A thousand, thousand, thousand tons
pooled, poured, stamped and rolled
into the wondrous structural spine of a country.

On the southern shore of the great Lehigh.
Nine miles of man-made volcano.
Drumbeat loud all day and night.
Writ with a maze of railroad tracks
The North Penn shuddering open cars down
With scrap to the waiting electrode's arc.

A flash at the corner of the eye -
The screaming thunder of conversion.
The glow of a cigarette, lit in the alley
between the furnaces —
Snuffed out after 135
coke oven, fly ash years.

Yielding, if only to prove the rule
about oak trees and willows
and the makings of man.
What will bend, bends
What will break..

II

He worked so hard each day in the shower of glowing cinders,
Bucketing searing white onto the mold
Driving rivets into the beams.
In dedication and guilt, concern and consternation,
Through the war and the peace
Raising up a family
Two kids he hoped would go to school
Never see the open hearth's great ghostly maw
Though, now, he's caught up
In his throat and eye
To see a smokeless open sky
To lie awake without the noise
That tendered steel from Bethlehem.

His wife walks streets of the old steeltown.
Knowing as surely as fire and water
There are absolutes,
There are results
The heat brings joining.
The quenching builds strength.
Thus tempered, she becomes the scaffold
for yet another generation.
Conceived in moaning friction
Born in red and warmth
pulled hissing and crying from the mother mold.
Slender hands, or metal tongs
Draw out another incandescent child.

The day has surely come that
These children of Phoenixville,
Bethlehem, Steelton, Lackawanna
No longer know the soul of fire
Or bear its scars.
The deafening silence of the blowers
disappears on the river wind.
Vulcan's secret of the forge
Stolen back to the depths from which it sprung
Leaving small compensation to the living.
Miles of rusted ruin and riveting history.
A yard turned slag and scraped away.
The Normandie whistles' bellow silent.

III

Look to the south, where the rolling boss and workmen lie,
Great grandfathers, fathers, sons and daughters
Among the stones and cenotaphs, supporting
Crosses wrought of this town's own iron blood.
Know now, that other fires burn,
More than that,
They burn beyond the mills
Each generation's distance no longer measured
In 8-18 Stainless and wide-flange beams.

This river shore grows into the future
Leaving the coke works turned scrap metal in it's wake
The seed of immigrants rising through a searing smoke
Their strength an alloy of history and determination
To be more than fodder for the cauldron
That built the Chesapeake and the Golden Gate they entered
As they keep safe their mother and father's dream
In a town that's lost the sanguine song
Of iron turned to steel.

Born in fire was this place.
Born and then brought low as if an end to grace.

© J BARRETT WOLF