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  • Such a Life
  • Lee Martin (bio)

Summer, 1982

I find the card in a drawer at my parents' house, a union card that identifies my father as a member of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, a fact that surprises me since I've never heard him talk about this part of his life.

It was during the Great Depression, he tells me, when the bottom fell out of crop prices, and he left the farm in southern Illinois and went north to East Chicago where my uncle got him a job at Inland Steel.

All my life I've watched him wear down his body working our farm. He's wrestled with machinery, and hefted hay bales, feed sacks, wagon tongues, stock racks. He's spent days in the summer sun, cultivating corn and beans, cutting wheat and hay. Winters, in subzero weather, he's chopped ice at our pond and hauled water to our hogs. I've seen his shoulders sag as he comes in from the field, his boots shuffling through the dust as if he can barely lift his feet. When I was young I never really appreciated the work he did. Although I would come to feel the same strain and weariness in my own body days I spent riding a tractor or later working in factories, I always thought it something I would one day escape. Like my mother, who taught grade school, I was in love with books, and, as I grew into my early adult years, I set my sights on how far away from farms and factories my imagination and words could take me.

My father sits slumped in his chair, his face weathered, the skin loose on his neck. He's sixty-nine years old. "Now that was work," he says to me. "That steel. That was damned hard work."

Summer, 1894

A current of red fire—molten metal—spills over the edge of a platform [End Page 82] at the Homestead Mill near Pittsburgh and falls on the head and back of a worker. When the other workers cut his burned clothing from him, his flesh peels away in strips.

Summer, 2003

There are men who make their fortunes on the backs of people like my father, and the industrialist Henry Clay Frick was one of them. I can't help but be aware of that fact the first time I step into Frick's mansion, Clayton, come to Pittsburgh on the invitation of the Frick Historical Center as a guest artist. My assignment is to respond to Frick's life with a piece of writing.

To be honest, it's an assignment for which I fear I'm a poor match since, when it comes to affluence, I've never been one of the "haves." In fact, I've always been leery of money made from commerce—just a tad resentful—and now what I already know about Frick irritates me. He acquired his wealth by cooking coal long enough to burn off the impurities—sulfur and phosphorous—thereby creating coke, a pure-carbon form of coal that produced the sort of intense heat needed for making steel. In 1882, when Frick was thirty-three, he entered into a partnership with the steel baron Andrew Carnegie. Notoriously antilabor, Frick was overseeing Carnegie's Homestead Steel Mill in 1892 when the workers staged a wildcat strike and Frick's decision to bring in Pinkerton guards led to violence. Before that, in 1878, he was one of the investors who acquired an abandoned canal reservoir in the Allegheny Mountains forty miles northwest of Pittsburgh, a spot that would become the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a playground and retreat for the upper class.

Located 450 feet above Johnstown, the club had its own lake, created with a large earthen dam. It was the largest man-made lake in the world, covering more than seven hundred acres and containing twenty million tons of water. Because of a series of engineering faults, not to mention a leveling of the top of the dam to allow club members the width necessary for carriages to have two-way traffic lanes, the...