THE BUSTER BROWN shoe store on Collinsville Avenue in East St. Louis had a wonderful machine where I would stand with my feet, in their shoes, inserted beneath an oblong box, like a low, enclosed lectern, called a Fluoroscope, which shot X-rays into my toes, gonads, liver and brain and let me see clearly what the bones of my feet looked like underneath all that skin and flesh and leather. That way we got a perfect fit.
A half century later, I find myself walking through a torn-up section of the Post newsroom papered with signs saying “Lead Abatement Program,” and I realize that I, like millions of Americans of a certain age, have been exposed to lead, powdered, shaved, oxidized, embedded in ceiling fibers, in my working and living environment essentially for all of my life.
I have been thinking a lot about this since last Monday, when the Clinton administration chose not to appeal a federal court ruling that leaves nearly 400 hazardous substances unregulated by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. This is considered by many to be a step backward toward darkness. I, on the other hand, say, So what? A mighty fortress is this Temple of the Holy Ghost, as the Roman Catholics might say. Without anger, I can look at the lead I’ve absorbed, adsorbed, breathed and ingested — from the solder in the plumbing that brings me water to drink and, to bathe in, to the Ethyl gasoline exhausts that filled the air until recently. In between are the common household products containing lead, the paint on my walls and, in my leisure environment, the toy soldiers of my boyhood.
And that’s just lead. This temple has been asked to serve as the crucible for the refining of a lot of other toxic waste, accidentally and deliberately, much of it in the workplace. I suppose President Clinton’s indifference to people who continue to be exposed to dangerous detritus is disturbing in its symbolism. But it’s too late for me, anyway — and probably too late for you.
I can remember Mrs. Kinsella, my third-grade teacher, reading from “One Hundred Million Guinea Pigs,” a book that contained a rather graphic account of just why the New Deal in the form of President-for-Life Franklin D. Roosevelt was bringing us the Food and Drug Administration.
No matter how much the FDA has been savaged over the years for rigidity and stubbornness, it seemed to be needed in a time when drugstores sold quite effective “diet” capsules that contained living tapeworms, and when foul, poisonous matter of all sorts found itself into the food supply.
The first third of our century was a time when Coca-Cola contained the Real Thing and when codeine was sold over the counter (combined with elixir of terpin hydrate, known throughout World War II and after as G.I. Gin). It was a time of endless X-rays and sanguine explanations — say, that an annual round of dental X-rays contained no more radiation than the amount received naturally from the sun. Of course, there is no substitution here: Having a series of X-rays of molars or bicuspids is not instead of radiation from the sun, but in addition to it. Nonetheless, the explanation has endured, even as the radiation we receive has intensified because of the deterioration of the ozone layer, which is because of our use of spray cans. And that, of course, means that as we assaulted the outer stratum of our civilization, we also, via the same freon propellant, inhaled countless tons of hair spray, banana oil, lithium grease, paint, window cleaner and anything else that could be compressed and atomized toward lung, toward heart, toward liver — toward the Temple of the Holy Ghost.
The men in my neighborhood — Mr. Pixley, who on Sunday led the singing at the Alta Sita Methodist Church; Mr. Fichter, my next-door neighbor who worked at Monsanto, Mr. Barringer, who did Good Works for the church as a lay preacher — many of these men would don waders once a year and harvest the crawdads from Little Lake, on no map as a body of water but fully evident there along the cinder tailings of the Coapman Yards of the Southern Railway. It was the neighborhood dump. The water of Little Lake consisted of oozings and industrial liquor from the Nelson Concrete Tile Co. and the Westcott Valve Co. and the railroad yards and the Alcoa plant and the outhouses behind the former company houses in that neighborhood.
I never swam in Little Lake, but during the summer of my 16th year I spent a lot of time in a small series of abandoned strip mines out by Floraville, Ill., only half an hour’s drive in the 1936 Ford my daddy had bought me after the war. The bigger, beautiful pond was sparkling and spring fed, but it was unusable because (a) a lot of people had dumped cars in it, and all that sheet metal was sharp and dangerous; and (b) a nest of cottonmouth moccasins had taken a fancy to the mine, and had made it their home.
So we skinny-dipped, Gene Parham and somebody else and me, in a shallower, murkier piece of water, where we sank in the scum and swam across the pools and noticed, in an adolescent form of the denial that seems to be universal among people doing things they’re not supposed to, that the surface of the water seemed at times to be iridescent with chemicals that traced their origins to Herbert Henry Dow.
The same fathers who harvested crawdads and went to the Alta Sita Methodist Church had jobs in the plants around East St. Louis: Monsanto, Alcoa, American Steel, Obear-Nester Glass, and the mills of Certainteed and the feed companies and the barrel plant, and they kept the kids supplied with such things as an occasional flask of mercury, which we would rub into dimes and quarters to get them all slick and shiny so we could take them to the Alta Sita School and pass them around for everybody to feel and admire.This mighty fortress spent the three years between high school and military service working in a refining and calcining and chemical products plant belonging to Alcoa, in East St. Louis. I knew if I stayed there it would kill me.
It had something to do with Red Time.
Red Time was premium pay — I think in 1950-53 it was 10 cents an hour tacked onto the $ 1.97 an hour the big guys made (the helpers made $ 1.52 an hour and the laborers $ 1.39) at Alcoa during the time I worked there. There was also Yellow Time, I think it was 3 cents an hour, paid to riggers and ironworkers and others who had to work outside and up high. But I will never forget Red Time. It was paid for those who earned their pay and raised their families by working in the Acid Plant and in the Poison Plant.
I won’t pretend to know a lot about either of these, but the Acid Plant was a huge corrugated iron building with sliding steel doors where bauxite and sodium fluoride were combined chemically to make pot lining and/or electrolyte, the plant’s main product, which was sold, in a cost-accounting transaction, to the Alcoa smelting plants in other cities where aluminum was produced from the ore that was refined in East St. Louis.
The process of making this electrolyte and pot lining was terribly dangerous. The “caustic liquor” used in the process was hot and corrosive and traveled under pressure through lead-lined pipes the size of sewer mains. Occasionally a pipefitter or millwright would be killed when the bolts would shear on a blind tee and he would take a full jolt of caustic liquor in the part that used to be his face.
It was a firing offense for anyone to enter the Acid Plant without safety goggles. As a messenger boy I would park my bicycle by the main entrance, collect my envelopes from the handlebar basket, enter the door, race on foot through the building and to the foreman’s office on a steel-grid mezzanine level, fling the mail onto a glass-topped desk that bore a coating of the telltale garnet-colored crystals of intense and vitriolic chemical action, grab up the chemically encrusted mail I was to take with me, run through the chemical haze of the huge building with the roar of precipitators and other machinery in my ears, and back out into the company avenue, where I would finally take a breath.
It was not possible to meet the Acid Plant laborers socially, outside the plant, and not know that they were industrial victims. Their faces were like uncooked hamburger, the creases in the skin of their necks deep and black and raw and painful to see.
The Poison Plant was quite another proposition. It was set well off to the south of the enormous tract of land on which the Alcoa plant’s 140 or so buildings stood. It had a main plant, sealed, and a locker room adjoining it, and another barn-like storage structure by the fence that separated the plant from the outside world and from Little Lake, which bubbled and oozed with its crawdad population less than half a mile away.
The half-dozen men who worked at the Poison Plant (at Red Time) were yellow, even though at least two were black. These men didn’t wear goggles when they went into the plant. They wore self-contained gas masks with rubber full-face masks, hot-dipped rubber gloves and rubber boots, and coveralls that were as yellow as they were.
The Poison Plant was run by a genial young man named Sam Stimmel, who was yellow as well. Each noon, Sam and I and his boss and mine would gather at a table in the locker room to have lunch and play rum for a penny a point. Everything in the room looked and felt as if it had been dusted with arsenic. Sometimes I’d look where my thumb had been on the edge of my sandwich and there would be a yellow smear.
I was making $ 350 a month in 1953, before I was drafted, with no Red Time. Somehow it wasn’t fair. Red Time wasn’t available to the production workers in my department, Chemical Products, where we made various aluminas out of the calcined ore, activated alumina, a drying agent, and tabular alumina, main ingredient of the porcelain insulation of spark plugs and later the heart of the ceramics of the nose cones of the capsules in which the astronauts left and entered the atmosphere, and sodium fluoride balls, which we sold to the steel companies.
I would catch a 10-minute nap during the afternoons, sprawled on a pallet of crushed tabular alumina due to be shipped to Champion, or AC, in 100,000-pound lots as the ball-forming machine, the size of a cement mixing truck, churned out sodium fluoride balls not 20 feet away. The machine’s operator wore a respirator; I didn’t. The Temple of the Holy Ghost was taking quite a beating, industrially speaking.
On the personal level, being a young man, I smoked cigarettes — everybody did. I had grown up with the idea that More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette, and that with Chesterfields there’s “not a cough in a carload,” and nobody paid any attention to the irony that Philip Morris used a midget named Johnny who dressed like a bellhop to sell us cigarettes.
Over 34 years of smoking I consumed something like 15,000 packs of cigarettes at a minimum, or about 300,000 cigarettes, and this on top of lead, arsenic, sodium fluoride, carbon monoxide, asbestos, coal furnace soot, steam locomotive cinders, unburned hydrocarbons and, um, crinoline scrapings.
To keep this all in place I ingested rather unhealthy quantities of ethanol, some every day for all of my adult life until the age of 47, and from one to two quarts a day of what is known in drinking circles as “hard” liquor for the last 15 or so years of that particular form of contamination.
There seemed to be no end to it.
The United States Army taught me how to be a big boy and take my tear gas like a man (which was to come in handy, a decade later, in the Kent State protests in the nation’s capital), and taught me to fire heavy automatic weapons rapidly and without earplugs, with lead flying from every orifice of the guns, including the receiver, as a rule quite near my nose. I missed the part where my comrades in arms were marched out to see what happened when they were exposed to a nuclear explosion without any protective gear, but I would surely have taken that the same way I open my mouth wide when my dentist covers my lap with a lead quilt.
Throughout this my personal temple endured, developing enormous cravings for swordfish when that was banned because of high levels of mercury, and desperately needing cranberries the year they were declared carcinogens. The jury periodically comes in and goes out on such things as caffeine and cholesterol and good fat and bad fat and implants of every description, and I have been able to watch people like Cher and Michael Jackson and Timothy Leary do things to their temples, and to listen when the astronauts tell me the sadness they feel when they see the corona of dirt around our planet.
I would find it convenient to lie and tell you that I am outraged, or saddened, by all of this, but I really find it kind of thrilling. If my temple was engineered so as to be able to screen, filter, refine, cleanse, metabolize, neutralize, scour, transform and otherwise render impotent the onslaughts of a careless and thoughtless society, what is not possible in my life in the way of healing and rejuvenation?
* Robert Williams is a Washington Post editor.