Inland Steel, 1968, The Summer from Hell

Whenever I see myself as unlucky or depressed and just feeling sorry for myself, I think about the summer of 1968, when I worked at Inland Steel in East Chicago, Indiana. I have to say that the money I earned there was better than anything I could have earned at Macdonald’s, Walgreens, or the Hammond Public Library, but I thoroughly earned every cent for which I labored that summer. My worst day during my thirty-five years as a high school teacher was a joyful party compared to even my best day at the steel mill, which made Dante’s Inferno look like a lovely, paid vacation.

Our usual foreman was named Ernie, a twisted, sadistic brute of a guy, who seemed to enjoy torturing the three of us that summer who were college students, working there for only June. July, and August.

I recall vividly that first day of intense heat, ear-shattering noise, the heavy physical labor, and Ernie’s demonic voice. There were nine of us on the work crew on the “cold strip” that summer, and there were three of us who were college students, who would carry the burden of Ernie’s angst until we cartwheeled out of there in early September.

“First,” said Ernie, “I want the college guys to step forward.” Carl, Tom, and I stepped out of the line as Ernie said with intense sarcasm dripping from his lips, “I have a special job for you three knuckleheads. Step this way.” Then he led us to what he called “the grease pit,” which also contained some kind of hydraulic lift. He continued, “I want you three college clowns to remove the grease from this hole. There are some buckets and shovels down there. One of you can operate the lift control up here and then take turns at that control while the other two work on the oil and grease.” There was on his face at that moment a smile the size of the Florida Pan Handle. “Now get to it!”

Of course, the heat was oppressive, though not as intense as it would have been in the open hearth, where there were more furnaces. At that point, I wouldn’t have known the difference anyway. As it was, there were huge machines rumbling in the background every minute, so that lip-reading became a true asset in the place. The “cold strip” (What a misnomer!) made me appreciate ever after the epic poem “Dante’s Inferno” about a man’s journey through hell. After a couple of hours of heart-stopping heat and foul air, I began picturing Mom and Dad planning my funeral for which I would choose a closed casket, since I thought the grease and oil stains on my face and hands probably couldn’t be removed until I reached the age of at least forty.

This maltreatment continued through most of the rest of my time there until late August, when I needed to get things together for my trip back to the campus in Muncie, Indiana, which would seem, in contrast to the steel mill, an ascension into heaven.

By the way, before Carl, Tom and I returned to our campuses, we went to a bar to celebrate our escaping Inland Steel with our lives and bruised egos. We got deservedly smashed before calling a cab that got us home.  JB

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The value of true friendships is probably inestimable. Lasting friendships anchor us in a world that is changing ever faster each year. Those friendships give us a shared history of experiences from good and bad times, because friends have seen each other at their best and at their worst. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses but are able to extol those strengths over the weaknesses, so that forgiveness always triumphs over any possible grudges. Our hair may whiten with the years, as Microsoft programs come and go, and gas prices continue to rise higher than those we used to pay for fine jewelry, but our good friends are able to keep a sense of continuity and meaning in our lives. Whenever we ask, “Do you remember?” about something or someone from forty or fifty years before, the smile of recollection on the friend’s face as he answers, “Yes, I remember” means we are not alone.

We have something together that no amount of money can buy, because we are connected by reminiscences, even when they become the only ones left to stave off the slow approach of dementia or the oblivion of Alzheimer’s. As the years roll by, the number of friends with whom we share remembrances shrinks, like the old clothes from college that no longer fit us and have been tossed into the attic. Our perspectives shrink too, until there is no one remaining who remembers what we remember. The old friend with whom I took the wrong train and ended up in Cleveland when we were in high school together may be the last to laugh at that private recollection.

As someone who has moved across the country twice during the past six years, I know the enormous significance of dear friends I have left behind, even though we are still in regular contact by phone, computer, and occasional visits. Our dearest friends cannot be replaced by a better climate, a lovelier home, or increased financial opportunities. Friends are the “family” we choose. They are our mainstay, our stability, our safeguard in a world that is spinning faster year by year toward ever more impersonal, electronic communication, and mere “virtual” relationships as disposable as plastic water bottles. If we do nothing else of importance during our golden years, it should be to value and nurture those friendships that are the best ones, often the oldest, along with all the shared laughter and tears that they provide. JB

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August Afternoon

Thelma wore a shawl and rocked

On the two crescent moons of her chair

While the cat sprawled out

Like an old fur piece at the screen door

Henry lay on the back porch swing

Reading a tabloid from the Piggly-Wiggly:

Woman Mistake Gluestick for Deordorant-

Can’t Take Off Dress For Ten Days…

The photo said it all.

Billy stayed upstairs

With a mayonnaise jar of fireflies from Sunday night,

Their uninspired habitat having drained their batteries,

And on the wall next to the open window,

Hung a picture of the family together in the snow one Christmas,

The gray and icy river behind them contradicting

The present, passionate buzz of cicadas outside.

John Bolinger

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Washington’s Punch and Judy Show

I wonder often how and why our nation divides itself into its ideologies of Democrat versus Republican. That division is, to a great extent, symbolic in its views and energized by mountains of presumption along with an almost war-like determination to separate rather than unite us. There seems to be no fine line between our stereotypes of the Red and the Blue. As a rule, most of us seem programmed to resent or even dislike the “other” color. We seem less and less willing or capable of focusing upon what we share or have in common. The adrenalin rush of self-righteous indignation seems just too enjoyable as a national boxing match so that we wear our prejudices like shining armor instead of the puerile, playground nonsense it really is.

This divide is becoming more and more pronounced and much edgier to a point at which the extreme and purely emotional, swaggering nonsense of people like Marjorie Taylor Green blindside us with a level of stupidity that stuns many and provides sick humor with racial slurs that take us back a hundred and fifty years.

The egomania of some in Congress has become more newsworthy in the media than our shared needs as a country. I cannot understand why there seems to be so little modesty and common sense left that the American political arena begins to resemble a playground devoted to childish insults and theatrical rubbish, instead of actual grown-up behavior and sacrifice that get something done for the good of the nation. Washington D.C. has become a childish playground for too many in Congress who haven’t yet seemed to grow up enough to realize that a show of ego as a contest needs to mature enough to make our nation a better place on the world stage.  JB

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Trump’s Festering Presence in America

Though Donald Trump is no longer president of our nation, his face and voice linger menacingly on almost every TV channel and in other media. He seems to have consumed way too much of America’s political oxygen through his outrageously exaggerated and unending tabloid messages of political nonsense and through an ego more ridiculous than those of Emperor Nero, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler, combined.

There are too many in our nation who are drawn into what are Trump’s phony display of “strength” that is really nothing more than a terrifyingly inflated disregard for everyone but himself. Waiting for this man (who depends upon inflating doom and gloom for his gullible base) to show even the tiniest bit of compassion is like leaving the porch light on for Jimmy Hoffa. He confronts the tiniest bit of advice or criticism with a rage that renders his complexion even more orange than it was.

It will be interesting to see how history books portray this megalomaniac, who has managed to sit for way too long atop a mountain of lies that have made him richer only in terms of money. The man hasn’t a shred of integrity, which makes his embracing a Bible or American flag more insincere and disgusting. There is room in his life for nothing more than his monstrous, decaying ego and terrifying disregard for the law and other human beings.  JB

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Some Thoughts on Aging, or “How old is this Fine Wine?”

We all age and mature at different speeds. My having turned seventy-seven this week has been one in a long series of experiences involving both mind and body. Aging happens so gradually that we don’t usually notice the increased effort required to blow out the candles as the years pass, and, after age fifty, our lungs get a bit crankier and whisper, “Hey, what was THAT all about?” in that progressive climb toward our golden years. I do remember that thirty was a milestone, and after blowing out the candles on that birthday, hearing one of my older friends saying, “It’s all uphill from here on, pal.”

America is a country where the terrors, large and small, of aging seem to be in at least a third of television commercials and magazine ads, so that life can become a competition to delay decrepitude for as along as we can, while we view ourselves in mirrors, sometimes dimming the lights a bit to hide any signs of infirmity in those extra wrinkles and sagging cheeks (the ones on our faces and the other ones farther down).

I do resent the widespread presumption that, because we have silver or white hair, we are automatically compromised mentally and physically in the eyes of too many around us. As someone who taught high school classes for thirty-five years, I can say with some confidence that if you want to work with or criticize someone who is physically and intellectually compromised, then help teenagers everywhere. They need all the aid we can provide in eschewing, among other things, those sharp steel facial inserts that can be quite dangerous  during electrical storms.

“Middle age is when you’re faced with two temptations, and you choose the one that will get you home at 9 o’clock.” Ronald Reagan

In any case, aging is relative and can affect people in many different ways. The one advantage I already relish about aging is that, as a rule, “younger” people (those forty to sixty) will generally open doors for me to go in or out, based, I believe, upon my having silver hair. If I have my cane with me, I own any space that doesn’t already have someone in a wheelchair.  JB

“Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.” Marjorie Barstow

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A Journey Back in Time

Florida’s Governor Desantis is a self-righteous bully. A graduate (with honors) of both Harvard and Yale, he is certainly not a stupid man, though wisdom and intellect don’t always come in the same package. He knows his aged and conservative voters, while playing cunningly to the gallery concerning issues of race and sexual identity with unilateral precision, as though his personal time machine can take all of us back to the year 1950. The difference, however, concerns not The Red Scare of that era, but a terror that too many have, regarding race relations that, for the Desantis’s flock, signals what too many fear is the possible ebbing of white power, which our governor seems to see as the end of civilization as HE wants it to remain.

His interference in public education (including college) smacks of Russian oligarchy and unilateral control of what is taught and learned. The imagined threat of any remaining balance of power among Floridians seems to terrify him as though his royal crown of authority might somehow be compromised.

The issue, for me, is that there is little, if any, balance of power between the public and our government officials, namely Ron Desantis, instead of discussion (with others besides the governor’s pre-programmed toy soldiers). That authoritarianism is becoming more terrifyingly popular, not just in Florida, but throughout the nation.  JB

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How’s the Weather Down There?

OK, I need to vent (whine) today about the weather down here in South Florida. My friends and family up north already think (know) that, having lived here now for almost ten years, I’ve become something of an adult version of a spoiled brat when it comes to climate. January here in Fort Lauderdale is generally in the 70’s during the day, dropping at night into the sixties or upper fifties. There is never any sleet or snow here, but after folks become accustomed to this pattern, low to mid-forties can create a panic when our furnaces groan back into use, and fireplaces with their usual fake logs suddenly require real ones with actual flames, and I don’t mean for roasting marshmallows.

I’m looking now out windows to see palm trees with their branches wafting in the wind like enormous plumes. Even they seem shocked by the drop in temperature, as though waving for help.

At this moment, I’m sitting in my favorite wingchair with a wool blanket over my legs (perfect picture for a Christmas card). Situations are always relative to experience or to what we’ve become accustomed, so I suspect that someone from up north reading my little diatribe might compare it to that of a billionaire losing twenty dollars in the stock market. Mea culpa… and BRRRR are my responses.  JB

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Finding a Middle Ground…

Political rivalry can create a polarization so extreme, that one’s head can swim in the vitriol created by both sides. I’d like to step back for a moment from my personal political inclinations to look at the panorama of slings and arrows being used by both Republicans and Democrats.

Fox News and MSNBC are two examples of the extremes people support in trying to put over their candidates for president. There is good and bad in both. It’s easy to become almost hypnotized by one side or the other if you don’t try to get on some kind of middle ground, but it seems that both parties are blaming each other for every hangnail in the nation. It’s a time of scapegoats. I do believe in fact-checking, as long as that research is done in a non-partisan way (if there is such a thing). I hate political equivocation, which in both parties manages to carve away just enough truth to create views so prejudiced that the truth could win a prize for the best costume at any masquerade party, fooling anyone who isn’t extra cautious about where the facts lie. Stretching the truth seems to be very popular this season, complementing outright lies so outrageous that many voters, their brains having become anvils accustomed to being pounded by partisan ads, seem too stunned to know the difference anymore.

I am most suspicious of those whose acidic comments are more personal than political, comments cloaked in silly rhetoric sloping toward utter absurdity. These are the people who come off as being just more of the same self-righteous, pompous windbags we have all heard for way too long on the extreme right and the extreme left. Finding that sane balance somewhere between is harder than it has ever been before. That doesn’t stop my longing to find a middle ground, where reason prevails in terms of cooperation aimed at getting things done for the country itself instead of for a particular party with its power plays, vain images of personal glory, and the same old intellectual and partisan constipation in congress from which the country has been suffering for much too long. JB

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A Political Vacuum

The past five years in American politics have been different from most others of the 20th Century in their absence of courteous formality and restraint, creating a seemingly one-way street with all names displaying the same individual…Donald J. Trump, whose image in the media has shown an egomania that seems to suck in all the oxygen that would normally be shared in rational discussion and debate. The results are tantrums generally reserved for and sometimes expected from infants with diapers that need changing. The constant pontificating and bullying by this crude fraudster have convinced too many weak-minded and unquestioning worshipers that slander and ugly lies can win the day if they are non-stop enough that no one can keep up with them. Civility, grace, truth and mutual respect are reserved for the “suckers” in Trump’s mode of thought.

The result of this man’s lies (latest count: over 35,000 documented untruths over the past five years) is a state of confusion or self-righteous comfort for the many who never question his motives or even his sanity. He’s like a playground bully who believes that rules and laws are only for suckers. Now that he’s being more systematically cornered by truths that appear daily in the media, he has become an even uglier caricature of himself, lashing out with responses from his fountain of lies in order to addle the more naïve and desperate, who still believe he gives a damn about them. They continue to admire the rawness of his rhetoric, which they mistake for truth instead of the sham that covers his fear and revulsion of his ever having to face any unifying message of honesty or sense of community that isn’t under his thumb.

History will have an interesting retrospective about this man and his monumental evasions of truth, compassion, reason, and hope for such a long time that it has brought about an ugly and unnecessary national division, the intensity of which we, as a nation, have not seen since the 1860’s.  JB

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