Thursday, February 4, 2021

Hard Hat in the Information Age


Originally posted March 2020; reposting as the link seems to have broken.

I’m in my late 50s and in the last four years have lost both my parents. Sorting through their personal artifacts, there are some I keep for the stories they tell.  

One is a hard hat from Vulcan Materials Company that belonged to my father. It’s white with a ridge down the top center like the spine of a reptile or the midsagittal crest of a great ape. It has short brim at the front with a sticker above reading Vulcan Materials Company with the tag line underneath, "Think Safety" underneath.  The sticker is in the company’s colors navy and deep gold with a logo that looks like two chevron-like shapes, one inverted above the other.  At the end of his life, my father kept the hard hat in the trunk of his car, a gray Ford Crown Victoria. He would have last worn it in a work capacity in the mid-1980s before the company sold off its metals division where he worked for as the Business Director. This included logistics and on-site supply chain reviews, entering plants and foundries across the country and the hard hat is what he would have worn.

The hat became of a symbol of post WWII America. He served as a US Navy Corpsman at the end of WWII and when he graduated Wayne State University on the GI Bill, he went to work as a salesman for the company’s predecessor, Aluminum-Magnesium, in my hometown of Sandusky, Ohio. The company smelted aluminum and other light metals selling them to manufacturing companies across the Midwest to be forged into aircraft parts, engine blocks, lawn mowers, and light industrial products. As a salesman, he traveling to mid-sized cities with flinty sounding names like Benton Harbor, Gary, Ft. Wayne, Union City, Milwaukee, Jackson, Toledo, and Muncie.

My freshman year in high school, my father gave me a tour of the Sandusky foundry wearing the hat and hard-plastic safety googles. I had to be outfitted with the same. He seemed to take on more business-like air of authority talking about the temperatures of the metals, operation of the furnace, and equipment needed to protect the men working in such hazardous conditions. He raised his voice to a dull yell to be heard over the din of the furnaces smelting aluminum to over 1,300 degrees. My father introduced me to one of the foreman, Mr. Cooper, an African-American man massively built like a defensive end. Mr. Cooper was overseeing a pour of molten ingot molds.

The summer after my freshman year in college, my father arranged a summer job for me doing unskilled tasks in the plant. I wore my own hard hat, steel-toed shoes. Decades later, my memory still tingles when I recall the heat and grit working in the foundry. The experience has stayed with me giving me a respect for the hard work of the manufacturing things.  

My father had a theory at the end of his life, at beginning of what we call “the Information Age." He believed American companies that manufacture tangible things should be given tax breaks.  He felt the country had lost its ability to manufacture material goods like cars or machinery. It’s understandable that he saw the greatness in the manufacture of tangible things he could see every day. Manufacturing had given him a job and provided for a family.  

In 1986, the company sold off the metals division because it was no longer profitable, competing with cheaper metal in an ever globalized world, and he was forced into early retirement.  My father held onto his hard hat keeping it in the truck of his Crown Victoria. He would have been nearly the same age I am as I write this—his late 50s. That’s a challenging time to get hired again — you’re too old and too expensive.  He moved into seasonal work as a tax preparer, working for the next 25 years for H&R Block. He enjoyed the tax work and never looked back.

In the 1990s the Sandusky plant was sold off, demolished and the land reclaimed to become a city park.

Today, I work as a lawyer as part of the Information Age economy looking at laws and regulations that affect data.  Despite the fact he was grounded in the manufacturing age, he had a strong grasp of what I did and was proud of it.  Still, I have this hard hat.  He told me to keep it. The hat sits in my workshop should I ever need it to make something tangible.