Some nights, my father got up before two, sneaked out of our apartment and headed west, across the green nursery, along the water pipeline crossing Lake Cătuşa, and got there around three, when he was least expected. Some nights, my mother woke up when he slipped back into bed, but she didn’t ask him questions. She went back to sleep, until five or so, when she had to wake up, make coffee, and iron a clean shirt for her husband.
For those six months, I barely saw my father. It was as if he had moved out. The only trace of him was the pile of dirty clothes on top of our small washing machine. Some evenings, if I stayed up long enough, I would see him in the kitchen, dipping bread into his bowl of hot broth that my mother had made for him.
“Tell me that story,” I asked my father not long ago, during our weekly videoconference.
It was 1986, and my father was 36 years old. In the fall of ’85, the President of Romania, Nicolae Ceauşescu, came to my hometown and met with the managers of Galaţi Steelworks (CSG) to discuss the repairing and revamping of the largest of CSG’s six blast furnaces. The lining on the refractory brick wall had begun to crack. Inside the furnace the temperature reached 1,300° Celsius (2,372° Fahrenheit), and if molten pig iron seeping through the cracks had reached the casing of the furnace, it would’ve perforated it within seconds and spouted out, incinerating everything in its way.
“How long will the repairs take?” Ceauşescu said.
“One year, Comrade Secretary General,” said Dumitru Nicolae, the director overseeing all the blast furnaces.
“Comrade, think again,” Ceauşescu said.
“Six months would be very difficult,” Dumitru Nicolae said.
Ceauşescu got up from his chair at the table.
“Be done in four,” he said and he left.
First Secretary of Galaţi County Committee, Carol Dina, himself an engineer, together with the top engineers at CSG looked at their workload: replacing the steel-plate lining of the furnace, replacing the refractory brick wall, replacing the oxygen tanks, the methane tanks, the air vents, the raw material silos, the chutes. They couldn’t squeeze the schedule into fewer than six months, so they announced March 1986 as the beginning date for the repairs, when in fact work would begin two months prior, in January.
“If they took such a huge risk,” my father said, “how could we not shoulder it?”
Blast furnace #6 was the largest in all of south-eastern Europe, producing 6,500 cubic meters of pig iron during one expulsion, so the other five furnaces were now going to make up for the drop in production due to furnace #6 being shut down. The work schedule was seven days a week, twelve hours a day, two shifts, one starting at 7 a.m., the other at 7 p.m. Since the work was done in secret, there was no overtime pay above the 120 extra hours allowed per person each year.
My father was in charge of the repairs at the twelve raw-material silos (four-story tall structures) and the conveyor belts that fed the iron ore, coke, limestone, and alloying elements into the furnace. His team usually had 120 specialized workers, but now he and his foremen were leading 500 workers transferred from all over Galaţi County. They worked inside a covered unheated structure the size of a football field. In February 1986, when temperatures dropped to -26° Celsius (-15° Fahrenheit) and people had trouble breathing, they tied colored rags over their faces and kept working. My father’s men had red mufflers, which made it easier for him to keep track of them, up on the scaffolds and down between the silos.
“How did you feel during that time?” I said.
“Stressed out,” he said. “But useful,” he added later.
My father had three direct managers, who were so afraid of taking the blame in case something went wrong, that they never showed up at the worksite, leaving everything in my father’s care and only checking in with him by phone. My father’s hands were always smeared with vaseline and his tongue always rough with debris dust. He began spitting, clearing up his throat and expelling the phlegm. When he came home, thinner and gaunter by the day, my mother watched him slurp his hot broth, wolf down his loaf of bread, and crawl into bed. One night, he sat up in bed, eyes shut, cleared up his throat, and spit out on the wall. Then he dropped back on his pillow, fast asleep, and my mother took a rag and wiped the wall clean.
I don’t remember much from those days, except that I was in third grade and in love. There was a cute boy with blue eyes, who lived on the next block, and whose path I crossed each morning as I took my brother to daycare and took myself to school. When I returned from school, in the afternoon, with my apartment key on a string around my neck, I hoped to see that boy again, and many times I was disappointed. At home, I warmed up my lunch and ate it while I dreamed of those blue eyes and listened to fairy tales on vinyl records. Some days, the neighbor next door came knocking at my door to ask me to lower the volume on my turntable because her husband, who worked the nightshift at the steelworks, couldn’t rest. I don’t think he was able to rest anyway, not with all the unsupervised kids in our building huddling on the stairwell when it was cold and rainy, or bouncing the ball and screaming outside on sunny days.
In six months, my father’s team had only one minor accident, when one worker injured his hand. Throughout this time, Carol Dina, the First Secretary, worked directly with my father, mostly by phone and keeping written documents to a minimum.
In June 1986, furnace #6 was ready to be fired up again. Carol Dina organized a big ceremony to celebrate his workers’ outstanding accomplishment at the CSG’s cafeteria. Each of my father’s three managers, who had kept their distance during the repairs, received fat envelopes stuffed with 100 lei bills. When my father’s name was called, and Carol Dina handed him a thin envelope, my father didn’t even open it. He looked the First Secretary in the eye, tore the envelope in half, threw it on the floor, and walked out. On his trail, people whispered that the man was crazy and was surely going to get in trouble for disrespecting the bosses. He didn’t.
“I felt insulted,” my father said.
He went back to work and years passed. I moved on from the blue-eyed crush to a dark-eyed one in my class. The green nursery outside our apartment building was replaced with a cemetery.
“Were you happy at work?” I said.
“I liked being outside,” he said, “rather than wear the same white shirt for a whole week and not get its collar dirty.”
“I don’t know much about your work there,” I said. “Tell me about it.”
And he did. We talked for hours. I took notes. His eyes gleamed. In the process, I moved past my disdain for that polluting behemoth that had been outside my window all my childhood, and began to realize what an amazing machinery it was. My father explained to me the different stages of turning ore into steel plates of varying thickness and elasticity. He also told me about his people at the rolling mills, how he knew every single one of them, how he knew their children’s names and how, when they had a hard time at home, he would listen to them, and help them if he could. He told me how, during those six months in 1986, he would wake up in the middle of the night and go check on his nightshift workers, then come back home to get one more hour of sleep.
While he talked, I finally made sense of an image stuck in my memory from when my father once took me to see the “fire snake” running inside the Hot Rolling Mills. I was in middle school and I remember the ground vibrating as the plate of hot metal advanced on the conveyor belt. I remember the red sparks dancing high up in the air, I remember the jets of water hissing and cooling the metal down as the steel was squeezed between two huge pressing rolls and thinned. I remember the gigantic roll of steel moving up and away. And everything was big. And everything was loud. And my father stood right next to me. And he had built and tamed that monster of fire and smoke. My father.
After the Revolution of 1989, CSG changed names and hands, and, in the process, the management neglected to replace the refractory brick wall on furnace #6. The wall cracked and blasted hot molten steel all around, killing a young woman on a crane and three ground workers. The furnace was shut down for good in 1996 and turned into scrap metal.
My father retired in 2002. That day, he stood at our kitchen window and looked outside, at the sprawling steel plant where he had worked all his life. My mother walked in and noticed his slouched shoulders, listened to his labored breathing, saw his hand wiping at his cheek. She backed away and let him say goodbye.
I don’t know what my father feels when he looks out the window every day, at the dark silhouette in the west. He’s not very forthcoming with his feelings, even when I ask the same question in three different ways. But I know he likes to take pictures of the sunset, and the clouds, and the sky over the six blast furnaces of the former CSG.
Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.