By John Kropf
When my father died, I couldn’t part with a hard hat that had belonged to him. 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 a short brim at the front with a sticker above reading Vulcan Materials Company with the tag line underneath, “Think Safety.” The sticker is in the company’s colors: navy and deep gold, with a logo that looks like two chevrons, 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.
My father served as a US Navy Corpsman at the end of WWII. When he came home, he graduated from Wayne State University on the GI Bill, then went to work as a salesman for the Vulcan Materials 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 traveled 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 goggles. I had to be outfitted with the same. He took on a business-like air of authority talking about the temperatures of the metals, the operation of the furnace, and the equipment needed to protect the men working in such hazardous conditions. He raised his voice to a yell to be heard over the din of the furnaces smelting aluminum at over 1,300 degrees.
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 and steel-toed shoes. Decades later, my memory still tingles when I recall the heat and grit of working in the foundry. The experience has stayed with me, giving me a respect for the hard work of manufacturing.
My father had a theory at the end of his life, at the 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. Manufacturing had given him a job and allowed him to provide for his family and he mourned the country’s loss of such jobs.
In 1986, the company sold off the metals division because it was unable to compete with cheaper metal manufacturers in an ever more globalized world, and my father was forced into early retirement. He put the hard hat into the truck of that gray car of his and held on to it. 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 was 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. Although he was grounded in the manufacturing age, my father 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.
About the Author: John Kropf is a Washington, DC area attorney born and raised in Ohio. He has written a travel-adventure book, Unknown Sands: Journeys Around the World’s Most Isolated Country. He’s currently working on book, Color Capitol of the World, a family history of the American Crayon Company and its hometown of Sandusky, Ohio.