Illustration by Joe McKendry
A Different Kind of Genius
My father never wanted his children to know what he did for a living.
Dad worked in maintenance for the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, in Plant C. Perched on the shore of Lake Erie, it sucked him in at sunrise and spat him out at dusk. Sometimes my mother would take my siblings and me to the public beach in our hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio. She’d gather us round and point to the smokestacks farther down the shoreline, coughing clouds into the sky.
“Wave to Daddy!” she’d yell.
Four little hands would shoot into the air.
I never knew what Dad did at the plant, but I saw the toll that 34 years of hard physical labor took on him. He had surgery on his shoulder, his hand, his spine. At 48, he had his first heart attack and bypass. He retired in 1993, right after his last kid graduated from college. But the damage was done. A few years later, another surgeon shoved stents into his arteries. The next heart attack killed him. He was 69.
I saw my dad at the plant only once, when I took dinner to him on an overtime shift. He always showered at work after his shift, so I was used to razor pleats in his pants and the smell of Brylcreem and Old Spice when he walked through the door. That night, outside the plant, I stared at my father, covered in sweat and coal ash, and for the first time had to consider why he was so often angry for no apparent reason.
The plant closed in 2001. Recently, the local port authority has begun to renovate it for a green energy project. I knew my father had never wanted me to see it. I also knew he would have understood why I had to.
A former supervisor, Toby Workman, walked me through its musty mazes. He talked; I took notes. At every station, he described the job—and the danger. It was like listening to a foreign language: skip cars, pulverizers, fly ash, coal crackers.
“We were working with a continuous controlled explosive: pulverized coal,” he said. “We’re the men the public doesn’t see. We’re in the hole in the dark, and most people don’t know we exist.”
Soon Toby started responding before I could ask: “Yes,” he said, handing me a 12-pound wrench, “your dad used this … Yes, he came to this window to check out tools … Yes, your dad stood right here and sweated until his clothes dripped.”
Most of Plant C was windowless; some of it was below sea level. I walked past countless Danger signs, touched rusty bolts larger than my hands, and winced as Toby described times when the thermometer inside could hit 140 degrees. I imagined my father working day after day, year after year, in a place that looked worse than any prison I’ve visited.
“I had no idea,” I said over and over.
Toby put his hand on my shoulder. “Look,” he said, “you need to understand something. Your dad was a maintenance mechanic. He knew every square nook of this plant. If it was broke, he fixed it.”
I looked at the ground, blinked hard.
“He had to be very smart,” Toby said in a softer voice. “He worked the most dangerous jobs. A lot of guys didn’t last doing what he did.”
A few days later, my daughter graduated from college. I gave her the hard hat Toby had handed to me as I’d left and this note: “Whenever you feel a little shaky, afraid of the next step, put this on, look in the mirror, and remember your roots.”
My daughter is the grandchild of a maintenance mechanic. If she remembers that, she can do anything.