Mining, Men. – December 2011

By Deer Roberts

Ray Miners Gallup JourneyHis eyes still mist up some twenty plus years later at the recall.   All the workers at the mill had a different color hat so you could tell a mill mechanic from an electrician. He had just been hired in as a “white hat.”  White hats were administration and the ‘Bosses,’ which, in many cases, were to be feared.  It was 1989.  ASARCO had just taken over the Kennecott mining operations in Ray, Arizona.   Morale was transitionally low.  The unknown abounded.  The fellas on the maintenance team had already been notified that they weren’t to play their traditional game of horseshoes on their half-hour lunch . . . which was supposed to be their own time.  No one knew what the new game was.

The first day he walked in, John Mitchell, a boiler-maker welder, spit in front of his shoes quipping, “Ah, fresh meat.”  He knew he had to take them all under his wing, yet make his stand.  It was going to be dicey.  “The whistle’s blown.  Get to work.”  Mitchell dove for his work.  It was the end of August.

Thanksgiving came and Joe Smith, another boiler-maker, and a quiet soft-spoken man, showed up in his office.  When Joe spoke, he was the type of guy to whom you listened.  “Ah . . . well . . . we’re used to having a potluck, come Thanksgiving.  We’re, ah, afraid of trying it this year, but we’d sure like to.”  He was worried. The new company was watching everyone. The crew was terrified to do anything in fear of being fired.  All they wanted was to cook some steaks, have pintos and tortillas and make it a good group gathering for that half hour lunch.  “Let me think about it,” was all the new white hat responded.

After a bit of thought, the new boss told Joe and another worker he had a job for them up at “D” pond.  He drove them up.   “Gather as much mesquite as you can in the back of the truck.”  They were going to have a Thanksgiving lunch.

One man was assigned to cook the steaks before lunch.  When the lunch whistle blew they all sat down within the traditional holiday of gratefulness. The steaks were an inch thick, the beans so good when eaten with the tortillas. Satisfaction abounded.  The new boss, welcomed.

The incident stayed with the maintenance boss.  After some thought, he decided a ‘safety meeting’ was in order.  Groaning, the guys trekked into the meeting.  The new boss turned off his radio and took the phone off the hook.  Out of a box he took a cake he had baked and placed it in front of one of the workers, Tommy Bryce.  “Happy Birthday, Tommy,” he announced.  “It’s your job to cut the cake.”  Tommy was handed the knife to slice and distribute the cake.  Tommy choked, eyes stinging. “No one has ever done this for me.”  “Well, then.  Don’t you think it’s about time they did,” was the gruff rejoinder.  Twenty minutes later the head bosses were wondering why they couldn’t get the new boss on the radio, but the guys were feeling well covered.  Safety meetings became a tradition, come department birthdays.

Since it was the holiday season the new boss decided to do something to give those guys the recognition they deserved.  Taking a photo he had made of the team, he placed an ad in the local papers wishing the general community a Happy New Year from the employees of the ASARCO boiler, garage and machine shops of the Ray Unit Concentrator.  Then he forgot about it.

It was a bit of time before he got the call.  The General Manager of the 1600-employee mine wanted him up at the office, IMMEDIATELY.  Oh, God!  What did I do? When he walked in, there was the BIG BOSS with the newspaper laid out in front of him.  He remembered the ad.  This is it, he thought, I’m going to be fired.  “You do this?” asked the General Manager.  “Yes, sir, I did.”  “Why?” “Well, these are the best skilled craftsmen I’ve ever worked with.  I wanted to recognize them.”  The General Manager sat there a minute.  SILENCE . . . Then, “Okay.  You can go.”

Stunned, he walked back to his own office.  He hadn’t really considered that placing the ad could compromise his own job, but it had.  This was going to take some getting used to.  On his desk sat an unfamiliar envelope.  When he opened it, a cascade of ones and fives filtered out.  No message.  He asked the men, “What’s all this about?”  “YOU know,” was the only response.  Apparently, someone had called up the newspaper to find who had placed the ad.  The crew was reimbursing, equalizing the investment . . . and not in money.  It was the new white hat’s turn to feel his eyes stinging.

Today, if you speak to anyone still alive from that crew (half are now gone), now retired, they’ll tell you when that white hat was boss it was the best time they remember in their whole careers.  Recently, on a trip back to Ray, seeing that boss’s old truck and hardhat brought folks in looking for him, decades later.

It was the best of times for their boss, as well.  Tough times can define a man.  These were men who had identified him as such, and he them.  No greater acknowledgement between men could have been.  Respect; bonded.  They were all the best.  In their hearts, they remember.  Being of one heart, in hard times, is a timeless bond.

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