The man of Steele

David Epps's picture

I had been on my first summer job after high school graduation for about seven weeks when my dad announced a change. He had arranged, against my will and without my permission, for me to work at a general construction company inside the giant Tennessee Eastman Chemical Products Corporation. I was paid $1.65 an hour to work myself to the point of exhaustion each day.

“Next week,” he said, “you will start as an electrician’s helper for King Electric Company.” I would still be working inside the Eastman plant and I would make $1.85 an hour. A small improvement, I reasoned.

The next Monday I reported for duty and presented myself to the King foreman. He had me fill out some paperwork and then wait for the electrician to whom I was assigned.

As I waited, I thought that this job had to be better than the last. My father was an electrician for Bays Mountain Construction, most of whose employees also worked inside Eastman. Dad had even given me an electrician’s tool pouch with some tools in it. At least I was moving up in the world!

Shortly, a man came and stood in front of me. He had short cropped hair, on which sat a red electrician’s hard hat turned around backwards. He was powerfully built with broad shoulders and strong arms. He was, I guessed, in his late 20s to early 30s, around 6 feet tall, and wore a sleeveless “Larry the Cable Guy” type-shirt. In his jaw was about a quarter pound of chewing tobacco. His name was Bob Steele.

“You Bill Epps’ boy?” he asked.

I stood up quickly and answered, “Yes, sir!”

He glared at me for a long moment and said, “I never could stand that man.” He spat tobacco into a trash can and turned on his heel and walked out the door. Frozen in place momentarily, I gathered my wits and headed after him.

For the first week or so, I was Bob Steele’s “mule,” carrying heavy pipe and bales of wire and cable. Slowly, he began to explain what the tools in my tool belt were designed to do. Although he was always a tough taskmaster, he was a fair man and began to teach me how to thread pipe, pull wire, bend conduit, and do other tasks expected of an electrician’s helper. Eventually, he left me to do minor jobs on my own.

He also helped me understand my dad. My dad was an electrician in this same chemical plant that employed 15,000 people and, for the first time, I began to understand what he did every day. I had friends whose dads were residential electricians but Dad and Steele were industrial electricians whose work took place in a massive company.

Sometimes they worked close to the ground and at other times they were perched high in the air. There were times when the work took them into a building that hit high temperatures of 125 degrees Fahrenheit during the scorching summers and there were times when they worked outside in the sub-freezing conditions of a Tennessee mountain winter.

I learned about taking pride in a job well done and I began to see my father and Bob Steele as “industrial artists,” creating something where nothing had existed before. Every morning I took increasing pride on strapping on my tool belt and putting on the red hard hat that marked me as a member of the electrical profession.

I finished out my summer, turned in my hard hat, and went to college. It was much later that I learned that Bob Steele and my dad were actually good friends.

Dad had placed me in the hands of a man he considered to be one of the best, and Steele, for his part, was determined that he would do a good job for Dad and teach me a few things.

At the end, I was proud to have been an electrician’s helper, proud of what my dad had chosen to do with his life, and proud that, for a few months during the summer of 1969, I had been a “man of Steele.”

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese (www.midsouthdiocese.org). He may be contacted at frepps@ctkcec.org.]