I made a career decision towards the end of my first year at OMT. I wanted to move beyond manual labor. That meant going to the swing shift and working for Joe.
In the small world of Bay Area heat treating, Joe was a legend. He was known for three things: an encyclopedic knowledge of heat treating, tremendous physical strength, and heroic drinking.
At OMT Joe ran the shop. He was the skilled employee. The day shift and graveyard shift followed his instructions. He had almost 30 years experience and seemed to remember every job he’d ever processed.
When I met him, Joe was in his middle 50s. He was about 6′ 2″ tall and weighed at least 250. He had thick black hair without a trace of grey, a round face, and a ruddy complexion. He had broad shoulders, narrow hips, and a barrel chest. In spite of his size he did not look like a strongman. His long muscled arms lacked definition. He looked as though he’d never lost his baby fat. He had a child’s innocent egoism that was accentuated by his voice, which often broke as though it were still changing. He spoke with no reserve about the minutiae of his life. I learned a lot about his diet. If I were to choose an actor to play him it would be Wallace Beery, who starred in many of the movies Joe saw as a child.
Joe was the archetypal OMT Drinking Man. When I met him he was in a controlled phase. On week nights he limited himself to three thick fingers of whiskey in a water glass. On Friday nights on his way home from work he would pick up a 1.75 L bottle of Old Crow and spend the weekend in the company of the top hatted corvid.
He’d given up driving more than ten years previously. One morning he went out to the car and discovered that he had run into something the night before. He couldn’t remember a thing about it–what, when, or how. He decided he was going to hurt someone and never got behind the wheel again. He depended on Luis, his right hand man at work, to drive him to and from.
Joe never slept. He napped. When he was in the Navy in WWII he had a job for a couple of years where he was four hours on and four hours off. It permanently changed his sleep schedule. This came in very handy for me when I was in charge of the graveyard shift. I could call him at any time.
He loved movies. He grew up in a small city in Eastern PA where his father was an alderman. His family wasn’t wealthy during the Depression but his father had a steady income. There was always a dime for Joe to go to a Saturday matinee and have some popcorn. Movies were the common interest Joe and I had outside of work. I had spent a lot of my childhood watching movies from the thirties on TV, many of which Joe saw in the theater. The same prodigious memory that served him so well in his work was crammed with movie detail. He knew all the character actors from thirties movies. He and I enjoyed talking about them. He remembered the plot of almost everything he’d seen. His taste was somewhere between inclusive and indiscriminate. If it could be projected on a screen and had English dialogue Joe liked it. The thing that saved his taste from being indiscriminate was that he liked some movies more than others.
Joe’s first heat treating experience came after high school. He worked in a heat treat shop in New Jersey for a couple of years before enlisting in the Navy. He re-enlisted after the war and was discharged in Oakland, CA in 1947. One ship he served on was part of the group at an early Bikini Atoll nuclear test. He said that the safety precaution for those on deck was to turn their backs when the device exploded.
Joe married and tried the restaurant business. When that didn’t work out he went to work in a commercial heat treat shop in Oakland. That was where he met Big Dick. When Big Dick and his partner Dale left to start OMT, Joe was their first employee.
I worked for Joe for a year. He taught me the basics of the black art portion of heat treating, the things that can only be learned from experience. He wasn’t a teacher by temperament. He lacked patience and begrudged the time spent teaching when he could be working instead. A lot of the things that he knew he had trouble expressing verbally. He did two things right. He encouraged me to act on my own and expected that I would make mistakes when I did act on my own. He also gave me a great bit of heat treating philosophy. Straightening warped metal is an important part of heat treating. The combination of high heat and rapid cooling in the hardening process for steel often makes parts warp. Joe had a knack for bringing the parts back to their original shape. He told me, “You’ll never learn to straighten till you break something.” Apparently he knew what he was talking about. Everyone in his age group whom I met in Bay Area heat treating talked about his straightening ability.
Joe gave up drinking in 1983. He had had some physical problems and started drinking heavily for pain relief. He had an operation that he never talked about in detail. After that he never touched a drop. He showed no signs of withdrawal even though I’m sure it was very hard for him. His personality didn’t change a bit. He bought a car and began driving to and from work, reliving Luis of his chauffeur duties.
About a year into his sobriety his wife died of cancer. They hadn’t been close for many years but, true to their Catholic upbringing, never considered divorce. It took Joe at least a year to straighten out the problems with her medical insurance.
When I left OMT at the end of 1985 Joe was 62. He could do as much or more physical labor than anyone in the shop. He still had no grey hair. He had the same enthusiasm for his job he had as a young man. A few months later he had a stroke. He was lying on the couch watching TV. The next thing he knew he was lying on the floor not knowing how he got there. It was the first time something like that happened to him without benefit of alcohol. His son took him to the hospital.
In less than six months he was back at work. He had no savings and no life outside of work. He’d lost a lot of control over the left side of his body and walked with a cane. His speech was affected too. He could express himself as well as ever but had difficulty with pronunciation. His voice, always raspy, became more low pitched and didn’t break any more.
I visited him at the shop several times when I was passing through Oakland in the evening. The thing that I remember most that he said to me was “Never have a stroke.” We laughed but I knew he was completely serious too. He wasn’t cut out to be an invalid. Aside from his strength he needed to be in constant motion. When he drank he slowed down to a normal person’s pace. Alcohol was the governor on his personal engine.
After a couple of years away from OMT I lost touch with Joe. When I visited him in the shop I saw his physical decline parallel the decline of OMT. Over a twenty year period industry had abandoned the Bay Area. OMT’s biggest customer, a steel foundry, went out of business. Two other major customers moved to Nevada. OMT had a graveyard atmosphere.
In 1992 I was looking for my first programming job and not having much success. I called Little Dickie and asked about a part time job. He offered me a full time job, which I turned down. He told me that Joe was still working and that Jim, the truck driver had died. That was my last contact with OMT. Dickie died in the late nineties, victim of his prodigious drinking habit. The building was bought and rehabbed as loft housing. It looks clean and neat, nothing like it did as OMT. The corrugated siding is decorative. It’s painted. There are no broken windows.