I remember my father's body and I remember my father's stories. When I was young, my father, Jacob Waters, would come home each evening from the New York Shipbuilding Corp., in Camden, N.J., where he was a welder. He would peel off his work shirt and, occasionally, when he was changing for dinner, would remove his insulated undershirt as well. Then I would see the burns. At the time, the burns made no sense to me; half a dozen might run down his chest in what was nearly a straight line; three or four might be clustered in a circle on his stomach. Later, I understood: Hot slag from the welding iron burnt through his clothing and trickled down his chest, or, if it struck lower, bounced around in one confined area as he tried to free himself from the pain.
And my father told me stories. He told me about welding inside the gun turrets on battleships and cruisers during World War II. It was summer, and the temperature outside was in the 90s, but the turrets were electrically heated to more than 200 degrees F. to keep the metal at the proper temperature. Inside, his welding iron blazing, my father slaved in hell. He talked about working inside of tiny heated compartments in the bowels of atomic submarines where the metal was so hot he had to cover the four-foot by four-foot floor with layers of asbestos and lumber before he could sit, his legs folded up beneath him, to weld. When his knees began to hurt so badly that he could hardly walk, a doctor explained that he intense heat was burning off the fluid in his kneecaps.
Some of the spaces were so small that he couldn't wear a visor; dark glasses protected his eyes, but his face grew fiery with arc burn. Sometimes slag found its way around a lens, and a bit of molten metal would fall onto the surface of his eye and adhere to it until it was plucked off by the company doctor. Once, while he was welding on a yardarm, slag dropped into the top of his boot -- his hands filled with equipment, his legs grasping the yardarm, my father was unable to do anything about it. The slag burnt a half-inch hole in the top of his foot.
But the worst job, my father said, was one requiring him to hang by his feet through a small hole in a metal plate and weld while hanging upside down, the red-hot iron inches from his face.
At New York Ship, my father had been burned and blinded and poisoned by what he did for a living. There were other jobs with other companies that yielded similar stories. The one that terrified me most had to do with an automobile-chassis line. When my father went to work for the Budd Co., in Philadelphia, he found that the welders who had been there for more than a short while screamed. The pace was so inhuman that, in order to relieve the incredible tension, they screamed for several hours each evening; the night-shift foreman told my father not to let it bother him. It was one of the few jobs my father ever quit.
Now robots work on many automobile manufacturing and assembly lines, and recently they've been designed to weld in the bottoms of ships. As the robots have moved into factories and shipyards, labor leaders, workers, sociologists, and others have become increasingly concerned about their impact on people: How many workers will be displaced? How many will lose jobs? What human skills will eventually be lost to posterity? The questions are all legitimate and need to be addressed. Those who favor the use of robots frequently suggest that they should be added within attrition levels, and that displaced workers should be retrained for better jobs. They also point out that there are many jobs that people should simply not be performing.
My father would understand what they mean.