另一種才幹

Connie Schultz◎撰 from Parade

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Illustration by Joe McKendry

父親一直不希望孩子知道他做什麼營生。

爸在克利夫蘭電力照明公司C廠的維修部門工作。工廠矗立在伊利湖畔,每天日出時分把他吸進去,黃昏時分再把他給吐出來。我們住在俄亥俄州的阿士塔布拉鎮,有時候母親會帶我和弟妹們到湖濱的公共沙灘,她會把我們聚攏一道,然後指着遠方岸邊朝天際咳出雲煙的煙囪,高喊:「大家跟爸爸揮手!」

四隻小手就會用力伸向空中。

以前,我從不知道父親在工廠裏做些什麼,但我看到三十四載粗重體力勞動讓他付出的代價。他的肩膀、手、脊椎都動過刀;四十八歲那年他第一次心臟病發作,接受了動脈繞道手術;一九九三年當最後一個孩子大學畢業後,他也隨即退休。但身體受損已是事實。幾年之後,另一位外科醫生在他動脈裏裝了支架。他後來因二度心臟病發作過世,享壽六十九。

我只看過父親在工廠裏一次,那晚他要加班,我送晚餐過去。他下班之後通常都會在廠裏先沖個澡才回家,因此,我很習慣看他長褲褶痕筆直、渾身散發髮蠟和沐浴用品的味道走進家門。但是那天晚上,我在工廠外盯着渾身汗水和煤灰的父親,這才第一次被迫思索他為什麼無緣無故常發脾氣。

工廠在二○○一年關閉。近來當地港務當局已着手改建推動綠能計畫。我知道過去父親絕不希望我去工廠參觀,但也知道他會了解我為什麼非去不可。

先前擔任工頭的托比.渥克曼帶我巡視這座散發霉味的迷宮。他口頭解說,我則抄寫筆記。每到一個工作站,他都會解說工作內容以及伴隨的危險性。傾卸車、磨粉機、飛灰與碎煤機⋯⋯這些名詞聽在我耳裏無比陌生。

渥克曼解釋:「我們的工作是持續面對一種受到控制的炸藥,也就是絞碎的煤。我們有如隱形人,身處黑暗洞穴,大多數人根本不知道我們的存在。」

過沒多久,不待我開口,渥克曼就知道我要問什麼。他把一支重五公斤半的扳手遞給我,說:「沒錯,你爸就是用這個……沒錯,他就是到這窗口拿工具……沒錯,你爸就站在這兒,流汗流到衣服溼透。」

C廠大部分的區域都沒有窗戶,有些地方甚至低於海平面。我走過一幅又一幅的「危險」告示,撫摸比我的手掌還大、鏽跡斑斑的螺栓;聽到渥克曼形容廠內的溫度有時高達華氏一百四十度(攝氏六十度),不禁畏縮得直蹙眉。我想像父親日復一日、年復一年在這兒工作,在這個比我看過的任何監獄都更惡劣的環境裏。

「我一點都不知道,」我一遍又一遍複誦着。

渥克曼攬住我的肩,說:「你得明白一件事。你爸是維修技師。他對這工廠的每個角落都瞭若指掌。哪裏壞了,他都能修好。」

我望着地上,努力忍住淚水。

渥克曼溫柔地說下去:「他得非常聰明。他做的是最危險的工作,許多和他做一樣工作的人都沒辦法撐下去。」

幾天後,女兒大學畢業。我把離開時渥克曼送我的安全帽轉贈給她,並附上一張字條:「每當你覺得有點不安,害怕邁出下一步,就戴上它,看着鏡子,想想你打哪兒來。」

我女兒是維修技師的外孫女。只要她記住了這一點,就沒有什麼做不到的。


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.

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