A steel mill was the hub of my hometown. Kaiser Steel flourished during WWII before eventually going bankrupt in the late-eighties. The mill attracted a breed of hard-working, hard-drinking, earthy folks. This grit was embodied perfectly by the Fontana high school football team. Always competitive (and nasty) the Steelers won several state titles before finally becoming national champs in 1987. By the time I graduated high school, Kaiser Steel was in decline. Not enough that they weren’t hiring fresh meat for the blast furnace and the coke ovens. I was one of the lucky ones (if you would call great test scores lucky) who went to one of the best mills on site. The Tin Mill.
I was part of a group of a dozen new hires to work as laborers. It was filthy work, grueling, and at times not without risks. I worked around cranes, hydraulic lifts, and massive machinery. We worked rotating shifts – one week daylight shift, the next week swing, the next graveyard. And then the cycle was repeated. The money was great, but the tax on the body was extremely costly.
I worked at Kaiser from 1976 to 1981, punctuated by a period of layoff toward the end as the mill began its closure. Those five years were perhaps the most significant block of years in my life. Not only did I get married in 1980 and become a father in ’81, I became a Christian.
If only Acker had stuck around for it.
Acker – that was all I knew him by – was a gangly redhead who was part of the newly hired labor pool. He was a rather spastic guy who wore thick, black-framed glasses and loved country music. In fact, he played bass guitar in a Country band… a Country Christian band. Acker and I would sit in the lunch area and often talk. His Christianity was my main interest. It was ’76, the Bicentennial year, the year I’d graduated high school. And I was very much not a believer. I knew enough about religion at the time to put up a decent debate with Christians. Especially the half-hearted or uneducated kind. And, thus, my relationship with Acker was born.
His goat-roper brand of backwater Christianity had more holes in it than a sieve. Nevertheless, he clung to his guns and religion. He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t cuss, and carried it like a badge of honor. But I pounded the guy. Don’t get me wrong, we were friends. I just made it clear that his religion was buffoonery. And poor Acker had no substantive retort. But it didn’t matter to him. He’d push his glasses up his nose, smile his goofy smile, and go loping off. Eventually, he went to work in another department and I stopped seeing him.
I never really regretted the way I’d treated him. Until later.
Despite Acker’s impotent witness, four years later I became a Christian. It was a fairly dramatic conversion that put me on a steady growth arc. Guys at the mill saw a change. I started carrying around a Bible and sharing my faith whenever I had a chance. My then-girlfriend, Lisa, got saved, we were married, and started working on beginning a family in earnest. We became regular church-goers, drug-free, and completely flipped our lives around.
And then one day, Acker showed up.
Smoking a cigarette.
We were sitting at a picnic table in the break room with a couple other guys. But Acker had changed. He looked haggard. He used profanity. We didn’t talk much that day, but enough to know he was no longer a Christian.
And that I had helped him get there.
I never saw Acker again, but I’ve thought of him many times in the last 30-plus years. Perhaps it was necessary that we’d had such hard conversations, that I’d grilled him about his faith. Perhaps he was never really a Christian to begin with. His defection wasn’t my fault… it was his. Besides, I wasn’t even a Christian then.
Nevertheless, I can’t help feel bad about Acker.
And wish we could have one more chat.