At 5am I started the engine, took a deep breath, and drove to my new life.
Without the usual rush on I-95, I set the cruise control and thought back on long gone days when I made my way to my old job in Pennsylvania.
Back then, I fought wave after wave of anxiety at the thought of having to survive another day at work. It wasn't easy to run an old crane, but there was an element of fun and self-pride in moving heavy loads with skill. Carrying the possibility of something going wrong when you least expect it was not.
Not in the least.
Neither was the thought of breathing billowing clouds of dust and smoke or enduring headaches from the ungodly roar of the electric furnace and the flashes of light that rendered me unable to face a sunny day without the protection of sunglasses.
Most disturbing of all was the gripping worry of being forced to stay for another eight hours. Throughout the last five years of my employment at the mill, eight hour days were a rare event. I missed entire weeks on account of living at the mill. It was no easy life although it did provide me a healthy bank account.
Perhaps I took such a job for granted. Perhaps I should've kissed my lucky stars for having a job with great benefits. I did make a pretty good living although holidays at home with my family were so few and far between.
Perhaps the money was worth the migraines, the apnea resulting from sleep deprivation or the weight gain from doing little more than sitting in place, and grabbing a bite of greasy convenience. Maybe it was worth the constant pollution accumulating in my lungs, which surely had little to do with two of my coworkers losing their lives to lung maladies.
I made a pretty good living despite the fact that a summer vacation was simply not in the cards for years to come.
I went on working swing shifts, enduring the constant stress, the pettiness of so called managers, and the lacking culture of a steel town worker angst bred and influenced by the ever-present struggle between union and company.
I made a pretty good living among people who laughed at making more money than college graduates, among people who had all the answers, who openly expressed their relief at seeing me forced into a double turn for the sixth consecutive day while they bragged about the beers they'd drink while I worked.
I made a pretty good living, but it was no life at all.
I recall coming home after an afternoon/midnight shift, lamenting the fact I had less than six hours before going back to do it again. My little girl was five at the time. Like most kids, she was up and ready to go at 6:30am on a Saturday morning after fighting tooth and nail for an extra minute of sleep during the school week. Upon seeing me crumple on the couch, she gave me a sad smile and said, "You came to visit."
I held her tight and hid the sting of her words, burning my eyes, as best as I could. Her innocent, yet truthful statement was a key that unlocked the vault of my conformity.
Damned if I was going to settle for this kind of life, I thought that day. I was no longer comfortable with the idea of letting my wife, my best friend become more of a stranger to me. I was not going to continue letting friendships fall away because It was useless to plan a simple get together to catch up. I was not going to miss my girls' games, recitals, graduations or weekends together. I was not going to waste away in a job where taking on the responsibility of keeping workers and equipment safe despite working on few hours of rest was never recognized. I was not about to grow old and bitter in the knowledge that it was the best I could do.
In my mind, the solution was simple. In practice, it was anything but.
No one remotely associated with the steel mill life understood my choice to leave. I'm certain many even felt vindicated in their assessment of my foolishness when learning about the struggles I faced after leaving the mill. I lost my house. I lost the majority of my possessions. I even lost the will to live at one point.
I left Pennsylvania, cloaked in shame and burdened by a sense of failure, but as it turned out, I could go home again.
The move came with a whole new set of challenges. The difference was that I was given an unbelievable amount of help. Still, I mourned my losses, my days of plenty, and barely moved under the weight of the guilt I carried for uprooting my girls from the world and life they were growing into.
I nearly lost my wife while coming to terms with our new reality that wasn't always stark, but bleak days outnumbered bright ones.
I learned much, namely a whole new appreciation for pennies earned and kept. I might not have had much, but I had the time.
I had the time to repair my marriage, mend our family ties. I had time to become the husband and father I set out to be. I had the time to enjoy the closeness of my family for more than just a few stolen days a year. More than anything, I had the time, and the courage to take a step back to school.
From my first day at Porter and Chester Institute, something fell into place; some long-ignored piece that revealed itself when I needed it most. Each day I learned how to use another auto cad tool, I felt another drop of hope fall into my once empty spirit. Each high mark I earned, each encouraging word from my professor made me walk a little straighter. I found something in myself I didn't even know I had, even though it was in my blood all along.
In the name of that hope, I set a picture frame on my desk, a picture of the source of my strength and motivation: my smiling girls.
One day, I thought. One day...
That day came faster than anyone thought although for me, it took no less than a lifetime. I was hired as a computer aided drafting technician at Electric Boat. There's simply no adequate words to describe the overwhelming pride at being a small part of the group that builds the most technologically advanced submarines in the world.
The handsome architecture of the towers before me will bring a smile to my face for years to come.
The brisk air carries with it the promise of autumn laced the scent of the ocean as I present my credentials at the gate. I glance at the flags gently swaying in the breeze. One says home, one says hope, and the third one says "you are somebody."
I don't rush through the fourth floor connector. How could I when to the north, the sleepy New London skyline is framed by the I-95 bridge spanning the Thames River. The steel structure brings to mind Dad's days as a draftsman before the age of computers along with a sense of life coming full circle. Yes, it was in my blood all along. I just had to realize it.
To the south, the deep blue waters of the Long Island Sound are dotted with bobbing boats and dappled by the rising sun. It's impossible to walk past such beauty without stopping to take a longer look.
It's not the fact I'm not wearing steel toe boots, safety glasses or sooty clothes. It's not the fact that I don't have to bow to some racist store owner for fear of unemployment. It's not the fact I don't have to wear a respirator or hearing protection as I start my workday. It's not the pristine work station with the dual monitors and the comfortable chair. It's not even knowing that I can spend every weekend at home or that I will always spend my afternoons with my kids. It's not the fact I get to sleep in my bed every night after kissing my wife good night.
It's a picture frame I set on the corner of my desk. I can return the smile now. It's the sudden realization that every bad experience I endured has finally been explained or justified.
I can live now.
I can breathe now.
I can hope once more.
I make a pretty good living.
I got a redo on my life.