For two years after college, I worked as the secretary to the production manager in a cast iron pipe plant in Tarrant City, a suburb of Birmingham. I took shorthand, wrote Mr. Hooper’s letters, typed up instructions for the foundry and orders for the shipping. I worked the teletype and emptied Mr. Hooper’s spittoon.
It was unlike anything I had ever done before or did afterward. I loved everything about those two years. We were young marrieds, and soon with a baby son, and in addition to working at the plant, I was beginning to pastor a small church 25 miles north of the city. Everything was new and fresh, scary and untried, and the adrenalin was always pumping.
In college, I had majored in history planning to be a teacher, so to say my theological education was lacking is the understatement of the year. I had no idea how to prepare a sermon or to deliver it once I came up with one. So every week I re-invented the wheel. The sermons were pitiful, but they were sincere efforts from this eager, naïve, kid preacher. Give Unity Baptist Church of Kimberly, Alabama credit; they were patient. For the entire 14 months I remained with them. Smiley-face here.
They paid me 10 dollars a week. My tithe was twelve. In one sense, I was paying them for the privilege of pastoring. It was money well spent. Another smiley-face.
I look back on those two years in the cast iron plant with a sweet nostalgia, thinking how precious a gift they were to me. The friendships formed with people I would never have met otherwise, the stories they furnished me for sermons and life-lessons for years to come, all of it was encouraging. There is not a single bad memory of those 24 months.
So, recently when Bertha and I were through Birmingham, we detoured into Tarrant City. I knew the cast iron pipe company was long out of business, but wondered if anything recognizable remained from the plant site. A lasting memory of those days was my morning walk through an empty steel building just inside the gate. On an interior wall a huge “V” reached to the ceiling, left from World War II when women worked there turning out shell casings.
The small city of Tarrant has deteriorated in some ways, it seems, but the commercial district was healthy. Central Baptist Church, where I served on staff for the final six months of my two year sojourn in that city (part-time, of course, the pay being free housing in the church’s old parsonage on Wharton Avenue), was still there, but changed, with a new name and different identity.
Everything about the plant itself had been erased. New businesses occupied the entire area. They seemed to be thriving. But not a single bit of evidence remained to say that on this site cast iron pipe was manufactured for water and sewage treatment plants across the world, nothing.
And then I spotted it.
The Tarrant City Hall looked familiar. Two story, red brick. It’s about the right size and location. Yes, I think so.
This was formerly our sales and office building. The cast iron pipe company, James B. Clow and Sons, based in Chicago, with plants in Coshocton, Ohio and Oskaloosa, Iowa, had a vice-president here, and a full sales team upstairs. The building stood just outside the gate which enclosed the foundry and shipping departments.
The distinguished building still looked the same.
I went inside and asked a clerk. She confirmed that yes indeed, this used to be the office for Clow. The mayor would know more about all that, she said, but was not in at the moment. Another city employee whose history went back to the 1960s when the pipe plant was flourishing would know. But he was retired now and not available.
We left. But something inside me was satisfied. Something of that time in my past was still there.
That building held some memories for me.
I remember the day I sat in the office of Warren Whitney, the distinguished vice-president. He’d found out I would be heading to seminary in New Orleans soon. “Will you be needing a job when you get there?” I assured him I would. “Dick Freeman is a friend of mine. He owns the Coca-Cola Bottling Company. And he’s the chairman of Delta Airlines.” (Can you say big-shot?)
Mr. Whitney wrote a glowing letter–without my asking–to Mr. Freeman to recommend me for employment. When I got to New Orleans, I called on him at the bottling plant. His secretary sent me to see Adolph Mumme, the office manager. He was so gracious. “Mr. Freeman wants you to have a job here, then you’ve got a job! Come by any time you get out of school and we’ll always have a place for you.”
The pay wasn’t anything to brag about, but the opportunity was wonderful, the people–all of them Catholic, every last one–were cordial, and I loved everything about it. (And speaking of old buildings, that one on Jefferson Davis Parkway still stands in New Orleans, but empty and forlorn. A thriving bottling plant was built a few miles west in Harahan.)
Back to the city hall in Tarrant.
One other time I had walked into Mr. Whitney’s office.
Some of the younger men in the company belonged to something called the Industrial Management Club. Mostly, it meant a free steak dinner one Thursday night a month, and an inspirational talk. But once, they informed us that we would be given six boxes of candy to sell, to raise money for some project or other. Now, since I knew that tomorrow morning, there would be six of us running around the plant trying to sell our candy, I got to the office a half-hour early the next morning. I walked into the big office building and, starting with Mr. Whitney, sold all my candy before the others got to work. When my friends tried to peddle their boxes of candy, they would hear, “I bought from McKeever.” I smile at the memory. It was all in fun.
There was no rivalry or animosity. It was a completely harmonious place to work. In fact, I wish the churches I later served could say as much.
Memory, they say, is what gives us roses in winter.
God is good, isn’t He?