Flatwoods, Kentucky

Dinner Bucket

By Sarah Diamond Burroway

Dinner bucket. Lunch pail. Grub box. It doesn’t matter what you call it. It was a worn, rugged part of the uniform for every man punching a time clock. Shiny and silver when new, now rough and grayed. A black handle curved to fit the hand as well as any work glove. Once, it sat by the kitchen door, a testament to hard work and purpose. Now, the dinner bucket sits idle, shoved to the back of a rarely opened cupboard.

When I pull it from the dark corner of the shelf, I remember how Daddy carried his dinner bucket to the west end gate at the Ashland Works of the American Rolling Mill Company every day. For 31 years at ARMCO, gripped firmly in his leathered fist, it was as much a part of his steelworker’s mantle as his work boots.

I loved that dinner bucket. It was, to a 7-year-old girl, part of Daddy. And so, it was important to me that it was my job to help Mommy fill it every night, right before time to climb the stairs to bed.

Miracle Whip, never mustard, spread ever-so-carefully, all the way to the crust’s edge. Yellow cheese from a big block, cut thin with a curious wire stretched at the end of a wooden handle.

“Don’t run your finger on that or you’ll slice it off!”

Cold, homemade meat loaf, crusted red with thick ketchup, sliced perfectly so two pieces filled up the bread.

“Will one sandwich be enough, Mommy, or should I make two?”

Apples from the tree in the corner of the back yard, but never the bruised ones- those were saved for cooking. Only apples that were perfect and red for Daddy. No bumps or blemishes, wiped clean with the dish towel hanging from the drawer handle next to the sink.

Sometimes, if there were leftover pinto beans, Mommy would heat them in a pan on the stove and carefully pour them into Daddy’s wide-mouth Thermos.

“Wrap up some cornbread in a piece of wax paper for him, too.”

I would break off a piece of the brown crust, just right from the iron skillet, and pop it in my mouth when Mommy wasn’t looking.

My dad was like every man at the Ashland Works. He never reported to the mill without his dinner bucket. Maybe it carried red rind bologna sandwiches on white bread. An oatmeal cream cake from the day-old store or a square of homemade gingerbread. Sometimes, a 16-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola. Enough fuel to keep a working man on his feet for an eight hour shift, or maybe a double, or the occasional holiday time-and-a-half.  

Mid-shift meals were served in a break room at the top of narrow metal stairs. Hard hats hung on hooks by the door, each one labeled with a name like Sheep Head, Bobby Gene, Sunny or Quick Step.

As I pick up the dinner bucket, I close my eyes. I imagine Daddy and these men, elbow to elbow in a room tinted red from thick, oxide dust. Laughing. Talking. Eating. Every day, eating food packed with love by a wife or a daughter. Sharing stories from home. Brothers of the United Steelworkers of America Local 1865.

A bare fluorescent bulb lights a long table with mismatched chairs. These union men gulp down their blue-collar lunches under the watchful eye of a white-faced clock. Empty dinner buckets are shoved back in lockers, ready and waiting for the trip back home at the end of the day.

It is 1971 and it is summer.  

“Here’s a clean jar to pack some of that potato salad for your Daddy.”

“Yes, Mommy.”

“And, get the sugar down so we can make your Daddy some Kool-Aid, then you can have some when we’re through. Let’s use Granny’s pitcher.”

I hear the kids from next door playing outside in the dusk. I stand on a chair and open the cabinet for the sugar as Mommy passes me a wooden spoon.

“Not too much water, now,” she says. “We’ll put ice in the Thermos then pour in the Kool-Aid so it’ll be cold later. It’s Daddy’s favorite.”  

“Grape! My favorite, too!”

“Hurry now, it’s almost bedtime.”

With the kitchen cleaned, I climb the stairs to my room. The noise of children has been replaced by the sounds of the neighbors squabbling through an open window. I listen harder and hear the music of tree frogs. Crickets. Through the screen, the air is warm and humid.

Downstairs, I hear splashing water. Doors opening, closing.  Keys rattling. The sounds of Daddy getting ready for work.

I drift away to dreams of a cool summer storm and purple smiles. The smell of heat from a blast furnace that meets Daddy as he enters the mill, dinner bucket in hand, with all the love from home tucked inside.

Now, in my hands, I hold the dinner bucket he carried all those years. I pull to my chest the memories of the man who taught me what hard work is. The importance of keeping your word. Of family first. Of doing the right thing. It is scuffed and scratched. My fingers trace a worn, vinyl sticker--Daddy’s name and badge number, 898, in faded block letters.

I think of the morning headlines. Layoff notices went out to more than six hundred, their work no longer needed. Steelworker families without jobs, with no promise the mill will reopen and with very little hope. Federal trade rules and foreign steel forced the furnaces to shut down.

I unclasp the latch and lift the lid to find a neatly folded red bandana, cottony and soft. Its intended purpose was to brush away the crumbs and remnants of lunch before time to go back into the mill. Now, it catches a tear pushed from my eye by memories of Daddy’s dinner bucket and the rich past of a steel mill, now idle.