Forging metal, friendships all part of job

Wednesday, August 12, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

They make solid things, horseshoes, hinges and bolts, goods that hold the world together.

And the lunch-time conversations between the workers at Queen City Forging are just as sturdy. These are no-nonsense people who value a hard day's work, honest conversation and pulling together.

For this week's "Lunch With Cliff," I joined the forge shop workers at several picnic tables placed near the loading dock of the 117-year-old company. Situated in Columbia Tusculum, Queen City Forging occupies a rugged old brick building that has withstood periodic floods of the Ohio River and the constant rumble of tanker trucks racing toward Eastern Avenue.

From the start, I sensed a closeness that the office workers shared with the men who spend their day pounding red-hot metal. "When you have a very small company," said administrative assistant Diane Antestenis, "there are times when we have to act as a social service agency."

"Employees get in trouble," said Rob Mayer, company president. "And we loan them money," Diane added.

She does more than that. Diane is the companies' resident licensed massage therapist. She massages pulled back muscles, sore shoulders and even the 73-year-old arthritic fingers of Wing "Johnny" Chow, the company's bookkeeper.

"We help each other out," said Rick Smithson, the company's shipping clerk. "We stick together."

Lunch time

Togetherness extends to the daily lunch break of the firm's 22 employees. When the clock strikes 11:30 a.m., work stops. Everyone, from the president on down, heads for the picnic tables.

As this was Monday -- Skyline day at the plant -- Rick made the restaurant run. He returned to pile the tables with boxes of cheese coneys and three-ways. Amid the sound of heavy work boots dragging over cement floors, the boxes quickly disappeared.

With the crew chowing down, industrial-strength fans roared nearby. They fought a losing battle with the late-morning heat that had built up in a factory that has no use for air conditioning.

After playing waiter, Rick sat down by Diane and compared notes on being single. Rick's divorced. Diane's a widow.

"We talk about the difficulties of meeting eligible people," she said.

"Mostly I just whine," Rick admitted. "But she's a good listener." "My husband died five years ago," Diane continued. "I've tried dating. But I'm not ready yet."

Back to work

Not far away from the other workers, three men lugged a gray picnic table to an open overhead door. They sat down to enjoy lunch and the view of the company's gravel parking lot.

"We're loners," said die-maker Andy Spires. Dave Lyle, from the company's blacksmith shop, and machine operator Robert Armstrong nodded and dug into their lunches.

Behind them, the company's massive machine tools were taking a break. The automated hammers that smash red-hot metals into sewing machine parts and horseshoes were quiet. The forges that heat bolts to 2,275 degrees glowed in anticipation of the workers' return. "Mostly we sit here and talk about fishing," Dave said. "Or what we are going to be doing at work after lunch."

"But today we're enjoying the breezes coming in," Robert said. "And we're thinking: "Boy, oh boy, on a day like this, what we could be doing at home right now.' "

Asked what they'd be doing at home, each replied: "Working."

They joked about sitting back, reading the paper and maybe even drinking a beer. But deep down, I knew they probably weren't very good at loafing. These are the kind of people who built our city and who, by and large, keep it running to this day.

These are people who work. They do it with a quiet pride. And they know they need one another to get the job done.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.