T-posts delineated my world, growing up. They marked boundaries, holding taut the lines of barbed wire that criss-crossed the state, their green and white blurring into the pasture land if you drove fast.
I remember pounding them into hard, dry dirt; the way we’d jump on the spade – the part that makes the T – to force it into the ground. I remember sweat and dirt and heat and how heavy that silver T-post driver was when I lifted it high above my head to slip over the post’s top, pound it down until the post was secure.
In all those hours of working and all the thousands of posts I saw, I never wondered where they came from.
It was cold.
He’d warned me of that when he handed me a pair of too-big work gloves along with the ill-fitting hard hat and foam ear plugs.
But you can’t write in too-big work gloves so I only wore one, let my right hand freeze.
I wondered how I’d conduct an interview with ear plugs.
He opened the door, and we stepped into a different world.
I’ve covered a lot of things that were unfamiliar. I’ve felt like I was receiving crash courses in law, government, science, and finance at various points over the past five years I’ve spent in journalism. In each I kept asking questions until the muddiness started to settle. I emailed lawyer friends for definitions of legal terms; googled medical words I didn’t understand; bugged business managers with questions; and eventually figured it out.
Maybe it was the dark, and the muffled roar of machinery through the foam in my ears, and the wall of heat as a glowing bar of metal shot down the conveyer belt, and the way the hard hat slipped low on my forehead and the safety glasses smudged so I couldn’t quite see — but this was one of the more overwhelming stories I’ve reported.
He showed me the furnace there inside the dark of a century-old rail rerolling mill, and when the furnace door raised the light and heat poured out. Rows of old railroad rails glowed orange in neat lines. The air inside seemed to burn, flickering flames burning nothing, dancing between walls. It was 2,200 degrees, they said.
We walked along the conveyer system and every few seconds another glowing rail shot by, feet away, a wall of heat hitting us and sparks rising into the dusty air. We stood on the bridge and felt as much as saw the rail slide underneath. I tried not to flinch.
The rail slid on by the bridge to the splitter, and the glowing steel split into three pieces for molding into highway sign posts and agricultural fence posts.
We left the roar and the alternating cold and heat of the furnace building for the farm building on the far side of the mill grounds. T-posts piled in naked silver waited their turn on the belt, waited for the spade to be stamped on their lower ends, waited to be pulled through rivers of green paint, dipped in channels of white.
I gave him back the hard hat and the gloves and the ear plugs and said thanks and started the two-hour drive back to the office.
And now I know – and now you know: chances are, those green-and-white T-posts that mark your world? They once were railroads marking someone else’s world. And, chances are, they were heated to a glowing orange and shaped and painted and stored in a century-old mill by the river in western Pennsylvania.