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Book Review

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Brooklyn Navy Yard With Steel Blood And Tenacity

December 8th 2008

Book Covers - Brooklyn Steel

Frank J. Trezza. Brooklyn Steel-Blood Tenacity. September 2007, Publish/America. 189 pages.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard has had a long life. A shipyard along the East River, it was owned and operated by the United States Government from 1801 to 1966, purchased by New York City in 1967, and then reopened in 1971 as an industrial park.

Two years later, Frank Trezza found a job there as a marine electrician for Seatrain Shipbuilding. Under conditions that he describes in vivid detail in his autobiography, Brooklyn Steel-Blood Tenacity, he worked on four VLCCs (very large crude carriers), an ice breaker barge, eight ocean going barges, and two roll-on/roll-off (Ro-Ros) until two herniated discs and nerve damage along his right leg incurred on the job forced him into retirement from Seatrain.

Determined not to be sidelined permanently, Trezza later worked at the Bath Iron Works in Maine, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire, and a European defense contractor in South America. In 1999, at age forty-six, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics from the University of Southern Maine, interestingly, at the same time his son received a BA in political science from the same school.

Trezza provides a brief historical perspective on the Yard toward the end of his account, yet what he essentially presents is autobiography--the story of how he and his wife, Milagros, managed to survive with three children through difficult circumstances.

Trezza and his fellow shipbuilders experienced extreme conditions, enduring long layoffs, twelve-hour work days, seven-day work weeks, an often treacherous workplace with dangerous walkways and falling equipment, icy decks in winter, hot decks in summer, toilets without privacy, and obnoxious human beings.

Labor relations in building the VLCC Williamsburg, for example, involved dealing with the “rat patrol,” people who would raid the restroom and take note of workers who were there rather than at work, accusing them of not producing, a charge punishable by suspension without pay or dismissal. One such individual, “Mr. Rat,” received his comeuppance on a bus, where he was beaten in the face with a tow truck chain. While building the Stuyvesant, workers gained revenge on an unpopular supervisor by making a voodoo doll to represent him and then sticking pins in its crotch.

More pleasant is what happened to Mary Lindsay, the wife of Mayor John Lindsay. Before a crowd of some 5,000 people, she attempted to christen the Brooklyn by smashing a bottle of champagne on a bracket over the bow. To everyone’s dismay, her aim was poor and the bottle not only failed to break, but also fell out of her hands onto the dry dock below. To the rescue came a marine electrician, who had anticipated the problem with another bottle of champagne, which he smashed as the crowd cheered.

Along with this account of a ceremony are those of accidental deaths, reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s indictment of the meatpacking industry in The Jungle. For example, one worker died from loss of blood after his legs were crushed by an I-beam, and another died resulting from a forty-foot fall when he lost his footing on an overhead crane.

Despite the sometimes terrible working conditions, Frank Trezza expresses gratitude for the opportunity to have worked for Seatrain Shipbuilding, which fell victim to international competition and economic conditions and shut its gates in 1979. “A very large group of economically disadvantaged minorities living in the bowels of poverty were given a chance to work and better themselves against all odds.”

Those people, coming from diverse backgrounds which the author does not stress in his account, are the book’s heroes. Struggling with each other, their union, and their bosses, these workers built great ships. Trezza tells his story and theirs without pretense, in the often raw language of the workplace, and illustrates it with his own photographs.

Robert Parmet is Professor of History, York College of the City University of New York.

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