Today is my friend Howard's birthday. I have no idea how old is he, except that he's older than me. Everyone I worked with at the chemical plant was older than me, at least for the first half dozen years.
(Here he is at a shift picnic back in 1980...look how young he is and I was younger than him!!)
I'll always be grateful to Howard - he supported me when I refused to run certain tests in the lab on the residual oil unless we could do them under a ventilation hood. I was pregnant and no job was worth the potential risk to my baby. I caught some flak for my concerns, but Howard sent me a note letting me know he thought they were legitimate and he appreciated me speaking up on behalf of the lab techs.
Howard and I also shared the same taste in books, mostly historical fiction it seems. That was back when I had time to read...
I was lucky to get that job, to work with the people that I worked with. While most of my classmates were coming-of-age away at college, I was learning about life while working twelve-hour shifts with an eclectic, colorful, international group of all ages and backgrounds...men, women, gay, straight, Texans, Yankees, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Vietnamese, Chinese...with educational backgrounds ranging from high school to not-quite-doctorate...and all of us doing the same job.
Now that was an education!
It could be fun, but danger always lurked just under the surface. Howard got knocked off his bicycle during a huge explosion in 1985. I wrote about that and what it was like working at the plant in my first essay, A View from a Catwalk, published in 1991.
Holidays at the plant were great - an international smorgasborg! My recipe box is full of names from the past..."Terry Boer's Chicken and Rice Casserole," "Larry Corona's Manicotti," "Hoi Tran's Butterfly Shrimp." If we begged him, Oscar would bring in homemade tamales, but I really regret now that I never tried Hien Huynh's homemade eggrolls. I just didn't appreciate Asian food yet.
I've kept in touch with many of those friends/brothers, although I rarely see them. In my mind, they all still look whatever age they were when I walked out of the plant almost eighteen years ago, right after my youngest was born. My husband Tom had graduated and gotten a job and I wanted to stay home with my babies.
One friend, Scott, recently sent me this picture of him with Jim and Hien in the control room. It didn't even hit me at first that it was a photo from the '80's, because this is the way I still picture them...
The last time I saw Howard was about six years ago at his daughter's high school graduation (she was in my niece's class.)
But I saw another friend, Ky Tien, last year at his son's wedding outside of Austin. He hadn't changed much in fifteen years... well, maybe a little more gray hair.
Now I get photos of grandkids. Ky, a father of seven sons, is grandfather to a half dozen granddaughters and just one grandson. I wonder if he's told them all that story about how he learned English from Reader's Digest magazines?
There was talk of a reunion a few years ago, but it never happened. Since then accidents, cancer, and heart attacks have taken some away - I wish so much I could have seen the ones who have passed just one more time.
Many of the original group have just disappeared, but one thing's for sure...they're all safely tucked away in my heart and my memory, along with gratitude that my life intersected theirs, at least for a little while.