TODAY PORT ARTHUR IS A ROUGH, run-down refinery town, but when my father arrived there in the late 1940’s, it was booming. Big companies like Gulf and Texaco had been in the city since the early 1900’s. After World War II, those and other refiners began expanding to serve the thousands of new filling stations sprouting across America. New stores, hotels, and restaurants arose. Downtown pulsed with nightlife.
My father thought Port Arthur was a godsend. Jobs were scarce in the South, and he had been shipping out of the port of Mobile, Alabama, on oil freighters and tankers since dropping out of high school in 1943. So when Gulf offered him a job in Port Arthur making a very decent $1.25 an hour, he quickly accepted. It was a rare opportunity, and my father settled down for what looked like a lifelong career. But in 1964, at the age of 38, Gordon Lewis Ivey died of cancer.
I now suspect that his job killed him. More than that, I know he was not the only one. As a pipe fitter, my father routinely handled substances that today are known to be carcinogens. By the time I grew up and moved away in 1976, the rate of cancer and other fatal diseases in the area was starting to rise. In the mid-eighties, some of my father’s former refinery buddies began dying; sometimes their families were afflicted as well. The region where I grew up came to be known as the Cancer Belt.
When my father was born in 1926 in tiny Marion, Alabama, Port Arthur was an insignificant seaport. Gordon was the seventh son of a carpenter in a family of nine children. At seventeen, he went to work in the U.S. Merchant Marine. After the war, he worked on oil tankers.
During a stopover in Port Arthur in 1949, he met Nelwyn Fields. She was seventeen years old, one of thirteen children of an East Texas mailman. A straight A high school student, she was bright and attractive, with long brunette hair. The two of them were as different as oil and water—he, boisterous, athletic, and self-assured; she, shy, serious, with literary interests. Nevertheless, they hit it off, and in 1950 they were married.
By the time I was born in 1955, my father was prosperous. He bought a new maroon Mercury and splurged on snazzy sport coats and double-breasted suits. In 1959 he built a new house in nearby Port Neches, and we settled in as the typical sixties family. I couldn’t wait for him to get home every day because he usually brought me candy. But when I jumped in his lap—feeling snug and warm against his fuzzy, worn overalls—I could always smell the bitter odor of chemicals on his clothes. No matter how often they were washed, the smell never left.
Dad loved his job. He would volunteer to work if another pipe fitter was ill. At night he attended Lamar State College, intending to earn an industrial engineering degree and become a supervisor. His bosses noticed. In 1962 the plant manager chose my father out of six thousand men to represent his co-workers in a corporate tribute to Gulf’s worldwide work force. My father appeared in a group photo in the 1963 annual report.
When relatives visited, he would haul them to the top of the Rainbow Bridge, which towers over the Neches River and the refineries. Inside, the refineries resembled giant erector sets, with vast networks of steel pipes. At night they looked like alien cities, breathing fire and smoke, strung with glittering lights.
By day and night, though, refinery men worked in hellacious conditions. Dad specialized in chemical cleaning, handling hazardous substances like toluene and benzene. To remove stubborn hydrocarbon deposits from the towers and other large processing units, he used giant pumps to circulate volatile chemicals at rates of five hundred gallons a minute.
One of the most potent substances was Oakite 18, which contained authodichlorobenzene, a benzene derivative. The men hated it because it made them sick and caused migraines. “Just one whiff of it made you dizzy,” says Ralph Bryant, now 62, who worked with my father in the fifties and became the supervisor of chemical cleaning in 1960.
After cleaning, the degraded chemicals were pumped into giant settling ponds as big as city blocks. Much of the chemical slop was drained into Taylor’s Bayou, which emptied into local waterways—a common practice among refiners.
Dad would also wash his pipe wrenches in the solvents, and he was constantly exposed to asbestos. When one of the refining units was refurbished, asbestos would float down from overhead pipes like snow. Ex-workers say they weren’t warned of the danger, certainly not adequately warned. “We didn’t have any protection, and we didn’t know much,” says Bryant. Since retiring in 1984, Bryant has suffered from heart disease and has been diagnosed as having pleural asbestosis, a cancer of the lung lining.
In early 1964 my father’s shoulder started hurting. The Gulf company doctor initially diagnosed his condition as bursitis, but the shoulder kept aching. In July, Port Arthur doctors discovered cancer cells in Dad’s lung and transferred him to Methodist Hospital in Houston.
I visited my father for the last time on a Friday, August 21, 1964. He sat up in the bed, lightly panting for breath, his face gaunt and scarlet with fever. His cotton pajamas seemed to swallow his emaciated frame. From his sixth-floor window we could see the new Astrodome going up miles away. Despite the disease that was eating away at his body, Dad remained upbeat. “When people can start playing baseball indoors,” he said, smiling, “just about anything’s possible.”
He died the next afternoon. The cancer had attacked every major organ in his body except his brain and heart. At his funeral I watched as his refinery buddies—big, burly men—cried like babies. My relatives consoled me, but I was hopelessly lost and dazed. Nothing made sense anymore.
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