They get 2 or 3 of them and give them an assignment on a very cold day in January. The steel mill being on the lake means that the weather is extremely cold due to high winds. So a single digit temperature will ultimately become sub zero. On days like these, they the journey men (or the old guys) elect to send the new pipe fitters on a task to go out to the lake where there is a set of pipes sticking up out of the ice. Your task is to separate a flange about the size of a medium coffee table, undo all of the bolts, replace the inner diaphragm (so its like a sandwich) with a new one and then close it back up. They keep a 55 gallon drum of oil burning so that when youre out there every tem minutes you can come back and thaw your hands out because youre frozen. Then, you go back out and try and finish the job. It takes men about 3 hours a piece after coming back and forth. Their ears are frozen. The old men were just laughing. I decided, while they were out there working, to see what the job really was. So, I followed the line through the ceiling of the steel mill, down the walls of the back corners, where people dont normally go, and I watched the pipe go through the floor and to the basement. I went down into the basement where there are he-man rats (huge rats) which dont bother you, but if you see them running, then you know its a gas leak and you leave them alone (the old guys feed them once in a while). Once I flip my flashlight on, it turned out that the very end of the pipe was tied with a rag and led nowhere (it was a line that was dead for the last 30 years). The old guys just like to send these men out in the freezing cold to teach them to think before they send them out working on any line, because if you dont know what line youre working on or why youre working on it, there is a high chance that you could kill somebody. This forces the men to think for themselves.
My dad was eighteen years old when he started working in a steel mill. Hes from Hammond, Indiana, a town where most people work for the steel mill. His father worked at one steel mill, his brother at another, and he at yet another. Beginning work at the steel mill in this town very nearly coincided with reaching maturity, at around eighteen years old. Being new at the steel mill was a liminal time between childhood and adulthood for most males in that area, and so pranks were used for initiation purposes.
My dad explains that this particular prank was more of a test to see whether or not the new men could handle the dangerous situations they would be likely to face during their careers at the mill. He notes that the older men wanted to force the younger men to think for themselves. At this point, thinking for oneself equates adulthood, and so I see this ritual as forcing an end to the liminal period between boyhood and manhood so that the men of the mill could work as a cohesive unit in which everyone could rely on everyone to think before acting in a potentially very dangerous environment.