It has always been a mill town, a shot-and-a-beer town, a company town, crouched up close to the blackened towers and steaming chimneys of the steelworks that stretch down both sides of Main Street. From the beginning of the century the town ran to the factory's rhythm, to the changing of the turns, daylight, afternoon and graveyard, and the stoking of the boilers and the making of the steel, cold roll, hot roll and tin plate, the finest in the world, the workers don't mind saying.

The mill runs night and day, indifferent to time, filling the air with the sound it makes, a deep-throated hum, a mechanical mantra that thrums incessantly. At night everything is silent except for the mill, and everything is dark except for the mill, and even the sweat-stained little bars that run along in rowdy profusion beside the mill are quiet at last. It seems, then, as if the mill is fueled by a life of its own, massive and monstrously maternal, the source of all of Weirton's blessings, awesome and elemental as fate. It becomes difficult to remember that it is men who control the mill and not the other way around.

Now the mill shudders, and the town of 26,000 shudders with it. National Steel Corp., the owners of the mill, have decided to "limit their investment" in the Weirton Mill, which is one way of saying that they plan to let it die and to let the town die with it.

Green for Hope

It was like an odd Shangri-La, ethnic, industrial, untouched somehow by time, preserving old values and traditions despite the storms that seemed to be breaking out in the world beyond the valley. Until the layoffs began and the young men began leaving and the rumors flew. Until that cold spring day in March when the president of National Steel told the representatives of the management and the union of their decision. If the employes wanted to keep the mill running, he said, they were going to have to buy it.

Now green ribbons sprout on Main Street, green for go, green for hope, and there is a lot of talk about the Employees Stock Ownership Plan, or ESOP, as the plan by which the workers would buy the company is known. It is the most ambitious such attempt ever made. Now there is a feasibility study under way and an actuarial study in the works, and a management-worker joint study committee and a battery of lawyers and a throng of reporters descending on Weirton to tell the tale of the little mill town that could. "We Can Do It!" say the hand-lettered signs in the shop windows on Main Street. "We have no choice," say the people of Weirton.

Company Town

The way it was in Weirton was the way everyone thought it would always be: It was a family mill, and if a man had family in the mill, then his life stretched out ahead of him, long and safe and certain. He got his union card and he walked in the gate one day, and took his place. After that the money was good, the credit easy, the job secure.

The union was independent; there was no international brotherhood making the calls. Around contract time it was safe to assume the money would be just a little bit better than at the other mills, to keep away the threat of strikes. The workers of Weirton were the highest paid in the industry. They married young women they'd known all their lives, had children, bought the good things, built the house on one of the hills that surround the town. The years slid by as if they'd been buttered, so easily did the time pass, safe in the valley, in the strong steady communion of family and friends, in the shadow of the mill and the benevolence of the company.

Now it's different. Different for the 30-year men, who face an early retirement if the ESOP doesn't work out. Different for the young men, laid off and trying to decide where to go. Different for the men in the middle still working, but uncertain for how long. The feasibility study is due this month. After that, the banks will be approached for the $250 million the Weirton division is expected to cost. Until then, there is gritty optimism, clenched-teeth confidence and fear.

Life After Layoff

It is Thursday evening, and the air is cool and clear of all but the scent of victory as the softball team from St. Peter's Church goes about the business of beating the tar out of the team from Holy Name. In the stands, Neil Bahen watches the game's progress with glazed attention. He is 24. On the field are his buddies, the ones he went to school with, the ones he got drunk with and brawled with and hung out with and he greets them all with beery cheerfulness. It is his first day back from a four-month adventure in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he went to look for work after he got laid off from the mill.

"Four of us went down," he says. "One of the guys' mothers owned a house down there. I went to the beach, I looked for work. I told them what I used to make up here and everybody said, 'you can't make that kind of money here.' I don't want to walk around with a tray of oysters in my hand anyway. I'm a jackhammer man, a pick and shovel man. I dug up water lines for pipe fittings, I busted up concrete for the riggers, it was important. You need guys like me. Anyway," he says, keeping his sunburned face trained on the baseball diamond, "I missed my friends."

"Come on Cain, you able?" he shouts, urging on the team. His friends come by with shy and awkward words of welcome and comfort.

"You come home, Neil?"

"I come home, Ed."

"You drink a lot of beer, Neil?"

"Yeah, I drunk a lot of beer, Ed."

"The beach is nice, but how could you leave the valley, Neil?"

"How could I miss baseball season, Bob?"

He walks over to the Bellevue Lunch, a tiny little bar that clings to the edge of the softball fields. "I had the daylight shift and weekends off," he says of his five years in the mill. "I just worked there. I bought two cars, I went to Hawaii, I drank some beer."

"He even bought a round or two now and then," smiles the owner,Richard Moss.

"Everybody knew what they were going to do Friday and Saturday night," says Neil, "and for the next 20 years."

Moss listens sympathetically; his brother went to work at the mill, he didn't. "I didn't want a union telling me what to do," he says. "I wanted to rise and fall on my own." Except that it isn't possible in this valley, where the fate of the mill controls the rise and the fall of everything but the sparrows.

The game is over and the team from St. Peter's troops in for a beer. They are big, easygoing men with a roll to their walk. There is respect in their voices when they talk to their elders and laughter when they talk to each other. They find refuge in their camaraderie.

A Hard-Drinking Town

"It's hard to adjust," says Mike Mehalik, who has been laid off for nine months. "My Dad's got 30 some years in there, he'll have to retire. The mill's his life. He's just loyal. The younger people don't have that loyalty to the mill. For me it's the area." Mehalik got a degree in psychology from the University of Pittsburgh, but he came back to work in the mill and he doesn't want to leave. "There's a closeness here," he says. "Everyone knows everyone here. "You got a wildness, a hardcoreness, that you don't have any other place. I like that. It's a hard-drinking town, a town that likes its ball games. I'm 28 now, and a lot of my friends are coming back, or want to."

The light fades and the talk turns to ESOP and to why their world has turned upside down. "The rich are just tired of seeing mill workers sitting on the same beaches as they sit on," says Joe Voltz. "They don't want to let us get back in the economy."

"We'll show National," someone says. "We'll do better than ever because it's our mill."

No, says Neal Bahen, with an expression in his blue eyes that suddenly makes him look far older than his years. "It'll be the same thing as it always is. There will be some guys who tell you what to do. And others guys who will be doing it. What it comes down to is, we're at their mercy; when you're laid off, you're just s--- out of luck."

The merchants of Main Street wait with nervous optimism. More people are buying with cash, they say, and that's good. Less people are buying at all, though, and that's bad. The joke around town is that if you want to buy a used car these days, just head for one of the credit unions, where the repossessed sit in sad display near the drive-in teller's booth. Still, says Joe Capito, of Louis Capito and Sons appliance store, "Weirton's a tough town. We've been through a lot over the years and the people's attitude is good. We'll make it."

Headlights at Noon

Joan Craig of Joan's Family Restaurant purses her lips and shakes her perfectly sculpted beehived head over the future. "If the men don't fight amongst themselves, it'll work," she says. "The younger men don't want to take any cuts but my husband has worked there for 28 years, and it's all he knows. We have to take what we can get."

She is a third-generation member of a steelworker family and not only her husband but two brothers and her father work in the mills. Already, she says, there are arguments between the generations over what concession would be acceptable in terms of pay and benefit cuts to keep the mill operational. "I've been here all my life," she says. "The mill's been good to us. We lived good in the valley." She remembers what it was like when the air was so thick with smoke at noon that the cars had to turn on their headlights, and she remembers the dust blowing so hard in the north end of town it made her eyes water. Never mind, her grandfather said to her when she tried to shield her face, "As long as the dirt's flying you're eating."

Now there are 2,700 workers laid off and more layoffs coming. Now some of the Craigs' friends are leaving for Texas and others are worried about losing their homes. Marriages that began in the good times are coming apart under the strain of the hard times, and life is suddenly littered with the frayed ends of unexpected change.

Joan Craig is angry and worried. "National Steel took a lot of good years out of our men and left them hanging," she says. They may not be educated, but they're good men, and they know how to make steel. When you was raised in our valley you was raised to go in the mill, you knew this." She fingers a small card someone brought in that day. "Life is fragile," it reads. "Handle with prayer."

"A lot of people are scared," says her husband, Harry Craig, 46, a millwright on the open hearth. "I'm thankful I'm still working. For a guy my age, what is there? I couldn't go wash dishes." He leaves his tattooed forearms on the counter and the anger gathers in his eyes. "You give 'em the best years of your life and they haven't even got the gall to tell us what's happening so we can make up our minds," he says. Some people, he says, are "saying we ought to go on strike, if they don't tell us what's going on, we should just shut 'em down."

Joan Craig flips a hamburger, returns to the conversation. "We just got done raising three teen-agers and we're drained," she says. "We were supposed to start saving for our retirement. I already told my husband I think him and me will work until we die."

No, says Harry Craig, in his darker moments he doesn't think the ESOP will work, that all the talk of the men taking greater pride in their work once they have a stake in the mill is just a whistle in the wind. "There's men in there who won't work now with the company looking after them. If they're on their own, it's going to take a strap and a ballbat."

Never a Strike

At the Serbian Men's Club weekly picnic, Sam Love and Bill Davies and their families gather at long wooden tables, eat chicken and fresh-baked bread and watch the summer day end in conversation and the chorus of children at play. They've known each other for more than three decades now, worked together, watched each other prosper, working men who made good, their outlook benign in the leafy green light, mellowed by their own prosperity.

"The mill's been good to me," says Bill Davies, who has spent more than 32 years there, like his father and grandfather before him. "It's been good to all of us. We've raised our families, built our homes. We didn't have labor problems, never had a strike. We had one of the highest standards of living in the country. Up to the last couple of years, you had it made. You wanted something on credit, they'd ask, 'where do you work,' and you'd say, 'Weirton Steel,' and it was no problem. If you had five years in the mill, you were good for life."

He looks over at his son, Bill Jr., back from Phoenix for the Fourth of July weekend, the one who left town because the mill was no longer hiring and even being your father's son wasn't going to get you in. "It's a scary situation. There's no future available here. It's going to be the end of a way of life, if this doesn't work. The whole town is dependent on that mill. Without it, it will slowly die."

Sam Love, big and barrel-chested with gray hair slicked straight back, listens to his friend. "No matter what happens, it will never be like it used to be," he says. "A lot of people think that the kids that were laid off will be called back. But even if we do buy back the company, there's going to have to be concessions on wages and benefits. A lot of those kids won't be coming back. We're at a place where it doesn't worry us as much as some guy with 10 or 12 years in the mill and three or four kids. What Bill and I will do is retire and go on welfare," he says with the delight of a man who has always taken pride in making his own way.

Would they move away if the mill shuts down?

"Move where?" says Bill Davis. "If the mill shuts down, there won't be anyone to buy your house. If the mill shuts down, they won't be worth a thing."

The Passing Parade

In the old days, the company watched over the town and guided its destiny, making itself responsible for the small pleasures, the minor ornaments of life in Weirton. In the good days, the company let men off work to build floats for the Fourth of July parade and paid a pretty price to insure that they were the best they could be. It was the company that paid for the community swimming pools and the high-school band uniforms and when, a few years ago, the company failed to put up the Christmas tree lights, the town reacted like a wife whose husband had forgotten their wedding anniversary.

But it was Weirton that made National Steel, the millhands say now. It was one of the original companies that merged to form the parent company. It was the profits from Weirton that enabled National to buy other mills and other companies for their investment portfolio. Now it is Weirton in which the company has decided to "substantially limit its future capital investments," as the announcement last March put it, even though it is still showing a profit. There is a lot of bitterness is town over what the people see as the ultimate betrayal. "There's no human feeling in it," says Paul Haun, a 41-year veteran of the mills. "They just sit in those big offices and decide what's going to happen like we don't even exist."

It was different, says George Rodak, when the president of National still lived in Weirton, affirming his ties and acknowledging the importance of the mill to the corporation. He is 72, with 50 years in the mill behind him and 23 years as a city councilman. To this day, Rodak will not ride with the other councilman in the Fourth of July parade, not since that Fourth of July more than 30 years ago when Thomas E. Millsop, president of National Steel and the mayor of the town, asked him to ride in his car. "There he was, him with his big cigar, asking me!" remembers Rodak, his old eyes shining. "I thought, 'boy, this is it, to ride with a big man like that, this is it. It doesn't get no better.' "

It was the Weirton Women's Club that got the green bow campaign started. Some of the women have already lost sons and daughters to Texas, and others are making the mortgage payments on their children's homes so that they won't lose them during the layoffs. At night they tied the green bows, about 5,500 of them, having borrowed the idea from the yellow ribbons that symbolized the country's concern for the hostages.

It is late, the night before the Fourth of July parade, the biggest Fourth of July parade in Weirton for the last 20 years, and the faithful of the Weirton Women's Club are hard at work at Kusic's garage, building their float. "It's going to be a mill," says Irene Kraft proudly as she surveys the cardboard creation rising on the back of the flatbed. "Now did you ever hear of women building a steel mill?"

At first it was the retirees, who came in to buy a bow, says Shirlee Balditch. "And then their wives, and then some of the younger wives. We were so happy when some of the younger fellows started coming in. Then it really started to feel like we were all in this together."

Weirton is a gambling town, the men like to boast. But there was one bet they placed a long time ago, and it's the one they're paying off now. They put their money on the good things in the world and on the idea that life would run like a river over the hard places, if you deeded your future in exchange for the narcotic promise of security.

And for a long time, it looked like the odds were in their favor; other mills went down but not Weirton, others went broke on bitter strikes and learned the hard way if they learned at all. But at Weirton they worked, they always worked and they brought a profit to the company and college educations to their kids and for themselves a long sweet dream from which they are only now waking up.

The Impartial Rain

It rained on Saturday, the morning of the parade, a steady gray relentless rain that turned the crepe paper into sad little shreds, and smeared the makeup of the Steel City Strutters and sank the heart of Thomas Dalesio, the 29-year-old executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, the parade's sponsor. But still the people lined up on Main Street, sitting in plastic chairs beneath their umbrellas, and still the floats and marchers got ready to line up. It was a democratic rain and it rained on them all, management and labor, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, Miss Hancock County and the Brooke High Homecoming Queen, on the Osiris Shrine Temple Tin Lizzy Patrol.

Those who sought shelter found it on the porch of the Independent Steelworkers' Union Hall, and soon it was filled with the sort of odd juxtapositions that only a summer storm and a mill closing could bring together. In Banlon shirt and blue jeans was Walter "Butch" Bish, the incoming president of the union, 35 years old, confident and just a little dazzled by the sudden turn of things. "I said to my wife the other day, that I always wanted to go into business for myself," he said, "but I never thought I'd start by buying a steel mill."

And there was J.G. "Jack" Redline, the president of the Weirton steel division, wearing a seersucker suit and his official smile, waiting with calm resignation to march in the parade. Redline is committed to staying with the company, should the workers buy it. "I'm very confident the ESOP plan will work," he said in a voice that sounded like he was reading the words. "We have the best workers in the industry and we've put our destiny in our own hands, and it's up to us to make it work. Of course . . ."

"Here, Jack," interrupts David Hvizdzak and hands him a hand-lettered sign that reads, "Weirton Can Do Better Than National." "Carry this."

"We will do better, we will," laughs Redline nervously while rapidly backing away from the sign and into the cluster of company officials behind him.

"No guts, no guts," says Hvizdzak, smiling and turning away. He is 32, a union steward, a mill worker for the last 12 years. "I think some people are trying to underplay the reality here," he says. "It's still a shaky deal. We're going to be caught between a rock and a hard place. A lot of these guys aren't coming back. They worked hard, they were just happy to have a job, you know, and now these guys are gonna have to start out at the bottom of the heap again. Actually, what they've done is cut our life short."

Finally the parade begins, only an hour late, and the union leaders and the company men march down Main Street. The union men carry signs-- "Hungry?" reads one. "Eat Your Toyota."

The Citadel

The crowd cheers as the parade moves on, past the Blue Steel Cafe and the Green Mill Restaurant, and D'Zine's Sport Specialties and Tattooing. The women of the Weirton Beauty Academy stand in a row in their white uniforms and white orthopedic shoes, cheering and yelling, "I love this, oh, I just love this," as a wet platoon of Cub Scouts walks by, each waving a small American flag as they march on the Greco-Hertnick Funeral Home where the judges stood ready on the balcony.

Joyce Ragan and Barbara Walters stand in the crowd, waiting for a glimpse of Ragan's daughter Jennifer, who was marching with the Weirton Steeler cheerleaders. In the distance, behind the marchers, loomed the mill, half obscured by the rain clouds, but casting its shadow nonetheless. Main Street runs like an artery straight into the mill which flanks it on both sides. It rises up like a citadel, brown and rust-reddened, its coils and columns pushing up into the sky. "I get so sad looking at the mill," said Ragan. "We were so prosperous here. It's hard to imagine it all coming to an end."