With that searing
steelworker's initiation under his belt, Davey was more determined to
bust ass with this company, maintaining a level of competence and
saving face in the face of scrutiny bearing down on his pink
carcass.On the other hand, though he had been forced to turn
the other cheek, would he be better off turning tail and running?
Should he turn and leave or turn over a new leaf?Davey stayed
the course, choosing the latter and occasionally using a
ladder.After all, this job was his ticket out of penury after
completion of that CETA welding program.
And what was CETA, you
may ask?Well, if memory serves – which it frequently doesn't –
this program was a bit like the WPA of yore, where legions of the
unemployed found respite from inaction and were thus put to work
building bridges, state parks, campgrounds and the like.So for
non-indolent Davey – historically accustomed to some meaningful
occupation or other, however remunerative it may or may not have been
– this CETA stuff was a welcome opportunity.The Skills
Center was 2B his weekly grind where he broke ass burning rods all
day for the princely sum of
Burning rods on clean,
freshly cut, ground and de-slagged metal plates was one thing;
getting out on a job site to work in real world difficult situations
was quite another.Granted, though the Skills Center staff placed
a strong emphasis on rudiments as well as placing rods of the utmost
difficulty (namely the profoundly frustrating 6010 rod) in the hands
of students, it was still a far cry from what awaited the eager
newbie welder when he left the cocoon of the classroom-shop.So
when teacher/crew supervisor Amos Prattster approached Davey with a
placement slip, Davey happily jumped on it.
Now came time to put
theory to action, action to traction; then without detraction, not
look back.Thus Davey embraced the steelworker's shack.A
world of fascination awaited as he sauntered into the massive
cavernous facility with its collection of five 'electric overhead
traveling cranes' rolling noisily on sturdy steel girders far above
the shop floor.About a half-dozen boxcars, hopper cars and at
least one tanker were spaced strategically across the football
field-sized span of shop as workers scurried on, under, and around
such hulks – though not in too much hurry; after all, they were
paid by the hour.
Long before his'sheet
metal stretcher' initiation incident, Davey had encountered the
biggest bull of the crew, a fellow appropriately named 'Bear'.It
happened one day as Davey was enthusiastically cutting through some
angle iron with and oxyacetylene torch. Nearing the halfway point,
and with great difficulty seeing his work through a gritty shade #3
set of burning goggles, Davey nearly shat bricks as the torch's flame
went out: PFFFFT! Just like that.Job over?He tipped up
his goggles to see a bigass set of boots filled with the burliest,
biggest bawdy dude he had seen since high school football.
“You ain’t allowed to weld or burn until you’re finished
Thus spoke the bumptious Bear
from between brown teeth
and beneath brown hair.
To Davey bequeathed
a harsh brimstone fare
as Davey sulked beneath
this sturdy steel lair.
This was Davey’s ‘whoops!’ moment; after all, he had known of the 45-day
probationary period initially, but just couldn’t resist the urge to lay his mitts
on a satisfying project.
Upon further questioning from Bear as to who assigned Davey this cutting torch,
it turned out that Bob Winson, one of the ‘white hats’, had ordered Davey to do
This was a big no-no in the eyes of such
self-appointed shop stewards as Bear; it was, after all, a union shop.
Davey was entirely too eager to work, and that couldn’t be tolerated, so he received
perfunctory assignments like sweeping, collecting scrap, and grinding welds on
cars in preparation for painting.
So chalk this incident up to the earliest real-world training that no amount of
schooling could prepare the novice for:1) know your place.
2) Don’t allow work to be completed too fast.
3) The ‘white hats’ aren’t your bosses – even if they tell you what to do.
much-loathed white hats DID tell Davey what to do on occasion, and he could
feel the tension this state of affairs created. An inherent 'nice guy' tendency
meant not standing on his hind legs and letting out a string of tasty
expletives when such spurious orders were given, but rather just to nod, maybe
fart, then turn to.
He tried to fathom the pecking order of this human organization while letting
the intermittent teasing slide. At least some of the time; Davey's weak spots
would emerge soon enough.
Like characters in a play, each worker had unique roles.
think for a minute that unionization didn't play a significant part in this
delineation: painters PAINTED, welders DID the welding, the tool room dude was
the only one assigned to that area, and maintenance guys puttered.
Since Davey was such a green-assed neophyte, his official title was 'utility
man', a.k.a. “shit job” doer.
So the daily grind became literally that. Having been assigned to work under
the capable wings of highly skilled Bob Rodenbach, Davey began running an
extremely noisy pneumatic 7” grinder from approximately 8:30 a.m. until lunch
break. This, mind you, was WITHOUT hearing protection at first.
protection at first,
imperfection at worst,
for Davey, sound wavy
Whilst squelching his fears
he injured his ears
in binding and grinding
it gored him to tears.
But this horrendously loud sound didn't seem to bother the industrious Davey H,
though in retrospect, he knew damn well, deep down, that it WAS putting a
hurtin' on his precious hearing.
But this was part of the working-class machismo – and a well-worn cliché,
“NEVER LET 'EM SEE YOU SWEAT”.
On about day two of this arduous daily grind, help raised its head: Jim
Campbell to the rescue!
How DARE I not pay tribute to
Okay, okay, with sadness I pay
heartfelt RIP to those lost on that day!
Back to the grindstone
the 9/11 crooks got away with it.
Getting back to the fume-laden shop,
one day Davey H almost couldn't stop.
Campbell Jim had to buttonhole him
and with a frown, sure not a grin,
said, “Davey, I see danger nearing;
'cause you're gonna lose your hearing!”
This was a wakeup call for Davey H as he blew his nose to find the resultant
snot laced with ghastly gray grit.
literal grind notwithstanding, Davey found this job initially
fascinating. And the equipment? It looked like stuff he'd seen in old
black and white TV shows.Those decades-old overhead traveling
cranes lumbered like Sherman tanks along sturdy tracks supported by a
framework of girders; indeed, the actual building with its terra
cotta brick-face was a mere facade.Going north-south in the first
smaller bay were two 10-ton versions of such cranes; a cavernous
neighboring bay sported two 35-ton cranes, and the cavernous
perpendicular sector of the shop was host to a 50-ton behemoth.All
cranes were proudly manufactured in 1910.
wasn't long before Davey got a goofy gander at the cranes' lifting
power: at times, guys would heft whole sides of boxcars and tack them
into place as the crane operator deftly moved and positioned in
accordance with hollered commands from the floor.Large sheet metal
sections would be gripped with 'dogs', surprisingly small devices
which held more and more firmly with commensurate increases in
loads.The cars' wheels, or 'truck assemblies' as known in
shop parlance, consisted of two sets of barbell-like steel wheels
held in spring mounted frames that rode front and rear under each
facilitate rotational capability, each 'truck' was in turn skewed by
a 'kingpin' – a phallic, long dong silver hunk of US steel
approximately 15” in length that fit into a receiving hole in the
car's base.One can well imagine the crude jokes that flew like
spitballs whenever workers pulled a kingpin out of its frame.It
was Jim Bowen, if memory serves, who speculated that each wheel
assembly – meaning left and right wheels and axle – tipped the
scales at around 1100 pounds. To Davey, that seemed a little on the
light side; they MUST have weighed more than that.
In fact, EVERYTHING on
freight rail cars seemed outrageously heavy. It stood to reason that
all the parts had to withstand all that bumpin' and a-rattlin' during
daily discharge of their carrying duties. Moreover, as each car's
capacity frequently approached or exceeded 200 tons, sufficient
structural sturdiness could only be assured if the entire apparatus
was 'overbuilt' on the heavy side.Soon, Davey learned what
those cryptic numbers and letters stenciled on the lower quadrants of
the cars meant. 'LT Weight' indicated the car's empty
weight.Boxcars – seemingly the most frequent contenders for
repair – averaged 35,000 pounds, but varied widely.
Tank cars, if memory
serves – as memories of that era are fading fast – would weigh 40
tons or so, and many of the coal cars were similar in heft, some
having been constructed of specialty alloys such as
recollections of that little tidbit are very strong, however, as he
recalls the long-haired worker who described it as he struggled with
welding operations on a coal car.Davey endeavored to hear this little
instructive discourse over the din of the worker's boom-box as it
blasted Bob Seeger's “Hollywood
Nights”.CorTen® was a bitch to weld, the worker told him.
the worker went on to postulate and ruminate as to how this specialty
alloy came to be the favored choice for coal cars.Now here it
was, 35 years later, as Davey did some superficial research and
discovered that Cor-Ten® was classified as 'weathering steel', or
steel that did not need painting. And interestingly, thinking back to
that dirty-ass shop, it stood to reason that since these squat but
sturdy hopper cars had coal spilled into and on to them on a regular
basis, that alone would provide a sort of dingy finish in the form of
nowadays, CorTen®, Cor-te®, or whatever trade name any given
operator preferred to go by, is, as of this writing, no longer made
in the United States. Steelworker dudes were, however, still made
in the USA, and pride and ego levels ran the gamut in this particular
shop.During Davey's tenure under Bob Rodenbach, a few more
newbies joined the fold, and Davey felt a surge of reassurance with
minuscule increase in seniority.One of the new workers,
Anthony Mavis, had been struggling at the Skills Center during
Davey's stay, and 'graduated' in a subsequent group of rod burners.
– or rather, Tony – Mavis was a burly, incredibly strong black
fellow with keen, well-honed 'street smarts', a couple of missing
front teeth, and, well, just a really solid sense of how life
operates.Oh, you can bet he had seen serious trouble!Davey
had expressed frustration, pissing and moaning to Tony one day –
probably over some head-butting with another ego such as Lew Smith –
and Tony put Davey in his place with gentility and tact.“I
could just quit here and go to college!” Davey huffed,
red-faced.Anthony replied, “well, until then, you keep
workin' and maintain your cool.”
Tony was a godsend to
the still-naive Davey, and it was worth noting that Tony and Davey
formed a working class bond despite their highly disparate
backgrounds.Davey began to observe overt racism that coursed
through some of his cohorts' veins, and one incident in particular
stands out.And that one occurrence not only solidified his
already considerable respect for Tony, but reaffirmed Davey's
loathing for that loutish, greasy-assed animal named Bear.Tony
got saddled with a sh** job one day: cleaning a hopper car.This
wouldn't ordinarily be so bad, but Bear stood outside the car bellowing, “work, n**er!”
Davey was shocked by
Bear's crude antediluvian huffing, puffing, and pejorative slinging,
but at least it showed the big fellow's true colors.With this
nastiness in plain view, the best thing a 'boot camp' newbie like
Davey could do was stay out of the way, keep his head down, and not
cause any fuss.It should be worth mentioning, however, that
Bear's racist shenanigans and views were not shared by other whites
in the shop.So on it went: each day a dusty, noisy, dirty
clamoring with high hopes of learning and of course collecting that
paycheck on Friday afternoon.
Reflecting once again
on the stellar talents of Bob Rodenbach, Davey considered it a
privilege to work under him. The cat just had a way with, well,
everything. His assembly and alignment skills were unparalleled, and
he was a topnotch welder.In fact, that was a big wake-up call
for Davey as he watched in astonishment while Bob burned right
through paint while welding some difficult coupling parts together,
snaking the rod through a small opening on one side of the
piece.Ghastly gray smoke curled up around his helmet, but Bob
didn't bother to get out of the way.
Fumes didn't intimidate
Bob, a Vietnam vet who never talked about his military experience.
And chances are no toxicity from this rail car repair facility would
rattle him.But to civilians who never served in that
particularly noxious Southeast Asian conflict, breathing ozone,
nitrogen oxide, and hexavalent chromium were harsh workday health
risks.As a bit of theoretical welding pretext, the
predominant rod used for most shop operations was 7018 or 9018 'low
hydrogen', and though it flowed with considerably more ease than the
old 6010 rod, it still took a lot of skill to work it in real-world
ensconced with the air powered grinder many a day, but still
cherished time under Bob’s wing, and better yet, not simply as a
gopher. No, Bob allowed dignity to develop in his underling.But
if something was needed, Davey happily hopped to.Fetching the
day’s rods meant a visiting the dusty cylindrical rod ‘oven’
that sat unceremoniously by the whole-house air compressor, and was a
must-go first stop for mechanics. Usually 1/8” 7018 was the
do-all be-all rod for most sheet operations on mild steel up to 3/8”,
but 3/16” 7018 was best suited for beefy structural stuff.
Rodenbach was not only a first-class ‘mechanic’, but a
first-class guy! Soft spoken, gutsy and determined, he simplyWORKED
his butt off day in, day out, with little idle chit-chat
intervening.Understand that ‘Mechanic’ was a broad,
sweeping job classification given to workers who actually performed
repairs on the rail cars; at times we would weld, bang, grind, cut,
fit, bend or straighten requisite parts into submission after said
cars had been damaged or derailed.So although Davey had keen
interest in welding full time, it would
part of this job picture, and
was the perfect tutor.
was still very wet behind the years after his 45 day probationary
period had elapsed, and many tests lay ahead. For the most part, he
leaned into the headwinds and busted ass.Bob laid one such
test on Davey one day when Bob’s oxygen tank ran out. This state of
affairs, to the uninitiated, renders any given oxy/acetylene torch
useless; the acetylene will still burn, albeit with a very smoky,
yellow flame, spitting flecks of carbon in the air, but has no heat
value.So Bob pointed to the tank rack, and Davey rolled the empty
one into it.
briefly to puzzle over which tanks might be full – as none were
specifically labeled – Davey grabbed the only logical one, which
was curiously marked 'MT', scrawled in white chalk, and brought it
back to the work station.
eyes lit up as if he had spotted a friggin' fire or something. “Ya
see that?” he asked Davey – as if Davey had any clue whatsoever.
Davey nodded in the negative. Bob continued, mildly miffed: “MT –
that means EMPTY!”Duh.So Davey was the assand the
shop, not contrarily,and surely not merrily,was
at least temporarilyout of gas!
took a while for Davey to live down that MT incident. In the eyes of
his peers, this would have been a grave, ego-puncturing faux pas, and
thankfully it didn't ripple out past the Bob 'bubble' – that
short-lived cocoon of tutelage Davey was immersed in.'MT-gate'
taught him many things, paramount among them: when in doubt, well,
roll over your macho instincts, don't pretend to know it all and just
freekin' ASK.The time eventually came for Davey to be
assigned to other mechanics, being plugged in wherever he was
needed.That boded well, until he hit the sauce.
indeed – one way to kill a worker's skills and verve is to apply
ethanol.This 6 bucks an hour stuff was a boon to Davey in his
relative prevailing penury, and any modicum of common sense had not
substantially kicked in yet, so he became a party animal, spending
foolishly on expensive imported beer and attending intoxication
sessions with his friend Dodd out in the 'burbs.This would
prove nearly disastrous for Davey's otherwise steady welding hand and
gung-ho attitude.So his performance predictably
plummeted.Caroming off-course meant he would rack up 21
latenesses and absences the first year.