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Three score and ten or more

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Pipe fitter Helper on the Union Pacific

Pipe fitter Helper on the Union Pacific

I’m not feeling political right now, (actually I’m going through one of those phases of seventy plus year olds where I’m not feeling much at all except tired).  I have been dealing with adjustors and others trying to get carpet back in our family room (the concrete floor is COLD!!)  and I am trying to get focused on getting back into my studio and sculpting.  I have been enjoying blogging, it is like meeting a lot of new friends, which I really don’t do easily.  As tired as I am, I have been tempted to give it up, but decided to keep on plugging. Without my brain doing clear subjects, I decided to revert to personal history again.   I am not getting back into automobile stories yet, rather I decided to deal with teen age work experiences for a bit.

I graduated from high school in 1952.  It was a “given” that I would go to college (my dad informed us when we were about twelve, that, since we lived in a college town, we could live at home after high school without paying board and room as long as we were in college.  It was traditional in our area that if a guy lived at home after high school, that he pay his share of the household expenses or room and board)

After a couple of abortive “fun sounding” part time jobs, I became a pipe fitter helper for the Union Pacific Rail Road.  My experience at the Concrete Products Company the previous year had taught me to work, but my first experience at the Railroad taught me all kinds of unusual things.  In the first place, the job that was available was on second shift, so I worked from four thirty in the afternoon till 12:30 P.M.   In the second place, the name Pipe Fitter had relatively little with what we did.  Our Union was the Sheetmetal Workers Union (I think it had Pipefitters as a sub category) and we worked on all kinds of different things.

  One of the most memorable jobs was to work with the asbestos coating of the steam boiler on a locomotive.  Most people have seen as steam engine with the long boiler sticking out in front of the cab and the drive wheels underneath with long drive rods pushing (or pulling) the wheels.  Most don’t realize that the boiler between the smoke stack and the cab is covered (or was, there really aren’t any steam locomotives any more) with from four to fifteen inches of white semi solid asbestos.  The asbestos was then covered by long sheets of sheet steel that hooked at the top and bolted tightly at the bottom of the boiler to hold the asbestos in place.  One of the most significant jobs of pipefitters (and/or their helpers) was to remove the asbestos from any place where repairs were needed, to replace it when repairs were finished, and to repair or replace the sheet metal covers around the boiler.  I don’t doubt the danger in asbestos that has been discovered in recent years, but I am hugely entertained by the panic shown at the discovery of trace amounts of asbestos in buildings and the “moon suits” worn by contractors removing these trace amounts.

While working as a Pipefitter, I often returned home at 12:40, or 1:00 in the morning, to find my mother waiting.  If I were (and I often was) coated in one to two inches of asbestos fiber she would either hose me down or sweep me down to remove the fiber, require me to immediately repair to the laundry room in the basement, remove my overalls and cast them immediately into the washing machine.  I would then have to vacuum out the car before going to bed.  My parents have both passed away and the old “homestead” now belongs to someone else, but I suspect that if someone knew where to look, in the back yard, enough asbestos fiber could be found in the dirt to bring an entire crew of asbestos removal contractors into hard action.  I confess that I have been tempted a couple of times to sign up for one of the “class action suits” regarding asbestos, but, at seventy plus, my lungs are probably the healthiest part of me.

I was helping a really weird mechanic while a pipefitter.   He was a young guy in his early thirties, but his wife had recently committed suicide because he was stepping out on her.  When I was working with him, he was constantly making arrangements to go out with his new girlfriend when he was supposed to be on the job, and he didn’t want me to be seen with nothing to do so he found me little hide-out spots to stay in while he left for an hour or two to take her to dinner.  I am not sure, but I got the impression that he was also taking other women out at the same time.  Talk about amoral?  He was a really good pipefitter when he was working, and probably produced more work per actual hour than anyone else on the job.  The high (or low?) point of the skipping out gig was when the western singer “Tex Ritter” came to town with his band.  He told me he was leaving at five PM, (about half an hour after we started work), and that he had found someone to sign him out at twelve thirty, if he didn’t make it back in time.  He didn’t want me to be seen during that time, but if I wanted to ditch out as well he would give me a lift, and make arrangements to have my timecard signed out on time.  After contemplating the goods and the bads about the deal, and knowing that he could make my life hell (or that I could get him fired, which would probably put me on the black list), I decided to ditch.  I called up a girl who was a good dancer, got a date to go see Tex Ritter (this was at a place called the Deleta Ballroom).   I went out and had wonderful time, though I spent a lot of time looking over my shoulder to see if anyone from the pipefitter gang should see me.  I left the dance early enough to get back and take care of my own time card.  I wasn’t sure how much trust I could put in the mechanic’s word that he would take care of it.  It was a good thing.  He showed up as well, and with a wink from him, we handed in the time cards together.

We had a really sharp foreman in the evening shift who was a boilermaker, and an old friend of my dad’s, and I was pretty sure he was aware of what was going on, but didn’t want to dump my mechanic right after his wife’s suicide etc. (I am not sure what he would have felt about him dating around almost the minute his wife died, but I am sure he knew that he was skipping out.)  After the Tex Ritter thing, he assigned me to do some work that was strictly helper work for a while, then gave me another mechanic for a month, but I ended up back with him for most of the time.  He did shape up and worked hard after “Tex”. I think that the foreman may have had a chat with him.

The job was really interesting, and possibly a little dangerous (at least I had some dangerous experiences).  One of the tasks is difficult to explain, and I don’t have a clue why it could be assigned to pipefitters, but it was.   The steam locomotives of the time had long drive shafts on the outside of the engine, going from one drive wheel to another.  The center of these drive shafts sat on flat support bearing that held them in place.  This bearing was essentially a big rectangular box that was filled with (what we called ) babbit, which if I remember correctly was a mixture of lead and tin.  When the babbit wore down to the stage that there was steel on steel friction (or cast iron on cast iron, I am not sure what everything was made of, but steel seems more likely), one of our jobs was to remove the bearing, melt out the old babbit (which had to be strained to remove slivers of steel and bits of carbon and dirt, but it wasn’t reused for the same purpose, if I remember right), then we had to mix and melt new babbit in a big cast iron urn or kettle (with a really hot flame under it, which, in the summers made it a terrible job) then dip out the new, hot, babbit and refill the bearing boxes.  This was a scary job, because if the tiniest bit of moisture or other corruption found its way into the boxes, that moisture would explode when contacted by the hot babbit and scatter it all over.  This was a procedure that required goggles, bandannas, thick gloves and all sorts of protective equipment but in spite of that, two or three timeI was burned by slag which burned through all the protection.  I was burned on the bridge of my nose, on the inside of my elbow, and somewhere on one shoulder.  Each time I was burned, it had to be reported and my dad used to have really expressive things to say about the competence of my supervisors.  I got the impression that he had had that job at one time, and thought that anyone who got an explosion was careless.  The foreman also was upset.  There was a safety officer on each shift, and any accident that had to be reported went both on the foreman’s record and on his, and I got the impression that after a certain number of accidents, one or both of them could be fired.  I know that two or three guys were fired on the spot, when breaking safety regulations (one I remember was just walking on a rail, which I used to do a lot as a little boy, but it was, sort of instant out for railroad employees, though sometimes the union rep would get you rehired after a few days without pay.)

I had one other stand-out experience as a pipefitter, but in order to make it clear, I have to talk a little about tool boxes.  A railroad workers tool box was generally a pretty individual thing.  I think that most men built their own, though some were probably “inherited” when someone left the job.  They were made of sheet steel, about 1/4" thick.  They were welded together and were a box, about eighteen to twenty four inches deep, eighteen to twenty four inches wide and twenty four to thirty inches long with steel wheels (source unknown, but not “home made”) at one end and a bracket or “back stand” at the other.  There was generally a”U” shaped handle welded on the side opposite the wheels.  The handle protruded at least eighteen inches in front of the toolbox, and usually more (closer to twenty or twenty four inches.)   The insides of the box varied widely.  I worked with men who just tossed everything higglety-pigglety into the box.  Other men had elaborately designed racks and partitions inside with a place for everything and everything in its place.  The boxes were generally full of heavy steel tools (everything from pipe wrenches to air hammers or welding equipment, but always with a fifty or one hundred foot #12 or 10 rubber coated extension cord.)  Wrapped around the base of the handle would be a long pair of oxy-aceteline welding torch hoses or a long hose for air tools (or sometimes both) When moving from place to place, one usually took hold of the handle and pulled the extremely heavy box.  As a joke, some people would tell “newbies” to take hold of the handle and “push” the box.  That was difficult to do, or to steer, and few there be that tried it twice.  When an engine was under repair, there might be as many as twenty tool boxes pulled up to the side of the engine.

The day in question was such a day, with tool boxes pulled up beside the Very Large engine (I think it was called a 9000 but I am not sure.  It was one of the largest that we serviced.)  My assignment for the day was to climb up on top and remove the housings from the sand domes and the other domes on the engine.  Everything went well on the first dome, but as I was working my way to the second dome I grasped the hand rail and the section I “had aholt of” pulled completely away from the engine.  I fell backwards,  away from the top of the engine (I would guess, about twenty to twenty five feet from the surface).  It was the strangest sensation.  It was if time slowed down.  I felt myself turn a complete backward somersault in the air so that I was falling feet first.  I threw the piece of handrail that I was holding as far as I could so that I wouldn’t brain myself with it when I lit, then I looked down and all I could see was tool boxes with their handles facing the engine, and I knew in my heart that I was going to straddle one of those handrails and destroy my testicles.  I closed my eyes, pressed my legs together as tightly as I could, and waited for disaster.   Strangely enough I missed the toolboxes, lit feet first on the ground and rolled over backward.  When I opened my eyes, I had had the wind knocked out of me, and almost everyone on the shift had magically found their ways to a position surrounding me.    They were in the process (not all, of course, but some) of calling an ambulance when I stood up, and caught my breath.   Except for a knot and a scrape on my left elbow (I must have contacted one of the tool boxes in passing) I was fine.  Some of the people couldn’t believe how lucky I was, and I got a feeling that some were disappointed that I wasn’t smashed to smithereens.  I also heard by the grape vine that two guys in Cheyenne, Wyoming got fired for not adequately fastening the hand rail in place. (Which may or may not have had any truth in it, grapevines are like that.)  I didn’t get much work done after that.  I felt like a stuffed bear in a tourist lodge, everyone had to come over and touch me, buy me a coke (I know bears don’t drink coke) or otherwise express their relief that I wasn’t dead.

I guess that’s about all, but I’ll tell a couple more old railroad stories in the future.

13 Comments:

At 6:36 AM, Blogger Fish said...

I can sympathize with you on handling hot metal. For six years I worked in then managed a small art bronze foundry in Arizona. The bronze has to be over 2000º before you pour it, and a splash can reach the bone before it stops burning. We did have pretty good protective suits. Those heavy silver jobs like they use for airport fires and the like. It covered right down over our shoes, face masks, etc. The gloves were so thick and well insulated you could pick up the 1400º ceramic shells with them. It was really hot dressed in these but we could make a complete pour in just a couple of minutes then shuck out of the suits for a half hour while we melted more bronze.

My daughter works for the steam train to the Grand Canyon. I guess they have a pretty good shop for maintaining those old engines. If you want to come out of retirement you might be able to get a job there. Just don't try one of those 25 foot backward flips off an engine at 70 years of age. I doubt the results would be the same.

 
At 6:57 AM, Blogger Patrick Joubert Conlon said...

Very interesting about the asbestos. Maybe on needs to be exposed to it for many years to get the mesothelioma.

You wrote: "Except for a knot and a scrape on my left elbow..."

What's a "knot?" I'm wondering if it's the same as what I think of it - a sort of cramp. No one here on the west coast knows what I'm talking about when I say it.

 
At 7:26 AM, Anonymous Kathleen said...

Love the post. I can imagine that the blog is very time consuming. But, I for one hope you don't give it up completely. I really enjoy your stories and writing style.

I lost a friend to mesothelioma. He could never figure out where he was exposed. He worked for the mines in Colorado and as an accountant at Housing Authorities, but that was his diagnosis and he unfortunately succumbed to it. There are so many materials and compounds that people later discover cause serious medical problems. Lucky for you that you have apparently come through it unscathed.

Wow, hard to imagine a person could go totally missing from a job and not be missed.

To Patrick's question about a knot, I am originally from California and we referred to a bump on the head as a knot. We also said we had knots in our shoulders and neck from stress. I have also heard people say "my stomach is in knots" when they are nervous. Funny what that one question set in motion. LOL!

Thanks for the story!

 
At 11:04 AM, Blogger Three Score and Ten or more said...

fish, can you imagine what it was like in the bronze foundries in the middle ages. The death rate probablly was high. I sculpt, and have wondered about doing some things in bronze, but the whole "lost wax" thing seems a bit too complex for old men.
Patrick, I have a ninety nine year old uncle who worked with asbestos all the time (also on the railroad), and he says that everybody he knows who got sick from asbestos were also smokers. He's convinced that it was a combination thing. My "knot" was a swollen spot, hard as a rock, on the bone just below the elbow, but I would use the term for a cramp (especilly in the calf) as well. As a point of information, your post which included shrimp inspire me so that I stopped in Brooklet yesterday evening and blew ten bucks on two pounds of medium shrimp. They were on ice all night, but I had to interupt this comment to run in, cook them, and eat them. You were a good inspiration.
Kathleen, glad you were here. If you could see a major railroad repair area, with a round house, back shop and all the attending facilities, and count the people who were on the shift (as well as the degree of independence that they had once the job was assigned) you could imagine how two people would not be missed.

 
At 8:50 PM, Blogger Fish said...

The lost wax process is pretty particular, time consuming and not that all fired cheap either. That's what bronze foundries are for, converting your sculpture into bronze for you. It's a rather lengthy process, around 20 steps from the time the sculpture is finished until it's in bronze, and labor intensive. There's just little automation that gets involved.

 
At 10:45 PM, Blogger Gayle said...

I'm very outclassed here, to say the least! I know less than nothing about any of this. But I do recognize an interesting read when I see one, and this one is excellent.

You are extremely gifted with words.

By the way, I'm sixty-five (I need to change my profile) and you are not that much older than me. In fact, I take care of a lady exactly your age who has to use a walker to keep her balance and has all manner of things wrong with her...
Her eyes are bad, she has a hump in her back because she suffers from Oster... the bone disease... can't spell it, and she also has some really rare generic disease I also can't spell; well, I think it's called Marie Charpe Tooth syndrome. She's pretty much blind, but she still works four days a week at the tax office. Her attitude is always up, although she lives alone. The human spirit will get you through anything!
So please quit referring to yourself as "old". Older is better and cool! I don't give a crap what our society believes.

 
At 10:52 PM, Blogger Gayle said...

And to add to that, there's a lawyer at my church who has a white beard, white hair, and is more bald than you are. He's only 55 and looks 90! You don't look 70+.

 
At 5:43 AM, Blogger :phil: said...

Great story. Thanks for visiting my blog. I remember visiting yours a long time ago. About your co-worker I am not sure, but I got the impression that he was also taking other women out at the same time. Talk about amoral? He was a really good pipefitter when he was working, and probably produced more work per actual hour than anyone else on the job. It sounds like with all of his girlfriends, he WAS a very good pipefitter and his pipe got around.

 
At 1:22 PM, Blogger Ed Abbey said...

I don't have anything else that I could add to the comments already posted other that to say I read your story and liked it. As a mechanical engineer at a factory with lots of sheet metal work and just down the road from a foundry owned by the same company, I can relate to a lot of what you wrote except for the 25 foot fall. The largest unintentional fall that I can remember taking is only maybe teen feet off a roof. No knots to report but did stick a large ring shanked nail through my foot.

 
At 8:01 PM, Blogger Patrick Joubert Conlon said...

Yes, Richard, I agree with Gayle, you need to realize that seventy is the new middle-aged.

 
At 10:57 AM, Blogger Gayle said...

I've already commented on this post, but I stopped by to thank you for your kind wishes regarding this blasted cold. Thank you! :)

I'm feeling a bit better. Even felt good enough to post. Now, if only my nose would behave itself I'd be fine.

 
At 9:01 AM, Blogger Rhinoplasty Los Angeles said...

I’m planning to get my nose straightened… I find this is good info for people who would try to know something about rhinoplasty

 
At 7:49 AM, Anonymous Welding Equipment said...

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