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Three score and ten or more

Friday, February 29, 2008

Early in the blog I told about some (many, all?) of the jobs I worked at while I was in high school and during my first two years of college (before I became a missionary and went to Finland.). It occurred to me that much of that discussion was pretty cursory and that I might discuss several of the jobs in more detail. So far the ones I can find while searching my own blog deal with my adventures building "all steel" buildings (mostly corrugated steel) around Idaho, Wyoming and Utah, the fun I had as a pipe fitter helper working on the Union Pacific, and my later work as a boilermaker helper for the same company. I mentioned in passing that I had spent most of a summer as a garbage man for the town of Alameda, Idaho.

I suspect that most people who are not garbage men do not spend a lot of time wondering about how much fun it might be to make a career as a garbage collector. On the other hand, I have heard that collecting garbage in New York City is very profitable and that it is hard to get a job in that field if one does not have family in the profession or influence with politicians or organized crime. Trust me, one needed neither political pull nor family connections to get a job collecting garbage when I was doing it. I don't remember a lot about the other garbage guys. I remember that they had more than one garbage truck and that all or both of them were moving around town most of the time, so there were other garbage guys than those working my truck. Alameda was small was large enough that at least two trucks were moving most of the time, but small enough that garbage was not our only job. My tenure in the position was strictly in the summer, but I understood that some of the guy in that job also plowed streets and spread sand or salt on the intersections during the winter.

My diversions from the garbage truck involved cleaning out culverts for the irrigation canal that ran through the town (not often, the state had people to do that most of the time), patching holes in the roads with asphalt and a hand roller, occasionally trying to control stray dogs and other animals that got out on the street (I remember one particular adventure with a brown cow that we caught with ease because it was tame as a pet, but which we staked out on the grass behind the fire station until the owner was located. The true heart of the job was just driving slowly up the alleys picking up and emptying garbage cans.

I worked mostly with two partners. One was Mark Hancock, whom I mentioned in connection with my job in concrete products, and the other was a thin read headed guy whose name I just can't remember at all. We took turns, with one guy driving and the other walking beside the truck to toss in the garbage. I note with interest that some modern garbage trucks have lifters to pick up the garbage cans, but all we had was a scoop at the back of the truck into which we could lift the cans.

If people knew their garbage collector's minds they would break more stuff and put more in garbage bags (actually they didn't exist back then, so they would have had to be satisfied with breaking and shredding. We used to laugh a lot at the particular houses from which Esquire ,magazines and other porney type magazines emerged (Playboy and Hustler hadn't come along, men in those times bought Esquire to read the articles -- there were a couple of pulp magazines that had fun pictures, most of which were tamer than current network TV. One of them featured cover pictures of a lady named Irish McCalla. Isn't it strange that I would remember the name, but she was impressive to a late teen age boy.) All the collectors built up fair collections of magazines that our parents would not have cared for. Each of us on the truck had a place to store the valuables we collected. I found one set of china in the box with a couple of cups broken, bunches of vacuum cleaners, fishing equipment, a lot of radios and phonograph records, and even a couple of twenty two caliber rifles. I even got a couple of wash machines, from which I took the electric motors to mount with grinding wheels etc. Some things I sold to friends, some I gave away, some went to my parents, but nobody was told from whence they came. (Though my parents weren't stupid, and they knew where I worked).

People should NEVER throw away letters, especially tied up in bundles, or diaries or anything of the sort. Garbage men do not have the legal restrictions that Postmen have. On the other hand, one doesn't need a shredder to keep paper goods out of the hands of the garbage man. A bunch of watermelon rinds, or old fruit with a little meat mixed in can be poured on top of the stuff and no one will be curious enough to want to look at it. I don't think anything in the world can smell or look as revolting as a closed metal garbage can that has had watermelon rinds and or meat (deer parts are specially nasty) sitting in it for a couple of days with hot weather. The meat especially seemed to draw flies which created maggots which-- Oh heck I don't need to go on, the memory is beginning to bother my stomach.

We dumped our stuff in the city dump (does that sound right?). This was pre-land-fill, but they did bring up a grader or dozer of some kind occasionally to cover up the gunk so that it wouldn't smell so bad. One morning we went out to the dump to clean things up before we went on the road and noticed on the graded dirt at the top of the heap some tracks. Now , we weren't exactly trackers, but it didn't take long to figure out that they were bear tracks. We figured that the bear came out here at night to scrounge through the dump and look for snacks. Like idiots, we decided to do what we could to encourage him (or her, or it) so we set aside a little plastic waste paper basket and began to toss old fruit and meat etc. into it, then when we unloaded we would dump that basket always in the same place. Sure enough, pretty soon, the tracks seemed to all be around our food dump spot. We knew that the bait was working, but we didn't know the time of day (or night) and we didn't know how big the bear might be or if he/she would get disturbed if we came back when it was there and disturbed it at dinner time.

Some two weeks were spent in discussion, and we finally decided to shoot the bear. The red headed guy got a thirty ought six rifle from his dad. I looked it up in the library, where the suggested weapon was a twelve gage shot gun with solid lead shot. My dad had a twelve gage so I borrowed it (without asking). I can't remember whether Mark was involved in this, or not. I think he was. For several days we haunted the dump at various hours of the day. I don't remember what time it was when we disturbed the darn thing, but he (we discovered that it was a he) stood up and yelled at us. And the weapons came up and fired almost as one. The darn bear sort of went "ooph" and dropped into the bait pile. We all felt like the Davy Crockets of Idaho and went up and sort of danced around the corpse. It was quite a while later when good sense came to me and I didn't feel so heroic shooting a bear that had been baited to the dump. (Also, if Davy Crocket killed a "b'ar" when he was only three, he had a heck of a lot of help getting it skinned and prepared- and probably killed}

As we walked around the critter, suddenly the same thought occurred to all of us. We now had to get the darned thing out of the dump and do something with it.(Among other things none of us knew if there was a bear season, if we needed a permit or what.) That’s when we discovered that: 1. bears are heavy, 2. bears stink almost as much as a full garbage can (and much worse, when they have been opened up.) 3. Bears are covered with lice and assorted other little critters that crawl on you the second you lay hands on the bear.

We found it almost impossible to pick up the bear whole and move it around. We found a couple of boards and some rope and dragged and pushed and in less than an hour got the thing into a pick-up truck. To this day, I can't remember whose pick-up because none of us has access to such. (It might well have been the one that belonged to the village) Once in the truck we skinned the bear, working well into the night (that clarifies what time we found it) by flashlight. The innards-- that’s too polite a term, --the guts, we buried in a spot where we determined that we would dump a lot of garbage in the next day. I can't remember who got the skin, but I declined a big share of the meat, though I got a ham, which I paid to have cured, like a pork ham, and took home, telling my parents a cock and bull story about having been given the ham by the father of one of my friends who shot the bear. All told we spent most of the night figuring out who had to take what (There didn't seem to be much real interest in the meat, but we were all raised in families that though very seriously "If you kill it, you better be prepared to eat it.") The ham was marginally edible, but in general the meat was greasy and fat, very dark, and tasted a lot like the place where we shot it smelled. I seem to remember seeing the skin as a rug at someone's house, but I'd bet that whoever had it paid enough to get it cleaned and tanned that it might have been cheaper just to buy one somewhere else. The best thing about the whole adventure was getting into the shower when it was over.

A few years ago, my son was on the faculty at Washington State University, and we went over into Moscow, Idaho where they have a wonderful place to buy skulls and bones and skins as well as free range eggs and all that kind of stuff. When we entered, four or five guys were cleaning a bear skin in a big room near the door, and the only thing I could think was that it didn't smell at all like the one we had removed from OUR bear.

Those of you who are devout environmentalists and vegans, I beg your pardon. I have often followed the Shoshoni tribe tradition of asking forgiveness of the bear as well, quietly and in my heart.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Neuropathy, Neuropathy, who's got the Neuropathy.

I am back to informing my so-called public about the fun involved in being a coot (or even a geezer.). Somewhere back in the early posts on this blog I covered some of the details leading to the discovery of my neuropathy. I will have to confess that until the doctors told me that I had a Polymotor Peripheral Neuropathy, I have no recollection of ever having heard the word. After almost six months of weekly, and sometime more frequent trips to the Medical College of Georgia, I was relieved to have a diagnosis, even if it didn't included a cause, or even a real prognosis. I confess that back in 1991 and 1992, I had come to the conclusion that death was imminent, or that my fate was probably the opportunity to test the Georgia Southern University building accommodations for the handicapped by tooling around in some kind of scooter for the rest of my career and life.

I should perhaps define neuropathy. In the simplest terms, it is a loss of nerve function. My particular type of neuropathy (peripheral) affects my legs, feet arms and hands. I have some feeling in my feet, but it is strange. Most of the time they tingle or burn, in the morning they feel like the skin on my feet is three sizes too small. My fingers sometimes feel like they are asleep, but the biggest effect is loss of strength. I can't pick up anything with weight and be sure it is going where I planned for it to go. Neuropathy is not without some benefits. When I shattered my ankle a couple of years ago in a car accident, the emergency physician came in to set it. He apologized profusely about how much is was going to hurt, so I braced myself and he grabbed my foot and twisted and pulled radically. He looked up a bit confused when I didn't scream or at least grit my teeth a little, but it didn't hurt a bit. Lack of nerve function means lack of nerve function.

Sine I discovered my neuropathy, I have found that there are a great many folks out there with neuropathies, caused by all kinds of different things, diabetes being the most common, and that the degree of handicap and even suffering varies widely from person to person, as does the type of treatment. My granddaughter has a diabetic neuropathy that affects not just her extremities, but her intestines so she has the kind of burning that I have on my feet in her abdomen. My wife Janet has a neuropathy as a result of her strokes. She has absolutely no feeling in one thigh and very little feeling in that leg, no burning or anything like that. Neuropathy is one of the reasons why so many diabetics have lost limbs. When they have foot injuries, they are difficult to feel and thus to treat. Once they are discovered, diabetic blood circulation makes them hard to cure.

Neuropathies are treated mostly with drugs that have other functions. Pamelor or Nortriptiline is what is used on me, and it was developed as an anti-depressant. Most of my friends who have neuropathy (including my granddaughter) are treated with Neurontin, which was developed as a treatment for epilepsy, and it goes on and on. I learned early that my feet are more comfortable with an application of Capsasin cream. (the really hot stuff that is applied to arthritic joints.) I recommended it to a lady in church who really suffers and she came to me the next Sunday absolutely furious. "You really put that stuff on your feet? Really? My feet hurt enough without you playing practical jokes." I don't recommend treatment to anyone anymore. When I took Neurontin for a year I had all kinds of psychoactive reactions including falling asleep, not while driving, but at almost every red light. Honking is noisy and gets you on your way.

With that boring academic introduction I have to get to the point.

As I mentioned in my last post, my sister, her husband, and their son and daughter-in-law came to see us Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, leaving Saturday morning. Thursday evening it began to rain, and I felt really bad. I felt like it was spoiling their visit. (Though they made it to Paula Deen's Lady and Sons restaurant before it began). My brother in law was tickled pink. He is a farmer in the Idaho desert, and though they have thunderstorms that deposit a lot of rain he could hardly believe that a soft stready rain could deliver two and a half inches of rain in one day. He just enjoyed watching it rain.

My oldest son is an artist with the outdoor smoker, smoking turkeys, boston butts, and other stuff, for himself, his friends and sometimes for us, and we had purchased several pounds of really, fresh out of the water, giant shrimp for him to make shrimp and beef (separate, not one item) shish kabobs.. He didn't let the rain bother him, he hauled his smoker to our house, set up a beach umbrella gizmo to work under and smoked a vast quantity of shrimp, bacon, top round steak in one inch squares, pieces of red, yellow, and green peppers, chunks of granny smith apples, crookneck squash and zucchini into an amazing pile of skewers filled with goodies. As a side dish he had prepared black eyed peas flavored with the remains of a smoked boston butt that he had done earlier in the week.

We ate until we were well beyond the recommendations of any diet program the staggered off to bed.

What, you might ask might this have to do with neuropathy? Well, my feet had been giving me trouble for about four days, beginning well before the family arrived (I think, while Janet was in the hospital having surgical correction for her wrist). I had applied all of my prescription nostrums and some that were just kind of voodoo things, but nothing helped. Saturday morning after the family left, I took a shower, soaked my feet in hot water, then sat down to inspect and treat my feet. They were burning across the entire sole and part of the upper foot on both feet, and I was miserable. I sprayed them with some mystic thing that was prescribed and began to massage them with a prescription cream when I felt a rough surface on the bottom of the foot between the third and fourth toes. Thinking that perhaps some skin had peeled, or that I had some vagrant grain that had got into my sock the previous day, I grabbed it with my finger and thumb and pulled it off (or out). I had a piece of scorched pointed barbeque skewer that had driven between my toes over an inch into the bottom of my foot. I can't remember having my shoes off for a moment while the shish kabobs were being smoked, and I can't imagine how I stepped on the darn thing, but even more, I was astonished that I couldn't distinguish the pain of the skewer from the overall pain of my foot.

It worries me, of course because that is the kind of thing that creates the ulcers that diabetics get that cost them body parts. I slathered the thing with topical anti-biotic and started a regimen of ampicillin, but it is still confusing and painful. So I thought I would sit at the computer and whine about it.

(Actually the Oscars are on, and I am blackballing - at least for as long as it takes to write this- the Oscars because The Bucket List didn't get any nominations.)

I am going to try to post some pictures of the shrimp shish kabobs in the next few days.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

It never rains but. . . .

We have been on another health adventure. My sister, her husband and their son and daughter-in law have been planning to visit us for the past couple of weeks (actually they have been planning the visit for a couple of weeks and were scheduled to arrive today. ) As a special treat, my oldest son had determined to make shrimp and beef shishkabobs (sp). We have a wonderful shop a couple of miles away that sells shrimp that they have caught with their own boats. They are wonderful, large, and fresh, so we picked up five pounds of jumbo shrimp and yesterday were wandering through Wally World to pick up some veggies and steak to go with them. As she was helping get the stuff through checkout, Janet tripped and fell, hitting her head on the checkstand and injuring her wrist. We immediately had, as if by magic two or three Wally World Associates and an assistant manager surrounding her, as a stranger called EMS at 911. It was exciting. One lady, the one who called 911, turned out to have had an aunt who tought my oldest son in school some forty years ago, another little lady came over to tell my wife that she saw her fall, was frightened, and was praying for her.

Jan had a big lump on her head and was unable to use her right hand at all, but some one brought a wheel chair and she was able to get up off the floor and be a little more comfortable waiting for the ambulance. When the ambulance came, the EMS types got her situated in the ambulance and we were off to the emergency room where she was appropriately x-rayes and cat scanned and we discovered that her head was just sore, but no real damage was done, but that her right wrist was broken, so they splinted her, wrapped her wrist, gave her painkillers and sent her home with a appointment to meet the orthopedist this morning. We went to his office where he checked the x rays and made a 1:00 P M. appointment to meet her at the hospital for surgery. All went well in surgery, and after she got out of the recovery room, I sat by her side and sang Our Love is Here to Stay. It was like a little reprise of our adventure in Finland in 2006. (Actually we had done a performance together Monday evening where we performed some poems and love scenes and finished with Do You Love Me from Fiddler on the Roof and a duet of Our Love is Here to Stay, so I had refreshed my self on the lyrics.)

She is home now, on painkillers, and my sisters family arrived to a bit more confusion ( actually,their luggage had been lost for awhile at the Atlant airport.) than they expected. We had planned a great excursion to Savannah tomorrow, and I am not sure how that will work out though I am relatively sure that Janet will not participate (I say relatively sure, because she makes an art of surprising me at times like this). I had suggested that we all go to the Casbah, a really fine Moroccan restaurant with wonderful food and belly dancers, but I think those who go will probably end up a Paula Deen's restaurant since all those in my family are fans of Paul Deen's television show. I am just glad that my heart can go back to beating at a slower pace for awhile.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Exercise, Exercise, Do Your Daily Exercise

Janet and I do water aerobics Monday Wednesday and Friday (and occasionally on Saturday.) I don't think I am overstating the case when I say that, in all probability, neither of us would be alive right now without this exercise, and if we were still alive, our quality of life would be minimal. Both of us have gone through phases where we had to go to the pool using a walker and had to be helped into the pool.. I am so grateful to the city for setting up a pool that is winterized and has had, over the years that we have used it, qualified and enthusiastic instructors.

The folks in our group range in age from the high thirties to- - a lot older than I am, and I am truly a coot. Right now we have only four men attending and almost twenty women, of varying ages and physical conditions. The shifts in participants have occurred largely though folks moving away, or through graduation to hospice programs or funeral parlors.

My forty plus year old daughter was visiting here from Florida a couple of weeks ago, and we offered to take her, her husband and my five year old great-grandson to the pool with us. Her immediate reaction was that she hadn't brought her suit with her, and that in spite of a youth spent as a top level junior competitive swimmer, she no longer looked very good in a swim suit. I informed her that, in reality, none of the participants in our program looked very good in swimsuits. On hearing this, Janet let me have it with a brown corduroy throw pillow, but the daughter borrowed a suit from her mother, brought her grandson and joined us in the pool --mostly entertaining the grandson. He loved it and they had fun while we exercised.

Of course, as soon as we entered the pool, my dear one announced to all present that I had told my daughter that none of the participants looked very good in swim suits. The men in the group shrugged it off, but I have caught about four shades of hell every day since then from the women in the group, and every time their antagonism begins to flag, Janet reminds them what I said. I'm still getting good exercise, but I'm also learning to dodge pool noodles and exercise equipment that happens to come my way (with surprising swiftness and enthusiasm) and am trying not to listen to the comments about MY swim suit, etc. etc.

It is interesting to have seen the various types of instruction in the aerobics group. Our current teacher is martial arts and pilates oriented so we do punches and jump kicks and stuff like that. Other instructors have focused on other kinds of water movement from flutter kick and a "cross country ski" movement to very slow and precise movements particularly for arthritics. I always feel like I get a good workout, and especially that I am able to move all day with more precision, a straighter back, and much more flexibility when I have been to the pool.

I do other exercises as well. My back porch is filled with stair-steppers, a cardio glide, and a variety of other gizmos, and Janet and I try to walk for some distance on those days when we are not at the pool., but the closer one gets to geezerhood and coot status, the less physical activity is possible without standing in water. I have a friend older than I whose wife is about my age, and they both still participate in marathons, half marathons, and ten K runs, and I really honor and admire them, wishing I could do that as well, but heck, I couldn't do those things (or wouldn't) when I was young and healthy

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


This evening, just after an intelligent person would be heading for bed, a commercial came on the TV. It took a moment for it to register who was, featured in the commercial, but my coot aged brain finally sorted it out from the millions I have forgotten. It was Dennis Hopper, a really excellent actor with a good track record doing a commercial for, (I think) Ameriprize or Ameriplan, but whatever it was, he was promoting a company that helps people (obviously of his own age) plan their retirements. He was seated on a sand dune saying (approximately) "What is this? Fifty is the new forty" forty is the new thirty?" then he pitched the retirement company. Somehow I was hit with anachronistic thought.

The first time I ever met Dennis Hopper (actually it was the ONLY time I ever met Dennis Hopper) I was acting at the San Diego National Shakespeare Festival in about 1958. A bunch of us were sitting in a dressing room during a rehearsal break when someone came into the room and said something on the order of "Hey Dennis Hopper is here, he wants to meet the new guys and say hello." I knew who Dennis Hopper was, he was at that time James Dean's major rival for the hearts and bodies of American young women, so of course I joined the crowd moving out to greet him.

My questions about what he might be doing there were answered by one of the veterans of the place who mentioned that he had worked at the Shakespeare Festival for a couple of summers. My first impression was that he seemed to be a blond fourteen year old with broad shoulders and a deep tan. As you may have gathered from the comment, he looked much younger in person than on the screen.

He ran around and greeted all his old friends effusively and said hello and shook hands with the rest of us. At first, I couldn't get over how young he looked, but reflected that probably that was one of his marketable features. I have to confess that the thing by which I was most impressed was his car. He had a Ford Thunderbird, back when the Thunderbird was a sports card. He showed us all, two or three times, how the hard top of the car could be shifted to make it a convertible. He just pushed a button, and what looked like the trunk opened up backwards, right behind the seat and then the hard top slid down into the trunk, which closed instantly. It was really cool, though it was pretty obvious that you didn't put suitcases in the trunk to go on trips and it explained the spare tire mounted at the back of the trunk (A feature that was still on the TBird when it became a luxury sedan.)

I couldn't help having a coot chuckle when I thought of this teen age kid dancing around his car and contrasted it to this guy who was obviously a coot like me sitting in the sand pushing retirement savings. (Hey when you are old, you enjoy a laugh anytime you can.)

Monday, February 11, 2008

I Been Workin' on the Railroad (again)

When I wrote about my adventures as a Pipefitter Helper on the Union Pacific Railroad, I promised that I would tell some more railroad stories and I will, but to understand all of them, you have to know a little about the railroad’s work hierarchies. In most of the crafts (job categories) that were in the shops, you had (starting with the lowest)

Laborers (technically they weren’t in most of the crafts. They swept up, loaded and unloaded gear etc. Most Laborers worked outside the shops as section hands (laying rail and keeping them up, stuff like that) or affiliated tasks.




Specialized mechanics (for instance a Boilermaker-welder)


And then, for the shops, you had a Yard Master (the foremen’s foreman)

For upkeep outside the shops (laying rails, repairing them etc.) the big boss was a Road Master.

I suspect that there were crafts that I knew nothing about, but the ones I knew were:

In the shop: Painters, Machinists, Pipe fitters, Boilermakers, Car-men,

Outside the shop were: Signalmen, Trainmen (Conductors, Engineers, Brakemen, etc., Porters, Cooks, Baggage men, etc.) Section hands (laying and repairing rails and roadbeds), Security (what we used to call Cinder-dicks, many of them could put you under arrest just like a city cop), Stationmen (I think) who were the folks who sold tickets, and stuff like that, I really don’t have any clue what went on in the station, except that sometime I bought tickets.

The crafts outside the shop had their own hierarchies, and except for Signalmen (who had Apprentices like everyone else, but Signal Assistants instead of helpers), I am not sure how they worked. I know that Brakemen often became Engineers but those guys were not in the leagues where I worked. I worked mostly in the summers, and seemed to change crafts each time so that I was a Pipe-fitter helper, a Boilermaker helper, a Laborer, and a Signal Assistant and I had the privilege of joining a different union for each one. (The Railroad Unions were the AFof L, or the American Federation of Labor. If I had worked in an automobile plant, it would have been the CIO and, I think, I could have joined only once, and just moved from job to job. Someone wrote a comment that I had been in a lot of unions, you can see the reason (of course that didn’t count the teamsters, the Education Associations and the performer’s unions but--- oh heck). The Railroads in Idaho were Union Shops so that if you worked there over any significant period of time you had to join the Union.

In the crafts, a helper or assistant was basically a "no future" job. One could work as a helper for years, and only in the rarest of circumstances could you become a "mechanic" or full fledged member of the craft. If one aspired to make a career, one became an apprentice. To tell the truth, from the outside it was hard to tell an apprentice from a helper because they appeared to be doing the same stuff, but apprentices did get more instruction and, along the way got to do, little by little, the things that mechanics did, and of course after a few years (four, I think) you could take the test and become a mechanic. As a helper, I worked with three guys who had been helpers who were moved up, but they had a special title (that I don't remember), and, if some big cheese desired it, they could be moved back down to helper rank. I have written about being a Pipefitter helper, and in this post I share experiences as a Boilermaker helper. I do have to mention that boilermakers, by definition worked primarily on steam engines, and when steam was replaced by diesel engines boilermakers were gradually phased out.

Boilermaker helper

The work on the boiler gang was not unlike the work on the Pipe gang from a couple of summers earlier except that it was noisier, hotter and more physically taxing. I think I actually was glad that I had had some conditioning in Missoula, Montana when I trained at the beginning of my first boilermaker summer to be a smokejumper because I was more physically prepared than I would have been otherwise.

I’m sure that there were more tasks that I did as a helper, than I recall right at this moment, but the three that stick in my mind are : 1. Pulling flues, 2. Tearing the fire brick out of the firebox of a locomotive, and 3. Bucking bolts. Each of these takes some explanation. Most folks have seen an old fashioned steam locomotive with the long front snout taking up about two thirds of the engine length. This snout is called the boiler. Behind the boiler is a large steel, double walled box connected to the boiler, with a door in the back, and in the newer ones (all those that I have seen), a stoker mechanism to bring coal or oil into it as fuel for the fire. The double wall is an extension of the boiler that contains water (as does the boiler for that matter.) Inside the boiler are long tubes in varying sizes depending on the size and type of the engine. These tubes extend from one end to the other of the water filled boiler and range from two or three inches in diameter to (if I remember correctly) about eight or ten inches. These are called flues and they are open to the firebox, carrying super heated air to make steam out of the water in the boiler. This steam builds up tremendous pressure which is used to drive the wheels of the engine.. The firebox is lined completely with firebrick to keep the heat of the firebox from melting the steel. The double walls of the firebox which form the water (steam) tank are connected together (and separated from each other) with steel stay-bolts roughly an inch in diameter and which range in length, depending on the size of the engine and the distance between the tank walls from about eight inches to as long as twenty four inches. The short ones are threaded on both sides. The long ones have a round head about two inches in diameter on the exterior end and threads on the end that is in the firebox. When they are in place, they keep the steam from exploding the walls of the box (when it is under pressure). Pulling the flues is required when the boiler has filled up with sediment, when the flues have developed leaks (usually at the ends, where logic says they should be welded in place, but memory says they are fastened with some kind of cold steel roller. At any rate, they seemed, reasonably often to require replacement or repair, and to do that requires that they be cut loose at the ends, pushed or pulled through the firewall and out onto the ground. Where they go from there I am not sure, but I seem to remember some really noisy machine into which they were inserted and rolled around until all sediment was removed.

As I remember, pulling flues which had been installed fairly recently was not a really tough job, but removing those which had been in the boiler for an extended period of time was really difficult because of the white crusted sediment, hard as rock that had accumulated on the outsideof the flue, sometimes almost an inch thick. I really don’t remember all the details of the process except that it was very strenuous, quite dangerous, with a lot of warnings to watch that fingers didn’t get between the flue and the hole in the firewall, often involved using an air gun with a chisel, and almost always was accompanied by a lot of creative, expressive, and loud profanity.

Firebrick removal was my least favorite job. It was the only job which involved the mechanics (full stage boilermakers) almost not at all. They would bring an engine into the round house, stick it in a stall, and while the fire was still hot, some mechanic in a mystic way that I can only imagine, but it must have been unpleasant, would cut a hole in the bottom of the firebox or remove an ash grate from the bottom to provide access to the place. At somewhat about the same time (before or after, I don’t know, this was the part for mechanics) they would stick a fire hose into the door of the firebox and shoot a lot of cold water into the box. This was done to put out the fire, wash out a lot of the ashes and to create a steam bath that would make a Finnish Sauna seem like a day on the ski slopes (I had never seen or felt a sauna at that time, but had occasion to reflect upon firebrick removal after I got to the mission field and experienced the sauna.). Actually, I have to admit that there were rare occasions when the engine had cooled down completely before the grunts were tossed in to remove the brick, but somehow, they seemed rare.

The grunts (boiler maker helpers)entered either through the bottom or through the fire door, wearing overalls, thick gloves, goggles, and bandanas in front of the nose, and proceeded to chisel the bricks loose with a cold chisel (name of tool, not temperature) and ball peen hammer, separate the bricks and throw them out of the bottom hole. This sounds easier than it actually was because the top surface of the firebrick had often fused, like thick glass which had to be broken before the bricks were tossed out. When an engine was pretty hot, the workers were spelled off every once in a while to come out and breathe. Some of the surfaces of the brick made a really interesting glass effect, and I chipped off a couple and took them home, but they disappeared over the years.

If the television program Dirty Jobs had been in existence while steam engines were common, cleaning the firebrick out of an engine firebox would have been one of the first programs.

My first movement after leaving the firebox was always to the coke machine. Cokes, at that time were in small six or eight ounce bottles, and I was known to occasionally down three cokes in what seemed like three swallows.

One of the games the men played when more than one man went to the coke machine was to check the bottom of the bottle. Each bottle had a city name printed on the bottom which reflected the first bottling company to use the bottle after manufacture. When you checked the bottom, the guy with the bottle coming from the town furthest away either got his free, or had to buy (I don’t remember all the details obviously.)

The third task that I mentioned above was bucking stay-bolts. The old stay-bolts would be cut out with a torch and the holes were re-threaded. New bolts were then inserted and tightened in till they were tight. (For some reason I seem to remember that the lone ones that had heads were inserted and tightened then were backed out of the holes a quarter of a turn. I can’t think of why that was necessary, but I think it was done.)

After the bolts were in place they were sealed by driving the cold steel bolts much as you would drive a rivet. The threaded end of each bolt hat a small hole in it. My understanding (the actual driving of the bolts was done by the mechanics) was that the hole was expanded by driving an air gun into and around the hole so that the bolts also formed a “head” around the hole, much like the head of a rivet. The helpers (me, for instance) were on the opposite end of the bolt with a heavy weighted “bucking bar” to keep the bolt from being driven out. It was much the same as if one were trying to hold a piece of steel on one side of a steel wall while someone else was on the other side hitting it with a sledge hammer. The noise was absolutely insane, and if done now would be legislated by OSHA forever. It was hard enough when you were on the outside of the engine bucking the bolts while the mechanic was inside trying to drive them out, but the worst part was to be on the in side of the firebox bucking bolts while the mechanic was on the outside driving them with an air hammer. Think of putting your head inside the bass drum at a rock concert, times three. The only protection for your ears was a ball of what was called “waste”. This was a bunch of fabric, cleaned and sterilized and shredded into loose thread. To protect your ears you took as large a handful as you could fit in your ears and shoved it in your ear. Sometimes you might tie it in with a bandana but that was all. I have never met anyone who spent even a summer as either a Boilermaker or a Boilermaker Helper who wasn’t, at least partly, deaf by the time they were forty. I haven’t been able to discriminate well in high frequencies for thirty years. I have a mobile phone now and I can never hear it ring unless I have it fastened to my body and frequently not then. I usually don’t hear the regular phone ring, let alone the cell, and when I go to any kind of meeting, if the speaker is a woman with a high voice, I might as well read a book, because I can’t hear a thing. Strangely enough, it hasn’t seemed to hurt my sense of pitch and I can function pretty well in a choir or in a small group. If you get right down to it, I gave my ears to the U.P.Railroad. I was fortunate, I guess in never losing lung function as a result of asbestos (though, as I have said before, I think that the asbestos scare is not what it seems. Most of those with asbestosis or Mesothelioma were also smokers, and that seems to have been a factor.

My work on the boiler gang was very different, in some ways, from work with the Pipefitters. Most of the boilermakers knew me, at least somewhat because my dad was a boilermaker. The Boilermaker’s union always had a big Christmas party up in the hall owned by the Woodmen of the World. One of my earliest memories is going up to the Boilermaker’s Christmas party, singing carols, seeing Santa Claus, (portrayed by a boilermaker named Mr. Horrocks, who was still making money doing Santa Claus twenty years later) and going home with a big stocking full of candy. In the spring the Union sponsored the Boilermaker’s picnic where all the guys went out to a place called Bilyeu’s grove and played softball, ate a lot of good food, and the Boilermaker’s provided beer for the men and vast amounts of soft drinks, and sometimes home-made ice cream for the kids. Many of the older men on my shift had seen me grow up, knew my dad really well and respected him, and some of the younger guys had grown up with me at the same affairs. I always had sense, when I was on the Boiler gang that I was “looked after” to a degree, and sometimes I worked the same shift with my dad, which was interesting. I rarely worked anywhere around dad, though, because he was a welder, and my work usually came before the welders got the engine, or after they were through.

Some of the men were interesting, though some were just clods with dirty minds and dirty jokes. One of the most interesting was a man named Stevie Palmer. He was the dad of a girl who beat up on me in the eighth grade and he had a son just older than me, and, to be honest, until I worked with him I never would have associated either of his children with him, but he seemed to be MUCH older than my dad, and he had the most carefully foul mouth I have ever heard. I don’t think he ever said a sentence in my hearing that didn’t have in it a phrase relating to sex, or some sexual act, some perversion, or something that was ultimately blasphemous beyond the pale of religious profanity. The strange thing is, that he said it in such an innocent sounding way that he was almost never offensive. He was also extremely witty, and, I suspect much better read than he ever let on to be. I worked with him a lot, and he taught me, very carefully how to do my jobs, how to relate to the other workers, and how to protect myself against injury. I really liked him, though I am not sure he was they ideal person to work with while I was trying to prepare myself to be a missionary. About four of the guys on my shift were people from my ward (local church congregation), and it was hard to associate them at work with them at church. One of them had the strangest mind, and he went off in angry tangents about the strangest things. His pet peeve, I think, was that when drivers in traffic were held up by a red light, that they all made traffic so much slower because they waited for the car in front of them to move. If everyone in a line at a light would just start moving the moment the light changed to green, twice as many cars would get through the light before it changed back. I am sure that I heard a rant about this at least once a week.

One of my most frightening experiences grew out of work with the Boiler gang and stay-bolts. I mentioned before that the long stay-bolts had threads on one end and a large round ball head on the other. (This may have happened when I was working with the Signal Gang or when I was a Boilermaker Helper but it involved stay-bolts). There are two elements that are important in the story: one, that a long stay-bolt is impressive and dangerous looking, sort of like a mace with a suit of armour, and two, that there was a time, when there were a couple of articles in the local paper, and, I think, a couple of major fiction stories or movies that warned about young couples going “up on the bench” etc. to neck, cuddle, and “watch the scenery.”

From whatever motivation, I decided to make a weapon out of a stay-bolt. I took an eighteen or twenty inch stay-bolt, and during “downtime?” I began to play with it. First, I covered the round head with rubber insulating tape (not friction tape, but they had a tape around the shop which was sticky on one surface (I believe it had a paper coating on the sticky surface) and was almost an eighth of an inch thick.. I think I did this a couple of times because I was working for a slick finish so I tried heating the tape under a torch to melt it and smooth it (it made it hard and “bubbly” on the surface). I tried warming it over the fire where they melted babbit for bearings, and tried a couple of other things as well. I finally achieved what I wanted by covering the rubber with leather (from an old baseball mitt, I think) that I soaked in water and saddle soap before stretching it around the head of the bolt. I don’t remember how I secured it at the base but the result was really cool looking and I polished it with shoe polish. For the handle I just covered the threaded end of the bolt with leather, glued in place, and I used some plastic looking threads that we used in scout camp for crafts to wrap it down and stitch it. The shaft, I left bare metal, but took it over to a grinder and wire wheel and buffed it up. I drilled a hole in the end and put a leather thong through the hole so that it could be used as a wrist strap. I then fastened metal clips, the kind that are used to hold brooms or that are placed on walls to hold hammers etc., up under the dashboard of one of the cars. I figured that I would be safe if I ever went up on the hill to “neck”. I hadn’t showed this to any of my friends yet. I think I suspected that it was probably and illegal concealed weapon, but I was planning to show them.

It happened that, one evening, after a dance, I drove up to the west bench with a girl. We were sitting there, listening to music and talking and suddenly there was a lot of noise of guys yelling and someone jerked the driver's side door open on the car. With a speedy reflex that surprised even me, I snatched the weapon up and swung it at whoever opened the door. There was a sort of crunch, and “whoever it was” fell down. I jerked the door shut, hit the ignition and tried to “peel out” in reverse. I never had access to a car, when I was a kid, that had the power to peel out of anywhere, and that is probably good because I would have run over someone, but as it was I got far enough back with the lights on to see the person I had felled by the side of my car, and realized that it was a very close friend. I stopped, listened to a bunch of people yelling at me to stop and realized that some of my best friends had been driving around, seen my car, recognized it and decided to harass me a little. When we got out and talked together we found that the guy I had hit was pretty seriously hurt. He obviously had some broken bones and everybody was a little panicked. I am not going to identify anyone who was involved (I can’t even remember who the girl was) because we took him to the hospital and told a good many lies about what had happened (I wish I remember all the details, but I remember that we worked really hard to avoid a story that would have the police out looking for gangs or anything like that.).

The victim had a broken collarbone and a cracked rib, and we ALL contributed to his medical expenses (Though I suspect his parents got stuck for most of them.) After it was over, I showed my weapon to everybody, got a lot of OOOOhs and AAAhs about it and then took it to work where I cut it up into pieces with an acetylene torch and disposed of it. We all tiptoed around for a while thinking that the police were somehow going to get suspicious, re-question the victim and put us all in jail. (If this happened when I think it did, I suspect that it would have affected my mission call negatively, if the police had decided to investigate more thoroughly.) In closing this episode I may as well admit that my failure to identify the other participants has more to do with inability to remember who all was there, than with trying not to identify the guilty. In fact, My high school class recently held a fiftieth reunion and I went through the pictures in the book that resulted and found only one face that related to what happened. This person happened to be the “victim” mentioned so I E-mailed him and asked him if he remembered everyone who was there at the time. He couldn’t remember and asked me not to name him, so age and senility win out over sensitivity and full disclosure.

At any rate, working with the boilermakers helped keep me in good physical shape, and I made, what was then, a lot of money, and learned to use a lot of air pressure equipment. There is a part of me that really wishes I had that stay-bolt club and one or two of the used firebrick from a steam engine. They would be cool in a display case, high enough up on the wall that my grandchildren couldn't reach them. Sometime in the future I will write about my brief experience as a laborer (working on a section gang, or track laying gang) and my very useful experience as a Signal Assistant. I still really miss the steam engine. It was a polluter, inefficient compared to modern railway engines, and really repair prone, but the sight and sound of a steam engine roaring down the line with smoke chuffing out of the stack and the whistle blowing is an incredibly intense image.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

I mentioned, a couple of posts ago, that I was going to change some of my pattern, and go back to writing about my youth, some experiences in theatre and school, some experiences from my mission, and so forth.
as I sat down to do this, the realization came over me that I didn't really have a clue as to what I had already written on these subjects. When one is seventy plus years old , one has probably told or written all of the stories one has to at least a few people. (sometimes over and over-- you can tell when you're talking one on one-- or even one on a bunch of folks-- when you are retelling things that they all have heard because there is a cheesy little smile that pops out on everyone's faces). When I attempt to write about experiences, I can't see whether you have a cheesy smile or not, so I don't know if I have already told the story. I note that I have shifted from second person to third person impersonal ("one") to first person in one paragraph. Another sign of seventy plus, though a bigger sign is that I am too darn lazy to go back and change it.

In an effort to make sure that I don't post anything multiple times, I went back to the archives of my blog, starting right at the beginning, and recording what I have said. I discovered a couple of things. For one thing, I have wondered if dropping away from politics was a factor in my losing readership, but in reading my stuff from 2005 and 2006, I discovered that I was doing better writing about more interesting stuff back then. I guess it is a real sign of age when one/you/I/ get interested in reading my own stuff. For another thing, I really didn't get as rabid about politics as I thought I had, and I may relent and post some politics if I really think it may be of interest and I can control my emotions.

If, in spite of my back-check, I tell you a story that I have already told you, put on your cheesy little smile and drop me a comment, verbally slapping my hand. If you have never read any of the stuff I wrote back in the dark (er) ages, go back and look at it, then feel free to compare it to new work (gee, I have created a "webinar" (I REALLY hate that word). I have several things half written, three of them that I promised to write about two years ago.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

I just posted about all the things i am going to write about, and this isn't it.

I have spent the last few days working on my house, trying to get it as I would like it, and didn't write anything worthwhile (except savage comments on the political blogs of my friends). I spent part of this day watching the funeral of Gordon Hinckley, President of the LDS church. To me it was moving and meaningful. My son made the comment that CNN news would like to cover it, only to get a picture of Mitt Romney in attendance. Sure enough, the funeral was mentioned on CNN news, passing over the fact that it was the funeral of the religious leader of thirteen million people, but mentioning that Mitt Romney had taken a break in campaigning to go to the funeral.

I bought a Boston Butt (subject of several early blog posts) rubbed it in cajun gunpowder and plopped it in the oven to snack on tomorrow, and built a set of shelves for Janet's sewing nook.
My studio is still only in the foundation stages, but at least one of us will have place to be creative.

I then surfed the blogosphere, first reading the blogs that I try to read daily, then using the "next blog" feature of blogger. This is an interesting feature. The first time I did this, I found all kinds of interesting blogs about all kinds of subjects, and wrote about the experience in this blog.

The next time I tried it, every blog that came up, save one, was in one foreign language or another. The only useful thing I did was try to figure out which language was which. The next venture into "next blog" turned up nothing but pornography sites. In my innocence, I didn't really realize that there were pornography sites that dealt with almost every possible human sexual adventure and perversion, and that many of them were for sale in one way or another on blogs.

This discouraged me, so I left the "next blog" button alone for the next several months. Today, while the pork cooks, I went back, and was pleasantly surprised when the first three that popped up were sites by Mormons who had also followed the funeral of President Hinkley.
After those, I found a number of beautiful sites showing the snows in Washington and Idaho which combined by creating at the same time a feeling of nostalgia for the snows of my youth in Pocatello and a real pleasure that I could look at them without feeling them. One reason I stayed in the south was the hope never to shovel snow again.

I found some lovely art sites, with sculpture, painting, beading, dollmaking, and even a really nice site which posted analyses by a variety of folks of the changes in style and technique in both film and stage acting. I bookmarked this one. Of course there were a lot of foreign language sites, one of the most interesting one from Tokyo, Japan that was in Spanish. My Spanish is so rusty that though I struggled for awhile to get the Spanish language scoop on Tokyo, I finally gave up.

Not a porn site to be had at all. I was surprised at how many musicians seem to have blogs promoting themselves and found one that was just a collection of model pictures (male) that a guy obviously posted as a portfolio to use in job hunting.

There are as many blog purposes as there are people, with some people writing lovely poetry and magic thoughts and others just posting the pictures of their kids or pets. Surfing through them can be a better than average way of killing the hour one has to wait up to lower the temperature on the roast, or a good prelude to a nap. Interesting.

I will get to posts of those items that I promised I would post, but I guess I will also just ramble on once in awhile.