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Three score and ten or more

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.


At 8:13 AM, Blogger Gayle said...

It really is a shame that you had to destroy the weapon!

What a great writer you are. I thoroughly enjoyed this. Being a Boilermaker sounds like a very tough job and that's putting it mildly.

As a girl I beat up a boy once. I hope it wasn't you! LOL! I doubt it though because I can't imagine you doing to me what he did. He took a pair of scissors and cut off one of my waist long braids at the neck. I sat in front of him in school and he did it so quick it was a done deal before I knew what was happening. He used his pocket knife to do the dirty deed. Back then pocket knives were allowed. I jumped up on the seat of my old-fashioned desk and clobbered him. Actually broke his jaw and I was the one who was expelled for three days. But he really did get the worst of the deal.

At 3:23 PM, Blogger Norma said...

Ah youth. Good thing you didn't kill your friend!

At 6:11 AM, Blogger Melanie said...

I want to thank you for your wonderful explanation of what a boilermaker does. My Grandfather worked for the UP Railroad in Ogden Utah as an apprentice, then a boilermaker, then he apprenticed as a mechanic and switched to that area. You explained it well enough that I finally understand exactly what he did in that work. I want to thank you!


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