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BY Davey H

09/01 Direct Link

With that searing steelworker's initiation under his belt, Davey was more determined to bust ass with this company, maintaining a level of competence and saving face in the face of scrutiny bearing down on his pink carcass.

On the other hand, though he had been forced to turn the other cheek, would he be better off turning tail and running? Should he turn and leave or turn over a new leaf?

Davey stayed the course, choosing the latter and occasionally using a ladder.

After all, this job was his ticket out of penury after completion of that CETA welding program.

09/02 Direct Link

And what was CETA, you may ask?
Well, if memory serves – which it frequently doesn't – this program was a bit like the WPA of yore, where legions of the unemployed found respite from inaction and were thus put to work building bridges, state parks, campgrounds and the like.

So for non-indolent Davey – historically accustomed to some meaningful occupation or other, however remunerative it may or may not have been – this CETA stuff was a welcome opportunity.

The Skills Center was 2B his weekly grind where he broke ass burning rods all day for the princely sum of 85¢ per hour.

09/03 Direct Link

Burning rods on clean, freshly cut, ground and de-slagged metal plates was one thing; getting out on a job site to work in real world difficult situations was quite another.

Granted, though the Skills Center staff placed a strong emphasis on rudiments as well as placing rods of the utmost difficulty (namely the profoundly frustrating 6010 rod) in the hands of students, it was still a far cry from what awaited the eager newbie welder when he left the cocoon of the classroom-shop.

So when teacher/crew supervisor Amos Prattster approached Davey with a placement slip, Davey happily jumped on it.

09/04 Direct Link

Now came time to put theory to action, action to traction; then without detraction, not look back.
Thus Davey embraced the steelworker's shack.

A world of fascination awaited as he sauntered into the massive cavernous facility with its collection of five 'electric overhead traveling cranes' rolling noisily on sturdy steel girders far above the shop floor.

About a half-dozen boxcars, hopper cars and at least one tanker were spaced strategically across the football field-sized span of shop as workers scurried on, under, and around such hulks – though not in too much hurry; after all, they were paid by the hour.

09/05 Direct Link

Long before his'sheet metal stretcher' initiation incident, Davey had encountered the biggest bull of the crew, a fellow appropriately named 'Bear'.

It happened one day as Davey was enthusiastically cutting through some angle iron with and oxyacetylene torch. Nearing the halfway point, and with great difficulty seeing his work through a gritty shade #3 set of burning goggles, Davey nearly shat bricks as the torch's flame went out: PFFFFT! Just like that.

Job over?

He tipped up his goggles to see a bigass set of boots filled with the burliest, biggest bawdy dude he had seen since high school football.

09/06 Direct Link
Before we begin, this preamble: Noting the horrendous typo in his former post, paragraph 2, line 3, in which Davey spat “cutting through some angle iron with ‘and’ oxyacetylene torch”, Davey vowed to be in less of a hurry and put more effort into proofing. After all, nobody should expect ‘auto correct’ or ‘spell-check’ to be reliable replacements for prudent proofreading.

Thus, as he was saying, er, typing, regarding past foibles as a novice steelworker in that bustling railcar repair shop, Davey was cowering under the acerbic gaze of ‘Bear’, awaiting whatever admonition was to be summarily dumped upon him.
09/07 Direct Link

“You ain’t allowed to weld or burn until you’re finished probation.”

Thus spoke the bumptious Bear
from between brown teeth
and beneath brown hair.
To Davey bequeathed
a harsh brimstone fare
as Davey sulked beneath
this sturdy steel lair.

This was Davey’s ‘whoops!’ moment; after all, he had known of the 45-day probationary period initially, but just couldn’t resist the urge to lay his mitts on a satisfying project.
 
Upon further questioning from Bear as to who assigned Davey this cutting torch, it turned out that Bob Winson, one of the ‘white hats’, had ordered Davey to do the cutting.

09/08 Direct Link

This was a big no-no in the eyes of such self-appointed shop stewards as Bear; it was, after all, a union shop.
Davey was entirely too eager to work, and that couldn’t be tolerated, so he received perfunctory assignments like sweeping, collecting scrap, and grinding welds on cars in preparation for painting.

So chalk this incident up to the earliest real-world training that no amount of schooling could prepare the novice for:

1) know your place.

2) Don’t allow work to be completed too fast.

3) The ‘white hats’ aren’t your bosses – even if they tell you what to do.

09/09 Direct Link

But the much-loathed white hats DID tell Davey what to do on occasion, and he could feel the tension this state of affairs created. An inherent 'nice guy' tendency meant not standing on his hind legs and letting out a string of tasty expletives when such spurious orders were given, but rather just to nod, maybe fart, then turn to.

He tried to fathom the pecking order of this human organization while letting the intermittent teasing slide. At least some of the time; Davey's weak spots would emerge soon enough.

Like characters in a play, each worker had unique roles.

09/10 Direct Link

Don't think for a minute that unionization didn't play a significant part in this delineation: painters PAINTED, welders DID the welding, the tool room dude was the only one assigned to that area, and maintenance guys puttered.
Since Davey was such a green-assed neophyte, his official title was 'utility man', a.k.a. “shit job” doer.

So the daily grind became literally that. Having been assigned to work under the capable wings of highly skilled Bob Rodenbach, Davey began running an extremely noisy pneumatic 7” grinder from approximately 8:30 a.m. until lunch break. This, mind you, was WITHOUT hearing protection at first.

09/11 Direct Link

No protection at first,
imperfection at worst,
for Davey, sound wavy
cacophony cursed!

Whilst squelching his fears
he injured his ears
in binding and grinding
it gored him to tears.

But this horrendously loud sound didn't seem to bother the industrious Davey H, though in retrospect, he knew damn well, deep down, that it WAS putting a hurtin' on his precious hearing.
But this was part of the working-class machismo – and a well-worn cliché, you bet:
“NEVER LET 'EM SEE YOU SWEAT”.

On about day two of this arduous daily grind, help raised its head: Jim Campbell to the rescue!

09/12 Direct Link

How DARE I not pay tribute to September 11th?

Okay, okay, with sadness I pay
heartfelt RIP to those lost on that day!
Back to the grindstone
my mind-stone
will flit:
the 9/11 crooks got away with it.

Getting back to the fume-laden shop,
one day Davey H almost couldn't stop.
Campbell Jim had to buttonhole him
and with a frown, sure not a grin,
said, “Davey, I see danger nearing;
'cause you're gonna lose your hearing!”

This was a wakeup call for Davey H as he blew his nose to find the resultant snot laced with ghastly gray grit.

09/13 Direct Link

Daily literal grind notwithstanding, Davey found this job initially fascinating. And the equipment? It looked like stuff he'd seen in old black and white TV shows.

Those decades-old overhead traveling cranes lumbered like Sherman tanks along sturdy tracks supported by a framework of girders; indeed, the actual building with its terra cotta brick-face was a mere facade.

Going north-south in the first smaller bay were two 10-ton versions of such cranes; a cavernous neighboring bay sported two 35-ton cranes, and the cavernous perpendicular sector of the shop was host to a 50-ton behemoth.

All cranes were proudly manufactured in 1910.

09/14 Direct Link

It wasn't long before Davey got a goofy gander at the cranes' lifting power: at times, guys would heft whole sides of boxcars and tack them into place as the crane operator deftly moved and positioned in accordance with hollered commands from the floor.

Large sheet metal sections would be gripped with 'dogs', surprisingly small devices which held more and more firmly with commensurate increases in loads.

The cars' wheels, or 'truck assemblies' as known in shop parlance, consisted of two sets of barbell-like steel wheels held in spring mounted frames that rode front and rear under each respective car.

09/15 Direct Link

To facilitate rotational capability, each 'truck' was in turn skewed by a 'kingpin' – a phallic, long dong silver hunk of US steel approximately 15” in length that fit into a receiving hole in the car's base.

One can well imagine the crude jokes that flew like spitballs whenever workers pulled a kingpin out of its frame.

It was Jim Bowen, if memory serves, who speculated that each wheel assembly – meaning left and right wheels and axle – tipped the scales at around 1100 pounds. To Davey, that seemed a little on the light side; they MUST have weighed more than that.

09/16 Direct Link

In fact, EVERYTHING on freight rail cars seemed outrageously heavy. It stood to reason that all the parts had to withstand all that bumpin' and a-rattlin' during daily discharge of their carrying duties. Moreover, as each car's capacity frequently approached or exceeded 200 tons, sufficient structural sturdiness could only be assured if the entire apparatus was 'overbuilt' on the heavy side.

Soon, Davey learned what those cryptic numbers and letters stenciled on the lower quadrants of the cars meant. 'LT Weight' indicated the car's empty weight.

Boxcars – seemingly the most frequent contenders for repair – averaged 35,000 pounds, but varied widely.

09/17 Direct Link

Tank cars, if memory serves – as memories of that era are fading fast – would weigh 40 tons or so, and many of the coal cars were similar in heft, some having been constructed of specialty alloys such as 'Cor-ten®'.

Davey's recollections of that little tidbit are very strong, however, as he recalls the long-haired worker who described it as he struggled with welding operations on a coal car.

Davey endeavored to hear this little instructive discourse over the din of the worker's boom-box as it blasted Bob Seeger's “Hollywood Nights”.

CorTen® was a bitch to weld, the worker told him.

09/18 Direct Link

But the worker went on to postulate and ruminate as to how this specialty alloy came to be the favored choice for coal cars.

Now here it was, 35 years later, as Davey did some superficial research and discovered that Cor-Ten® was classified as 'weathering steel', or steel that did not need painting. And interestingly, thinking back to that dirty-ass shop, it stood to reason that since these squat but sturdy hopper cars had coal spilled into and on to them on a regular basis, that alone would provide a sort of dingy finish in the form of coal tar.

09/19 Direct Link

So nowadays, CorTen®, Cor-te®, or whatever trade name any given operator preferred to go by, is, as of this writing, no longer made in the United States.
Steelworker dudes were, however, still made in the USA, and pride and ego levels ran the gamut in this particular shop.

During Davey's tenure under Bob Rodenbach, a few more newbies joined the fold, and Davey felt a surge of reassurance with this minuscule increase in seniority.

One of the new workers, Anthony Mavis, had been struggling at the Skills Center during Davey's stay, and 'graduated' in a subsequent group of rod burners.

09/20 Direct Link

Anthony – or rather, Tony – Mavis was a burly, incredibly strong black fellow with keen, well-honed 'street smarts', a couple of missing front teeth, and, well, just a really solid sense of how life operates.
Oh, you can bet he had seen serious trouble!

Davey had expressed frustration, pissing and moaning to Tony one day – probably over some head-butting with another ego such as Lew Smith – and Tony put Davey in his place with gentility and tact.

“I could just quit here and go to college!” Davey huffed, red-faced.

Anthony replied, “well, until then, you keep workin' and maintain your cool.”

09/21 Direct Link

Tony was a godsend to the still-naive Davey, and it was worth noting that Tony and Davey formed a working class bond despite their highly disparate backgrounds.

Davey began to observe overt racism that coursed through some of his cohorts' veins, and one incident in particular stands out.
And that one occurrence not only solidified his already considerable respect for Tony, but reaffirmed Davey's loathing for that loutish, greasy-assed animal named Bear.

Tony got saddled with a sh** job one day: cleaning a hopper car.
This wouldn't ordinarily be so bad, but Bear stood outside the car bellowing, “work, n**er!”

09/22 Direct Link

Davey was shocked by Bear's crude antediluvian huffing, puffing, and pejorative slinging, but at least it showed the big fellow's true colors.
With this nastiness in plain view, the best thing a 'boot camp' newbie like Davey could do was stay out of the way, keep his head down, and not cause any fuss.

It should be worth mentioning, however, that Bear's racist shenanigans and views were not shared by other whites in the shop.

So on it went: each day a dusty, noisy, dirty clamoring with high hopes of learning and of course collecting that paycheck on Friday afternoon.

09/23 Direct Link

Reflecting once again on the stellar talents of Bob Rodenbach, Davey considered it a privilege to work under him. The cat just had a way with, well, everything. His assembly and alignment skills were unparalleled, and he was a topnotch welder.

In fact, that was a big wake-up call for Davey as he watched in astonishment while Bob burned right through paint while welding some difficult coupling parts together, snaking the rod through a small opening on one side of the piece.

Ghastly gray smoke curled up around his helmet, but Bob didn't bother to get out of the way.

09/24 Direct Link

Fumes didn't intimidate Bob, a Vietnam vet who never talked about his military experience. And chances are no toxicity from this rail car repair facility would rattle him.

But to civilians who never served in that particularly noxious Southeast Asian conflict, breathing ozone, nitrogen oxide, and hexavalent chromium were harsh workday health risks.

As a bit of theoretical welding pretext, the predominant rod used for most shop operations was 7018 or 9018 'low hydrogen', and though it flowed with considerably more ease than the old 6010 rod, it still took a lot of skill to work it in real-world conditions,

09/25 Direct Link

Davey was ensconced with the air powered grinder many a day, but still cherished time under Bob’s wing, and better yet, not simply as a gopher. No, Bob allowed dignity to develop in his underling.
But if something was needed, Davey happily hopped to.

Fetching the day’s rods meant a visiting the dusty cylindrical rod ‘oven’ that sat unceremoniously by the whole-house air compressor, and was a must-go first stop for mechanics.

Usually 1/8” 7018 was the do-all be-all rod for most sheet operations on mild steel up to 3/8”, but 3/16” 7018 was best suited for beefy structural stuff.

09/26 Direct Link

Bob Rodenbach was not only a first-class ‘mechanic’, but a first-class guy! Soft spoken, gutsy and determined, he simplyWORKED his butt off day in, day out, with little idle chit-chat intervening.

Understand that ‘Mechanic’ was a broad, sweeping job classification given to workers who actually performed repairs on the rail cars; at times we would weld, bang, grind, cut, fit, bend or straighten requisite parts into submission after said cars had been damaged or derailed.

So although Davey had keen interest in welding full time, it would be merely part of this job picture, and Bob was the perfect tutor.

09/27 Direct Link

Davey was still very wet behind the years after his 45 day probationary period had elapsed, and many tests lay ahead. For the most part, he leaned into the headwinds and busted ass.

Bob laid one such test on Davey one day when Bob’s oxygen tank ran out. This state of affairs, to the uninitiated, renders any given oxy/acetylene torch useless; the acetylene will still burn, albeit with a very smoky, yellow flame, spitting flecks of carbon in the air, but has no heat value.

So Bob pointed to the tank rack, and Davey rolled the empty one into it.

09/28 Direct Link

Stopping briefly to puzzle over which tanks might be full – as none were specifically labeled – Davey grabbed the only logical one, which was curiously marked 'MT', scrawled in white chalk, and brought it back to the work station.

Bob's eyes lit up as if he had spotted a friggin' fire or something. “Ya see that?” he asked Davey – as if Davey had any clue whatsoever. Davey nodded in the negative. Bob continued, mildly miffed: “MT – that means EMPTY!”
Duh.

So Davey was the ass
and the shop, not contrarily,
and surely not merrily,
was at least temporarily
out of gas!

09/29 Direct Link

It took a while for Davey to live down that MT incident. In the eyes of his peers, this would have been a grave, ego-puncturing faux pas, and thankfully it didn't ripple out past the Bob 'bubble' – that short-lived cocoon of tutelage Davey was immersed in.

'MT-gate' taught him many things, paramount among them: when in doubt, well, roll over your macho instincts, don't pretend to know it all and just freekin' ASK.

The time eventually came for Davey to be assigned to other mechanics, being plugged in wherever he was needed.
That boded well, until he hit the sauce.

09/30 Direct Link

Yes, indeed – one way to kill a worker's skills and verve is to apply ethanol.
This 6 bucks an hour stuff was a boon to Davey in his relative prevailing penury, and any modicum of common sense had not substantially kicked in yet, so he became a party animal, spending foolishly on expensive imported beer and attending intoxication sessions with his friend Dodd out in the 'burbs.

This would prove nearly disastrous for Davey's otherwise steady welding hand and gung-ho attitude.
So his performance predictably plummeted.

Caroming off-course meant he would rack up 21 latenesses and absences the first year.