His name was Irv. Probably short for Irving, but Irv suited him much better. Not particularly bright, I always thought that he went by Irv because it was easier to spell. We entered our apprenticeships at about the same time, it didn’t make us friends, but rather, a familiar face to nod to when we saw each other across the way.
I was nineteen, that age where you’re old enough to know better, but too stupid to care. Irv was probably ten years older than me, but hadn’t moved past that nineteen stage; he was of an age where he definitely knew better, but didn’t give a damn. I blamed it on the booze, a kind excuse for someone who was probably just an idiot.
The training program was structured to give on the job training during the day, followed by class room theory in the evening twice a week. Irv and I were in the same classes, nodding off was a regular occurrence for him, but only after arriving his customary 20 minutes late. He usually looked like hell, the smell of cigarettes and bourbon complimented his pallor complexion, the tinge of yellowed sclera surrounding his iris, gave one pause to ponder the condition of his liver.
I had been working at Conoco Oil Refinery about a year; part of a large work force assigned with the task of rebuilding the refinery after a serous explosion took out about 25% of the plant two years before. With it’s multiple distilling towers and catwalks connecting one to the other, it was a labyrinth of piping, and steel, shrouded in clouds of condensing steam vapor. It had the feel of Escher, with an uneasiness of M. Night Shyamalan. The amber glow from the halogen spot lights at night gave it a warm magical feeling, when viewed from the Interstate Bypass. During the day, it was either too hot in the summer, or too cold in the winter.
At one point Irv was working there as well. Shagging tools from the work area back to the tool crib, sweeping out the lunch trailers, sorting out different sized nuts and bolts, he had been delegated to one of the lowest forms menial labor. Irv boast that it was perfect; not too physically taxing, during the heat of the day he could get out of the sun, and at 3:30 he was the first in line to punch out at the time clock. The day Bill Armstrong arrived on the site, Irv’s perfect world came to end.
“Powerhouse Bill” made his bones working the Alaskan Pipeline in the 70’s. He had hammered out a reputation as a boomer; traveling from one turn around project to the next and was regarded as one of the elite fitters in the trade. This job was merely a staging point for the next big one.
Age was creeping up on Bill, waging a timeless battle against his physical abilities. As was customary in the trades, the foreman made sure that the “seasoned” journeymen had an apprentice to partner up with. It was a good trade off, the journeyman didn’t have to handle all the heavy lifting, and the apprentice could learn a lot from a veteran.
There have been hundreds of famous pairings in the history of “Teams”; Orville and Wilbur, Tom and Jerry, Tonto and The Lone Ranger. When Grady McFarland teamed Powerhouse Bill up with Irv, I would liken it to George S. Patton barking orders to Pee Wee Herman. Grady had one wicked sense of humor. By noon on Tuesday the word was out, and a betting pool was suggested wagering the day and time v.s. which deck, Powerhouse Bill would push Irv over the hand rail; on the 200′ Fractioning Column.
The now famous team had been assigned to welding up pipe supports around the perimeter of the 2nd level of the Fractioning Column. It was just after lunch, and I was on my way back to the tool crib to get a chain fall when I saw the two of them. Irv was on the 2nd deck about 80 or 90 feet above the ground, a coil of rope in his hand, down below Powerhouse Bill had their hand tools in a bucket and several hundred feet of welding cable coiled near his feet, waiting for his partner to lower one end of the rope.
The scripting was perfect, all the elements were in place.
Bill’s voice cut through the constant hiss of the leaking steam lines that produced those concealing clouds of vapor.
No response. I looked at Powerhouse Bill in order to get a fix on his partner. Irv was looking up too, watching intently as a gray and iridescent green pigeon tip toed across a steel beam, trying to catch the eye of a similar bird three or four feet above his head.
For an old guy Bill didn’t lack in volume. Several other tradesmen looked to the open concrete area where he was standing. A few gentle elbows and a couple of head gestures had about six or seven men looking at the Laurel and Hardy remake.
Irv hadn’t a clue, the two courting pigeons moved back and forth on the steel beam like some kind of avian tight wire act, being performed just for him.
Bill’s patience looked like it had reached the limit. Reaching down into the tool bucket he grabbed one of the 5/8” nuts that they were using to mount the pipe support system to the structure. Taking a bit of a wind up like a Sunday afternoon baseball pitcher, Powerhouse Bill heaved the nut upward toward Irv. I’m not sure if he intended to hit him or not, but Bill did look a bit disappointed when the nut struck the decking just below Irv’s feet.
Irv reacted with delayed confusion, as the avian lovers took flight. Looking down to his partner as if to say, “What did ya do that for?” I don’t know if it was common sense or dumb luck that he didn’t.
Bill’s face was crimson, his hands formed into tight fists. He was pissed. The journeymen that had gathered were doing all they could to contain their laughter.
“DAMN IT IRV! Throw down the rope!”
Like a daft Rapunzel, Irv did. Neatly coiled, the entire one hundred and twenty five foot length of 3/4 yellow manila rope floated gently down from above, and landed with in three feet of Powerhouse Bill’s steel toed boots.
Bill picked up the length of rope and headed for the Fractioning Tower, spitting out words that I probably shouldn’t be writing here, as he made his way to the first set of stairs.
Depending on how fast he climbed them, and how quick Irv caught on to the situation; Thursday at 1:15 p.m. from the 2nd deck, could have been a winner!
Talk to you later.