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Archive for January, 2012

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.

PowerHouse Bill and Irv.

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.

“Irv!

Bill’s voice cut through the constant hiss of the leaking steam lines that produced those concealing clouds of vapor.

The distracting offender.

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.

“Hey Irv!

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.

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Every industry has them, legendary men who by courage, brilliance, or brute strength and determination have been immortalized by their feats. It’s rare that those excelling at mediocrity are given such acclaim.

Things play out differently in the field of construction; an individual can make a name by being a great job site superintendent, a golden armed welder, a superior fitter, or being strong as an ox. We also reserve notoriety for those individuals that drink too much, or posses a physical male attribute that would make a Barbie doll blush. Even stupidity is awarded with it’s own form of distinction. The tales of these men are passed down from journeymen to apprentice, year after year, in the downtown high-rise projects, in power plants and oil refineries.

Ray became one of those legends. The trades were a male dominated field, even more so when Ray was in his prime. I knew him as an old timer, someone over 55 back then. He was old school, which meant he was outspoken, opinionated and short fused. Women in the trade? Not on your life. He was the stereotypical construction worker with a stay at home wife. Her duty was to him, keeping a clean house, getting his dinner on the table when he came home from work, a lunch packed for him each morning, while he ate a  breakfast prepared by her. A real charmer as my wife would say.

Our day started on the site at 6:45 a.m. coveralls and hard hat on, with tools in hand by 7:00. A typical crew was made up of eight men, six journeymen, and two apprentices,  supervised by a crew foreman, I was one of the apprentices. Ray was my journeymen, we were installing baseboard radiation on the third floor of a 12 story building, when I say we, I meant Ray.

“Gut Damn cub! Can’t do anything right. Gimme dat damn ting!”

Ray had the patience of a badger at a gopher hole. No one could do anything right, and after learning about the new hire in the other crew it was even worse.  A new apprentice had been hired for the basement crew and when Ray found out it was a woman he hit the roof.

I resisted the temptation to throw the flaming acetylene torch at him, instead I carefully shut it off and handed it to him.

“Vot da hell did you shut it off for? Now hand me dat striker”!

It wouldn’t have mattered, if I had handed it to him lit he would have been pissed about that too. Ray was just a grumpy bastard, and everyone on the crew knew it. He was sort of a testing ground for new apprentices, and the last six months had been like… like a return to Munich Germany, June 1940, if you get my drift.

I handed Ray the flint striker; with a quick squeeze a shower of sparks exploded from its steel pan, followed by a burst of yellow orange flame. A small adjustment cleared the soot as the flame went from orange, to yellow, to blue as he introduce more oxygen. He was a competent journeymen, but his impatience with his team made him a difficult man to work with.

We worked on the copper fin tube, moving our way down the wall hanging the tube in the brackets and soldering the tube together as we progressed along. My job was to clean the tube with sand cloth, flux the tube, clean a copper coupling, flux that as well, and hand them to Ray. In six months I had cleaned 6000′ of fin tube and 600 copper couplings, I had used about 2 pounds of flux and was on my 10th fluxing brush. In that time I had soldered about 10 couplings, Ray didn’t think I was ready. Sometimes I would daydream; thinking of ways to accidentally start his thread bare coveralls on fire, or to drop a 24″ pipe wrench off the top of an eight foot ladder on to his grey haired and balding head.

“Hey! Vat are you doingk? It’s break time”.

My image of Ray sprawled out on the concrete floor, the 24″ pipe wrench laying next to his head vanished into thin air. It was 9:30 break. For the next 15 minutes I wouldn’t have to worry about doing something wrong.

At break the crew gathered for coffee, and some kind of light snack. A cookie, or doughnut, just enough sugar and caffeine to get you through the remainder of the morning, until the next break at 12:00.

Rays' steel cornucopia.

Ray’s wife was famous for packing a great lunch box, fresh fruit pie or brownies, roast beef sandwiches with dill pickles, and some kind of dessert, and always two cloth napkins, one for the lap; a fork and spoon plated silver or stainless were wrapped in the other. The crew always looked in Ray’s direction to see what he pulled forth from the steel cornucopia.

Today it was fresh cherry pie. Ray had this ritual, first the cloth napkin was laid in his lap, next the Tupperware pie shaped container, the lid pulled back, and then the unwrapping of the flatware. We waited, and waited, there was no flat ware. Ray pulled out a tin foil wrapped sandwich, a pickle wrapped in cellophane, then a second Tupperware container, it looked like  chocolate pudding. Suddenly there was huffing, and puffing and gruffing, follwed by cursing.

“Gut damn voman, can’t even pack my lunch box right. Vhere is da fork und da spoon! How in da hell am I sposed to eat dis vit no fork!”

In the trades when opportunity knocks, the inspired act quickly. Tim was one of those inspirational kind of men. Grasping at the moment he struck.

“Ray! What the hell? Did your old lady forget your silverware? That’s some shit man, I wouldn’t let my old lady get away with that!”

Like coyotes closing in on a lamb in the pasture, two other journeymen joined in.

“Yeah Ray! What the fuck, I would give her some shit about that tonight when you get home”!

Ray was pissed, indignant about the inconvenience and embarrassment she had put him through. By lunch time he was fuming having to fashion a eating utensil from the tin foil sandwich wrapping  in order to eat his chocolate pudding. The second round of encouragement from the crew did not help the situation.

That afternoon with his wrath focused on the missing fork and spoon, I managed to take over the soldering duties, with his wife on his shit list I could do no wrong.

The next day was Friday, it’s generally an easy day as everyone has payday and the weekend on their mind. Ray was back to his old self, fretting that he may have to redo all the soldier joints that I did, if they leaked. I was back to cleaning fin tube and fittings, and day dreaming about Rays unfortunate demise. By 9:30 I was ready for a break from mister sunshine.

We went down to the second floor for break. I had forgotten about the fork and spoon incident, and so had Ray. The crew each pouring their coffee, casually glanced in Ray’s direction. Ray opened the his steel lunch box, on top a neatly folded napkin, placed with love. Ray removed the napkin, his face contorted like some one had his finger clamped in a vise. The crew leaned forward trying to get a look at what the woman of valor had packed today.

Forks? You want forks?

“Vhat ta fuk is dis”?! Vier is my food!

Ray lift the lunch box and dumped out the contents, it was nothing but forks and spoons. There must have been service for 8.

Tim was the first to speak.

‘Yeah Ray, looks like you told her!

Several other journeymen chimed in.

“Way to go Ray”! So what’s for lunch”!

It was the first time I saw him smile.

“Aahh Fuk you guys”.

Legendary, it doesn’t always carry a metal.

Talk  to you later.

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