Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What Are You Building?

My dad rented space from the McCarthy Steel people. When I was a little kid he would take me to work some Saturdays while he did some office work. For an added treat when he was done we would walk over to the McCarthy offices. He would put 15 cents into the vending machine and let me push the button for a Payday candy bar. The big rough and tumble steel men made jokes at my expense, but the candy bar was good and made up for anything they could have said.

The McCarthy Steel fabricating works consisted of long loading dock, some offices, a long open air, covered storage hanger, and an expansive stretch of tarmac that was exposed to the sun. The asphalt was spotted with one or two stand alone overhead hoists that were certainly capable of great things, but they mostly sat like the rocks at Stonehenge. While the loading docks were fairly busy, I rarely saw any activity at the hoists.

Fourteen years later, I was back as a young man, working for the summer at my dad’s machine shop. The vending machine was still there, and it still sold Paydays, but 15 cents would barely buy me a piece of gum, let alone a candy bar. The big rough and tumble steel men had different faces and different attitudes for a young skinny kid barely in his twenties. They were still patronizing, but different somehow. I made one nostalgic trip to the vending machine and that was enough. My memories were better left unrefreshed.

I was a “go-fer.” I did a lot of running around inside and out, moving, cleaning, painting -- doing all sorts of things that anybody could think up for me to do. The overhead hoists in the McCarthy yard were only thirty to forty yards away on the blacktop. The structures shimmered in the heat of the day, typically a hundred degrees or more. When the sun was high overhead and the conditions just right, pools of mirage water collected and vanished at various places on the pavement.

One day there was some activity out underneath one of the overhead cranes. A man drove a flatbed out there loaded with sheet steel. He used the hoist to lift a few of these sheets off the truck and onto his working surface. I watched him intermittently throughout the day for several weeks as he referred to drawings, chalked up his steel, and finally got down to business.

Working by himself, he suited up in a leather apron and welder’s hood and proceeded to cut the steel sheets with a blow torch. This was long and hot work. I would glance over whenever my work took me outside and there he was sweltering, laboring over his cutting torch. Sheet after sheet, hour after hour, he worked through the cool of the morning well through the heat of the day. Occasionally, someone from the McCarthy offices would wander out and check on his progress, but for the most part he worked by himself. Every time he finished a cut he had to use the hoist to get one set of pieces out of the way and place another on the ground.

In the shop, one of my dad’s guys took me under his wing and taught me and another go-fer how to weld. We learned about the equipment, what to do, and how to do it. I pulled on my leather gloves and dropped my smoked glass hood and proceeded to weld some simple right angles that he said he needed. This was fun for me, but for that guy out in the yard, it was real work -- hot work. My little welding experience gave me an appreciation for exactly what this guy out on the tarmac was doing day after day.

After he had cut all his parts and pieces, it was time to put it all together. He dropped his cutting torch and brought out a welding machine. He welded flat on the ground for awhile. Day after day he knelt down in the hot summer sun suited up in his leather apron and leather gloves and welder’s hood. I could see the welding arc, intensely bright against a backdrop of intensely bright days that were no shelter from the summer heat.

Patiently, he would weld these large sheets together. He would use the hoist to set the steel at the proper angle and then weld away. He would weld two or three sheets together then use the hoist to set them aside. When he was ready, he welded these subassemblies together. Slowly his work began to take shape. After weeks of guessing what this project might be, it started to reveal itself.

When this much was done, another flatbed truck came up to the site with the remaining parts and pieces and suddenly it was blazingly obvious what all this toil had led to.

Another few days on assembly and this solitary welder had built a railcar -- a single hopper, dropped center, covered gondola to be more exact. Gentle Reader, don’t try this at home. The McCarthy Steel company was not in the business of building railcars generally, but apparently it was not beyond their ability to do.

In the six or seven weeks I worked at my summer job, I saw the transformation of raw materials into something that had heft and weight and purpose. My own simple accomplishments of moving, cleaning, painting, and the occasional right angle weld now paled in comparison to what a single man had accomplished in the same time.

Any parent worth their salt will try to instill in their children a little self esteem, some positive attitudes about life and the world around them, the importance of teamwork, the necessity of some modicum of discipline, and the indispensability of an education. One of the lessons most important to impart is that this world is theirs to make of what they will; that they can accomplish anything to which they set their minds. A lot of kids don’t take this last advice very seriously and end up squandering a perfectly good life in the sorry state of underachievement. It is important for them to realize that none of these building blocks of advice works all by itself, but rather it is the collective effort of the whole that makes real achievement possible. Rarely do kids who lack the discipline to practice make good piano players. That’s just the way it is.

This railcar building man may not have had a formal education. He may not have been very high on the employment totem pole at McCarthy, pulling this particular job on a very hot tarmac in a sizzlingly hot summer. But, he demonstrated to me that he had what it takes to accomplish something in this world. This wasn’t plastic model building, this was the real thing. He started with nothing but raw materials and time. He ended up with something big and real and useful.

I’d never built a railcar, nor anything so grand. I marveled at what he had done. I marveled that it could have been done by just one man with a little time and some simple tools. I did not know him. I did not ever meet him and I regret that I did not make the opportunity to shake his hand, or applaud his efforts.

His was a simple example of how lives are built. We start small with simple tools and basic materials, building through experience and perseverance. In the end, if we’re lucky we can look back on it and know that it was something big and real and useful.

© 2009 Mark Indermill - All Rights Reserved


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