Archive for the ‘memoir’ Category

Rework at No Charge, My Life in Heat Treating IV–Joe

June 23, 2008

I made a career decision towards the end of my first year at OMT.  I wanted to move beyond manual labor.  That meant going to the swing shift and working for Joe.

In the small world of Bay Area heat treating, Joe was a legend.  He was known for three things:  an encyclopedic knowledge of heat treating, tremendous physical strength, and heroic drinking.

At OMT Joe ran the shop.  He was the skilled employee.  The day shift and graveyard shift followed his instructions.  He had almost 30 years experience and seemed to remember every job he’d ever processed.

When I met him, Joe was in his middle 50s.  He was about 6′ 2″ tall and weighed at least 250.  He had thick black hair without a trace of grey, a round face, and a ruddy complexion.  He had broad shoulders, narrow hips, and a barrel chest.  In spite of his size he did not look like a strongman.  His long muscled arms lacked definition.  He looked as though he’d never lost his baby fat.  He had a child’s innocent egoism that was accentuated by his voice, which often broke as though it were still changing.  He spoke with no reserve about the minutiae of his life.  I learned a lot about his diet.   If I were to choose an actor to play him it would be Wallace Beery, who starred in many of the movies Joe saw as a child.

Joe was the archetypal OMT Drinking Man.  When I met him he was in a controlled phase.  On week nights he limited himself to three thick fingers of whiskey in a water glass.  On Friday nights on his way home from work he would pick up a 1.75 L bottle of Old Crow and spend the weekend in the company of the top hatted corvid.

He’d given up driving more than ten years previously.  One morning he went out to the car and discovered that he had run into something the night before.  He couldn’t remember a thing about it–what, when, or how.  He decided he was going to hurt someone and never got behind the wheel again.  He depended on Luis, his right hand man at work, to drive him to and from.

Joe never slept.  He napped.  When he was in the Navy in WWII he had a job for a couple of years where he was four hours on and four hours off.  It permanently changed his sleep schedule.  This came in very handy for me when I was in charge of the graveyard shift.  I could call him at any time.

He loved movies.  He grew up in a small city in Eastern PA where his father was an alderman.  His family wasn’t wealthy during the Depression but his father had a steady income.  There was always a dime for Joe to go to a Saturday matinee and have some popcorn.  Movies were the common interest Joe and I had outside of work.  I had spent a lot of my childhood watching movies from the thirties on TV, many of which Joe saw in the theater.  The same prodigious memory that served him so well in his work was crammed with movie detail.  He knew all the character actors from thirties movies.  He and I enjoyed talking about them.  He remembered the plot of almost everything he’d seen.  His taste was somewhere between inclusive and indiscriminate.  If it could be projected on a screen and had English dialogue Joe liked it.   The thing that saved his taste from being indiscriminate was that he liked some movies more than others.

Joe’s first heat treating experience came after high school.  He worked in a heat treat shop in New Jersey for a couple of years before enlisting in the Navy.  He re-enlisted after the war and was discharged in Oakland, CA in 1947.  One ship he served on was part of the group at an early Bikini Atoll nuclear test.  He said that the safety precaution for those on deck was to turn their backs when the device exploded.

Joe married and tried the restaurant business.  When that didn’t work out he went to work in a commercial heat treat shop in Oakland.  That was where he met Big Dick.   When Big Dick and his partner Dale left to start OMT, Joe was their first employee.

I worked for Joe for a year.  He taught me the basics of the black art portion of heat treating, the things that can only be learned from experience.  He wasn’t a teacher by temperament.  He lacked patience and begrudged the time spent teaching when he could be working instead.  A lot of the things that he knew he had trouble expressing verbally.  He did two things right.  He encouraged me to act on my own and expected that I would make mistakes when I did act on my own.  He also gave me a great bit of heat treating philosophy.   Straightening warped metal is an important part of heat treating.  The combination of high heat and rapid cooling in the hardening process for steel often makes parts warp.  Joe had a knack for bringing the parts back to their original shape.  He told me, “You’ll never learn to straighten till you break something.”  Apparently he knew what he was talking about.  Everyone in his age group whom I met in Bay Area heat treating talked about his straightening ability.

Joe gave up drinking in 1983.  He had had some physical problems and started drinking heavily for pain relief.  He had an operation that he never talked about in detail.  After that he never touched a drop.  He showed no signs of withdrawal even though I’m sure it was very hard for him.  His personality didn’t change a bit.  He bought a car and began driving to and from work, reliving Luis of his chauffeur duties.
About a year into his sobriety his wife died of cancer.  They hadn’t been close for many years but, true to their Catholic upbringing, never considered divorce.  It took Joe at least a year to straighten out the problems with her medical insurance.

When I left OMT at the end of 1985 Joe was 62.  He could do as much or more physical labor than anyone in the shop.  He still had no grey hair.  He had the same enthusiasm for his job he had as a young man.  A few months later he had a stroke.  He was lying on the couch watching TV.  The next thing he knew he was lying on the floor not knowing how he got there.  It was the first time something like that happened to him without benefit of alcohol.  His son took him to the hospital.

In less than six months he was back at work.  He had no savings and no life outside of work.  He’d lost a lot of control over the left side of his body and walked with a cane.  His speech was affected too.  He could express himself as well as ever but had difficulty with pronunciation.  His voice, always raspy, became more low pitched and didn’t break any more.

I visited him at the shop several times when I was passing through Oakland in the evening.  The thing that I remember most that he said to me was “Never have a stroke.”  We laughed but I knew he was completely serious too.  He wasn’t cut out to be an invalid.  Aside from his strength he needed to be in constant motion.   When he drank he slowed down to a normal person’s pace.  Alcohol was the governor on his personal engine.

After a couple of years away from OMT I lost touch with Joe.  When I visited him in the shop I saw his physical decline parallel the decline of OMT.  Over a twenty year period industry had abandoned the Bay Area.  OMT’s biggest customer, a steel foundry, went out of business.  Two other major customers moved to Nevada.  OMT had a graveyard atmosphere.

In 1992 I was looking for my first programming job and not having much success.  I called Little Dickie and asked about a part time job.  He offered me a full time job, which I turned down.  He told me that Joe was still working and that Jim, the truck driver had died.  That was my last contact with OMT.  Dickie died in the late nineties, victim of his prodigious drinking habit.   The building was bought and rehabbed as loft housing.  It looks clean and neat, nothing like it did as OMT.  The corrugated siding is decorative.  It’s painted.  There are no broken windows.


Rework at No Charge, My Life in Heat Treating III–The Most Important Thing in Life

November 30, 2007

I grew up in a middle class suburban area.  By the time I started working at OMT I’d worked quite a few dead end low paying jobs.  I had found out that realizing the American Dream was a lot more complicated for most people than it had seemed when I was twelve.  I had learned that managing to live indoors, eat regularly, and have clothing were trickier than I had thought.  I was happy that I had managed to keep a car and have some used stereo components.

I started to think that I was catching on.  I was mistaken.  OMT taught me the three most important things in life.  In descending order of importance they are:  drinking, gambling, and sex.  Drinking, by far, is the most important.

Big Dick’s question, “Are you a drinking man?” opened the door to item one.  I soon became accustomed to seeing people at OMT drunk.  They were not tipsy, not high, not getting a glow on.  They were trashed, plastered, wasted.  They had slurred speech, and unsteady gait, and were prone to vomiting.

I had been a pizza parlor manager for nearly a year.  I’d dealt professionally with things like that before.  I was accustomed to saying things like “I’m sorry, sir, I’m afraid I’ll have to cut you off.” or ease them out the door by saying “Sir could I talk to you over here?” and end up on the sidewalk.  I’d then slip back inside and hold the door shut.  When the owner taught me that one I was amazed.  It worked.  I never tried it on a biker.

I wasn’t used to seeing my boss behave like that.  I don’t know if I got used to it but I learned to expect it.

Steve  the night shift foreman when I started, exemplified the OMT Way.  He was blonde haired and a bit below medium height.  His short neck and broad forehead gave him a toad like appearance.  He had acne, unusual for a man in his thirties that added to his toadness.  He was born in a medium sized city in Minnesota.  He learned heat treating in a midwestern city noted for its large manufacturing industry.  He had worked in one of the largest commercial heat treating plants there.  Steve had been on probation in that state.  One night he and some friends were getting drunk.  They ran out of beer.  Steve volunteered to go to the store.  He managed to drive to a convenience store and brought a case of beer up to the register.  Suddenly it dawned on him.  He had no money.  He told the clerk he needed to get his wallet from his car.  He came back wielding a tire iron.  The clerk triggered the silent alarm.

Steve was a mean drunk.  He was rude and cantankerous.  Two of his favorite expressions were “snake dick” and “fist fuck.”  He used them as epithets without concern for their real meaning.  For example, instead of saying “Well I’ll be darned,”  he would say “Well, fist fuuuck.”  When he came to work and talked with the swing shift foreman about what needed to be done he would say things like “Fuck you, you old bastard, I’m not gonna do that.”   He was insulting and competitive and needed to be Right.  He loved to be nasty for the sheer fun of it.  Since he spent a lot of his free time in bars and wasn’t big, strong, or a good fighter he got beaten up more often than most people.

Steve liked to come to work well prepared.  When he had a car he liked to bring in a twelve pack of beer and a pint of whiskey.  When he didn’t have a car and depended on someone picking him up at the Buckhorn, his favorite bar, in the company truck he’d send someone to the store later.

When I worked on the swing shift, sometimes I’d stay after work to smoke dope and drink a beer or two with Steve and John, a friend of Steve‘s from the midwest who’d landed at OMT. John was, apart from being a drinking man, a decent person.  His wife had gone to high school with SteveSteve was the smartest person in her class.  One night Steve was walking from the back of the shop to the front, a distance of nearly a block.  He got about half way, stumbled, vomited, and stood up straight and walked the rest of the way as thought nothing had happened.

Steve eventually got a job at a forge shop in Berkeley where they paid union wages.  When he left OMT he had to work an extra two weeks in order to pay off the advances he’d taken on earlier pay checks.

Rework at No Charge, My Life in Heat Treating II

November 19, 2007

Among the drinking men at OMT, there were several who stood out.  On my first day at work I met Jim.  He was a tall slender black man in his fifties with a high raspy voice.  He loved a good natured loud argument.  Jim was a drinking man among drinking men.  He wore cowboy boots.  In one boot he always had a half pint of Old Taylor.

Jim was born in Mississippi and came to the Bay Area when he was a young man.  He had worked at a wide variety of blue collar jobs including driving heavy equipment and concrete trucks.  Drunk or sober he was an expert at driving the fork lift and operating the bridge crane.  He probably kept me from killing myself when I was starting out. I had no experience whatsoever with forklifts and cranes. He was the only one in the shop who tried to teach me the ins and outs of moving large heavy things.  Sometimes the lessons consisted of his taking over from me and saying something like “Here, get out of the way.”  Sometimes he took the time to show me what to do.

Jim lived across the street from OMT in a house owned by his mother-in-law, Mrs. Berry.  The area around OMT was zoned for mixed industrial and residential.  Mrs. Berry owned two dilapidated Victorians that stood next door to each other.  The residents of the houses were mostly family members.  Several members of the Berry family had worked at OMT at one time or another including Mrs. Berry’s son Chuck.  Chuck did not play the guitar.  He worked as a heat treater at a near by Naval Air Station.   That was the premium heat treating employer in the Bay Area.  Chuck was best known for the half pint of 151 rum that accompanied  him wherever he went.

Jim’s day started at 6AM.  He’d walk across the street, get out the company truck, and drive to a liquor store.  There he’d buy a half pint of Old Taylor for himself and a Racing Form for Little Dickie.

His favorite phrase was “Fuck that motherfucker.”  He applied it creatively to many situations without it losing it’s meaning.  He often leaned against the table near the time clock.  He would say “Fuck that motherfucker.  I don’t give a fuck.” Then he reached into his boot, pulled out his half pint, and took a deep drink.

A couple of years after I started Jim became the company truck driver.  OMT had gone through two drivers in two years and needed someone more reliable.  Jim’s immediate predecessor, son of the owner of Little Dickie’s favorite nearby bar, i. e. the nearest one, decided that as long as he had the truck and visited places that had a lot of scrap metal he would go into the scrap business.  He got away with that for quite a while.  Dickie caught him at his father’s bar one day, unloading boxes of bar snacks from the bed of the company truck.

Jim was a good truck driver compared to his predecessors.  He came to work every day and did his pickups and deliveries on schedule.  In spite of his friendship with Old Taylor he never got into an accident.  When he punched out at the end of the day he frequently had trouble getting his time card into the clock and even more trouble putting it back into the rack.

Dickie fired Jim at one point.  The two of them, both drunk, got into an argument that escalated to name calling and, perhaps, a little pushing and shoving.  Dickie fired him on the spot.  The official reason provided when OMT contested Jim’s unemployment claim was the use of foul and abusive language to his employer.  Jim used foul and abusive language to  almost everyone.  It was his normal way of speaking.  He was rehired before the year was out.

Some of the white employees made fun of Jim when he had trouble with the time clock or did other things that showed he was drunk.  “Look at that n*****” they’d say, “He is fucked up.” Jim’s drinking and seeming irascibility masked his intelligence and dignity.
He was good hearted and fair minded.  He was one of my favorite people there.

A few years after I left OMT Jim died of pancreatic cancer, a consequence of his close personal relationship with Old Taylor.

Rework at No Charge–My Life in Heat Treating I

November 15, 2007

When I was nearly thirty my wife encouraged me to get a job. I had worked regularly since I was sixteen but had never had a job with real earning potential. I had a choice, go back to school and get a teaching credential or learn a trade. Either would have taken about two years. I chose learning a trade.

I enrolled in a local junior college in the Materials Technology, i.e. vocational metallurgy, program. I loved it. I decided to become a heat treater. In retrospect it wasn’t the the most sensible decision I ever made but it took me a while to figure that out.

Heat treating is making metal harder or softer by various combinations of heating and cooling. When people asked me what I did I would tell them I was a chef who cooks steel and aluminum. If I wanted to annoy them I would say that I manipulated the mechanical properties of metals by controlled allotropic phase changes. Both are true.

After graduating I found a job at a company usually called OMT. The business is defunct, the owners are dead, and the building has been converted to urban loft housing. It had a fifty year run. OMT was a job shop. It heat treated steel and aluminum for local machine shops, foundries, and manufacturers. The building was nearly a block long. It was built a few years before the beginning of WWI. It was a standard corrugated iron industrial building. Disrepair was the theme of the décor. About a third of the windows were broken and the siding was loose in many places. It was not long until I found out that the roof leaked badly. A third of the equipment in the building, mostly furnaces, didn’t work and stood abandoned.

The owner’s son hired me. He and his father were both named Richard and called Dick. When I started work I learned that the employees called them “Big Dick” and “Little Dickie.”

Little Dickie was tall, about 6′ 2″. He was one of the thinnest men I had ever met. He had a long acne scarred face with a prominent nose and deep set eyes. He had a deep mellifluous voice and radiated nervous energy. He was a bit older than I. His darkening blonde hair seemed incongruous.

My first day at work I met Big Dick. He was immense. About the same height as his son he weighed well over three hundred pounds. He had a florid complexion and thinning sandy hair. His sweet tenor voice belied his size. It seemed to me that he and his son had received each other’s voices by mistake. We shook hands and I sat down.

“Are you a drinking man?” he asked.

I said “I’ve been known to take a drink now and then.” He welcomed me to the OMT family and I went back to work.

It turned out that he embraced alcohol with born again fervor. By “drinking man” he meant someone who drank a quart of whiskey a day as a normal part of his diet. Big Dick had created OMT in his own image. All of the veteran employees were drinking men.

The work included a lot of hard manual labor. Ten to twenty thousand pounds of rough castings and another five thousand pounds of small parts went out the door every day. None of the work was automated. Labor saving devices comprised two bridge cranes, two fork lifts, and six men of uncertain immigration status from Mexico.