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.

Master of Warthog Husbandry Arrives

October 30, 2007

Gosh, my first real blog. I’m at a loss for words. Don’t worry, that’s probably better for the reading public. Watch this space for annoying, puerile content.