Sunday, August 30, 2009

Furnace Alley detail

Years ago I was talking with my Dad and he told me a story about "the alley" that seems to be what sticks most in my memory now. I didn't have much of an understanding of what went on there in the 60s, though I would try at times to imagine it. I didn't see the alley myself until the summer I spent on the MonCon when, one afternoon, I decided to walk up and take a look (from the carshop to the Eliza furnaces was about a ten minute walk). Dad wasn't working in there by then (1974), which fact I know made his life a lot less stressful.

Whenever I might have strayed out of the immediate shop area, though — and for whatever reason — I would feel apprehensive and not a little frightened. Nobody needed to tell me what sorts of dangerous business was going on constantly all over the plant; and if I hadn't been able to figure it out on my own, the Monday morning "safety meetings" in the shop would have done (and did) the trick.

(A sidebar note: irony is something some of us enjoy a little more than others for any number of reasons — just as some are drawn more to puns than others are, and so on — and I'm always interested in either noticing irony or bringing it to bear in my own writing when I can. What was ironic about those Monday safety meetings, or briefings, was that nothing untoward ever seemed to happen until an hour or so after we had left the lunch room and settled down to whatever jobs or tasks we were up to. It was always then, and almost no other time, that somebody would get hurt — stumble over some cable lying on the ground and then bang their head on a ladder stile on a hopper or a grab iron on a gondola, etc., or burn themselves, or a spark from a torch would fly up into somebody's [unprotected] eye, or somebody would drop a twenty-pound coupler part on their foot, and so on. None of these incidents were permanently maiming or very serious, but their timing was haltingly less than auspicious. What occurred to me, after I began to pick up on the pattern— something I thought should have been obvious to any observant individual [though which, knowing my place in the order of things, I never spoke to anyone about] — was how simple might it have been to have shifted these safety briefings to Fridays . . . say, and after lunch. Then the carmen would have the weekend to forget about these matters ["Safety is everybody's concern;" "Think before you act;" "Are you grounded sufficiently;" "Goggles atop your hardhat when they should be atop your nose is what's between you and blindness;" and so on] and come to work Monday morning with nothing on their minds but their jobs, which they were always able to do with great skill and grace, I think the frequency of the stupid little things that happened immediately after our safety meetings would have dropped off significantly.)

I approached the alley with trepidation that afternoon, not sure if, having wandered away from the carshop I wasn't somehow violating some rule, either one that might have been codified somewhere or was simply generally understood: "One does not go where one doesn't belong." I could write here about the noise that overwhelmed me the closer I got to the alley (my unprotected ears being assaulting in a way I'd never before experienced), or the strange silver flakes of something (like snow [it was graphite]) floating in the air, or the smells — smells I can't describe: sulfur, lemon, heavy and intense. I could write about the visual apprehension of that place when, standing at bottom of the yard office where my dad had spent so much time, I first looked down the alley at ground-level. It was so narrow . . . no more than the width of a small street in a city neighborhood, fifty feet or so across. Looking west the furnaces were on the right; on the left were various buildings — none of them particularly small — the length of the alley that served various purposes. The tracks themselves were set in asphalt — no crossties or "ballast" there — and, as I've mentioned elsewhere, serviced the furnaces themselves in a kind of maze of crossovers and puzzle-switches. Tracks went into one furnace in one way to facilitate the ladles receiving the molten iron — down one or more troughs — and in another way to take the slag that floated atop the hot soup in the furnace and would be poured off into cinder pots and taken away to be dumped somewhere — still hot. Another furnace would have a different arrangement of tracks. Six furnaces, and none of the trackage to each was the same. "Who designed this?" I asked my father once. He just chuckled and said, "If the person who'd done this had been known, he'd probably have been hunted down and killed a long time ago."

I smoked a cigarette while standing at the steps of the alley yard office and somebody came along, stopped and asked me if I needed any help, did I need something? I was wearing my burning clothes, the green tunic and pants that marked me as somebody from the carshop, and he said, "You're a little out of your neighborhood, no?" I told him I'd come up just to take a look at the alley, that my dad had been the yardmaster there off and on for years, and that I was curious to see what he'd told me he hated so much . . . what the big deal about it all really was. I was not being facetious or sarcastic. He said, "So, what do you think?" "I don't really have much of a way of understanding this at all," I told him. "Well, let's go upstairs and get a cup of coffee," he said . . . and escorted me up the steps into the yard office. Once there, two or so stories above ground-level, the perspective was different. No less frightening, though, if perhaps a little quieter. We stood looking out, sipping our coffee. When I mentioned my dad's name he smiled and said, "Whitey was good in here and we miss him," he said. "Your dad had a lot of it figured out pretty well. It becomes a habit, really. The whole place is a fucking nightmare and you learn to adapt to it or you get out. That's all there is to it."

My dad had never talked much about what he didn't like about working in the alley but later, after he was retired, he told me on the golf course, once, that it nearly got to him. More years passed and he was beginning to suffer from emphysema. We talked late one night at home in Pittsburgh and I recorded the conversation on one of those small recorders — the ones with the little tapes. I wanted him to talk about the railroad and his memories. He wasn't a reluctant story-teller but one who, I think, wasn't sure that anything he might have to say would amount to much that anybody might be interested in. But I got him to talk, that evening, a little about the furnace alley. He asked me for a piece of paper and then drew a quick sketch of things. "What was so difficult about it all?" I had asked. This was of course years after my own brief moment in the alley but I had kept in my memory, and still keep, what I'd experienced there —saw, smelled, heard, felt, and so on.

Dad's story ended up being about how when those huge ladles would go down on the ground in the alley — when they would derail, for whatever reason — it would be a total mess. The first thing that happened would be somebody calling for the wrecker, a crane on rails they'd bring in to lift the ladle back onto the tracks. But that took time, and was an expense, so Dad would say "Hold on . . ," and leave the yard office and go down to take a look at things. There was a lot of spilled metal around those tracks, he told me, and if they were lucky enough they could get the car back up on the tracks just by dragging it a little, slowly, over that spilled and long hardened iron. The car would ride the iron and slide back up onto the rails, and then the three or four ladles full of their smoking hot metal would go on their way across the bridge to the South Side, and nobody was ever the wiser.

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