Archive for ‘Growing Up’

Loading Hose

By , 1 April, 2010, No Comment

On a very cold morning in Kemmerer, WY I showed up for my first day on the job at the local coal mine.   Although the mining job paid three times my hourly wage as a gas station attendant, I nervously entered the machine shop with an acquaintance and a host of grizzled men wearing dirty hard hats and lots of clothing.  At 20, I knew men who worked hard for a living could be tough on young guys.  It takes time to earn respect, and first impressions can last a long time.

Shortly before 6:00, the men gathered around very large equipment parked inside the mechanic shop, forming a rough circle that suggested someone would soon fill the space. Fidgeting nervously, and wearing enough clothing to know how mummies might feel I made my way over a loader with tires that stood a good foot taller than my six foot frame.  Huge trucks sat in the other bays.  I marveled at the immenseness, and wondered if my first assignment included one of these monstrosities.  I could imagine my flattened body, like in the cartoons, floating in the air like a leaf if I got under one of these beasts.

The foreman stepped into the circle and barked out some commands to the group.  I knew instinctively that this guy ruled the roost, and we did what we were told.  We belonged to the United Mine Workers Union, but he belonged to the company.  For the first time in my life, I understood the fear of the boss.  After yepping to him calling my name, he assigned me to go with two other men, who thankfully looked nicer than many of the others in the circle.

Our leader, Jim, appeared forty something, and the other fella looked to be mid-twenties and Asian.  We introduced ourselves, and walked into a dark, bitter-cold Wyoming morning.  Jim jumped into a large flat-bed truck that he started earlier, and I took the shotgun position at the other window.  With a sickly amount of moonlight illuminating a winding dirt road, we bumped along on shocks that seemed too cold to compress, and so we just bounced.

Nervous about my future, I asked, “So, what do we do?”  “We load hose” was the response.  Few thinking people wish to appear stupid, so I mulled those three words around for a few seconds.  What kind of hose gets used in a coal mine, and how would you use it in this bitter cold?  Nothing made sense, so I asked in feigned casualness, “What do you mean, hose?”  “Dynamite, we load dynamite.” they said.

That pale moonlight obscured the loss of color in my face.  Not wanting to die, I checked beforehand to be certain that no one worked underground at this mine.  Only strip mining and open pit existed now, so it seemed like a safe job.  And now I found myself hundreds of miles from my parents with two strangers preparing to handle dynamite.  A few times in my life, I knew that I ought to flee the situation, but a graceful means of doing so kept my feet from moving.  This was one of those times.  My mind raced from excuse to disaster, but not to clear paths of escape.  Like a hearse, my ride took on grimness and reflection as my driver slowly made his way to my final resting place.

We pulled up to a large, padlocked box, about four feet square.  Jim gathered blasting caps and cord for the day, and warned me to be very careful with the caps and cord, because both detonate from shock.   With our explosive triggers in a gunnysack on the back of the truck next to the cab, our fully gassed truck bounced down the road.

I held my breath and waited for the explosion while my tormentors made small talk about the previous weekend.  We made it to the next stop, a semi-trailer parked alongside the road, and I eagerly got out.  Jim swung open the doors to reveal a trailer filled about two-thirds full of explosives.

The mine used two sizes of tube explosives.  One tube measured about 20 inches long by 3 inches in diameter and the other tube measured about 36 inches long by 4 inches in diameter.  The smaller tubes blew patterns in coal and the larger tubes blew patterns in dirt.  In strip mining, a large drill on the back of a truck drills holes 20 feet and much deeper in a pattern that is later loaded with blasting materials.  Patterns are designed for coal or dirt, and the amount of blasting material needed to loosen that material.  Giant equipment then digs up the loosened material and loads it onto even bigger dump trucks.

That morning, we loaded the back of our truck with tubes of dynamite.  Jim’s instructions included unnecessary concerns for caution.  By the time we finished, I needed to sit down, but warily got back into the truck with blasting caps, cord and dynamite all sitting together on back.  The sun now revealed the age of our well-used potential rocket, and I understood better why the ride seemed so bouncy.   The rough road continued for a long mile or so until we arrived at the freshly drilled pattern of dirt.

At the pattern, Jim explained how we placed x number of blasting caps on the cord and put it down into the bottom of the hole, leaving about 18 inches of blasting cord sticking out the top.  Then, using a rope with a little hook, each bag would be let down into the hole by attaching the hook to a ring in the end of each bag.  I watched a few bags get lowered onto the caps and was warned about the necessity of gentleness to avoid delivering a jarring impact on the blasting caps at the bottom.  When the bag reached the bottom, a little slack released the hook and the rope could be brought up.

When I got my first chance to lower a large tube of dynamite, I imitated the strategic process described that I witnessed.  Moving the bag to the edge of the hole, I put tension on the hook and lifted one end of the bag to slide the other end into the hole.  About half way into the hole, the hook came loose.  We all froze as my bag of explosives slid down the hole at gravity speed toward another bag and several blasting caps.  Thud, just a thud.  After a little nervous laughter and exchange of glances, we shook it off and I hooked up another bag.  I never lost another one, and we finished loading all the holes to a certain level and filled the rest with dirt.  Afterwards, we took more blasting cord and tied all the 18 inch pieces together and ran a long cord way over on the other side of the man-made valley.

After alerting the foreman and all surrounding workers, Jim set off the explosion with one of those official gadgets hooked to a battery, and lifted dirt 30 feet into the air.  I must say that at the end of the first day, I enjoyed myself.  The sun shown, I made some friends and only a healthy fear remained every day afterwards.  After nine days, the union went on strike for three months.  I returned to the mine months later, but never again with the blasting crew.

Over the years, I have used a lot of power tools and machinery, but nothing that powerful again.  Many tools come with warnings about risk to limb, but not many with warnings about life.

Even today, I approach a new power tool with caution and some trepidation.  Learning to use power properly cannot be underestimated.  I still have all my slightly battered fingers, and I want to keep it that way.

Wear your eye protection and read the instructions.  I could tell you stories, and maybe I will.  But let’s not become one of those stories that make people shudder.

Enjoy the power!

Get Me One of These

By , 17 February, 2010, No Comment

As a young boy, the oldest of the children, I often found myself lingering around a project that my father was working during his day off.  In the cold months, his projects were in the warm, company owned shop that was 6 miles away from our house.  In the warmer months, dad typically crawled underneath a vehicle parked in our yard and tore something apart.  I can still feel the warm sunshine, and remember the feel of the grass and weeds that grew in that work area before spring really kicked in.  It is odd that you could feel so close to your father when he was completely preoccupied with something, and you are just hanging around, fiddling with things in his toolbox.

From under the vehicle, dad would shout out to me that he needed a certain size wrench, a screwdriver, a hammer or something else from that toolbox.  After seeing my badly chosen selection come flying back out on to the grass in front of me, and hearing the reissue of the original command, I was incented to learn which tool was what. That learning process also made me slightly less eager to be around when my dad started arguing with hard, greasy metal parts, and I sometimes casually slipped away when the conversation got intense.   I know that meant he crawled out to get his own tools, and that I made a lousy helper that day, but self-preservation wins out from time to time.

During those helper events, my dad would often need a washer, nut or bolt.  Now these were the days when your local Home Depot did not exist, and hardware stores kept regular business hours.  So, a Sunday project would have stopped cold were it not for grandma’s garage across the street.  Grandma’s garage had been a work shop for a husband, three sons and at least one son-in-law.  Only the youngest son and inquisitive grandsons were still around to venture into the garage.

In that garage was a wonderful collection of artifacts from farming, mechanics, welders and construction ventures.  I spent many a happy day in that garage discovering things that had been long abandoned and were never used again by working men.  Old goggles, hammers and who knows what became my own inspiration for adventures.  In the northwest corner sat an old dark colored shipping trunk like you see coming off sea-crossing boats.  To that chest, sitting in an unlit corner, I returned over and over on missions for my father.

From under a car, or a place he had wedged into, my dad would call out a request for something from the chest.  “Go get me one of these”, he would say, or “Get me a hex nut to fit this bolt.” I would dutifully take the item that he held up, grab the flashlight, get the key to the garage and sprint across the road and through the ditch to the garage.  Early on, it seemed a lot easier to find the requested item than it did in later years.  I think we must have harvested most of the typical sizes, and later I would spend a long time combing through 5 inches of nuts, bolt, washers and other items I was unfamiliar with until I found what I needed.  Always the familiar taste of rust accompanied these forays into the trunk.

Expediency was required lest I got chewed when I finally showed up, or worse yet was to have dad show up himself and start pawing for the item.  Oddly enough, it never seemed to take him long to find what he needed.  Yes, those were the days when I just expected that most of what you wanted for a project ought to be found right in your own workshop.

The number of times when mom needed to jump into the car and actually go buy something seemed pretty few.  In later life when I worked at a hardware store, I gained a better appreciation for the poor wife whose husband sends her off to the store, saying “Go get me one of these.”  I saw a lot of flustered wives come in, not having a clue what they were buying, and unable to answer even simple questions.

A treasure I possess is a can of nuts, bolts and washers I took home with me after my dad passed away.  I don’t know if they are from the original trunk in the garage, but I pretend that some of them I have handled for fifty years.  Last year I bought a nice plastic box with dividers in it, and separated bolts from nuts, and sorted longer bolts from shorter bolts.  It seemed like a smart move at the time, but it just isn’t as much fun looking for a something now as it was when I used a flashlight, knelt down in front of the trunk, and used an old welding rod to dig through hundreds of small rusty parts.  I still get that rusty taste in my nose and mouth every time I dig around for something, and I always have a flood of memories.  But, the adventure is gone.

Today, I live in the country, and it is seldom handy for me to jump into the car and drive miles to get what I need.  I certainly don’t want to send my poor wife on those mission trips.  So, even with all of the stores around that cater to the needs of the do-it-yourselfer, I like to have a cache of things around just in case I need it.  Now I have my own collection of stuff squirreled away, and it gives me a sense of security.  If I need ‘one of these’ – I just might have it.


By , 14 February, 2010, 1 Comment

As a young boy, I grew up with a a talented, but uneducated father.  My dad opted out of school in the eighth grade, and made his way in life as a mechanic and then later as an electrician.

My Dad

Dee Collicott

After buying a two room house when I was five, my parents moved three children into the tiny bedroom with them, and we lived in the rest of the house.  It was years later that my mom and dad added two more bedrooms, a bathroom and kitchen to our house.  I don’t know what training my father had for building homes, but I do know that my mom is convinced that few houses contained more nails than ours.

What I gained from my early days with dad was a love for tools.  It seemed that my dad could fix anything, and build whatever he wanted.  He loved mechanics and welding.  He constructed a number of projects from scratch over the years, including a horse buggy, a go cart, a scooter and other things.  When I turned sixteen, he completely rebuilt the motor on a car thirteen years older than me.  It ran perfectly and ‘like a sewing machine’ as one friend described it.

But, I preferred wood.  My first shop class in the seventh grade had me hooked.  I liked metal shop, welding and leather working, but working wood was wonderful.  I recall that my first tool purchase was a coping saw.  I rode home eagerly from the hardware store on my bicycle and ran across the street to my grandmother’s garage where I had cleared out a little space in front of an old workbench.  I took out a piece of wood that I had found in the garage and placed it on a jig made in shop class to support it.

Within seconds I had cut a nice rough cut across the end of my thumb.  A quick trip back across the street and a band-aid fixed me up so that I was ready to go again.  Holding the wood now at a different angle due to the sore thumb, I quickly made another rough cut across my thumb, forming a bloody T shape.  But, I was undeterred, and another band-aid change fixed me up.

Over the years, I found that a lot of tools for working with wood are sharp.  And, you need to exercise some caution as you work with them.  But, none of those many, many cuts and bruises kept me from coming back to the pleasure of working with wood.

I took more than 20 years off from working with wood when I stepped away from construction and eventually entered the software development world.  A few years ago, I was looking for another outlet, and talked with my wife about building a shop again.  Her father was a life long carpenter, and she gave her blessing to invest in tools and products to build a shop. Oddly enough, today I have the money to buy some of the better tools that I could not afford when I was in the industry.

So, as I step back into the shop, I bring with me a different perspective on life and skills than I formerly had when working wood for a career.  Frankly, I found that I was much more rusty than I could have expected.  But, I am having fun.

I have family and friends that are interested in what I am doing, so blogging about it seemed like the way to keep everyone posted and current with what I am doing.