Pipeline drawing by Owen Garratt
This pipeline drawing is the first in a series
O n my summer break from University – I say summer break, but it’s stretched out to almost 30 years now, my girlfriend’s dad got me a gig, for a week, at Interprovincial Pipe and Steel in Regina, or IPSCO.
My job was to cut the metal about halfway up, and all the way around the car. Next, a front end loader would come and push the top half over, revealing the two halves. Then a sort of iron dinosaur would come and grasp the car half in its jaws and wrestle it over to a kind of doomsday machine which would eat the car, and poop out shreds of metal that were taken over to the plant to be melted down.
In the locker room that also doubled as a lunchroom, the other inmates and I were getting dressed. The customary uniform was thermal underwear covered by several layers of denim and coveralls, which is just what you want to be wearing on a hot summer day.
I said a cheery good morning to the giant seated next to me, who glowered, snorted, then went back to grinding Englishman’s bones, or whatever he was doing.
Then I had the brilliant idea to ask why they needed us to cut the car in half at all? Couldn’t something smoosh the car so it would fit into the doomsday machine?
“You some kind a troublemaker?” asked a different giant.
“Well, no, it just makes sense, that’s all,” I said
“We got us a regular Edward Einstein! He’s got lots of ideas, don’t he fellas?” said another giant who had buffalo shoulders.
“Clearly, I’m no genius. If I were, I’d have not said anything,” I squirmed.
A smaller guy, who looked like a Weasel, whisked me out to the hallway.
“Ya gotta understand something Boyo,” he said in that furtive manner all Weasels use. “These guys got a sweet thing going. They don’t want anyone rocking the boat, see? It’s not about being more efficient; it’s about these guys keepin’ their jobs. So you don’t go trying to make it better, you just work hard, keep your zip shut, collect a paycheck, and go home to your sweetie every night. Capeesh?”
He clapped me on the back and gave me the tremendous news that he was going to be the one training me, so we’d better get started.
I had never used a cutting torch before, but after a thorough and comprehensive 90 seconds of training, I could light The torch and by fiddling with the knobs, I could make a hard, pointed flame that made that cool roaring sound.
“Good luck. See ya at lunch.” and my Sensei was gone.
I had to drag an acetylene cutting rig, out into the scrap yard to cut the railway cars in half. The rig was two tanks of gas, each about 5 feet tall, and each tank fed 30 feet of hose that came together into a torch. The tanks and the accompanying Gordian knot of hoses must’ve weighed over 200 pounds, and was hauled around on a rickety wire cart with stiff wheels that was about the size of a golf bag.
The scrap yard was dirt, or alternatively, mud. It was filled with rocks, bits of metal, and desperate clumps of coarse grass, and must’ve encompassed close to 10 acres. Rolling a couple of hundred pounds of acetylene rig through this terrain was the kind of labor I thought was reserved for chain gangs, or political dissidents in Siberia, but everyone assured me that this was a job that a lot of people wanted, so what did I know?
The clothing is to protect you from getting hit with any flying drops of molten metal, but it also helps to keep your sweat from evaporating, and when you’re’s working outside in direct sunlight, the effects make themselves known. I was blinking the sweat out of my eyes and gasping long before I arrived at my first car.
It’s one thing to see a grain car through your car window as a train barrels by, but it’s an entirely different experience standing next to one. They’re huge, holding something like a hundred tons of grain each. They’re about 60 feet long, 10 feet wide, and are 12 to 14 feet high. And they’re not a smooth, unbroken plane of metal either. The car is rife with rivets, struts, ladders, supports, cross members, and all kinds of corners, and if you’ve ever used one of those handheld wand car washes, you will also know that sooner or later, you’re going to get splashed.
Except when you get splashed here, it’s not water, it’s molten metal.
Eventually, I got the hoses unraveled, the torch lit, and made my first tentative dabs at the grain car. I don’t know if you’ve tried holding a torch and several feet of hose above your head for any length of time, but I’m here to tell you that your arms get awfully heavy, awfully quick. I was unable to go more than two minutes before my unaccustomed muscles began screaming.
There’s a knack to it; you need just the right amount of flame, held at just the right angle, to cut into the steel. Once you’re going, you can cut a foot every minute or so, or at least that’s as quick as I seemed to be able to go, all the while busting some intricate dance moves in a futile effort to keep myself out of the shower of molten metal.
In the first two days, I set myself on fire three times.
Sure, cutting isn’t welding, but seeing the sparks fly still makes cold sweat run down my back.
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