Somebody from behind gave me a shove. I stumbled a step forward, and then caught myself.
The big boss looked at me and asked, “So you can run an air trac?”. “DAMNED RIGHT I CAN,” came out of my mouth. Just like my crew mates told me to say the day before. The big boss chuckled a little, looking around the rest of the crew, who for some reason, were all looking at their fingernails. He stopped at the foreman who just nodded his head.
The big boss said “OK, see me tomorrow after you get the trucks gassed and iced up.” As the lowest paid man on the job, I got an hour of OT every morning to gas up and ice down all the trucks.
The big boss was still chuckling as he walked away.
In reality, I didn’t know an air trac from a space shuttle, but I had gotten some great career advice from the heavy equipment operators the day before. They convinced me that the big boss would really respect me if I could run an air trac. “Don’t worry,” they said, “we’ll show you how to run the air trac. It will be easy for a smart young guy like you.”
After the Big boss left, the excavator operator patted me on the back and said, “only a second step apprentice and already the assistant dynamite man”. The crew all laughed, and we headed to the bar. Once there, they all graciously accepted a beer on me for their advice. Talk about nice guys, anyone of them was way more qualified for the promotion than me.
The next morning there was a lowboy parked in the yard with what I assumed was my air trac on it. The dozer operator, as promised, gave me a quick tutorial. Starts like this, this lever for left this for right, raise the boom like this. Never walk on the low side on a side slope and let the low boy driver load and unload it. Good Luck. Oh, and pull the drill steel up often to keep it from getting stuck down hole.,
Just then, the trailer door opened, and the big boss snarled, which I interpreted as, get over there.
Once there, he introduced me to the Blaster and went back into his lair. Probably to pull the wings off flies or something.
The Dynamite man took me over to his trailer and gave me the Safety rundown. No smoking, no sparks, and no one but him ever touches the blasting caps which were locked up in a separate locker. Taking my new responsibility seriously, I listened very closely. Also, I didn’t want to get blown up.
Off we went to the first site where we found the air trac waiting. The Dynamite man got out the prints and we laid out the drill pattern. He stood by watching me lurch the machine around for a while before coming over to maneuver it into position for the first hole. He helped me raise the boom and set up the bit and steel.
Personal Protective Equipment of the day was my wet T shirt wrapped around my face and an old ear muff I found in the bottom of the compressor bin. I say muff because one ear cup was crushed. I put the good muff on the machine side which helped. Drill a hole, drive in a wood plug to keep the dirt out and move to the next. The prestige of Assistant Dynamite man was fading quickly.
I know now that generations of miners supported their families, sent their kids to college, and made a life mining talc out of St Lawrence County. I, on the other hand, stood there day after day sweating in a cloud of talc fondly remembering back bolting last winter.
On the bright side, the crow sized horse flies couldn’t get at me through the caked-on talc. Windy days were the best. Then you could stand on the upwind side of the machine and watch the dust cloud blow away.
Most days ended with me under a garden hose scrapping off sweat cured talc unless I found a stream or pond to jump in near the drill site. In either case. I was assigned to the truck bed for the ride in.
Occasionally, assistant dynamite man duties included lugging the 80-pound hammer drill and compressor hoses up and over ledges where the air trac couldn’t go.
Under oath, I’d have to admit to abandoning a few, soon mangled, stuck drill steels and maybe even stringing a few extra sticks of dynamite per hole to avoid lugging it back out of the woods.
Somewhere along the line it occurred to me that not all promotions are good, but whenever I stopped by the bar where the linemen hung out, my money was no good, and the beers lined up in front of me. This was the best job ever!
This went on for the summer, until one day the big boss pulled up and pointed at me. Oh no, please not another promotion. I hoped.
I shut the machine down and trudged over leaving a trail of talc sludge in my wake. The big boss said report back to the Northern show up Monday and ask for Don. You are going on the wire crew. They need a skinny guy. Don’t screw up. Then left, spinning his tires.
Next week: Part 2
Joe Rosenfeld - Lineman