May 22, 2013
Welder and educator Marty Rice has led a colorful life in his welding career. He’s learned some lessons the hard way and met some interesting characters along the way.
With 35 years in welding and education under my belt, I decided to reach back into my memory, what’s left of it, to write about some funny, scary, and crazy stuff I’ve seen in my welding career. If I repeat myself from earlier articles, it’s because I am writing in chronological order, or more likely, because I don’t remember writing about it earlier. One good thing, though, is that if I accidentally use the same material, I won’t have to worry about offending the original author.
I began my welding career at an oil field/agriculture repair shop. At about the last hour of each workday, this old guy I worked with would go out to the parking lot, open the door of a freakin’ awesome ’65 Chevy pickup, and get on his knees. After witnessing this quite a few times, I asked one of the guys who had worked there a while what was up and got a reply something like, “He’s getting a drink, dumbass.” I asked another less gruff guy, and he told me the old fellow drank a bottle of vodka every day, starting at work.
I never smelled it on him; I never saw him so much as miss a step. He’d come in and quietly go about his business without sayin’ much. He was a World War II veteran who had lost his wife, and I guess he was tryin’ to find comfort in the bottle. We would casually speak to each other, but when I look back on it, I am saddened that I didn’t talk to him more. I would get that chance later at a black iron shop with another World War II vet named Ralph.
I was as green as green can be at that job, and you can check out another couple of funnies (at my expense) in this article I wrote a while back: “Learn your trade, pay your dues.”
One day I was working on a bulldozer blade. When the blade wears out, it is much cheaper to pay a welder to repair it with buildup welds than to replace it. (Especially much cheaper with the money they were paying me … $4, yes that is four… FOUR freakin’ bucks an hour!) It’s the same with sprockets, road wheels, idler wheels—anything that wears down can be built up by layering welds. These welds usually are the same as the base metal that is being welded. See also “hardfacing,” “buttering,” and “cladding.”
After I finished the buildup weld on the ‘dozer blade, I stood up only to have one of the disconnected hydraulic lines go right down the back of my shirt! When disconnected, these lines should be tied securely pointing straight up to keep fluid from coming out. Of course, being the newbie, it was my fault, even though someone else had tied a sorry-assed knot that came loose. (Almost every year a few of my students whine about learning knots and hitches in a welding class. I explain that they never know when they will have to tie one in the shop and especially in the field. It’s very important to learn the basic knots and hitches: bowline, bowline on a bite, double half hitch, clove hitch, and timber hitch).
It cost me in the shop that someone didn’t tie a knot right; in the field, a mishap like this could cause injury or even death. (Knots should be quick and easily tied and quick and easily untied.)
It was cold as heck out, and the shop was too far out of town to go home to change. So I toughed it out—cold, wet, oily, and miserable—and took about an hour-long hot shower when I got home. Afterward, I saw that my back was bright red, and this was how I learned that hydraulic fluid will burn your skin. And yep, everyone thought it was funny, and I had to be on my guard to make sure no wisenheimer came up and slapped me on the back.
After a year of low pay but some good experience and great camaraderie with those old WW II vets, I was hired at a black iron plant and eventually became lead welder. When I took the welding test, I about burned through the scrap practice plate, the machine was so hot. I went over and turned it down only to come back to do the same thing. One more time I turned the machine way down and still got the same result.
As I was wondering what the heck was going on, I saw a guy laughing at me. He told me I might want to “adjust the right machine.” Upon a closer look, I noticed he had made it look like my leads were coming from the machine I was adjusting, but they actually were attached to another that he had cranked way up. Such was the beginning of my friendship with Ed, which eventually led to my writing career when I wrote a tribute to him after his untimely passing that appeared in Hobart’s The World of Welding.
Ed died in his early 60s of emphysema after smoking nonfiltered cigs since he was about 8. He was an Air Force vet, boilermaker, and long-haul truck driver before working at the black iron plant. He got tired of being in the same place for too long and went back to truck driving until he couldn’t do it anymore because of his health.
There was never a dull moment when Ed was around, and his pranks were funny as heck except to a couple of the older guys at the plant—Frosty and Humpy, two old guys who had been there forever and didn’t much care for each other. When I first started working there, I accidentally parked in Humpy’s self-proclaimed parking place, and you woulda thought I’d stolen his life savings. All morning long, over and over, he’d walk by and tell me, “You know that’s my place you parked in.” And when I say “over and over,” I mean he probably said that a hundred times until finally at lunch I ran out and moved my danged truck!
Those two guys would do nothing but haul a mag-drill (a portable drill with an electromagnet on it that securely holds it in place as it drills holes in beams like a warm knife cutting butter). Every day Humpy would walk up and say “I don’t give a damn.” (Damn substituted for the F word, and I don’t mean “funny.”)
“I don’t give a damn, do you give a damn?” Before you could answer, he’d continue, “The boss doesn’t give a damn, the owner doesn’t give a damn. If they don’t give a damn, why should I give a damn?” Every day, day in and day out, he’d say that. I think I actually lost some intelligence listening to him.
Frosty walked around with a big frown on his face and a cig hanging out of the corner of his mouth. I saw him years later at a stoplight and excitedly exclaimed to my wife, “It’s Frosty! The guy I told you I worked with!” I honked and eagerly waved and shouted, “Hey Frosty! How you doin? It’s me, Marty!” He looks over with that same frown and a cig hanging out of his mouth and gives me a slight hint of a nod, then drives off!
When he talked, it was to gripe about the plant, the boss, the economy, the president, or Humpy. As he’d gripe, that cig would bounce up and down making me focus more on it than his gripes. He and Humpy would get to work early, park right next to each other, walk in without any kind of “Good morning…How you doin’? What’s up?” Nuthin! They’d walk in and stand two feet from each other by the gas heater without saying a word.
They’d sit right by each other in the lunchroom for an hour with nary a word there either. They, ladies and gentlemen, were a couple of guys who not only didn’t like each other, but had become bitter. I vowed not to ever allow myself to become so bitter, and I’m glad to say I haven’t.
In my next article I’ll tell you about Ed’s and my near-death overhead crane drag race!