Home > 2011 Posts, About Dave > Ten Words to Live By

Ten Words to Live By

September 2, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

My company was looking for salaried folks who could do honest work for awhile. A pulp mill back East had gone on strike, and our CEO wanted to produce product while the issues were settled.

So, the call went out across the company for management people with some practical skills. Three days later and among many others, I and a guy named Doug checked in with the mill’s Maintenance Engineer for duty as Electrical and Instrument repair people.

Doug was a deep-voiced Eastern Oregon cowboy who’d learned his trade as an hourly worker in the big, old growth pine mills there and kept a small ranch as his true avocation. In a past life, I’d been a Navy Fire Control (Battle Systems) Tech who’d been trained to fix most anything that used electrons, plus a lot of other stuff.

Luckily, we were assigned as partners for daily 12-hour shifts over the six-month duration of the strike, managing to save each other’s lives now and then in what we soon learned was an industrial death trap. But, that’s another story. Several, actually.

Vern, the Maintenance engineer, was a tallish, rail-thin man in his early 50’s with a tanned, wrinkled face, a gravely voice and serious, smoker’s hack. If we’d only known, Vern also qualified as a modern version of Charon the boatman, and the time in his office was filled with portents of interesting and sometimes harrowing things to come, on the other side of the river Styx.

[Author’s Note:: I use the word ‘interesting’ here in the same sense as in the Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”]

In addition to picking up a couple sets of coveralls, a hard hat, safety glasses and a tool belt, Vern gave us a briefing that I’ll never forget. It was only ten words long, but it saved my life twice:

“Never look up. Don’t assume any clear liquid is water.”

The other three times I avoided a one-way trip to Hades that year, Doug had to do the saving. But, again, that will be for other stories.

We soon found out that the plant was an absolute mess, where all things safe had been sacrificed by an unscrupulous plant manager on the altar of current production. What amazed us salaried ‘scabs’ was that none of the issues causing the strike had anything to do with safety!

I’m happy to say that word quickly got back to headquarters, and in a few days, the plant manager left to ‘pursue personal interests’ as did the VP he reported to. Us newly-minted honest-worker-types took on the restoration mission and somehow managed production that met quota.

By the time we left, every part of the plant was safe again, working as designed. I’m proud to have been part of that. In the years after, I know that a lot of people went home to their families whole and healthy who wouldn’t have otherwise. And the experience helped me be more effective later in my career.

So, what were the two surely fatal events that Vern’s briefing forestalled?

The first one happened less than a week after I arrived. Doug had stayed down below while I’d climbed 20 feet or so up a very rusty steel column under the Bleach Plant to replace a control instrument. As I tweaked the adjustments, Doug checked signal quality and gave me a thumbs up amidst the deafening noise.

I put the tools back in my belt and prepared to climb down just as a very loud clank rang out above the great, rhythmic blanket of industrial din. Then, another clank sounded, much closer, shivering the heavily rusted steel of my perch. Finally, a totally corroded, three-foot adjustable wrench banged into my hard hat and clattered down to make a high bounce only a foot from Doug and fly over the man-high pump thundering next to him.

We found out later that, many months before, some maintenance guy had used a chain come-along and the wrench to hold shut a broken valve stem, and just left it there. The corrosive environment from all the leaking bleach chemicals had soon rusted the two tools together and finally rusted through his Rube Goldberg ‘fix’ altogether. The day I got hit, a team of other Strike Duty maintenance guys had not-so-gently dropped a thousand pound replacement motor in place three stories up, and the wrench broke free.

If I’d looked up at the sound, I wouldn’t have had the chance for the second half of Vern’s briefing to save me later. A few days with a sore neck was a fine alternative to never being sore again.

The second half of the briefing saved me a month later at the nine-story, rotted fiberglass and rusty steel Chlorate Tower. Doug and I were coming back down from making a quick repair on the second floor when we heard a pounding metallic boom that shuddered the whole structure as if a jet had broken the sound barrier less than a hundred feet above. Since fire and explosion in the tower had been a bi-monthly event for as long as any of the mill folks could remember, Doug and I raced down the rusty stairs five or six at a time.

But, we were about ten seconds too late. A sheet of clear liquid several inches thick was pouring down from high above, forming a fluid curtain all the way across the only exit. We stopped cold at the foot of the stairs. A quick, wordless glance told us that we had both guessed exactly what was happening. Seven floors up, the Caustic tank’s support had finally rusted through, and several thousand gallons of concentrated Sodium Hydroxide was cascading down to make the crystal clear waterfall in front of us. That stuff melts your skin and shrivels up your lungs in seconds.

With a silent nod to each other amidst the deafening background noise, Doug and I affirmed that we knew our only chance was to run through the sheet of flowing Caustic and dive into the 10’x10’ wastewater catchment about 30 feet outside. If we stayed, the gas would disable us in seconds and kill us in a couple minutes. If we ran through it holding our breath, we had maybe ten seconds to massively dilute it off our skin.

So, run we did. I hit the bottom of the deep catchment, slamming my hip into a discarded pump shaft in the filthy, reeking, wonderful, non-caustic liquid, scrubbing madly all over to dilute what I could. When I couldn’t hold my breath anymore, I undid my tool belt’s catch and pushed off, up to the surface. A few seconds later, Doug popped up amidst the dead rats and other flotsam, gasping raggedly like me, and we helped each other get out.

We had to use the catchment as rinse ‘water’ because the half-dozen or so safety showers nearby, designed to dilute chemicals, were all rusted fatally solid.

By the time Doug and I made it back to the shop about three minutes later, half our clothes had disintegrated. From the neck down, we were bad-sunburn-red and getting redder fast. Damn, that stung! But, thankfully, long showers in the shop’s locker room forestalled anything worse than that, rasping coughs and moderate, aspirin-damped pain for a few days.

I didn’t look up, and I knew that the clear liquid couldn’t be water. So, I’m here to tell you the story. Thanks, Vern. Thanks, Doug. Thanks Guardian Angel.


 You’ll read more about adventures around the Chlorate Tower, the Bleach Plant and other ‘interesting’ parts of that mill from Hell in future posts. For now, just let me add that I look back on those six months as a truly a character-building experience. I can only imagine that the folks who worked there full time must have had more character than almost anyone.

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  1. November 8, 2011 at 7:03 am

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