Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Worst Place

I had just gotten out of the Royal Canadian Air Force and decided to go with new friends to Northern British Columbia to homestead. Well, I made the 1500 mile trip; the little money I had was almost used up in getting settled and having enough food for the month. Now I had to find a job and there wasn't much room in the back country for the skills I had acquired in the Air Force. Jobs were scarce up there but I needed a job, any job, and I found one. It was a job pulling lumber off a green chain in a Sawmill in the Chetwyn area. For those who don't know what that is - it is rather simple. Trees are cut into two by fours, 2 x sixes etc. Dimensional lumber is then placed on a green chain, which is a mechanism for moving the lumber along to men who stack it and sort it as it comes down the chain.

There were in town bunkhouses of a sort you could rent so I bunked with some guys who were raised in the north. Five thirty AM came early for me but that's the way of the north so you either go along or move away. If you are smart you can sleep until six thirty in the morning and get ready to be at work by 7:15 AM. If you were thinking, you showered the night before because in the morning the showers were quite busy and the last guy usually took a cold shower.

I reported to work and began the tedious task of sorting, stacking, piling, and lifting on the green chain. It went something like this: They sent the lumber down a long table with a chain that moved it at a required speed. You in turn pulled the lumber off the table and stacked it in piles of different dimensions and lengths. You were to slide them off the green chain and put them in stacks directly behind you. That meant you would stand sideways, pull them off, and slide them onto the different piles. Depending who you had for a sawyer, foreman or boss, he decided the speed of the chain.

So there I was, working up a sweat. I would work and think an hour must have gone by but instead, it was fifteen minutes. Time went by so slowly I thought my watch had stopped. The time not only dragged by but I dragged with it. By the time lunch came I was exhausted. I quickly found a pile of sawdust to lie down on for a little nap.

That nap was pretty good as it was the middle of winter. It seemed to me the sawdust I was laying on barely got warm when the back to work horn blasted me out of a place too far off to get back from, but I did. The afternoon was no better. By the time five oclock came around every muscle in my body was screaming at me. I had worked hard all my life but this required eight or nine hours of heavy lifting. However, my new friends were as chipper as could be. I went straight to the lodgings, almost fell asleep in the shower, and started toward my bed. My buddies asked me if I wanted to come along to the movies. I just stared at them in unbelief and promptly fell asleep.

I died in that bed for twelve hours and then was resurrected by a miracle called Jake who brought me back with some severe shaking. The same ritual went on that day and the days thereafter. Finally I could feel something else besides pain, and actually went to the shack we called home, read a magazine, had conversations and saw the odd movie. The days ahead were agony beyond tired muscles. I thought I would go out of my mind with the boredoom. Pull, stack and pile. Sort, stack and pull. My expression was always the same. I have no piano on my arm so what am I doing here?

My eyes were not blood shot but they seemed to have lost the light in them. I know I peeked out from them only to satisfy my craving for living.

The mill would shut down for various reasons during the week. Sometimes to realign or adjust the equipment or any other need that arose. They tried to do all of that maintenance in the off hours. There was no rest for us for we could then clean out the bark and sawdust bins but at least the screaming motors and other noise was still.

I found out some things about a sawmill and how it works. That's how I filled my empty days with anything that would take the mindless time to a tolerable step. The loggers cut the trees then send them to a sawmill by diferent ways -- by water they are put into a log pond, by truck to the mill or by railroad. The mill where I worked trucked in the logs. They store them on dry land and use loading equipment to load them onto a moving conveyor chain to the log debarker, or jets of water to remove the bark, or sand, or dirt, or small bits of metal. Next the carriage looks like railroad flat car and moves the log into the head saw. The saw makes a screaming sound as it tears into the wood. It is cut up into real rough pieces then the second saw called the edger trims up the board. This is done by highly skilled men who get the most and best boards out of a log. Next the boards go to a trimmer where they are cut up into exact lengths and the weak spots taken out. Now the green boards slide slowly on the green chain where a grader looks them over and gives them a grade. Size, quality and kind of wood are considered. It is well to note we cut softwoods in the Northwest -- evergreen fir, pine etc. They use a crayon to mark the lumber. Classifications are one to seven and stacked accordingly. Next the lumber is taken to dry kilns to get the moisture out of them. Specially heated buildings where instruments control the temperature and moisture of the air or in smaller mills by air drying. Now, aren't you glad for that information?

The seasoned workers at that time seemed to smoke or chew tobacco. The chewers had spitting contests and I swear they could hit a penny at ten feet. They didn't mind where they spit in the mill and a sweet sort of rancid smell came from their mouths. It was really a disgusting habit because it was, at best, looking at a puffy cheek loaded with chewing tobacco and a mouth with a constant need to spit.
Well, every day the excitement was hard to contain. What to do today! Shall I be completely numb or just half numb. Half numb was better because one needed to feel to work. The day took so long to end that the mind shut down and monotony hung over your spirit, plunging its dampers into your very being until you automatically did your work, unfeeling, unthinking and uninterested. You couldn't talk to the guy next to you! Why? Well the ringing in your ears was from the screaming saws. Shouting soon made you hoarse plus I was too tired to talk.
Two months went by and madness had taken over my mind. Minute after minute the boards came down. They seemed to never stop. The fierce cold made you bundle up and the hard work made you unbundle some. There was a light in the tunnel however. They had Chinooks up in that country. Chinooks are warm dry winds that come in from the south after dropping their moisture along the way. The temperature can go from thirty below to forty above in a matter of hours. Oh, sweet heaven when they came. We peeled off our jackets and felt warm enough to move without rustling.
My thoughts were interrupted when the foreman turned up the speed of the chain. The lumber came out faster than the two of us who were there could handle. Normally three or four did the work. We couldn't keep up, of course, and so the excess lumber went over the table to the ground. The foreman came out and saw the lumber on the ground and screamed and shouted and swore like a muleskinner at us. He asked who the "blankety-blank" let the lumber go over the chain. I told him he was the one who sped up the chain and walked away without a care in the world. He fired me on the spot.
I picked up my things and walked over the the planer mill where my buddy was the foreman. I told him the story and he laughed and said I could work here on the planer mill. He just had a guy quit and he could use me. It wasn't an hour later that the Green Chain foreman came over to the planer mill and saw me and said, "Didn't I just fire you?" "Yes," I said, "but I found this other job." The two foreman had a conversation. The old foreman was waving his arms around. My buddy just shook his head, grinned and said: "He stays." I would have to watch old spittle in the mouth for he was not happy. Several times after that when we were caught up for the day I would go over and help at the green chain. The old foreman skulked around but I kept my mouth shut and eventually we tolerated each other.
Well, four more months went by and I had finally saved enough money to move on. I packed my gear, took a deep breath and shouted for joy. I'm back from the dead, back from tortured turtle slow moving days. I looked over at the sawmill and the buildings and the logs. I saw the faces of some of the older guys whose yellow teeth and brown spittle leaked out of the corner of their mouths. For them it was ok. They drank enough to keep going and chewed enough to deaden their senses. For some this was life but for me life stood still for six months. I left with a spring in my step and a thirst to get more education and training. It was like a real bad tooth had been pulled and the ache had finally gone away. My old car seemed to surge ahead and the road never looked so inviting. I remember thinking,"If that was bit of Hell, then Heaven help me."

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