I worked in the shipyards for 10 years while I was in high school and college and after. I used to say I took four years of college and squeezed it into 5 ½ years. My shipyard/tugboat/barge days was what I consider my “boot camp for life”. I have a lot of fond memories of working out there, but time tends to fade the bad memories away and amplify the good ones. The people I worked with bring out the good memories.
One of my jobs is repair of any of the equipment that shows up with damage or broken down. I did a lot of engine work along with a lot of welding and metal fabricating. There were times a petroleum barge or deck barge would show up with ‘knuckle’ damage. The knuckles are the bottom of the barge where it curves up to the sides. When going through shallow water the knuckles would drag the bottom first and wear the metal thin and sometimes punch holes that would let water into the tanks. Getting water into the tanks did not put the barge into danger of sinking but getting water into petroleum products was bad. We would push the barge up onto the bank where we could cut and weld to repair the knuckles.
Barge damage was not isolated to the knuckles, we would have to weld up other damage as well. One day a barge came in that needed repair with a fast turnaround since it was slated for another job in a few days. When I first saw the damage, I could not figure out what happened. After talking with the boat crew, I found out that when they were docking at a customers dock the barge slid down the dock before it stopped. That was not unusual but this time a large piece of metal got caught into the side of the barge. Best way to explain what happened is like when you get a splinter in your finger. The wood pierces your skin and breaks off, sometimes leaving part of the wood sticking out. That is what happened here except it was a steel plate went inside the tank. First thing we had to do was to de-fumigate the tank where this damage took place since we would be using a cutting torch and welders to repair the barge. That takes a couple of hours, so it gave us time to work on a game plan. Our first thought was to cut the metal away where the metal plate went through and was caught. But doing that would require a large piece of fresh metal to weld into place. Doing that would be the expensive way. We finally figure out that we needed to pull the metal plate out like as if you pulled a splinter out of your finger, to slide it out. Easier said than done. I welded a hook eye on the side of the barge about six feet away from the end of the plate. Then cut a hole in the end of the plate for a chain hook. Once those were done, we hooked up a chain to a come-along to pull the metal plate out. We discovered that the plate was not going to come out easily, so we needed to add heat by the way of an acetylene torch. This will expand the metal around the plate which would allow us to be able to pull the plate with the come-along. The plate was about 8 inches wide, and half an inch thick. At the time we did not know how long the plate was since part of the plate was inside the tank. There was about 2 feet of plate exposed. I lit the torch and started heating up the metal around the plate while my boss, Bruce Stapp pulled on the come-along. After about 30 minutes of no progress, we switched roles, Bruce heated with the torch while I pulled on the come-along. Both of use had leather welding gloves on that came almost halfway up our arms. While we used the torch, we wore dark safety glasses which allowed us to watch the torch flames but everything around us was darken out.
Bruce was working the torch making the metal around the plate to become red hot. I could see the red metal as I pulled on the come-along. The plate which was also getting hot was slowing starting to move. Where the barge was docked put the plate about 3 feet off the ground at the dock. Bruce was on his knees while working the torch over the metal. I kept pulling on the come-along which was pulling the plate about an 1/8 of an inch a pull. Progress was slow. When the plate was showing about four feet it broke loose and pulled out of the skin of the barge. When that happened, I knew Bruce would not see the plate falling out towards him, so I put my arm under the plate to keep it from hitting him. Most of the hot plate was in my leather glove but where the glove stopped on my arm my skin was exposed to the hot plate. Bruce jumped back knowing the plate pulled free but did not know where it went. He knew enough to push himself away from the barge. I kept the plate off him until he got out of the way. All of this happened in a second or two but that hot plate on the skin of my right forearm underside felt like it was forever. Bruce was sitting while I was standing with my left hand over the burnt skin of my right arm. Man, I was in pain! Bruce said, “What is that smell?” Turns out it was burnt skin he smelled.
On the truck ride to the Emergency room, I did not know if my arm was broken, or the burn was so bad that it felt like it was broken. They took X-rays and confirmed the arm was not broken; the injury was just a bad burn. I later walked out of the Emergency room with my right forearm bandaged like a cast and I was loaded up on pain medicine. One of the coworkers drove me in my car home and one of the shop trucks followed him to bring him back to work. I show up at work two days later when I felt safe to drive with the pain meds out of my system.
Morning meetings with Bruce and the guys who worked in the yard were always joke and pick on each other time. That day Bruce said I owe someone for finishing up my welding job so the barge could be on its way to the next job. But he did go on to say that since I kept him from getting injured, that he will pay for the time I had off. That was never heard of out there, so that was the one and only paid time off I had in those ten years.
Funny how seeing the scar on my right arm from that burn from many years ago brought back this memory. Working with the Stapps I felt more like part of their family than I did as just an employee. They even treated me as family. Good times!!