My Great Adventures…..A Journal

This WordPress.com site follows my happy trails.

The Drifter

The daily operations while mining a 16% decline in Silver City,NM were pretty normal. The tunnel, ground conditions, and production rates were in line with our estimates and project schedules. Like all tunnel jobs, it was never boring. There was one outstanding problem which persisted the full duration of the time spent in Silver City. It was a local bar called The Drifter. It was the watering hole of choice for my crews. The Drifter caused me more grief than you can imagine during the project. If half a crew didn’t show for work, it was because of The Drifter. If day shift was short handed it was because the whole crew, myself included at times, didn’t have enough sense to go home and get some sleep for the next day.

Thursday night was “pitcher night” at the drifter. You could get a standard pitcher full of your favorite drink for $6.00. If you were drinking top shelf a pitcher was $8.00. For that price, nobody is going to drink beer. I could handle two or three pictures, get home for some dinner and sleep, and be at work on time the next morning. The same couldn’t be said for some of the hands on day shift. Every Friday morning I would anxiously watch the dry house to see how many hands showed up for work. We always managed to keep things going, but it was bad between the hangovers that came to work and the miners who dumped shift. We had a bunch of good hands working on the tunnel. If we tramped the no shows on Friday, it would just be the same problem with different people next Friday.

My bosses Clay Paulson and Ed Hill would come one at a time every couple of weeks. Both had worked for Gates and Fox for many years. When they were in town they always went to The Drifter, threw their company credit cards on the bar, and bought drinks for the crews. The next day I’d be operating with skeleton crews on day shift. The Drifter was glad to see Clay and Ed come to town, but I was getting my butt kicked on production the following day. Clay and Ed both had a wealth of knowledge and knew their business. They also enjoyed company when they wanted to party. I finally collared them and explained my predicament. My schedule could compensate for pitcher night absenteeism, but it couldn’t afford having them waste my crew for an additional shift during the week. Go to The Drifter, buy the hands a few drinks, then pick up your card and leave. The crew would go home early enough to make shift the next day.

Every tunnel job has it’s Drifter…………along with it’s miners who never learn to get off their stool and go home.

Defective

The 16% decline tunnel at Silver City,NM was a pretty good hike when we got out 2500 feet from the portal. It was a leisurely stroll going in, but climbing back out kept us in good shape. Larry Patro was walking boss on day shift at Silver City while waiting for a shaft job to start in Washington,DC. Larry and I were both in good physical shape with the exception of a couple defects.

Larry had a bad hip which would have stopped a lot of people from working. This was before the methods used today to replace knees and hips. If you had hip surgery the rate of success was pretty slim. You definitely would never recover normal use of your hip or be able to hold a job which required extensive walking, climbing, etc. Larry wasn’t going to give up until he absolutely had to. Larry had a limp which he couldn’t hide, but I had never had a serious conversation with him about it. We were about 1500 feet into the tunnel one afternoon walking. Suddenly, Larry toppled over sideways and was squirming on the ground. I thought he had a heart attack. When I tried to assist him he assured me he was all right and waved me back. He crossed one foot over the other, pushed hard on the lower foot with the upper foot, and popped his hip back into place. We rested, smoked a cigarette as he explained his hip problem, got on our feet, and headed down the tunnel. Larry was tough. He always scared me when he went down, but was adamant about getting the hip back in the joint by himself.

When we went to Silver City I had an inguinal groin hernia. It didn’t bother me much, but as the job progressed it was getting larger. Half way through the project it was about the size of a tennis ball. When it was protruding I would put my right hand in the pocket of my blue jeans and hold it in. There was some pain associated with it, but I was able to function all right. Paul Eller our company president was on a site visit. Late in the day he observed me climbing the hill to our job office while holding the hernia in. He immediately asked what my problem was. Paul’s wife was an RN and had a fit when he told her about my hernia. He told me to get it fixed or get off the job. Off I went to the Arizona University Medical Center in Tucson for surgery. I stayed overnight and rode on an air mattress back home the next morning. Surgery was nothing, but that was a ride I’ll never forget. I always handled pain pretty well, but felt every little bump for 200 miles. At least I wasn’t defective any more.

I often wondered…….what if Paul saw Larry flopping around on the ground getting his hip in place again.

Silver City

Silver City, is located  in southwest New Mexico. The town sits at 6000 foot elevation and has a mining history dating back to the 1860’s. The primary employment in the Silver City area was the operation of huge surface and underground copper mines within a twenty mile radius of town. Our mining project in 1983 was a development tunnel for a new mine near the small town of Pinos Altos just north of Silver City. The primary ore was nickel with secondary inclusions of gold, silver, and copper. The 3400′ of horseshoe shaped tunnel at a 16% decline would provide access for future mining operations. We would use conventional drill and blast mining methods.

When we left Roseville, CA for New Mexico the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys had been socked in with fog for a month. We were really excited to be going someplace where there was sunshine. Our first week in Silver City we got nailed with two feet of wet heavy spring snow. Maybe the fog wasn’t so bad after all.

When we mobilized our project the local economy was in bad shape. The price and demand for copper was very low due to economic conditions around the world. The first couple of weeks in town was spent in a motel. When I opened my door at 5AM it wasn’t uncommon to have a dozen good miners standing around my pick-up to rustle a job. I always threw my legal pad on the hood and took their information. These men were excellent workers who had no employment because all the mines were literally closed.

Most of our equipment was mobilized out of our northern California yard. Several of our machines for hauling muck out of the tunnel weighed 80,000 each. The truckers who knew their way around could get the overweight load permitted through California and Arizona, but came into New Mexico without permits. The New Mexico scales in Lordsburg on Interstate 10 were about two miles past the exit to downtown Lordsburg and the highway to Silver City. The drivers would slip in at night, exit into town, and catch the highway north without reporting through the scales. One night I waited up for Old John who was coming in with one of the ST-8’s on his lowboy. He called from Lordsburg a couple hours late. When he jumped off at Lordsburg there was a fire in town. The road was blocked by the State Police. When the officer asked Old John about his trip permits and weight it was all over. I went to the Justice of the Peace the next morning and paid $800 to get Old John off the scale.

The New Mexico State Police didn’t arrest Old John………..just parked him at the scales, took his keys, and gave him a ride to a motel.

Fix It Tickets

We finished our project in Beulah, ND and returned to Roseville, CA near Gates & Fox’s home office. The holidays were coming and everybody was happy with our successful project completion. Myself, Mike Janzeski, and Kenny Pruitt maintained equipment at our home office in between small local jobs. In the spring we were awarded a tunnel project near Silver City, NM. We made several trips to Silver City during contract negotiations with the Gates & Fox Cessna 421 airplane. Kieth Morrell was our pilot and drove the company tractor trailer when not flying.

Myself and Lee Boyd left the yard in Loomis, Ca with an old Mack water truck and a Ford Concrete Mobil truck. We were going to Silver City. The Mack truck had a platform water tank about 3 feet high. The tank had a full load of 4 inch pipe on top of it. We hit a truck scale between Loomis and Donner Summit on Interstate 80. We were red lighted into the truck inspection area for a normal Highway Patrol safety inspection. Lee’s Concrete Mobil passed in flying colors. The safety inspector got writers cramp before he finished with the old Mack. It didn’t have any serious deficiencies, just a lot of small items needing attention. As the inspector crawled around under the truck he chatted with us about mining, construction, and our jobs. He wrote two lists. One for fix it tickets and another for minor items we should take care of, but not ticketed. He asked who paid the bills for our company and I told him Wayne Dutra was our Financial Officer. Lee and I headed back down the mountain to Loomis. We wanted to clear the fix it tickets before proceeding to Silver City. We would also fix the lesser items noted during inspection.

When we got back to the yard everybody was surprised. We had only been gone a couple hours. I pulled out the tickets and we made a work list. After copying the tickets I took the originals into Wayne. He sat behind his desk reading the violations and asked me a couple questions. As I headed for the door he said, “Hey wait a minute. My name is on these tickets. How did my name get on there?” I acted dumb. “They asked who paid the bills at Gates & Fox. I gave them your name and title. That’s why we’re fixing everything right now. We don’t want you to lose your drivers license.” The rest of the conversation is best not written.

We fixed the truck, got it inspected, and left Loomis the morning of the second day after getting the fix it tickets. We hit the Boomtown Truck Stop and Casino just west of Reno about day break. We purchased Nevada fuel permits. We both made out Keno tickets during breakfast. We were laughing about Wayne’s reaction to the fix it tickets when a waitress handed me a little tray with $1300 on it.

Wayne paid the fix it tickets……….but he didn’t appreciate our bragging him up to the Highway Patrol inspector.

 

Non Float Trip

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located in the badlands of North Dakota. I’m serious. There is a National Park in North Dakota. The park is separated into a 46,000 acre South section and a 24,000 acre North section. Buffalo herds are maintained in the natural surroundings of both areas. The Little Missouri River flows through both sections of the park. Our family, along with Dick Thompson’s family, and two other families decided to spend a long weekend camping at Squaw Creek on the North section. We arrived mid afternoon and set up our tents, awnings, etc in the campground. We had made excursions along the riverbank and collected firewood for our weekend. As the sun was setting three of the boys in our group were out investigating the area around the campground. They had encountered a small herd of buffalo and came running back to camp. Not long after, just before dark, a Ranger drove through the campground shouting through a bullhorn “Buffalo in the campground, buffalo in the campground” warning campers to stay close to their camps. The herd of 30 animals would go to the river for water and return to their grazing areas behind the campground. We drank beer, played family table games, and scared the kids with spooky stories well into the night. Every time the kids strayed a little we hollered “buffalo in the campground” and they would scurry back. We spent half the night shaking each others tents and shouting “buffalo in the campground” as the kids screamed inside.

Myself and Dick Thompson returned to the park about three weeks later with my son Jamie and Dick’s son Allen. We brought our 17 foot Grumman canoe so the boys could float the Little Missouri river about 5 miles from the campground to the highway 85 bridge. The river ambled slowly through the low hills of the badlands. The boys launched the canoe and headed downstream. We broke camp and loaded everything in the van at a leisurely pace. We arrived at the bridge  5 miles below and there was no sign of the boys in the half mile of river upstream. We drank all of our coffee, snacked a little bit, and checked the river. After several hours we were wondering how long it should have taken the boys. Our first glimpse of them told the story. They came into site walking down the middle of the river, one on each side of the canoe, sliding the canoe through the shallow water. When water got up to their knees they could paddle until they hit the next shallow shoal. They spent more time walking than they did floating. They were covered with splatters of mud from walking the river. Both boys were glad to get off the river and into the van.

The boys didn’t enjoy their North Dakota float trip……..but they won’t ever forget it.

Wild Tug

Working the off shore shaft on Lake Sakakawea was always interesting and challenging. We worked a small crew and each shift had a tugboat operator who transported supplies back and forth from shore. The tugboat also transported our crews at shift changes. Surprisingly, good tug boat operators were very hard to come by. We were in an area that didn’t normally see much off shore work. In the areas of a lot of tugboat activity the good tugboat operators were never out of work.  The poor and mediocre operators were most likely to end up on small projects like ours.

We were working on a typical North Dakota afternoon. The wind was holding 35 to 40 miles an hour and pushing in four and five foot swells from the north. The tug boat was on it’s way to our work barge with a supply of bagged cement stacked on pallets. The cement was on a barge and the tugboat pushed it from behind. The tug was pushing into the wind coming from shore, would go past our work barge, make a big loop, and come in on our leeward side to deliver the cement. This was a normal daily activity for the tugboat operator. Part of his job was calculating his speed, accounting for drift from the wind and waves, and safely approaching our work barge to get tied off.

The crew was working in the shaft over 100 feet down while suspended in a work cage held in place by our 100 ton crane. The 100 foot boom of the crane was centered directly over the shaft, but the barge was not connected to the shaft. It was stabilized in position with four large steel spuds on each corner embedded in the bottom of the lake while the barge floated on the water. The spuds reduced the movements of the barge from wind and wave action. As I walked on the barge the tug boat was coming at us way too fast. The operator was trying helplessly to adjust his drift in the wind. He had let the wind carry him too far and was on a collision course with us. I told Joe the crane operator to blow the crane horn, our pre-arranged danger signal. Joe locked the boom and the brakes on the crane. I ran to the shaft and screamed for the crew to get in the middle of the cage. When the tugboat and cement barge hit I thought surely the spuds holding us in position would shear. It was a big hit and everybody held onto something to keep from getting knocked down. As soon as we recovered we threw ropes and tied off the barge. We had a few messes to pick up, but no serious injuries or damage.

The tugboat operator didn’t get off easy……..he got to stack the dislodged cement bags back on their pallets.

Lake Woes

North Dakota might not be the most scenic state in the nation, but our family was continuously on the go all the time we lived in Beulah. Our favorite recreation was days spent at the lake fishing. You might think lake fishing from shore is boring, but we seldom had that problem. When you’re out fishing with several kids aged five to ten years old it’s never quiet or peaceful.

One Sunday we arrived at the lake and all the kids wanted to get rigged, baited, and fishing immediately. Linda and I got them all situated and fishing. We managed to get Linda fishing, but my pole never got baited up. One kid or the other had some kind of a problem that required attention as the sun warmed up and we enjoyed the day. Our youngest son Jody had a new children’s Jebco fish pole with an enclosed spinning reel. We owned several of them through the years and had always had good luck with them. Jody, with the patience of most five year old boys, didn’t let the bait stay in one spot long enough to reach bottom before he was reeling in to cast again. There was a flaw in the reel on Jody’s new pole and the line was constantly tangled and knotted on the spool. I would get his line back in the water, check the other kids, start rigging my pole, and he would be hollering again because his reel wouldn’t work. After about four hours non stop, I told him to give me his pole. I gripped the four foot pole by the end, swung it like a baseball bat with a reel on the end, and threw it as far as possible into the lake. The pole would never tangle up again. I don’t know who hollered the most, Jody or Linda, when the big splash caught everybody’s attention. Jody recovered and shared my pole the rest of the day.

On another fishing trip we took our old ATC 90 three wheeler for the kids to ride. Jamie, our ten year old son, was riding and I cautioned him about riding too close to the vertical bank along the shoreline. If he kept riding on the edge and the bank collapsed he would end up in the lake ten feet away. Sure enough, an hour later we heard a couple clumps, and a splash as the ATC tumbled into the lake with Jamie. He stood up in shallow water, waved at me with a bewildered face, and said “The ATC , the ATC, get the ATC”. I didn’t even flinch as I told him “You’re the dummy that put it in the lake. Get your ass in there and get it back out.” It took him a while, but he wrestled the floating upside down machine back to shore. He hadn’t even had time to see if he was hurt or not, but he learned to fix his own mistake instead of hollering at Dad.

Thirty years later Jamie and Jody both laugh at these incidents……….Linda still can’t believe I threw Jody’s new pole in the lake.

Breezy

Our family lived in a company owned mobile home park while working on a tunnel project near Beulah, ND. The mobile homes were very clean and well maintained. Our home sat on a corner lot with a large front yard where our three children had lots of room to play. The front entry to the mobile home was a small metal set of stairs with a metal platform about six feet by six feet. An aluminum storm door provided protection for the front entry door. Our children were 10, 7, and 5 years old. They weren’t used to using a small front porch for access because our recent homes had been ground level entries.

Our children also were not accustomed to the North Dakota breezes. When you reside in North Dakota anything less than thirty miles an hour is a breeze. We went through a considerable training phase teaching the kids how to get in and out of the house safely. They had never seen a place where you couldn’t just open the door and walk outside. All of the kids had a habit of holding onto the storm door when leaving the house and closing the doors behind them. It worked great in most of the world, but not in Beulah. The kids would forget. When they exited the house holding onto the door the breeze would catch the door, slam it open, and launch them off the porch onto the front yard. No injuries, but it would scare the daylights out of them. Eventually they learned to crack the door very easy and squirm through the opening without letting the wind catch the door.

Our family transportation in North Dakota was a full size Chevy window van. Linda and I would often load the van and take the kids fishing in the afternoons and evenings. On one trip we had our three children and a couple of their neighborhood friends. We were fishing on Lake Sakakawea about twenty miles from Beulah. Everyone was enjoying the outing. I noticed the breeze had died down to nothing for a while, everything seemed extraordinarily calm and quiet. There were thunderheads to the south of us, but nothing uncommon. The winds started picking up and a thunderstorm was moving in on us. We packed everything in the van and headed home. Soon everything was very dark and the wind and rain was on us in a hurry. At times there were as many as five lightning bolts visible at one time. The broadside winds were buffeting the van around quite a bit. I found a turnout off the highway where I could position the van head on into the wind. We spent about twenty minutes not knowing if the van could remain on it’s wheels. The rain and hail poured down hard. It was pretty frightening for all of us. The storm was gone as fast as it appeared. In Beulah the high school gym lost it’s roof, wheeled garbage dumpsters had taken some long rides, and we had a nice aluminum boat laying in our front yard.

We didn’t catch many fish………but it was a very memorable fishing trip.

Sunday Sinking

My phone rang on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Beulah,ND. Kenny Pruitt, the equipment superintendent for Gates and Fox, had just received a call from our security guard at the Lake Sakakawea tunnel project. The security guard was concerned about our tugboat tied up at the floating dock on the job. He stated the tugboat appeared to be lower in the water than it was when he observed it earlier. Kenny asked me to ride out to the job with him to inspect the tugboat.

The security guard was right to be concerned. We were a hundred yards away from the dock when it was apparent our tug boat was in trouble. The floating dock was flipped in the air on a 45 degree angle. We couldn’t see the tugboat. When we got close to the dock we could see the two inch diameter nylon lines tied to the tugboat. They were stretched very very tight. The weight of the submerged tugboat suspended on the nylon lines was what tipped the dock at forty five degrees. We could see the silhouette of the submerged tugboat reflecting up from the lake. The situation was dangerous because if something shifted the dock could be flipped completely over as the submerged tugboat sank to the bottom. There were no major fuel or oil leaks contaminating the lake. We spent a while discussing the best way to recover the submerged tugboat. The damage was all ready done and we agreed to leave it alone until Monday morning when we had the manpower available to get the job done. Our biggest concern was the tugboat might break away from the dock and sink into the silty lake bottom.

My off shore crew went to work with our sixteen foot aluminum work boat Monday morning. The sixteen foot boat then returned to shore as a work platform for the crew raising the tugboat. We had a 100 ton tracked crane on site. It was moved to where it could reach the tugboat and dock. The crew was able to get slings under the tugboat to allow lifting with the crane. It was a slow process. As the crane lifted the tugboat the dock settled back into place. The tugboat was lifted just high enough to allow the crew to pump the water out of it. The crane could easily handle the tugboat, but not when it was full of water. The tugboat was sitting high and dry on wooden dunnage by lunch time. The afternoon was spent changing out lubricants and fuel. A new seal was ordered for the leaking propeller drive shaft. The tugboat was in the water and waiting for the day shift crew on Tuesday morning.

The sinking of the tug boat was bad…………..and so was the four dollar drive shaft seal that leaked.

Non-Operator

Gates and Fox worked three shifts at our mining project on Lake Sakakawea near Beulah, ND. Like all multiple shift jobs, the graveyard shift had higher than normal employee turnover rates. Many people would take night shift employment until they could find normal day shift employment elsewhere. Such was the case of Bob LeMay’s crane operator on the off shore shaft graveyard shift. The operator gave Bob a few days notice. I called the local Operators union hall and ordered a new operator. My conversation with the new operator while getting him signed up at our job site office indicated he was used to the type of work we were doing. He had certifications to operate the 3900 Manitowoc which was on the offshore barge. He was given shift times and told where to meet the crew and tugboat for transportation to the barge for graveyard shift.

Bob’s crew assembled on the dock and took the tugboat to the off shore barge for shift change. The crew consisted of Bob, two miners, a welder mechanic, a crane operator, a top lander, and the tugboat operator. They held a safety meeting, serviced their equipment, and prepared the tools needed for the nights work in the 8 feet diameter shaft. The shaft cage was hanging in the shaft at the collar adjacent to the access platform. The tugboat went ashore with the off going swing shift.

My phone rang about one in the morning. The tugboat operator informed me the new crane operator had let Bob and two of his crew down the shaft in the enclosed circular cage. He let them free fall a considerable distance then jerked on the brake to stop the fall. The cage had bounced around going down and the sudden stop drove all three men to their knees in the tight confines of the cage. The crane operator couldn’t operate the crane and didn’t dare try to move them. Bob sent the tugboat operator to call me so my day shift crane operator could come out and get them out of the shaft. I told the tugboat operator to go back to the barge, get the new operator, and bring him to shore. He had better be off the project before Bob LeMay gets out of that shaft and kills him. If Bob didn’t kill him, I would definitely kick his butt all the way back to Bismark.

I picked up Joe, my crane operator, and we got to the barge about two thirty. We were very cautious as we didn’t know if the crane malfunctioned or if the incident was operator error. We had no way to get Bob and his two hands out of the cage. The crane operated normally. When the cage hit the collar of the shaft Bob’s first move was to find the non-operator. All three of the men in the cage had some scrapes caused by going from freefall to stop in a heartbeat, but no serious injuries. The crew ate lunch and went back to work with Joe operating the crane. The incident and accident reports took up the rest of my night.

Sometimes I wonder if I made a mistake………..by not letting Bob LeMay get his hands on that non-operator.