Working Dockside

Nov 5, 2017, 11:28 AM

I lived in Maine for a time, where I worked as a welder/machinist/blacksmith at a marine fab and diesel shop. Our work area was intensely cluttered with metal engine parts, fishing gear, old motors, junk and detritus that had accumulated over many years. To get to the machines, one had to run a gauntlet of junk. I cleared the area immediately around my welding bench and took the time to occasionally put things in order. It never stayed clean for long.

The business was located on a spit out in the middle of the harbor. At very high tide, the causeway would flood, so we rowed a small tender back and forth to get to work. We had one working railway, powered by a ‘one-lunger’ (single-piston diesel) to pull boats up on cradles. We heated the shop with a woodstove made from a hot water tank. Strewn around the building were many old machine tools: milling machines, lathes, shapers, etc., all far older than I was.

The business was a family affair, owned by the sons of the ancient patriarch who still showed up for work, though he was as productive as he wanted to be on any given day. His favorite lathe was right next to the welding area where I hung my hat. As I worked, he’d lecture me on the Bible, since he was convinced that I, like all younger people, was a sinner. He was convinced that I was a fool, and never missed an opportunity to tell me such. The boss, his son, told me to ignore the old man, and to feel free to give it right back to him. I became pretty good friends with ‘Father’, as he was known.

Sections of the shop were built up on piers over the water. There was a large, heavy shaper set up in one room, over the water. I was curious about the machine, and one day, being a fool, I switched it on, just to see how it worked. The shaper had a reciprocating head that took a small cut on each pass, then advanced a small increment on each cycle. The machine worked fine; but the building on piers had been undercut by a major storm many years earlier. As the shaper did its thing, the whole building began to sway in rhythm with the machine action, and the floor under the machine rocked up and down. From the other end of the shop, the old timer began shouting ‘turn it off, turn it off!!’ After I killed the power, he berated me roundly, and was shaking from anger.

One day, a diesel mechanic from the marina down the street brought a copper marine muffler for repair. This apparatus vented the engine exhaust under water so that little noise was produced when the boat was under way on diesel. As I began working on it, I turned to see the old man glaring at me. He told me to leave it alone, I knew nothing about it, and I’d just screw it up. I set it aside, but worked on it when he left the shop. When he came back and saw me working on the muffler, he exploded, began shouting and cursing me, and then, in a blind rage, he shouted ‘I QUIT!!’

Horrified, I told his son that I’d driven the old man out, but the son just laughed and told me ‘This is how he takes a vacation.’

While the old timer was out of the shop for the next week, his son told us to clean house. We used shovels and wheelbarrows to move tons of junk and machine shop crap out of the building. We dumped it in the ocean. By week’s end, we could see the corners of the rooms, and could walk unimpeded through the building. Fishermen who had been doing business there for years came in and looked in awe at the spectacle. We even cleaned and degreased the machines.

On Monday, the old fellow came back to work. When he saw what we’d done, he became visibly upset, and just wandered through the business muttering ‘My God, you’ve ruined it. This is awful. Its ruined.’ He occasionally stopped at some spot where a pile of engine parts had been, and would lament that the junk we’d tossed was a valuable old marine engine, something he was going to restore, or useful stuff that he had plans for, etc. Over the next day or two, he began going out to the shore next to the shop, where we had dumped the stuff, and began to bring much of it back in, until his son demanded that he stop.

A few days after he came back to work, while sitting at his lathe smoking his pipe and silently watching me, he suddenly said ‘David, I was watching them folks (Jim and Tammy Bakker, the preachers) and they said ‘Don’t you hold no grudge!’, and I thought of you. So, I came back to work to give you another chance.’ Then we all had some truly awful coffee and set about our work as if nothing had ever happened between us.