Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Pullin' chain at DG Shelter
In the spring of 1983, I left off school and went to work at the little lumber mill outside Klamath Falls, Oregon run by DG Shelter Corporation. The timber industry was well-respected in Klamath Falls in those days. The town owed a lot to the saw mills. If it weren't for Weyerhaeuser and Modoc Lumber Company and all the rest, it is hard to imagine that Klamath Falls would ever have been more than a farmer's hamlet.
I got a job there because the foreman of the planer mill on day shift was Joe Tacchini, an old family friend. DG Shelter paid me 7 dollars and 20 cents an hour, and that was respectable money. Not as much as the union workers at Weyerhaeuser were getting, but plenty for a college drop-out just looking to have a little fun while he figured out what to do with his life.
Mill work was tough. I worked on the planer chain.
The way it worked was this:
Smeltzer, standing over at the planer feeder, would let in the rough-hewn planks, just out from the kiln, one after the other, making sure they didn't jam. The planar would hum and the planed lumber would shoot out the other side and onto the belt table which carried them past the graders, Les and Philo, who would look them over and scrawl a grade on them with colored chalk, according to their warp and the size and number of knots. They had a way of marking instructions for the trimmer that told him how much to trim off each end.
Ted ran the trim saws. He'd set the lumber just so on the chain feeder and hold it with his right hand until the cleats caught it and carried it up under the hood to the line of trim saws. Then, with his left hand, he'd push the keys on the control box, dropping the trim saws and making the cut according to the grade. Sometimes, especially when he was just starting the job, he'd miss a grade and just drop the whole line of saws down, cutting the lumber into useless 2 foot segments that fell down onto the hog feeder belt, and were carried up and into the hog to be chipped. But Ted got to be pretty good at it, and those instances were rare. Mostly he got it right.
The trimmed and finished product would come out the other side at a length of between 4 and 20 feet. The sorting belt caught it from there and brought it out to us where we read the grade and pulled it off the belt and onto the appropriate stack. When you finished a unit, you'd signal the carrier driver by patting the top of your hardhat to indicate that you had a full load. The straddle carrier would drive over the top of the load, pick it up with the lifting shoes, and carry it off to the yard where it got loaded for shipment. As the carrier pulled out, we'd jump down and set the bolsters for the next load, then jump back up and start again.
They called it "pulling chain." The lumber would get to coming out of there fast at times and we'd have to move quickly. But, toward the end, our team of pullers was pretty good. There were Dave Azevedo and Doug Brown and Jeff Anderson and I. And some other guys, too. The line-up changed from time to time.
The mill was located on the shores of Lake Ewana, south of town. In the winter, the lake froze over and the wind would come up off the ice and whip through the mill. That was the one time when we liked being in the "hot spot" up on the sorter line: the first position past the trim saws where the lumber came out fastest and you had to move the most.
Dave Azevedo was my best friend of the bunch. We had been teammates on the Klamath Union football team. (Go Pels!) In the warm weather, he'd ride me to work and home on his motorcycle. Dave was killed in a car wreck a few years after the shut-down. It's a shame. He was a good guy.
I liked the old-timers, too, like Les and Philo. They'd been working in lumber since the heydays of the late 60s and early 70s. Most of them were pretty broken-down. A lot of them were missing fingers or pieces of their hands. Working around heavy equipment, year in and year out, things like that did happen. Once you got to know them, if they liked you, the old-timers would always say, "Son, get an education. This life is not the way to go." I had many of them tell me that.
It wasn't a bad life for me. I came to appreciate the homespun wisdom and the funny, rustic dialect. But, then again, I knew that it was just for a short while. I planned to go back to school. For the old guys, though, who had been supporting families and paying mortgages all their adult lives, it wasn't an easy existence, nor did the future hold much promise.
When DG Shelter closed down, in the spring of 1984, I was there. Tom Monterossi, the plant manager gave us the news in a big meeting in the main break room.
There was some carping and some griping but most of the guys seemed resigned to it. They took it with a sense of humor. After all the writing had been on the wall for quite a while.