It started as a usual Monday. I picked up Lars at his apartment in North Vancouver and we made our way in the old postal vehicle my boss had bought at auction to his warehouse on Esplanade. It lay across from the Burrard Dry Docks and Shipyard. You could hear the clang from our warehouse as three chip-scows were being fabricated.
The operation had employed as many as 14,000 people in its day who had built myriad ships with a count just shy of 500 by 1988. The St Roch was built there, the first ship to circumnavigate North America and the first ship to navigate the Northwest Passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Victory freighters were turned out here faster than Großadmiral Karl Dönitz could sink them.
As I write, men with vision have all but succeeded in turning it into condominiums and tourist-trap markets. I'm glad I didn't know that as I parked and unlocked the front door. There was much commotion in the warehouse next door. A fleet of odd vehicles assembled as we were turning on the lights and preparing our supplies for the day. As we loaded our rig with pipe, fittings, sheet-metal and appliances the collection of trailers grew.
I was at a loss as to who these people were. Men scurried to and fro unloading equipment and miles of cable. The only thing I had seen similar was when an outdoor stage was being prepared for a multi-day concert. At length, Lars figured it out. It was a movie company setting up for a shoot. The location was the interior of the neighboring warehouse. The two of us watched for a bit and Lars asked one young man what was the movie they were shooting.
The film was to be called “Motherlode”. It was about a crazed lone Scottish miner searching for El Dorado in British Columbia. When we asked who was the star, we were quickly told that Charlton Heston was playing the miner and some gal named Kim Basinger and a fellow named Mancuso were also in the film. I'd never heard of the youngsters but I sure knew my Moses! I asked an electrician if Charlton was coming that day. The answer was yes. Lars asked about Kim Basinger and was very sad when he was informed that she wasn't in the scene being shot that day.
To cheer him up I began exchanging snippets of Ten Commandments dialogue as we loaded our truck. Soon, Lars was Yul Brynner in the character of Ramses II with a sheet-metal crown and I marched around with a length of one inch gas-pipe threatening to turn it into a serpent if Lars didn't let my people go. We still had some time before the boss was due to appear and we decided to wait for Charlie to come on set.
When the loading was done and we were having our first sip of thermos coffee, Lars went to the doorway, pacing leopard-like, ever the Pharaoh.
Presently he came back to the sheet-metal brake which served as our table. Legs splayed and hands on his hips, he bellowed, “Moses, those bastiges are lining up for breakfast and I'll be plagued by frogs if I don't join them. We work harder than those guys and they are on our turf. Are you with me?”
When it came to mischief, Lars was usually the young Scipio and I was usually the elder Fabianus. In contrast to those actual men, we complemented each other, rather than attempting to cancel each other out. It was decided that we take Carthage at once. I strode to the window with my staff and had a look. A huge gourmet catering truck had lifted its flaps and was dishing out omelets worthy of a five-star hotel. I studied the line up for awhile.
Presently, I turned to my young partner. I had an idea. I went to the laundry bag and pulled out two sets of dirty blue boiler suits. They belonged to the gas-fitter employed by my boss's warehouse partner. Our boss thought them too expensive so we dressed in our own grease stained jeans and work shirts. I tossed one pair to Lars and began to pull on another.
“Put these robes on, Son and I will take you to the mountain of Hollandaise.”
Ramses grinned and removed his crown. After a briefing we were ready to infiltrate.
“What are we?”
“What are the names of our Gods?”
“Volt, Amp and Ohm.”
“What do we seek?”
“Brekkie and word of lady Kim.”
We streamed out our door and joined the long line of technicians. Everyone had blue coveralls and all attention was to the interior of the warehouse whose door had been flung wide to reveal a fake mineshaft. There, surrounded by a small coterie of people in street clothes was Mr. Heston. He had a graying beard and wore suspenders instead of a robe but all I saw was Moses, El Cid and Ben Hur.
Lars piled his plate with waffles and kid-stuff and I ordered four eggs on Rusks with Crab Hollandaise and enough bacon rashers to hide them under. We took our bounty into the set and milled about listening to Heston and the other cast-members discuss their objectives. We never approached him for an autograph due to being under-cover. I found it far more interesting to observe the man in his natural environment acting naturally, rather than playing himself to fans.
We went back for some espresso coffee and had a smoke out on the driveway. Presently, the technicians were being told to get to work by their foreman. Lars winked and we crab-walked over the few yards to our own door and removed the boiler-suits inside. We had just pulled out of the driveway when the boss rolled in. We tooted our horn and went to meet the day. It was going to be a good one.
It was a once in a lifetime chance. Me and Gordie were selected from hundreds to be allowed to work all day Saturday and Sunday for time and a half. That tallied up to $32 dollars per hour which was a tidy sum in The Seventies. If you factor for inflation, I haven't matched it yet in my life to date. I was broke and Gordie was saving up to visit his sister in Arizona.
We were employed by the Vancouver Shipyards and would have the whole yard to ourselves for the two days. I made two extra-big sandwiches and a giant Thermos of cafe nero. Avila, the guard let us in at the gate and we made our way to the pipe-fitters shack. From there we grabbed two bicycles and pedaled over to the tool shed.
We picked up an assortment of hand tools such as pipe wrenches, hammers, saws, chisels, hard hats, coveralls and head-lamps. We were going to be working in the dark. In fact we were going to be decommissioning an old ocean going barge. The kind you might see from a city beach, heading out to sea being towed by a monster deep sea tug.
This barge was a big one and the boss wanted all the salvageable fittings removed and all the scrap metal set aside before she was cut up or scuttled. Sounded easy enough to us on Friday afternoon. Looked a bit different on Saturday morning at six AM when we stood in front of the wreck in the chill gray morning.
“Well, uf we kin fugger oot hae ta gut unside, that's huf the buttle,” said Gordie.
I rolled a smoke and walked up and down the wharf. I jumped across the small gap of water and walked up and down the filthy rusty deck. Gordie piled the tools and gear from our bikes onto the hulk. Soon we both were aboard and tugging on our coveralls. Now we searched in earnest for what it was we were to remove. Presently Gordie, who had grown up on the River Clyde, found the hatch.
“Here we go, Mick!”
He was twisting a rusty iron wheel like the kind on a submarine hatch. It turned a quarter turn and squealed to a halt.
“Guv me a hand wi thus butch, she's a titcht one.”
We both applied our force to the stubborn wheel and after far too long and some hammer blows, we had it open and thrown wide. The stench was overpowering. It was dark as the Black Hole Of Calcutta and odd dripping sounds percolated up with the noxious fumes.
“Ut wid pit ye aff yer oats, would it no?”
“That would knock a buzzard off a shit-wagon,” I said.
“Aye, 'twood. I reckon thut's hae they talk in Aree-Zoona, no?”
“Ma suster is luvin there and I'm tae go and vusit soon as I earn ma fare.”
We shone a flashlight into the gloom. We shone both flashlights into the gloom. The light penetrated only a few yards before being extinguished. Gordie dropped a coin into the hole. After a moment we heard it plop.
“Richt! Rig yer licht and doon we gae.”
There was a greasy ladder made of steel leading down to the bilge. We descended in the cheerful glow of our head-lights. Once we were within a few feet of the liquid, we could tell that we were already several meters under the water-line. Gordie was only about five feet tall but a brave young man of good stock. He held onto the ladder and jumped off the last dry rung.
He had about four inches of free-board left on his rubber boots and giggled with glee.
“OK, Mick. Up ye gae, take the busket aff one o the bikes and rope it doon wi the tools, eh?”
I gladly went aloft, and prepared our basket of tools, rigged a rope and lowered the hoard slowly down to Gordie.
“Got 'er. Brulliant! Nae, gut doon here wi me ye bustard.”
I descended again into the murk and stepped off the ladder. Gordie had perched the tool basket on a huge valve handle. It was the main sea-cock which if opened would flood and sink the vessel in a matter of moments. We walked the length and breadth of our new work-space. We discovered that we had to be within a few feet of any part that we wished to work on.
The bilge itself was like India ink. It was a special liquid, not oil, not diesel, not sea water but an organic amalgam of all three. It stank and it clung to anything it touched. The kind of stench that crawls up into your nostrils, parks in your throat and commences to burp.
After surveying the barge, we both decided it would be prudent not to smoke in the flammable vapors, so we went top-side for a puff and a few gulps of coffee and fresh air. The sun was up but well hidden behind a thick bank of fog. Gordie looked at his watch and started to laugh.
“What's so funny?”
“We uv ulruddy earned thurty-foor dollars Mick. Ut's brilliant!”
This news cheered me up and soon we were back down the ladder and ready to give her.
Our orders were simple. Remove everything that was removable and break off what wouldn't budge.
We were allowed to go till 5 PM and that is what we did. We worked in bursts of a hour or so and scampered up top to breath and smoke. When lunch came, neither of us could stomach anything but coffee. We were burping the fumes ourselves. From time to time one of us would haul up a basket of fittings to lay on deck. There like an archeologists table at a dig site were displayed an array of valves, fittings, handles and various fixtures of steel, iron and brass.
About one o clock we heard it. An eerie, long, drawn out “Kreeeeeeeet. Klik-Kreeeeet-Tikk-Pop-Kreeeeeeeet!
It first sounded like the ASDIC used by WWII destroyers when searching out submerged U-boats. Like a handful of pebbles thrown against the hull from under water. It resonated in our chamber and we felt it as well as heard it. We both snapped into action. Was the old tub breaking up? We looked to the valves that communicated with the sea outside. They all checked out OK.
“What the hell was that?”
“I'll be uskin ye the same, Mick.”
We sloshed through the miasma toward each other and closer to the ladder. We peered up into the hatch. It was a lousy dark day up there and the circle of sky only added to our apprehension. We decided to get with it and shake it off. I began sledge hammering a stubborn flange.
“Careful o sparks doon here Mick, no?”
“Best as I can ,Gordie.”
This time it was louder.
This utterance was faint and seemed to be coming from another direction. I looked at Gordie. He stood like a man backed against a cliff watching a herd of buffaloes coming his way.
“What in the precious hell could that possibly be?,” I inquired.
After a meaningful pause and with regret in his voice, Gordie said, “Mick, I fugger ut's a Kelpie.”
“A Kelpie? What's that?”
“A water spurit. Micht be twa by the soond o ut.”
“Are they friendly?”
“A Kelpie kin gae twa roads. Save yer life or snatch oop yer soul.”
“Any roads, as long as we're no sinkin' yet, we butter gae ahead wi oor werk.”
Continue, we did. Each time we went aloft, it was nastier outside and we scanned the Inlet for any sign of the tell-tale horse shape of the Kelpie, to no avail. Through the balance of the day the sounds got farther away and eventually we decided that we had been spared. By four thirty we climbed out and set off for the gate.
I went home and tried to soak off the stench in a hot tub of water. It didn't work and I had to sleep on the living room floor so as not to ruin the bed or couch. My wife was sympathetic but had a delicate stomach which precluded her coming within three feet of me.
Next morning, I used an old Viking recipe I learned from my step-father. I took my Thermos and poured in some black coffee. Then I dropped a dime into it. I next poured Old Bushmill's into this until I could see the dime. Hopefully this would quell the nausea and make me able to chew on a few sandwiches at lunch. Just before I left my apartment, I looked up Kelpie in my dictionary. There it was, a water spirit in Scottish folklore. Folklore had to based on something I reckoned.
Gordie was at the gate when I got there and Avila let us in. We went straight to the hull where we had left out tools last day.
“I dreamed o the Kelpie last nicht, Mick. I fugger she'll be buck.”
We set to like nobody's business partly from the huge amount of work yet to be done by nightfall and partly in an attempt to forget the Kelpie. Every time we thought we were just about to get on the short-side, we discovered more pipes and valves that seemed to have grown overnight. Probably the magic wrought by the water witch. By lunch we were both fairly intoxicated by a combination of our special coffees and the fumes.
We decided to go below and have one last epic go at it. Everything down to the bilge that wasn't under the water would be unscrewed, busted, sawed, chiseled and laying on top by dark. Kelpie or no.
To cheer us up, Gordie began singing Glaswegian ribald songs, “When I was a lass o fufteen, I hud a loovly qum. I'd stund before me murror and pit me fingur un. Noo I'm twunty-one und me qum has lost ut's charm. I kin stull pit me fingur un, und haff me bleddy arm!”
I countered in Spanish, “Solomon siendo tan sabio, te pregutas a su mujer, Donde que deran los huevos cuando vamos a cojer? La mujer, que era una guera, contesta con disimulo, Los huevos que dan afuera, dandole golpes al culo!”
“I but ye learned that un Aree-Zoona, no? Ma suster luvs there un the dussurt.”
Before I could answer we received a blast from the Kelpies. There were two for sure and they were having a wizard's dialogue. The sound was so loud we could see ripples running through the inky bilge around our boots. The entire hull vibrated. This time we froze. After long anxious moments we heard a new more threatening sound. A hellish blast like a steam valve bursting. This sound came from above through the hatch and was very close. Only our ears and noses retained any colour. That was the whiskey. We stood fast, blanched and stalwartly awaiting what ever shape the fiends took on. As we gripped our big wrenches and made the sign of the cross the sound grew intolerably loud and quickly, blessedly, faded as rapidly as it had come.
“I think they're gone for good now.”
“Mick, let's funush oop thus tub and gut hame und dry, eh?”
We summoned the last of our energies and had the hull stripped by three o clock. We agreed it would be best to keep our visitation by The Kelpies to ourselves, so we didn't spook the other men. I was allowed to tell my wife, however and Gordie was allowed to tell his sister in Arizona. We shook hands at the gate and went our ways.
As I lay in a tub of hot water, baking soda, salt, lemon juice and some cedar sprigs to counter the bilge smell and the Kelpie magic, I heard my young wife calling me from the living room.
“Michael, you'll never guess what's on the news. Two killer whales swam in under the Lions Gate Bridge on Saturday morning and got lost. They went all the way up to Indian Arm before turning around and finding their way back out Burrard Inlet to the sea. They just got clear today at about one o clock.”
Back in the early eighties I earned my keep as a gas-fitter. I remember coming to town after a long trek all the way from North Vancouver to Tangiers, in the Kingdom of Morocco and back again via Texas. I spent the night on someone's couch and went to the Manpower Office early the next morning. I was feeling good and had on a brand new white tee-shirt and my cleanest jeans.
I saw an ad for a gas-fitter for a local North Vancouver firm and decided to pay them a visit. I found the office with some difficulty, although it was hidden in plain sight. I walked in and asked the gal at the front desk if I could speak with the owner. She twirled around and padded into the back of the small home-handyman styled workspace and spoke in low tones to a hidden voice.
There were B Vents, hot water tanks, gas fireplaces and a few furnaces on display in the cedar shake decorated front room. A Cee-Bee radio stood dusty and coffee stained on the counter just above the gal's desk, phone and typewriter. She had a Rolodex file, an ashtray from Arizona and a large mug of coffee.
She floated back into the room and told me to go right to the back and that the boss would see me. I wandered back into the cluttered hallway stacked with parts, tools and bags of things someone surely meant to use someday. At the end of the hall was a small office. A man that looked quite a bit like my own dad rose up from a ledger book and heartily shook my hand.
He introduced himself and I introduced myself. He asked a few questions about my experience with furnace installation and servicing. I answered all his questions absolutely truthfully without selling myself short. I didn't write any cheques with my mouth that my Stilson wrenches couldn't cash. I told him about my time at a local shipyard.
As I spoke, he had an ever-growing grin inching across his face like a man who'd been playing a fish and had finally caught a glimpse of it. He tilted his head to one side the way a dog does when it ain't sure if it likes you or not. After a few moments, he cut off my dialogue.
“Texas? You're from Texas? Well, I'll be dipped in dog-shit! Tex, I mean Mike, look here, do you like coffee? You-all want some?” he seemed to be infected with my accent.
I smiled back and answered in the affirmative.
“Well, the pot is over there by Katrina out front so go get it yourself, we don't play no favourites around here. Then come on back here.”
I poured myself a mug and headed back into the bull-pen.
“Look, kid. I like you. You're honest and I can tell that you know how to cut, thread and fit pipe. Otherwise that supply ship would have sunk on the way to Venezuela but she didn't, eh? Now, part of the year we do a lot of servicing and I can also tell you don't know dick-squat about that. Good part is, I can show you. I'll send you out with the Limey for a month and he'll show you some more. We are proudly non-union and everybody starts at $10.00. Later, if you figure you're worth more and you have the balls to ask for it, I might give you a raise. Each day Katy out front will give you some coveralls and the addresses for the day. We got a warehouse down by the Wheat Pool, me and a partner with another heating company. We share the sheet-metal fabricating machinery and the space. He's got a Kraut gas-fitter. That's where you can get all your parts and fittings. Right now we are doing oil to gas conversions. You load up the furnaces and water heaters from the warehouse and take all the thermostats and fittings and pipe and everything else you need from there. I'll assign you a truck and you'll be M-7 on the radio. If you get up a stump over some electrical for instance, call me up and I'll walk you through it. I'm M-8. Katy is Base. Did you ever use a Cee-Bee? No. We'll just remember to say “over” when you're done squawking. Nothing to it. Work starts here at 7 AM sharp. When Katy gives you your assignment you hit the warehouse and load up. I'll be around to the jobs once you get the old shit out of the way and measure up for the plenum transitions and ducts. Then I'll be off to the warehouse to fabricate that stuff and back again to install it. I'll show you how to wire the furnaces and switches the first couple of times. You should have the gas pipe all done by the time I'm back with the sheet metal. There is a big fellow called Paul who comes around all my jobs to take the scrap metal. You help him load his truck, OK. I don't like saying Mike, so I'm gonna call you Mick, OK? Mick, we put cardboard down all the way wherever we walk in these houses and we leave our jobs spotless, OK. Oh, yeah you can use the truck for work but park it behind the shop here. I live across the alley in the yellow house and I like to keep an eye on the fleet.”
“See you in the morning Boss.”
Thus began several years of interesting employ with this local legend. Boss was a good man and kept me on for a year after the bottom fell out of the economy.
Gas-fitters are bonded. I was quite proud of being bondable and strove to live up to the excellence expected of me. After the first year, my Boss told me that compared to the German gas-fitter employed by his partner in the warehouse, I was about half as fast. The good part, he said was that where the other fellow ran a 40% inspection failure rate and thus wasted the time saved by having to fix things up. Boss had never had to re-do any pipes I made.
You can tell my pipes at a glance. They are all perfect right angles and tight tolerances. They are screwed shut like a boys eyes after biting into a lemon. They are strapped tighter than a Mother Superior's panty-hose and painted with panache. If they could speak, they would speak in Swedish. Well over a thousand of my tags are yellowing as I write, from Deep Cove to Horseshoe Bay and all points in-between.
Sometimes little things went wrong, the same as they do in your job, Dear reader. Once, I filled the gas tank on my step-van early in the morning so I wouldn't have to stop for the rest of the day on the way to the other jobs. The first job was at a massive house in the British Properties of North Vancouver. For non-Vancouverites, that's the neighborhood where Oprah keeps an address.
The place was landscaped, tennis-courted, swimming-pooled and even had a cute little house in the backyard that would have served me and my wife just fine. The manse was situated on a hilltop and had one of those wonderful semi-circular driveways that was as fresh and black as a cup of Starbucks. Turns out it had been completed only a week prior. I coaxed my chariot up that impossible slope and even after setting the hand brake and putting the shifter in low, Lars and I decided we better chock the wheels to boot.
We had to use a lot of cardboard on that job to protect the white plush carpets. I had to set up the threader in the garage because of the manicured lawn. The job went well albeit, slowly due to the care and attention required in such gentile surroundings. One pool-heater, furnace, water-heater, range and fireplace later the little Dane and I were packing up.
I was coming out with a load of soiled cardboard when I heard him laugh. Lars could laugh in such a way, that had he been in boot-camp, the drill sergeant would have suggested that they all change out of those silly clothes and go home. I went to see the source of his mirth and I smelled it before I saw it.
The slope of the driveway was so extreme as to put the fill-pipe of my gas tank on a plane nearly fifteen degrees off the level. The good Mohawk gas had run out til only about half remained. The bad part was that we discovered something interesting about chemistry that day. Apparently, gasoline actually dissolves asphalt, rendering it absolutely liquid. It was the wildest thing you ever saw.
A rivulet of blackish muck had dug a bed about a foot wide that ran the length of the driveway and then veered off into the nearby drain. The ground underneath was showing through all the way down.
“M7 to M8. Over.”
“Go ahead Mick. Over.”
“Boss, I just found out that gasoline is the perfect solvent for asphalt. I also learned not to fill the gas-tank on this rig, she prefers to be half-full. Over.”
“Are you at that Properties job? The one with the steep drive? Over.”
“Get your butts to the next job and I'll swing by later today to have a look. Over”
One time Lars' curiosity got the better of him. I tried to warn him as an older brother should. We were doing a job for two nurses. Lars had to traipse through the house to access the heat runs and thus was in every room as well as the attic. My time was spent outside and in the furnace room. I told him to stay out of the fridge. He was allowed to look but not touch. He was fascinated at the crap that non-Scandinavians called food and used to horrify himself at ever opportunity.
This time he went beyond checking out the fridge. I could hear some strange sounds coming from the living room. It sounded like the TV. I was mad. I told him to turn it off and get back to work. That resulted in him turning the volume up. I yelled at him in Swedish and he replied with that laugh. A laugh that would get a turtle to come out of its shell in a room full of raccoons.
I grabbed enough cardboard to get me within striking range of the wayward imp. When I rounded the corner, I saw the cause. I recognized it because I had seen Debbie doing Dallas at a friend's stag party only that same year. Twenty minutes later I told him that was enough. I lectured him about touching other peoples stuff.
VHS was the cutting edge at that time and I didn't know how to work the equipment, so I stood sternly while the young pup took the rented tape out of the player. He swore and fiddled. He fiddled and swore. Not only could he not get the freaking tape out, he couldn't get the TV to shut off! He tried every remote in the joint and it only made it worse. I looked at my ten dollar watch. A decision had to be made.
I told him to leave it play. Hopefully it would run out. The girls would likely think that each other left it on. If not, they wouldn't have the cheek to phone and complain. I told Lars, of course he would shoulder the responsibility for this one if they did. He looked genuinely concerned for about two minutes. As we finished off the job, he began to imitate the unholy noises. No complaints ever came forward from the good nurses. I never looked at the medical professionals the same way afterwards though.
One fine morning a few months later, Lars and I were treated to Radar Love on the radio. I had to pull over the truck til we were done with our air guitars. We were headed to job high up on the hills above North Van. It was a spectacular day of turquoise sky and mother of pearl cumulus clouds. The address proved to be a grand old house with a well established garden. Lars said Yugoslavian and I said Italian. I could tell by the Pomodori tomatoes, the rosemary plants, the fig trees and the zucchini in the garden.
I was right. After we had worked studiously for awhile, the Donna della casa invited us to come to her beautiful tiled kitchen for coffee and sweets. She was a pleasant single middle-aged woman and told us the history of her beautiful house. As we munched all kinds of homemade biscotti we learned of a man who had been born in hardscrabble Calabria. He tearfully left the soil of his birth armed with only a battered suitcase and a cutting from a grape-vine, he immigrated to Canada.
He did many jobs and found a nice Italian woman to marry. After our hostess's mother was born, he got a steady job, bought the lot and built the house. His daughter married a successful businessman and gave the house to her only daughter, who had spent so many precious hours here with her beloved Nonni.
The lady called us over to the kitchen window. It was above a full height basement and it had a commanding view of the large back yard, except for the profusion of beautiful grape leaves that wreathed it. We were treated to a few grapes from the ancestral vine. It had become a mighty thing over the generations, growing up a trellis built by the old man. It ran above and around the kitchen window, so one could sample the fruit without leaving the kitchen. Lars happily polished off the remaining biscotti and we thanked the woman for everything.
Part of my duties this day were to install a gas fireplace. I had to put a tee near the gas meter and run pipe along the side wall, around the corner and along the back wall. Then according to my measurements, I had to drill into a joist-space that was behind the grapevine. From this point of entry, I would be able to run hidden pipe across and under the kitchen floor and up through the living room floor.
The location for the hole was about two feet to the left of the kitchen window on the second floor and several feet down. I had made a little x with purple magic marker earlier and after stringing an extension, setting my step-ladder and waving to the woman in the window, I was ready to use the Makita.
It was my new pride and joy. It had cost a bundle but was worth every penny. It was an exceptionally powerful electric drill with a a large end grip and two long thick handles set at right angles to the bit. My step-father had shown me how to file the auger bit into a formidable weapon. The auger was an inch and a half in diameter and about sixteen inches long. It had a screw for a point, so it pulled the main cutting surface into the wood.
I could chew its way through hundred year old fir that would have broken a good saw. If a man were to put the auger in a large vise and do a handstand, the motor would easily spin him around like a child on a merry-go-round. A week after using it I couldn't imagine how I had coped before. I plugged her in and did a few test squeezes of the trigger. She purred like a mountain lion. The torque necessitated using both hands. I waved at the woman and mounted the ladder.
I carefully parted the grape leaves and branches just enough to get the Makita lined up. I had to jam the end into my shoulder to apply enough forward pressure to keep things level. Both my hands gripped the two cross-handles. The screw bit into the aged cladding and I could smell the aroma of the wood chips voided by the drill. About when I figured I should be through the barrier, I felt that I had come in a wee bit too close to a joist.
There was a spike which had gone into the joist on an angle and protruded out the side of it in the path of my drill. The bit caught fast on it. The torque was transferred from the non-rotating bit into a rotating housing. My right fist which gripped one of the handles, delivered a hay-maker punch to my jaw and knocked me sprawling.
Just before leaving the ladder I was able to reach out and break my fall. The patriarchal vine peeled away as if in slow motion for me and set me down as gently as a kitten in a basket. The first thing I saw between the foliage when I regained my wits was the woman in the window now leaning halfway out and holding her face. The Makita hung from the bare wall at an odd angle. Several hundred pounds of grape-vine lay around the yard.
“Oh my God-da! Are you-a hurt?”
“I'm OK. Nothing broken. My jaw hurts, is all. Your grape-vine saved me. I'm so sorry for this...”
That's when I heard the laugh. Lars appeared from the basement and was more in need of medical treatment than myself due to shortness of breath. He kept chuckling for the two hours it took to re-attach the trellis to the wall and restore the vine to its former place. It was thick enough at the base that it had only bent without breaking. We had to use rope, two ladders, a roll of pipe hanger and dozens of sheet-metal screws.
When we finished the job we were treated to home-made antipasto and after a final inspection of the trellis, the woman decided that the Boss needn't be bothered with news of this incident. The vine was more securely attached than before and the fireplace was working nicely. I shall never forget that gracious woman and Lars never let me forget my self-boxing debut.
After I had learned the ropes somewhat, Boss hired a sheet-metal man. We were doing three conversions from oil to gas per day. This was because of a government incentive to get people to switch. It was so busy that the Boss was becoming frayed at the seams and short-tempered.
We were all glad he got a new man when we heard the news but this faded after day two or so. I'll call the new man, Rick. He was a handsome devil with perfectly combed rose-oiled hair and a conservative mustache. He was from back East by the Great Lakes. Barrie, if I remember correctly. He was about ten years shy of being old enough to be my father, so he was more like a delinquent older brother.
I was the one working beside him. Boss still fabricated up the plenums, transitions and cleats and dropped them off to the sites, where Rick assembled them while I fit the pipes. I noticed two things the first day. First, he had no idea of the sheet-metal trade and second, he was a barely functional alcoholic. Lots of guys need about two beers for breakfast to keep their hands from shaking during the day but then they wait until quitting time to start drinking proper.
Rick kept a big jug of Dago Red in his work truck and took pulls on it all day long before heading to the beer parlor after work. I am not judging the man on his drinking because in those days, I could drink those raccoons to sleep without slurring a word. I also kept a big bottle of Geritol Tonic in my rig because I figured I needed the iron. One day I looked at the ingredients and realized that it was the alcohol I was after. It was a wake-up call for me and I will relate that tale in a later story. I have not imbibed for over three decades.
We all drank. The problem with Rick was that he was a bull-shit artist, a bully and he acted little boy blue when he screwed something up. He was always suggesting things to me that were either destructive, evil or both. Boss taught him some fabricating skills and this only served to stoke his illusions of grandeur. There were times he would go AWOL for up to four days or so. Rick liked the honky-tonk women and they liked him.
One day towards noon, Rick asked me if I'd like to come have supper with him and his wife. I said yes and scribbled down the address. After work I got cleaned up and brought over some whiskey just in case. It was the first time I met Rick's wife.
She was a woman who looked tough as an oak but acted gentle as a breeze. She drank the wine and Rick and I drank the beers and the whiskey. After some preliminaries and story-swapping we sat to eat. The food was good wholesome meat and potatoes fare and I planned to put away a good quantity of it.
I was loading up my plate when there was scratching noise at the back door of the kitchen.
“Rags wants in,” said Rick's wife.
Rick grinned like a boy at his wife and then at me before he rose to open the door. A spotted dog about the size of a canister vacuum cleaner burst in wiggle-waggling all over Rick. I couldn't make out the mixture of the breeds but it was clearly Rick's loyal dog. Rick patted and tousled it for a few moments and rejoined us at the small wooden table.
Rags shot under the table at Rick's feet like a wheel mechanic at the Indy 500. I leaned a bit over to have a look at the animal. He was hunkered down between Rick's stocking feet, facing me with his muzzle on his paws. He quit flagging his tail. The dog' ears went up like one of those Egyptian statues of Anubis.
During my first course of mashed potatoes, I reached to help myself to the gravy boat. The movement caused my stocking feet to shift a few inches. From under the teak wood and linen there rose a malignant and unholy sound. I could not place it at first due to never having encountered so fell an auditory expulsion of pent and stifled rage. A toxic mewling, ever so slowly, building upon its own excrescence, a tower of inexpressible fury.
It was as if the last seven centuries of exorcisms conducted by the Vatican had been recorded, mixed and played back on quadraphonic speakers. The hairs on my neck bristled and my gorge rose. Besides being Cherokee I am Welsh and quite fey enough to know the calling cards of the Adversary.
I peered under the table again. Rags was halfway onto his feet. His snout was twisted into an impossible grimace. His speckled gums and all his teeth shone in the dim light and fluid dripped from his nose and the channels formed by his hyper-retracted facial flesh. His eyes were glassy and radiated destruction. His body was rigid and trembling from the adrenaline-fueled muscle contractions that had taken him over.
I moved one of my toes an inch. The four-legged fiend yowled as if stuck by a branding iron. I replaced my foot square on the floor. The diseased creature gibbered, moaned, growled and returned to its former position with its head again resting on its front paws, directly under Rick's feet.
“Damn”, I said.
“Oh, Rags!” said the Missus.
“He's a bit of a bad actor, like myself,” laughed Rick, unabashedly enjoying himself.
Rick's wife got up and crossed the floor to get our sweets and more drinks. Rags didn't budge nor make a peep. As I ate my rice pudding I pondered how I was going to relieve my legendary bladder later when the time came as my hosts were obviously enjoying the show. For another two hours we sat, never once coming to the conclusion that it might be a good idea to put Rags outside.
For my part, I was raised with big dogs and thus I am not fearful of them. This one simply needed to put out of its misery. I was upset at being tricked into the trap in the first place and would not give my hosts the satisfaction of asking for quarter. Every so often I wiggled my toe and the soul-shredding cacophony began anew. Eventually the two idiots tired of their sport and worried that their neighbors in the town-house next door might complain, they relented and led the livid sack of waste to the door.
I stayed for a coffee and whiskey and decided that I would not accept any more invitations from these good folks. Still, I felt sorry for the people they must have been at one time before they became twisted into psycho-pretzels. They say revenge is a dish best served cold. I have never said that. I don't believe in the institution. Two wrongs don't make a right. There is right and there is wrong. It is always our choice. Wisdom teaches that to wrong another is to wrong oneself, irregardless of the post-nastiness label of “revenge” placed upon the wrong.
There is a universe and there is a Creator. I always leave justice up to the power which actually controls it. There is no revenge, only justice. We may not choose when and where. Justice is not some ephemeral thing to be sought in vain at the hand of man or to be purchased by the highest bidder. Nay, it is sure as the sun-rise without any help from us. Were it not so, life would be a ragged march to nowhere for all but the depraved.
One chilly overcast day, some months later from the incident related above I was dispatched to a job in North Vancouver's Lynn Valley neighborhood. It was a big, old green rambling house. It sat amongst many overlarge evergreens and the moss on the shake roof was beginning to make the house blend into the surroundings. I was to upgrade the old gas furnace to a larger BTU unit and Rick was to add a new, bigger heat run down to a room at the far end of the structure.
Boss had already fabricated the pieces Rick needed at the furnace itself and it remained only for him to snap together as many five foot lengths of five inch duct as necessary to reach the distant room. He had to tap off the plenum in the furnace room and then run down the joists to the register location. A piece of cake.
My work was conducted in the furnace room. I dismantled the old gas furnace and carted it off on a dolly to the backyard for Paul to pick up. I brought in the larger furnace and Rick called me to help him heft the new plenum so he could cleat it together. Together we lowered it onto the new furnace. All I needed to do was wire it, vent it and button it up to the existing drop.
I did this while Rick screwed the plenum down and began making five foot lengths of duct. He had walked off the distance on the outside of the house and had a rough figure in his head. He would measure the last piece exactly in the room at the register location. I finished first and was putting away my threading machine and other tools when Rick flew out of the house like he was being pursued by a band of Pygmies brandishing their spears.
He raced past me to his own truck and after tearing open the back doors he plunged in a shaking hand and pulled out a gallon of red. As I approached to see what was the fuss, he downed about half of the ruby juice and spilled the other half all over his shirt, such was the violence of his tremors. His face was bloodless and he couldn't speak.
He dropped the jug onto the driveway and pointed like a man who had been asked by a specter which way were the gates of Hell. He looked like Captain Ahab astride the white whale, entangled in the ropes of his own hate and fear, his arm beckoning each time the Leviathan sounded. He was pointing at the room at the far end of the house.
“Th-there,” was all he could articulate.
I walked into the house slowly and made my way down the long hallway to the room. The door was curious in that it was the only one sheathed in steel. It was slightly ajar. I pushed it open carefully. The room was big and only the tiniest yellow glow came through small windows which had been plastered over with old newspapers. I smelled algae in the fetid air.
I reached around to a light-switch and flipped on a single naked bulb that hung from the ceiling. There was nothing in the room by way of furnishings. I looked at the floor. It was unfinished concrete. I saw a fat lump of brown mottled with yellow-green. My eyes traced over twenty contorted feet of this same pattern until they came to rest their gaze on the head of the biggest anaconda I had ever seen in person.
Rick's trouble light and ladder were clattered near the doorway. The ambush predator's squat ugly tail lay in a puddle of slime not four feet away. Thankfully, the monster worm was torpid from the lack of proper heating which we were no doubt hired to provide. It stared as I grabbed the ladder and the light, backing away carefully. I closed the door. I'd let Rick explain this one to the Boss.
After a year or so of working and several camping trips with the Boss, his wife and dogs; it began to weigh heavy on the man that I didn't have a dog. I explained that I was renting and that pets were forbidden. Boss kept on about it and even suggested I move to a more accommodating place. I was still suffering a broken heart from giving up the best dog I ever had the pleasure of knowing.
That dog was a half wolf and I named him Yukon. He taught me more about dogs and about people than any other creature before him. I still mist up thinking about that good friend. I explained all this to Boss and he said the best medicine was another dog. I disagreed and held firm to my broken heart.
One morning I was summoned into the Boss's office by Katy. I figured I was in some sort of trouble, like the time a friend of Boss's phoned him that my work truck had been seen parked at night on a week-end in Chinatown near a movie theater. It was strictly off limits for me to use the company vehicle for personal business but I was between junkers and I had a date to go on. He gave me a good talking to over that one.
I walked in to see what I had done now. Boss had a conspiratorial grin on his friendly face. This perplexed me. I knew it wasn't about a raise. I had just that year secured one for me and for Lars, my young apprenticed helper. I had to go to Boss's house, eat a moose kielbasa sausage and polish off a bottle of whiskey while explaining to him and to his cockatiel why I was worth it. I got two bucks and Lars got one, for not showing up on his own.
“Mick,” he said, “We all feel so bad about you being dog-less and all so we got you a little present.”
He reached under his big oak desk and pulled out a tiny black squirming thing. He reached his big hand across the desk and dropped a kitten in my own hand. Then he leaned back on his chair and smiled like Buddha.
“I found him in the heat exchanger of an old boiler yesterday. Poor bugger is covered in soot and scared to beat Jesus.”
Sure enough, it was a yellow tabby and both my hands and my shirt were besmirched with indelible oily soot which coated its body. Only his eyes, teeth and tongue had escaped the blackening. The little fellow looked up at me trembling and mewed. My heart melted and I said thanks to Boss.
“He's gonna be a gas fitter's cat so I'm gonna call him Thermocouple.”
Boss slapped his leg, “That's the spirit, Mick. Sure as hell ain't no dog but it's the thought that counts.
I had to use Go-Jo hand cleaner and a dozen rags to get Thermocouple clean enough to have a bath. He turned out to hate water. I tried to use all the knowledge I had garnered from dog ownership and apply it to my first cat. I bought him a bowl and some good healthy food. I took him home and introduced him to his new domain.
It was a pretty house situated on the Upper Level Highway and the bay window had a commanding view of the lights of Vancouver at night. That is really why I stayed there. The floors were polished spruce and I waxed them to a sheen. Thermocouple never walked but liked to dart everywhere so he spent much of the time skidding out of control.
The first month he skittered across the living room and knocked over one of my Sansui speakers, putting a wicked dent in the tweeter. I still use those speakers, which I bought in 1977. They don't make them like that anymore.
I was playing chess by correspondence at the time and kept several boards set up in the living room with the games in progress. It was a deliciously slow way to do combat as one had to wait for the letter with the next move. To get the letter I had to hike a mile down a steep Lonsdale Avenue to the PO Box I'd set up and traipse all the way back.
Thermocouple grew like a weed and soon was a respectable sized puddy. He must have gotten bored waiting for me to return home at night or perhaps he had become interested in chess. At any rate, I stepped through the door one evening with a letter in my hand from a foreign correspondent that contained a long awaited move.
I flicked on the light and turned on the Sansui. Message In A Bottle poured out of the speakers. I felt something crack under my boot. It was a pawn! I looked to the coffee table where the chess boards were set up. Only the boards remained. I never did find all the pieces. Rather, I found them in the most unlikely places months later after the incident.
That was decided then. Thermocouple could no longer be trusted home alone. I went out and bought a little chest harness which I called his suspenders and a long leash. I sat him down and explained to him that he'd been a very bad boy and thus was going to henceforth accompany me to work each day.
The first day I took a lot of ribbing from Lars, Katy and the Boss. I ignored their jokes. When Lars and I got to the job-site we sprang into action. Lars was doing the ducting and I was doing the pipe. First I had to set up my threading vise and threading oil bucket. It was a Rigid 300 and weighed more than I did. I got some scraps of wood to stand on because she was pouring rain and I didn't want to get electrocuted by the worn extension cord I meant to replace someday.
I tied Thermocouple's leash to the steering wheel and left the window open so he could have air and even go out onto the hood if he'd a mind to. He just sat on a box of pressure regulators and stared at me as I disappeared into the house. A few minutes later, I heard the unmistakeable sound of Lars' laughter and came to see what was so funny.
It was soon evident to me what had been he the source of his mirth. There was Thermocouple dangling in mid-air from his suspenders from a length of one inch gas pipe which was strapped to the roof of the truck. He looked like he was trying out for Cirque de Soleil. He had evidently gone out exploring onto the hood of the truck and made a jump at the roof of the garage a foot away. He missed and wound up short of rope and fouled his line over the jutting pipe in the bargain.
I took the little fellow down and tied his leash to a young maple in the front yard. He was a sturdy cat and already sodden so I figured he could get under the foliage and start to dry off a bit. Lars and I went about our business. I could see the lady of the house looking out of the kitchen window and admiring Thermocouple each time I came out to thread a new piece of pipe.
After an hour she slid open the window, “Excuse me, do you mind if I take that poor, adorable kitty inside out of this awful rain while you work. I'll take good care of him til you are finished. It's no problem, I have a cat as well. What's his name?”
“Thank-you ma'am. That is mighty sweet of you. His name is Thermocouple and he's a gas fitting cat. He's OK outside, really.”
“Alright. We both appreciate it.”
The lady came out and ceremoniously undid the leash and Thermocouple flew into her arms immediately. She cuddled him and baby-talked to him and he purred up a storm. They disappeared into the nice warm house and my heart glowed at witnessing such humanity and female compassion. I went into the basement and screwed some pipe together and placed the straps to secure it with. I headed back outside to cut some more after I had taken my measurements.
The next time I returned to the threading machine, which was forty minutes later, give or take, I was surprised to see Thermocouple sitting forlorn in a small puddle under the maple. I looked at the wee fellow and then up at the window. The lady slid open the glass.
“You're #$%&*@#! cat ate all my cat's food, drank all his milk and then scratched the #@%& out of him!” she slammed the window shut so hard, the glass rattled. I decided it was time for lunch and went in to get Lars. He was laughing all the way to the truck to the point he could scarcely draw breath. I told him to shut-up and picked up my cat and climbed in the dry dirty rig.
I was having cognac liver paste on Caraway rye with Port Salut cheese and thin sliced onions, while Lars was having a chunk of chicken his Mum had made the night before and cut so he could also put it between two thick pieces of buttered Heim-gemacht Roggen Brot. It was dressed with home-made Danish cucumber pickle, fresh lettuce and mayonnaise. I poured some kitty kibbles into an end cap of four inch duct and sat it on the floor for Thermocouple.
He sat brooding in the space between the two seats sitting on a box of greasy two inch elbows listening to the radio with us. I had toweled him off and he looked like he was getting his mojo back. We opened our Thermos bottles. I had Medaglia D'Oro black and Lars had English Breakfast with plenty of creme and sugar. We both had a little Irish Mist to quell the dank.
A Tom Petty song came on the radio and I had to put my sandwich down on the dash to play air guitar to the solo. Lars was learning to play guitar and he followed suit. When the solo ended Lars took over the bass and I went onto the drums. We laughed and picked up our food when the song ended.
I was working the windshield wipers when I heard Lars swear in Danish. I snapped my head around to my right and saw two things. Firstly, Lars was holding two perfectly good pieces of Roggen Brot in his left hand and Thermocouple was heading into the back of the truck with the chicken, the lettuce and leaving a trail of cucumber pickle and mayonnaise all the way down.
I am a man of principle and I immediately gave half of my half sandwich to my protege and began giving a stern lecture to the feline delinquent. Thermocouple was all the way in the back licking his mitts on top of a roll of BX cable. He not only ignored my tuition, he hissed like a broken steam valve when Lars threw a piece of bread to him.
In time, I learned that cats are not at all like wolves and in fact, resent the comparison. When the first Spring came with Thermocouple I began to let Thermocouple explore the back yard. He was good in coming home every few days. Then it happened. He didn't show up for a week. For two weeks. After a month I stopped hoping and began the grieving process.
Around late summer when the blackberries are best, I saw the old man who lived next door. He was housebound and lived alone. I had rarely seen him outside. He was sitting in his wheelchair in his back yard. Over the bramble-covered picket fence I could see his hands were busy with something. I walked up to the fence to talk and pick some berries.
The old fellow had a tartan blanket pulled over his ancient knees and perched on top of it was the most majestic, pleasant cat I have ever seen. The miniature tiger looked at me and narrowed its eyes. The old fellow greeted me and introduced me to his wonderful cat, Sandy. He said Sandy had just appeared one night through his window and that they had made fast friends. He fumbled in a tin and fished out a bit of smoked salmon for the cat and stroked its chin. I was truly happy for both Thermocouple and for the old gentleman. I thought,”What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” I winked at Sandy and I could have sworn that he winked back.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.