I’ve had a number of unique experiences, not the least of which was having my life threatened by a welder.
It happened in May 1958 on the TransCanadaPipeLines compressor station construction site at Burstall, Saskatchewan.
As mentioned in other articles, I had been sent out from head office in Toronto to be a construction clerk on the project. “Construction clerk” sounds like a fairly low-level job, but none of the bills on this multi-million-dollar project got paid unless they were approved by the superintendent on the job, and he wouldn’t approve any that had not first been approved by the construction clerk. It was inordinate power for a short, skinny nineteen-year-old amidst almost three hundred grizzled veteran construction workers.
An important part of my job was to approve the payroll, so every day I would walk around the site, clipboard in hand, confirming that all the employees whose numbers had been punched in on the time clock that day were actually on site. Each employee had a photo id card displaying his picture and payroll number. I’d been on the job for about a month when the incident took place, so I knew most of them by sight; but if there was a new employee I would carefully check his id before ticking off his name on my list. Anyone I didn’t find wouldn’t get paid for that day. As the construction site covered about forty acres, this inspection was not always an easy task.
On the day in question I had accounted for everyone on the list except a welder by the name of Wally (I’ve forgotten his last name). He was one of the workers I knew well because, like me, he’d been on the site from day one. He was also normally a very nice guy.
I sought out Wally’s foreman, a chap by the name of Wilf, and told him that I hadn’t seen Wally. Wilf said that he wasn’t surprised because Wally was welding inside a long stretch of forty-inch diameter pipe at one end of which Wilf and I were standing. As a matter of fact, Wilf told me, the reason he, Wilf, was standing there was as a safety measure because Wally was a long way inside the pipe.
“I have to see him, Wilf,” I said.
“Lyman, I’m telling you, he’s had to crawl, dragging his torch and hose, about forty or fifty feet inside that pipe and won’t be crawling back out for quite a while. Look, you can see the acetylene hose from the tank there going into the pipe.” I could see the tank, and its hose clearly disappeared into the pipe. But, I could also see an edict from the superintendent (of which every employee was aware) that was posted at the time clock and reproduced at the top of each sheet on my payroll clipboard. It read: Any employee who hasn’t been identified during an uninterrupted payroll inspection shall not be paid for the day on which the inspection was carried out.
I showed Wilf the admonition, saying, “Wilf, my job could be on the line here. I have to see him.”
“Come back in half an hour; or I’ll send him to find you when he comes out,” Wilf offered.
“Can’t do it,” I countered, “I have to go to Medicine Hat with the superintendent in about fifteen minutes; also my inspection has to be uninterrupted.”
“That’s bull roar (or some similar words)” said Wilf, “who the hell will know?”
I said, “Wilf, I’m not going to break the rules. Signal him to come out.”
“How the hell am I supposed to do that?” Wilf asked.
“Pull on the hose,” I suggested.
“No way,” Wilf said quite reasonably, “he’s apt to burn himself if I do that.”
“He’s got to come out,” I repeated.
“Then you get him out,” Wilf challenged, “I’m not!”
I felt my way along the pipe until I reached a point where it got hot, which, as Wilf had said, was about fifty feet along. Although I now knew that a welder was in there working, it didn’t prove to me that it was Wally.
What I should have told Wilf, but didn’t, probably because of pride, was that I honestly feared for my job. There were a few people who felt that I was too young for the responsibility I had. So, Wally had to come out.
There was a sledgehammer leaning against a wheelbarrow a few feet away from me. I fetched it, felt my way along to about six feet past the hot spot on the pipe, and whacked the pipe as hard as I could with the sledgehammer.
A few seconds after I arrived back at the mouth of the pipe, a shaken Wally crawled out, backwards, eyes bulging and, I’m sure, ears ringing.
“What the $#%$# was that?” he shouted.
“Lyman hit the pipe with a sledgehammer,” Wilf explained.
Wally started towards to me, still shouting, “You’re dead, you %$#% little $#%$#!”
Fortunately, my whack on the pipe and Wally’s outburst attracted the attention of a couple of other workers who, along with Wilf, were able to restrain Wally. I assume his ears had stopped ringing because in a much lower and controlled voice he asked, “Why the hell did you do that?”
“Let me go,” he said to Wilf and the other guy who was holding him, “I’ll kill the little @#$%& later.” Then he crawled back into the pipe.
After I returned from Medicine Hat I sought out Wilf and asked if Wally was still on the warpath. “No,” Wilf said, “he’s cooled off. But don’t you think you owe him an apology? And did you tell the Super about it?” As the superintendent was a pretty straight-laced, no nonsense guy, Wilf was clearly worried that Wally would get in trouble over his threats. And, believe me; words on paper don’t do justice to Wally’s earlier vehemence. By now I’d come to realize how dangerous my action had been; Wally could have been seriously burned when startled by the sledgehammer blow.
“Yes, I owe Wally an apology,” I admitted, “and, no, I didn’t tell anyone about it.”
“OK,” Wilf said, “Wally’s welding the same stretch of pipe, but he’s welding on the outside now.”
I found Wally, with his shield down, carefully doing his job. I tapped him on the shoulder and he shut off the torch, raised his shield and turned around.
“I’m really sorry, Wally,” I said, “I shouldn’t have endangered you like that.”
“Apology accepted, Lyman,” Wally replied, “but I’m still going to kill you, you %$#$% little #$%&*.” Thankfully, he was smiling this time.
The lesson I learned that day has never left me: good judgement should always trump a general rule.