Friday, July 27, 2007

Stripping Zinc: Sibling Assignment #29

Silver Valley Girl assigned InlandEmpireGirl and me the following topic: Share some information you learned about the Silver Valley as an adult that you had no clue about growing up as a student in Kellogg, and then how this information changed your thinking about the Silver Valley.

InlandEmpireGirl's piece is here. When Silver Valley Girl finishes the last Harry Potter novel, is done with the melodrama, gets her kids off the church camp, and temporarily relinquishes her role as busiest person in the universe, she will write hers and I'll post the link!

I hired on as a stripper in the Bunker Hill Zinc Plant in July of 1971. I was seventeen years old.

I walked into the cell room at about 2:45 p.m. It was scorcher outside and the cell room was about ten to twenty degrees hotter.

A light fog of sulfur dioxide gas suffused the cell room. The atmosphere was vaguely metallic. It was as if tiny pellets of zinc crept up my nose and into my throat.

Jim Hawkins broke me into this new job. Slowly, painfully, I grabbed a hook and raised my first zinc-covered cathode out of a cell, gingerly place it on the drainer, reached back clumsily for a new cathode, and replace the one I had just pulled out.

I coughed. Sweat drenched my shirt. Strippers around me were pulling cathodes and replacing them at four times the speed I was. After pulling seven cathodes out of my first cell, I awkwardly dragged the plates two at time on to my truck and cautiously powered my cathode truck forward. I'd heard stories about new strippers cross banking trucks, turning their truck into a five foot long electricity conductor, and being thrown to the ground by the current.

Ten cells later, I swerved my truck of sagging cathodes to the stripping room. The other strippers' plates were stacked upright and tight on their trucks. Mine looked they'd been stacked on the truck by a drunk.

It took me an hour to strip the zinc off the plates of my first load. I saw other guys come in, strip their zinc, stack and leave three times in the time it took me strip and stack this one load.

When I got home, my right hand was cramped closed from gripping the hook and then the stripping chisel.

Dad gave me the first beer I ever drank at home.

Before this day, I had no idea what the men in the Silver Valley really did to earn a living. Whether on the Smelter highline or punching roasters or mucking in the mine or pouring anodes in the anode shack, I had no idea just how intensely hot, dirty, and hellish work was at the Bunker Hill.

One day Dad's Bunker Hill identification card was lying on the television at home. The date of birth on it said 1929. I knew he'd been born in 1930. I asked him about it.

"I lied. I wanted to go to work and told them I was seventeen, not sixteen."

Jesus, I thought. Dad came to work in this hellhole in 1946 when he was only sixteen. He did what I'm doing now. Twenty-five years have passed. It's the same hellhole.

During one of my first weekday day shifts in the cell room, I saw my dad. He was a maintenance shift boss and needed to come to the cell room to check on a job some of his guys were doing.

I hardly recognized him. He was wearing safety glasses, dirtied by the SO2 mist. He was in work clothes, wearing a hard hat. He looked grim, more serious than I'd ever seen him.

I don't know if he knew I was nearby. I heard him give some cell room guys shit and his speech was laced with the f-word. He used every other form of profanity at home, but the f-word was off limits. So was crude sex talk. Here at work, I suddenly discovered, his speech had no such limits.

For the first time, I saw my dad as a worker, as someone with expertise, as someone who knew the inner workings of this damned place where I was just starting and where he had worked for most of the last twenty-five years.

He seemed alien.

After about a week or ten days, I got the hang of pulling, replacing, loading, stripping, stacking zinc.

My body adapted to the work conditions. I even got to where I could stand to eat my lunch and could take breaks to eat it.

I also adapted my thinking about my dad and all the other men who worked at the Bunker Hill.

I began to realize that for at least eight hours a day, the men in the Silver Valley suffered the danger, indignities, hard labor, and stress of metal industry labor.

The strikes made more sense. The drinking made more sense. The reckless recreation and gambling at the Playfair horse track in Spokane made more sense.

It all came together in that grim look on Dad's face. I saw that face more in the work place and began to notice that it didn't really go away when these men left work.

I learned to recognize the Silver Valley look. I've never forgotten it.

This was not so much a change in my thinking about the Silver Valley.

My days in the Zinc Plant began my thinking.


Hope said...

I love reading your stories. Images and insight.

Raymond Pringle said...

Mike Rowe and the "Dirty Jobs" crew ( ) would be able to fill up an entire season with the various dirty jobs at Bunker Hill.

My experience in the cell room was working on the cell repair crew. Instead of pulling aluminum cathodes, we pulled the lead anodes and stacked them on carts to be cleaned of black scum and re-inserted. I was so lousy at it that I walked off the job before the week was out. My mom called Wayne Hammock and got me re-hired, this time on the cleanup crew with the rest of the screwups. As bad as working on the main floor with the sulfuric acid mist and ~600 volts DC, the sub-basement was even worse. We donned rain gear to (mostly) protect from leaking H2S04.

The "lifers" hated us college boys, and for good reason. We would be gone in three months and they were stuck there for life. (or until the place shut down).

raymond pert said...

Raymond--It seems like I should know who you are. Would you mind dropping me an email at and letting me know.

That sub-basement was like the most inner ring of hell.

Is Raymond Pringle not your real name? I'm wondering, if it's not, if your pseudonym is a hint. I was in the KHS production of "Kiss and Tell" and it was written by Raymond Pringle.

Just a wild guess. Hope to hear from you.


Starr Kelso said...

You nailed that one. Well done. Strikes made sense, drinking made sense, and reckless conduct made sense. They still do today, but fear of consequences, and a need to keep workers in their place, has silenced most. Todays dangerous work place laborers are kept in their place, but they still have the look. Perhaps one day they will regain that which they have lost.

Silver Valley Girl said...

I remember thinking there was something a little risque about my brother being a "stripper" at the Zinc Plant when I was a young 8 or 9 year old when you got the job. Of course, I had no compresion whatsoever of what this job entailed or what you were doing. I think at that age even if you explained it to me, I still would have no idea. And it is always is interesting to me the view you had of Dad that I don't think neither me or IEG ever saw. Which is okay. I don't think we needed to see that part of Dad. I was content being his little Pooh.