Adventures in Welding (and other cautionary tales)

Welding is, as many of you can guess, categorized with those professions that can be a little on the precarious side at times. Not in league with, say, extreme sports, mind you. Although some welding adventures are equally as exhilarating as jumping blindly off a snow-covered cliff on a bike in some remote mountain range.

That being said…let’s get down to brass tacks (or welding shrapnel), shall we?

There is a reason why OSHA and MSHA and safety meetings exist. It is because various members of the human species will get bored or become inattentive and will periodically break up the monotony by doing doltish things with tools, random large pieces of iron and vehicles.

I will now decamp from the formal and take up the colloquial to share, with humor, a few ‘adventures’ in welding…

I tried welding once. I was not a natural. It went something like this:

Dad: [while welding on the bucket of a backhoe] “Do you want to try some welding?”
15-year-old me: “Sure!”
Dad: [shows me how to use the stinger, after fitting me with a welding hood & some   gloves] “Okay, just start here and go across this part there.”
Me: “Okay.” [I am in complete darkness and can see nothing through the hood’s lens]. “Ummm, how do I see to weld??”
Dad: “You flip up the hood, see where to start, flip the hood down and start!”
Me: [[finally somehow get the thing going]]

I noticed immediately that the wire is sticking in one spot. I try to move the stinger, but it seems glued in place & I keep shelling out more wire! I start again. Still not working like I think it should, but at least I’m welding, sort of. It’s then I notice that I have started making a small crater in the metal! Meanwhile Dad is shouting over the noise of the welder things like “Keep it moving!” and “Don’t worry about that!”

I flipped my hood up to see my masterpiece. My first real weld!! And it was not pretty. I didn’t actually bond two pieces of metal together – in reality I made a huge hole in the side of the bucket with the thinner metal, while pieces of wire stuck off the other side. I looked at Dad and said “I think I’m done.” He said I had done alright and that he would fix it.

It seemed to me that welding was sort of like trying to thread a tiny needle with scorching hot thread, while wearing chunky, thick leather gloves. While temporarily blinded. Oh, and your lungs fill with smoke and sparks fly down your shirt and socks and into your ears. Who wouldn’t love welding??!

It makes me laugh now to remember that. I had not a hot clue what I was doing, but am now grateful for the chance Dad gave me to at least try. And fail. How would I ever know that welding is best left to the pros otherwise? Hence I majored in English in college and have stuck to more officy type jobs. 😉

Which brings me to another fun ‘adventure’…

I was working for my Dad one summer during my college years. I was grinding some areas of a large, flat sheet of steel. I was used to the smallish grinders that have one handle and are easy to hold, but for this job, Dad gave me a beefy two-handled grinder that seemed to weigh half as much as I did. He showed me how to use it and went to another part of the shop to work on something else.

After two or three tries, I was doing well! The thing was a beast to wrangle, but I was careful and managed to just keep it where it needed to be. I had to stop often to readjust and check the plate to see how it was looking. Then pride swelled and I let down my guard a little. I grabbed the grinder and prepared for the next pass over my end of the plate, but my grip wasn’t as tight as it should have been. I hit the trigger and that “OH CRUD” feeling washed over me as I could feel myself quickly losing control of the grinder. Then that thing literally shot out of my hands and straight across the plate, dropping onto the shop floor with the loudest clunk and it spun to a stop somewhere out of my line of sight. Thankfully no one was on the other side of the plate! My cheeks were flaming red from the embarrassment. Good thing most of the guys were out on projects right then and didn’t have to witness my grinder faux pas. That was the first and last time I ever used that thing.

The next ‘adventure’ had ample audience, though.

That same summer I had to drive the welding trucks occasionally. They are heavy trucks and almost always manuals, but I came to enjoy driving them. One day I started to back one of the trucks into the shop, while a couple of the guys were guiding me back. It being a manual and on an incline, I was having a bit of trouble getting the back tires over the concrete threshold. I think I killed the truck and had to restart because I was just going too slowly. The guys were growing impatient with me and said to just gun it to get over that lip – I would be fine.

So I did!

The last thing I remember seeing from my mirror was my co-workers diving for cover as the back of the truck knocked over some metal on stands further back in the shop. Ooops! It took me awhile to live that one down. No one was hurt thankfully, but they didn’t let me back the truck into the shop for a while after that.

The last tale I will tell is my Dad’s ‘adventure’.

The back story is that he and my sister (who was working for him at the time), went to look at a welder that was for sale in a little town about 30 miles away from us. The guy fired up the welder before they got there so my Dad could see how it ran, but forgot to tell him that he had made some modifications to the welder. One of those modifications was to replace the factory fan inside the machine with a much bigger fan. The fan was really close to the governor, which could be accessed through an opening on the side of the welder. While the machine was running, the fan was hard to see (same as it is with the fan in a running car). My Dad reached in to adjust the governor and the fan caught his fingers and sucked his whole hand into the machine. He was able to pull himself free, but not without almost losing some digits. The fan had shredded through most of the fingers on his right hand. He is right-handed, so the accident was nearly a career buster for him. We are so thankful for the surgeon who was called out of his Christmas party that night to help save my Dad’s fingers and thumb, and for my sister’s quick thinking and driving that got him to the hospital faster than an ambulance could.

Gary in 2000

Dad on Christmas Day, 2000

Here’s what my Dad wrote about the experience just a few days later:

“Gary does it big! I have always been one to go all out in my efforts and have always liked getting my hands dirty. Well for those of you that want to know, I found a way to do both – quite efficiently, too! First you start with an engine-driven Lincoln welding machine. But it needs to be started and running before you show up, so that as you are looking at it and admiring its shape and beauty, you can’t see the spinning fan is about 10 inches larger than the fan the machine came with. Next, as you reach up to grab the governor so as to run the engine up so you can admire it’s roar and strength, you realize that the oversized fan is a fraction of an inch from the governor linkage. But by that time, you think to yourself, “Gee, this machine really likes me and we have become rather attached. You hate to break off your fondness for each other, but you suddenly realize that you had an appointment and didn’t want to miss it for anything in the world. Besides, you always wanted to know if your Ford diesel was able to do close to 100 mph on the interstate, with your middle daughter behind the wheel in 4-wheel-drive, 35 miles from the nearest hospital.

I haven’t lost any fingers. The doctor said I split the thumb open, lost material, crushed the joint, broke it, the index finger was still attached. It was bad – pins and screws are part of my anatomy now. They may have to fuse some bones later. Many, many stitches just to put stuff back together. I didn’t know the hand can hold so many cuts. They did surgery right away, and kept me overnight Friday. They let me out at noon Saturday. I thank the Lord that he takes care of us. We go through life with a fear of the unknown, some with no hope, some live for money or other things. But the Lord says if I lose everything, even my life, I can still have my hope in Jesus Christ.

Gary”

What was even crazier about this is that Dad bought the welder. The guy who was selling it felt so bad and wanted to give it to him for free, but Dad insisted on paying for it. He fought the welder and the welder won! We decided to officially name it “The Mangler”.  Then he sold it not long after that as no one but Dad liked that machine. After the surgery, he would sit in the doctor’s office for follow-up appointments and see guys he knew with their hands all bandaged up due to various mishaps. Must have been something in the water.

Dad let me take some pics of his hand just for this article. Doesn’t look too bad some 17 years later…

Dad's Hand                Dad's Hand 2

 

Thus my respect grows for those who weld. And those who do other hard things like corral wet concrete, build custom houses, plumb the intricate workings of a sewer system, and build roads under the hot summer sun. Or fast food workers working over a hot fryer trying to fill orders. Or a nurse administering medicine to a sick & maybe cranky patient. They are much better at it than me…I would probably leave a trail of mayhem behind me. I like to think they wouldn’t last a day at bookkeeping or setting up an Excel spreadsheet, which in all reality is not too hard. But it reminds me that we all benefit from the unique skills each person brings to the table.

Oh, and it also reminds me to always be especially careful when around machinery. And never, ever let anything I value near a welding fan!

GWInc.

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