Two Longs and a Short: The Beginning, Part 2

In the first blog post of this series (see part 1 here) , we left off with a 14-year-old boy running away from home. What does this have to do with welding, you might ask? Plenty! Just stick with me here.

Okay, where was I? Oh yes – every welder has to get their start somewhere. (Cue back in time music)…

0402191517_Film1 B
Gary (center) and most of his family just a year or two before this story took place.

After crossing the Continental Divide on his bike in late October of 1971, Gary stayed with his mom in Deer Lodge for a couple of weeks. His dad came and got him and Gary didn’t try anymore attempts at crossing the Divide alone. But in January of that following year, he told his dad he wanted to move to Deer Lodge permanently. Two of his brothers were already there, as well as his two sisters. He wanted to join them and live with his mom. So his dad bought him a bus ticket and took him to the bus station, and on January 22nd, 1972 at the ripe old age of 15, Gary headed to Deer Lodge. His mom picked him up at his destination and thus began his new life.

He was enrolled in school in Deer Lodge and, this town being a very small one, everyone knew each other and he began to make friends there. In fact, some of the people he had known in Helena were now in Deer Lodge, including some school friends. His junior high principle from Helena was now his high school principle! Small world.

Oh Good Gravy

Trust me, this is integral to how Gary became a welder, albeit in more of a round about way. It was a this critical time in his teen years that he began to explore his more creative side. This started at home, naturally, and with a medium as common as Tuesday: food.

His mom was a great cook, and being a working woman, she encouraged her kids to learn to cook. So Gary took to it and even developed a few favorite recipes of his own. After school, Gary would help watch his younger sisters and often did the cooking if his mom was at work. His specialty? Potatoes! He would take a huge pot of boiled potatoes, mash them and add in homemade gravy, mix it all together and sometimes throw in some corn or other veggies to kick it up a notch. Then he would fry up the leftovers the next morning for breakfast. To this day, his specialty is potatoes, fried nice and crisp (he really makes the most amazing hash browns, mashed potatoes and also potato salad). He also could make a mean batch of spaghetti.

Basically, he was a master of the starches. Well, isn’t every growing high school boy? Simple starches are rather demonized today, but way back in the olden days, they kept many a parent of teen boys out of the poor house.

Simple starches…kept many a parent of teen boys out of the poor house.

One day after school, he decided to make a home style feast – fried chicken, potatoes, gravy and corn. His sister Kathy helped him make dinner. They fried the chicken, then used the leftover grease and fried bits to make a gravy. He used a large pot to make the gravy in. After mixing the ingredients together, it turned out too watery. He stirred in some flour to thicken it, only he added too much and it was now gooey. So he thinned it out some, but it ended up being a little too thin. He again added some more flour…you get the picture. This continued until he had a sizable amount of gravy. They all sat down to dinner – it was just the kids this night. Everyone finished up the food and nothing was left but some corn and a lot of gravy. By the time dinner was over, the gravy had congealed to a near-solid mass.

He figured no one would eat the gravy, so he threw the leftover corn in the goo and planned to dump it out. But first, he left it sitting on the counter and went to watch TV with his siblings. They weren’t expecting their mom until late and didn’t know when their step-dad Andy would be home…

A little while later, their step-dad did come home. He was standing in the kitchen, leaning against the counter with weary expression and his eyes closed. At some point, he spied the pot of gravy. Having had a little too much to drink, he couldn’t tell that the concoction on the counter WAS NOT mashed potatoes with gravy already mixed in. He started dishing up himself a generous helping. Gary and Kathy saw him from the living room and looked at each other, but no one said a word. He finished his food, commented on how good it was and then went to bed. As soon as his step-dad was out of the room, Gary sprang from the couch, made a beeline for the gravy and dumped it in the burning barrel outside.

The next morning, his step-dad was asking where the mashed potatoes were, because those were the best mashed potatoes he had ever eaten! In fact, he had dreamed about those potatoes and kept wishing he had had seconds. Gary explained to him that he had thrown them out, since he didn’t think anyone would like them. To which his step-dad replied “You should have told me. I would have eaten it all!”

They kept to themselves the real ingredients of those wonderful “mashed potatoes”, not wanting to possibly incite any parental wrath.

Shop Class

…and auto mechanics.

Outside of the kitchen, there was high school shop class, in which Gary learned many skills. They started out in wood shop making various items from wood, then went on to acrylics, then wiring a house, then welding, machining and auto mechanics. In fact, they learned how to machine metal on a big lathe that had once been on a World War II battleship! The automotive part was fun – they learned how to tear down engines, put them back together, make them run and do a dyno test on them. The school had a small dynamometer at that time.

For the welding portion of shop class, the students had to start out by welding plates with an oxy-acetylene torch. They couldn’t advance to arc welding until they had passed a 100% penetration and visual test. Then they could graduate on to stick welding (they didn’t have wire welders).

Outside of shop class, welding was put on the back burner in pursuit of whatever employment was available in a small town. Gary worked a variety of odd jobs, including at a grain elevator, in an auto mechanic shop, cleaned rail cars for the railroad, detailed cars at Downing Chevrolet and the occasional engine or car repairs at home.

Life After High School

After high school, Gary got a job at the Louisiana Pacific Sawmill for a time. He then met his future wife, Laurie. That marked a new era in his life and everything changed again! He started going to the same youth group that she went to. That’s when he experienced a miracle, but more on that in another post.

While Gary and Laurie were engaged and first married, he took another job at a place called Warm Springs, Montana. It’s not too far from Deer Lodge and was the site of the state mental infirmary for many years. He was a grounds keeper at the infirmary and saw many interesting things while there.

Colstrip plant, circa 1980

Eventually, Gary started working for Montana Power as a property maintenance man painting and fixing up their houses to be sold. He then graduated to working in the warehouse. After working for Montana Power for a couple of years, he quite and went to work for a rancher as a ranch hand. That provided a bit of variety, but the pay was rather slim. Gary moved on and found a job working for Rosebud County in Montana as a welder. At last, time to put those welding skills learned in shop class to work!

After the county job, he moved on to becoming a boilermaker at the Colstrip Power Plant. A few years later, he moved his little family to Wyoming and got a job at a welding shop in Gillette. After a few years of working for that business, he decided to be his own boss in 1989 and Gary’s Welding was born. The rest, as they say, is history. It seemed that he was cut out to be an entrepreneur.

That was nearly 30 years ago. Still boggles the mind that all that time has passed in basically the blink of an eye.

Oh, and…

never underestimate high school shop class or a pot of gravy.


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