ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT PREJUDICE - A TWO PART SERIES
By Ron Pestone
In between high school and college I was fortunate enough to land a job as an oiler in The International Union of Operating Engineers. My father arranged the whole thing and without understanding how or why I found myself as an oiler on a monster of a machine a Model 6 Northwest in Yonkers, New York. It was a huge track driven cable back hoe that ate dirt and rock with abandonment. For any of you out there who do not know what an oiler does or what a Model 6 Northwest is let me give you a brief explanation. Years before earth moving machines became sophisticated hydraulic wonders the machines that moved the earth were giant mechanical contraptions. They required daily greasing and filling of their oil cups as they slobbered up significant quantities of oil and grease all day. They operated by cables which moved the massive boom up and down smashing the earth and ripping it to shreds. The cables were controlled by huge spinning brake drums that the operator controlled by large foot pedals that required some real leg strength and large steel levers that required a significant amount of muscle. The heavy dinosaur machines crawled on large flat tracks that many times had minds of their own. After an operator ran one of these for a day he went home and went to sleep. They moved earth and rock by brute force and the operator needed real skill and strength to make them do what he wanted without getting himself killed.
As an oiler you showed up a good hour before the day started, checked all the oils and refilled what the monster had gobbled up the previous day. Then you started the beast by getting inside the steel house that enclosed the engine and machinery and hugging up close to the engine you turned it over. They roared like annoyed dinosaurs when they started and the sound alone could scare the crap out of even the boldest. On cold day you had to shoot ether down its throat before you turned her over and that simple act itself required a form of courage.
Too much ether and you could blow a cylinder through the head. Too little and she would whine like a stuck pig while she drained the batteries. Just right she bucked like a mule and roared to life. Mind you, you did this inside the house huddling the monster engine, if nothing else starting the beast gave you religion.
After she was started you greased all the grease fittings on her including the button fittings on the tracks. Back then there was no grease seals so she took enormous amounts of grease every day as most of it squished out in the course of the day.
Meantime the enormous brake drums were slowly spinning heating the brake pads and evaporating any condensation. When the operator showed up you followed him around as he checked the machine over and made any adjustments he wanted. By then the fuel truck would show up and you fueled the beast up. And those pigs loved to drink. Greased, oiled and full of fuel she was ready to work.
If she was going to work in tight quarters you walked the blind side just so the operator could see you as he slowly moved the cranky beast into position. When she started to work as an oiler your mornings were over. You might get coffee for the operator and the rest of the men. The art of surviving that ritual would require a whole article in itself. But basically you morning was over and it was not until lunch time when you were required to once more attend the beast.
Some oilers read the papers; others drank coffee and others simply did nothing. I was working for a large heavy duty construction company and for the sake of this article I will call the company Porter and McClain. They were cutting the side of a small rock mountain out for an office building in Yonkers. Well I was young and ambitious and really wanted to go places so I started doing things for Timmy McGuiness the project superintendent. In those days there were no project managers, they were superintendents and they were the gods. What they said was law on the job. They were usually tough, smart and knew the business. Timmy was about 5’9” and 185 pounds. His hands were large and quick which he was not opposed to using when required. His eyes were as blue and clear as the sky and when he laughed, which was often, they twinkled. But to this day what I most remember about Timmy was his voice. You knew he was Irish when he spoke as his brogue came out as smoothly as water gently flowing over worn creek stones. It was just a beautiful sound. I loved to hear him tell stories as he sipped his Irish whisky about how his family came over in the famine and settled into Hell’s Kitchen in New York and worked their way up the ladder. I would sit for hours mesmerized, listening to his magic voice.
I was just a kid and he was the king and I did anything he needed doing. I helped him with the surveying, cleared areas where the monster worked. Ran errands for him including picking up his Irish whisky. I did it all and I did it gladly. I wanted to climb the mountain. For his part he always treated me great and could always get me to laugh. Back then I really felt like part of something. I was going places.
Late one cold winter afternoon I walked into his warm shanty and by one quick look at him I knew he had been into the Irish whisky. When he saw me he motioned for me to come on in and take a seat. Sipping his Irish coffee from a paper coffee cup he leaned back in his chair smiled and with a gentle slur in his borough changed my life. To this day I can remember what he slurred out as if it was yesterday. “Lad,” he slurred, “You’re a good lad but brown eyes will never be blue eyes.”
I felt as if I had been punched in the gut and in that split second I didn’t know if I should smash him in the face or sit and cry. What a shot, it really hurt. I though he liked me and that I was on my way up. One sentence and my whole world came crashing down. For this god who had the power to move me up I had the wrong color eyes and ethnic background. I was going no place.
Part Two Next Week