When I was sixteen I landed a summer job at the Chillicothe, Missouri municipal coal fired power plant. The plant generated electricity for the entire city, which was created by burning coal in three boilers. Boiler number one was the oldest, and required a lot of hands on maneuvering from the operator. Number two was the next oldest, and required less human intervention, but still required someone to watch over it and pull levers and turn dials. Number three was the modern boiler that was fully automated and required no human intervention except for someone to watch the gauges.
My job was to do a little of everything, kind of a Jack-of-all trades, or, to do stuff the older guys didn’t want to. Like going down below the boilers and pulling out the ashes with a long-handled rake onto a conveyor belt that carried the ash up into a bin. It was hotter than hell down there, and when the boiler doors were opened, even hotter. Staring into the ash bin if there was a red hot “clunker” we were to break it up with iron rods so it would fall onto the conveyor belt and be carried away. Sometimes it would take a lot of whacking to break it up.
Another job I got to do was to ride the coal train cars down the track to put them over the coal bin grate. This was done by climbing up the back of the car, and slowly turning the brake wheel to release the car, which was on a slight incline. If you released it too slow the car would stop, then you would have to take a wheel jack and move the car by hand while someone else was atop the car to brake it. Too fast and you would overshoot the grate and slam into the next car. Over time I learned how to ride the cars pretty well and to gage the speed just right. After the car stopped you would open the bin doors with a sledge and let the coal pour out through the grate into the bin. This worked pretty well except if the coal was wet and stuck together and did not flow. Then you had to climb atop the car with a long-handled shovel and push the coal down through the hole.
Next to the coal bin there was an elevator with small buckets that would haul the coal up from the bin to a bin overhead, so the coal would flow down into the boilers. Occasionally these would clog up, and I would get to open a door and pound on the back of the buckets to release the coal. If that didn’t work I would have to dig them out with a rod. This whole process would take over an hour. Sometimes the elevator would clog at the top, then you would have to climb up there, take off the cap, and pound away. Not a job for the squeamish or for those afraid of heights.
There was a small Ford tractor with a front loader that was used to scoop away stray coal from the setting. One day I decided to be ambitious and climbed aboard. I started the engine, but before I could go anywhere the foreman ran out and told me to get off. Even though I knew how to drive a tractor from my experience on the farm, apparently I was barred from operating machinery due to some rule about teenagers not being allowed to do that. Hum. And I later reflected that I was permitted to ride coal cars, dig out hot ash, and climb elevator towers, but couldn’t operate machinery. All this, of course, was pre-OSHA.
In between my regular duties I got to go inside and watch the boiler operators. I don’t remember who operated number one, but he must have been busy pulling levers. Number two was staffed by Jim Bob (not his real name, but an appropriate moniker) who watched the dials, occasionally got up from the table, and turned a few dials. He’d come to work with two packs of Winstons that were gone by day’s end. He was constantly talking about his coon dogs, and invited me to go coon hunting with him some night, which I did, but that is another story. Number three was manned by some dude named Delbert (I think his real name), who had slick-backed hair and smoked Old Gold cigarettes. As far as I could tell he didn’t do anything all day except watch dials and smoke. I think he was related to the plant manager.
My favorite character was Old Mac. He was a gentle soul who loved to work. He, like me and the other teenagers, did everything, except climb towers. I think he smoked Camels. Anyway, he bragged about working seven days a week for years, and how he missed going to work on his day off, which was Sunday. His hobby was disassembling appliances, radios and TVs. He loved to take them apart, but not put them back together. He had buckets of screws and bolts all over his house. I don’t remember if he was married, but if he was, must have had a tolerant wife. He asked me about my girl friend, and I showed him a picture. He said she was a cute as a spotted puppy.
At noon Carl would come in and blow the whistle—two short blasts, which meant it was lunch hour. At one another long blast, which meant get back to work. There was also one at eight in the morning which meant go to work, and another at five, which meant go home.
It was the mid-60s and conversations were held about race relations. I expressed my support of President Johnson’s civil rights laws, and I was called a you-know-what lover. I worked with a bunch of racists, not unusual for the time and place. One day Carl, apparently offended by my opinions, came over to me and yelled that you never saw a black bird screw a white dove, didja? No, I never did, and apparently that was his case against integration. I later thought of a snappy comeback about a white bull and a black angus cow, but it was too late.
At noon all the men would break out their lunch pails. Some had wives that packed tasty sandwiches and hot soups in small thermoses. Single guys brought in baloney sandwiches and maybe an apple. Many would finish their last cup of coffee, or, get a cold Pepsi from the machine.
I learned a lot that summer—about black birds, coal cars, elevators and hot ash. And the sociology of men “manning” the plant. This summer job and others reinforced my intention to go to college.