Every muscle in my body hurt but I still had over an hour on my shift. The past 7 hours of awkwardly squirming and banging my body against the cold steel of a tank not designed for people was taking its toll.
This tank was long and profoundly awkward, ill-designed for a humanoid. It must have stretched 100 or more feet along the side of the ship. One wall was the hull. It curved downward from the ceiling until it hit the narrow floor. There was a wide I-beam hull stiffener, wide enough for a man to lie down in. The design made good use of the triangular shape of the ship’s hull after cutting out nice rectangular rooms and walk ways for the crew. Wave suppressing baffles were everywhere and no where was it tall enough to stand.
This tank was freshly painted with epoxy but not yet fully cured, so the air was saturated with epoxy fumes – deadly toxic.
I was stiff, wet, cold, sore, snot-nosed beneath all my safety gear, nearly deaf, partially blind, stuck inside of wet clothes that I could not take off. So yea – long day at the office.
I had worked my way almost to the tank end when suddenly the lights failed and complete and total darkness swallowed me whole. You have to be kidding me!
In college, I needed a good money summer job for tuition. A good friend knew of an opportunity with a company her brother was starting where the money was more than I’d ever made because it was (queue dramatic music) a union job.
The contract her brother had landed was with the Lockheed shipyards in Seattle. It was a knock-down dirty job that no-one in their right mind would want, but I had lots of painting experience and thought, how bad could it be?
Each ship of this size and class has a deep rather than wide hull. After all the rooms and corridors are cut out, a lot of triangles remain. These non-room voids become tanks. As soon as the raw steel work was finished, the whole interior needed to be sand blasted and fully vacuumed before the airless painting team arrived to put on the first of three coats of epoxy paint. This paint, when it dries is almost as hard as steel itself and non-reactive to most fluids. But the airless sprayers can’t reach everywhere so between each coat, they send in a touch up crew. That was my job; to crawl around and paint the inside of every “bat hole” or anywhere else where the airless spray was too thin to pass inspection.
I recall my introduction well. We were all starting the same day. I regretted breaking my perfect no-union employment history but I needed the money. The crew chief explained the gear, the job, how to play nice on the ship yard, but he also asked us to hold off on joining the union so he could process all the paperwork at once at the end of the month. Fine, I thought. I didn’t mind keeping a larger portion of my pay because union dues was expensive.
But our boss had a plan. We worked that month and made great money, but right about the time I expected him to announce that it was time to fill out the union application, he instead announced a general layoff of the whole team. Say what?! What had we done wrong? “Nothing,” he told us. It was a business issue and we might all be hired right back after a week off.
And that is exactly what happened. We were all called back to the same job and – AND – as new employees, this reset the timer to zero on when we had to join the union. Ahhhh – I get it now.
The day that tank went dark on me I was really deep into it and the dark was as black as any unlit cave. It was not the kind of darkness that your eyes adjusted to. This was total, zero-light conditions. The ship did not have an independent power source yet because we, the non-navy construction crew, were not done building this beast. Clearly the dockside generator had failed – again. We had flashlights, but these were these vintage things didn’t last long enough to help beyond seeing inside of tight holes, so we tried not to use them much.
We had lots of other safety gear though, however, my rubber respirator mask filters were getting old and so the air was beginning to taste nasty. All the clothes inside my non-breathing coveralls were drenched in sweat. This tank was below the ship’s water line so every time I touched the walls they transmitted the ocean cold right through the my clothes to my body.
I couldn’t hear much of anything because ear plugs were needed to dampen the jet engine equivalent sound of the high volume fresh air blasters that worked to clear the air of the epoxy-based paint fumes.
I could mostly see through my scratched safety glasses and my gloves had to be duct tapped on to prevent skin contact with the toxic paint. It was a crisis each time my nose ran because I had to take things apart to get to and use my hanky. A painter’s hood and construction helmet completed my wardrobe. With all this, I was dressed to work.
There were no installed lighting in any of the tanks but chains of heavy plastic caged light bulbs strung through the soft blue painted I-beams and baffles made it possible to see some of our work, but confusing shadows were everywhere.
All this safety equipment was necessary. It was a hazardous environment across the full spectrum of my breakable parts and it all made for a surreal barrier between me and the inside of this: potable water, fuel, gray water, ballast water or whatever this tank was supposed to hold.
It was a long crawl back to the access port over many baffles and this tank still needed my work here near the end. If I crawled out in darkness, I’d surely knock myself out on something solid steel because I literally could not see a thing and every motion in my safety gear and in this weirdly shaped corridor was awkward. If I used one hand to hold the flashlight, and made my way out, I’d move much slower because navigating all the supports and baffles was really a two handed job and then, with my luck as soon as I made the access port, the generator would be restarted and I’d have to carry myself and tools all the way back to where I’d left off to finish the job. What to do? I settled on waiting it out right here. The air was still blasting (must of had their own generators), and it would be unwise to leave my flashlight on, so I just laid down on that wide I-beam and closed my eyes to rest in the pitch black. Brrrrr…
Anyway, about 1 week into my second month, my boss approached and asked if I might be interested in a 20% raise. “Duh! Yea!”
“Great.” He answered. “I’ll put you down for swing shift.”
“Umm. . . ”
“… and your hours are now 7pm to 3am. ”
So my surreal job got even weirder. Before, we would crawl out of our tanks and scramble down the gangway for lunch in the open air. As part of this smaller team, I could eat pretty much where ever I pleased except anywhere near the reactor. For some reason, our Lockheed task masters did not think that tank painters needed access to a nuclear power plant. So I found interesting places for my dinner break. The best was a rear facing wide deck that was open to a darkened Puget Sound – the large coastal basin just west of Seattle. The small clusters of distant city lights was wonderful and after finding this spot, it was where I ate each night – gorgeous!.
There were downsides to this job of course. Ship building is really a dirty business. All kinds of stuff is lying around just waiting to trip or injure you. One night as I was crawling out of a tank for dinner, I spilled most of a can of solvent on my pants. It quickly soaked through my coveralls and jeans. I had to quickly pull both off leaving me in just my underwear. Argh! But now what? There was no way I could get from here back to my car to escape embarrassment, so what to do?
The night shift left few other workers around and in a half-built ship there were tones of bad ideas on what I could do next. I tried to pick the least bad idea and went for it.
From the ceiling on this deck sprouted large air vents blowing gobs of clean dry air into the room. I selected one, grabbed a handy scrap of wire, climbed on a metal box and pulled my coveralls over that vent and tied them in place with that wire. My coveralls inflated and the air blasting from the inside forced it’s way out through the fabric and was noticeably evaporating the solvent away. Excellent! I thought. I had just finished doing the same with my jeans when I noticed that these jeans, which had so much paint on them from previous jobs that they retained the shape of the guy they were accustomed to covering. It looked for all the world like some guy with my butt and legs was stuck in the ceiling air ducting and was wiggling his legs around trying to get out.
Now – isn’t that mental picture funny on it’s own? It was even funnier in person. I was admiring and memorizing this moment, so I missed my partner finally catching up and crawling out of the access hole where this accident began. He picked himself up off of the floor and stood up to see some guy dangling from the air vent, squirming like he was being devoured by the ship. I think his response can be excused and his screaming some how made sense. Which, sorry, made the whole thing even funnier.
I calmed him down and we had a good laugh over it all. He even found higher ground in that it wasn’t him running around with no pants on. Okay, had to give him that.
A few weeks later it was time to quit and go back to school. My tuition was more than paid and I had money left over to donate anonymously to a gal friend who was fretting over how to pay her tuition. She was ecstatic and told everyone she knew about what some wonderful generous person did for her. I thought about claiming the credit, but decided against it.
The very next month, in a nearby shipyard, a different crew was doing the same job I had just left. One of them accidentally knocked down that chain of light bulbs, which by itself would have been no problem, but whoever had set up those lights had used the chain without those hard plastic cages around each bulb. One of the bulbs smashed against the wall and broke, as you would expect. But what you might not expect, that broken bulb exposed the white hot filament to the epoxy fumes – which ignited all the air in the tank and given the confined area, turned into a nasty explosion. Those guys were suddenly INSIDE of an exploding bomb. The person telling me about this confirmed that all the details matched ours except those bulb cages. “Gary; they took those guys out with putty scrappers.”
Wow! I can’t tell you how happy I am to be writing this account. You just can’t make up stuff like this.
Postscript: I was scrounging for a photo of the shipyard and think I finally found a more recent one. This photo is looking roughly east. To the photo-left is the grand Puget Sound. It was the great view I had during those late dinners.
Our ship was docked at that long slot near the present cranes, in the traditional fashion with the dock being on the port or left side of the ship – right where you see a much shorter ship parked backwards… How embarrassing for them.
Photo credit and appreciation goes to Stuart Ibett.