November 1991

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Harpending's Corners


Edwin N. Harris

Chapter Index

Working on Construction of the Syracuse Army Air Base

It was a bitter winter morning and glare ice covered Monroe Avenue. I, the lone passenger of the east bound bus to Pittsford, sat on the side bench seat in the front talking to Walter, the regular driver. As we pulled up at my stop opposite the little white house that served Fred Hines as an office, we saw the tractor-trailer bearing down on us from behind, spinning wildly end for end, taking up the entire width of Monroe Avenue with giant sweeps. Helpless, we could only wait for the crash that dissolved my world in darkness.

I awoke lying against the engine box at the rear of the bus with my face and hands scratched and bleeding. I fumbled around hunting for my eyeglasses that I eventually found on the front seat where I had been sitting before I was knocked from under them. I had been thrown the length of the bus, probably skidding most of the way on the center aisle floor. Walter, slumped over his wheel, awoke when I called him, and we walked across the street to Fred's office, cold and shaken, but not seriously hurt.

Someone took me to a doctor, not far from our apartment, who patched me up so I could walk home to spend a couple days in bed. An insurance adjuster appeared and offered my medical costs plus $100 in cash which sounded fair to me, considering that my annual wages came to $1,140. I accepted and in a few days I found a 1932 Plymouth PB Coupe equipped with a four-cylinder engine and "Free Wheeling," for exactly $100 (after the dealer found out that was all I had). The free-wheeling feature was activated by a push-pull button mounted on the dashboard. When operational each time the accelerator pedal was released the auto went into a coasting mode. Though it was a fuel saver, I soon learned it limited the driver's control and was dangerous. While driving down Cobb's Hill on Monroe Avenue late one afternoon, a hydraulic brake cylinder burst and left me with no way to stop except to squeeze my tires against a high right hand curb. I drove to work the next day without "Free Wheeling" and stopped by shifting the transmission down. That evening I replaced the wheel cylinder and the brake shoes in Hine's shop before going home.

The 1932 Plymouth served us well for over a year, but I was not displeased that the free-wheeling feature had been abandoned when I traded the coupe for a 1937 Plymouth sedan. Fuel saver, yes, but with gasoline selling for twenty-two cents a gallon, who really needed it.

I began to yearn for a spot in big-time construction, perhaps still harboring dreamy memories of Arkport, and I watched for opportunities.

I was in a moving mood when one day Fred took his brutal advantage over one of our truck driver's pay. It started when Fred agreed to let Wilbur Gillette, the driver, charge to our account at Unit Parts Auto Supply, a set of piston rings he needed to repair his old Packard that carried him the eighteen miles from his Bloomfield home to his job. Fred's contractor's 40% discount was important to Wilbur. As usual Unit Part's first invoice showed only the gross amount. In a few days the second invoice arrived showing the discounted amount.

Fred ordered me to take the full cash amount from Wilbur's pay, saying, "I ain't running a damn free-parts service—that discount is mine!" The poor man went home in tears with about five dollars left in his envelope.

I had witnessed other such acts, some more tragic, but while life with Fred had hardened me somewhat, this minor incident sent my resentment flaring. I gave Fred a week's notice—and quit in the summer of 1942. At two different times some years later, Fred asked why I left him. I felt that he knew why, and my answers remained oblique. Once he, almost tearful, said that he had hoped to make me a partner in his business. I felt lucky to have avoided that mistake.

At that time I believed this was the end of our relationship, but I remained his part-time accountant and tax preparer until his death in 1959, then served in the same capacity for his widow, Dorothy, until her death in 1969, and for three more years was co-administrator (with her attorney Victor Corcoran) for her estate. Strangely we were bonded in some way for life.

World War II was heating up when I met Dwight Winkleman, owner of D. W. Winkleman Construction Company on a Sunday morning at the already under-construction Army Air Base at Mattydale, a short distance north of Syracuse. When I phoned about a job he asked me to meet him, and shortly after I arrived he hired me to be a grade foreman in charge of excavation on taxiway "A" of the airfield that, after its military function, became Hancock Field serving the greater-Syracuse area.

I convinced myself that Esther and eight-month old son Roger would be self sufficient in our East Rochester home. What unmitigated gall! I explained the wonderful benefits of doubling my salary while gaining valuable experience, to Esther.

In the summer of 1942 I left for Syracuse in my 1937 Plymouth with only slight misgivings about the tight rationing of gasoline and tires. I found Syracuse inhospitable. It took me until ten o'clock that night to find lodgings, and that only after a phone call by a friendly North Salina Street bartender. His friend Millie Butler had a rooming house at the corner of Park and Court Streets, and I stayed there. Rooms were as scarce as tires and gasoline.

The job paid $70 a week, generous enough for the times except that Dwight had failed to tell me that I would work ten hours a night, seven nights a week, with time off only if it rained hard enough to shut the job down.

"There's a war on son. If you weren't here you'd probably be in uniform," the grizzled old superintendent explained. That was the first time that knowledge made an impression on me.

Thoughts of such problems vanished when I was assigned to manage a fleet of earth-moving equipment consisting of about a dozen of the largest Caterpillar D-8 tractors then made towing rubber-tired pans that swallowed twelve to sixteen cubic yards of earth in a few seconds. They were supported by several bulldozers, graders, and tamping rollers. Together the machines had the capacity to move thousands of cubic yards of earth every ten hours, cutting away hills, filling valleys to finally shape a 5500-foot runway and several miles of taxiways. At regular intervals, little driveways off the taxiways led to round "Hard Stands," carved from earthen banks to make 150 feet in diameter parking places for pursuit planes, first P-40s then later P-51s. Army Engineers had ordered the total installation complete in the next four months. The semi-planned construction was in a turmoil of confusion.

My boss, Bill Anderson, led me about a mile out to the worksite, introduced me to my waiting crew, gave me a handful of plans, a time book, a very brief description of the work, and left. I don't think he knew much about the project either. My crew of about twelve machine operators were mostly from the coal mines of the south and spoke with heavy Appalachian inflections.

To me they looked fierce and suspicious when I called them into a semi-circle. They were of course wondering what they could expect from this skinny twenty-four-year-old Yankee. My office was my Plymouth sedan, and standing in front of it with blueprints on the hood, I gave my brief introductory talk.

I remember little of the meeting except that I tried to keep smiling and asked all for patience in getting me through my first night on the project. They reckoned they would, and headed for their machines. I kept the man longest on the project, asking him to stay with me for some briefing, and that proved to be quite helpful. I then turned to Bill Jensen, my one assistant, a very young man with curly blond hair.

"Bill, where are our portable light towers? We've got to have them in position before dark unless you know another way for us to see."

"You never know where the day shift towed them to get them out of their way—probably in the woods somewhere. Sometimes the crew over on taxiway "B" steals 'em, and you have to steal them back."

"I think you mean that you mean to say that 'you' have to steal them back, Bill." He did just that. There were not enough to go around, so it was best get the ones you needed early. The towers were rough wooden structures, quite like small windmill towers on skids. Small gasoline-powered generators were mounted on the floor at the bottom.

When darkness fell, I stood under a light tower, the safest place to be at night, and listened to the full, reverberating chorus of the belching Diesel-powered behemoths that passed me from both directions. Those under full power had ridged blue flames over their vertical exhaust stacks when they gouged great scoops of earth. Others returning empty from the fill area moved at a faster clip, their steel tracks clanking. The earth on the fill areas covered swampland and literally shook, as did I, nearly overwhelmed by this awesome display of power under my direction. At the same time, I knew I was right where on earth I wanted to be, and exulted in this moment of a long-awaited dream finally come true.

I soon took pride in my crew of skilled operators from the coal mines of the Virginias who were teaching me valuable lessons about the work and my leadership. In a few days I sensed that they wished success for this skinny greenhorn foreman.

The rough mountaineers often carried weapons, and at times fought among themselves. One night an operator jumped from his moving Caterpillar D-8 to climb over the moving tracks of another machine to throttle and pummel that operator. Both machines rattled down the taxiway out of control. I ran after the empty-seated tractor, caught it, and with a foolish and dangerous move, climbed over the moving tracks to disengage the clutch to stop it. At the same time the fighters also disengaged. I sent the aggressor to the field office for dismissal, a waste of time, I learned, when he appeared the next night with a note from my boss instructing me to accept his apology and put him back to work. Operators were nigh impossible to replace and such minor malfeasance must be overlooked. I later learned that some real or fancied preferential treatment I had given one of the battlers caused the jealous eruption. One more lesson learned.

"Tennessee" Earl Gahagan, a tall, lanky-thin, hawk-faced D-8 operator, wore a broad brimmed black hat, carried a one gallon Thermos jug half full of a liquid sustenance that I'm sure originated in the mountains of his homeland. We were about three hours into our shift and near dusk when I first heard screams and hoots coming from the newly-erected army barracks at the end of taxiway "A". I hurried toward the sounds that came through a sunset-lightened dust cloud until I could make out, a number of frantic GI's running and waving their arms at a D-8 Caterpillar tractor towing in high gear a 21 cubic yard pan around and around several wood-frame barracks, missing their corners by frightening inches. The D-8 was piloted by (you guessed it) "Tennessee" Gahagan who was obviously drunk.

It seemed the soldiers had conned, or bribed, Gahagan to rough grade their new barracks' yards with the large piles of earth left scattered about for the soldiers to spread. Gahagan could, they reasoned, relieve them from most of the drudgery of moving all those piles of dirt with hand tools. But now they were rightfully afraid that a slight miscalculation by Gahagan and his great yellow machine, would leave them homeless.

As Gahagan again came by I flagged him down, directed him to dismount, informed him that not only was he off our jobsite but also he was trespassing on Army property, an act that could get both of us in a lot of trouble. His exuberant condition I had already found I could do nothing about, and I remembered "We just don't fire machine operators."

He allowed "as how he was doing the wrong things," those that I had mentioned, then added: "Jist tryin' to hep the boys out—I'll git right back to my job." So saying he clattered off down the taxiway. I was left shaking my head in awe while the sergeant profusely thanked me for saving his company from disaster.

In September the excavation work at the Air Base was completed. Larry Cain, superintendent, suggested that I ask for transfer to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the company was starting a new project. When I asked what they were building there, Larry said he only knew that it was a secret project for the government. We did not know that it was to be a research center for the atom bomb. I was interested, but before pursuing the subject I decided to travel back to East Rochester to check the lay of the land there. It had been some time since the last rained-out day, and I had not been home since.

Further, I had been talking to some of the old construction hands with descriptions of the life style of following big construction. "You'll have no more home than a rabbit," they told me and further noted that many men became detached from their families through distance and neglect. They also warned that after a few years of the nomadic life followers became molded or addicted to a degree that they "just couldn't refuse the next job, for after a while it's easier to remain a 'construction bum.'" I was uneasy with this. At home I found that the decision was simple and firm. "If you go with them don't come back," said friend wife. I stayed, no doubt saving Roger from being raised by a step-father.

I returned to Fred Hines for a brief stint and found that the armed services procurement agencies had commandeered most of his equipment—paying him such generous amounts that he was about to retire from business. Fred and Dora, childless, had moved to their beloved "Sky Top Farm" three miles south of Pittsford on the Pittsford-Mendon Center Road, at the top of the hill. Fred, at the then unusual retirement age of fifty-five became a gentleman farmer. Each weekday afternoon he drove to Rochester's Elks Club to play poker with his group of cronies. As his lifetime accountant, I can attest that he was good enough at cards that he rarely if ever withdrew funds from his capital account.

I followed one of Fred's last machines that he sold to Abrams & Plotzker, contractors, who were at the time involved in supplying gravel to the new Sampson Naval Base and the Army Munitions Depot, both located on the east side of Seneca Lake, near Ovid and Romulus. I managed a pit near Phelps, a job that included operating a grader to maintain quarry roads, and at times driving a dump truck. Again the hours required for the defense effort were long. Commuting from East Rochester was not too bad, but all too soon I faced a health crisis.

In that late autumn of 1942 I had no idea that I had pneumonia when I passed out in the gravel pit. For a week I had gutted out fever and weakness, clinging to an ingrained Dundee notion that the best way to handle sickness was to "work it off." I remember very little of the difficult drive home where the doctor Esther had called found my temperature at 104 degrees F. Daily my condition seemed to worsen. The doctor did literally nothing. A neighbor lady suggested to Esther that "This guy must be in cahoots with an undertaker."

Frightened, Esther shipped me off to Highland Hospital where I was stuffed with sulfa drugs (penicillin was yet unused) and they obviously saved me. I clearly recall a certain awareness one midnight that I could pass on from this world by merely rolling over to face the wall and let it happen. I'm now happy that I won that argument with myself.

I returned home so weakened that I almost had to learn to walk again. Recovery took months, and by the time I earned my next paycheck our savings were down to twenty dollars. There was no medical or disability insurance for the average worker then.

However, when Charley Hill and his new bride, Helen (Rogers) arrived to spend a night of their honeymoon with us, I was delighted and ordered a couple quarts of beer for the occasion. The good spirits of our guests had a benign effect on me and my recovery seemed to quicken. A hard lesson was well learned, and until this day I do not take high body temperature lightly—if it exceeds 100 degrees, I head for cover.

Again Fred Hines called me for a few weeks work on some small jobs he had taken, even though his business had been closed. I refused his suggestion that I move my family to Sky Top Farm to act as his private secretary and general handy man, with a presumed inheritance eventually. I saw it as too dull and risky. Then he found a job for me as field office manager for John B. Pike & Son, contractor for the new Bausch Museum (now the Rochester Museum & Science Center) but I had already taken a job at Despatch Shops Inc., a subsidiary of the New York Central Railroad, as a crane operator in the steel plant's punch and press room for much higher pay. I still moonlighted, doing part-time farm work for Fred during the three and a half years I worked at Despatch Shops.

© 1991, Edwin N. Harris
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