December 1991

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Harpending's Corners


Edwin N. Harris

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The Despatch Shops of East Rochester

Communities, like people, take on a character of their own, and while I lived there (1941-1946) I never regarded the Village of East Rochester as particularly eccentric, but in retrospect, it did bear some of the signs noted by one writer:

"Eccentrics are usually happy people who want to make other people happy. They usually enjoy good health physically and mentally. But they mostly reject being told how to conduct their lives."

That describes the town I knew when I lived at 220 West Elm Street with my wife, Esther, and infant son Roger, and I still have many fond memories of the people and the town. Next-door neighbors Joe and Rosa Talarico helped guide our young family through early parenting and homemaking with kindness. Our nearest source of reference, our relatives, were sixty miles away in Yates and Schuyler Counties, our original homes. Esther became a good Italian cook without realizing how it happened.

Rosa Talarico, like most of us when challenged by a new language, had learned some of the roughest words first. When we turned to her for advice on how to get the long brittle strands of spaghetti into our sauce pan, she naturally was at a loss as to "Whata-the-Hell'a you mean?" When I explained that from eating on Saturday nights at Viccaretti's and Checko's restaurants, we knew that breaking the strands into pencil lengths was not the way it should be done. Rosa could hardly believe our ignorance, but finally accepted the sad fact and instructed: "Put him in the pot of hot water, you Goddama fool—then he'sa go down by himself."

After that revelation of the paucity of our brain power, her concern was for our "poor baby" who, for some time, she watched carefully for signs of malnutrition or neglect. Rosa's son had already left the nest, and her daughter was about to go, which may have put her in an adoptive mood. Still she seemed gratified to see that we were quick learners and could be trusted with our responsibilities.

In late 1942 my job as excavation foreman on the Syracuse Army Air Base (later Hancock Field) was finished and I returned to our East Rochester home to look for a new job. World War II was in full swing and it would not be hard to find one. I turned down a job as a field office clerk for John B. Pike & Son, general contractor for the new Bausch Museum (later the Rochester Museum & Science Center) to take another as crane operator in the steel fabricating plant of Despatch Shops Inc., a subsidiary of the New York Central Railroad, for the higher pay of eighty-five cents an hour. Here I worked from early 1943 to mid 1946. Many of my fellow workers were of Italian and Polish extraction, but with a surprising number of Irish-English, old stock from the Chateaugay region of northern New York, near the Canadian border.

All the plant workers would interrupt their work for only two traditional reasons: Ambient temperatures over 90 F, or death due to an accident in the plant. In either case the survivors went home. Death was all too frequent in the shops.

Work places such as Despatch have long passed into history, a history that can be illuminated to a degree by relating a couple of incidents I was involved in during that time.

The Shepard-Niles bridge crane assigned me could lift twenty tons, and was one of eight in the plant. Its twin spandrel steel beams, each with two rail-riding wheels on the ends, reached across the eighty-foot-wide Aisle 2, and were about eighteen feet above the shop floor. The rails the crane rode on stretched from the outside yard west of the building, into and through the entire length of the plant. Atop the crane beams the lifting motors that powered the cable drums rode a carriage on smaller rails that traversed the crane's bridge beams from wall to wall of the aisle. A system of pulleys and cables raised and lowered the hook and chain slings used for lifting and carrying.

The crane was powered by 440 volts of electricity that was picked up from three exposed cables that ran along the outside wall for the length of the plant. The operator rode in a small cab that hung below one end of the crane bridge. From the cab the operator controlled the lifting and carrying of multi-ton loads of steel, often over the heads of workers on the floor below.

The eastern half of the shop's Aisle 2 assembly lines were busy making locomotive tenders for Russia, and bridge pontoons for replacing destroyed bridges in Allied Forces combat zones. The western half of the aisle, the punch and press section, fabricated steel landing planks called "Marsden (sic) Planks" designed to provide firm surfaces in the swamps and jungles wherever our armed forces needed them. Carloads were shipped daily and handling them from one process to another occupied a large part of my crane's time. On the opposite side, on Aisle 1, crane operator Ritchie McCaffery was doing much the same, periodically sending lifts over to me on a transfer vehicle.

On my right was "Skinny" Enright working his crane, and on my left it could be Prosper Peete running his. We had to watch to avoid running into each other. Prosper violently shook me up by slamming my crane a few times. Skinny, the best in the shop, never did.

Working conditions were hellish. Visibility in the shops was limited by heavy smoke from press furnaces, riveter's fires, and electric arc welding crews sewing together Russian tenders and bridge pontoons. Much of this smoke rose to about my level.

One of the first things my instructor, Nick Urzetta, had to teach me was how to communicate to the floor with hand signals, for the deafening roar made our voices useless at distances of more than three feet—anywhere in the shop. Ear plugs were unknown and deafness was the ultimate fate of many shop workers. One Safety Engineer watched over several hundred workers, a sad deficiency that all too frequently set scenes of death or injury. One wonders what a team of today's OSHA inspector's reaction would be if suddenly placed in that plant. It was wartime and perhaps even they would have made little difference.

It was a most scary place! Ten years later, while ice fishing, I met terror at Eel Bay on the St. Lawrence River and the subsequent crossing of the Thousand Island suspension bridge when caught in a hurricane-force windstorm. That fright, however lasted but two hours. The East Rochester "car shops" were life threatening every day—all day! Scary yes, but vastly improved over working conditions of the previous generation. Before that were the times of Charles Dickens.

At four o'clock on an April afternoon Charley McCaffery, superintendent of the punch and press section, learned that he was one crane operator short. He knew that I sometimes accepted a double shift and caught up to me leaving through the tunnel under the railroad that led to Main Street, to ask if I would help out again. I agreed with the condition that he would send out for some food.

I walked up the stairs to a crane landing platform, crossed the crane bridge, climbed down the short steel ladder to the catwalk, and entered the crane cab where I settled on the operator's stool, already wishing it was midnight.

Two hours later there was a diversion back of the "Big Shears" (ten-foot-long blades) where that tireless little Scotsman, Walter McFee, was trimming rectangular steel sheets. He seemed too small and too old for that giant machine, but he was a tireless and energetic worker who had for many years danced steel plates around the great shear blades, clipping them into the shape of the templates the pattern shop had given him.

He was a high-strung, nervous man, so nervous he even drank nervously at Elmer's Place, a Main Street tavern judiciously placed about 100 feet from the shop's main gate, where Bert Horncastle tended bar, sometimes while playing his fiddle. Bert moonlighted by playing that fiddle in the Rochester Civic Orchestra. Ed Duval, a Franklin County man who often worked with McFee, also moonlighted as a bartender at Vicarelli's, across the street from Elmer's.

Hidden behind McFee's shears, Bobby, a scrap-boy laborer, gathered the steel waste into a bucket that I would pick up and carry away for recycling when full. Bobby, a high-school refugee, was the plant pest whose favorite targets were Old Jake Heber, a recycled night foreman who was forever looking for Bobby. Jake would prowl the aisles with his trunk bent forward and his hands clasped behind him, muttering to himself in his thick Dutch accent, "Vere iss dot Got-dummed kid?" Should he stop suddenly, Bobby, close behind Jake, and in fine mimicry, would walk right into Jake's back. Whenever Jake did catch Bobby, he promptly gave him merry Hell whether he was doing anything bad or not, on the principle that he deserved it for something.

McFee liked Bobby, though the pranks made him nervous. From my perch in the crane I could see almost everything going on below, and this night I was curious as to why Bobby was fooling with some cast-off grease-loaded leather work gloves that were often scattered on the dirt floor around machines. I was horrified when I realized that he was about to terrorize McFee, and tried to signal him to stop.

McFee had the foot-operated switch bar locked down in a position that would allow the shears to run constantly as he danced with his steel. Bobby, crouched out of sight behind the machine, poked an empty glove, fingers first, under the descending shear blades that promptly cut it in two. Walter McFee panicked, thinking Bobby's hand was in the glove. He hopped around in front of the shears wailing uncontrollably until Jake Heber came trotting up to ask McFee where he was hurt and got no comprehensible reply. By the time I parked the crane and got to the ground, Jake had called the mill-wright's office for first aid. (Mill-wrights often fixed people, too.)

I chased and caught Bobby who was trying to leave the area, and pushed him up against a pile of steel for a lecture he was not anxious to hear. Even in those days horseplay was forbidden. I think I told him that if this was not war time he would not only be fired, but he would be up on charges by the civil authorities. At any rate he was docile for a week or two, and soft-hearted McFee forgave him. I could not know that about three hours later I would have a real close call in my crane cab.

It was about eleven o'clock when fatigue from fourteen continuous hours at the controls crept up on me, and it showed when an eight inch buss fuse in my crane's power switch box blew out. I turned from the controls to the back of the cab to open the switch door to replace it. It was not an unusual occurrence, and I had replaced fuses many times, but this time I neglected to disengage the master switch. When I reached for the fuse the 440 volt jolt knocked me flying senseless across the cab and partially onto the outside catwalk.

The brilliant flash was seen by the men on the floor who sounded the alarm to the mill-wrights (shop mechanics). I came semi-conscious to see three mill-wrights led by Bill Jaske, their grease-smeared foreman, who was a man of impressive talents around heavy machinery, beginning to rig ladders to reach me. The crane was not near a landing station and ladders were the only way to get to me. They moved in an unhurried, deliberate fashion, explaining when they arrived that they had thought it "too late to hurry." I suffered a burn and a couple of cuts that they treated from a first aid kit. Then I finished out the night, very aware of my incredible luck.

© 1991, Edwin N. Harris
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