January 1992

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Harpending's Corners


Edwin N. Harris

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Catapulted Rail Cars

I had become a better than average craneman, able to do fancy tricks with the chain slings, often able to lasso a lift of steel before the hook-ons (ground laborers who followed the crane on the ground) arrived to make the connection by hand. Perhaps I was too cocky, for in 1943 during a midnight shift I brought embarrassment and unwanted notoriety on myself for being a little too innovative. My son Roger, then about two years old, now seems to enjoy the story each time he hears it. Especially for him I include it.

At this time of night, demand for my crane was usually light, as only one 300 ton hydraulic press, and the 64-die gang punch was working in my section. They would need only a couple of crane lifts during the shift. To use the idle time "Shelly" Shellhammer, McCaffery's assistant, assigned my crane to unloading sheet metal stock that arrived in gondola rail cars. This night the yard engines had pushed four gondolas into the plant and under my crane, each loaded with some forty tons of steel sheets that were about 25 feet long and 7 feet wide.

Hook-on Sam had examined the gondolas before I arrived, and when I rolled the crane up he signaled obscenities up to me about his opinion of the way the cars were loaded by the shipper. I came down for a look and found that indeed whoever loaded the cars had no compassion for those who would have to unload them, for they had left the piled sheet ends flat on the car floor with no blocking under to allow us to get chain around them. Sam was a squat, dark-complexioned Italian man who was an expert at the sign language so essential in the noisy shops. He was also self-appointed boss of his companion Tony, and he treated him shabbily. Tony, slight of build, more recently from Italy than Sam, was quiet, reticent, and took Sam's abuse placidly. Together we cursed the unknown idiot from an unknown steel mill who had loaded the cars.

I tried to think how my former boss, Fred Hines, with his unrestrained Daneland Viking will, would deal with this heavy rigging problem. The answer came quickly: "the dangerous way of course."

I found one corner of the top stack of sheets that had a two inch crevice, and told the hook-ons to drive the chain into this slot, hoping to run the crane toward the opposite end of the car to curl the sheets up enough for them to throw short wooden blocks under to gain a bigger bite for the next try. The first attempts failed when the sheets slipped from the chain to fall crashing back into the car which raised a cloud of dust and a loud noise. A few more attempts and finally the now nervous hook-ons hanging from the outside of the car, managed to throw a block under the steel before the chain slipped, bringing loud cheers for our success. Now to get to the other end of the pile that also lay flat against the second lift below.

I parked the crane at its landing and climbed down the stairs to work out the strategy: Sam and Tony would hang on to the side of the car for more block tossing until we progressed in steps to the other end. Once we had a chain around each end of the lift, I would be able to hoist the load of twelve or fourteen tons in the normal way and carry it to its destination midway down aisle 2. Before I climbed back into the crane cab, I checked to make sure the car wheels were blocked against movement on the rails.

I ran the crane up the line of cars to curl the sheets upward until my drive wheels began to slip on their rails, but the men kept signaling for me to pull the steel higher. Exasperated, I reversed the crane to get a flying start and with full power curled the sheets much higher than before while Sam and Tony, each hanging on a side of the car, scrambled to get closer in order to throw more blocks further ahead. Unfortunately I underestimated the force of the spring loaded catapult I had created with the steel sheets curled upward almost to the shape of the letter C.

Suddenly the truck wheels of all three cars broke through the wooden blocks and the entire string started moving—smashed through the huge double doors of the building, and gathered speed as the chains slipped off the end of the load with a bang! I watched Sam and Tony, now inside the front car where they had scrambled to, peering over the end panel as they rode out into the winter darkness, hanging on for dear life, desperate about their destination.

It was about 4 am and auto traffic on Washington Street was minimal for which even now I remain grateful. The runaway gondolas tossed the railroad gate aside, crossed Washington Street where it bisected the Despatch yards, and rolled on until the cars derailed at an open switch and came to rest, almost a half mile from me.

I worried until Sam and Tony walked back in—sputtering Italian, too unnerved to remember any English at all. But I understood all too well the graphically obscene signs they offered up to my crane cab. The display ended with Sam making a slashing motion across his throat. It was near the end of the shift and since we had no cars to unload, and the shop foreman had left for the night, I suggested we do the same.

The next morning while I was trying to get much needed sleep, I was summoned to meet a delegation that included: "Ham" Connors, East Rochester's Chief of Police, George Stuber, the plant manager, the red-faced safety engineer, and one agent of the FBI. It was in the middle of World War II; any hint of sabotage would be investigated. I told my story, signed a deposition, and was excused. Cranemen were hard to come by.

At work that night the millwrights were jacking up the steel in the cars that were back in place so the cars could be unloaded with more conventional means. I had to bear the nickname "Sling Shot Harris," and some one chalked on my crane cab, "Rail Car Launcher." There were interesting comments by Harry Bressingham, Bill Moss, Harold Zornow, Orrin Ormsby, Ed Dubal, John Verke, Jimmy Hood, Joe & Rose Talarico—I regret starting the list—too many will be left out.

At any rate Fred Hines would have been proud of me.

It was all part of what Studs Terkel later wrote in his The Good War. Good for many things as long as you or your relatives and neighbors did not appear on the casualty lists. Of course it ended the Great Depression, and expanded the role of women forever. Twice within the next two years the draft board would summon me for a military physical examination, reclassify my status from 3-F to 1-A. This usually meant quick induction into the armed services. Each time Despatch Shops appealed the change, and the original status was restored, by reason of the need of me for defense production. Twice I took trips to visit friends and relatives, anticipating a long absence with the military. Despatch looked me up to order me back to work each time.

Thus my situation was to stay put or be drafted. Letters from my brothers, Elbert and John, from overseas strongly advised me to stay put if possible, and I remained a civilian.

Elbert served in the 45th Division of the Army for five years, much of the time in the European theater, and survived a bullet through the neck while in France.

John spent two years in the South Pacific with the 6th Marines, and participated in assaults on the Marshall and other islands. His unit took heavy casualties. His message to me was that while the shops were dangerous—it was a much safer place than his. It was obvious.

© 1992, Edwin N. Harris
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