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'Al, will you cover Christmas?'

by jmaloni
Sun, Dec 25th 2011 07:30 am

by Al Malec

To this technician, said Hooker Lab Supervisor Art Bartlett, "Al, will you cover Christmas?"

To this, you say "Of course," for not just recently you came back from New York City after waiting for a berth on an Esso Standard tanker with your tail between your legs, with your eyes sunken in from insufficient rations. Therefore, working on Christmas Day would be more of a joy than an annoyance. Besides, there was pay.

Right off the bat it was pleasant. A little more than a mile from home, 17th and Ferry, large snowflakes in the mild winter darkness hitting you in the face, Christmas carols in your mind, you walk to work. You say "Hi" to the guard Bill Oliver, who drives in from Wilson, punch in, and walk the 150 feet to your lab building, where you analyze poison gas for the U.S. government. Wow, all those stars.

Immediately you walk in, warmth hits you. Also the smells of a chem lab. Some are pungent smells. Some are exotic smells. However, all with good association because you like this job. Eventually, these smells and other associations will wash away the bitter taste of NYC, where you begged a meal of Spanish rice from a Bowery men's shelter, a smell of drunken men in hangover. Uh, where the Seaman's Church Institute run by Episcopalians extended you two days rent and meals tickets because that's how they are. Nice people, that. Whom you paid back. Afterwards, your kid brother Stan making fun of your sunken eyes, called you Gorah.

Anyway, you hang your coat in a lab office that is not more than 7-feet-by-7-feet, which contains a desk, chair, work table, a Burroughs calculator ... and one whole wall taken up by a sample analysis chart. There is also your slide rule and your Zenith portable radio.

You say "Hi" to the guys you relieve who are Bob McNernny and Don DeFazio and take in a short run-down of the previous shift. Now they ask, "Where is your partner?"

"I don't know." Then the phone rings. It is Lenny. Blonde, affable, Polish accent Lenny. Going to be late. Much snow in Buffalo.

There is a lot to running a lab, and you, having been here five weeks, have a routine worked out: Set your radio to WYXL-FM; fill up the burettes with sodium hyposulfite, with sodium hydroxide; standardize the Karl Fischer reagent that is used to determine the percentage of water in samples; scrub some Gooch crucibles and place 'em in oven; take dried Gooch crucibles and place them in desiccators; go to oil house for chloroform; place a 1,500-ml beaker on hot plate marked "starch solution"; place another 1,500-ml beaker marked "tea" on hot plate; set out some 100 or so teabags your girlfriend who works in Memorial Hospital got for you. (Uh, later, this made for some hilarity)

In Trott's chemistry class, this was called "dovetailing" meaning no move is wasted. If you are going past the hood, you pick up a dirty beaker or Gooch crucible and deposit it in the sink; you shut off the vacuum; check the distilled water condenser; slurry this sample; weigh that sample; mark this result on the wall chart; answer the phone and rattle off results that you don't look up, that you somehow remember from a shift of more than 60 samples ... all this in one circuit around the lab. Without this dovetail efficiency, two technicians could not get through a shift's workload.

In a briefly empty lab, you hear Chopin's "Etude" or "No Other Love." It reverberates through the lab, making for much contentedness you feel, for that is the number that ran through your mind while you were an ore boat dishwasher on those November tumultuous Great Lakes. Only now, it makes you think of natural beauty Joyce Gordon, with whom you danced at John's Club, there at 20th and Niagara Street.

Never mind Lenny is going to be late. Alone you are not. For now the Ball-Breaking Contingent shows up: joyous Pop Swedo, fun guy Joe Buffone, I-love-life Cosby Everett and a new kid from Pittsburgh called Art Pelligrino ... one of those wide-eyed full-of-fun types taken on novitiate status into the Ball-Breaking Contingent. Uh, we were going to teach him all we knew. We were going to show him the way. Whatever, after a bit of friendly needling or verbal sparring, they ask you to open up the first-aid room.

"You gotta?" This is routine.

"Yep," says roly-poly Pop Swedo.

"And you can have one, too," says Joe Buffone, also wide-eyed, bushy-tailed and bursting with goodtimeship.

So, we all go down the hall to First Aid where we fill paper cups with this white powder and begin the ritual called the Bromo Seltzer Clique. (Yes, there are cliques within cliques) In this clique, you literally are the key man with power. You begin to lose a debate with these guys, all you've got to say to them is, "All right, no more Bromo." Ridiculous and fun, that's what it was.

In the work mode, different chemical operators begin to show up with samples and you are running your tail off with these analysis, Lenny not being here.

Of course, anybody who brings in a sample does not go back into the plant area. They got to hang around and gossip. It's nice in the lab. It's quiet in the lab. There ain't no strong chlorine smell in the lab. Men don't just talk, you know. They bicker. They argue. They are all over your lab. To answer your phone, to do your calculations, to make your entries on the wall chart, you've got to weave through blue-coveralled guys wherever you go, all the time hearing, "I can so date Sal Maglie's sister." And they make fun. "Al, stop the plant, they're playing your song."

And they ask, "Why you got no other tea? Whyn't you got instant coffee?"

Then youthful, brown curly-haired Walt Maniurski with that long-suffering look of shift foreman shows up. With this gripe: "Ain't nobody in the plant? How come nobody ain't runnin' the plant? What is this? A coverall convention?"

In no time at all, the lab is emptied of all coveralls except for Walt, who sits down with a 250-ml beaker of tea saying, while pointing a finger to himself, "I am the boss. Not you. Not them clowns. Me. I am the boss." Then Walt says, 'Morning, Lenny," to a snow-covered figure who had just breezed in.

Lenny, recently conscripted Lenny. Who would soon be training in Fort Devens, Mass., while the Chinese communists in frozen Chosin were patiently waiting to shoot at him.

Said round-faced Lenny, face still flushed from the snow, "Why is there so little starch solution?"

While you, you look in dismay at the one centimeter of water busily bubbling in the large beaker marked "Starch."

"Oh, my goodness!"

"Whassa matter?" says Lenny.

"Out of the starch solution, those guys made tea!" Lenny stifled a guffaw.

Anyway, you walk home through the joyful snow and at 3:30 p.m. with almost a whole day in front of you, Christmas carols all around, clowning with your brothers, you sit down to a delightful turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

Dec. 25, 1951. At the Hooker Electrochemical Company there on Buffalo Avenue, Niagara Falls, N.Y. That was the Christmas that was.

Al Malec, a LaSalle resident, is past commander of American Legion Portage Post 1465.

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