Thursday, April 30, 2009
Theft of Letters:Russian Police Break into Memorial Society Office
It is with considerable concern that I write to you.
Several years ago, the Memorial Society in St. Petersburg, asked for my copies of original letters, my book, documentary, and photos of the writers. Their interest was very affirming. The letters were very significant to them. Many phone calls and emails travelled between us. The Memorial Society planned to exhibit the letters (written by the Regehr family from their Gulag prison camp) at their museum in Perm 36.
Four months ago, the office of the society was raided by the Russian police and all files were confiscated. This is chilling. Documents held by the society appear to be a threat. The article in the Chicago Tribune describes the incident. http://archives.chicagotribune.com/2008/dec/17/nation/chi-russia-stalin_rodriguezdec17
So what now? With the new Russian regime determined to re-write history, what can we do? How can we ensure that the stories of those who suffered are preserved? That the victims of the Gulag are remembered?
I suggest the following:
Listen to family members and friends who fled Russia. Tell them you will remember.
Share these stories with the online community and anyone else who will listen.
Forward this newsletter to a friend.
Purchase a book or DVD as a gift for someone who needs to remember.
Regardless of what you decide to do, the most important act is to remember.
Sincere thanks for your continued interest in the letters and in those who wrote them.
Ruth Derksen Siemens
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
I tried to concentrate on work for the next few months. I have always been an avid reader and now I was finding myself reading both during work and on my time off. There were many break-downs in the mill and although I had to be there for the whole shift, there was not always a lot to do. It was rare for all four paper machines to be running in fine form.
I was learning more about the union mentality most mill workers were operating on. I was quite frankly disgusted with the attitude that the company was the enemy. Not all employees were of this mindset, but it was very common. I had chosen to not attend union meetings and that resulted in a fine every month. It was a small price to pay to keep from hearing the constant rhetoric about how the company owed us this and owed us that. I always wondered why some of those guys didn't just up and leave town if they were so disgruntled. Many had been born there and had worked there all their lives and had no thought for the fact that if it were not for the company, they would not even be there.
One night I learned about job descriptions. I was caught up with my duties and was watching a new recruit trying to keep up with his workload on one of those rare times when all the machines were running full tilt. His job was to push the finished rolls of paper to a scale where they were weighed and labeled. He was getting behind and the backlog was interfering with the winders. I went to help him with the thought that if I helped him push rolls for five minutes, he would be caught up and the rough, burly winder man would get off his case. I was pushing the third roll when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to face Dick Haas, the winder man with an attitude. He jabbed my chest with his thick finger and said, "What the h**l do you think you are doing?"
"I am helping Mike get caught up so you guys stop yelling at him and calling him names." I was sure my altruistic motives would calm him down.
With his powerful hands, arms and shoulders, he grabbed my shirt under my chin and hoisted me off the ground. I suddenly recalled that he was one of those guys staring me down at the union meeting where Gordon and I were the only dissenting voters. I would be telling a lie if I said I was not afraid.
"If Mike cannot do his &*$# job, the &%&^$^&# company has to hire another union brother to help him. Now you get back into your cubbyhole and do your own &^$&^#@ job."
Poor Mike was more frightened than me because I could escape but he had to stay out there and endure more verbal abuse. Moments later there was a paper break and Mike got his reprieve. We were both very relieved that Dick was very occupied the rest of the night trying to problem solve on his machine. Up to that point, Dick and I had treated each other coolly, but after that there was an animosity about him that made me very happy when we drew different shifts. Ever since that incident, I have disliked muscle shirts and tattoos of anchors.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Monday, April 27, 2009
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Saturday, April 25, 2009
I was losing my family soon. My sister, niece, and brother-in-law were soon leaving. The hall/house would be abandoned as there was no use for it and empty buildings were becoming common in town. We almost lost it entirely one night. There was a steam whistle on the roof of the steam plant at the mill that whistled several times of day, mainly for shift changes and at noon. There was also a three blast signal if there was a fire in the mill and four blast whistle if there was fire in town. When we heard the blast from the whistle, we dismissed it as another false alarm or maybe fire practice for the volunteer brigade. We went to the living room window which had a commanding view of most of the town and noticed an orange glow coming from just below us. The school, one of the largest buildings in town, other than the mill itself, was right in front of our house, just down from us and to the left. We stared in disbelief as the fire grew and it was soon apparent that the old wooden structure was no match for the fire fighters. As the fire rapidly grew, we suddenly realised that we were grave danger if we did not get out of our house quite quickly. We were uphill from the fire, on a steep slope, and the wooden road and stairway that joined the streets was a perfect 'fuse' for the fire to creep upward. There was only one way out of our place and that was down the road right behind the school. Failing that, we would have to crawl up a very steep and rugged slope into the bush above 10th street. Doing that with a babe in arms was not likely. We quickly gathered a handful of valuable and some milk for the the baby and rushed out of the house. As I climbed the stairs from my room to the upper level and exit door, I touched the walls and they were already getting hot, on the inside!
We escaped without incident and stayed with friends just down the street until the wee hours of the morning and things had cooled off. In the light of day, we saw that some of the windows were cracked from the heat and the paint was blistered on the corner closest to the school. I cannot remember if it was raining that night, it probably was, but something saved the building. The question is, for what? The best thing was that our possessions, for what they were, remained intact. There was talk, the next few days, that a set of twin boys, not wanting their exam marks to get out, torched the school. I would say their strategy worked, at least temporarily, because the school was completely destroyed.
Friday, April 24, 2009
In the meanwhile, the letter writing continued at a furious pace. The post office pictured above was a regular stop for me everyday, either to or from work. My home in the Gospel Fellowship Hall would soon no longer be available as the decision would be made to shut it down and my sister and her small family would be leaving soon. As a single man, I would be required to live in the hotel (Martin Inn) until I was married and then we would be assigned an apartment somewhere in town. I was not thrilled about living in the hotel, but the prospects of having my own little dwelling, even though it was rented, was something new for me and was an exciting prospect. There would be things yet to endure before our planned wedding date in October.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
The next ten days flew by. We had a lot of catching up to do and we had never spent so much time together. I showed her everything there was to see and we went on a few hikes to my favourite spots. I was still working so it was also a good time for her to get to know my sister while I was out of her sight. It was also a welcome relief from writing letters day after day. Even though we had never specifically discussed marriage, I knew that if I asked her, she would probably say "yes". I was about 90% sure, also thinking that worst case scenario would be a "yes" with reservations and maybe a "yes, but not now". I had agonized over this for long enough and now I was quite sure what I wanted, and hoped Lis would want it too. We stayed up very late that night because I did not have to get up for work the next day. In the wee hours of the morning I 'popped' the question and her enthusiastic answer was exactly what I needed. When that was out of the way, we really had a lot more to talk about and ended up talking until the robins started chirping as the sun came up. We had a lot of plans to make and not many more hours before she would lift off in the 'flying boat'. But it would be OK, because now there was a purpose to me being there and with time on my hands, many plans to firm up.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Monday, April 20, 2009
I do not recall too much about that Christmas other than the fact that I was not at my parent's too much for those few days I was back. I had a lot of catching up to do with friends, and of course with she whom I greatly missed. But she was back home with her parents for the Christmas break from school, so, again, we were in different cities. We were not getting to see too much of each other, but all the letter writing had indeed drawn us closer. There was one important issue that had to be taken care of and that was what had eventually swayed my boss to let me go home for a few days. I had an appointment with the Judge.
In August, just before I got the call to go to Ocean Falls, I and my friend (not the one in the above photo) were driving in downtown Vancouver one sunny afternoon when the bus beside me in the curb lane suddenly slowed. Being very low to the road and thinking the bus was slowing down to take on a passenger, I kept on going. An elderly man was driving off a stop sign into a busy thoroughfare with not a care. I slammed into him in his left front quarter panel. His was a 'big iron' Oldsmobile Detroit boat so he only had a scuff on his front fender. The entire front end of my little MGB folded like an accordion and I had to stand upright in it to see over the fold in the hood. Needless to say it was not drivable. There was a policeman right there who had witnessed the whole thing and he suggested I push my car onto the side street which was on a slight downhill and park there while we did the paperwork. My friend had a bummed out knee from the crash but we managed to get the car parked against the curb and were standing beside it when the Oldsmobile came crashing into the back of my MGB. The back end was now folded like the front. His car had stalled and so when he and the cop pushed his car onto the side road, he could not apply the brakes because they were power brakes and his engine was not running.
To make a long story short, I was charged with two accidents! To add insult to injury, I was charged with the very serious offence of driving without due care and attention. I paid two deductibles on the two accidents, had the car repaired and then went to Ocean Falls with instructions to my friend to sell the car. I had also, just previous to that, had a speeding ticket so I had enough points on my license to have to go see a judge. If he 'signed' my license, I would be suspended and have to take a 'safe driving course', complete with films of mangled bodies at scenes of accidents. ( I later took the test in Ocean Falls and passed with the highest score possible) As I stood before the judge, I thought of the injustice of it all and was preparing my arguments. At the last minute, I made a decision that I would stay in Ocean Falls for at least another year and it really did not matter what happened because I would not be driving there regardless. I suddenly had real peace about the whole incident and gave the judge a big smile as I handed him my license. Indeed, I did not require it for the next 2 1/2 years.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
I had always assumed that when Christmas came, I would simply get out of town. It was not that easy as many others had the same idea. There were other employees to consider and schedules to set with earned holidays to take into consideration. I had no seniority at that point but somehow managed to get the powers in the front office to release me for a few days. Flying out was risky at best because the flights were day to day due to bad weather in the winter months. The journey was much quicker, but one could wait four or five days for a flight. I opted to sail out of town on the Northland Prince. It was a passenger/freighter ship that was built in 1963 at the Burrard Shipyards whose sole purpose was to service communities on the north coast of British Columbia. It came into town twice a week, once on its way to Prince Rupert and then again on its way home. So catching a ride home was only possible on one day of the week. I booked my passage and was very excited to go home. I was fortunate that first trip because the seas were calm. This was unusual for December in the Queen Charlotte Straight. The trip was 17 hours and I had arranged for a friend to come to the docks to give me a ride home.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
A few months after I arrived in Ocean Falls, my sister's due date came and she flew to Vancouver to await the arrival of her new baby. It was interesting for me to see a family dynamic other than the one with which I had grown up. I had a mom and dad and 4 sisters, and now seeing a newly married couple, expecting their first child, my eyes were opened to what my future could possibly hold. I began, for the first time in my life, imagining what it would be like to have a family. I always knew I would one day be married and it was something I looked forward to, when the time was right, and I found the right person. Of those two things, I was not yet sure. My relationship with the girl with no middle name was progressing and I missed her a lot, but I was not sure if I just missed all the social life I had had at home, or if I missed being with her specifically.
When the baby came, my brother-in-law flew to Vancouver and they did not come home for a few days. It was my first experience as a bona fide bachelor. I managed fine enough as far as the daily requirements were concerned, but found it particularly difficult at the end of the day, coming home to a cold house and finding things as I had left them. Often I would fix a meal and then not eat it. I was getting lonely, missing my new family, my old family, my friends back home, my car, my freedom, and sunshine.
And then the baby arrived. By this time, I felt so much a part of my new family, that I almost felt a little like her father. Her name was Stephanie. She was a like a good dose of sunshine everyday. For the first time in my life, I had some hands on experience with a baby. When my youngest sister was born, I was 13 and as a young teen aged boy had no interest, especially since she was just another sister. But now I could watch the rapid day to day development of a little person and I took a real liking to her. I would look forward to seeing her as soon as I got home from work. I spent a lot of time with her and I knew that I was getting a little too involved when one day I told my brother-in-law that he was too rough with her. I had been getting under his skin on this issue before and he lashed out at me to let him treat her the way he wanted because she was his kid. He was absolutely right and I did back off and was not greatly offended after having given it some thought. I did not realise it then, but what I needed was a family of my own.
The Autumn went by quickly and soon Christmas was on the horizon. It would be my first trip home since arriving four months ago.
Friday, April 17, 2009
Although bears hibernate during the colder winter months, they come out in spring as soon as the Salmon Berries are ripe and the mountainsides in Ocean Falls were covered in Salmon Berry bushes. There were actually more stray bears roaming the streets than there were dogs. They became very unwary of people, but the reverse was not true. The mother bears and their cubs were often separated while foraging and it would be a big mistake for a human to come between mother and child in this land of bears. They would become very bold in their endeavour to find enough food to satisfy their ravenous appetites from a winter spent in deep sleep. Even the doors of the houses had to be secured or the bears would walk into the kitchens and help themselves, ransacking the place in the process. Just down the street from us a bear broke through a screen door to go for the fresh chocolate chip cookies cooling on the kitchen countertop. The occupant, upon discovering the bear, simply backed out of the front of the house and left for a while, knowing there would be a mess to clean up later.
Many a night I would come home from work and see the dark shapes on the last 50 ft. of road to my house and in the dim light of the antiquated street light, I would make out up to 5 bears just fooling around, probably waiting for the paper tester to come home. I would then walk back down the 'stairway to heaven' and spend the next hour or so watching TV in the hotel lobby before venturing back home.
Thinking back, it is amazing that during all the hiking we did in the mountains in that area, we never once had an encounter with a bear, or even saw one. I suppose they liked the town because it offered more opportunity for feeding.
My closest encounter was on a rainy morning when I happened to be home. I heard the garbage cans on the back porch rattling and I knew it was bears. I ran to get my camera, which I had just purchased, and peered out the small window beside the porch door. There was a bear cub trying to unhinge the garbage can lid. I knew that the mother would be near so my plan was to open the door a few inches, take a photo, and close the door again before Momma got wind of me. I turned the knob of the door and gently shoved, but nothing happened. My first thought was that the bear cub was leaning against the door and I knew I would be able to push it away. I put my sholder to the door and was just about to peer around it when I looked up and there was Momma looking at me from above, huge paws pushing against the top of the door. Needless to say, I pulled hard on the door, hoping not to pinch any toes in the process, not because I did not want to inflict pain, but because I wanted nothing to stop the door from closing tightly and closing right now!
Thursday, April 16, 2009
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Shift work was new for me and I took to it without any problems. My body adjusted well to the changes in sleep patterns, but I was young, and youth allows for such things. I attended their little church group meetings when I was not working and realised that their days were numbered there. There was almost no interest in that town for faith issues. There were maybe three or four families attending and a single middle aged man, a fellow paper tester. Being young and single, I missed my friends and did not feel really comfortable with young families although they were very friendly and accepting of me. The single TV channel was very unreliable so more often than not, watching TV was out of the question, especially in winter. There was no radio reception either and our only news was the newspaper which came into town when the planes were flying, which depended entirely on the weather.
I spent almost every evening, when working day shifts, reading, and writing letters to friends, family, but mostly to my girlfriend. We had been dating for less than a year when I left my home town. It had been difficult leaving her because she was starting school in my town a few weeks after I left and we had been looking forward to being closer together. Now she was further away than ever and we missed each other. I remember asking a friend to keep his eyes and ears open for a good paying job back home because I saw this job in Ocean Falls as being temporary at best. But there was a shake-up coming and I would have to make a decision.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Christ's suffering on the cross as portrayed in scripture, through drama, and in music, is intensely personal for me and I find myself getting very emotional about it. The cliche`s of new life and new beginnings are generally synonymous with spring as well as Easter so for most people, Easter is simply a spring ritual, an end to winter and promise of flowers, green leaves and the pleasures of summer. For a true Christian, it is indeed new life in a very literal sense.
The family and food are simply a bonus. We do not need an excuse to get together as family, but there are enough occasions for celebration throughout the year that we meet often and it is always a joy. Easter is one of those times, and I love it.
Monday, April 13, 2009
The most important test was moisture content which related to the paper's strength. The strength was important because if the paper was too moist, it would tear in the machine and that would cause a huge problem and lost time. The paper sample was weighed, then heated and dried, and then weighed again. The % of moisture was always critical.
The smoothness of the paper was critical to the newspaper publisher, as was the porosity of the fibres in the paper. This had to do with ink absorption. The smoothness was tested with a suction device and controlled by the amount of China Clay in the pulp, a very expensive ingredient.
Tensile strength was tested and this was also critical to the publishers. They did not want the paper tearing in the printing press. There was also an ash test where the paper sample was weighed, burned, and then weighed again, all on very sensitive and accurate scales that could not be touched with human hands because the oily residue from the fingerprint would skew the result. The brightness test determined how white the paper was and also measured the amount of dark fleck in the paper. Too much fleck in the paper meant the hydraulic de-barkers in the groundwood mill were leaving too much bark on the wood. The technical name for those specks of bark was "shit". Seriously!
The two high speed machines were both newsprint machines but the newer one was set up for making rotoprint. Rotoprint is the slightly higher quality and whiter newsprint that flyers inside the newspapers are made of. These machines ran at 2200 ft./min. Then there were the two ancient specialty machines that could make newsprint, but were making toilet tissue and butcher wrap the whole time I was there. There was more money in these products as the newsprint price was depressed during that period. These two machines ran much slower at 900 - 1000 ft/min.
The specialty machines were so old that the only way the speed could be measured was with a hand held tachometer. Twice a shift I had to measure their speed and it was the one job I did not relish. The tachometer was a dial with a rubber wheel attached. The idea was to hold the rubber wheel to the roll of paper as it was coming off the machine onto the winder and then take the highest reading on the dial. The problem was, there was an extreme amount of static electricity from the dry paper flying out of the machine. There was a metal guard rail in front of the machine and I had to put my feet against that and reach over to take the reading. I wore steel toed shoes and the static would course through my body, build until my hair was standing on end, and when the charge was full, would release through the steel in the shoes and arc over to the guard rail. It was a very uncomfortable feeling until you got used to it. With some practice, I could sense the moment when my body was fully charged and then walk away from the machine. I could release the electricity wherever I wished, to anything or anyone who was grounded. Touching some one's ear with a full charge would almost knock them off their feet and would bring howls of outrage. It was well known that when a paper tester was walking around with his hair standing on end, it was wise to stay clear.
Several months into my paper testing career, Richard, my trainer thought it was time to leave. Everyone loved to tease Richard because he was such a good sport and could dish it out as well as take it. We decided to throw a farewell for Richard on his last night shift. Those of us who knew him well and had lunch with him at work, knew that his favourite thing in all the world was chocolate cake. We all chipped in and bought a big fancy chocolate cake from the hotel bakery and brought it in to work that night. We gathered around to have our official farewell and goodbyes and that is when one of the guys brought out the cake and set it on the counter in the center of the lab. He walked up to it, his eyes as big as saucers, and not knowing what to say, stood over it and just stared. Suddenly, someone from behind grabbed the back of his head and pushed his face forward, deeply into the cake. I, for one, did not know if this had been planned or not, but was shocked to see it happen. Richard's face remained embedded for a brief suspenseful moment, and then he raised his head. With both hands he scraped the icing out of his eyes, opened them wide, and with a look of both shock and ecstasy, said, "I guess Chocolate Cake!" We all roared with laughter and approval. It was typical Richard.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
Ocean Falls had a loyal population, but I discovered that those families that had been there all their lives, were involved in management, or in the higher paying jobs, such as pipe fitters, electricians, mill wrights, and machinists. There were many positions that were filled by itinerant workers and also many labour jobs filled by former convicts or even parolees. The isolation of the town prevented these men from getting back together with their former partners in crime and I worked with and befriended several hardened criminals who were good workers who eventually settled down and made productive lives for themselves. But they were a rough bunch.
Tech Control had a high turnover of employees so it was fast and easy to establish some seniority. I was soon trained as a paper tester and for several months went back and forth until a permanent position in the paper testing station came available.
Imagine an insulated refuge in the midst of 4 large, noisy, rumbling paper machines, with air conditioning, proper lighting, sound proofing, and surrounded on four sides by plate glass windows so there was a view of all the action without getting dirty.
All the samples were brought to a chute and the paper tester rarely had to go out of his lab/refuge. This had many advantages but also some disadvantages. It could become a hangout for other workers during the night shifts when there were no bosses around.
I learned a great deal about paper in a short period of time, but I learned the paper making process over the next few months by observing and asking a lot of questions. I found it fascinating that a slurry of watery pulp could become paper so quickly and efficiently. The paper making machine was a marvel of technology and a series of clever inventions.
The pulp was evenly distributed, at the wet end of the machine, onto a 20 ft. wide 'screen' that was rotating on drums at about 2000 ft per minute. The 'screen' was a brass sheet with tiny uniform perforations which sucked the moisture out of the pulp with the help of triangular shaped foils scraping the underside of the screen as it whizzed by. By the time the pulp reached the end of the screen, it was just rigid enough to be transferred to a felt. It clung to the felt as it coursed through the driers, winding up and down repeatedly, and became a moist sheet of paper. It left the felt and began winding on its own through more lengths of driers until it reached a stack of hard, smooth, steel rollers that compressed the pulp into a dry smooth sheet of paper. This process was all a blur as the machine ran so fast you could not focus on the sheet at any given point.
From the stack, the 20 ft. wide sheet of paper was wound onto a large steel spool and when the spool of paper was about 4 ft. in diameter, the paper was broken on the fly and began winding on the spool in reserve. From the spool, the fresh roll of paper was put onto a winder/cutter where it was cut and rewound into smaller rolls according to the customer's requirements. Our customers were major new papers in San Fransisco and San Diego as well some Norwegian customers. Just before the paper was cut and rewound, samples would be cut from the spool from edge/centre/edge to get a sampling of the paper from across the machine. Every twenty minutes from each machine, I would get samples and had to get results out as quickly as possible. It would get hectic when all 4 machines 'broke' at the same time, but it was fun.
For the present, life was good, work was enjoyable, the pay excellent, but I was continually thinking about my future. I was rubbing shoulders with men who had worked in the mill and lived in Ocean Falls all their lives and I was beginning to see that it was not a future for me.
Friday, April 10, 2009
In Jesus' hands
He a skilled carpenter
Using nails constructively
In His hands they were tools
Nails in Jesus' hands, used to fix him to a cross, to bleed, to die, to reconcile, to sacrifice, to forgive, to love, to save.
Those nails meant for you and for me.
Thursday, April 9, 2009
After my first week at Ocean Falls, it was determined that I was a 'keeper' and all the new recruits in town were required to join the union. It was the United Pulp and Paper Makers Union and at that time, was the most militant union in the province. I did not question the requirement and really thought nothing of it as I signed the papers and got my Union Card. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was to be at the union meeting every month and if I did not show up, there would be a fine. Within the second month, there was a strike vote to be taken and so my second meeting was the most important meeting that I could attend. It was an absolute requirement.
There was another new pulp tester in town, someone that I had befriended, Gordon Turner. He and I were very grateful for our well paying jobs and had noticed in our short time in town that 'the company' did so very many things for the people of the town that we did not understand how anyone could feel any animosity toward them. There were so many amenities and recreational opportunities that were company subsidized as well as Christmas parties with free gifts for every kid in town. And just having arrived and enjoying our work, we did not want to go on strike and sit on a picket line with our hands in our pockets.
We arrived at the meeting a little late and ended up sitting right at the front, directly across from the head table which held the shop stewards, the local union bosses, the provincial union bosses, the Canadian union boss and the North American union boss. What did I know? I knew nothing of the history of animosity between the Papermaker's union and Crown Zellerbach. I knew only what I had observed and what I wanted. After the fiery speeches, the 'vote' was held. In retrospect, I should have been shocked that the vote was not by secret ballot. It was by show of hands!
The big boss boomed, "All those not in favour of a strike, raise your hand." Without hesitation, Gordon and I thrust our hands upward. Dead silence. My first reaction was to look behind me to see if the union members all had common sense like Gordon and I had. I was shocked and amazed to not only see that there were no other hands, but was suddenly chilled to see the looks on every one's faces as they all stared at us. Was it anger against us, or fear for our safety? I wish I had looked at the faces of the bosses as our hands went up, but needless to say, we felt their fury soon enough. You could hear the ticking of the wall clock as the National President of the union stood to his feet, leaned over the table toward us as far as his center of gravity would allow, and thrust a big meaty finger toward us. He was red-faced and angry as a hornet. It was obvious he wanted a unanimous vote. In a quiet controlled rage, he spoke these words. "When your union tells you to go on strike, that is how you vote." ( I omitted 13 expletives from this quote.)
Without hesitation, he asked the question again, this time Gordon and I did not have the courage to put up our hands. I instinctively knew that our lives could be in danger once we were back in the mill amongst all the machinery and deep pits.
The second question was asked. "All those in favour of a strike, raise you hand." A loud cheer went up, a response much more exuberant than that of our two little hands barely raised to shoulder height.
This was the beginning of my education regarding unions and democracy. I know for a fact that it put in me a desire for justice and freedom and it was the beginning of the life long interest and passion I have had for politics. I was to learn much more in this regard before my days at Ocean Falls came to a close.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
My week of training was soon finished and I was now a full fledged pulp tester. By now I had learned a lot about the department I was working in, the company I was working for, the people I was working with, and the town I was living in. It truly was a different world. My job was a junior position and I would not have 'arrived' until I graduated to 'paper tester' a job with more sophistication, respect, responsibility and of course, more pay. I was already earning more than three times what any of my friends back home were earning. I thought the money was quite simply incredible.
As I learned my job, I also learned about the fascinating process of manufacturing paper. The mill at Ocean Falls had at one time done it all, but due to scaling back, aging infrastructure and poor paper markets, the process now only involved making newsprint and a few specialty papers. Newsprint only requires wood fibre with little processing as opposed to whiter kraft papers that require digesting and bleaching the pulp. The groundwood mill was quite fascinating to watch in operation.
Even though we were surrounded by forests, it was all inaccessible due to steep terrain, so all the wood was brought in by self dumping barges. The grade of wood was poor for lumber but for paper it was just fine. The logs would be cut into 4 foot lengths and sent down a flume, powered by a steady flow of water, to the groundwood mill. There they entered the grinder room where grinder operators would select a piece with remote control grapplers, send it through a high powered de-barker run by extreme water pressure, and dump it into the grinder pit. There were 4 grinders in a line and each had its own operator. The trick was to select the right types of wood and the operators had to be experts at recognizing the different types of wood. There was birch, alder, pine, hemlock, fir and cottonwood. If the mix was not right, the resulting pulp would be too fibrous or not fibrous enough. When the grinder pit was properly loaded, with no two pieces crossing each other, the hydraulic pit door would close and the grinders would rev up. The grinder was a circular stone like a large wheel, five feet across and about 6 feet in diameter. The surface of the stone (granite) was scored in a criss-cross fashion and when the wood was pushed against the spinning stone, the wood fibres would sheer off the log and become pulp, naturally mixed with large amount of water. The large stones had to be sharpened (scored with diamond wheels on a jig) every few weeks so it was rare to see all 4 grinders operating at once. It also happened a few times, while I was there, that a rock, lodged in a piece of wood, undetected by the grinderman, would enter the grinder pit and it would shatter the grinder stone. It would then have to be replaced at great expense to the mill.
My favourite Grinder Mill foreman, John Vanderjacht, was a great teacher and also a very personable and friendly man. He was a very good looking and rugged man who was a sharp dresser and seemed too cultured to be working in that rough environment. He would do his own pulp testing when there was a problem, not because he didn't trust me, but he wanted to make sure I got my 15 minute break every hour. We spent many a night shift, when there were no bosses around, shooting the breeze. Things were always under control on his shift.
As for Richard, my trainer, he was promoted to paper tester. A few weeks after he was settled into his new position, I went to the other end of the mill to visit him on one of my breaks. I asked him what it was like. I knew it was just a matter of time before I would move up because there seemed to be a lot of turnover of staff in the mill. He looked at me with a big grin on his face and said, "I guess paper tester."
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
As it turned out, Richard was a good teacher but always seemed to be in a hurry. Sid left shortly after my introduction to Richard and once I got my hands into the pulp, I managed to forget about quitting for the time being. There was an hourly routine that had to be followed and then when there were problems, there would be extra testing to do. As long as there were no problems, there would be a 15 minute break every hour, once I got the routine down pat. Richard rushed through the tests as I intently watched and asked plenty of questions. He kept showing me short-cuts and I told him that I did not want to learn to do the job fast but I wanted to learn to do it right. I knew enough at my age that with practice comes efficiency.
The 'lab' had a stainless steel counter with various pieces of equipment, and a sink. The tests were to determine the specific gravity of the pulp, the ph, the nature of the wood fibres in the pulp, and the liquid to solid ratio in the pulp slurry. The samples of pulp were taken at various stages of the pulping process and the exact nature and characteristics of the pulp could be adjusted and manipulated at any given point along the path to the paper machines.
The test results were posted on a chart and placed in the window of the lab facing the work area. The foreman could see at a glance the results of the tests and had no need to speak to the tester unless he requested another test. The actual testing was something I took to right away and documenting the results in a neat and orderly fashion on the charts was enjoyable. Each test had its parameters and when outside those specifications, additional testing was required and a good tester would do this on his own before being told by the foreman. Had I been able to sit in the lab all day testing samples, I would have been a happy employee, but there was another aspect to the job that I dreaded and came to hate.
That was the job of collecting the samples. The samples came from various locations in the mill and I had to access each one of them and extract enough pulp to fill a one cup size stainless steel container. Each container was labeled and each sample was taken from a specific spot. Some of these spots were easier to get at than others. There were two samples that I particularly did not like taking. One was from a huge spigot that had great volumes of hot pulp gushing from a great height into a large holding tank. The sample was to be taken from the 'flow'. It require holding a small tin cup, welded to a long aluminum pole, in the edge of the torrent. The trick was to keep the cup from entering the current fully, for if this happened, the cup and pole would be ripped away, despite the tightest grip. The metal would then eventually find its way to some pump or some paper machine where it would do catastrophic damage, shutting down the whole mill for hours or maybe days. This would be the ultimate pulp tester sin and I was assured that it had happened, and not that long ago. Perhaps I was that pulp tester's replacement. I was afraid to ask.
But by far the worst sampling spot was a place called the outside tower. It required a climb to the highest spot in the whole mill complex. The first part of the climb was not too bad, but once outside the building, it became very intimidating and dangerous. There was a final flight of rickety old wooden steps that were fitted to the side of a concrete structure that had seen better days. The bolts that held the staircase to the wall and eventually to the top of the outside tower were rusty and loose. The guard rail was best left untouched lest it tumble to the ground in tattered fragments. Once on top of the tower, with only a narrow double planked walkway from the top of the stairs to the hatch in the tank, one had to battle the elements (forever present wind and rain), the slippery footing, and the fear of heights. Opening the hatch and dipping another cup on the end of a long pole, deep down until it reached the pulp, was an exercise of sheer will power. Even the exuberant and happy-go-lucky Richard, when he took me there for the first time, had a look of fear and intense concentration on his face as he battled his instinct to stay off the tower. When we climbed down to the safety of the main floor, he told me of someone a few years ago who fell through one of those hatches. It was in days previous when there were pulp digesters operative at the mill and they never found his body, which was eaten by the powerful chemicals that are present in bleached pulp. After telling me this story, he glanced back toward the stairway from which we had just emerged and said, "I guess dangerous."
Monday, April 6, 2009
Yesterday, US President Barack Obama expressed a similar sentiment in front of the gates of the Prague Caste. He called for a nuclear free world. Like world peace, this is a noble idea and one that nobody could argue with. But even stating such a thing borders on the absurd. Of course, this comment was precipitated by North Korea's missile test on Saturday. North Korea and Iran are exactly why we cannot have a nuclear free world. It is like stating that we will have a gun free society, such as the Liberal Government did here in Canada when they introduced gun control. The result is that today we are living in a society where all the guns are in the hands of the gangsters and they are 'shooting up our neighbourhoods'. Nuclear free, world peace, gun free, all start with eliminating these very things from the aggressors. This will be as difficult as the gun issue and if I had my druthers, I would rather that the good guys have some weapons too. Let's face it, the guy with the biggest stick rules and I would prefer it not be North Korea or some radical Muslim nation.
Sunday, April 5, 2009
We finally ended up in the 'groundwood mill' which would become my work environment for the next three months. In the midst of the screaming 'grinders' was a tiny cubicle about 18 feet long and no more that 6 feet wide. It had windows and a swing door, and when we stepped through the door, I realised that it was insulated from the cold, damp atmosphere of the mill, but more importantly, it was sound insulated. What a relief! Sid gave me a brief overview of what groundwood was and what my job would be in relation to the groundwood and how my work would influence decisions in that department so that the product that ended up as paper would be of the highest quality. That intimidated me. I had NO clue and yet my work would influence the decisions that would influence the final product that would make or break the success of the whole operation and therefore of the town and the lives of thousands of people? Let me out of here. I was only nineteen!
One of the main pre-requisties of qualifying for the job of Quality Control Technician was high school graduation or higher and an aptitude (good grades) for chemistry. I had both but nobody thought to ask me if I had confidence, of which I had none. It would come later, but right then and there that Gruman Goose flight was looking like a sweet alternative. Maybe my sister would lend me some money.
As that thought rattled through my mind, and Sid was going on about life in Ocean Falls, in walked a short, dark haired fellow who had a friendly and mischievous look to him. He looked to be in his late twenties and when he spoke I knew immediately that he was French Canadian. He set a tray of stainless steel containers down on the contertop and extended his cold wet hand to me as Sid introduced us. "Terry, this is Richard. He is one of our best pulp testers and he will be training you for the next five days and then you will be on your own."
With a sly grin on his face, and a heavy accent he said, "I guess pulp testing."
Saturday, April 4, 2009
The new, stiff, leather, steel toed shoes were very heavy that morning as I trudged across the bridge that separated the town from the mill. I was starting on a day shift so I could meet my superiors and they could orientate and train me. Management (the bosses) were only ever there during the day shift. I would come to really appreciate this later as I found some real advantages to working 'shifts'.
I followed the signs to the "Technical Control Department" and there found Sid waiting for me. We met for the first time but he seemed to know quite a bit about me. Oh yes, I recalled, he knew me from my brother-in-law's description and from all the paperwork I had to fill out. He was friendly and his calmness reassured me. He took me on a quick tour of the mill with an emphasis on showing me the roll that 'our department' played in the grand scheme of making pulp and paper. If I had been intimidated by the exterior appearance of this huge ancient structure, it was nothing compared to my tour of the interior. What I saw in both the workings of the mill and the people I saw scurrying about, made my imagination go into overdrive as I wracked my brain for a way to get enough money for a ticket back home, yes, even if it had to be on that cursed Gruman Goose!
Friday, April 3, 2009
Thursday, April 2, 2009
I had a great view from my room and soon noticed that our 'house' was the second highest in town, at the end of a wooden road whose construction was odd. The road bed was built of thick planks and beams, one side anchored to the mountain, the other to posts set upright onto the rocks. There was a great rumbling and vibration as cars would drive on them, but then there were few cars in town so this was a rare occurrence. The town was only accessible from the water and the sky. The nearest real roads were many miles away in Bella Coola. The streets were all interconnected with wooden stairways. I soon discovered that my walk to and from work was via the stairway to heaven and it consisted of almost 200 steps. At least it was a straight line to work and thus a shortcut. All the terrain in Ocean Falls was steep and every path or road to everywhere else was either uphill or down. The only level part of town was a one block stretch of Main Street, and the massive docks in the harbour. The mill site was also level, of necessity, but I am sure that there were many earth moving machines and plenty of dynamite to achieve that task. I would soon be in good shape as I did not have a car and there were places to go and things to do.
But, the huge question for me was the job. What did it entail? Was I capable of doing it? I looked out at the huge beast, the pulp and paper mill across the harbour, as it rumbled, heaved, and hissed with steam. The next day I would be in its bowels, performing some task that those around me were sure I was capable of. I was not so sure.