I’d been talking with Georgie Handly. I’m Duane Brownley. Georgie’s a guy from my hometown of East Percer. We went to high school, had a few classes together, hung around in study period throwing an occasional spitball and played some football after school. Now we hang at the Torchlight some nights and put down a few, play some pool, and talk about deciding what we’re going to do in this sorry ass town we live in. Jobs aren’t good or much, but the pressure’s on.
What I mean is; Georgie’s okay. Look, we graduate in June and it’s getting on mid-August and he tells me about this ad he sees in the local Chronicle, “Welders wanted.”
“Good job, says top pay,” he says. I don’t know from nothing about welding, so I go with the flow. My answer is filled with question marks.
“Yeah. I’m going to apply. Want to come along?”
“Yeah. Says they’ll teach you.”
“I don’t know.” He makes me think about it and what have I got going? Nothing. Mom’s getting on me about doing something.
“I done my job,” she tells me three times a week, “Your turn.” She works a lot and she’s different since Donnie died. Any which way, I can’t sit on my butt.
“Call me. I’m going down to Cincy tomorrow.”
“Yeah, okay.” He eyeballs me. I look at the ceiling.
“You want to go to Nam?” That brings me back.
I’m eighteen, graduated with my class of fifty. Didn’t do that good, but I got there. I don’t want to go, but there’s the draft and what you gonna to do? I’m not running to Canada like some cowards I know. There’s this Bernie Pilat. Had him in a couple of classes. Pilat’s a big noise, talks big, comes from a little money, but he’s one of the cowards. Heard he took off for the border last week. That sucks. Hey, my country, right or wrong. You don’t run to frikkin’ Canada. I see him again I’ll punch him out, the little shit.
I got choices, but I got problems. I could join. I’m not afraid of being a soldier, but see, Donnie was my big brother and he went and now he’s dead and I think a piece of Mom died when the letter came ten months ago. For awhile I hung close and I know she felt good about me being around, but lately she’s getting on my case.
“Duane, you need to get a job. I can’t support us. And I’m tired. I can’t help being tired. I just am.”
“There’s nothing in town,” I tell her. “Maybe I’ll join the Army.” I look at her and I see the pain and I wish I didn’t say it. I’m such a bastard, I should know better. What do I do?
Next morning I call Georgie. “I’ll go.”
“Pick you up at ten.”
I call Mom at the Big-A market where she works and tell her I’m going for a job interview. She’s happy. “What is it,” she asks?
“Welding,” I say.
She’s quiet, thinking. “Could be worse,” she says. “Welding’s respectable.”
“Yeah. Gotta go, Mom.” She wishes me good luck.
Georgie’s right on time. I wear jeans and a blue work shirt. He’s in jeans and an old cowboy shirt with the fancy stitching. He likes that stuff.
Georgie and me, we drive into Cincy down to Front Street to this address in his old 56’ Crown Vic. Hey, it goes okay. Okay? Coughs a little, gets there. The glass-packs are cool. He’s always tinkering with it, so what.
The place is an old warehouse, big place, actually huge, corrugated metal, lot of noise and banging, smoke rising from about six chimneys, stinks if you get a whiff, lot going on. We go into this shabby office and there’s five guys sitting there.
A young, not so handsome woman is behind a narrow counter. There’s a window on either side of her and she can close it up, but it’s open.
She says, “May I help you?”
Georgie speaks up, “We’re here about the ad.”
“Have a seat in the waiting room and fill these out.” She hands us a long form and a pencil apiece.
We sit and fill and in about fifteen minutes the guys ahead are through the side door with the opaque glass. I don’t see them come out and then it’s our turn.
“Mr. Handly, you go first. I’ll call your friend in a few minutes,” the secretary says. She tries to sound old and I smile inside, because she can’t be more than like, nineteen.
Five minutes later I go through this door. Some bored, balding guy asks me a bunch of questions. You know…the usual. The guy makes a few notes and says, “Okay, that door.” He points.
I’m in a big room now and Georgie comes through the same door I did and all the guys we see earlier and some we didn’t see before are sitting and waiting. There’s about twenty of us and we’re all just out of high school from the looks. There’s a bit of a racial mix, but the majority of us are white. The door closes behind us, and an old guy I didn’t notice before, he leaves a chair near the other side of the room and comes to the front where there’s a big desk. He wears a dark suit and I think to myself, Geez, I thought I was out of school.
Turns out I’m not. The guy is a manager and we are his new crop of students. He clears his throat with a hand in front of his mouth.
“I’m Mr. Gates, the General Manager. Welcome to ABC Welding.” He gets right to the point. “Welding is an exacting job and the training is tough. It has been our experience that at least twenty-five percent of you won’t make it. Do what you’re told and pay strict attention and chances are you will complete the program and become full fledged welders. The pay is excellent. It is what you would expect of a job that requires expertise. Since we are working on defense contracts at ABC, those who complete the training will automatically be deferred from military service.”
Everybody looks around. Deferred? Cool! No one told us that. I look around and the guys are sitting up straighter and now they are all really paying attention. I see if I can pick out a few losers and I file my picks away for later.
“You all have passed the preliminary interview phase. It is the bare bones beginning and your real work will begin in a week, after we complete your background checks.”
Background checks? Shit! They’re serious. I bet Georgie’s okay and I got nothing to hide. There’s that cherry bomb I dropped in a barrel four years ago. Hell of a noise. Georgie never got caught and I never told. Cops brought me home to Ma, and they wrote something up, but I don’t think it’ll hurt me. I check out the guys again and I wonder if anybody I see will get the boot.
“Look each other over and keep in mind that you are the beginning of a team. You will go through the program together. You will learn to trust and rely on whoever’s next to you. I want you to stay another fifteen minutes and make some connections. You will then be excused and I will see those who are finally accepted in one week, here in this room. Good day, gentleman.” Gates walks to the door without a look back and closes it behind him.
Slowly, at first, the guys turn and a few get out their hands and introduce. Soon everybody catches on and although there are few smiles, there’s a lot of mix. Fifteen minutes goes fast. The door opens and we are ushered out. Georgie and I drive back to East Percer.
The next week we’re on pins and needles. We don’t see anybody nosing around, but we believe they’re around, all right. I know a couple days after the interview Mom gets a call and talks and listens for awhile and she won’t say a word to me, hard as I try to get it out of her. Finally I give up.
Friday of the same week, I get a call. Report to work Monday morning, six a.m. I call Georgie. No word for him. He sounds worried.
“You’ll be fine,” I say. Ten that night I’m watching television and he calls.
“I’m in!” He sounds excited and now I am, because we’re going together.
Monday morning welder’s class. There’s eighteen guys. Two of the black guys are gone and three white guys. Two I picked as losers. No one has time to wonder. The GM is there, but stays only a minute to introduce our foreman, Jake Breaulou. This big burly Frenchman raps the desk for attention.
“Okay, you men, I pass out smoked glass.” He hands little rectangles two inches wide by five inches long out to the assembly. When everybody has theirs, he says, “Look at each other through the glass.”
We see nothing.
Beside him a tank of oxygen and acetylene stands with hoses attached. Expertly, he grasps the handles, twists two valves, takes an igniter and lights the torch. A yellow flame about ten inches long juts harmlessly from the nozzle. “Now watch.” He turns the valves slightly and the flame becomes thin and blue. He says, “The color of the flame is important, but not important as the bite.”
Our smoked glass is in our laps and we aren’t prepared for what comes next. We watch him put the welding flame to two pieces of metal facing the class. The light is seriously bright and it hurts our eyes.
Breaulou starts talking while casually lifting a smoked glass to his eyes. We follow suit. “Never look at arc from welding torch,” he tells us. “You wear helmet and glass in it will be dark like this. If you not stupid and do not wish to be blind for fun, never look direct at arc flame.”
We are impressed.
“So why I tell you to look? Now you know how bright is it? Don’t worry, little image inside your eyeball will disappear. You will not stare again, no?”
We all murmur, Uh-uh!”
“You want be welder? First thing is learn it’s hard job, dirty and dangerous. Things can fall on you and if you get by one week without you get burned, you one lucky son of a bitch.”
He went on and on. It went on and on. I learned it up close and personal. Now I’m fifteen years a welder and I head up the class. Gates retired a V-P and Jake’s the GM now. Nam is history. I don’t talk like the Frenchman, but I never forget the story about the day I got here and I never forget to tell the trainees what Jake told my class, “The color of the flame is important, but not as important as the bite.”