Chapter 6 – Steele Family Returns to Cobalt
In the early spring of 1956, with the lumber business declining in Northern California and with all my Dad’s logging equipment idle, he started looking for a job. When he could not find a local job he called to see if there were any jobs open at the Blackbird Mine. Yes, they were looking for a swing shift cat skinner, as they were clearing a mountain top for the new open pit site. Dad contacted the Walt Lea’s to see if he could stay with them for a few months, and left for Cobalt on the bus. Walt was to pick him up in Challis in two days. He wrote home in May and told my mother that he had rented a house next to the Virgil and Hazel Schofield. It was just down the street from our old log house covered with brown shingles on Lot 25.
The bad news for my Mom was that Dad was not coming home to help us move, once school was out in June. It would be up to Mom to rent a trailer, put what she could in the trailer and come to Cobalt. I was sixteen and old enough to drive, but was not confident to be pulling the trailer, so Mom drove all the way pulling the rented trailer with Grandpa George’s Green Chevy Two Door. Grandma did not drive and she gave the green Chevy to the family when Grandpa Steele died in the Spring of 1954.
We left early on a beautiful spring day in June. We headed for Idaho with my two brothers, a siamese cat named Mean Tu and our Lewellen Setter, Freckles. We made an over night stop in Wells, then drove on to Cobalt the next day, over the Morgan Creek Pass down Panther Creek and into Cobalt.
The trip was uneventful until we reached Mt Borah. Mom stopped along side State Route 93 for my brothers and I to water bush and let Freckles stretch his legs. We had all tanked up with some large cokes at a gas station in Arco. Mom, knowing how far we had to go, declined more than a sip from our Cokes. With in moments after the car door opened, Freckles jumped out, flushing a jackrabbit hiding in the sage brush behind the cattle fence. Freckles went through the fence snagging his leg on the barbed wire, but he never stopped. He was going to catch that jack rabbit. The last we saw of Freckles was his tail, as he and the rabbit headed for Mt Borah. We took turns calling Freckles, but he did not come back. After a half an hour or so, Mom said, “We have to go, we have, to get to Cobalt by tonight, your Dad is expecting us. We all started crying. My brother Bob refused to get in the car, he as going to go looking for Freckles and started to climb over the fence. Mom grabbed his arm and demanded he get in the car. With two sulking boys in the back seat and me staring out the windshield, silent tears running down my cheeks, Mom pulled out on State Route 93. I just could not imagine all the things that were going to happen to Freckles all alone in the desert, with coyotes and mountain lions roaming through the mountains.
We had not gone more than 500 feet when Freckles came dashing out of the sage brush and up on the the berm, with blood smeared on the white fur of his right back leg. The joy of seeing that dog was fantastic. We all start hollering “Stop the car, Stop the car.” At first Mom did not see Freckles, and she thought we were still carrying on and kept driving. Bob tried to open the door and jump out. Mom stopped, and in the rear view mirror, I could see Freckles standing by the side of the road with a confused look. We had driven right by him. With the car stopped, he came limping up the road to the car and crawled into the back seat with my brothers. They warped up his torn leg with a damp wash rag we had been using to wipe the sweat off our faces.
We arrived in Cobalt in the early evening and started unloading the trailer into the house in this picture. Mom loved the white picket fence and the clothes line in the back yard. Dad had bought a washing machine for the garage, to help Mom with the transition back to Cobalt. She had left her dream house back in California, and it was not an easy transition.
A couple of days after we got settled, our next door neighbor, Virgil “Windy” Schofield came over to welcome us, and give us a warning. The Schofield’s had a small black and white terrier. When “Windy” came into the house through the garage screen door, this dog followed him into the kitchen. We were all standing around, Mom offered him coffee, but he declined. “I saw your cat sitting on the fence,” he said, “I have come to warn you that my dog is a cat killer. I’ll not be responsible if he kills your cat.” The words had not bounced off the walls when there was huge commotion, as the dog made a dash for the door. “What the hell was that,” hollered Dad. Looking behind “Windy” I could see a hole in the screen on the screen door, as it banged closed.
Mean Tu, our siamese cat, had been sitting on a kitchen chair under the table cloth. She had jumped on the terrier’s back and rode it right through the back door screen. It happened so fast we did not even see it happen. As we all went into the back yard to see what had happened, Mean Tu was sauntering back into the garage. I swear to this day with a grin on her puss. She was called Mean Tu for a reason. The meanest toughest cat we ever owned.
“That cat tried to kill my dog,” said “Windy.” “Well I did not have time to tell you that my cat is a dog killer,”said Dad, going back into the house, and “Windy” went looking for his dog.
A few hours later we heard our neighbor calling his dog. He was between the two houses, kneeling down by the 4”x4” vent hole in the foundation of his house. After a while he gave up and left a bowl of food and water outside the vent hole. It as about two days, or maybe three, before the “cat killer” came out from under the house. The little dog had used the vent hole to scrape Mean Tu off its back. For the next year, Mean Tu stayed in her yard, often sitting on the picket fence railing in the sun, daring the Schofield’s terrier to come closer. But, the “cat killer” rarely left the house when Mean Tu was in the yard. One day she just vanished. We never knew if the cat killer got his revenge, or something else happened. Mean Tu was just gone.
A couple of days after our arrival, my brother Bob came home and announced that he had a job at the IGA Market.
“Doing what,” I asked.
“Sweeping up,” he said.
Not to be out done, I went down the street to the IGA and asked if they had any more jobs.
“We could use someone to clean up in the meat department,” said the manager.
I soon learned to hate the meat department, scraping the bits of bone and meat out of the band saw, washing the knives, cleavers and hand saws in soapy water, mopping the floors, and swabbing out the meat case. While this was distasteful, the part that haunts me to this day was grinding hamburger. All the meat scraps went in the hamburger, including any cereal or powdered milk from the packages that were inadvertently opened on the shelves or got holes poked in the box or bag.
Mom never quite understood my adverse reaction to burgers from the market. However, I was saved before the summer was over, the butcher quit and the meat department was closed for the rest of the summer until a new butcher could be hired. Packaged meat was shipped in from Salmon the rest of the summer and put in the display case. I took over managing the produce counter after my bother Bob was fired. He was responsible for keeping the bins full and the produce organized in the cooler case.
All the store help wore aprons with a pocket which held the grease pencil we used for marking wrapped packages and bags. My brother Bob had a running battle with a lady who was pinching the tomatoes, leaving them blemished. One day the lady came to him with a dozen eggs, demanding a cracked egg be replaced, and she did not like the color of another egg. He took the carton of eggs into the cooler where the bulk egg cartons were stored. He took his grease pencil and drew on two of the eggs.
My recreation of the egg picture.
The next day the lady returned to the store, and demanded to speak to the manager. She showed him the two eggs and demanded Bob be punished. The lady was the Mine Managers wife, Mrs. Douglas, and it was agreed that Bob would be fired.
I was now in charge of the produce counter. The task I hated the most was preparing the lettuce for display. It came to Cobalt in large boxes from California. Sometimes, I wondered if it had come all the way in un-refrigerated trucks. Some times when I opened the box, it was just full of green slime and I had to stick my hand in this slime and feel for anything solid. If a solid object was found, I fished it out, washed it in the sink and pealed away a few slime tinted leaves in the hope it still looked like a edible head of lettuce.
“These are sure small heads,” remarked customers.
More than once the lettuce boxes spent too much time in the unrefrigerated truck parked in the sun somewhere along the Route 93 and the box was only slime, there was nothing solid in the box.
One of the other store helpers, who shall remain unnamed, found a nefarious use for the slime filled boxes. Boxes that everyone avoided before they went out back of the store to be picked up by the garbage collector. The helper wrapping fishing tackle in tinfoil and placing it in the slime filled boxes, picking up the shop lifted property that night.
This theft was going on right under my nose. I learned about it from my brother Bob, who was now working as a pin setter in the bowling alley, when he put in a request. He wanted me to put a hunting knife he had spied in the store in some trash to go out back. I refused. “Everyone is doing it,” he said, and explained how others were shop lifting items from the IGA. Now what to do? Report the theft to the manager, stay quiet, or quit my job?
My Dad had given up his cat skinner job, bidding on the Recreation Hall manager’s job which was open. He was looking for someone to clean the bowling alleys and do some pin setting on bowling league nights. So, I quit working at the IGA. I told the manager he needed to pay more attention to the trash, some good stuff was going out with the trash. He said he was aware of the problem, but was watching to catch the crook in the act.
There were no automate pin setting machines in the four lane bowling alley in the Recreation Hall. The pin setters had to pick up and return the ball and pick up and rack the pins waiting for the second ball before setting the pins for the next bowler. It was tedious hot work, and if we were not careful we could be hit by flying pins, or a rebounding ball thrown too hard.
One night near closing the bowling alley my brothers Bob and Ron and Bob Wiederrick, or one of his brothers were shooting pool, when a couple of really drunk guys came down from the Bar on the second floor. They wanted to bowl. “Too close to closing,” the clerk said, “Not enough time.’ They insisted and offered an extra five bucks for the pin setter. Bob, who had just finishing a set agreed to set the pins. He was tired and a bit slow, and got hit by a pin when the bowler picked up a seven ten split.
One of the drunk bowlers thought it was funny, and started throwing the ball harder and harder hoping to make the pins fly up to hit Bob sitting above the pit. One time he rolled a second ball while Bob was still in the pit picking up the pins. The next time that guy bowled, after the first ball, Bob coughed up the biggest hocker he could and spit it in the thumb hole in the ball.
Walking up to the return ball rack, the guy picked up his ball, and Bob headed for the back door of the Rec Hall. Squish! The guy swore and hurled the ball over his head like shot putter down the alley and followed it up, running toward the pin setting pits. There was just enough room to squeeze between the wall and the number one alley. He came storming out of the pits, into the the pool room screaming, “where is that son of a bitch, I am going kill him.” I bounded up the stairs to the bar when Dad was getting ready to close. “They are going to kill Bob,” I shouted, and started back down the stairs. Dad grabbed the sawed off pool stick he kept under the bar to resolve rowdy bar fights, and followed me downstairs.
All the exertion was taking its toll and the drunk bowler was getting woozy, stumbling along the wall, knocking down some pool sticks. When Dad appeared, he said, “We are closed, leave. Get out!” They left, grumbling about “killing the bastard when we catch him.” But, they never saw what he looked like. He was still in the pits finishing the last set when they got their shoes.
The first weekend after we arrived in Cobalt, I was standing in our front yard admiring a dipole antenna I had just built for my Hallicrafters S-53A short wave receiver with two sticks nailed to the eves, a single strand of blasting wire on insulators between them, with TV twin lead to connect the radio. A couple of days earlier Walt Lea, who had been our next-door neighbor when Mom and Dad built our first house in Cobalt, had given me a spool of yellow blasting wire, which is used in the Mine to connect blasting caps to the detonator.
“If anyone asks where you got this, tell’em you found it. Stuff is always falling off trucks around here,” prompted Walt. I had brought the TV lead from my California antenna farm. My first paycheck from my summer job the year before went toward my short wave radio.
A green pickup truck slowed and Walt called from his company truck, “Got time for a ride? He had a big grin on his round face, a twinkle shining through his wire-rimmed glasses under the brim of his white painters cap, a Glidden Oval above the bill. I often wondered why an electrician wore a painters cap, but never asked.
“Tell your Mom we will be back in about an hour. We’ve got to get going.”
“Where we going,” I asked?
“You’ll see,” said Walt.
Getting in the pickup, we headed up Panther Creek toward Blackbird Creek past the Panther Creek Inn, summer dust billowing behind us on the gravel road.
“You hearing anything on your radio,” asked Walt?
“Texas country music sometimes. LA station after midnight.” I said. Radio reception in the canyon bottom depended on sky wave reflection, there were no local stations.
Our destination took another mysterious turn at the sawmill, below the tailings dam, where the southern fork of Blackbird Creek enters the main stream. Crossing on a rickety wooden bridge, we started up a road my Dad carved out of the mountain side in the summer of 1951. Dad was logging Douglas fir for mine timbers at the time
“What’s up here,” I asked?
“You’ll see.” Walt teased.
We continued up the steep rutted dirt road, the back wheels spinning as we bounced over small washouts, climbing higher and higher up the mountainside. My hand on the door handle, should we plunge over the edge and roll down the rock-strewn slope.
“You wouldn’t know anything about the street lights?” asked Walt.
“Somebody is shooting street lights. I saw your guns the day you moved in,” explained Walt.
“Not me,” I said. Hoping it was not one of my brothers.
We reached the ridge top, bouncing toward an opening in the trees, a gentle sloping rocky clearing with some grass clinging to the poor soil. As we reached a sloping open area Walt stopped the pickup and walked toward the open field.
“Come on,” called Walt over a flannel-clad shoulder.
Getting out, I followed him into the open area.
“What do you think of this antenna?” said Walt, sweeping his arm in a ninety-degree arc.
In the clearing stood some lodge pole posts, in an elongated diamond pattern, about one hundred feet on a side. Each post, almost three feet taller than Walt, holding up a single strand of reclaimed Forest Service telephone wire, solid copper on ceramic insulators. From one end of the antenna, two twisted copper wires, separated by two inch plastic spacers, looped toward a wooden hut at the edge of the clearing.
“It is a rhombic array tuned to Channel 3 in Idaho Falls,” explained Walt, with great pride in his voice, pointing in the direction of KID’s antenna on Twin Butte 150 miles away. “The Community Club, paid for some volunteers to put it up. I’ll tell you how it works after I check the generator oil, it’s almost five,” said Walt. “News comes on at 5.”
This was the first time I knew that TV had come to Cobalt.
Walt hitched up his whipcord slacks and set out for the hut, with me close behind, breathing hard in the thin air at 7,700 feet. At the hut, I looked for Cobalt in the meadow along Panther Creek, several thousand feet below us, but the tips of down slope firs blocked any clear view.
In the hut was a propane-powered generator, auto batteries, TV amplifier on a shelf with big glass tubes on an open aluminum chassis, a TV cable leading outside to the aluminum yagi TV antenna pointed down at Cobalt. A propane gas bottle leaned against the shed.
“On at five in time for the news, off by ten,” explained Walt as he wound the spring driven clock which would cut off the engine at ten o’clock, Walt checking the oil before starting the generator. “The guy hired by the Club to start the generator is off this weekend,” he said, “His sister is getting married.”
The home built antenna and amplifier captured KID’s TV signal, boosted the power, and then re-broadcast the signal into the remote canyon below. It was Cobalt’s window to world affairs, the Cold War, turmoil in Africa, and national politics. It also brought family entertainment to homes on long winter nights; Jackie Gleason, Milton Beryl, and I Love Lucy, were all family favorites. In the bunkhouses and in many homes, it brought prize fights, wrestling and base ball games into very rural homes in the Salmon National Forest.
Doing research for the book, I learned that bringing TV to Cobalt changed the towns social patterns. I will cover the struggle to keep the TV translator working and it’s social impact, in a future chapter when I explore Cobalt’s entertainment venues.
Chapter 7 – Working in the Open Pit
In the rear view mirror I could see my shiny new hard hat holding down a couple of inches of damp dust in the middle of the open pit haul road. I had just bought the hat with my first paycheck, to replace the beat up one my Dad had loaned me. Over the crest of the hill black diesel smoke was shooting into the sky as old number 1268 struggled up the hill. My shiny new hat was going to be a flat aluminum saucer if I did not recover it before the “Pig” behind the wheel topped the hill and rolled down on to the open pit’s spoils dump.
The “Pig” was one of the Euclid drivers. He had a wide nose on a round florid face, and was known to have a real mean streak. I was sure he would relish running over my hat with his twenty ton crushing machine, then telling the crew all about his success in the Suburban on the way back to town at end of our shift. I twisted the steering wheel of the surplus Army 4×4 hard to the left, circling back to pick up my brand new hardhat. Out of the front window my world started to tilt in slow motion. The sky out the passenger side window slowly disappeared, replaced by brown dirt. I gripped the wheel hard and slammed my feet to the floor, bracing for the impact. I was rolling over!
As the truck stopped moving, water spilled out of the water tank on the back of the truck. I groped for the ignition switch in the dust filled cab, killing the engine. I scrambled out of the open drivers side window, and headed for my new hat, scooping it up just as the “Pig” and his crushing machine crested the hill and started to pick up speed, rolling toward the dump point as old number 1268 kicking up a trail of dust. I continued up the hill toward the shop, looking for the day shift foreman Don McGowan, or Ted Maestretti, Isbell’s Open Pit Supervisor. I met Manny the engineer coming across the shop yard.
“What was all that noise?” Manny asked.
“Rolled the water truck,” I stammered.
Manny took me to the Office, a trailer parked next to the shop, and started asking questions.
“Are you OK?”
“Where do you hurt?”
“Want some water?”
“I am OK,” I said.
“Stay here, I am going to find Ted,” said Manny, moving to the door and disappearing across the shop yard.
I did not hurt any where, just a bit confused. But, as I sat down on a stool in front of the drawing table covered with plans and drawings, I suddenly realized I am about to be fired. We all had been warned on hiring day, “damage the equipment and your fired.”
Ted came in the door of the trailer, asking the same questions Maney did.
“Do you hurt any where,”
“Do you need a doctor?”
“No, I am OK,” I said. Waiting for those fateful words, “your fired.”
Manny came in with my lunch box out of the water truck. He had been surveying the damage. Ted went to find Don McGowan. I ate my lunch while Manny watched, and I told him about working in the Engineering Office at the Empire Mine in Grass Valley, California, before coming to Idaho. After lunch I could see Ted and Don conferring in the yard outside the trailer. McGowan came to the trailer door and called me out. He told me where to find a grease gun in the maintenance shop and to go clean the treads, and grease the rollers on a D-4 Cat parked on the other side of the shop. Something for me to do until the shift change.
The crew rode to the open pit in two nine passenger GMC Suburban. My ride down the mountain was most uncomfortable, my neck turning red as the crew teased me about my lack of driving skills, and having to eat dust until a replacement water truck arrived. Manny, who was driving came to my defense, but the crew did not stop teasing me. When I got out in front of my house, no one said anything about my being fired.
Later that evening, Ted came by our house. He lived just up the street and around the corner, to see if I was still OK? When he came to the front door, Mom invited him in for coffee, as we were still at the dinner table. I just knew the ax was about to fall. Ted pulled up Dad’s empty chair, and smiled. “Your now on the evening shift, drillers helper,” he said. I had escaped being fired, and I was not about to ask why.
I do not remember the driller’s name, he was a tall lanky guy, topped by a hard hat with big ding and some scratches. He always wore gray coveralls, with a wipe rag in the right back pocket and a 12 inch Crescent wrench in the left. Under his coveralls, he wore a crisp khaki shirt with a pocket protector and a pencil.
The drill was mounted on tracks, with the compressor at one end and the drill tower at the other end. The air, winch and drive motor controls were on the left side. Lights hung on the drill tower. Before it got dark, the driller showed me how to change the bit, and where to stand when he was bringing up the drill stem. I was to shovel the rock chips that were blown out of the hole by compressed air used to cool the bit, keep the rig fueled, oil levels checked and mechanical parts greased.
Shortly after starting the first hole of the day, I was shoveling away the chips and dust, when the driller leaned over, and got up real close to my ear. “Don’t throw that stuff too far, we’er going to need it later,” he shouted over the roar of the engine driving the compressor. The only time we could talk was at lunch, or when changing the bits, which were three rotary wheels, studded with carbon tips. We changed the dill bit about once every ten holes, depending on how hard the rock was.
After two weeks on the night shift we switched to days when the day shift driller quit, or was fired, I cannot remember which. Two crews could drill faster than the single shovel and trucks could carry it away, so Ted requested a second shovel. We drilled a pattern of twenty holes, about ten feet apart, in three rows. Once the last hole was drilled, we moved the drill back a hundred yards, and prepared the holes for blasting. One and one half bags of nitrogen fertilizer down each hole, pouring 3 gallons of diesel on top of the fertilizer. Then we cut six inches from a three foot long, three inch diameter, tube of high explosives with a pocket knife. With a philips screw driver we poked a hole through the wall of the tube in the center. Then we fed the primer cord through the hole, wrapped it once around the tube and tied it in a square knot. We lowered the explosives down the hole on the remaining end of the primer cord, then filled the hole with the chips and dust created by the drill. Each hole was then linked with more primer cord using square knots at each junction, bringing the cord from each chain of holes to a central point.
Primer cord on a roll:
Sending me back to the drill rig, the driller took an electrical blasting cap and taped it to the primer cord ends with black electrical tape, then rolled the blasting wire back to a detonator behind the drill rig. With the shovel pulled back, the haul trucks parked on the approach road, the all clear was given for the driller to shove down the plunger on the detonator box.
detonator box sketch
The whole hillside lifted up six to ten feet and fell back down, dust shooting into the sky, small rocks raining down on us. Now, I knew how the drillers hat many have got so many dings. After a safety check by the forman, the shovel moved back to scoop up the muck and load it on the Euclid haul trucks. This cycle was repeated hundreds, if not thousands of times, to scrape out the side of the mountain.
(picture of open pit)
A second shovel was brought in from Reno, Nevada to speed up the removal of the overlay so the miners could get to the cobalt and copper ledges below. When the second shovel arrived, I was assigned to be the oiler on the night shift. It was the most scariest job I ever held, moving about the shovel with all its slapping cables, squeaking brakes, swinging back and forth as it loaded the trucks. One could easily be crushed in the dark. I was always greasing, tending and cleaning up with the D-4 Cat around the shovel when the spillage make spotting the trucks difficult. At lunch time I climbed the boom and greased the pulleys. I was glad to give up my oiler’s job, when we moved to Pocatello in October of 1957. The reason for the move will be covered in another chapter.
I always wondered why I was not fired and the progression of my jobs in the open pit, from water truck driver, to driller’s helper and then shovel oiler in just a few months. I asked Ted when I interview him for this book. He said, that water truck tank did not have the required baffles, and I should have been warned about making fast turns, thus the roll over was not all my fault. I thought my move from driller’s helper to shovel oiler was a safety issue, not wanting an eighteen year old to be handling explosives. But, Ted explained that the path to shovel operator was to be an oiler, and I was expected to learn how to operate the shovel. Shovel operators were the highest paid, just behind the foreman, it was the most demanding job on the site. He explained I was selected to be oiler, because he thought I was smart enough to be a shovel operator someday. What a surprise, it had never occurred to me at the time that I was being groomed to be a shovel operator.
One summer between college semesters, I was a backhoe operator for a contractor installing a sewer system in Big Piney, Wyoming. It is a very satisfying job. At the end of the day I could see how may feet of new ditch I had dug during the shift. Over time, I learned techniques to improve my efficiency as an operator, looking for another foot or two more of ditch each day, depending on how hard the ground was. I suspect being a shovel operator would be similar, seeking efficiency and keeping track of how may truck loads one could produce each day.
If I had stayed on at the open pit much longer, I would have been required to join the Union. I am not sure if it was the same Union that the miners belong to, or if it was the heavy equipment operators Union. I was exempt, classified as a college student doing summer work.
I was initially hired by Isbell to dig trenches for trailer park sewer pipes, right after graduating from high school. They had started a small trailer park just off the road at the south end of the town site on the west side of Panther Creek. As the work force grew more people brought their trailers with them, as there was no temporary housing. Each trailer required a power, water and sewer connection. My brother Bob and I were hired to dig the trenches for the water lines and the sewer pipes. Once we had finished the sewer project, I asked Ted Maestretti, if Isbell had any work I could do at the mine. Telling him I had worked in the Engineering Office and the yard at the Empire Mine in Grass Valley.
“How old are you,” he ask.
“Nineteen in July,” I said.
“Nothing right now, but we are expecting a water truck any day now,” said Ted. “Can you drive a truck.”
“I drove dump truck at the Empire,” I said.
A couple of days later, Ted came by the house and said the to be on the street in front of the house at 7AM with a hardhat. He was expecting the water truck to be delivered from Reno the next day. It was a good thing, as the truck drivers were complaining about the summer dust that was enveloping the haul roads in the open pit.
Before I arrived on the scene, a small earthen dam had been built on Big Flat Creek. The road to the dam was not much more than a trail created in the woods by a bulldozer. You can see on the map it is only recommended for 4 wheel drive vehicles today.
(map to the dam site)
Just prior to the dam there was a large prospect cut, where a bulldozer had been used to cut a trench through the over burden to get to the underlying rock formation. I think, it may have also been a diamond drilling site. You had to drive around the prospect pit to get to the dam. On the dam was small gas powered pump. You had to wind and then pull the starter rope to get the pump stated. Sometimes the pump was hard start. The input hose went into the water and on the other side I had to drag the hose up to an opening in the top of the water tank. It seemed to take forever for the tank to fill, with the small pump. The Euclid drivers thought so too.
One day Don McGowan hid his Suburban in the prospect cut. I had seen vehicle tracks in the dust on the road to the dam, and I was surprised not seeing any vehicles at the dam site. I thought maybe the engineers were doing some more prospecting in the wood and driven off the road. It was mid morning and I was getting a snack out of my lunch box, when I sensed someone watching me.
“Are you sleeping on the job,” hollered McGowan?
“Getting a snack,” I stammered.
“Well get your butt out here and get the pump stated then eat your snack,” said McGowan. “The drivers think you’er sleeping on the job.”
I scrambled out of the truck and started the pump while McGowan watched, then he holler something I could not hear over the pump and disappeared into the trees. I saw more vehicle tracks on the road back to the open pit. From then on when I saw vehicle tracks, I paid close attention and got that pump started right away. I was also please to be on the dayshift. The nightshift forman, Ordy Lee’s son who was about my age drove the water truck on the nightshift. It was a scary place in the woods at night, especially in the winter time with the northern lights rippling across the sky.
When my Dad came back to Cobalt in the spring of 1956, he took a job as the swing shift cat skinner. He as clearing the trees and moving a much of the overburden rock formation. One night he could see this light shining through the tree to the north. The light kept coming closer and closer and then the whole sky light up, enough to read a newspaper he said. It was the northern lights.
I was telling Ted Maestretti about my encounter with Don McGowan, and how I came close to being fired for “sleeping on the job.” He shared a story about one of the water truck drivers and his encounter with a bear at the dam.
It was dusk, the sun was sinking behind the trees to the west, and the driver was having a hard time getting the pump stated. He had left the door of the new water truck open with his lunch box on the seat. After starting the pump, the driver returned to the truck. But a big bear was between him and the truck attacking his lunch box. The driver tried to scare the bear, but the bear was not giving up his new found lunch. Scared the driver left the pump running and took off across country for the open pit in the dark.
The night foreman, got concerned when the water truck did not return, and went to investigate. When he arrive the water truck was on the dam with the lights on, water pouring out of the tank and no driver. No sign of the bear, the lunch box, or the driver. Hours later the water truck driver stumbled out of the woods behind the open pit. He had made it through the woods in the dark, just by listening to the sounds of the mining operation for direction. He only last a week, and then he quit. He kept thinking the bear was waiting for him in the woods.
I only worked in the Open Pit from the end of June until the middle of October, but it was an experience that stayed with me all these years. In four months I learned how to roll a water truck, drive a D4 Cat, oil a mechanical shovel, and blow up mountains. Not a bad start for 19 year old, but I wanted to be an engineer and was looking forward to going to college.