Sunday, October 2, 2011

A mentor

In the summers somewhere around my freshman and sophomore years of college, I did building maintenance work in the Jefferson mill building in Manchester, NH.  If you've driven through Manchester and past its mile of century-old textile mill buildings along the Amoskeag river, you've seen it.  The Jefferson is the one with the clock.

My father worked for a technology company that occupied the third floor of the Jefferson through the 80s and 90s.  I'd sleep on the ride in with him in the mornings, labor through the day, and sleep on the ride home.
I'd paint, fix plumbing, sweep, repair windows, put down baseboard, sweep, sweep, sweep; you name it.

One week they had me remove the side sashes from all the windows on the fourth floor, cut the pull ropes for the granite window weights, and stack the removed weights on a kart. At the end of the week, I rolled that cart into a dark, damp corner of the basement where I'm sure it still rests.

I developed my skills of "driving" the light-duty internal freight elevator.  'Old Pete' taught me how to operate its rope controls and time its motion to stop even with the floor.  We once had a repair to make and Old Pete took me into the control room at the top with a special tool box.  The six inch leather belt that ran from the General Electric motor (I looked at the manufacturer's plate on the motor: 1928) to the gears and steel cables that drove the elevator had torn, so we had to graft on a fresh section of leather.  The tools were as specialized as the skill, and I'd doubt there are too many left anywhere that could repair such a mechanism without having to research first. 

Old Pete added to my understanding of how to do things.  He was a mentor.  He was probably all of 68 at the time, but to a green 18 year old that's pretty ancient and he had my respect.

Old Pete taught me how to paint.  "Hold the brush close, like a pencil, not way at the end of the handle.  It'll keep your hand from getting tired and give you more control," he said.  "Get some paint on your brush.  You can't paint with a dry brush," he explained.  "When you roll, use a dowel.  And all the way up and down; cover well and smooth, or you'll leave racing stripes."  I've used his advice on every wall I've painted.   "See these windows?" he asked, sweeping his arm, indicating the interior wall that was fully window paned and which marked off the maintenance headquarters in the basement of the mill building, "this week you're going to learn how to cut trim."  It was Mr. Myagi and 'paint the fence.' from The Karate Kid.  I can cut and glaze a window like nobody's business.

During a hot week in August, Old Pete and I headed to the boiler room to clean the boiler tubes.  "You might want to wear shorts tomorrow."  He directed, I labored.  Hose the tubes down.  Ram the steel brushes in. Push and pull to scrub.  Pull them back out.  Sweat.  Next tube.  I don't remember how many tubes there were, but they were a good five inches in diameter and probably fifteen to twenty feet long.

Old Pete was a veteran of WWII; served in the Pacific if I remember correctly.  Told a very occasional story but mostly said "Ah, war is hell, war is hell."  On Fridays, my boss Stan would start the litany:
  - Pickin' up some beer on the way home, Pete?
  - Not beer, Michelob.
  - What are you doing this weekend, Pete?
  - Painting another room for my wife.
  - See you Monday, Pete.

My father said Pete came with the building when his company came in; jested that Pete might have been there from the beginning.  I wouldn't be surprised to come across him today, sitting on that cart of window weights, enjoying not a beer, but a Michelob.

There is a fascinating book, "Amoskeag" made from numerous interviews conducted in the late 1970s, that documents the establishment, rise, and decline of the industry and mills from the memories of employees all along the chain, from dye workers to management.  They didn't talk with Old Pete, but as I read stories from old foremen, from laborers, from those that lived in the row houses up the hill to Elm Street, or those who were on the Franco-Canadien West Side, I couldn't help but think of Old Pete, and what a long portion of those mill buildings's history he was.

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