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November 27th, 2013 ~ Vol. 83 No. 46
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
A Summer Student’s Memories
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Herald Contributor Photo
The old and new tipples at Coleman.
In a few months university, college and high school students will be once again on the hunt for summer jobs. They will be looking for a break from the college routine and a chance to make enough money for next year’s tuition, books, rent and food so they can carry on their education.
One of the most lucrative opportunities to do that is at the coal mines. The tradition of summer student labor there goes back for decades and for me brings back some interesting memories of my student days in the 1960s. This was back in the time when tuitions were a great deal lower than now and the promise of a "job" after graduating was more likely.
There is one summer that stands out in my mind as a particularly interesting one when I worked as a student "greaser" in the old preparation plant in Coleman. That plant has long since disappeared and so has its more modern replacement which was unceremoniously torn down this summer. The memories of working in that worn out old plant that leaked coal from every preparatory stage remain fresh in my mind.
As a greaser it was my responsibility to find and pump grease into every bearing, roller or moving part in that plant that required it, once a shift. I packed a pair of large stainless steel grease guns and had a complicated route I followed each day. My grease gun home base was next to a piece of machinery known as a Baum jig, a device that used water and gravity to separate coal from rock. The 'Jig" accomplished this by pumping air into a coal/water mixture in the vessel using three giant pistons that were driven by a single shaft that they were attached to. The piston arms were attached by offset cams so that an up and down motion was achieved and my job was to walk a plank over top of this menacing, pulsing mixture of coal, rock and water and try to attach my grease gun to nipples on the cams while they were still rotating!
I'll never forget my first attempt at “walking the plank” and needless to say I did not look down. I imagine a Workman’s Compensation Inspector would have had a heart attack today if he had seen some of the precarious positions and places I found myself, trying to get at those ever elusive grease nipples. There was even one end of a conveyor that I could only get to by swinging on a rope over to it! I guess I was a sort of greasy Tarzan and greasy I was. I eventually became completely waterproof, my work clothes so saturated with grease that water ran off me like a duck's back. Varsol was my friend back then and I religiously cleaned myself and my guns at shift's end. My cross shift was a cranky old bear who kept his area and himself spotless and saw me as a hopeless case; a messy student bonehead who, hopefully, would go away, back to college so he could normalize his routine.
Being young and energetic I usually completed my rounds with time to spare and thus found myself with time to explore every nook of that ancient preparation plant or tipple as they were called back then. Suffice to say it had some wonderfully dark and mysterious places. Attached to the cleaning plant was another massive structure that had long stood idle and provided me with many hours of entertainment. It was the briquette plant, an addition to the cleaning process that allowed the company to utilize the coal fines or "slack", a product of cleaning coal that was otherwise wasted back then. That plant had giant mixing bins where coal fines and heated tar were blended and run through rotating presses that formed neat briquettes of coal that could be used domestically in coal stoves and furnaces.


Once natural gas swept through town the market for briquettes disappeared and that plant was shut down. The prep plant then reverted to loading the slack into trucks and hauling it away. It was on one of my exploring junkets into this dusty mining castle that an opportunity presented itself that I could not ignore. I found myself at the very top of the old briquette plant one afternoon, ten stories up, with a slack bin loader working directly below me on the tracks at the loading bin. The “slacker” was a guy named Joe Aiello, an engineering student working, like myself, at the plant to earn next year’s tuition.
Well it seems that there was this old giant 220 volt light bulb laying at my feet then that had Joe’s name written all over it. Just for effect I broke off the bulb’s threaded end and filled the bulb with coal dust fines that had settled on the plants I-beams through the years. I first let a couple of tiny pieces of coal drop from my location to test my accuracy and then when Joe stepped into the target area and stopped it was bombs away.
The bulb hit his hard hat dead center and exploded like a small bomb sending coal dust downwards around him in a reverse mushroom cloud that was from my vantage point, pure poetry. Joe took off down the tracks at a dead run stunned by the attack and when he finally stopped running he glanced up and realized that the "Hunchback" of the Coleman briquette plant has struck again.
The rest of that summer passed quickly and as I was just finishing my last night shift before returning to college that I noticed an unusual sight. Two electricians were using an old canvas first-aid stretcher to carry a large electric motor out of the plant. When I asked what had happened they informed me that some "bright boy" had attached a grease nipple to a hole in that motor and that it was so full of grease it couldn't rotate anymore. I winced and said with some authority: "I wonder who the bonehead was that could do something that stupid" and then promptly slunk away to the showers. How was I to know that a nipple didn't belong there? I was just a bonehead student!
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November 27th, 2013 ~ Vol. 83 No. 46
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