Monday, January 2, 2017

Nobody told me about ball hitches

When you try to write every day, you need inspiration. Sometimes it comes easy and sometimes it doesn't come at all. And sometimes it comes from unexpected sources.

One of the Christmas gifts I received last week was a book about a pivotal time in the history of Detroit. I began reading it last night. Chapter One among other things spoke about the Ford Rouge plant, an industrial complex which was the largest in the world at the time the book takes place, the early 1960s. It turns out that I know a bit about the Rouge, having had first hand experience with it. Why, in fact, it describes how I almost dropped one of Grandpa Joe's welders into the canal slip between the steel mill and the frame plant there.

The Rouge, you see, had I think 11 different plants in its complex. I know the frame plant, Dearborn Assembly, the steel mill, and the glass plant. This is just to offer you a taste of how ol' Henry Ford tried to put the entire assembly process in one spot. The canal slip was a long artificial river dredged deep enough that large ocean going freighters could moor within it for loading and unloading. On the day in question, I remember quite definitely, The Benson Ford was docked right near the incident I intend to describe.

Grandpa Joe rented arc welding machines. Many of them could be towed to a job site. You likely saw them and thought they were air compressors. He rented many of them to Henry's minions. He assigned them each of a number of his own. He made the mistake of one day sending my 16 year old self to pick one up after its services were no longer required.

This particular one had a ball hitch. I had never dealt with one of those before; every other machine I had handled, we just slipped a 5/8 bolt between the the holes in the 'tongue' (a U beam with a U hook at the end) dropped through a hole in the hitch of whatever vehicle you were given at the time, mostly cars, and 'locked' two nuts against one another (you'd screw both nuts up against each other and lock them by taking two crescent wrenches, turning the top one clockwise and the other counterclockwise as hard as you could to 'lock' them into one another). Consequently, no one ever told me that with a ball hitch you must turn a handle on the tongue of a unit (with a cap being slid onto a 1-3/4 or 2 inch steel ball bolted onto your car's hitch) in order to secure it to the towing vehicle. The ball was in place of the hole where you'd have put the 5/8 bolt. I simply slipped the ball hitch over the ball and figured I was okay.

And I was okay, until I was cruising along at around 25 miles per hour on the service road next to the canal slip. Suddenly I felt my old Chevy Suburban (irony in itself) jump, as though a load had lifted off it. Old number Ninety One; I knew it by heart, I did, the number old Joe had assigned it. I instinctively looked into my rear view mirror and saw that the welder had jumped off the ball and was sliding right towards the canal slip.

I cannot accurately describe to you the panic which coursed within my young brain at the moment of that realization. I was going to drop one of Joe's welders into the canal slip at the Rouge. I was going to have to call him myself and tell him that, with the sound of emergency vehicles shouting in the background, HASMAT teams surely on their way to contain the gasoline pouring from the welder's fuel tank into the water. An explosion would certainly exclaimate the event.

Fortunately, that did not happen. The welder stopped within 18 inches of the slip, and a kindhearted soul who witnessed it all came to the aid of the ignorant young boy and helped him hitch the unit properly to his Suburban. That sorry young teen then returned it to the old barn without further incident, and to this day without his Grandpa Joe nor Pops learning of the close call.

If that youngster goes to Hell, it will not be from having dropped a Hobart Welder into the canal slip at the Ford Rouge.

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