Strike an Arc

Several years ago, actually, many years ago, I worked as a welder. In those days I was doing everything that I could to make myself valuable in the work force. Sitting and doing the same thing over and over again day after day was not for someone like me. I tend to get bored very easily. And receiving the same paycheck every week wasn’t helping things either. I was motivated.

The company I was working for at the time was a manufacturer of heavy equipment. They hired me as an electrician and a nuts and bolts person. At that time I did whatever I had to do to earn a living for my kids and myself. Data entry and accounting type jobs wouldn’t pay enough. Welding, on the other hand, would make me more valuable to my employer so I went to a local technical school and enrolled in a welding course.

The welding class met Tuesday and Thursday evenings in the summer. Borrowing a welding mask and some welding gloves from work, I set off for class each week. It was after a couple of sessions that I was able to strike an arc and create a puddle of metal at the end of the welding rod.

Soon, I could tack weld and stitch seams: Square butt joint, V butt joint, Lap joint and T-joint. I learned oxyacetylene welding, brazing, arc welding, MIG welding and TIG welding. And, I learned how to handle a blow torch (oxyfuel cutting). To cut through slabs of metal: turn the acetylene on, ignite and then turn the oxygen on, adjust the flame and then slowly pull the torch though the metal. When I was done cutting, I shut off the oxygen first and then the acetylene. Blowing through 1” thick metal plate made me feel like superwoman with super heated vision.

After my first night of class I came home and looked in the mirror. The area of my skin that was not covered by my welding mask, the gauntlet gloves and my shirt was lobster red. I was terribly sunburned from the light of the arc welding corona. I went back to class covered up.

Later, on the job, I wore coveralls, leather sleeves and a welding cap, turned backward. When one of those hot sparks went down my shirt I would jump up and down trying to get it out of my clothes. Even though I did cover up, I still have small white burn spots on my arms and neck from welding spatter that found its way around my protective gear.

Welding had its difficult moments. Imagine arc welding metal plating on a 90 deg. Chicago summer day completely covered head to toe. Yet, as a welder I was paid more. I had more negotiating power in my hand’s muscle memory. This brings me to the reason why I am reminded of my welding days.

Riding on the train to my current job, I am reading a compilation of short stories titled, New Stories from the South, 2009: The Year’s Best edited by Madison Smart Bell, copyright 2009. The first story I come across is Muscle Memory by Katherine Karlin.

It surprised me that someone was writing about welding and describing the process so accurately. It also surprised me that it was a woman who wrote the story from her own experience.

You don’t have to be a welder to enjoy the story of Destiny becoming a welder (and not just a tacker). Its also a personal story about victims of Hurricane Katrina – a story about challenging yourself in the midst of challenging circumstances. A good read and a good work ethos for anyone.