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Volume 14, Issue 4: Ferro Equus


Brendan O'Donnel

Twenty feet long, and greasy with slippery black mold, the wet 2x12 lay on my shoulder, leaching pressure-treating chemicals onto my shirt. Guiding it in the Bay Area drizzle, from the soaked stack out in the driveway to the work area behind the posh dot-com millionaire housel, I felt like a ship captain maneuvering his oil tanker through the local yacht club. The thing was definitely not under my complete control. Two or three times as heavy as it would have been if dry, and with the mold lubricating my shoulder, the plank's movement took it well within bashing-distance of my supervisor's windshield. He had parked his truck right by the corner of the house I had to walk around to get the planks to the worksite out back. When piloting my vessel through that perilous strait, it was all I could do to keep the unruly wet battering ram on my shoulder from heaving itself into the front seat of the '87 Toyota.

Maybe it wouldn't have gone through, but I didn't want to risk it. Years before in a small railroad yard in Vermont, I had seen a bulkhead flatcar with a shifted lumber load of 2x6s. The engineer had clumsily coupled his engine to the car, and the improperly secured lumber packages had burst out of their restraints. Snapping the steel bands like dental floss, some had blasted apart into 2x6 splinters and lay scattered around the collision site. Others had shifted so violently that they had crashed into one of the reinforced steel bulkheads and bent it, destining the flatcar to languish useless on the siding for months until the guys at the repair shop had a go at it. Having seen what wood could do to a braced-steel bulkhead, I did not figure a few millimeters of glass and saran-wrap would welcome a glancing blow from the slimy, wily plank gliding about on my shoulder. I cat-stepped past the truck and the edge of the house, and cat-stepped some more, until I was absolutely sure the stern was clear and I could proceed to the worksite. Yet there were about thirty more 2x12s to carry after this one: thirty more gingerly-stepped trips around the corner, thirty more winces as the plank's equally unruly brethren came sliding within three precious inches of the side mirror, paint job, and windshield of my boss' Four Runner.
After work I followed the sound of trains signaling for the grade crossings on the nearby freight railroad. If my timing had anything to do with Union Pacific's schedule, I would see northbound and southbound freights pass within a few minutes of each other. The northbound passed first; heading to Oregon from the City of Industry, it hauled little else besides empty boxcars and a long string of empty bulkhead flats like the one I'd seen bashed in Vermont. The unloaded cars tottered and weaved like skeletons in a windstorm; an apathetic hum sounded off the welded rail underneath the untroubled train. It rolled lithely by on the northbound leg of its 1,800-mile round trip between Oregon's lumber mills and the Southern California construction, blowing a gentle spray through the drizzly air.
Twenty minutes after the northbound disappeared, the southbound appeared, locomotives and boxcars leading several batches of loaded flats from the Oregon mills. Though lower and steadier to the ground, canting into the superelevated curve, they loomed over me menacingly, some 200,000 pounds or so per flat of hurtling lumber contained only by the presumptuous, over-confident bulkheads and these cocky little coiled steel ropes lashing the loads down. The rails, working hard for their living, groaned and complained underneath the 50 MPH mass. From an indistinct point in the air I distinguished a deep low bass, perhaps the sound of the gravel ballast being ground to powder beneath the train; stray creaks and random groans rounded out the flatcars' labored symphony. The three, bearing witness to all drawn to the spectacle, testified that wood is heavy. The train pounded through the thoroughly agitated drizzle and on south into the twilight, granting respite to the abused and exhausted steel rails.
The next day at work the lumber delivery truck shunted a Volkswagen-size package of half-inch plywood sheeting off the rear of its banged-up metal platform and onto the driveway. As the truck inched forward, the plywood, one end resting at an angle on the concrete, the other hanging ever-more tenuously off the rear end of the platform, finally plopped down on the ground with a bossy PWAACK! The factory logo on the sheeting tarp said ROSEBURG, OR. The super set me to work, hauling the 4x8 sheets in twos back to the worksite. The tarped plywood was dry, lighter, and devoid of fungus; and because the super had parked out in the middle of the driveway that day, the plywood posed no readily conceivable threat to his windshield. Rolling up the Roseburg tarp after the job, I discovered bits of gravel in the driveway that the falling plywood mass had pulverized into fresh blue-white powder.
Battered flatcars, groaning rails, and powdered rocks aside, over the next few months the 2x12s and the plywood sheets and many of their cousins were nevertheless marshalled into the shape of a house by spinning carbide-tipped skilsaw blades and the relentless beat of steel hammers on two and a half inch nails. The wood was notched and ripped and trimmed and drilled and chiseled and cursed at, and had all manner of things, mentionable and unmentionable, scribbled on it in pencil. Metal and mineral appeared to have the victory. But the scrap pile contained many casualties: bent nails, worn skilsaw blades, hammer heads, twisted earthquake-code braces, wire mesh, and other junk rendered worthless by the surprising resilience and strength of wood. And when the job was completed, all the metal was hidden out of sight behind trim or paint, and all that was seen and admired and lived in was wood.

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