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Geoff's Blog about Plumbing

Historical Perspective:
Remembrances of Plumbing Past
Remembrances of Plumbing Past, Part 2

Remembrances of Plumbing Past

When I started out, knowing very little…about anything, really, there was no place to go.
There was, of course, no Internet, but there also weren’t any books. Do-It-Yourself had yet to become a Movement, How-To was unknown, and “Dummies” were just that.  Plumbing was a secret trade; the techniques were closely held and jealously guarded.If you wanted to be a Plumber, you had to be Union. And to be Union , you’d better be white, male, and Irish, Italian or Scandinavian. They were the ones doing the training—and, in 1972, they hadn’t trained anyone new in years.
Where was a Boy to learn?

I had one set of books: Audels’ set on Plumbing. In 1972, they were already 30 years old, and the materials and techniques they described were no longer in use.
Plumbers are strange critters. If you go to a lumberyard at the start of the workday, a lot of guys are talking shop, enjoying one other and helping each other out. I went to my local Supply House every morning for years, seeing the same faces — and nobody spoke! The union guys wouldn’t talk to the non-union men. The licensed contractors wouldn’t acknowledge to us “hippies”. Hell, even the countermen wouldn’t talk to me!

Except one: Walt Riggs.  Walt was a little guy, but was a tough son-of-a-gun.  For some reason— pity? — he would deal with me. I could ask him the occasional question, and ask, I did! For years—with no books, no PBS, no Web — when I got into trouble, I had Walt.
I got started fixing a friend’s bathtub drain. Having worked for a Plumber Back East for 3 months the year before, I knew which end of the wrench to hold, but I really didn’t know what I was doing.
I muddled through, fixed the thing—and my path was set.  For the next several years I would take something on, not quite knowing what I was about. I’d paint myself into the proverbial corner and have to figure how to get myself out of it.

Remembrances of Plumbing Past, Part 2

Recently I had fun Googling “antique plumbing trucks” and “antique plumbers”.  Seeing those guys reminded me of my summers in the late 1960’s.

I got my start in this trade as a ditch-digging “college pukey” at the (Erie) Pennsylvania Gas Company. I had just finished my Freshman year at Allegheny and was about as naïve as any human could be. They’d hire a bunch of us — I think I made $1.25 an hour; I got in because my uncle had worked there for decades — and they needed people to do the grunt work.

“Bring your banjoes [round-pointed shovels] boys!” the Big Boss would call and off we’d go, backfilling a trench we’d just dug and covering the pipe we’d just laid. This, despite the fact that the bulldozer was sitting right next to the doggone ditch — with the motor running to keep the hours up — and could have done the job in a quarter of the time.

Working around and with the “Old Guys” — some of whom were at least 25 — was a real eye-opener, you betcha.  There was one fella — Steve something (he was Polish and had a last name 18 letters long; we called him “the General”) — who had worked the main pipe lines since the 20’s.  His skin was like mahogany leather!  He knew everything there was to know, but didn’t care to be anything more than a laborer.  Steve was slower than slow, but I have yet to meet anyone more efficient.

We sat down one day — that was during my third summer, which was unheard of – and figured out 16 different ways to lean on a shovel!  Like I said, Steve knew how to be slowww. But he was steady.  And he taught me how to do a Good Job. I never got the hang of Steve’s pace, but I never forgot that other.

He, and the rest of them were my professors, informing me as to the right way to dig (“Get yer a** behind you!”), how to run the jackhammer, what to do when the jumping jack ran over your foot, etc, etc. I loved it!  And still do…..

Steve — and Burt Zurn and Charlie Hood and Bill Lindsay and Pat Cribbins, Jocko, Clarabelle, Pat Tolley and Tooey and even Frank Kenny —t hese are the guys who helped turn me into the Plumber (and man) I am today.

Thanks, Guys!

 

Serving the East Bay and San Francisco since 1972
Albertson Plumbing • 540 Mira Vista Avenue #1, Oakland, CA. 94610 • 510 839-7450
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