To try and put it in all at once would be courting disaster.
All day. I’m working the kettle. Toxic fumes from the tank, surround me. My skin sweats oil and dirt and chemical waste. All my muscles ache from lifting the cakes of tar, chopping them into manageable chunks and bending over the tank as I slowly… ever so slowly, lower the brittle chunks into the bubbling hot black, black mass.
Friction is the enemy here.
Even the friction of bursting tar bubbles could bring disaster. Fire! The worst kind of fire. The potential is always present on this job. Those toxic fumes are so flammable… the slightest thing could set them off.
My nerves ache from the constant stress this knowledge brings. The tension is continuous. The need for the tar to be kept at the proper temperature, makes it even more so. I regulate the heat. I feed it fuel. I am constantly doing things that create friction. A possible spark. While the guy “training” me is standing perhaps ten yards away.
And he’s smoking!
“Careful!” the guy says… again. I say nothing. I’m so sick of him standing there and watching me work. I actually don’t care that he actually has all that actual experience so he gets to actually stand there and smoke and actually say “careful” as I feed this volatile fire beast one chunk of tar after another. I don’t care that he has that scar and I really don’t want to hear another story about the accidents and injuries he’s seen.
“Did I tell you the one about the last big kettle fire I actually had to deal with?” No way am I going to respond to that.
“Flame actually shot straight up maybe three stories. Only this kettle was on the roof. The building was actually too tall for us to do what we’re doing here. Melting tar on the ground and actually feeding the spreaders on top with buckets. The guy running the kettle… actually wasn’t me. Wouldn’t have happened that way if it actually was me. Idiot ran away and no one was there fast enough to shut the lid. Put out the fire.”
My “trainer” lights another smoke and continues his story. I have already heard it. I’m just not sure if I’d only heard it twice before. Or is this the third time?
“Instead the tar got so hot it actually bubbled over the rim. Burning as it spread. Actually… caught the whole roof on fire. Almost lost that building. Fuckin’ mess, it was. Guess who had to actually clean it up?”
I grunt the least possible acknowledgment I can, and lean over a bit more as I start to lower the next chunk. It’s quite large and I’m holding it a bit high. Suddenly, a small piece breaks off in my hand.
Everything happens so fast… the big chunk quickly falls into the tank. Way too quickly. I reflexively try to grab for it and when I do, my arm extends in a way that exposes my wrist so when the chuck plunks in, hot tar splashes up and onto my bare skin.
Ahhh!!!! Ow Ow OW! Shit, Shit Shit Shit!!!
I jerk backward, stumbling and hear the ominous “huff huff huff” huffing sound of volatile, explosive, flammable fumes… trying to ignite. The pain on my wrist is blinding me. I see nearly nothing but suddenly a loud crash tells me that the kettle lid has been slammed shut.
My trainer. My savior. Dude!
He grabs my arm and thrusts it into the bucket of water that had been standing by for just such an emergency. The pain is not diminished one bit but I open my eyes and see the blotches of tar on my skin.
“Oh this is gonna hurt for a while kid, but you’re lucky. That skin’ll grow back.”
“Thanks man. I owe you one.”
“Just doing my job kid. Shit like this happens all the time. That’s why no one runs a kettle by himself on this crew. You did good. Kept it at the right temperature so the thing didn’t just flame up right away. Gave me time to shut it down. You’ll have a nice scar for a while though. Some chicks go for that sorta thing ya know?”
I’m almost starting to like this guy and then…
“Did I tell you the one about the crazy motherfucker who jumped into a tank of hot tar when we first put a roof on this loony bin twenty years ago?”
“Yea… you did.”
“That psycho lived a lot longer than anyone woulda thought though.” My trainer continued, not getting the hint (or not caring) that I’d already heard the story.
More than once.
Oh well. I’m so glad he was here. Standing and smoking all day. Just a few yards away.
Doing his very important job.