Wednesday, January 29, 2014

from Down North

Reverend Jesse Halsey c1941
One day in the late spring of 1907, I was riding to the University on one of those (then) novel double-decker trams that ran in Glasgow. (The paper, this very day as I write, shows a picture of two bombed and gutted standing inert on the car-track) when I noticed a meager item on an inside page of an evening paper of how a mission doctor in Labrador had been carried off shore on an ice flow and had lived to tell the story. That was the first I ever heard of Grenfell. Two years later, I was on his staff—not as preacher but as plumber.

It happened like this. He came to Princeton Seminary to speak for a week at Chapel. Chapel was a dreary performance held at the end of the afternoon with a handful present and a cut and dried professorial performance in exegesis as diet. I seldom went. But hearing that Grenfell was coming that day, I went and took several other fellows along. The place was filled the second day; and before the week was out the crowd jammed the largest hall on the University campus.

In one of his talks he told the story of that ice pan experience (of which I had read on the Glasgow bus), in another he intimated that students sometimes would “down” with him in the summer to do odd jobs. I made an appointment at the house of the professor where he was staying. “Yes,” he took students along to help; “What was I going to be?” “A preacher!” “No, he didn’t need a preacher, they had too many on the shore already. “Well,” I ventured, “What do you need?” “A plumber,” he snapped back, “a plumber for our new hospital.” I signed up, then and there, knowing that water runs down hill and inheriting from my practical builder-mason-grandfather, a manual knack for doing things, and knowing how to solder and wipe a joint, and a few other things, from a Yankee blacksmith who had a shop on the back street where I used to stop in to blow the bellows and fuss around on the way home from school.

In May (Divinity Schools have a short term), I started out for Labrador. It took nearly a month to get there, for it was a late season and the ice hugged the land so that schooners and mail boats couldn’t get “down along” shore. When we reached St. Anthony all set “to plumb” the hospital, I found that the hospital wasn’t even built. The Chief was like that: ambition always running ahead of any possible performance on the part of his helpers.

Not only was the hospital unbuilt, not even a foundation was in, no excavating done either. So after putting a new window in the log bunk house for light and air (terribly dull tools they had and my new plumber’s kit didn’t fit the wood working job, all their tools were dull except the axes; a Newfoundlander can build a ship with his ax and after I had fussed for half a day with brace and bit (dull in spite of my file) and key hold saw pecking at the logs, Old Skipper Joe Souley came along and in ten minutes with his ax cut the hole in the side of the bunk house where I installed my window.

There being no one more capable available, I set about excavating for the new hospital cellar. We struck solid rock. I knew nothing about blasting—except that one did itbefore building. (The Doctor having finished his first hospital realizing that it needed a cellar, undertook to blast one and blew off his roof.) Skipper Joe (my friend of the ax) had worked in a mine; he knew how to blast! But he didn’t know how to sharpen drills. Here my Yankee blacksmith came to my aid; (by quasi proxy). I had watched him and had a dim notion of how it was done and after considerable experimenting—just the right heat “cherry red” dipped at the right moment in oil, the drill was just the right temper, not too hard to be brittle and break under the sledge as it bit its way into the rock and not too soft—not cutting at all but just further blunting itself.

I would hold the drill; Joe would strike it with the big sledge, strike with an unerring accuracy; when my turn came to strike and he to hold, like the brave man he was, he held the drill while I swung the sledge, fortunately for him I never missed—my old grandfather coming to the rescue. (I am a great believer in ativism—or whatever it may be called. Cap’n Harry, my grandfather, was a skilled mason (he built most of Greenwich Village in New York, over a hundred years ago.) He once was known to have cut the center out of a millstone to convert it into a well curb, cut it—on a bet—in thirty minutes. He knew how to swing a maul; I’m sure he was there fifty years later, for my help. (What’s fifty years among Yankees?)

When the holes were drilled we began to blast. It was cold; dynamite will not explode when it is “frozen.” Joe would build a fire in the forge and put me to blowing the bellows, with a pail of water on the coals. When it began to boil he would pile sticks of dynamite cob-house fashion on the pail there to “thaw.” “Let out a reef, Skipper,” Joe would say. I would accelerate and the sparks would fly all round the pail and all over the dynamite. “No harm, Skipper, she can’t bust abroad without the cap.” When the sticks were sufficiently softened, Joe would cut a length of fuse and fasten on a cap (detonator) to the end of the fuse. The cap is a hollow tube an inch long made of soft, malleable copper. Joe would take the thing between his teeth (he had two that met) and craunch the cap on to the fuse. (When it became my turn (under his tutelage) I used the pliers (as Dupont suggested). Not so Skipper Joe Souley—“Teeth’s quicker.” Then we would insert the cap and fuse in a stick of dynamite, put it down in the drilled hole in the rock on top of one, two, or three other sticks of dynamite and then with a stick, tamp dirt into top of the hold. Then we’d pile a lot of logs on top with a few lengths of old anchor chain to (hold her down), light the fuse and run. At least I would run, Joe was too old, or too fat, or to lazy, or too proud to run. He would amble along and maybe get behind the forge house before the blast brought down its concomitant shower of small rocks and gravel.

It took all summer to build the hospital cellar and frame up the hospital. In the fall, I came back to Seminary in New York, bringing an esquimoux boy to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to learn lathe work and other things that I didn’t know much about. Theology played second fiddle, I fear, that winter. I got hold of an old friend who was a master plumber and heating engineer and learned to figure radiation, etc., etc., ad infinitum (to use theological language). By the next spring I had collected in Boston a schooner load of radiators, boilers, pipe fittings, tools, tile, linoleum, and what-not enough to plumb and heat the new hospital and the old hospital and several other hospitals and mission buildings at various stations along the shore.

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