I trained in welding with 22 other idiots... "students". Among them we had guys who had the touch. One of our informal tests (there were lots, and it was interesting to do something besides root bend after root bend after root bend after shoot me now please after root bend) was to cut a coke can in half and then TIG weld it back together water tight. That, despite being something every self-respecting welder will claim he can do, is something few welders can actually do. One blip on the pedal that controls electric flow, and you're out of the welding business and have joined the cutting business. I did it successfully once, and never could do it again.
Of the 22 studidiots in the class, six of us did it once. The rest, the general pattern was they'd try it once and then claim it to be some sort of welding gimmick of absolutely no value in practical welding. They were right, it was a gimmick to be able to puff out your chest and say "Yeah, the coke can thing? If ya wanna see the can, I keep it in the top drawer of my toolbox... Can you do that?" It was a gimmick many of us would have sold any internal organ we could live without in exchange for doing it once. I was lucky because I did manage to do it on my own once.
The other 16? How does one say this delicately... Hmmm... they could barely stick two pieces of 3/8" stock together if you set the machine up for them and guided their hand while they made the weld. A coke can? They'd come closer to success if you allowed them to keep the can intact but make a weld around the waist of the can on the surface. Seven made neat little holes in an intact can... We weren't exactly blessed with a lot of golden hands. They knew the book text, they passed the written tests, they knew the process. They could not actually perform the process. That was bad, because the process was what most companies would pay for. Most bosses didn't care if you knew the technical stuff as long as your welds were rock solid.
Charlie was one of my classmates. As far as hierarchy, he was my biggest competition. I mean, the guy could get the job done in a big way. He had the golden hands. I liked the guy, but I wish he could have screwed up a bit more. I was always in second, and he never fell out of first place. Dude had that inexplicable "it" that made good welders great.
He was the only guy who walked out of the school with a job. Even as a guy who liked him, I despised him for that, truly did. I wanted the job badly. I had a few great interviews scheduled, but he had a JOB... There's a difference. It was a good job too. We were all trying for it, and knew how good it was. He got it. I got an interview with Caterpillar. Cat's a rockin' company, but even though some felt my interview was a better thing to secure, I disagreed. I wanted that job. It's kind of like at a carnival: you can win the $2 wrist watch, or you can win the $3 teddy bear. You don't want the teddy bear, you need a watch, but ya still want the biggest prize there is. They gave him the nod. I got a nod for an interview. Everybody but Charlie and I wanted that interview. I wanted the job he got, and would have happily given him the interview spot, lol. Job was in Arlington, Tennessee, a hundred west. So what if it's a murderous commute every day, waking at 0400 to haul out? It was a genuine welding job! So was cat, but that was just an interview, and he got the job.
Tonight, Charlie is in the hospital. It's fifth-hand news, even worse than second-hand, but the situation is dire. He got burnt badly. They were putting a bearing on a shaft which required heating the bearing with a torch and something went horribly wrong. Either there was already grease in the bearing nobody knew of, or the torch coughed, but there was a flash fire that caught a small area on fire, including Charlie. One worker had smoke inhalation, another had 25% coverage of second and third degree burns, and Charlie has half his body covered with second and third degree burns. His sister told me that his facial hair is gone and his face is badly burned. That's most worrisome to me. He never had a lot going on, but by it being gone and his face burned, that means the fire was right up in his face. My first worry on that front is that he could have gasped, inhaling fire. Burns on the outside, a human can recover from. Burns on the inside... I don't like the sound of it at all.
My health crapped out, and I lost the cat job. If I'd gotten the job in Arlington, I'd have made enough to pay for the surgery to "fix me", and I'd have missed out of commission for a week or two at most. It's highly possible that it could have been me heating that bearing. Charlie was as safety conscious as I was, so I know I would have checked every safety risk that was there, just like I know he did. I know Charlie, schooled beside him for 19 months, and I know he wouldn't cut corners. His motto was "my life is worth more than a job", so even if the bossman was pressuring him to hurry it up, I know he'd have checked everything out before he lit the torch.
My first thought when I heard of his injuries were typical "I hope he'll be okay" followed closely by "what happened???" It took an hour for it to sink in that it could have been me there doing that job today, and it could be me laying in the hospital tonight burnt to a crisp.
Life takes some strange turns. I dabble in writing, make knives on the side, do a little handy-man work, and wrench on cars when the opportunities present themselves. In the eyes of many in my class, he "won", but in many ways I feel a sense of guilt. If I'd hit the books a little harder, tried a little harder to keep my hands steady, practiced harder, it could have been me. Charlie has a wife and four kids, and if things don't go just right for him, they could lose him because I didn't fight hard enough to win the job.
For me, it's been a pretty rough day 'round here.