I’ve never met David Yates, but he writes to me from time to time and I thought this piece was especially good. As you can see, he’s very enthusiastic. I think the readers will flip over this one. It’s so rich in history, and so very well told. This guy captures the true spirit of our industry.
Dear Dan, You often write about the Dead Men who have gone before us and how much they were able to accomplish in spite of not having codes or incompetent inspectors looking over their work. The first time I read your reference to these great men in one of your articles, it was like a breath of fresh air. One of those Dead Men is responsible, to a large extent, for my being in this trade.
My grandfather, Roy H. Gorman, grew up in a coal mining town called St.Clair, Pa. St. Clair was a true melting pot with every nationality you can think of living and working side by side. As a young boy, he worked as a slate picker. Slate pickers, almost always young boys, straddled the coal chutes and grabbed any pieces of slate, tossing them aside, as the coal slid down to the bottom of the hill.
St. Clair was a company town. Everyone worked for the coal company and the same company owned all of the stores in town. Since transportation wasn’t what it is today, almost everyone had to turn their hard-earned pay back over to the company to pay for the goods needed at much inflated prices. My great-grandfather opened the first store in town that wasn’t owned by the coal company. In spite of very real threats to his life, he persevered and was successful. My grandfather helped run the store and earned his lifelong nickname of "Shoebee" due to his selling shoes among other much needed items.
My grandfather was quite a sportsman. He was famous for two baseball plays that often came up in conversation with his friends. He hit the longest homerun ball in history! I’m not kidding — it was a homerun ball. It’s just that there was a railroad track over the fence and his ball landed in a moving freight car! When they checked, they found out the train was bound non-stop for Chicago. So in theory the ball was hit from St. Clair to Chicago since it didn’t touch the ground or human hand till then! Top that Mark McGwire.
His other famous play was a spectacular game-winning catch. Someone from the opposing team hit what would have been a homerun ball except that my grandfather leapt up on the back of a spectator's horse and caught the ball. Of course by the time I heard these stories, he was long past his playing days, but man, did I ever enjoy keeping company with him and his friends and listening to their tales.
Over the years, my grandfather worked as a fireman on the railroad, had a gas station and auto parts store and opened a Westinghouse appliance store.
During World War II, Westinghouse stopped making appliances and he didn’t have any products to sell. For a short while, he ran a pool hall to make ends meet and eventually, moved to Philadelphia and got a job in the defense industry.
He performed the maintenance in his apartment complex (electrical, plumbing, heating or carpentry ) to augment his income and at month’s end, he and the landlord would sit down and go over the work to see which one owed the other one any money.
After the war, when Westinghouse started making appliances again, my grandparents ended up back in St. Clair. Man, did we ever love that store! It had everything from toasters to freezers — remember the ones with the open compressor racks on top? Cripes, the compressor alone weighed about a gazillion pounds! It had a great big display window across the front of the store and whenever we’d visit, we kids took great delight in switching the price tags on the appliances and then watching the faces of passersby when they’d notice a toaster for the price of a stove or a refrigerator for the price of a clock.
In the basement of this combined store and home were two great big coal-fired steam boilers. By the time I got to see them, they’d been outfitted with screw auger coal feeders that were attached to big steel barrels. The barrels resided on the outer fringes of their respective coal bins and had a screen over the top to prevent pieces large enough to clog the auger from getting in and to break up any coal that had clumped together. We used to fight over the chance to be the ones to fill the barrels. I can still feel the pea-sized pieces that would become lodged in our socks and shoes. Part of the daily routine also involved cleaning out the ash pit and fine-tuning the burner. I just had to know how this thing worked and how it made all of the heat and hot water.
"Pop-Pop," as we called my grandfather, was only too glad to show me the wonders of this big hunk of metal. He could describe the inner workings in a way that made it come alive for me. I’d think about it when I was sitting in their tub. How I had shoveled the coal that made all of that delightfully warm water and marveled at the miracle of being able to do that.
He was a great teacher, my grandfather. Whenever he had a service call, I would tag along and carry his tools or run to the truck for a part. It didn’t matter what kind of product it was, he could fix it.
This guy could repair anything! He used to use lead wool and cream of wheat to repair large cracks in steam boilers. Pop-Pop also took the crust off of a piece of bread and stuffed it into a water line so that a valve could be soldered onto a pipe in spite of an upstream valve not holding. He then removed the aerators so that the wet soggy bread could be flushed out of the lines. We spent many an hour repairing water or steam lines, repairing appliances or just talking.
After we would get done with the service work for that day, we’d stop off and shoot a game of pool or shoot the breeze with friends, have a Yuengling’s (I’d have an Orange Spot soda) and then home to a hearty meal prepared by my grandmother, Evelyn, who had also been tending the store while we men were out working. Their store was open night and day and when someone would open the door to the store, their Westminster doorbell chime would ring a special way to alert them that a customer was there. It didn’t matter if they were eating dinner, one of them got up and took care of business.
Having lived through the Depression, they knew the value of customer service. And it didn’t matter which one of them went into the store, my grandmother was just as adept at dealing with the customers. They had a great working relationship.
In later years before he passed on, we discovered that he had a lot of customers that never paid him for his services. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the work, they were just too poor and he didn’t have the heart to say no. Even when he knew full well that he’d probably never be paid. These were hard-working, churchgoing people who looked out for each other when the chips were down.
His last words to my grandmother were that his times with her were the best years of his life. A few moments later she looked up from her reading and he was gone. He lived a hard life, but one that was richly rewarding in many ways. Raised three daughters and a son through the Depression and they had many grandchildren that could do no wrong in his eyes.
I think of him often and the other Dead Men who’ve gone before us. Like when I see 8-inch screwed pipe above a top floor of a hotel in a void space above the ceiling and pause to imagine how in the world they were able to manhandle something like that 14 feet above the floor. And to marvel at not only that, but that the work is done in such a neat workman-like manner in spite of the difficult conditions and knowing that only a small handful of people would ever see their work after its completion. They must have been very proud of their work — it shows.
I often wonder what kind of legacy we’re leaving for the next generations of contractors. . It’s hard to believe that the plastic water and drain lines will be marveled at or much less last long enough to be around in 100 years or so. So many of today’s products don’t seem to be built to last much more than 10 years; we’re already replacing our own work while our ancestors’ work remains in place still functioning.
One time, Pop-Pop installed a new fangled combination natural gas/coal oven/stove combination unit for the St. Clair Convent, where the coal was for heating and the gas for cooking. Part of the setup required adjusting the gas burners for proper combustion. Picture it — my grandfather has stuffed himself headfirst up to his waist into this oven and is setting up the burners. Suddenly, there’s a loud whoomph and Pop-Pop backed out of the oven at lightening speed with all of his hair, eyebrows included, frizzled from the gas ignition. Pop-Pop let loose with a string of profanities that would have made a sailor blush. Suddenly realizing where he was and that the Nuns might be able to see or hear him, and being a devout Catholic, he crossed himself and without missing a beat said (in the same tone of voice), "And God bless us all."