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Learning to Run Heavy Equipment: It Ain’t Like It Used To Be (Part Two)

From the “How NOT to do it!” Department:

So after a freezing cold, thirteen hundred mile flight in an ancient DC3, I arrived in Echo Bay in the Northwest Territories, 12 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It was my twenty-fifth birthday, but I wasn’t celebrating. We landed on an ice strip – apparently right in front of the mine, but I couldn’t see anything but white. I have no idea how the pilot landed that thing. Two guys looked out the window and refused to leave the plane.

The rest of us newbies shuffled off the plane and onto a bus that took us up a winding goat trail to the office, where we were given a room, a list of rules, and were told to report to work within the hour. By the time I had put my stuff in one of the worst bunkhouses I’d ever seen, the weather closed in and the plane was grounded. For two days as it turned out.

Through near white-out conditions, I made my way down the 117 steps to the garage. After introductions the consisted of a nod, a grunt and a really bad cup of coffee, the foreman said, “Get on that six and put the blade on it. Push the road to the dump”, then he turned and left. I looked at the ancient mechanic, wondering what a six was. He tilted his head toward a bulldozer at the other end of the shop. A Komatsu D6. AHA…, I get it! Then to myself, “They want me to run that? I thought I was here for a forklift job?”

Then it sunk in…, I had never even sat on a bulldozer before, let alone had any training. I smiled a sickly grin. The old mechanic stared at me and spit on the floor. I smiled wider. He didn’t – he just stood there waiting for me to do something. So I gave him that time-honored line, “Huh! What d’ya know? She’s not quite like the last one I drove!” He rolled his eyes, sighed far too loudly, and pointed to the floorboards – he knew exactly what was going on. He’d probably seen hundreds of guys like me.

Humbled, I asked him where the blade was, and he pointed out into the now raging storm. “bout a hundre’…, up…,” I couldn’t hear him after that because he opened the big doors and walked out in the howling wind. Folks, here’s where I could really have used some training!

But at least I was alone! I climbed on my new “six”, and eventually found the starter – near the floorboards. I got lucky – it was an electric start, so that part went better than I deserved. Like I did on the sawmill forklift, I played with things until the machine lurched. After nearly stalling it a dozen times, I finally figured out what made it lurch in which direction, and backed out it out the door into the storm. Once I was clear of the building, I pulled the levers until it started to swing. It was the slowest turn ever made on a dozer – I had no idea if I was going to be able to stop swinging! I could just picture them finding me in the spring, frozen solid and still turning around in circles. I was so glad that no one could see me.

“Up” turned out to be fairly obvious – the place was built on a cliff. So I pointed the machine “up”, and trundled off into the blizzard. I had no idea where I was going, and within minutes, I couldn’t even see the buildings in the growing dark. “But…,”, I thought…, “But no one can see me, either!”

Several hours later, I was getting a bit better at making that monster go where I wanted it to, although I’m sure that I took years off the life cycle of those clutches. I still hadn’t found the blade, which is just as well – I had no idea how to mount it. They eventually sent a search party out for me. The foreman waved me back to the shop, and when I climbed down off ‘my’ six, he asked me, “Did you get it figured out?” “Oh yeah”, I said. He rolled his eyes and sighed way too loud. He knew.

So…, the long and the short of my story? Even if you have an “opportunity” like I that, don’t do what I did. Get some training. The machines will thank you.

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