And So the Keel Was Poured

I

IN the boat shop at the frozen river edge the important business of the day was getting under way, a huge casting pot the centre of operations. Supported on a four-foot wooden trestle, it seemed to be meditating on its sins — it was a huge black pot, capable of the blackest sins. It was nearly three feet in inside diameter, and, its height being equal, the top of it was a good seven feet above the floor. To look into its potentially awful depths I climbed upon the trestle. So far it was cool and quiet. I could lean over the ironencased fire brick which surrounded it and with impunity lay a hand on the seams which the boiler maker had electrically welded the day before.

He, a mild little Scotchman who in ordinary life might have passed for a mouse, had on this occasion exhibited the most extraordinary talents. First, he had crowded himself into a space only half big enough for a full-sized man and not more than two-thirds roomy enough for himself. Some part of him had had to protrude from the top of the pot, and as he needed his feet to stand on, his hands to work with, and his head to direct his hands, it naturally followed that his pointed buttocks had to loom up above the rim. Jackknifed in there, he would have been in a perilous position had he desired to do no more than sweep dust from the bottom of the pot.

But in his hands the boiler maker carried an implement possessing full powers to deliver death by electrocution — an electric welding rod whose most casual touch to metal produced incandescent heat. Did I say that the little Scotchman was a man of extraordinary ability? He was even more than that — for, like a salamander, he breathed fire and came forth unscathed. As he worked, melting and welding the seams of the pot with his white-hot rod, the most villainous green fumes played around him, causing less gifted men to cough and gag at a distance of ten feet from his inferno. At long intervals he exhibited his human origin and emerged for air. But to his observers this diversion was even more bloodcurdling than his appointed work. For, with the current still lurking in his welding rod, he handled it with utmost indifference, contemptuous of the death that waited to leap forth and consume him. The boiler maker’s smile on finally announcing that the pot would leak no more was not reflected in the faces of the onlookers until with one last careless gesture he had set the rod down and switched off the current.

Perhaps the casting pot was now thinking of the indignities that had been inflicted on its ‘innards.’ At any rate it gloomed darkly, and around the aperture at its base into which the blowtorch would soon be inserted there lurked an ominous scowl. We visitors in the shop, whose immediate business it was to watch the pouring of the keel for my boat, stepped warily about the pot and accorded it the respect which it demanded.

Now Pinaud, the short, capable foreman, came and propped up the blowtorch alongside the monster. A perforated iron cylinder more than a foot long by five inches in diameter, with a nozzle in the middle and a valve at the rear and a rubber hose leading away from the valve, the torch suggested the thwarted truculence of a muzzled viper. Was the pot dour and forbidding? Its mortal enemy, the blowtorch, would soon exhale pitiless blasts of roaring flame. Muzzle or no muzzle, it would bite into the vitals of that pot and turn them red and then white, and cause them to writhe with anguish.

But would the pot resist its torture without retaliation? The unknown answer to this portentous question quivered in the air of the shop and invested with solemnity each significant act of preparation. Pent-up forces were inseparable from the evil genius of the pot. Here was a solid block of lead, four hundred pounds in weight, the miscreant issue of the pot when it had developed a leak in its first test. Hastily the molten lead had been poured off into the handiest receptacle. Then it was hot and fluid — now cold and ponderous. Shear poles had to be erected to hoist it with tackle and lower it to the bottom of the pot — and had the poles slipped or the tackle broken, the possibilities of damage would have been almost limitless. And here, being trundled up by a workman, was the kerosene pressure tank which would presently eject inflammable vapor through the jet of the blowtorch. Innocuous in appearance, it also had its evil potentialities. If, under forty pounds of air pressure, it developed only the slightest leak and squirted raw kerosene toward the blowtorch, who could run fast enough for a fire extinguisher?

And then, carefully placed and leveled up before the pot, was the low wooden mould into which the molten keel would soon be poured. Reasonable care in the construction of the mould guaranteed its harmlessness. The wood was bone-dry and therefore proof against a devastating explosion upon the admission of the boiling lead. But such explosions have occurred with the casting of molten metal, and men walk the earth with sightless eyes because of them. Wherefore Pinaud was not the only one in the shop who looked into the mould for assurance that no snow from the blizzard raging outside had lodged there. No, the mould was safe enough; but it was staggering to look upon its long, meticulously fashioned hollowness and reflect that two men had worked six days to make it perfect and that an improper temperature of the lead or any interruption to the pour would dissipate their labor.

Finally, there was the valve at the nozzle of the casting pipe. There was no kinetic energy there to wreak destruction if misdirected, but the pipe was an appendage of the malign pot, and it lay within the power of the valve to frustrate the pour by refusing to function. Hence it was Pinaud’s last act, before setting fire to the oilsoaked waste in the blowtorch, to dismember the pouring valve, oil it well, and make sure that its moving part would smoothly turn.

II

And now the foreman strikes a match and the waste flares up in lazy flame, slowly irritating the muzzled viper. Sid, slim and active, connects the hose to the pressure tank and tentatively cracks the fuel valve. The viper hisses, and suffocating smoke writhes upward from the jet. But the jet is not hot enough to ignite the gas. Sid closes the valve and waits. The flame of the burning waste dies down. Again the valve is cracked. Again the smoke pours forth and billows to the ceiling. The eye, following it, sees a certain thing, and the mind idly wonders, and presently dismisses the speculation. The automatic sprinkler system extends an arm of iron pipe and protects the ceiling at this point. But the outlet of the sprinkler is not directly over the pot, and the shop is very cold.

With a muffled pop the vapor catches fire and the viper begins to hiss — not venomously at first, but warningly. But then the last of the burning waste consumes itself; and the torch, unperturbed by counterdrafts, gets down to work. The hiss becomes a roar. As the fuel valve is turned still more, the raging flames leap along the perforated cylinder through the aperture in the fire brick and lick the bottom of the pot. Within the cylinder they are lovely, delicate things, misty vapor modulating into blue tongues, backward curling, then by a sudden jump through the spectrum mingling with orange-red streamers which rush precipitately forth. At the back of the torch there is scarce warmth enough to tingle a face thrust inquiringly close. At the other end there are a thousand degrees of shriveling heat.

On the trestle men lift up and lower into the pot pigs of lead, each weighing sixty pounds. When the pot has gulped in a ton of the base metal, the supply on the floor is but a third reduced. Yet this will be enough for the present. If (though it seems unlikely after the expert services of the welder) the pot should leak, it is well not to have it overloaded. The torch roars on, and now through the opening in the fire brick directly opposite it I gain a curious effect. Looking in, my face is not three feet from its annihilating fire, which already turns to a dull red the nuts on the bottom of the pot. But so deflected by the curvature of the fire brick is the flame that all its heat remains inside and none leaps out to punish the curious.

III

Lead is not melted in a minute even by the concentrated fury of a gigantic blowtorch, and Pinaud and his men devote the next palpitating hour to other tasks. A baffle plate must bo contrived so that not all of the flowing lead will impinge upon one point in the wooden mould. A trough, downward slanting, must direct the fluid from the nozzle to the baffle plate. These accessories must be securely wired, for melted lead is not only hot, but heavy.

With the redoubtable Casey I go now to the office to pour other liquids, for our throats are parched with expectancy, and I learn that the casting pot is the very pricle of Casey’s heart. It was he who found it and he who bought it at a bargain. When it leaked at the first trial his heart was wrung. But now that the goggled Scotchman has performed his rites, Casey’s confidence is high. ‘The pot will hold,’ says he. ‘Your keel will be poured to-day.’

Sid comes running, feet clumping, doors slamming behind him.

‘She leaks!’

Casey rises slowly, a monument of confidence. ‘Not badly, I think.’ Perhaps he says more, but Sid has reversed himself in mid-air, and I am hot after him, back to the shop and its perfidious pot.

We climb the staging and look in. Breath-taking heat ascends inside the casing, and we see that the pigs are melting, spasmodically but noiselessly subsiding into the silvery brew. Even the four-hundred-pound chunk is canted over as the heat, dissolves its lower part. But we do not look here for leaks. Pinaud has extinguished the torch and thrust through the aperture under the pot an electric light. Around the six nuts in the base we see seepages of liquid lead. To my uninitiated eyes they look very serious indeed. But not to Casey’s. He arrives casually, and as I move aside he glances in.

‘Not at all bad,’ says he. ‘As all the lead melts and its weight is uniformly distributed in the pot the pressure will close up the leaks. Start the torch again. ’

Pinaud holds a match at arm’s length (somehow the match seems incongruous in this abode of mighty forces), turns the valve, and the fire leaps forth. Now as we look under the pot we can see the drips even more distinctly than by electric light, contrasted whitely against the red glare. By turns we watch them anxiously. They diminish. Our spirits rise. Casey was right. With each instant the weight is being more evenly distributed.

‘Put in more, ’ says Casey, and a redfaced giant climbs the trestle. He peers into the pot, blinking his eyes. A lesser workman hands up a pig and the giant balances it on the rim of the pot. But doubt assails him. What will happen if he drops it in? Does boiling lead splash like boiling water? Sid, reading his mind, rushes and brings back tongs. The giant lowers the pig to the staging and clasps it viciously with the tongs. The points dig in, and he exerts his strength — up and over. Gloves shield his hands as he lowers the pig to the bottom of the pot. The method is successful, and he reaches for more lead. The pot absorbs another ton.

But now we look beneath it again. The drips have stopped, but in their place we see a veritable spray of incandescent metal. The leak is ten times worse. Out it comes in a gleaming trickle, sliding under the blowtorch, dripping to the wooden floor, forming stalactites. These are icicles that it will be well not to touch. The hot lead overruns the cold, and sloughs it off.

Pinaud is the man of this exciting hour. While we wonder, he goes and returns with a plate of sheet iron, which he props up at the brink of the lead fall. He inclines it at an angle and places another plate beneath it on the floor. Now the lead runs in sudden rivulets down the iron — cools — hesitates — overcomes friction, and slides inert to the horizontal surface. Gloved hands can pick it up in fantastic shapes and toss it back into the pot. So doing, we can keep ahead of the leak — if it grows no worse.

IV

Another crisis dwarfs this imminent contingency. The fire brick below the blowtorch has turned a glowing, breathing red. Across it — if one has an eye for contrasts — darts the molten lead, like quicksilver. But beneath the fire brick the wood of the trestle has burst into flame. Water cannot be used to quench it — not with that liquid lead about. Neither will tetrachloride do. Pinaud lugs a bag of sand and with ready knife rips it open. ‘Throw that on,’ says he, and answers a call from the other side of the pot.

‘It’s leaking even worse out here.’

More sheet iron to direct the lead. And then Pinaud decides. ‘We’ll never keep up with it. Get buckets, tins, coal scuttles—anything, ’ says he. ‘We can’t pour the keel.’

The words have a mournful ring. Casey sighs. ‘My poor pot! And it was such a bargain at twenty-five dollars. ’

Sid runs out into the snow to the general store. In an incredibly short time he returns with half a dozen scuttles, the labels on them. During his absence Pinaud has done the work of two men, directed that of two others. Blocks have been placed in the keel mould to make a sure platform for the succession of receptacles. The blowtorch has been lifted aside and its flame directed against the spout. Lead, melting in the pot, has flowed through the casting pipe and solidified at the valve.

Now Pinaud opens the valve and thrusts a brass rod inside. His ungloved hand reaches to the very maw of the dragon. When he withdraws the rod he measures it on the outside of the spout. ‘Heat it there,’ he orders, indicating where the lead has cooled inside. The workman with the torch moves it quickly and the flame describes an orange arc. Again Pinaud thrusts in the rod, and with fearful expectancy we watch him, hoping the lead will not gush forth. He appreciates the danger and procures a longer rod. Now as he prods the slowly melting plug he stands at a safer distance. Chance protects him still further, and he is elsewhere, overseeing something else, when the plug lets go and the lead spurts out, across the spot where he had been standing.

He rushes to the valve and, with a brass pipe to increase the leverage of the handle, shuts it off. Then he opens it experimentally. The lead cools on the iron trough and fills it up. But it keeps overrunning, and streams down into the first of the scuttles on the mould. All that work, — hours of preparation, hours of melting, — and now the whole thing to do over again because the pot leaks so badly. And the terrific job of displacing a half-filled scuttle of molten lead and setting an empty one under the inclined trough. Even Pinaud’s ingenuity flags at this obstacle.

Abruptly he reverses himself. ‘ We’ll pour after all!’ he cries. ‘Upset the scuttle. Put the torch under the pot. Throw in more lead. Pick up the scrap from the floor.’ Half a dozen of us jump to obey these commands.

Catching the scuttle in the bight of a rope, two of us tip it over. The lead, partly cooled, flows sullenly along the bottom of the mould. The scuttle is gingerly pried out, lest, it become caught and form an unwanted part of the keel. Out comes one of the blocks. In pours the lead, flowing over the other. Pinaud, at the outlet valve, is momentarily diverted. Lead is slopping over the trough to the floor and splashing on his legs. He needs an iron plate to prop against his knees and shield him. I cry, ‘How about the other block?’

He jokes, thinking that the block will float. ‘We’ll leave it there and save lead.’ In deadly earnest, I tear about the shop looking for a crowbar. There is none. But now Pinaud sees that the block has stuck to the mould, and he fetches tools, one after the other, white the lead pours smoothly in. Brass rods bend. So do iron pipes. Hooks open out. Pinaud and one other puddle in the half-filled mould, striving to extricate the block. To them boiling lead is no more awesome than melted butter. As they poke and jab, it splashes against their clothes. I shudder at thought of what will happen if one of these intrepid souls, facing the other, succeeds in prying up the block. Still the mould fills up. It covers the block, slowly cools around it. The expected catastrophe is averted. But the block remains there, to be chiseled out later.

Now, as the mould chars, the shop fills up with acrid smoke. Someone opens the doors and the blizzard rushes in. Again I think of the antipathy of molten lead to moisture. But as the last pig is dropped into the pot by the red-faced giant and the level in the mould rises to the brim my fears abate. Long before this the leak in the bottom of the pot has ceased — stopped not by more pressure, but by less. Ten minutes more, and the excitement will be over.

And then a ferocious hiss fills the shop. I jump away from the mould, imagining that a hidden well of sap has discovered itself in the grain of the wood. But the hiss is not there. The man at the blowtorch suspects the pressure tank, and quickly shuts the valve. The torch goes out, but still the hiss continues. Fearsomely I look at the pot, big, angry, trembling in the heat, waves arising from it. What new fiendishness does it contemplate? Is it preparing to blow up with very rage?

Pinaud shouts, and we scatter like chaff as we comprehend his words: ‘Automatic sprinkler! ’

As a precaution against freezing, there is only air in the pipes, but soon water will follow the air, sprinkling into the boiling pot, covering the molten keel. We scatter still wider, we who do not know the ways of the shop, and anxiously watch the sprinkler valve. The ceiling above it darkens in the blast of the escaping air. At any instant now water will shower down and the lead will geyser up to meet it.

But Sid comes, panting. At the first hiss he was off, unnoticed, the devil behind him. ‘It’s all right,’ he gasps, ‘I’ve shut off the water.’

So the keel came into being. Cool, firm, dependable, it has been bolted to the bottom of my boat. When the wind presses against my sails, its tremendous weight will keep me from capsizing. Honorable offspring of a malignant mother, born in emotion, wild confusion, and wintry tempest, it is proof against the extravagant ravings of a summer squall.