Metals Finishing Grit and Grind: The Dog Days of Summer in a TIG Welder’s Heat

I can remember it like it was yesterday. It was a mid summer Sunday morning. I was playing poker online, as per my usual. It was 2010. I had a girlfriend, who was a CNA and nowhere to be found this weekend. She was off working the usual 12 hour shifts and so, I was left to do what I wanted, which was play poker. Back then, playing poker was the one thing on my mind. It was what I did whenever I could. It paid the bills, after all. It also paid for the jetset lifestyle that some women are accustomed to. It paid for cover charges. It paid for VIP’s. It paid for lavish dinners, shopping and weekend trips. 

Too MuchIn essence, it attracted the wrong side of things in life: superficial women and the unnecessary experiences (or is it expenses) that would follow. 

So, back to that one Sunday afternoon. I was playing poker, single table cash game, $1/2 blind level limits. I bought in for $200, the maximum allowed. In a few short hours, I had rung that up to about $1,300. This was nothing new to me, as I had days like this many times before. I had weeks triple or quadruple this. I had months close to ten times this. Needless to say, I was in my poker prime, making money hand over fist. 

The only issue with this, was that I had a girlfriend who knew this as well. Every day was an adventure or a way to spend money frivolously. You’d think a smart man such as myself would learn to just save this money and buy a house or something. Nope. I was a fool. Fool of a Took (Lord of the Rings reference). I enjoyed going out, spending money on things, or fancy dinners I’d normally never had the chance to experience. I liked being able to pay to get into clubs and dance with people I’d never had the chance to meet. 

In a way, I felt like a minor celebrity or something. I could buy my way into the “it” crowds (Life Is a Gamble).

Club Life

I know I keep going off on a tangent, but this next sentence will define my following 3-4 years in life. I would lose that $1,300 in a matter of an hour, leaving myself feeling dejected, my girlfriend pissed off, and above all, questioning what I was really doing with my life. I had losing days, for sure. Back then, I had a buy in/stop loss of 2 buy ins, so $600. If I lost that, I was done for the day. Some kind of self control there, at least. And usually, when I was up $1,000 I would just stop as well, or cash out that much, then re-buy back in for $200, keeping that profit, as a protection from what just happened. 

I remember my girlfriend calling me on a break or something, asking how I was doing, and me telling her I was up to $1,300, as nonchalantly as possible. I was none too pulsed, it wasn’t that exciting for me, as I had been there before. She of course, became excited and told me to quit, take the money and we could enjoy a great week doing whatever. For some reason, that one day, it hit me: No, I wasn’t going to stop playing. I don’t want to be told how to spend my money that I earn. I don’t want someone telling me how to play, when to stop, when I’m on a roll. I was going to let it ride.

And let it ride I did, to the tune of playing poorly and losing it all. I was mad at myself for letting her get into my head. The rest of my time playing, I was thinking about life. How I had gotten myself to this point, questioning not the poker playing life itself, but letting someone tell me how to live and spend. Obviously, my mind was elsewhere. That’s what bothered me. Not the losing of the initial $200 buy in or the losing of my $1,300 that I had rung up that day. 

Money Maker.png

So, when she found out I didn’t stop playing and just lost everything, boy howdy was she mad! She tore into me, saying that I needed to think of her, and how I blew all that money (it was just one day, I still had a ton in my account), and how I suddenly needed to have a more stable life. Of course, when I lost, now I needed to have a more steady job. Funny, though, that when I won, poker was the greatest thing ever. And me being the fool once again, I followed her “advice.” I set out to stop playing poker and look for a “real” job. I was hanging up my card carrying cleats for a woman. 

I had a few friends who worked nearby at a metals finishing plant. They mentioned that they were looking for people to groom into finishers, welders and such. I thought, well, I could pass a drug test and was never afraid of learning a new trade and doing the dirty work. I applied and it was down to me and one other guy. I remember us both being shown around by the lead man, the one who basically ran things during the day. I kept thinking to myself, is this really what I want to do? Is this really something that could lead to anything I’d be interested in? Yes and no, back and forth I went in my head. Shhhhhh

As it turns out, I got the job, and I never found out what happened with the other guy. Literally never heard from him or what happened in why I was chosen. Maybe I had the upper hand in knowing some people inside. Maybe it was my answer of, “When I’m sick, maybe a day or two a year,” to the question of, “How many days a year do you think you’d miss if you worked here?” And following that answer, they were like, “No, just calling in or having something else you’d rather be doing?” I kind of acted surprised, like, no, only when I’m sick do I call in. I don’t do stuff like that. I remember them nodding their heads and little did I know, this would become something that mattered.

At this place, they had a points system. If you called in or were going to be late for work, you could either use vacation time, grace hours (8 per year) or just take a point. With taking points, you had 9 per year that allowed you to just keep working as is, resetting a year from when you took said point. But, if you reached 10 points, you were let go. Fired. Gone. Finished. I would end up working there for about 4 years, and never getting a point. I would come in and work when I could, and if I was too sick or whatever, I would use a vacation day. Or if I was running late, I would use my grace hours. I never took the point.

I wanted to show that I could be relied upon, and that I was someone who was here to work and wanted to be here.

What this company was about, was making molds for companies. Companies from all around the world. We would make the plastic molding for them, and their products, to be mass produced. For example, one of our customers, Fisher Price, had us create slide molds. Or other playground and toys equipment. Or cooler companies having us create cooler molds. The real big products would be boat molds, those were a huge pain. Literally. 

Sandblast Man

We would have the team of engineers create the blueprints. Then, the molding department would create the aluminum mold itself, as a rough mold. In finishing, where I worked, we would clean it up, and “finish” it. Meaning, we would weld any necessary issues or make things whole again. There were all kinds of finishes needed, rough, soft, medium, etc. In order to get a super smooth finish, one would have to hand sand the metal down. As you can imagine, that would take a long, arduous and annoying process. In order to have a semi smooth surface, sandblasting was needed, as shown in the pic here, back when I had hair! Or what was left of it. Sandblasting would blow out sand, literally sand, to coat the metal. And to create a rough exterior, shotpeening was what we did. It was created by shooting out very small BB’s at a high pressure, to give it that bumpy look. Cool, eh? 

Over time, I would learn as much as I could, slowly moving my way up. There were lulls, to be sure, and when you’re working in such an environment, it gets hot pretty quick. Even in winter, I would sweat my ass off. In summer, I would go through a gallon of water or just eat constantly, because I’m a short guy with not much to me, and I just needed that fuel. I never really complained though, and I knew I was the low man on the totem pole. I was in my mid-twenties then, and I was working with guys who had been with this company longer than I had been alive!

Needless to say, I was given the short end every chance they could, but I did whatever was asked of me. I never declined what was given to me to work on.

I became proud of my advancement over the years, even becoming one of only two people in the building that would go on to do Teflon coating as well. It was another feather in the cap, so to speak. It was a spray process which coated the molds, as an added protection. There was also a heating process involved as well, with temperatures reaching 1500 degrees in some cases, so the Teflon would stick. Some companies required this, and when I had volunteered to do so, it became something I was proud of. In a way, I felt like an artist. My own graffiti style art, only I had to follow the blueprints. 

Teflon.jpg

So, in a few short years, I had learned a few trades, without any schooling or certifications. I can now say that I can TIG weld more than competently. I can Teflon coat products with precision. I can finish, deburr, clean up and fit aluminum molds with the best of them. Or rather, I can hold my own. Even having a forklift license was pretty cool. I still had a long way to go to be compared to some of the guys I worked with, though. They were pretty great, in my department, I must say. Even if they did live vicariously through me, every Monday asking what I did and to fill them in on the details. Most of them were already married or divorced for 20 years now. Most with kids or in some cases, grandchildren.

Over time, though, I wanted more. I wanted to become more to this company than just a standard, loyal employee with no room to grow. I asked for more money and for more responsibility. I wanted to become a lead man at some point in time or at least the assistant lead sooner rather than later. I knew this would take a few years if not more, but I wanted to know that it was a possibility. I didn’t want to commit to one place for life, without adding to what I was doing every day. I enjoyed working with my hands, but it started to become mundane to me, doing the same thing most days. Suddenly, I couldn’t wait until the weekends or the days in which I would use my vacation up (I had 3 weeks worth). 

I wanted a new challenge. I wanted to become the youngest to do things that no one had within this company.

Teflon Don

I was laughed at. I was told I needed to stay in my lane. I was told that I had “at least another 20 years” to get where everyone else was. Well, I’ll let you in on a secret; I also knew how much most of the people earned there. Through talks, people showing me checks, etc. It was no secret to everyone else what people made each week. I wanted to make more. Not saying I was worth what the 20 year vets were making, but I was young, hungry and willing to commit. I went from pulling in thousands a week playing poker, to like $400-500 depending on overtime, to near the end of my time another extra hundred or so. What I was putting in wasn’t worth the return. I didn’t want to settle. I wasn’t used to it. I started having other thoughts.

You see, during that time, I had lived in the very town I worked in, and every day going in to work, I would pass a funeral home. It was one, that I would be reminded of my old high school dream (The Rockstar Mortician vs. The World). I would think to myself, “How cool would it be to work at this funeral home, right in town, where I live?” Soon enough, I had thoughts of going back to school, finishing my degree and breaking free.

In a shocking twist of fate, I asked my company what it would take to became a lead man or to at least start making some real money and not just be the low man. I was told, basically, “You need to get a degree, some certifications and put in the time. You’re just not there yet, Noah. You do great work, but you want too much, too soon.”

Coated

In my mind, too much, too soon, meant, waste my life doing something that no longer interests me. If I was to be doing this, at least make it worth my while, or lay out a blueprint for my future, otherwise, why would I stick around?

Why. The word I have used so many times in my life. The word that 99% of the time, the answer of, “Because I said so,” or, “Just do it,” was given. That was never acceptable to me. Give me a reason, help me understand. I want to know why I am doing what I am doing or what the reason is. What’s the end result? I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I want to learn the why. I don’t want everything to just be a means to an end.

I want to know what my purpose is, not just in work, but in life. I had to ask myself, is being a welder what I’m meant to do? The answer was a resounding no.

So, my options were to keep doing what I was doing, with zero incentive to make more money or become something other than what I already was. Why? Why on Earth would I do such a thing? Why would I just give up at a relatively young age (late twenties)? If I was going to go back to school for something, it was going to be in funeral service. It was time to fulfill that promise to my mom. I was going back to school to finish my Associate’s Degree. Hell or high water, I was going to do it my way. It was, my life, after all.

At first, most people at work knew of my plans to go to school for funeral service. I always worked second shift in my time there (2pm-10pm or 12am if there was overtime). This actually allowed me to then take morning classes at school. Since the certification classes in welding were during the day, and my company was unwilling to work around that or allow me to work a different shift, they screwed themselves out of my services. I would take all my general classes and science ones all over again (per MATC requirements because I had been unenrolled so long from before), in the morning, then head to work. It was tiring, it wasn’t easy, as I also had to maintain honor roll grades (B or better) in order to be entered into the funeral service program.

I did what I had to do, and I did it well. I even made the Dean’s List.

Studying

Eventually, the time came for me to start my funeral service program. In order to do so though, I would have to quit my job. It was a huge decision. Suddenly, I wouldn’t have the comfort of my weekly paycheck. The government had shut down online poker during this time, so my sole income was working 40-45 hours a week. And on top of that, I had to at least look into getting some type of experience in working at a funeral home. By this time though, I had actually bought a condo, my dream car, a Cadillac CTS, and was living a good life. I applied to work at a funeral home in a different city. They would be willing to let me work as an apprentice and go to school. 

To make up the difference in money, by not working as much, I would qualify for grants or loans my second semester. Funny, the first semester I was told I made too much money and wouldn’t qualify. So, back to playing live poker I went, for 7 months actually. And this first funeral home would turn out to be nothing what I thought it would be. I wanted to quit. I wanted to just stop going to school, but I was told by a few people that this is not what every funeral home is like, that it gets much better, and with time, I could actually learn to really become a great funeral director. I just needed a fresh start, and to really apply myself. It was best for both sides.

It would take a few years, a few funeral homes, and a lot of money shortages, but the work ethic I would learn from being a welder, I would never give up my true dream. I now work for that funeral home that I passed by every day on my way to work, and it’s funny how fate has a way of working out. I truly feel lucky to be where I am at, but I also know that I helped myself get there (here’s a more in depth look: A Humbling Foray Into Funeral Service). 

I wouldn’t be where I am without being given that chance to work as a lowly metals finisher.

I wouldn’t be where I’m at without my superficial girlfriend wasting my time and money. We actually would break up shortly after me getting the “stable” job because my days were being occupied now, I wasn’t making as much money and I would go back to playing poker online. Another one of our “deals” in looking for a steady income that was job-based, required me to give up poker. I can’t believe I ever agreed to such a thing! In time, poker was just a part of me. I had to play and no woman, man, family member or friend can stop me from playing the game I love. Even if it’s recreationally now, I have to play.

Finishing

I also am here, now, because of a promise I made to my mom. I had to finish that degree. I had to complete it. Nothing meant more to me than her seeing me walk across that stage, receiving my college diploma, ten years in the making. She knew what I went through to reach this point, and it was a culmination of everything I did right and wrong to get to it. 

I’ll never forget my time at the metals company, and I’ll never forget my department. My team, my guys. This blog is in honor of them.

So, here’s to the guys that keep working hard and providing a living for their families. You guys do what I couldn’t. I have mad respect for you. Each one of you. I made it, and it’s because of you. Each one of you helped me along the way. So I thank you, AJ, Berndt, Cleveland, Lutz, Skip, Ralph, Adam, Paul, Mike, Bill, Willie, Benny, Bob, and I’ve saved the best for last… Calvin. 

I made it, and I owe it to each one of you, for teaching me about hard work, sweat equity, the value of a dollar and what it takes to be a man. Here’s to grit and grinding, every damn day. Rain or shine. No matter the weather, we were in our own dog days of summer. The true boys of summer.

 

-Noah Watry

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