Tuesday, September 2, 2008

THE HANGUP by J. Roger Chiles - Part One

I looked up into the inky black. The lamp on my helmet lit up the gleam of white teeth and pairs of eyeballs looking down at me in the darkness. so the bastards thought it was funny? I would allow that amusement is supposed to be caused by relief that the person amused is not in the position of the amuser! No time to philosophise though: a small stone was skittering down the orepass from far above. I tried to shrug my shoulders under the shelter of my helmet, an impossible movement. The stone swished by through the air just behind me, then clinked and clattered its way down to the loading chute almost a hundred feet below.

The day had started more or less as usual, with me going through the log book and the night shift boss's notes. The mine worked two eight hour shifts, seven to three, so I would only see the shift boss if I were to make a special trip in during the evening. The key point of concern this day was production. This was nothing new, but the primary ore crusher had broken down a few days ago and there was a push on to rebuild the stockpile so that the mill and concentrator would not run out of ore. If that happened, production would stop and the mine would lose thousands of pounds a day! Production from one of the principal stoping areas, in my section unfortunately, had dried up during the day yesterday. The cause was a hangup in the orepass, a vertical tunnel which collected mined ore from various points and fed down to a loading chute on the main haulage level. From the chute, the ore was drawn into small railroad cars and hauled to the crusher.

We had allowed the broken ore to accumulate in this orepass system while the crusher was being repaired; many hundreds of tons had built up. Unfortunately, there was a risk involved in doing this. With the broken rock sitting unmoved, there could be just the right (or wrong!) interlocking of pieces to make a bridge across the roughly ten foot diameter opening. Sure enough, this had happened, and the branch of the orepass above the hangup was backed up to every grizzly or dumping point in that section. No more ore could be taken from the stopes that fed these grizzlies.

The clerk came into my office with the usual pile of requisitions to sign. I would sometimes read them before signing, if only to avoid being caught by a waggish shift boss; the storekeeper once had to advise me that they didn't actually stock combine harvesters! No time to check today though. Mushran gave a curt "Good Morning, Sir!" as I discreetly leaned away to avoid the waft of curry fumes. He was from the business and clerical class of immigrants from India who did the legwork of running the trading economy of Uganda. He spoke perfect English; no cheery "jambo, bwana" from him. He added "Mr. Taylor would like to see you." I wasn't surprised in the least.

Jim was a New Zealander who I suspect would have liked to have been a nice chap. As Mine Superintendant however, he was caught between Alf Pugsley, a notoriously hardnosed, old style Canadian General Manager, and a motley crew of mine workers. These ranged from the Ugandan workforce, mostly locals from Toro, none of whom had handled a shovel or piece of machinery before arriving at the mine; through tradesmen and miners - Italians, South Africans, Seychelloise, British; shift bosses from South Africa and England; to the half dozen or so mine captains, including Australian, East African, and British Mining Engineers.

Jim was in a spot right now. The primary crusher breakdown had been caused by a large slab of manganese steel breaking away from a grizzy, a heavy steel contraption located above an orepass, essentially a mammoth steel grate or sieve through which ore must pass, smashed through if necessary, before tumbling down the orepass. Pugsley was rumoured to be hopping with rage at the breakdown, and there was really no excuse for a fifty pound slab of steel breaking away from a grizzly and disappearing into the orestream. The concentrator had been kept going during the repair by buldozing a small reserve of stored ore into the mill feed; there would be more steam blowing from his ears if the mine could not keep up with demand when things were supposedly back to normal, not that "normal" ever seemed to exist.

I walked out into the cool morning air. The sun was lighting up the mountainsides to the west although the valley we were in would be shaded for another hour while the sun swung up in a vertical plane - we were only a few miles north of the Equator. The climate here was as near to perfect as can be found anywhere; the residential area was nearly four thousand feet above see level, and the mine and workings ranged from forty five hundred to seven thousand feet.

Monday, September 1, 2008


My father turned 76 this summer. I also decided to clean out the basement of my house. In the back of my mind, I was also looking for a story he had written, about an experience as a young man working in East Africa. He had written it well over fifteen years ago, and handed me a copy, with the instructions that I should proofread or edit it for him. I read it, and found it somewat verbose, yet remarkably well written (He is my father, of course!). After that, I filed it and forgot about it.

Every year however, around Canada Day (those who know us well will understand why), I seemed to recall it, so I would find it, making sure it was still safe, read through it, and then put it away again.

I seemed to get the impression over the years that he has completely forgotten about it, but I am not sure. I came to realize that it is quite possible that I am in possession of the only copy of this story he had written. I also decided that sometime, sooner, perhaps later, I would find a way to publish it, to make sure there is a permanent record of this experience of his. I think I have finally found the right way, so if you give me your ear, I will try not to disappoint.

For now though I have to go, I have a baby beginning to scream in his crib, and as happens from time to time, I have begun to cry.