Milling About ( Part 1 )

Posted on September 23, 2014 under Storytelling with one comment


Thrills at the mill



What does a freshly minted university graduate do, with degrees in English and Political Science, to utilize these newfound skills? With the ink barely dry on the diploma, he gets a one way ticket to Victoria and starts his new life and real education working in the forestry industry.

I was travelling with a friend the other day and we passed a sawmill. I saw a mountain of sawdust and I was instantaneously transported back in time.  Fresh out of school, it was time to start earning a living and dealing with the weighty issues of life, like repaying student loans.  Unlike some of my classmates who had embarked upon their career path in grade 4, I had no idea what a person did with a piece of parchment that said “Bachelor of Arts”. I knew what bachelor meant, and managed to maintain that lofty status until the age of 31.

Back in the early 1970’s, the forestry industry was the linchpin of the economy in British Columbia. There were massive mills dotted around the province churning out millions of board feet of lumber, much of it shipped to our neighbors to the south.  All I knew about sawmills was that they paid wages that were better than average.

To this day, I’m not sure why they hired me and I am equally uncertain how I managed to last one day, let alone six months.

One thing you need to know about sawmills is that they are incredibly loud places to work. It takes a lot of machinery to run this type of operation.  If you think listening to Aerosmith live is an eardrum splitting exercise, belly up on top some of the gigantic saws in a mill to get some perspective.

The green chain. According to Wikipedia, “The green chain’s purpose is to collect the final product of the mill and move it at a controlled rate, to be graded and sorted.”  My first job at the mill was working on this line.  It is a massive conveyor belt where freshly cut pieces of lumber spill out by the thousands to be sorted and stacked.  On either side of the conveyor, workers are spaced about 20 feet apart, sixteen workers in total.  Each man (it was strictly a male domain back then) was responsible for pulling different lengths and grades of lumber off of the fast moving conveyor belt and stacking them in neat piles to be picked up by a fork lift.

Sounds simple enough. The good news is that I knew what a 2×4 was before starting my career in the forestry business. The bad news is that I didn’t recognize any of the other million pieces spewing out of the giant maw of the equipment at the head of the belt.

Did I mention the chemicals in a sawmill? Virtually all of the wood goes through a chemical bath as part of the process.  When you work on the green chain, you are issued a heavy leather apron and matching gloves.  A lovely ensemble.  At the end of a ten hour shift, you can feel the poison oozing through your pores.  You can actually taste it.  Luckily, the Colony pub was a mere five minute walk from the mill and the taste of chemicals could quickly be eradicated with a few cold draft.

I’m virtually certain that the mill preys on new workers, especially those with university degrees. There is inherent sadism when they take a rookie and put him at the very head of the green chain.  I was given my position and told that I would be responsible for two grades and length of lumber.  After shift changeover, the conveyor belt started up.  Like a speeding, out of control locomotive, a gazillion pieces of wet, smelly lumber charged down the conveyor belt.  It took about 14 seconds to overwhelm me.

Do you remember the definition of a green chain? There was some mention of “controlled rate”. What they should have said was “out of control rate”.

The green chain does not lie, and exposes weaknesses quickly and mercilessly. When everything is firing on all cylinders, every man on “the chain” pulls out his pieces and neatly stacks them.  There shouldn’t be any wood left at the end of the belt.  Unless you didn’t read “Green Chain for Dummies”.  If everyone doesn’t do their job, the unclaimed lumber piles up on the ground and it doesn’t take anytime at all to identify the culprit.

I’m not sure if it was the combination of the screeching of the giant saws a hundred yards away and the near nauseating smell of the chemicals, but I quickly fell behind as “my” pieces of wood drifted down the conveyor belt and piled up in a heap at the far end.

The foreman only shows up every hour or so. It didn’t take him too long to realize that I needed some schooling.  But long before this, a fellow worker did his level best to set me straight.  He had worked on the green chain for nearly 40 years!  Above the din, he squawked at me and flailed with his arms as if warning me of an impending missile strike.  I couldn’t understand anything he did or said.  After half an hour, I was fully prepared to throttle him before handing in my resignation.

I staggered into the coffee room amid snickers from my fellow workers. They quickly found out that I was a university grad, which compounded the abuse.  One guy, obviously feeling a small tinge of pity, gave me words of encouragement.  He told me that the pub was open until 1:00 in the morning.

I also discovered that the arm flailing, screaming banshee working beside me was a poor soul who was deaf and mute.

I survived the first shift and many more.

And even got a promotion.



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