Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Treasured memories of the tools of my trade

A ‘hair-myrrh’?” the ‘never-was-and-future-maybe’ TSA – more likely ICE - man queried. What I had actually said was more like “A ‘ha-muh’!”

But, I am getting ahead of myself already. This story began almost exactly 53 years ago, but I’d like it preserved for a lot longer – alongside its central ‘treasured character’, which I shall place in my safe-deposit-box.

So, what IS this treasured thing - of which I am about to wax? Read on and see for yourselves:

It begins sometime in the Summer of 1961 - between my graduation from Grammar School (Dynevor) and my enrollment into Coleg y Prifysgol, Abertawe - The University of Wales, Swansea.

The Geology Department's motto (‘Gweddw crefft heb ei dawn’) in Welsh translates as: ‘Talent is nothing without work’ – a sentiment my father fully endorsed – and in recognition of my admittance into the Geology Department, he bought me the tool of my trade-to-be: a brand new, shining Estwing ‘geology hammer’. That is the manufacturer's depiction of a new one, here is the appearance of MY treasured hammer - as it is today: 

For some reason, perhaps it was the first blow I struck with it, I vividly recall using it to unearth fossils from an outcrop of shale beneath Pont Walby viaduct in the upper Neath Valley, some 25 or 30 miles from home. It was in that area that I conducted geologic mapping for my undergraduate thesis.  

During my three undergraduate years, I carried that hammer with me to a number of famous locations around the UK. One year, our class spent a week mapping an area at the tiny village of Girvan in Ayrshire (prophetic, maybe), Scotland. Here I am (left) with fellow student Mike Thomas. 


Another year we spent a week studying all kinds of rocks at numerous unpronounceable places all over Scotland. Other field trips had me carrying that hammer through the Malvern Hills in the middle of England, routing out sharks teeth with it at one place and chipping at trilobites in another. That trip also afforded the opportunity to marvel at the scenic beauty and geologic wonders of the Dorset and East Devon coastline – west of Southampton (again perhaps prophetic).

My trusted ‘Estwing’ could not be contained – it was destined to travel. So it was, in 1963, when I was selected by Marathon Oil Company to be in a group of two dozen geology students from across the UK for a two-week field-trip to hammer on the rocks across the English Channel. We traversed from the coastal area near Calais, through the clay-pits near Paris and down through the Jura Mountains into the French Alps. I walked past the American Embassy in Paris on July 4th and downed too much wine (a punster may say we got ‘hammered’) near Lyon on Bastille Day (July 14th).

I graduated in 1964 and contemplated the possibilities of using my degree to secure employment as a geologist in places as varied as a stone quarry in Abergele, North Wales and ‘God-knows-where’ in Africa looking for ‘God-knows-what’ mineral resources. Fortunately, neither position was offered. I was ‘destined’ for a sea-change!

I was offered a National Research Council Grant to conduct post-graduate studies in the Republic of Ireland - through the Geology Department at the University of Southampton. Do you recall I mentioned a possible ‘prophetic’ nexus to Southampton? I made my first ever trip to Ireland in the Summer of 1964 – riding the countryside on a rented bicycle! I began my first stint in lodgings in Southampton that Fall, returning to Ireland the next Summer. This ping-ponging rhythm was repeated over and over through the Fall of 1967 when I had to finally wrap up the studies and again address the next course of actions in my life – once again the prospect of getting a paying job for myself!

Again – I am getting ahead of myself.

In the course of my post-graduate studies in Ireland, not only had I progressed in my mode of transportation - from rented bicycle’ to my very own ‘motorbike’; a ‘Honda 50’; a 49cc, petrol-powered, automatic-clutched, 2-seated, 3-geared machine capable (wind assisted) of 45 mph – but had discovered certain features (see photo collage below - hammer used to indicate scale) that led to co-authorship of a scientific publication:

A tidal flat evaporitic facies in the Visean of Ireland - Journal of Sedimentary Petrology, Vol. 38, No. 4, p. 1079-1093.

If you are really that curious, I could send you an autographed copy of the publication - send me your address on the back of a $10 bill. Hey, it is still cheaper than getting it from geoscienceworld.- where only the Abstract is free.

After leaving Ireland at the end of the Summer of 1966, it faced the dismal reality of not returning until the next ‘routine’ field season at the beginning of the Summer of 1967. “Dismal? Why ‘dismal’?” you quizzically ask. Because I believed I had left something very precious there – in  Ireland - and was concerned it may be gone in a year’s time when I returned. However, compilation of data for that scientific publication fortuitously required an additional trip to Ireland - very early in 1967. I say ‘fortuitous’, because it meant a chance, maybe, to be reunited with my ‘precious trove’. But no, in spite of both return visits in 1967, there was to be no ‘fait accompli’ – yet!

C’est la vie – and so back to the future – to the Fall of 1967. My tenure in Southampton was done; I had applied for, and was successful in gaining, employment with the National Coal Board (NCB) – destined to work as a ‘Prospecting Officer’, in search of coal, in Wales; in the very area adjacent to that Pont Walby Viaduct where I had first used my precious hammer!   

In the Spring of 1968 – some 6 months or more after last leaving Ireland, I returned there – riding this time, not on a Honda 50, but as if I were donned in shining armor, seated on a huge steed. It was but a mere Mini-car that I had rented in Dublin, but it carried me back to the part of Ireland where I had left something behind. This time, I carried no ‘Estwing’, but instead I ‘hammered’ the gas-pedal 90 seemingly interminable miles westward - to be reunited with . . .

It had been almost two years ago - in the Summer of 1966 – when I made a decision of a lifetime – a trip to the enigmatic Shannon Pot, the source of the River Shannon, just 8 miles from where I had left my ‘treasure’ - the center–piece of my thoughts during each of those periods of anguish between 1966 and now, in early 1968, when I was NOT in Ireland.

My ‘treasure’?  My hammer?  No! I had made that trip – on my Honda 50 – with a far different treasure . . . my Anam Cara.

That early 1968 visit all too brief. I returned, saddened, to Wales – one day later than I had told my boss at NCB that I would be back. He was ‘not happy’ – but I was ecstatic to have had that extra day. 

There followed a seemingly interminable passage of yet another few agonizing months – until, in the Fall of 1968, she (my Anam Cara) made her own ‘sea-change’ and took up employment at Lloyd’s Bank in London – 200 miles away from my home.

Full speed ahead now! Frequent visits were now more possible – by train (no rough sea crossing needed) – and we became engaged on her 21st birthday. She relocated to my home town in mid 1969 and in late January 1970, ‘the hammer’ was sought once again!

I was sought after – by a company (remember that first mention of something ‘prophetic’?) named Ayrshire Collieries. No, it was located not in Givan, Scotland. This place was located in Indianapolis, USA!   

Impetuous folk that they are, the ‘Yanks’ who were to become my employers wanted me there (in the USA) ‘yesterday’. So, a whirlwind series of activities - entailing trips to the Canadian and US Embassies and Consulates in Birmingham and London, not to mention all the necessary arrangements associated with getting married - were conducted before the ‘Big Day’ – Valentine’s Day, 1970. 

Well, all feverishness on our parts accomplished, we than had to wait on bureaucracies on this side of the pond – mainly south of the ‘48th parallel’ to get their acts together, before we launched westward on March 31st, 1970 from Manchester, England to Ottawa, Canada. I was to work (hammer in hand), initially, in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies in Alberta.  

After a couple of days in Ottawa, our papers were signed, enabling us to travel to the USA, via Chicago, to Indianapolis - where, contrary to the song, it DOES rain in the summertime! Do you recall, at the beginning of this missive, a glib reference to an ‘ICE’ man? Well, that’s where (at O’Hare Airport, Chicago) he made his entrance – dutifully making sure that he knew just why (I had told him ‘what’) that strange (and strangely pronounced) object was doing in my suitcase.     

After a couple of weeks in Indianapolis, I went up to pound those rocks in Alberta - for less than 2 weeks - then was assigned to oversee drilling operations in Northern Illinois – similar stuff to my work at the NCB. I say ‘similar’ because on this side of the pond I was at work in the ‘private sector’ – no longer a ‘Civil Servant’ who was the recipient of catered tea-breaks in the morning and afternoon, permitted to spend much of the ‘work’ day solving the Daily Telegraph crossword puzzle, playing ‘ping-pong’ on the Board Room table at lunch time and generally waiting for my superiors to die – so that I could advance ‘up the ladder’. No, I was now in the ‘Land of Opportunity’. The world was my oyster and I was about to pry open its shell – with my hammer!

During the next five years, I carried that hammer, pounding on core-samples and outcroppings, from Alabama to Wyoming – both alphabetically and geographically! Other places that saw my hammer (and sometimes, our growing family’s) presence in those five years, included Montana, New Mexico, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Washington. One round-trip, partially to pick up and transport a piece of e-logging equipment, had me driving 4,900 miles through 13 States in 12 days!  On that trip, the day after Thanksgiving, I helped dig a man’s pick-up truck out of 12” of snow in St George, Utah – and that same evening, I basked in the outdoor pool of my motel in Phoenix, Arizona. The vast experiences of those 5 years were incredible – maybe fodder for another blog sometime – but that one lengthy trip had another mini-tale to tell.

I had spent many months, over the previous year or two, driving a company station-wagon around the various exploration sites in Northern Illinois. I think the statute of limitations has expired, so I can now confess that one time (well, maybe more than once) I (unwisely) put that thing through its paces on the mile-long and straight country gravel roads, topping out at 120 mph! Yes – I ‘put the hammer down’ so to speak – in more ways than one!  

Two years later, on my long ‘equipment delivery trip’ out west, I was driving the company’s Jeep Wagoneer. I had to deliver the e-logging device to my boss, who was in the western foothills of the Rockies near Centralia, Washington. His vehicle at that time was that same company station-wagon that I had earlier used to send gravel flying in Illinois. Well, I’ll be damned, if when loading the ‘e-logger’ into the trunk of that station wagon if I didn’t discover something I had evidently lost two years ago – my hammer! Seems that is the story of my life – being separated from loved treasures!     

A year or two later, I was assigned to be Resident Engineer at the Ayrshire Mine - there’s that ‘prophetic’ thing again - near Evansville, Indiana. During my 5 years there, I had no work-related (I think I used it to build a shed in the back yard of our house) use for that hammer – but I kept it anyway.

The next time I probably used that hammer was sometime in the early ‘80s after I had moved to St Louis - to another ‘coal company’ - at that time named Arch Mineral Corporation. I most likely used it in the construction of a rudimentary tree-house in the woods behind our house. During the 15 years we lived there, my hammer pretty much sat idle, except for an activity that I only learned of only a week or so ago – almost 30 years after the fact! My youngest son told me that he, along with other neighborhood kids, likely his brothers too, had often made use of the chisel-end of my hammer to pry up manhole covers. I declined to ask what they did after they opened them. Pretended to be coal-miners, maybe?    

By about 1993, my 1980 Toyota Corolla had developed ‘starter problems’. It became ever more necessary for me to prop up the hood, take my hammer and give the starter motor a tap or two while the key was being turned in the ignition switch. I had developed a technique that enabled me to perform this task single-handedly. It involved the use of a pencil to wedge the ignition switch in place after I turned it; then I’d swiftly exit the car, rap the starter, then hastily re-enter the car to remove the pencil. The hammer had earned itself a place of honor once more – inside a car instead of on a tool rack in the garage.

We moved to West Virginia in 1995 – leaving the Corolla behind (sold for $200 the night before we moved; it had a leaking gas tank) – and moved back to the St Louis area in early 2000 after I was ‘retired from corporate America’ in 1998. During this period, our kids grew up and all but one, at various times, moved ‘out of the nest’. We have since had some of our kids temporarily move in and out of our house here as they acquired their own nests. Though rarely used in these latter decades, the hammer had become part of the family and I was determined that it remained in our nest.

Like I, my hammer is no longer as sharp-looking as it once was – we each bear the scars of time and appear ‘less GQ’ than in earlier days. Maybe it should be laid to rest with me – or maybe simply preserved for posterity, along with this story – for the enjoyment of my children and their children after them. Until that time, I’ll place it securely in my safe-deposit-box. You, my treasured hammer led me to many places since its first days in 1961, through the separations in 1966 through 1968, but the most wondrous of all (including the difficult and lengthy separations in the period from 1966 through 1968) was to this place in 1970:



  1. This was wonderful to read! And, the photos are so lovely! You both look so happy, and still are! :))

    1. Thanks - I have been meaning to write that for some time. Now I must print it and put it in the safe-deposit-box with the hammer!