I have an undated article from the “Handbook of Construction Techniques,” which McGraw Hill once published. The title was “Keeping a Cool Head.” Consider this in hindsight:

After experiencing severe headaches wearing his metal helmet in the hot sun, Ray Vaught, a foreman with E.E. Barber & Sons of Texarkana, Arkansas, came up with a cool idea to take the heat off his head. He put a one-foot-square piece of 3/16-thick asbestos cloth inside his hat as an insulator.

The marked difference between a lined and unlined helmet was clearly evident by touch. By strapping a thermometer inside his asbestos-lined helmet, Ray found that the temperature inside was as much as 20 degrees cooler than the temperature outside. It wasn’t long before everyone on the job had adopted his idea for keeping a cool head.

Sure, I know asbestos is dangerous when it’s airborne and you can breathe it in, and my guess is that probably was happening already somewhere on Ray’s jobs. Everyone thought asbestos was the harmless, miracle mineral at the time. What Ray did only seems nuts today because of hindsight.

 And what do you suppose are the chances Ray and his fellow workers smoked back then? I’m looking at this old magazine ad that shows Ronald Reagan with a Chesterfield hanging from his smiling lips. The copy reads, “I’m sending Chesterfields to all my friends. That’s the merriest Christmas any smoker can have.” In the picture, he’s in front of a Christmas tree and signing a pile of Chesterfield cartons.

 Who knew?

When we see things though hindsight, I think most of us may look a bit dopey. I sure do.

In the 1970s, when I was writing a monthly newsletter directed at contractors for a manufacturers rep that was foolish enough to hire me, I asked an oil-heat technician for his best tricks of the trade. I figured it would make for a good article. He told me to ride with him for a day and so I did. I titled the short article, “The rubber ball solution.” I can’t recall the exact wording I used but these are the basics:

Say you’re on a job doing annual service on an oil-fired boiler or furnace. You happen to glance over at that 275-gallon oil tank that’s next to the boiler. You notice that there’s oil dripping out of the bottom of the tank. You also notice that the homeowner put a tin pan under the leak. You learn that when the pan gets full, and if he remembers to do so, he pours the oil back into the tank. This leak is probably happening because there’s water in some of the oil you deliver to your customers. Oil is lighter than water and the tank is made of steel. That leads to rust at the bottom of the tank and that’s why the tank is leaking.

OK, here comes the great advice, gleaned from my master oil-heat technician.

To fix this leaky-tank problem, just look around the basement until you find a rubber ball that’s the right size to jam between the leak at the bottom of the tank and the basement floor. The rubber ball will stop the leak and add years to the life of the tank.

Pretty jerky advice, right? But keep in mind that this was at a time when an oil spill got fixed with kitty litter and an apology rather than a lawsuit.


That same oil technician told me that the proper way to check stack temperature was to spit on the stack. “If it sizzles, you’re good to go,” he said. “And to check for proper draft all you have to do is hold the lit end of your cigarette right here by the draft diverter and watch how fast the smoke moves.”

It works best with Chesterfields.


Oh, and his method of cleaning an oil-fired boiler was to remove the top of the jacket and use a tree sprayer to blast water down between the red-hot sections. That smell stays with me to this day.

“Then all you gotta do,” he said, “is toss in a Soot Stick and you’re on to your next job. No problem.”

As we drove away, I glanced at the chimney, which looked like London in 1910.

And that master oil-heat technician did all those things for his entire career.




My long-gone father, who worked for a New York City supply house as its shipping clerk, told his 26 drivers to each ask on every job they delivered to for one 2’ X 4’ and one brick. “When you ask for just a little,” he explained, “no one will ever say no.” At the end of each week, he had his Long Island driver drop the wood and the bricks on the lot with the bungalow shell he had bought for $2,500. He finished the place with those materials.

Then he had a well dug and installed a water heater as I watched. He told me the water heater had dents and nobody would buy it. That’s how he got it for dirt-cheap. I often wonder who made the dents. But when he was done, we had hot showers and I was amazed at his capabilities in all things.

But we had no heat in our bungalow so we couldn’t go out to the place on winter weekends. He solved that problem when I was six years old by running a loop of fintube baseboard directly off the water heater with a bronze-body circulator and a thermostat. Now we were warm on our winter weekends, but thinking back, I realize that all summer long, the water in that baseboard was stagnant and probably growing Legionella bacteria.

But no one knew about Legionnaires’ disease in those days, so it must have been OK.


Back to my days with the rep. We sold these big, base-mounted pumps that had motors so large you could ride like ponies. They each connected to a pump that could move water like the Hudson River. Connecting motors to pump shafts were couplers made of cast-iron bars and steel springs. When I would visit these pumps, the couplers were spinning so fast they created the illusion that they were still. There were no coupler guards on any of those pumps.

So I, with the innocence of the young, leaned down one bright morning to take the information off the nameplate that was mounted on the pump’s steel base and adjacent to the Whirling Wheel of Death that was the spring coupler, which looked at my swaying necktie and licked its lips.

 “You don’t wanna do that, kid,” the much-older contractor said to me as his big hands yanked me upward and backward, and just in time. “That thing will suck you right in.” He pointed at the now disappointed beast.

I looked at it, as if for the first time. And gulped.


“I’ve heard about guys with long hair getting sucked in by those things,” he went on as if this was just another day in a big basement. “Guys with long hair don’t belong around big pumps. Gotta tie it back and stuff it up in your hat. That goes for guys with ties, too. Take that thing off, Dan. You’re in a boiler room. No one here is impressed.

I never again wore a tie on a job.

Not long after that, we got the word from the factory that there would be no more spring couplers on base-mounted pumps. There would now be rubber-geared couplers. They explained that when a spring coupler fails at that speed it can send cast-iron and steel shrapnel out into the boiler room and that can do serious damage to equipment and human beings.

Who knew?