Tuesday, July 5, 2005


In days long-gone--my first summer out of high school--I worked several months for a propane distributor.  The business was run by two brothers, entrepreneurial types. They had a warehouse; they dealt in a whole range of petrol products--barrels of axle grease, high-viscosity lubricants, ordinary gasoline, and propane.  After just a few weeks, my duties stretched through the warehouse (sweeping, stacking wobbly towers of empty drums on wooden pallets three or four levels high, and hand-loading tractor trailers with grimy barrels) into the east yard where I painted propane pigs with a second coat before the service crew took them into the field for setup.  The tanks shipped from the manufacturer to the distributor (where I worked) in bulk, already covered with one skin of light brown paint.  In loading and unloading, the nylon straps would smudge the paint leaving unglamorous strap-marks around each end of the tank.  So much glamour in yard-sized propane tanks, really: the bosses didn't want marked tanks holding their fuel. 

In that small sandy (and weed-filled) lot, I used an old front-loader to lift the tanks, one at a time, into the air for industrial painting.  I suppose each tank weighed a few hundred pounds, considerably more than I could lift if one fell on me.  None fell, but the front-loader was so old that the crap-draulic compression seeped just enough air that the tank slowly lowered.  Gradually.  The tanks eased to the ground. I had to rush to get the underside painted before removing the lift-straps and painting the top side.  And the paint was the same dull tan color that the tanks had already been painted before shipping.  It wasn't painting to fill a color; it was more precise: painting to match wetness--to fill in the dry areas with fresh paint in the pursuit of coverage.

I never painted more than ten in one day.  Ten propane pigs in roughly six hours--no matter whether they were 500 or 330 gallon tanks--was the most I could bear.  And there were lulls in the shipments and orders, so it wasn't an everyday routine.  I would break from painting to lift more pallet-stacked barrels, even if I didn't have a proper license to drive the forklift.  Other times, sweeping.  One day I painted all of the curbs near the front office Road-sign Yellow.  Another day they had me mow the weeds in the side yard where the tanks-awaiting-purge-and-setup were stowed. 

Within a few weeks, Owners decided they wanted to send me into the field to refurbish older tanks on site.  I drove an old Ford half-ton pickup around the county, following addresses listed on a spreadsheet.  Called the homeowners. Let them know I'd be there.  Piled up the flat-bed with a weed-eater, a bucket of paint, a belt sander, rollers and sponge brushes.  When I say the Ford was old, I mean it was hovering in that hard-to-drive rut between rusted metal and stuff-doesn't-work-properly.  It was a stick shift with a maroon-ish cab.  No power steering, and never put it in second gear because it took two hands to get it out of second gear.  Into the field I lurched, stopping off at country homes and trailer houses, cutting the weeds around the tank, and painting.

When I think about summer jobs, two visits during my stint as a propane tank painter stand out clearly from the others (put fresh coats on maybe fifty tanks in people's yards that summer?).  The first one--a 1000-gallon tank--was on a farm east of town near the Chippewa River.  It was surrounded by deep weeds, maybe four feet tall.  I made two or three trips to this place to finish the job.  The old guy who lived there requested the service.  He probably tipped my bosses onto the whole idea of in-field tank-painting in the first place.  And he was on top of my work the entire time, constantly asking what I was doing, how much longer I would be.  Three days.  His tank: so pock-marked--a grossly uneven surface--I eventually quit sanding it (enough!) and went ahead with the paint.  Memorably bad--hot, dusty, and rough.

Worse: The 330-gallon tank at a mobile home near Farwell.  This was near the end of the job for me.  It was a reasonably new tank, small (330 gal.), well-raised on cement blocks, easy to access, or so it appeared as I chugged up the dirt driveway in the half-ton flatbed.  Only: it was surrounded by chicken wire, in the middle of a make-shift coop.  And! Many of the chickens were no longer alive.  On the worst day of that job painting propane tanks, then, I rolled a fresh coat on a tank in the side-yard of a Farwell mobile home while trying not to stand or kneel on dead chickens.  On the subject of summer jobs, that's all I have to say for now.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at July 5, 2005 9:43 PM to Under a Bushel

Can I use this as a model for my students this fall? I think the dead chickens will make an impression.(Don't they always?)

Posted by: joanna at July 5, 2005 10:20 PM

Of course. My stories of painting propane tanks among dead chickens is here for everyone to enjoy...including your students, Joanna.

Posted by: Derek at July 5, 2005 10:23 PM

At Joe & Vinny's Pizzeria in Sherburne, NY, there's one of those tanks between the building and the parking lot, a tank that looks just like the one in your picture. But the guy who painted it got kind of carried away: it's painted like a roast beef sub.

Posted by: senioritis at July 8, 2005 10:18 PM

I can't say I never tried to make the tanks into art; problem: the paint was all the same color. Once it dried, the roast beef sub masterpieces I brushed and rolled blended light brown, out of plain view. I suppose it's different for a pizza and sub shop, but I always thought the residential painted propane pigs were unimaginative--usually smiley faces and farm animals.

Posted by: Derek at July 10, 2005 8:40 AM

Sonny boy, did I ever tell you about the time I was a fireman on a very old Great Lakes freighter back in the '60s? This thing was built in the '20s! The job was all about pain & agony! The ship was ready for the scrap yard. Even a desperate wine'o couldn't last the job for more than a few days. When I quit, I held the season record for the most days endured in hell. Hell..., I've been there & back. What's new?


Posted by: pops at July 10, 2005 8:10 PM

Fair enough. I've endured nothing comparable to ship-keeping. But did you have to sand it and paint it?

Posted by: Derek at July 10, 2005 8:50 PM

Yes. More times than I care to count. Also have cleaned out the inside of the fire boxes that are under the boilers. It's kinda like crawling into your own coffin with lots of heat. Back in those days, sombody could have closed the hatch, started the fire back up, and not have know that some poor soul (me) was in there.

Posted by: pops at July 14, 2005 9:01 PM

Let me guess: there were rotting dead chickens in the fire boxes? ;)

Posted by: Derek at July 15, 2005 8:48 AM