Steel-legged chairs fill the cramped meeting room. The focus is on the shiny dispenser at the back. Styrofoam cups are filled and refilled one last time with hot black brew. At least five of the nine foremen are smoking, so fresh air is not an option. One of the nightshift foremen, easily recognizable by the layer of coal dust covering his skin and clothes, looks at his watch. His crimson eyes and slumped posture tell me that he just wants to get the meeting over with so he can go home to bed. The conversation that reverberates off the concrete walls stops as the Mine Superintendent enters the room.
Rocky, strides his compact sinewy frame to the front of the room and greets the meeting with a smile, “Good morning everyone. We’ll just wait until Perry is ready and then we can start the meeting. I’m sure you all have other things to do.”
The Lead Foreman from the nightshift was topping up his cup once more as Rocky had entered the room and is hurrying to his seat as the rest of the foremen laugh at Rocky’s jab. Not so much because it’s funny, but because when Rocky makes a joke, you laugh. If you don’t, you might be the butt of the next. Behind his back, the foremen call Rocky a “prick” because he embarrasses them in front of their peers and crew. Rocky’s boss loves him because he gets tremendous production results, “How was production last night Perry?” Rocky asks.
“Quite good. A hundred and twenty-three loads of waste rock and forty-four loads of coal.”
“I’m surprised,” replies Rocky. A reply I’m sure he had prepared before he heard Perry’s answer. “When I came in this morning, Shovel #3 was waiting for trucks and Shovel #5 had four trucks waiting in line. Perhaps some of those hundred and twenty-three waste loads were paper loads?”
Another jab followed by another round of forced laughter. Everyone is now quite aware of who Rocky has chosen to pick on this week. And all are relieved but Perry. Rocky often demeans his foremen publicly. Presumably thinking it will make them try harder and produce more. Perry says, “Shovel #5 hit some hard digging early this morning and got a bit backed up at the same time as one of Shovel #3’s trucks went down with a hydraulic leak.” But Rocky isn’t listening and goes on to explain the importance of achieving the mine’s production goals.
After a few announcements and an update on some union grievances, Rocky calls on the Maintenance Planner who gives an update on the status of the Shovel #1 rebuild. The Planner explains that the shovel is likely to be down for another two weeks because repairs are taking longer than anticipated, “This is unacceptable,” says Rocky; “I want that shovel made a priority and up and running ASAP!”
“Yes Rocky,” the Planner wisely answers.
I’m up next. Having finished school just two months ago, I’m wet behind the ears and more than a bit nervous. This is my first Production Meeting without my predecessor to help field questions. I go up to the easel where I have a set of marked-up blueprints showing the coal and waste quantities in each pit and the locations of the giant electric cable shovels. I explain that although we have enough coal exposed to feed the plant for the next couple of weeks, we need to do a lot more waste mining in “A” Pit before we gain access to anymore. With Shovel #1 down for so long, we have no choice but to move Shovel #3 from “C” pit to replace it.
Rocky pauses then asks, “Do you know that’s almost a two-mile move?”
“Yes, I’ve budgeted a day of lost production.”
“Do you realize that the waste haul from “A” Pit is the longest in the mine? It will send our waste mining numbers down the drain if we do it while Shovel #1 is still down,” he adds.
“Yes, but we need to get access to some more “A” Pit coal for blending or we’ll run out.” We all know that running out of plant feed is not an option.
Rocky’s face starts getting red and the room goes silent, “What if I told you that there’s no fucking way, I’m moving Shovel #3 to “A” Pit?”
“Then I would tell you that you don’t have a choice. You have to,” I answer. It seems I’m not as wise as the Maintenance Planner. I don’t think anyone has ever contradicted Rocky like that before and the foremen are exchanging glances. He walks up to me gritting his teeth and looks me in the eye. The veins are bulging out on his forehead and neck. For a minute I think he might hit me. I am sure of my numbers and have run my plan by Walter, the Chief Engineer who agrees it is necessary. My failing, in retrospect, is doing it in front of his foremen. Opposing him in public has not only angered but probably embarrassed him.
“We’ll see about that. Meeting over!” he says and stomps out of the room.
I roll up my drawings, tuck them under my arm and head back to the Engineering Office. The foremen are whispering to each other and give me a wide berth. They certainly don’t want to be seen collaborating with the enemy. I look for Walter but am told he’s in a meeting in the General Manager’s office. A while later, Walter comes into my office and explains that although he agrees that my plan is the best way to proceed, Rocky feels strongly against it and we should leave the issue alone for the time being.
It’s now that I realize I’ve stuck my neck out only to have it chopped off. It seems I was sent to do a job that no one else in the engineering department wanted to do. And when I angered Rocky, he ran to the General Manager who told Walter to back off. And Walter caved. In the meantime, I had royally pissed off the one guy at the mine who you don’t want to piss off. And for nothing. All I can do is wait for the fallout.
I learn from the experience that meetings are a great place to share information and formalize plans but not the best place to surprise people with potentially controversial ideas. And I don’t make that mistake again throughout my career. I also learn that my boss, who is normally extremely supportive, is not about to take a bullet for me. We end up solving the problem by hiring a contract dragline to excavate coal below the floor of “A” Pit. This deals with the temporary shortage.
Late one morning, Rocky comes to me and asks me if I’ve ever climbed Luscar Mountain, “I’ve never climbed any mountain,” I say.
“Luscar is more of a hike than a climb,” he explains; “Would you like to go with me after work today? We can drive to the base of the mountain in about a half an hour.”
“Of course,” I reply, more than a little surprised that he asked me. I spend the afternoon wondering why he wants to take me to the top of a mountain. I was pretty sure he didn’t like me. “Perhaps he wants to get me up to the top of the mountain and push me off?” Now I’m wondering if I’m doing the right thing. I call my wife and tell her I’ll be home late… and that I love her.
Located in the foothills of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, Mt. Luscar towers over the mine at an elevation of about 9,000 ft. Rocky drives us to the end of the dirt road, gets out of the truck, changes into his track suit and shoes, puts a sweat band around his head and takes off up the hill. I follow along behind as fast as I can in my work boots and jeans. It isn’t long before Rocky has disappeared into the distance, so I continue up the steep trail through the forest. When I emerge above the tree line, I stop and gaze up at the mountain. About halfway between myself and the summit I can see a small figure climbing what appears to be a short rock face and disappearing over it.
I take a few steps up the scree slope that extends from the tree line to the rock face but the talus slides back down almost as much as I step up. I try a few more times and the same thing happens. I discover that I almost have to run up it to make any progress, so that’s what I do. After another half hour I reach the rock face. Exhausted. The face is only about fifteen feet high but pretty well vertical. There are a few jagged handholds which I use in my attempt to climb it, but finally give up. I decide that if Rocky wants to kill me up here, then so be it. But I’m not about to kill myself. Perhaps that’s been his plan all along.
I wait and catch my breath while enjoying the view. The sun is still high in the sky but I’m in the shade of the mountain. The breeze is strong, and I start getting cold in my wet clothes. Before long, Rocky reappears. He’s hiked up the back side of the mountain to the summit and is on his way down. He scrambles down the rock face, looks at his watch and takes off running down the scree slope. It’s much easier to run downhill on scree. I follow him back to the truck and he drives me home. He tells me he’s set a new personal record for climbing and descending the mountain.
I decide that the whole exercise was probably about showing me how much more fit he is at 42 than I am at 24 and not about getting rid of me. Perhaps he doesn’t want to go alone for safety reasons and I’m the only guy at the mine that will accompany him. Or the only one that won’t leave him to die in case of an accident. Whatever the reason, it’s a great experience and fantastic view from as close to the summit as I got.
I see some mail for him in the office one day and find that Rocky’s real name is Romeo. It turns out that he started going by “Rocky” when he was younger because Romeo sounded like a lover. He prefers people to think of himself as a tough guy. That winter, he invites me to go cross-country skiing with him. I’m not surprised when he skis around the 5-mile trail twice in the time I do it once. I love skiing and it doesn’t bother me that he’s faster.
Rocky tells me that he came from Medicine Hat at the age of 21 to work in the pulp mill. Later, he took a job at the coal mine and worked his way up to the position of Mine Superintendent. Although I don’t like his management style, I admire him for his hard-earned accomplishments. Then I realize that his cruel treatment of his staff has alienated him from almost everyone at the mine. His belief that micro-managing and bullying is the way to get more production has cost him any friends he may otherwise have had. I actually feel sorry for him.
One day he comes to my office and asks me if I’d like to leave early and go flying with him. Rocky is also a pilot and part owner of a twin-engine Bonanza aircraft. We take off from the Hinton airstrip and head into Jasper National Park. The scenery is spectacular as we fly through, and I mean literally “through,” the mountains. We might be flying a thousand feet above the ground but still a thousand feet below the mountain tops. What makes this utterly breathtaking experience even more exhilarating is that we are within a couple hundred feet of the mountainsides. We are both in the cockpit and communicate through our headsets. As we fly toward Mt. Edith Cavell, Rocky tells me the story behind its name. Edith Cavell was a British nurse who was executed during WW1 by a German firing squad for helping hundreds of soldiers escape from occupied Belgium. We fly by the north face which is a notoriously difficult climb. There happen to be two mountaineers on ropes halfway up the face. We are so close we wave at each other.
I think of Rocky from time to time and recently look him up to find that he passed away three years ago at the age of 79. His obituary says he left behind his wife of 59 years and a multitude of children and grandchildren. Having retired from the position of Mine Manager, Rocky spent the rest of his life indulging his passion for outdoor sports as well as giving to the local community. Just before he died, he was named citizen of the year for his many contributions to the town of Hinton. I’m happy to see that he had the opportunity to show people his kinder side. The side I was lucky enough to see.
John Paterson and his wife own and operate a small off-grid nature lodge and coffee farm in Costa Rica. They generate their own electricity with a micro hydro plant and protect 200 acres of rainforest. John enjoys writing and has published two novels and written several creative nonfiction essays.