Marmy, a Horse, and Compressors

Steve Elonka began chronicling the exploits of Marmaduke Surfaceblow—a six-foot-four marine engineer with a steel brush mustache and a foghorn voice—in POWER in 1948, when Marmaduke raised the wooden mast of the SS Asia Sun with the help of two cobras and a case of Sandpaper Gin. Marmy’s simple solutions to seemingly intractable plant problems remain timeless. This Classic Marmaduke story, originally published more than 50 years ago, illustrates that although solutions may be easy to identify, the challenge is often in the implementation. Sometimes a little horse sense is all that is necessary.

“All hell broke loose in the quiet little town of St. Mary’s, Georgia, one July morning in 1916.

“As I was saying, all hell broke loose that morning in St. Mary’s, but let me tell you guys what I was doing in that dinky port in the first place. Three of us engineers from the SS Caribbean went ashore in Savannah one evening after pulling in from Havana. We burned up the town that night and next morning I awoke in the local hotel at St Mary’s. Don’t ask me how I got there. All I know is that I was stone broke.

“Everyone was staring up openmouthed. Only the horse was calm.”

“Walking down to the water-front, I came to the Pratt Refrigeration Co. A native told me that Joshua Pratt was the big shot in town. Fishermen brought their shrimp to his place for icing and shipping. That guy owned half the town and drove two of the finest horses in those parts.

“Pratt was in his office and asked me what in hell I wanted. When I told him I was a marine engineer, he laughed, then motioned for me to follow him into the plant. There I saw three 3D-ton horizontal CO2 compressors running at full speed.

“ ‘You call yourself an engineer,’ he cackled. ‘Well, you got a job and we’ll see how good you really are.’ Then he explained that usually one or two compressors would carry the load, but that lately all three had to run. Trouble was the condenser was coated with paraffin. Seemed that old Joshua had tried to pinch pennies by using a paraffin-base oil in the compressors instead of the usual arctic oil.

“Pratt told me to hang up my coat and start rigging up a makeshift condenser from old piping so I could start cleaning the fouled up condenser soon as it was ready. His idea was to run the piping out into the bay and back. But I knew that was easier said than done.

“ ‘I’ll get that gunk out of those tubes without shutting down, tearing down, building a new condenser or opening one piece of equipment,’ I promised.

“ ‘How?’ asked Joshua, suddenly swallowing his Adam’s apple and staring blankly at me.

“ ‘By shutting off the cooling water to the condenser and getting the condenser so damn hot that all that paraffin will melt out,’ was my answer.

“ ‘Over my dead body,’ wheezed Pratt. ‘You ain’t gonna burn up my expensive plant just to try a hair-brained theory. Operating refrigeration equipment calls for horse sense,’ he added. And that was that.

“So I spent the day going through the motions of sizing up the place for the jury-rig condenser and scouting around for tools and equipment. ‘You can kill a hog without breaking his legs and letting him bleed to death,’ I always said, and I was going to do that condenser the easy way. In the meantime, I got acquainted with the operator: Frank Peeler.

“That afternoon I told Frank my plans for melting out that paraffin. But I let him know that it was a two-man job and also that it would have to be done after midnight.

“Frank was skeptical, but after we polished off a bottle of Sandpaper Gin at the local bar that evening, he was with me.

“At midnight Frank and I entered Pratt’s stable. We unhitched one of his horses and led him down the street to St Mary’s Presbyterian Church. Winding steps that weren’t too steep lead up to a belfry with a railing around it.

“We blindfolded the nag and started him up those steps. At first he balked, but after Frank pulled on his halter from his bow—while I did some pretty good convincing from his stern—he finally got the idea and arrived in good shape. But it wasn’t easy.

“Next morning all hell popped loose.

“The day broke beautiful and clear. Then the first early riser, one Jed Koster, passed the church on the way to his shrimp boat as he had done for years. But this morning he heard the unmistakable neighing of a horse—not from the usual direction of Joshua Pratt’s stable, but from directly above the church.

“Jed looked up, blinked his eyes, then turned white as a ghost. He quickly glanced up again, as if dreading to look. Yep, there was the horse all right, looking majestic as the brilliant morning sun lighted up its red hide and mane. The horse was gazing peacefully out over the town from his noble perch, no doubt waiting for Pratt’s stable boy to bring him his oats.

“Jed opened his mouth as if to say something, but no sound came out. Then, mopping the cold sweat from his brow with a red bandana, he walked slowly toward Pratt’s house. He turned every few steps to look up at the belfry. By golly, it was a real live horse—and it was in the church belfry.

“Before long Jed returned with the tall, lanky Pratt in tow. By then things were really buzzing. A handful of people had gathered already and there was much yelling and hollering. Everyone was staring up openmouthed. Only the horse was calm. From his unique perch he even seemed enjoy all this hubbub.

“After Pratt blew a few fuses, flipped his lid, stripped a gear or two, and blew a high-pressure gasket for good measure, he realized there was nothing to do but get that critter down. But he soon learned that getting a horse down from a steeple took more engineering than running an ice plant.

“By then every man, woman, child, and dog in St Mary’s had gathered around the church. This was the biggest local news since pirates unloaded their unholy cargo on the beach in 1812. Only Frank Peeler and I weren’t there. We were melting out that paraffin.

“Now that the big attraction was at the church, I could do my stuff without being disturbed by Pratt. With all three compressors running, I closed the cooling-water to the condenser. The head pressure began to climb. The normal head pressures in summer were around 900 psi. After running all morning with no cooling-water, the head pressure reached 1,245 psi.

“That’s when Frank left the plant.

“He had a lot of faith in me, but without being braced by Sandpaper Gin, this was a little too much. If the plant was going to blow up, he was satisfied to hear it from a safe distance.

“I opened the oil separator as the temperature climbed and started blowing out melted paraffin. At the same time, I kept adding new arctic oil to the compressor. That was the secret to making this a safe operation—adding good oil as burning oil was removed.

“After about six hours, no more paraffin returned to the large-suction oil-separator. Besides, the head pressure had just about reached the popping-off pressure for the compressors’ safeties. So I cracked the condenser cooling-water slightly.

“After running all three compressors for another four hours under normal conditions, the cold storage-box temperatures dropped enough to cut out one compressor. And by next morning, one machine carried the load.

“What was going on at the church all this time? Well, it was almost midnight before the excitement died down, for it took that long to get that horse back to earth. And it wasn’t until the next morning that Pratt showed up at the plant. He seemed a little haggard and shaky, even after a night’s rest.

“ ‘All your temperatures are up and there’s only one compressor running,’ I informed him. ‘And all the paraffin is out of the condensers.’

“ ‘How did you do that?’ he asked, blinking his eyes and bobbing his Adam’s apple again.

“ ‘By taking your advice and using horse sense,’ I answered.”

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