Marmy’s medicine show

"I’ll find that leak in your buried pipe. All I’ll need is a ship’s sextant, a plumb line, a galvanometer, and a copy of Kurtz’s Theory of Solar-Hydrated Ground Waves," roared Marmaduke Surfaceblow at the Bent Propeller Bar last night. But let’s start at the beginning.

Marmaduke’s office above O’Houlihan’s Machine Shop & Engine Works was locked, so I headed over to the B-P. It was packed, and there was Marmy, firmly anchored to his end of the bar. Between the snippets of loud conversations could be heard the clanking glasses and raucous guffaws of the establishment’s salty clientele.

I recognized a group of engineers from the SS United States at one table, Italian seafarers from the Conti de Savoy at another, Spaniards from the SS Trinidad at a third, and Brits from the tramp ship SS Liverpool at another.

The other patrons were the usual waterfront characters dressed in an assortment of foul-weather gear. They were off tugs and barges; some were stevedores, others, stationary engineers from neighborhood plants. The sawdust-covered floor, the brightly polished bent propeller on the long bottle-lined back bar, white-aproned bartenders scooting between tables with trays of glasses, and the babble of foreign tongues made this a perfect stage for our cantankerous hero.

Everyone but Marmaduke seemed to be drinking and gabbing. As he leaned his large hulk on the bar, his huge paw maintained a stranglehold on a bottle of Sandpaper Gin. The old gray derby was cocked forward on his dome and, as usual, he seemed deep in thought. No doubt his amazing mind was grappling with some complex scientific theory too intricate for mere mortals like us to understand.

Suddenly Marmy straightened up, turned his back to the bar, hooked his thumbs into the armpits of his checkered vest, and roared, "BILGEWATER on tracing out piping leaks with radioactive isotopes! I knocked off those jobs years before the Geiger counter was invented."

Marmaduke Surface said he would use Kurtz’s theory of solar-hydrated ground waves to find a leaking underground steam pipe.

Say what?

The gale from that blast swept through the place like a nor’easter in the Bay of Fundy. That foghorn voice rattled everything, including the bent propeller in the back. Conversation stopped instantly. All eyes turned to Marmaduke, who surveyed his audience calmly. No national or religious icon ever received more attention or respect when addressing the multitudes. Satisfied he had the floor, Marmy began the following, long monologue.

"Back in ’19, I stopped off between ships to do some troubleshooting for my friend O’Houlihan here in New York. One afternoon we got a long-distance call from a fellow named Isambard Gooch of Glen Falls, in upstate New York. He said they needed someone to find a leak in a buried steam line that O’Houlihan had installed a few years before.

" ‘I’ll find that leak,’ I told him, ‘but besides expenses and a hundred dollars, I’ll need a ship’s sextant, a plumb line, a galvanometer, and a copy of Kurtz’s Theory of Solar-Hydrated Ground Waves. I’ll also need a 12-foot square piece of canvas. And you’ll have to lay 12-gauge copper wire directly above the buried pipe. Connect one end to the boiler and the other to the engine."

" ‘Do you want bare or insulated copper wire?’ " Gooch asked innocently.

" ‘Is the steam pipe bare or insulated?’ " I asked back.

" ‘Bare,’ " he answered.

" ‘OK, then, use bare wire,’ I informed him. Gooch agreed to have everything on hand and I promised to be there on the noon train.

"Later, I learned that Gooch owned the Deuterman Ice Co., sellers of both natural and artificial ice. The company’s ancient power plant had a 1,000-hp Parker watertube boiler supplying an old uniflow steam engine that drove a DeLaVergne horizontal ammonia compressor. A Corliss condensing engine drove a second compressor that made the artificial ice.

"Natural ice was harvested from a pond, which also was used for condenser water. The small O’Houlihan donkey engine was down at the pond and was connected to a conveyor for handling ice cakes and hoisting them to various levels in the storage house.

"That engine was about 200 feet from the boiler room and connected to it by a 21-inch buried steam line carrying 200 psi. When a handyman started this engine a few weeks before, for the first time that season, it hardly turned over. There could be only one answer: the line had broken or corroded somewhere between the boiler room and the engine. But that’s where the problem got complicated.

"Isambard Gooch was a nephew of the original owner. When Deuterman died, he left the plant to Isambard and his large estate next to the ice house to Isambard’s brother, Joshua Gooch. But the two quarreled over the inheritance and became deadly enemies. And that 200-foot steam line cut diagonally across Joshua’s estate to the engine and storage house near the pond. When that leak was discovered, Joshua wouldn’t let Isambard dig up ‘his property.’

"Because the pond was caked over and ready for harvesting, the fight became a political issue and the townspeople took sides. Isambard appealed to the mayor, who, in turn, appealed to Joshua, ‘for the good of the community.’ If that ice wasn’t harvested it would hurt everyone, according to the mayor. Finally, Joshua broke down and made one concession: they could dig for the leak, but, in one place only. If it wasn’t there, that was just ‘too bad.’

"That’s when Professor Pocheckoff from the local college got into the act. First, he inspected the ground over that line for surface indications. But there were none. Then he used a long homemade stethoscope to listen for escaping steam. Still no dice. He came up with various theories, but they all would be expensive and he couldn’t guarantee results. Gooch couldn’t chance not finding that leak the first time; so he called O’Houlihan. I told him if I didn’t mark off the spot directly above that leak he wouldn’t owe me a cent.

"When the professor learned about the equipment I asked for, he told Gooch—and everyone else—that I was crazy. Said he’d be on hand when ‘that clown arrives.’ That remark got into the Rochester papers and engineers from all around heard about it.

"Isambard picked me up at the station and drove me out to the ice house. Said he had one hell of a time finding a ship’s sextant and asked me why I needed a navigation instrument. I didn’t answer. When we arrived at the plant, Isambard’s wooden fence was lined with about 200 people, all looking over at the copper wire stretched on the well-kept lawn of Joshua Gooch. And Joshua was waiting, on his property, for the fun to begin.

" ‘Would you mind telling me how you expect to find the leak with that assortment of rubbish?’ sneered Professor Pocheckoff as he gave me the once-over.

" ‘Sure thing, Mac,’ I answered. ‘My method is based on Kurtz’s theory of solar-hydrated ground waves.’ The professor’s eyes suddenly crossed on that one, so I swung into action while he meditated.

"It was a clear cold day in February and the equipment I asked for was spread on a large canvas near the boiler room. And there to help me was a young operator, Bill Arvidson. I told Bill to open the steam valve in the boiler room and make sure the engine’s throttle was shut off. Then I asked him to get me a 5-foot length of half-inch pipe.

"When Bill came back with it, I handed him all the instruments. The crowd watched while I used the pipe as a tent pole under that canvas. I told Isambard and Bill to guide the forward ends of the canvas over the ground while I huddled inside the tent with the instrument and walked along the wire.

" ‘I don’t want the ground waves to escape between the tent’s edge and the ground or my experiment will flop,’ I explained. Joshua busted out laughing and the crowd chimed in and pressed in closer along the fence.

"Inside the tent, I started walking slowly along the wire. Bill and Isambard did their stuff and guided the forward edge of the canvas along the ground. After the tent had moved forward very slowly for about a hundred feet, the crowd saw it stop. Then the tent moved backward slowly for a few feet, then forward again. The spectators roared and I heard plenty of wisecracks.

"Finally, I stepped out of the tent and touched one lead of the galvanometer to the copper wire and stuck the other end into the ground. I carefully marked the zero reading in my notebook. Then, after shooting the sun with the sextant, I walked a few inches forward. I shoved the pipe into the lawn at that exact point and yelled, ‘Here’s your leak.’

"By this time, Professor Pocheckoff was so worked up he could only point at the sextant and stutter. Isambard had a laborer jump over the fence with his shovel and start digging. By then, that fence couldn’t hold the crowd back. They all started jumping over and surrounded the digger. The wisecracks were really flying fast and thick.

"After about 15 minutes of digging, a feather of steam came out of that hole. That stopped the chatter. The professor’s eyes popped. ‘Shut off the steam,’ I told Bill, ‘so this guy can keep digging.’ After a few more minutes, his spade struck the pipe and, as he dug the dirt away from under it everyone tried to peek into the hole.

"The laborer found a coupling with a large hole corroded through the bottom. The soil was so sandy down there that it had absorbed the steam and condensate. Professor Pocheckoff gave me a look and walked away, muttering to himself. Back in Isambard’s office, I collected my money and he drove me to meet the next train."

With that, Marmy stopped talking and turned back to the bar. His story had us all so spellbound that we remained stiff as statues. Several seconds passed before everyone realized the tale was over.

So . . . ?

"OK," yelled a weather-beaten engineer from a rear table. "What did you do inside that tent?"

Marmy looked slowly over his shoulder and yelled back, "Why, I took off my shoes and socks so my bare feet could detect the slight temperature difference over that leak."

That brought down the ceiling with loud guffaws and laughter. When the noise stopped, another character yelled, "But why did you need that sextant and other paraphernalia?"

"Because," bellowed Marmy, raising himself to his full height, "any jackass knows that people hate to shell out for a simple idea unless you make it seem tough by putting on a medicine show."