|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 Marmy 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, published more than 50 years ago, reminds us that an overhaul or startup may not go as planned, but it can still have a happy ending.
|“Zakho strode forward majestically and straddled the goat amidships,” guffawed Marmaduke.
“Bilgewater on dedications,” roared Marmaduke Surfaceblow in his foghorn voice. “I’ll tell you armchair engineers about a dedication that almost turned out to be the plant’s requiem.”
This blast took place yesterday while I was having a corned beef and cabbage luncheon at the Bent Propeller Bar, famous waterfront hangout. Effect of Marmy’s sudden explosion was immediate and complete. It seemed that the earth itself had stopped spinning. What had been a raucous babble of voices suddenly turned into the stillness of a tomb. Only thing important was that the cantankerous old fox of a consulting engineer was about to sound off, so every word must be heard.
Thus suddenly propelled into the limelight, the old gent stood at the crowded bar, his 6-ft 4-in. frame straight as an arrow, with his battered gray derby crowning his shock of unruly hair. Marmy leisurely put down his bottle of Sandpaper Gin and turned his back to the bar. Then, surveying his audience deliberately, he hooked his huge thumbs into the armpits of his checkered vest. Satisfied he had the undivided attention of us mortal earthlings, he began to sound off with a blast that shook the bar.
“Now hear this,” he roared. “Back in 1947 I was installation engineer for an American manufacturer at a large industrial plant in Tabuzun, Dhekire. We had just installed a steam turbine-generator unit. Soon as the new machine was running the top brass decided to celebrate by homage to Divirki, their local Goddess of Power.”
“A week before the big day they started decorating with leaves, flowers and branches from sacred plants and trees. Seemed like acres of jungle were cleared of vegetation. The joint looked and smelled more like a giant greenhouse than any respectable power plant had a right to look and smell.”
“Celebration was to be started off in the traditional way, by sacrificing a goat. The animal’s carcass was then to be rationed out to the plant personnel to take home. But the important thing was to make the sacrifice according to Hoyle. That called for someone to straddle the goat amidships and, facing forward, to yank back the animal’s head with his left hand while using his right hand to slash the goat’s throat with a sharp ceremonial knife. Zab Zakho, the chief engineer, was to do the honors, with Amar Azizlya, the chief electrician, assisting with the proceedings.”
“When the great day arrived everyone from miles around showed up, including the village officials. Because the sacrifice had to take place inside the powerhouse next to the new unit, there was standing room only.”
“Everyone was in a festive mood. The great moment arrived. Zakho strode forward majestically, waving his goat sticker. Then, straddling the goat, he yanked the unhappy animal’s head back by its chin whiskers and was about to slash its throat. But at that instant my native assistant, Hulbi Banner, whipped a squirt can filled with carbon tetrachloride from behind his back. Taking deadly aim, he squirted at the goat’s stern section. BULL’S EYE! That squirt started a chain reaction of events that no one present will forget.”
“Being energized so unexpectedly, the goat took one mighty leap, heading in the direction of the Goddess Divriki’s heavenly throne. Zakho suddenly found himself riding the goat for three mighty jumps. Then, just as suddenly, his chin hooked over a wire stretched across the room that was loaded down with decorations. The greatly surprised and most unfortunate chief crash-landed flat on his hull and conked out with the speed of a ruptured fuse.”
“The goat couldn’t be bothered with Zakho, and cared less. He kept making knots, trying to escape from that carbon tet that was corroding his poop deck. About halfway to the other end of the building he aimed for a side window. But the main exciter set got in his way. By then the goat had too much steam up. He tried to stop, but his brakes wouldn’t hold.”
“That plant used one main exciter at a time for all five of its old machines. The exciter was driven by a small impulse shaft-coupling and generator brush-gear. The flying goat landed on a governor drive belt. The belt flew off and the belt safety started shutting down the unit, and the plant. Carbon brushes and pieces of goat went flying in all directions.”
“At that exact moment the big crane was passing overhead. We’d had trouble just a few minutes before the ceremony was to begin, so had the crane pick up a welding machine to take to the far end of the plant. The operator’s head was hanging over the cab’s edge, as he stared at the doings below.”
“As the goat got scrambled on that belt, a hind leg with the hoof attached zoomed through the air and caught the hypnotized crane operator smack between the eyes, knocking him for a loop. Down below all eyes were in the goat’s direction, so no one noticed the runaway crane until it hit the end of the runway with an earth-shaking crash. We noticed it then, all right.”
“Upon crashing, the welding machine hanging on the hook swung violently out through a large window. Swinging back it hit the masonry column that separated the window from the next one and knocked it clear out of the wall.”
“Below in the loading bay was a flatcar loaded with a dozen tons of cement in paper sacks. Those flatcars are called bogies in Tabuzun. Instead of air brakes, this bogie had a long lever on the side for the brakeman to set. The brake was released by kicking the dog, which snapped off the brakes.”
“As luck would have it, a chunk of masonry from above landed smack on the dog, releasing the brakes, The loaded bogie started rolling slowly out of the powerhouse because the rails were downgrade for the first two miles. The switchyard was 300 yards from the powerhouse.”
“By that time bedlam had really broken loose. As that runaway bogie built up speed, natives along the tracks ran for the jungle, shrieking their heads off. But just then we were horrified to see our big diesel locomotive come up the line, headed straight for the bogie. The diesel driver saw it too, but the bogie had picked up a 30-mile-per-hour speed and was shedding a few cement sacks at every bumpy rail joint for good measure. The diesel driver did the only sensible thing done by anyone that hectic day. He stopped, then started going astern to the first siding, about 200 yards down the line.”
“All this time he excitedly jabbered instructions to his brakie, who jumped off, ran to the siding, threw the switch, then threw it back just as the bogie came hell bent for election. He just did make it in time. The bogie went zooming by, throwing cement sacks like rockets in every direction. One of the sacks shot through the cab window where it exploded, putting the diesel driver out of the show temporarily by snowing him under with cement dust. Now we had a runaway diesel. It rumbled to the end of the siding and, since a wooden tie acted as the only bumper, the locomotive went right on through the carpenter shop and came to roost inside the foundry.”
“But the bogie didn’t stop. It headed merrily for the next town of Shatra at a good 60-mph clip. Last time we saw that missile she was zooming around a curve, shedding cement sacks like howitzer shells which exploded in big clouds of dust as they hit the ground.”
“We were still dumbfounded from all that had happened within a few minutes’ time as that bogie disappeared around the bend. That, we thought was that. But no, for coming around the curve on the same track was a trolley car. Shades of Captain Kidd! And through the haze of dust there seemed to be, of all things, a cow sitting in the front seat. This was too much and I wondered whether I was nuts—or possibly delirious.”
“Later, when things quieted down, the trolley driver told me what happened just before the car came around that bend. He said he had seen the bogie zoom around the curve, straight at him. He and the passengers didn’t wait to learn why—they jumped. But lucky for them, the bogie jumped the track on a curve before reaching the trolley. Next thing the driver saw was the bogie rolling down the bank into the river.”
“There was such a cloud of cement dust that no one knew how the young Brahma bull came to park in the front seat. Maybe the crash of the bogie scared him, starting him across the tracks where the runaway trolley scooped him up.”
“Sight of the trolley caused hell to really break loose. Everyone started throwing switches as the trolley came tearing into the switchyard with the bellowing bull in the driver’s seat. Nobody seemed to know what he was doing. Idea seemed to be to do something, and do it fast. If they had done nothing, the trolley would have crashed in the loading bay of the powerhouse. But someone threw a switch, diverting the trolley into the other side of the powerhouse.”
“Trouble with that was that the track led alongside the transformer room and ended up against a loading dock in the far end. The plant office was directly at the end of the track. When the trolley hit the end of the line and crashed into the loading dock, the bull was unloaded as if by jet action. He skidded through the open door of the office. By the time that frightened animal had bulled himself out of the office, the place was a total wreck. A bull in a china shop was a piker to what that fellow did to that office.”
“But there’s more to the story. The staff was hurriedly getting the spare exciter set going when they learned that the crane crash had knocked down about 30 feet of the building cornice which took the telephone lines with it. And the lines had to be repaired before they could call the dispatcher’s office to let him know about putting the machines back on the line.”
“Later we learned that our two other plants had been knocked out when we went off the line. It took about an hour to get things going again.”
“With everything finally shipshape after a fashion, speeches were made as originally planned. We Americans and our native assistants had garlands of flowers hung around our necks. We ate coconuts, dates and candy made from palm juice. We even chewed betel nut along with the natives.”
“The diesel driver, in the meantime, was busy shaking cement dust out of his ears and the crane operator’s noggin was being bandaged over a lump the size of a goose egg.”
“As for chief engineer Zah Zakho, two months later when I left for the States, he was still talking in a hoarse whisper from having his vocal cords tied into a knot when his Adam’s apple tangled with that taut wire.”