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Big Willy

By Fred Boland, Machinist 1928-1980
Bayshore Shops, Southern Pacific Railroad

One day about 1935 a job opened up on the boring mill. Stuttering Al Storer, out of his time a few months, bid on it. Fred Schilling, then Master Mechanic, with a cheek puffed out with tobacco, snarled "you spoil one job and I will fire you." The old heads, Tom Skaros, Bingham, and Art Hughes, always disliking a guy's haircut or the cut of his overalls, watched over him. Of course Al made good.

One fellow who didn't make good was a helper always known as "Big Willy". Big WIlly, whose name I will not mention, was a big strapping ox. A whole book could be written about his antics, and if I could remember a quarter of them I would try to write it. He had a college education and was very intelligent, but somewhere in his makeup he was simple.

In those days burning was an advanced helper's job, paying an extra nickel, or sometimes a dime an hour. Big Willy bid and got one, much to the consternation of management. One of the machinist's, probably Mike Markota, who was a great practical joker, and could lead Willy around by the nose, told him he was entitled to an asbestos suit. One day Big WIlly, who was afraid of no one, stopped Master Mechanic Fred Schilling to ask him when he was going to get his suit. Anyone by looking at his predecessor, or other burners would know that someone was pulling his leg, and WIlly must have known it too.

Roundhouse foreman Frank Bull, who had succeeded Shilling, and I watched the performance through the wheels and frame of the locomotive I was working on. Willy approached the Master Mechanic with a grin on his face. "When am I going to get my asbestos suit", he asked. With an imperious wave of his arm, Schilling answered, "Get away from me!". Frank said to me, "I will have to get rid of that man."

Big Willy however, did it to himself. Not long after, a machinist had to take a crosshead guide down for truing up on the planer. He was having a hard time knocking the bolts out. Markota told Big Willy to burn the crosshead guide off. To his credit, he hesitated and questioned the wisdom of this. "Go ahead", said Mike, "Burn it off". So WIlly did. A big piece of metal about four inches thick by six inches wide by five or six feet long that had required hours of forging in the blacksmith shop, planing on the planer, and shaping clearances lay ruined. And so did Willy's years in the Bayshore machine shop lay ruined as well.