Seeing the Light


Sasha the Okay Photographer: Welding, 2013 (CC)

From The Threepenny Review:

I saw streams of gasoline beginning to spray out from behind the sheet steel. It was like something in a Kubrick horror movie: you turn on the kitchen faucet and blood comes out. Gasoline was gushing out now.

What had happened, as later became clear, was that the plant operator back in the control house at the refinery, half a mile away, had made a mistake. He’d opened the wrong valve and charged our pipe with gasoline, and with a hundred and twenty pounds of pressure behind it, the charge flew down the pipe, driving a bolus of air toward the steel cover plate, followed by a rush of gasoline.

Now gasoline was shooting out and pooling under our half-built fabrication, and our work area was turning into a gasoline pond. Later I calculated that a few hundred to a couple of thousand gallons were released. The live electric circuits, the power cables, the Milwaukee grinders, the welding leads burdened with their load of live voltage, the burning torches, all were submerged in a deepening pond of gasoline. In the commotion one of the halide lamps had tipped over, and I saw it shining up at me from the bottom of the pond. It was the eeriest thing I ever saw. The entire area was pulsating with fumes, but by some miracle there was no spark.

They say that people at the last moment experience a bright light as they enter into a realm of brilliance. You see it represented in paintings of the Resurrection. Everything I was on the verge of losing flew through my imagination: the trip to Mazatlán with my darling, the books and plays I was destined to write, the steaks and drinks, the big paychecks, the concerts, the dances, the museum trips, the trusting eyes of my child looking up at me, asking, “Why, Daddy?” I was unwilling to accept this outcome. No, I refuse! And yet the Damoclean moment persisted, hanging heavily like a drop of moisture about to fall from a leaf. The entire duration of the almost-disaster was perhaps thirty seconds, but time itself in this moment had become a stretchy membrane that deformed and elongated, until at last I saw the flow diminish. It subsided to a trickle and then stopped altogether, and then the pooled gasoline began to seep away into the sand. Then, toward the end of this eternity, the plant operator, belatedly realizing what he’d done, clattered down to the area in his pickup, white as a ghost, to investigate. He closed the job and sent us on our way. We seven hands got out of there right away, reeking of gasoline. We didn’t look back. The contractor mailed us our checks. There was no debrief, no consult with the hazmat crew, no safety meeting with the general foreman. It was like a bad breakup: slammed doors, dirty dishes on the table, broken dishes on the floor. But we got away with our lives intact.

What did I learn? Well, to take normal precautions, be alert to surroundings, have what’s called situational awareness. Be careful, be prepared, have an escape route, a Plan B. But I’d done all these things and they meant nothing. It hit me that I’d collided with a dimension of life that had been invisible, that prudence and preparation could not have helped me foresee or control, that one is living on the knife-edge of chance, as Sir Thomas himself might have said, and the way forward is an avenue lined with uncertainties.

“Flash”, Potter Wickware, The Threepenny Review

Frontpage image: rawdonfox: Welding, 2016 (CC)

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