I Nearly Died Twice Once.

As many of you know, I have had some medical issues recently; double vision all of a sudden to be specific. Both eyes work OK, just not at the same time. I have been alternating an eye patch to do stuff. One eye sees better far and one better close up. I have three pairs of glasses for prescriptions including a computer use range. I also have a pair of glasses that completely blurs one eye so I can sort of just wear those and not look like a pirate all the time.  The optometrist was concerned that I might have had a stroke and advised I see an MD. I did and though he is not convinced I had a stroke he wants me to see an ophthalmologist and get an MRI. Well, this could be interesting.
I got the call today and have appointments for the ophthalmologist and an MRI. However, because I was a steel worker I have to have x-rays first. Apparently they don’t want to be liable if the machine pulls a shard of metal through my brain or something. I have worked with a lot of metal over the years and it isn’t entirely unlikely that there are metal bits floating around in me.

I welded equine equipment, building corrals and barns and feeders and waterers. I even made a starting gate for a racetrack. That was so much fun.
I welded security grates over all the windows on all the bunkers at a naval weapons station in San Diego. I’ve built bank vaults with miles and miles of rebar and tiewire. I pulled wire for electrical systems for years, pulling huge wires, some as big as your thumb, and sticking out of every cable end was twisted needle-sized strands of copper. You’d be amazed at how long copper bits stay under your skin before they fester up and you can get them out.

 I ran a custom door shop where we soldered leaded stained glass. For complex curves we’d shave the lead strips with a razor knife leaving deadly shards of lead poisoning lying about. I’ve used huge grinders to grind welds down to a satin smooth. I’ve cut monster steel I-beams for commercial buildings. Some of those cuts took the better part of an hour to make it all the way through with a gas-powered grinder that practically weighed more than my lawn mower. If you face a cutoff wheel on a grinder the wrong way, it showers you with hot sparks and bits of metal. Point it the other way and the sparks rebound off the I-Beam and hit you in the face.

 I’ve worked on the railroad getting big things red hot with a torch and hitting them with big hammers while the sparks flew. Everything there wanted to kill you.

I did a lot of wood work too. I worked for cabinet shops, a very dangerous place. A shop full of spinning blades and slivers of wood, lots of sawdust and wood stain and lacquer, chisels and drill bits. Everything wanted to cut you, fall on you, rip your clothes or kill you or, sometimes, explode in a fireball - and that included the coffee made by hairy dudes with glue in their beards and bandaids on their fingers. I’ve seen some shit.

It was there that it happened, in a wood shop, not a metal shop.

It was there that I very nearly died twice once.

This particular shop had a way of customizing tools to create new and interesting profiles on wood. If every shop in town buys their tools from the same place, everything looks the same. We created unique shaper blades out of standard shaper blades and used them exclusively. It paid off big time and some of those raised panels and mouldings are some of my favorite things.

One of my favorite profiles was a deep cut raised panel door. I wish I had a photo for you, but our mobile phones in those days were payphones. Suffice to say it was deep, therefore the raised panel was pronounced. It created shadows, had a lovely edge and they were completely unique for the day.

There is a thing that happens in a well-planned kitchen. A triangle work area with one-step access to the cooking area, the fridge and the sink. When the sun streams through a well-placed window in a  kitchen that uses raised panel doors it turns the whole room into a sundial. The moving light creating shadows ever-changing on the cabinet faces, highlighting the wood work that was so expensive. To accomplish this lovely bit of wood magic took a very skilled and very crazy person to stand in front of an industrial wood shaper for days running the panels through.

A raised panel door is made of 5 parts. Top rail, bottom rail, 2 sides and the panel insert. A groove is cut in the edge of all the frame pieces and a cut is made on the panel so it fits in the frame once it’s all glued up. Look at your kitchen; you probably have some. The thicker the panel and the deeper the cut the more “raised” the panel appears when finished. Most purchased raised panel doors make the panel level with the frame. Custom cabinets actually have it raised, using a thicker panel and a deeper cut. To be different we offered patterns using custom-ground cutters with unique shapes.  The cutters were a matched set of three, actually, and they had to be exactly the same. We started with a piece of steel roughly 1”x4”x.5” and, with grinding wheels, you carved shapes to cut into the wood, eventually finishing by sharpening the leading edge razor-sharp. It took hours. Then the three blades were put into the cutter head. Some, that we reused, we could send out and they would come back with tungsten carbide tips in the exact shape we’d ground on the wheel.

The deep set that nearly killed us all was unique alright. It was deep and curved and there really wasn’t much steel left to insert into the cutter head. The blades were held in by two set screws each and alignment was critical. As the manager, I couldn’t ask my guys to try anything I didn’t and when I felt we had a safe design and install I ran the first panels through as we made adjustments.

You take a door panel that has been cut to size and, starting on one corner, you shove the edge up against the fence and toward the blade until it comes out the other end. You have to stand next to the washing-machine-sized shaper as if it is a table saw, with the fence on your right. So, as the spinning head emerges from the wood, it comes out in the area of your arm pit and both your arms are sort of extended over it as you pass the panel through. This is Oak; it cuts easily with a sharp blade, however it takes a minute and you can’t push too hard or it tears stuff up. Also, if you let go, there is a chance that the machine will fling the lumber at you.

Just when we thought we had it right. BAM! One of the blades that was now spinning at 12,000 rpm jammed in the wood and flew out of the cutter head, then tore a chunk out of my arm, hit one of the other shapers behind me, moving the 500-pound machine an inch (you could see the line in the sawdust), and then it bounced off my steel-toe boot before taking a chink out of the cement floor. It was like some superhero’s deadly weapon. It survived. I think I still have it somewhere on the mantle.

One good thing about a wood shop is there is always a huge pile of sawdust under the table to sop up all the blood that gushed out of my arm. It was a bad movie, then, of tourniquets and bandages and maybe a little white glue and a lot of sawdust. I was a big hairy construction worker in steel-toe boots, so I just soldiered on, taking the rest of the day off and even driving myself home. I played with the kids after dinner. I nearly died that day. If you put your finger on the spot on my arm where it hit and I take one half-step to the right, it goes directly through my heart. One half step, 18 inches, dead center of my beating heart.

I call those days “a day that nothing happened.“ Like the day I nearly killed all my friends with a train, or the day I slid down - but not off - the airplane hangar roof at lightning speed. It was a day that was nearly horrible but not.

I went home, I shook it off, changed the dressing and, during the night, I got blood poisoning from the tungsten.

Another bad movie of ER and admitting and I awaken half sitting up in a hospital bed with my arm as large as my thigh and the heat of a hundred suns coursing through the veins of my right arm. I nearly died again. In the morning a doc came in, sat on the edge of my bed and said “I’ve scheduled a spinal tap because I am pretty sure you have spinal meningitis now and probably only have a few months left to live. Blink. Blink. Blink, and I say “What?! I have kids! I have a brand new baby I can’t die!” Needles (sic) to say he was wrong and, though the spinal migraine was horrible, at least I didn’t die again.

So you can now imagine my delight when I got the news that they want me to lie down in a tube while they turn on a huge magnet capable of pulling the tiniest fragment of metal through my eyeball or something. It could be horrible. So I guess it is a good thing I’ll be getting x-rays done first. We’ll hope they find nothing. Then I can go get the MRI to tell me I didn’t have a stroke. I kinda feel like we know this already and this whole process is a waste of time and money. However, they all want to cover their butts and we must proceed so as to not lay anyone open to the liability of guessing what is wrong with me.

The current diagnosis (without blood work or the MRI) is Cranial Nerve Damage, more specifically either third or fourth nerve palsy, either unlikely to be fixable. So an eye patch may yet be the answer but that remains to be... seen. I’ll probably just soldier up and carry on, ‘cause that’s what big hairy guys do. I don’t need eyes to perceive the beauty around me and my joy is not dependent on my health. Can I get an amen?



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