Keep Shoveling (excerpt)

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There’s an old saying in the steel mill: “When we die, we’re all going to heaven. Because we’re already in hell.” It’s a perfect comparison. Flames are everywhere, in both gaseous and liquid form: shooting out of mysterious valves, sizzling in molten streams, bubbling out of ladles as big as houses, showering down in white-hot sparks, or attacking the sky in flickering orange talons. Black soot, grime and carbon dust coat every surface and the slightest move stirs it up into choking clouds of filth. And then there’s the smell—the sickening, dizzying, rotten egg stench that makes every breath taste like you’re eating a fart.

Don’t forget the constant barrage of noise, the never-ending cacophony of bangs, clangs, thuds, roars, screams, whistles, shrieks, and seismic thuds that torture eardrums and turn every conversation into a screaming match. Or the triple digit temperatures that sear your face and make the entire place feel like working inside of a crockpot. Throw in roving packs of foot-long rats, marauding ladle carriers, remote control trains with no crossing guards, toxic emissions, shards of razor-sharp slag that slice through gloves, and a host of other damnable realities, and the hell analogy is an understatement.

The steel mill is Gary Works, U.S. Steel’s flagship operation. In The Region, U.S. Steel is known as “the big mill.” There are other steel mills in Northwestern Indiana clustered on the southern rim of Lake Michigan—LTV, Bethlehem, Inland, and Midwest—but Gary Works is the largest. Spanning over 3,000 acres, it is a vast nexus of smokestacks stabbing the sky, labyrinthine railroad tracks and pipelines, skeletal ore bridges, endless conveyors, mountains of coal, limestone and iron ore, massive coke ovens, mile-long warehouses, and nightmare furnaces belching clouds of steam, smoke, fire and god knows what else.

It is here where Joe C. and I toil. We are two of the thousands-strong army of contractors who file into the big mill every day to work construction. The two of us are union laborers for Superior Construction, an outfit that’s been camped out in U.S. Steel for decades. It is our distinct privilege to make $13.23 an hour to shovel slag, pour concrete, run jackhammers, cart lumber around, wrestle concrete forms, and risk life and limb to build something known as the continuous slab caster.

The continuous slab caster is a gigantic, slide-like contraption that will swallow molten pig iron from ladles carried from the blast furnaces, form it into a mold, and then birth a perfectly-shaped, eighty-inch wide, twenty-foot long slab of glowing orange steel. It’s basically an oversized version of the Play-Doh Mega Fun Factory, the miniature plastic conveyor belt I had as a kid, only instead of brightly colored, non-toxic clay, this baby punches out 3,000-degree liquid metal. The caster will streamline the steelmaking process; no longer will pig iron be poured into molds called ingots and then rolled into slabs. Nope, once the slab caster is finished, the ingots will be history, and every slab will be born fully formed, before being sent down the line to be worked into rails, reinforcing rods, train wheels, coils, I-beams, wire, and other shapes in the finishing mills.

Joe C. and I work beside the continuous slab caster and its adjoining service buildings, near the line of thirteen blast furnaces. Our chief duty is to build the concrete foundations between the BOP shop and the caster, which will support the rail transfer cars ferrying the ladles of molten metal back and forth. It’s a filthy, smelly, dangerous place that looks like a cross between Dante’s Inferno and a World War I battlefield, with flames billowing out in plumes of fire, cranes screeching by overhead, and huge gaping holes, craters, trenches and other jagged lacerations torn into the earth where our minuscule human figures scramble around with our shovels.

Keep Shoveling is a memoir depicting my experience as a laborer in U.S. Steel. Bracing, bawdy, and full of seedy, unforgettable characters, it’s a rollicking, whiskey-fueled, warts-and-all coming of age story that confirms that not all of life’s lessons are learned in the classroom.

Mission to Mars

 

. . . and now, Ronald McDonald makes his final descent, past the frozen moon of Phobos, entering the atmosphere of the red planet. In a few minutes Oak Brook will give the final okay, and the McMars Probe, after a three month journey, will reach the surface. . .

“Hurry up!”

“You’re missing it!”

“He’s ready to land, son!”

“I’m coming, I’m coming!” cried eight-year old Ronnie, struggling to pull on his yellow clown pants. Mightily he yanked away, inching the trousers higher, before snapping the too-tight elastic waistband around his bulging stomach. Panting from the effort, he ran as fast as he could from his room, to the entertainment pod at the end of the hall.

The entire McRyan family was there, gathered around the 360-degree cycloramic telescreen and its larger than life image of the McMars probe framed against the stars. Ronnie sat on the floor beside twin sister Ronnetta, while Mr. McRyan and old Gramps watched from their ergonomic viewing chairs, each reinforced with titanium alloy to support their obese, pear-shaped bodies. Across the room, swaddled in her conditioning crib lay baby Ronina, a pale, rapidly-fattening grubworm of ten months, her nubby little fingers clawing at the french fry mobile dangling overhead.

“Boy, she really wants those fries!” observed Mr. McRyan, “Look at her go!”

“She’s learning,” said his wife, entering the room, parking herself beside the crib. “But shouldn’t we lower it? To make it easier?”

“Don’t be silly,” said Mr. McRyan. “If the fries were any closer she wouldn’t develop right. She’s got to crave them, Ronna.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” said Mrs. McRyan, pulling a clear plastic garbage bag from her apron and slivering it open. “Well,” she said, approaching the communal eating trough, “I think I’ll clean up a bit.” She worked quickly, and as she scraped the pickle-slop, rancid burger meat and other refuse out of the stainless steel hopper a tangy putrescence filled the air, but the stench–as natural to the McRyans as it was to any other family in the sector–went unnoticed.

“I want a Filet O’Fish.”

“More fries! And a vanilla shake!”

“But you haven’t eaten your McMars Meals yet,” Mrs. McRyan said, sidestepping the six-wheeled Ronald McDonald Martian Rovermobile, McMars Helioponic Potato Farm, McProbe Rocket, and the host of other meal-toys her children had scattered over the tile. “Finish those first.”

“Now Ronna,” scolded Mr. McRyan, “you know the rules.”

“You’re right, honey,” Mrs. McRyan sighed. Since 2093 it had been illegal for any parent to refuse a child a second helping, a policy which was strictly enforced. “Don’t worry, kids,” she said, slinging a trash bag over her shoulder, “you’ll have your food as soon as I’m done with the garbage.”

On-screen, the bun-shaped McProbe fired its retro-rockets. Red dust-clouds streaked by and a hush fell over the room as a veil of ice crystals obscured it from view. The McRyans held their breath, watching, but a second later the tension abated when the yellow M emblazoned on the craft’s fuselage reemerged. The state announcer continued:

Each time the McProbe enters the ionosphere friction increases, which is crucial to attain the desired approach angle of 18.5 degrees. If the trajectory is off by even half a degree, the probe could bounce off the atmosphere and fly into space, where recovery would be impossible. . . but don’t worry, folks, command space-clown Ronald McDonald knows exactly what he’s doing!

“Dad?” said Ronnie, tugging at his father’s pant leg, “is Grimace going to Mars, too?”

“He’s too big, son. There wasn’t enough room.”

“I remember,” sputtered old Gramps, between sips of pureed Big Mac, “when all they owned was the moon.”

“You mean He,” said Mr. McRyan.

“He, they. . . baaaah!” said Gramps. At forty-one the eldest McRyan had defied the doctors, living well past longevity projections despite a life-long intake of over five hundred grams of saturated fat per day. He sat pinched into his chair, his triple-chinned head set atop an Everest of sagging, multi-tiered flab.

“Grimace. . . on the moon! Ha-ha!” he said, “ha-ha-haaa!”

“The moon was only the beginning,” said Mr. McRyan, his pupils dancing with the red and gold pixels of the screen. “If Ronald can establish a base on Mars, he’ll be able to reach the outer planets. Jupiter, Saturn, maybe even Pluto.”

“Pluto!” remarked Mrs. McRyan, wobbling into the room with a tray-load of steaming cheeseburgers, “My goodness! Will he ever stop?”

“Never,” whispered Mr. McRyan, “. . . never.”

His wife dumped the burgers into the trough and straightened up. “Well, I think it’s too much,” she said, “I mean, enough is enough.”

All conversation stopped. No one moved, and for a long, awkward moment the only sound was the hissing of static from the telescreen. Her comment emphasized by the silence, Mrs. McRyan stood tottering on her heels, her eyes flitting nervously around.

“Watch it,” said her husband, “talk like that could get you–”

“I-uh, just meant that Ronald should be. . . satisfied with what he has. I mean, he’s. . . done so much,” she stammered, quickly reshaping her words into a pro-Ronald statement. The Ronald McDonald Youth Organization was rumored to listen in through the intercom system linking each home to its mother restaurant, and for any anti-McDonald’s utterance they heard, no matter how trivial, the punishments were severe, ranging from hot-oil scarrings to outright excommunication.

The McProbe’s speed has dropped below twelve thousand as Ronald plunges deeper into Martian air-space. While the McProbe leaves its mother ship behind and the ROTECH guidance system searches for a landing site, let’s go to our special on-board camera to see the mission from inside the probe. . .

The screen flickered, skipping into a jumble of horizontal lines as the video feed switched transponders. Gradually, the lines reshaped themselves, bending around until the picture snapped into view and the McRyans were overwhelmed with the lurid, full-screen image of Ronald McDonald.

Greetings, McEarth! Ready for Mars?

At the sight of him the McRyans burst into cheer. Ronnie and Ronnetta jumped up and down, shocked into activity, while Mr. McRyan made the sign of the M with his fingers. (Ingrained behavior from his days in the R.M.Y.O.) Ronna nodded her approval, while old Gramps raised a pudgy hand, waving at the clown-tyrant he had worshipped since birth.

Ha-hee! Isn’t space travel fun? said Ronald, looming over an on-board table of nuggets and other deep-fried treats. But gee, you can sure get hungry exploring the solar system! Why, I think I’ll have a little snack–

Before he could utter another word, the McRyans made a mad dash to the eating trough, plunging their arms into the hopper and scrambling after the half-eaten burgers, chicken nuggets, and other fast food items Mrs. McRyan had stocked it with. Ronnetta, being the smallest at a nimble 183 pounds, got their first, snagging a Quarter Pounder with cheese, while her brother grabbed the top half of a Big Mac and a handful of fries. Their parents dove in next, searching for leftovers, as old Gramps watched from the shadows, his shake of five liquefied Big Macs more than enough to satisfy his comparatively meager appetite.

     . . .so try my new McMars burger, with a taste that’s out of this world! Topped with a tangy red space sauce, it’s deeee-licious! And don’t forget the fries! In a special McMars Mission Commemorative Box! Collect all three, yours with any McMars meal . . . .

T-minus five hundred, interrupted Oak Brook, Initiate landing sequence!

     Uh-oh, gang, gotta go! See you on Mars!

The McRyan’s watched as the image cut from Ronald back to a wide shot of the McProbe.

“Almost there,” said Mr. McRyan. “Soon he’ll be on the surface.”

“Today is a great day,” offered Ronna, making amends for her previous anti-Ronald comment, “You’ll remember this as long as you live, kids.”

She was right. It was a monumental day, for Mars was the first world other than Earth to be conquered by the fast-food giant, whose new restaurants opening every six hours had long ago subdued that planet. The transformation happened slowly, surreptitiously, through expert marketing and public relations techniques. With a friendly clown as a spokesperson and a saliva-inducing menu it had been easy, and over the years the restaurants accumulated, spreading across the globe, orming a corporate empire far more powerful than any nation or sovereign state. Nothing could stop its expansion; it kept on, unabated, until the entire planet had become one vast, intercom-linked McHive.

“Mommy, can I have an apple pie?” said Ronnetta.

“Wait till he lands, sweetie.”

“But I’m still hungry!”

“Eat what’s in the snack-trough, kids,” said Mr. McRyan, “We’ll have dinner in a minute.”

“I want dessert.”

“Me too!”

“Look,” said Mr. McRyan, perturbed at having to turn his attention from the screen, “after Ronald lands we’ll have every dessert on the menu. Now be quiet!”

“Damn kids is spoiled,” muttered Gramps. Tendrils of orange special sauce dribbled out of the corners of his mouth as he babbled on. “When I was a boy you got dessert after supper. Now it’s three, four times a–”

The chutes are open! We’re at T-minus fifty seconds! Get your red McMars shakes ready people, we’ll be toasting Ronald McDonald in sixty seconds!

“Oh my God!” shrieked Mrs. McRyan, “THE SHAKES!”

Panicked, she leapt from her chair, dodged Ronnie and Ronnetta, and ran to the kitchen, where she stood over the food preparation counter and barked an order into the intercom. The Voice-Activated Skinner Unit flashed on, whirring and gurgling, and a second later six frosty red McMars shakes splatted out of the beverage hose into their waiting cups.

     T-minus thirty seconds! Twenty-nine! Twenty-eight! Twenty. . .

“Hurry! He’s about to land!”

“I’m coming, I’m coming! Darn this dispenser. . . oh, come on, you stupid hose!”

Finally, after half-filling the last two cups, Mrs. McRyan balanced the six shakes on her tray and walked as fast as she could to the entertainment pod, where she handed out the drinks and took her place beside her husband. The probe was at minus-five thousand now, and the magnitude of the event, finally, had sunk in.

So then, let us watch, all of us, every man, woman and child. . . let us watch, together as one world, as our leader, Ronald McDonald, descends upon another. . .

Mrs. McRyan clutched her husband’s hand in a knuckle-white grip. Mr. McRyan gasped. Even Ronnie and Ronnetta paid attention now, forgoing their toys, as the image of the McProbe surrounded them in a womb-like embrace.

     T-minus ten. Nine. Eight. . .

Hydraulic landing pads unfolded. Retro-rockets ignited, shrouding the probe in a nimbus of rising dust as it drifted lower and lower, nearing the surface.

Four. Three. Two. One. . . annnnnd. . . TOUCHDOWN! RONALD McDONALD HAS LANDED ON MARS!

There was a communal shout, and Mr. and Mrs. McRyan embraced, watching the screen with shiny, tear-heavy eyes. Ronnie and Ronnetta chased each other around the eating chairs, shrieking with joy, while old Gramps nodded his approval. Even baby Ronina sensed that something epic had happened, and unleashed a shrill, celebratory wail from her crib as the landing ramp thudded onto the sand.

Here he comes, lord of all McDonaldland. . . Ronald MccccDonald!

A figure wearing a canary yellow space suit and massive red clown shoes emerged from the McProbe and clomped triumphantly down the ramp. He lingered at the end of the platform, waved, and with one boldly-planted foot, stepped onto the surface.

     That’s one small step for a clown, one giant leap for Mickey D’s!

Mr. McRyan, his cheeks glistening with tears, raised his shake. “To Ronald McDonald,” he toasted, his voice quivering with emotion, “May he conquer the universe. And more.”

“To Ronald McDonald!”

Five waxed drinking cups clashed in mid-air and the McRyans slurped down their shakes.

“Aaaahh!”

“Well, kids? Anyone hungry?”

“YEEAAAAHHHHH!”

As the McRyans waddled off to the food receiving area, the camera scanned around, searching the terrain, before finding and focusing on one final, majestic image: the imprint, wide and paddle-like, of Ronald McDonald’s size fourteen clown shoe, stamped irrevocably into the red Martian sand.

Construction on the first Martian McDonald’s begins immediately and will be completed in time for the first settlers who are due to arri. . .

 

 

 

The Mile-long Hot Dog

In celebration of National Hot Dog Month, Vienna Beef of Chicago assembled the world's longest hot dog 02 July 2003 at Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park, in Chicago, IL, at 16 feet, 1 inch, besting the previous record of 15 feet, 3 inches. Americans will eat 150 million hot dogs on July 4th alone, consuming more than 2 billion hot dogs during the rest of the month of July. AFP PHOTO/Jeff HAYNES (Photo credit should read JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images)

Management had nothing to do with it. Nor did the public relations people, the plant supervisors, or the rest of the R & D staff. No, the idea to build the mile-long hot dog–“Holmes” as we came to call it–was ours completely. From the first tortured sketches to the final prototype, the whole project was conceived, conducted, and ushered to its inevitable conclusion by myself and the four other processed meat technologists here at Weiner Tech.

You probably haven’t heard of Weiner Tech. Not many people outside of Elmo, Indiana–our headquarters–have. We’re the research and development arm of Carnico Food Products, and what we do is invent snack foods, or more specifically, meat-based snack foods. Fun-filled treats like Pork Puffs, Farmer Vinny’s Meat Log, Reduced Fat Schnitzel Stix, and our current taste sensation, Thrillbasa, a six-inch long Polish sausage rolled in a bowel-wringing crust of jalapeno flakes and Japanese wasabi sauce.

What can I say? It’s a bizarre gig. But someone has to do it. And that someone is me.

I’m Douglass C. Rupp, and my particular specialty is emulsions–heat coagulable proteins to be exact. Some guys know microprocessors, other guys know internal combustion engines, but for me, it’s lunch meat. Yup, for twenty years now I’ve racked my brain, contemplating such thrilling topics as protein ratios and metallocene catalyzed polyethylenes, and let me tell you, it gets old, real old. Once, when I was a young whippersnapper out of grad school, it was fun; even a simple pork salad amino configuration would thrill me, but now it’s just boondoggle–all of it.

Sure I make good money, but I want more. I want acclaim. Recognition, however slight, that what I do matters, that my talent is appreciated. That’s how this whole mile-long hot dog thing happened. I wanted to do something epic, something I could point to and say “I did that!”

God knows I have the experience. Four years at Purdue University’s Center for Bovine Research. A decade of lab-intensive training at Oscar Mayer’s state-of-the-art facility in Madison, Wisconsin. Stints at Hillshire Foods and Hy-Grade Farms, where among other things, I pioneered the use of myosin as a binding agent in both olive loaf and Cotto salami. I mean, I’m good–the best there is in this cockamamie business.

But no amount of technical know-how could have prepared me, or any of us, for the emotional tour-de-force of the mile-long hot dog. To this day I still marvel at how it happened, how for one, brief, glimmering moment, we towered, Titan-like, over the entire world of processed meat. Looking back, I can only conclude that it was Fate that brought us together, and that somehow, through some absurd destiny, the five of us had been assembled for one heroic, albeit doomed purpose–to build a frankfurter not one foot long, not three feet long, but five thousand, two hundred and eighty feet long.

 

 

It was Friday, at lunch, and the five of us–me, Bob Krentz, Chet Podgorski, Griff Dolan, and German wunderkind Heinrich von Mueller–were commiserating in the cafeteria, when the topic turned to sausages and thermosealable tubular casings. Not again, I thought, burying my head in a magazine.

“Nylon is the future,” said Krentz, settling into his chair, “it’s strong, resilient, and a fraction of the cost.”

“Bunk,” replied Dolan, “absolute bunk.”

“The Europeans are using it as we speak.”

“For what? Bangers? Some hideous Loire valley saussisson?” said Dolan, snickering under his breath.

“Doesn’t matter. It works for any meat product.”

“It is true,” said von Mueller, nodding eagerly, “I have seen it wit my own eyes.”

Dolan yanked off his wire rims. “You’re telling me,” he said, leaning over the table of plastic trays and balled-up napkins, “that a nylon casing would produce the same texture as a traditional animal-derived casing? Why,” he said, chortling, “that’s just impossible.”

“It depends on the moisture to protein ratio,” said Podgorski.

“And the size of the links,” I added.

“Size has nothing to do with it,” snapped Dolan.

Krentz laughed out loud, his belly flouncing under his shirt. “Ha. Size has everything to do with it, my friend,” he said, rather ominously.

The four of us watched, spellbound, as he made a crane out of his thumb and forefinger and hoisted a weenie out of a quagmire of baked beans. “Consider the foot-long, the lengthiest of all commercial frankfurters,” he said, wagging it provocatively, “why, you may ask, is it only a foot? Why not a yard? Or ten yards?”

“Or a mile,” I said, returning to the pages of Synthetic Meats Montly. “Hey, look. Hormel’s launching a Bouillon Bar.”

“What did you say?” said Krentz, his voice hushed, barely audible over the din of the cafeteria.

“Hormel’s got this new–”

“No. Before that.”

“About the mile-long hot dog?”

And as soon as I uttered that fateful assemblage of words, I felt a spark, a tingle of wild, forbidden delight. The others felt it too, and when I looked up I was faced with a gallery of awestruck stares. For a tantalizing moment we gazed at each other, pondering the thought, before Krentz seized my arm.

“It’s, it’s fantastic!” he cried, gripping me, “A mile-long frankfurter! Why, just think of it!”

“It would feed the whole county,” said Podgorski, beaming.

“Is it possible? How would you–”

“We could do it,” screamed von Mueller, slamming down his fist, rattling the silverware, “the five of us, togedder, could bring it TO LIFE!”

I didn’t know what to say. Of course, the thought of a sausage of such staggering dimensions was beyond incredible, but somehow, despite our enthusiasm, I knew it wouldn’t happen. Carnico was in the midst of a huge new products blitz, from my own Chick-N-Chews to von Mueller’s WurstBurst–traditional German braunschweiger interspersed with refreshing mint flavor crystals–the five of us were swamped.

So as Krentz rambled on and Dolan whipped out his drawing pad, I let the thought dwindle. The mile-long hot dog was a pipe dream, wishful thinking. Douglass C. Rupp had more pragmatic concerns.

 

 

Over the next few weeks, it was nose-to-the-grindstone at Weiner Tech: a blur of test-tubes, fluids, and whirling centrifuges. The five of us barely had time for lunch, and all talk of the mile-long hot dog vanished. That is, until one night, when von Mueller came to me.

I was on Concourse C, heading to the nitrogen tunnel, when his unmistakeable voice cut the air.

“Douglass.”

I turned around, to see his slender figure slouched against the concrete.

“Heinrich?”

“Yes, it is me,” he said, stepping lithely from the shadows.

“It’s midnight,” I said, shocked by his haggard, up-all-night appearance, “what are you doing here?”

He slid a pack of Export A’s from his denim shirt, tapped out a cigarette and nervously lit one up. “I want to talk to you,” he muttered.

“Yeah? About what?”

von Mueller took a drag and exhaled. “About the mile-long hot dog,” he said, wisps of grayish smoke mingling with his words.

“Oh.”

“I’ve made some calculations.” Feverishly, he pulled a handful of napkins and other paper scraps from his pockets and thrust them under my nose. “Look, if the binding index can stay below .0024–”

“What about WurstBurst?” I said, backpedaling, a tad frightened by his enthusiasm. “Aren’t you in the final stages?”

He gazed at me for a pained moment before plucking the cigarette from his mouth and dropping it to the floor. “It will never work,” he said, grinding it out with his boot heel, “I know dat now.”

“But I thought–”

“Douglass!” he cried, rushing towards me, gripping my shoulders so hard that it hurt, “I want to do something big, something I can remember for the rest of my life! No one, and believe me when I say this,” he howled, hovering so close that I could smell the nicotine on his breath, “no one wants wurst!”

I stepped back, shocked by the sudden flare-up. von Mueller was an intense man and a brilliant scientist, but clearly, this mile-long hot dog idea had him obsessed.

“I don’t know, Heinrich,” I said, fingering my clipboard, “I’m awfully busy.”

“Please. We can’t do it without you.”

“What do you mean we?”

“I’m in too, Doug,” a voice announced, from one of the auxiliary tunnels. I squinted into the murk, before I made out the swollen profile of Podgorski, standing there with his hands in his pockets. “Um, we need someone to mix the emulsion,” he said, shuffling up to von Mueller.

“You’re serious.”

“Krentz is designing the casing,” Podgorski whispered, looking furtively around, “Dolan’s doing color. All we need is you.”

“Carnico will never go for it,” I said, shaking my head, “and if we do it on our own, we could get fired.”

“That is a chance we have to take,” announced von Mueller, stepping boldy into the light, “we can do it, I know we can!”

I gazed into his pleading, ice-blue eyes, eyes watery with a sad, almost poetic longing, and I couldn’t help being struck by his courage, and at the same time, his vulnerability. Here was Bavaria’s leading meat technologist, a veritable Einstein in the field of wursts, pates and terrines, willing to risk it all in order to design a gargantuan frankfurter. Was he mad?

“I’ll think about it,” I said. “Okay?”

A look of relief crossed his face. “Okay, then.”

“Of course, should you refuse to help,” said Podgorski, “you’ll have to keep quiet about this.”

“Of course,” I said, turning for the nitrogen tunnel. But before I could travel another foot, von Mueller left me with these final parting words, words which to this day resound deep and poignant, echoing within the canyon of my soul.

“We need you, Douglass. Be there for us.”

 

 

Now I’m not the sentimental type, but there was something sincere about von Mueller’s plea, something oddly touching. To see his dour, rational self so thoroughly entranced by such a fantastical concept made me ponder it myself, and for the next few days I couldn’t help contemplating whether or not I should join “Project Holmes,” as the whole undertaking had been so rakishly named.

At first the idea of a mile-long hot dog seemed ludicrous, but the more I thought about it, the more irresistible it became. von Mueller was right; we needed to do something big, something epic that would make the world notice our talents. We were brilliant researchers, geniuses, but we toiled in total obscurity. And for what? So pudgy middle Americans could cram their faces with fatty snack foods? It seemed hopelessly banal.

Sure, I was comfortable, compared to most people even well-off. I had an impressive ranch-style home in Elmo Estates, a peppy, fuel-efficient Honda Accord (with twin cupholders), a portfolio of burgeoning mutual funds, the whole middle class dream. But what was I doing with my life? Why was I here? It was a question I’d never really asked.

For years I’d focused on the task at hand, immersing myself in the quotidian, and now, suddenly, I was zooming back, examining things from afar, questioning every aspect of my life. Here I was, forty-six years old, newly divorced, afflicted with male pattern baldness, wearing Sans-A-Belt slacks to hide my advancing girth, trudging into a soulless job, day after stultifying day, on the fast track to old age, infirmary, and ultimately, a coffin.

Was it a mid-life crisis? Did I catch a whiff of mortality? I don’t know. But after that night in the tunnel, everything started to seem, well. . . boring.

Over the next week, the mile-long hot dog consumed me. It lingered behind every waking moment, hovered over each trivial conversation, its impossible length burned into my subconscious. I grew moody, distempered; I snapped at my assistants and stormed about the quad, the thought of its all-powerful size reducing my daily tasks to hapless insignifica.

Finally, one night, as I lay staring at the ceiling, it happened. I bolted upright, threw off the sheets and sprinted outside, where I stood naked on the porch, contemplating my entire existence. And there, as the milky moon cascaded down upon me, I capitulated. “Yes!” I screamed, to the boundless expanse of the universe, “I will do it! I will build the mile-long hot dog!”

Dogs barked; lights snapped on, but I cared not. I had made my decision. My life would not be in vain. I would do something. I, Douglass C. Rupp, with the aid of several highly-qualified colleagues, would construct a gigantic weenie.

von Mueller was ecstatic when I phoned him, as were the rest of the team, and the next night we toasted the project in the lab. “To Holmes!” we cried, clinking fifty milliliter beakers of Maker’s Mark together like giddy frat boys. “May he dwarf all other frankfurters with his prodigious size!”

After a few more rounds, we shook hands and took vows of secrecy. It felt criminal, plotting like that, but I couldn’t help thrilling at the subversive nature of it all. I guess all I needed was a bit of adventure.

And the mile-long hot dog was it.

 

 

     Immediately, we set about figuring. We pecked calculators, hammered keyboards, held long, conspiring lunches in the cafeteria, and gradually, a plan began to coalesce.

Of course, designing a frankfurter of such otherworldly dimensions presented some unique problems. Should the casing be gas-permeable? Re-generated collagen? Synthetic? Dolan, of course, wanted natural, but was ruled out in favor of Krentz’s proposal, which was to house Holmes in a micro-thin sheath of cellulosic rubber. This had two principle advantages: it would bring added stability to Holmes’s hyper-long tubular structure, as well as protect him from any hungry admirers wishing to taste the world’s longest hot dog for themselves. (Although if we chose to render him edible at some point, the casing, theoretically, could be skinned away in a massive circumcision.)

Next von Mueller calculated the ingredients. He took the contents of an ordinary foot-long with an eighteen millimeter circumference and multiplied them by 5,280 to arrive at the exact, angstrom-sharp specifications:

 

Meat product                  2,005,308.000790

Water                              802,900.300847

Salt                                 290,203.002081

Flavorings                      81,872.120801

Sodium Erythorbate      22,901.302090

Sodium Nitrite               18,003.450099

 

To one accustomed to the microscopic, the amounts were staggering, not to mention a bit discouraging. I mean, where were we going to find two million grams of “meat product?” At Food Barn? The rest of the ingredients we could procure easily. Carnico had endless chemical reserves, towering, aloof silos of salt and monoglyceride sulfate, but as independent researchers working without a corporate bankroll, we had a serious dilemma when it came to our principle ingredient: meat.

Luckily, Podgorski knew a supplier in Illinois, some guy he went to 4-H with in junior high. Vern Tubson was his name, and he dealt primarily in pork, but he had a truckload of frozen “cow parts” as he put it, that he wanted to unload: lips, tongue, connective tissue, pancreas, hell he’d even throw in some “mountain oysters” if we wanted. I found the idea of purchasing black market beef trimmings from someone named “Vern Tubson” dubious at best, but we had no choice. Podgorski swore the guy was USDA, so we did it. What else could we do?

So one freezing night, with the wind whistling through Carnico’s chain link fence, I found myself shivering on a loading dock, while Podgorski flagged a shabby, puke-green eighteen-wheeler with Yosemite Sam mud-flaps into the refrigeration bays. The brakes screeched to a halt, the back door trundled open, and as pot-bellied, manure-stained Vern Tubson watched bemusedly on, the five of us, using hand-trucks, unloaded pallet after freezing pallet. It was cruel, backbreaking work, and it wasn’t until six hours later, when the sun slid over the horizon in an orange smear, that we finished our task.

“What you boys want with all a that?” Tubson asked, as we sat drenched in sweat, catching our breath.

Dolan looked at him point-blank. “We’re making a hot dog,” he said.

“Well,” said Tubson, squirting a noxious plug of Red Man from his bewhiskered mouth, “must be some goddamn hot dog.”

The entire shipment cost forty-six hundred dollars, which we split five ways. Now it was up to Krentz to finish the last quarter-mile of casing, Dolan to figure the color indices–the amounts of nitrite and lactobacillus needed to give Holmes that rosy, cured-meat color–and we’d be ready to mix.

 

 

The last stages went by with the focus of a military operation. Seeing Holmes in his pre-hot dog state, packed in cellophane, infused us with desire, and like worker-drones we kept on, in a rabid push to the finish. We pilfered the last few ingredients, revised estimates, and soon, after checking and rechecking our calculations, we were ready to emulsify.

That night, working in the wee A.M. hours, we dumped the meat product, polyphosphates and other chemicals into one of Carnico’s massive 10,000 gallon stainless steel pressure cookers and anchored down the lid. And with the others hovering over my shoulder, I sat before the long console of blinking lights, took a deep breath, and flipped on the convection units.

For the next five hours I sat, rigid and alert, watching the endless rows of gauges and meters, adjusting the ingredient levels as only I know how. It was nerve-wracking and tedious–one misread protein configuration and the whole batch could be ruined, instantly–but I persevered, thinking of the glory that awaited me. And slowly, as the temperature rose, and as Krentz dabbed my sweaty forehead with a dove-white hanky, the raw materials broke down, their molecular structures binding together, emulsifying with the coagulants into a thick, gelatinous slurry.

By ten-thirty the mixture had reached consistency, and with a whoop of delight I flew up from my chair. It was done! All that remained was to let the slurry cool and we’d be ready to pump it into the casing.

After a round of backslaps, I took a much needed nap in my office, before heading to the lab to work on Chik-N-Chews and the other hopelessly mundane projects that occupied my day. But I didn’t care. Because in a matter of hours, that elusive entity we’d dreamed about for so long, that ludicrous, Brobdingnagian concept that had enthralled us from the minute I’d first uttered it, would pass from vague imaginings into the realm of glorious, mind-shocking reality.

 

 

At midnight, after the custodial crews had left, the five of us–clad in white jumpsuits, rubber surgical gloves and OSHA-approved safety glasses–met on the production floor of Hangar 119, near the towering, intestinal mass of the Frank-A-Matic processing machine. No one said a word; we gazed confidently into each other’s eyes, as the knowledge of what we were about to do slowly sank in.

“Alright,” said Krentz, pacing back and forth like a drill sergeant, “we’ll start in a ninety seconds. If anyone has to go to the bathroom, go now.”

“I’ll make it quick,” Podgorski said, unbuckling his Dockers and prancing off, a trifle ashamed, to the men’s room.

The rest of us got down to business. Krentz fitted the casing onto the dispersion valve; Dolan checked the feed lines, and von Mueller and I made a last few adjustments to the Frank-A-Matic.

Since Holmes was linkless the machine’s cam disks had to be recalibrated to perform continuously, instead of stopping at pre-determined intervals as in the ordinary weiner-birthing procedure. Hopefully, this adjustment would work. The Frank-A-Matic was the best automatic sausage production apparatus in the western hemisphere, but it was a bitchy, temperamental machine, and after our tinkering, there was no telling how it would perform.

After a few last turns of the caliper, though, it was ready. Podgorski returned from the men’s room, zipped up his fly, and we took our places on the production floor.

“Ready?” cried von Mueller, climbing into the operator’s seat, strapping the leather safety harness around his chest.

The four of us gave the thumbs up, and a second later, with a puff of steam and a whirling, gurgling clanking, the Frank-A-Matic rumbled to life. It trembled, shaking violently in its housings, rattling around, as von Mueller brought it up to speed. Then, once the cacophony turned to a smooth, efficient humming, he seized the controls.

“Okay!” he screamed, lowering his goggles, “let’s make ze motherfucker!”

Dolan cranked on the valves. Krentz secured the casing, and split-second later, as I watched in utter amazement, a tube of pink, ballooning meat shot out of the Frank-A-Matic, filled the rubber sheath, and soared majestically into the air.

“Holy shit!” I cried.

“Grab it!” yelled Krentz.

Before I could move, another thirty feet spilled out of the machine. I stood dumbfounded, alternate waves of horror and joy rippling through my body, and as more of Holmes torpedoed by, thrashing over the floor, I realized what had happened.

The Frank-A-Matic’s dispersion rate was set at ten feet per minute, but somehow, the sensitive gauges had realigned themselves, and now the exit speed was twenty times as fast!

Krentz and I sprinted after him, but Holmes kept on. Already his tip was a hundred yards away, nosing menacingly across the tile, snaking and slithering and sidewinding along, every second bringing him closer and closer to Podgorski, who stood at the opposite end of the hangar, examining his fingernails.  

“Podgorski! Look out!” I screamed.

Immediately he looked up, to see Holmes rocketing towards him. At the sight of the rampaging weenie, his eyes widened, his jaw dropped in a rictus of shock, and he stood rooted to the floor, unable to move. Then, mercifully, some survival instinct kicked in and he snapped into action, lowering his squat form into a wrestler’s crouch, bracing for the impact.

The pink blur barreled over the tile, picking up speed; Podgorski waited, tensed, ready to spring, and right when the angry whip of undulating hot dog came upon him, Chet made a wild, flying leap, hurling his two-hundred and forty pounds atop the super-sausage and pinning it to the floor.

His progress impeded, Holmes bunched into a seething, writhing mass. Podgorski clamped his hands around him like he was wrestling an anaconda, rolling frantically around, squeezing until his face turned beet-red, but the frankfurter–thanks to another boffo emulsifying job by yours truly–was too strong. Krentz and I dove in, and the meat piled up, spiraling back and forth, dipping, soaring, knotting around, growing thicker by the second, until we were completely ensnared.

“I can’t breathe!”

“von Mueller!” I yelled, a section of weiner slithering over my eyes, “for god-sakes. . . SHUT IT. . . OFF!”

For a terrifying moment we lay trapped, with Holmes pinching round, growing tighter and tighter; I felt my breath wither away, my lungs cave in, and right when I was about to lose consciousness, von Mueller hit the kill switch.

It took over an hour for Dolan and von Mueller to extricate us, and we spent the rest of the morning unraveling Holmes and stretching him up and down the hangar, laying him on a series of lightweight aluminum trestles and air-blasting off the detritus. Dolan and I comforted Podgorski, who was badly shaken, while von Mueller set the Frank-A-Matic to a more manageable speed. Finally, at four a.m., the line started up again.

We produced the last half-mile without incident, averaging a sedate twelve feet per minute. All memories of the narrowly-averted tragedy vanished, and as the Frank-A-Matic chugged smoothly along, guided by von Mueller’s steady hand, Holmes wound around the room, elongating into a labyrinth of glistening, reconstituted beef.

Finally, at seven A.M., with a rheumatic cough, the last foot spit out of the machine. Krentz tied off the casing and we carried Holmes to the trestles, where the five of us stood, proud as fathers, drinking up the whole magnificent sight of him.

“There it is,” said Dolan, a wry smile creasing his thin face, “the world’s longest hot dog.”

It took a moment, but slowly, as I followed each twist and turn of Holmes’s incredible length, as I admired inch after glorious inch, the magnitude of our accomplishment melted into my being, and a hot wash of crystalline tears streamed down my face.

“We did it, Heinrich,” I said, clenching him in a bear-hug.

“Yes, Douglass,” he cried, his lip quivering with emotion, “we vill be famous now, all of us.”

Krentz popped open a magnum of Dom Perignon and we passed it around, taking victory swigs and sniffling with joy. Cries of “Yes!” and “Ya-hoo!” echoed throughout the hangar as Dolan and I high-fived, leaping like spastics. Only Podgorski remained stoic and reserved, staring at Holmes with a glazed look in his eye, the memory of the frank-attack still fresh in his mind.

 

 

So that’s how it happened, how “Holmes,” the mile-long hot dog, came into existence. All in all, considering how limited in funds we were, it was an amazing accomplishment, and to this day, whenever my mind drifts back to that special time, I feel a deep, glowing satisfaction. But only for an instant–then, the sad realization of what ultimately occurred creeps into me, replacing my happiness with a curdling disgust.

What tragic event usurped my joy? Let me tell you, let me relate it in all of its infuriating detail. . .

That morning, as we celebrated on the production floor, as our coworkers and bosses and the rest of the research and development staff showered us with accolades and gazed in astonishment at our magnificent Mona Lisa of meat, as we beamed with pride and posed for pictures, standing arm-in-arm, like conquerors, some jealous little kill-joy–God knows who–was already at work, conspiring against us, thumbing through that accursed book, reaching that hateful page. . .

I was standing amid a cluster of black, dangling microphones, relating every phase of our odyssey to the fawning media, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a book passing from hand to hand. I ignored it, but gradually, as more people took it up, an eerie hush fell over the crowd.

And right as I was about to sneak off with Sunny Greenfield, a reporter from WMAQ-TV, Chicago for a private, one-on-one interview, von Mueller staggered out of the crowd, holding a thick, dog-eared paperback with a trembling hand.

“Heinrich?” I said, shocked at his blank, somnambulistic expression, “for God sakes, what’s wrong?”

“This,” he croaked, handing over the book.

I scanned the page, and my heart slammed into my gut as I read the insane, spirit-crushing words:

 

     The longest continuous sausage was one of 28.77 miles, made by M&M Meat       Shops in partnership with J.M. Schneider Inc. in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada on April 28-29, 1995.

 

I was stunned, flabbergasted, aghast. At first, I thought it was a joke, some sick, vile prank, then I flipped over the book and saw its title: The Guinness Book of World Records, 47th Edition, 1998.

For a long, spellbound moment I stood, staring into space, as the scene around me passed to a mad hallucinatory swirl. “No,” I said, in a dying whisper, “no, no, no, no, no. . .”

Yes, that’s what happened–right at the summit of our bliss, right at our moment of triumph, it all came crumbling down. Holmes, our pride and joy, our dream, was dead, kaput, finished, nothing more than a pathetic little cocktail frank compared to the mammoth Canadian sausage. It was unbelievable, a total mind-fuck.

The papers had a field day. “Meat Mishap at Weiner Tech” said the Fort Wayne Sentinel, while the Indianapolis Star cried “Mega-Weenie Goes Limp In Frankfurter Farce.” With all the negative publicity, the Carnico brass hit the roof, and the five of us were severely reprimanded for conducting “unauthorized research.” Of course, if we’d succeeded, they would have worshipped us, erected goddamn statues, but that’s beside the point.

So, in the end, the mile-long hot dog went the way of Fulton’s Folly and the Edsel, becoming another colossal, well-intentioned failure in the annals of American history. For a few months it remained, gathering dust in a forgotten warehouse, a monument to thwarted ambition, but eventually, due to its white elephant status Carnico chose to dispose of it, reeling its entire length onto wooden electrical cable wheels and hauling it, via flatbed, to the incinerator.

And there, on a gloomy, overcast day, with the maintenance crews gaping in disbelief, five grown men stood with hands clasped, with tears of despair raining down their collective faces, paying their last, heartfelt respects to Holmes, the mile-long hot dog. The flames whooped and soared, and just like that, in an inferno of hissing, sputtering sadness, it was over.

But more than just a colossal frankfurter died that day. Part of me died, too; and as I stared deep and hard at that swirling conflagration, as my dream went up in so much smoke, I knew that I, Douglass C. Rupp, senior meat technologist at Weiner Tech, was doomed.

Doomed to hover over the same Petri-Dishes of protein; doomed to create bland, tasteless snackables like Baloney Ponies and I Can’t Believe It’s Mutton! Doomed to spend the rest of my earthly days in a lab coat, with only my memories to sustain me.

But I tried. God knows I tried.

And sometimes, that’s all you can do.

-first published in The Brownstone Review