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A Simple Copper Elbow


Do you ever wonder about the path products take to get to us? In this episode, Dan Holohan follows a simple copper elbow on its journey to the job site.


Episode Transcript

When I was 20 years old I took a job working for a manufacturer’s rep. My father was my boss and since we were the first father/son combination ever to show up at this company he was especially hard on me. He didn’t want anyone to think I was being favored. We were the representatives for the Northern Indiana Brass Company at the time. NIBCO makes copper fittings but we didn’t stock any of them. The factory would ship the goods directly to the wholesalers and my job was to keep track of who got what. I was a clerk. From nine until five I would look at factory-shipment records and make check marks on the customers’ orders. I sat at an old wooden desk and shuffled paper all day long. I had a mechanical calculator that was the size of an overnight bag. It chugged back and forth like an unbalanced washing machine. Day after day I processed paper, never really knowing what I was dealing with. I never got to meet the people who made, or bought, or installed this stuff.

One day I wandered out to the warehouse where the company kept a very small supply of copper fittings, which they used mostly for samples. I picked up a simple copper elbow and carried it back to my desk. I liked the way it blinked brown and shiny in the fluorescent light. That afternoon when the phone calls died down I found myself playing absentmindedly with that copper elbow. I stuck my pinkie through it and felt its smoothness. I remember wondering how they got it to be that smooth. I had never been to a factory. I could only wonder.

In the days that followed, and mostly out of boredom, I began to think more and more about that simple copper elbow. I picked it up and held it to my nose. Copper has a particular odor that’s unlike anything else. It reminded me of the taste I’d get in my mouth when I ran too hard on autumn days during touch football games. That simple copper elbow reminded me of friends who had moved away years before.

As the days went by I started to think about where the copper came from. I imagined a mine in Chile or some other exotic place I would never get to visit. Chile was in the news a lot back then and I read that they had copper. I thought of the men who went down into the earth and clawed the copper from the rocks. I imagined their skin to be as brown as the copper itself. I wondered what their lives were like, if they had wives and children, and if their children would also work in the mines someday.

I began to think about the ore and how the copper got from the mines to the smelters and then (in what form?) to the factory in Elkhart, Indiana. I thought of the ships that must carry the ore northward, and the men who piloted those ships. I wondered if they got bored staring at the sea and their instruments day after day. I thought of these things as I made my check marks on the customers’ orders. One hundred #607 elbows shipped, size: half-inch. Two hundred #611 copper-by-copper tees, shipped. Three-quarter inch. I checked them all, and wondered if this was how my life was to be.

When the copper got to Elkhart it had to be unloaded and someone must be doing that hard work right now, I imagined. I tried to picture what those men looked like. How big were their arms? Did they stop on their way home and drink beer and complain about the boss while their wives waited for them with crying children? Did these men have anything in common with the men who mined the copper? I tried to imagine them meeting in some roadhouse on a gray Midwestern afternoon. Would they recognize each other?

I thought about the machines at the factory that were powerful enough to bash copper into the shape of an elbow, or a tee, or a threaded union. How much force would it take to do that? And what would it sound like? And who invented and built that machine? And what did it weigh? And who figured all of this out?

I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what it must be like to go to work in that factory day after day after day, knowing you would probably be doing this for the rest of your life. I imagined what it might feel like to be a former, small-town football hero who has now grown a beer gut. He does this work every day in the Heartland of America. The crowds no longer cheer. He has only the pounding of the machinery, and that pounding is relentless.

And then I thought of the constant buzzing of the semi’s wheels as it trudges along Interstate 80 on its way to New York City with the copper fittings. The driver stares as far as his headlights will allow through a bug-splattered windshield. He smokes an unfiltered cigarette, and listens to country music. An old dog sleeps on the torn passenger seat. The driver stubs out the cigarette, and then lights another as the miles fly out from under his truck. He thinks about his wife, who is as far away as next week.

And in New York City a few months later, a young man with long hair drives a forklift onto the back of another truck and unloads the fittings into his boss’s warehouse. He has a date that night with a girl he will someday marry. He’s not thinking about the copper, only about the girl.

The fittings sit on the wholesaler’s shelf for a while and quietly gather dust. And one day a heating contractor picks up a heavy cardboard box filled with fittings and a half-dozen other items and tosses it all into the back of his old van. He goes from job to job, making repairs and installing new equipment, and on one Tuesday morning, he reaches into the box and comes out with a simple copper elbow. He cleans the inside of the fitting with a stiff wire brush, swabs some flux over it, and slips it onto the end of a bright copper tube. He never stops to think of how precise the fit is. He never considers what has gone into the mating of fitting and tube. People working all over the world have played a part in this precision, but none of them give much thought to this mating, or to each other. They just go to work every day and do their repetitive tasks. Just as I was doing. We will never meet.

The contractor touches a spark to the end of his torch and watches the fire pop to life. He holds the flame to the base of the fitting and waits. The gas, which once slept deep in the earth, kisses the copper in a way that is as old as creation.

When he has finished his work, the contractor lets hot water surge through the tubing and around that simple copper elbow. He packs up his tools and walks out to his truck. He’s going to take his young son to a basketball game that night.

That evening, the homeowner sits and reads his newspaper in a warm living room. His wife watches TV and the children do their homework. The man casually flips past a small article about trouble in a copper mine somewhere in a country that is too far away to concern him. He wets his fingertip and flips the page.

I hope you enjoyed that tale. If you did, please share it with your friends. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast. I have many more Dead Men Tales to share with you. And I appreciate you being here. Oh, and that simple copper elbow is still on my desk, even after all these years. Thanks.

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