Sometimes people lament and say that what is taught in school doesn’t actually prepare us for life. I disagree.

At school I learned how to read, I still do it. I often do it for pleasure. Reading opens many doors and I can find encouragement, instruction, enlightenment and humour.  Reading was good thing to learn.

I consider myself numerate. Not every one is. I can do basic mathematics and whilst I do not begin to understand trigonometry or physics I can handle money, and plan and build various projects. Numeracy was also a positive thing to learn.

Then there was a class that tried to explain electricity to me. Now, I never really got it and even recently I was reading an article that was trying to explain the wonder of moving electrons – but I still don’t get it. What I did get was an understanding of wiring – how to connect wires and switches and plugs to the mains and make it work. I know nothing compared to an electrician and I am ignorant of the building code for wiring – but in a pinch, I can wire things together and they will work. Electricity was a good thing to learn.

Well I remember, being one of three boys in a class full of girls learning to type. It wasn’t consider ‘manly’ in those days but learning to type has set me free so when I write, my mind is on what I am tying to say and not on how to find the keys on the keyboard. Liberating. Typing was a great thing to learn.

At some point I was in a class that introduced us to the art of welding. There were many of us, the theory was explained and we all had a go at it. We didn’t do much – but we were exposed to the wonders of using an arc welder.

Labour used to be cheap here – and in some ways it still is. But if you are short of the readies, even cheap can be out of reach. Hence I’ve learned to put my hand to painting, laying Ytong blocks, tiling, wiring, plumbing, plastering, oh, and yes, welding.

The welding job I was charged to do was non load bearing steel to form a frame for some plastic windows to be installed. We aren’t talking rocket science, initially less than a dozen places needing welding. A competent welder could do the task in an hour or so and all would be straight and true.

I had understood that my friend and I had agreed to call a plumber we know – who is also a welder – to come and do the deed. We would provide the grunt labour and he would do the delicate work on the cheap. Ah, it seems I did not understand…

We had the steel cut and delivered, and whilst I was awaiting the call for the plumber, I got the ‘call’ to weld it together.  It seems that I am cheaper than ‘on the cheap’.

Now one or two lessons some forty five years ago is not a lot to be getting on with.

I have been told that a single spot weld is very strong and how hard can it be? To the professional welder, nothing is simpler.

And so welding rod in my hand I began. Weld, weld, weld, smoke pouring away, sparks flying every which way, molten steel dripping – all is looking good. After the smoke had cleared, and as I have observed, proper welders will hammer and scrape and clean the weld, and so too did I.

When all the dross was removed, when it was clear, not a single spot weld – nothing is holding. Much was twisted and gnarled lumps of melted metal were clumped together or imitating a congealed lump of unspeakable, but therer was not a single weld binding the two pieces of metal together. All the welding, sparking, smoking and dripping had been in vain.

Trail and error – learn by doing – perseverance, dogged determination whatever you want to call that tenacity of spirit or just plain stubbornness is required.

The first stage was to assemble the outer frame – after a fashion, done. The second stage was to fit it into place. Now welding the frame in the courtyard I was standing on the ground and the welds were on the floor. Now the frame was in place and I had to weld the top of the frame to some overhead steel. Now I am below and the welding is above.

Let the reader pause and imagine.

To weld you have to ‘complete the circuit’. That is you have to provide a path from the welder through one lead to the electrode and when in near contact with the metal, the current flows back to the welder via the other lead which is attached to the metal frame somewhere. Where the electricity leaves the electrode it flies through the air, or arcs through the air (hence an arc welder) and the result is you get great heat, hot enough to melt metal – this is the business end of welding. The other lead provides the completion of the path back to the welder. You have to have a complete path for the electricity to do it’s thing.

I learned a couple of new things. As I am a novice at welding, sometimes the electrode sticks to the metal, melting and forming a bond with the metal. This is not good. So I try to pull the electrode away and break the connection. Now, for a solid piece of metal, that some times works. But sometime not. When it doesn’t work, I disconnect the electrode from the handle, grab the electrode pry it off the metal and reposition it in the handle.

Now I learned that if I sit on the metal frame, and if the weather is hot (and it is) and I am perspiring (and I was), that when I grab the electrode and attempt to put it in the handle that I can complete the circuit using my hand and bottom. That was a valuable thing to learn, but not fun.

Welding above your head has some additional challenges. Molten globs of metal tend to fall downwards – I’ve noticed this. Now workmen wear steel toed boots. As I don’t have steel toed sandals, I learned that the little bits of red hot metal tends to go right though my protective socks. Another of those unpleasant lessons.

With the welding above, there is a veritable shower of sparks, smoke and burning globules of dross or molten steel cascading down in a relentless stream. If there is no breeze, all falls basically straight down and you can keep out of the way. Ah, but there is a breeze and a strong one at that everything goes but one way.

The best place to be is up wind – but that would place me on the other side of the wall and there is a significant drop to the courtyard below. The worst place to be is downwind – where there is actually a place to stand and do the task.

It is in this rather necessary but undesirable placement that I attempted the remaining welds, above my head, trying to weld where the need is, in a way that actually binds the metal together.

I press on, the welding rod burning away, sparks and smoke swarming and ever so often the very distinct smell of burning hair. It is either my hair or my beard – something hot landing where I do not wish and singeing it’s way through.

I guess that is the clue that of all the things I learned in school, maybe welding just wasn’t one of them.

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