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Working in temperatures of 160 to 180 degrees, and getting shot with a 12-gauge slug

Mountain Tales: First-hand stories of life in Tehachapi

I went to work at the cement plant at Monolith in about 1954. I became a 2nd class welder, and I used to work all around the plant, doing whatever welding needed to be done. One day after I had been there for more than 15 years, they had me working on repairing a bad place in the kiln where the metal was worn – the kiln was like a giant pipe, 18 feet in diameter and 360 feet long. It was made of 1-inch thick steel plate. Over time the bricks lining the inside wore out and had to be replaced, and the metal itself would wear out sometimes too. So I was at one end of that kiln, up on top about 18 feet in the air, cutting through that 1-inch thick steel plate with a cutting torch so I could then weld a patch over the hole I was going to make. It was always hot work – when the kiln was operating, it was 1,000 degrees, and even after they shut it down the night before and let it cool off, the air temperature would still be 118 to 120 degrees working around it. I was sitting on a 2 x 12 board while I was using the cutting torch, and the wood was smoking from touching the hot metal. It got mighty hot, and you couldn't wait to get away from the kiln and stick your head under water. Sometimes they'd have us drop a little mud patch in where a brick had fallen out, as a temporary fix until they had a shut down and replaced a bunch of bricks, and then the temperature around it would be more like 160 to 180 degrees. There was only about three of us crazy enough to work on it then.

Anyway, I had climbed the ladder and was on top of the kiln using the cutting torch. There was another guy about a 100 feet away on the ground, and the foremen had gotten confused, and one of them told him to start shooting at the old worn out bricks lining the kiln to knock them down so they could be replaced. They used a 12-gauge shotgun, except instead of shot, it had a big slug in each shell. Well, the guy didn't know that I was up there, and I didn't know that anyone was going to be shooting. He fired and one of those big lead balls went through some steel and then went right through my boot into my heel and into the joint. It was burning hot! I guess that kinda sealed off some of the blood because it was so hot (it cauterized the wound it made). That about shattered my ankle and they had to do two surgeries to try to fix it. They had just started using this new kind of glue, and they put the bone fragments together and then squeezed that glue in the joint. They didn't use any wire or screws.

After that I could walk again but I couldn't get around like I used to, so they made me a 1st Class welder and I went up on the hill to work at the quarry, where I wouldn't have to pack all my tools around as much. I liked to be up at the quarry -- I used to see animals up there. I saw a lot of coyotes, and skunks, and a few times I saw ring-tailed cats (a small member of the raccoon family) at night. They usually only come out at night, and you could see their eyes shining when you aimed a flashlight towards them. Bears came around once in awhile, and I used to see deer on the backside of the quarry. I stayed there at the quarry for 12 more years until I retired in 1984 after 30 years with the company.

– Ramon Burgeis

Ramon Burgeis was raised in Tehachapi and was a kind, tough and remarkable man. He was the oldest man at the Tehachapi Oldtimers Reunions in recent years. He passed away in 2020 at the age of 93.