Massey Metals: I Don't Just Bury It
CB Bassity, ©2002, all rights reserved
A PBS nature program once suggested that if it weren't for ants the earth's surface would be six feet deep in grass clippings, tree limbs, and food waste. Likewise, if not for salvage yards we could be six feet deep in refrigerators. Given time, grass clippings and tree limbs might rot. But refrigerators and railroad cars and Mazda pickups wouldn't disappear for a long, long time.
        Jutting skyward at an odd angle from behind a truck trailer, the huge fiberglass cone, rose-colored and faded, looks like the nose of some kitschy, 1960s-era rocket ship. It sits on a rack out back of Massey Metals, just south of the city limits of Chickasha, Oklahoma.
         "What is it?" I ask Bill Massey, whose salvage yard this is. Bill takes in aluminum, iron and steel, copper, and brass and such—what is he doing with this massive fiberglass shell? Bill says it's part of an AT&T microwave antenna that once beamed our phone conversations from place to place before fiber optics came along. "Are you saving it for something?" I ask. "Why's it back there?"
        "I had to put it someplace," he says, smiling. "You want it?" (Because he sure doesn't.) It came as a bothersome rider with a load of aluminum framework. "I had to take it to get seven thousand pounds of aluminum." Bill says that one day he'll have to bust it up and haul it off. It's one more thing he'll have to get to—and a considerable job too, breaking it up, loading all the pieces into a truck.
        Bill earns a living making our leftover hardware disappear. The best part, he once told me, "is the satisfaction that I know I'm moving the stuff out of the communities and helping the town by getting rid of it. And I feel that I've done a better service than what the city dump or anybody else has because I don't just bury it—I make it back into something useful, make it back into new steel." But the fiberglass cone he will have to dump. Plus he'll have to pay a fee to dump it.
        All of which reminds me of something else he once said. "This is one of them businesses everybody thinks is simple, don't they?"
* * *
        The salvage business typically works like this: Customers pull onto the lot with a load of scrap on a truck or trailer and park it on the truck scales (a concrete pad the length of an eighteen-wheeler) to get a full or "gross" weight. They unload somewhere on the yard and then weigh again for an empty or "tare" weight; the difference between the two is net weight. What kind and what grade of material determine the price per ton.
        Or, as happened one morning in May, a guy pulls up in a car while Bill stands in the garage-doorway of his "metal room" talking on a cordless phone. The guy, in white T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, comes inside carrying a car radiator (copper and brass) and lays it on the platform scales. A digital readout registers twenty-one pounds in green numerals. Bill laughs into the phone and says, "Yeah, it's so muddy you can't get around." Without a word exchanged and hardly a glance, Bill gives the guy a five dollar bill from his pants pocket. The guy says thanks and leaves. Bill stacks the radiator on top of three others on the floor nearby and tells the phone, "Yeah, it rained Sunday."
        Later on, a flatbed pickup pulls onto the truck scales. Riding piggyback is a Chevy pickup minus its glass, doors, engine—cannibalized to the point that it's easier to list what's left: the shell of a cab, the bed, frame and front end. Bill laughs and says to the guy who brought it, "You get all the good out of 'em, don't you." After recording the weight, Bill waves the man on. A regular customer from Rush Springs, he has a dump-bed pickup and knows where to unload. After a few minutes he's back for an empty weight, the rumble of the idling motor reverberating off the wall of the scales house. Inside, the man signs the weight slip and pockets his copy. No money changes hands. He'll bring another vehicle, maybe two, then settle up at the end of the week.
        A red Mazda pickup has also been brought to the yard, but its status is a little complicated. Bill found it parked on the lot Monday when he opened up. It's a nondescript little vehicle; its paint is faded, mottled with rust on the roof and hood. Who owns it and how it got there are anyone's guess.
        There's not just one price for scrap iron, one for copper, and one for aluminum. Bill deals in six different grades of iron and steel (of a couple dozen trade categories) and two grades of copper. And aluminum cans bring a higher price than lawnmower bodies or transmission housings whose aluminum is alloyed with lead or zinc. At the moment he pays 20¢ a pound for most aluminum, and 25¢ a pound for cans. Which makes cans worth $500 a ton, 25 times more than most iron and junked cars, which bring $20 a ton. Like the value of any commodity, these prices fluctuate all the time. Yet chronically weak prices have kept the scrap business in the doldrums for three or four years.
        Lately it's worse, Bill says. "There's been twenty-seven major steel mills file bankruptcy in the last—" he pauses, "two years, I think." He says that a mill near Tulsa that buys most of his steel and iron filed bankruptcy last December and is operating under Chapter Eleven protection. Early this year the price of steel fell so low, "we went two months when you couldn't sell a load of scrap. I get flyers about every other week, some salvage yard being auctioned off. Because there's just no way they can make a living at it.
        "In all honesty I probably should have shut down and got out of it, but I'm too dumb to..." His voice trails off here. I asked him about that later. He's not sure what to make of it himself. "Sometimes I ask myself, a lot of mornings, why do I keep doing this—I'm not making any money at it. But then you hit a good lick, it'll look good for a few days, like anything else you do, I guess."
        Although the market is still weak, Bill says things started to turn around in the spring, "after the government put that tariff on new steel coming in, foreign steel." But cars that once brought fifty dollars coming in over his scales now bring only twenty.
        That's not all he's up against. Some people disapprove of a grease-stained asphalt lot heaped with the mangled carcasses of farm or industrial equipment, cars, air conditioners and large appliances. The state and certain others would like his place to be invisible, behind a fence. Since taking it over, almost twenty years ago, Bill did put up a fence. But the business spills out in front of it. And mounds of salvage behind the fence rise well above it. One time Bill mentioned that a local property-owner had called Massey Metals "the biggest disgrace in town." Then he grinned and said, "Hey, I'm proud to be number one in something."
        Yet it's no picnic being unpopular. "I'm just tired of the politics. That's my biggest gripe, right now, is the politics." He likes to tell about a city council meeting where "one of the council people asked, 'What's a salvage yard supposed to look like?' " Bill got a good laugh out of that. He says he's been putting up with the complaints and people from the state Department of Transportation for fifteen years. "But you know what's funny? The last time the state was on my back, about two months ago, their bridge was piled up out here." About ten tons of highway bridge lay in his yard, I-beams in twenty-foot joints from a nearby renovation project.
        Despite the flak, despite the low prices and uncertain outlook, Bill--who says he started out in the scrap business over thirty years ago as a grade school kid working with his dad—says this about his work: "Oh, I love it. I love to do it."
* * *
        Bill is forty-one years old, of medium height, and trim. Ruddy face, glasses, toothy smile—Bill's smile accompanies nearly everything he says. Brown hair, barely tinged with gray, curls a little over his collar in back. He's outside most of the time, and like most outdoorsmen he invariably wears a hat. His gray, button-down shirts and dark gray pants are supplied by a uniform service. He wears only cotton; nylon would be flammable, he says. "It would be like wearing gasoline-soaked pants." He wears long-sleeved shirts all year round, protection from the sun as well as the ricochet of sparks that shower from steel when he cuts with a torch. The creased black leather of his sturdy, round-toed boots has worn away to reveal a shiny bit of steel toe maybe the size of a quarter on the right foot, a nickel on the left. Not one to waste anything, Bill says he has screwed the soles back on more than once. One sole has a hole worn through it.
        A cordless phone hangs in a black sheath on his belt. The belt was once black but is now scuffed brownish with age and use. When he gets a phone call, a buzzer sounds that you can hear all over the yard.
        Alongside a pen poking out of his shirt pocket are two other tools. One is a soap stone marker for writing on metal. The other is a spring-loaded center punch with a steel point, looking like little more than a mechanical pencil. What's it for? With no more effort than it would take to push through an apple, Bill presses the punch against the back window of a junked car. With a faint plunk it shatters the glass. It's handy to pop the window out of a car so he can stuff it full of light gauge steel before running the car through the crusher.
        He carries a magnet in his pocket at all times. Except when his wife Sue takes it away. "We go on vacation, Sue always takes it away from me, throws it on the dresser. Man, I walk around feeling for my magnet ..."
* * *
        A middle-aged woman in flannel shirt and jeans comes in carrying a plastic garbage bag of aluminum cans. Bill sets it on the platform scales—three pounds—and pays her in change from his pocket: three quarters. She points outside and asks Bill about a rickety sheet metal office cabinet in the bed of her pickup, asks if he wants it. Bill laughs. "You want me to lie or tell you the truth?"
        Now they're both laughing and she says, "I want you to lie, 'cause I don't want to drive out of here with it."
        Bill, laughing: "Boy, you're hard to get along with."
        "I know." She's still chuckling.
        "Tell you what, back up right over there. That way I don't have to move it too far."
        Bulky yet thin sheet metal, you'd think it's more trouble than it's worth. "It is," Bill says, "but you have to take what comes or you lose customers." The woman backs up to a pile of wheel rims, and stops. Bill slides the cabinet to the back of the pickup bed and flops it out onto the pile. Strewn in the back of the pickup are pecan shells, which lead to an elbows-on-truck-bed confab—a pickup bed is like a conference table in this part of the world—that starts out on pecan-shell mulch and roses and acidity, then moves on to kids these days, and eventually lands on some matter of integrity or responsibility, for which Bill's grasp is as finely tuned as his eye for scrap. "It's like the kid who rear-ended my son's car," he says, and starts laughing again. "The kid says—'It wasn't my fault.' Well, who was driving the car? We laughed so hard about that. 'It wasn't my fault!' " The pickup, by way of elbows, shakes with laughter.
* * *
        His everyday business is erratic. "There's just no way to regulate what comes in. That's something I've never been able to get across to a banker's mind, that I'm not a grocery store. I can't order ten cars a day and twenty tons of iron. I have to buy whatever shows, and process it. I may have five loads going at one time, but none of them completed. Cars, iron, metals, refrigerators—everything has to be separated into a category.
        "In fact, in a forty-thousand-pound load of iron, I'm allowed twenty pounds of copper in it." And if it goes over? "They'll dock you. Or they'll send it home. They don't check every load, but you may roll in there today, and they say 'this is the load we're checking.' And I mean, they'll scatter it on the ground and go through it from one end to the other."
        The stuff Bill takes in varies so much that he's hard pressed to say what is the oddest or most bizarre thing he's seen. Standing next to a couple of 55-gallon drums full of chrome-plated brass flush valves for urinals, he tries to recollect something odd. Then this comes to mind: One time he was flattening cans and a Polaroid fell out, of a man and a woman naked. It was someone he recognized. "I tore it up, threw it away. Chances are he wanted me to find it." (For bragging rights, most likely.)
        He's been called on to go out and cut up derailed railroad cars, nine of them within a three-week period, after two different semis ran into trains. "My wife says I can buy everything but blondes, brunettes, and redheads." He has cut up two "Yukes,"quarry trucks from the Dolese stone crushing yard. "They look like Tonka trucks: ten feet wide, twelve feet tall, with tires taller than me and you--they weighed like forty-three thousand pounds." And there was the highway bridge, of course.
        But then sometimes he's working with seventy-five cents worth of aluminum cans and an office cabinet.
* * *
        With other yards going bankrupt, how does Massey Metals manage to survive? Look about the place—it takes a good eye to distinguish some of Bill's working equipment from the junk around it. Take the torch truck, a one-ton '63 Chevy flatbed he uses to cart his cutting torch around the yard. Its dingy gray paint is dappled with dull red undercoat, especially on the crumpled and sprung hood which is secured with a rubber bungee strap to the one-eyed grill, below which rusty frame members end abruptly where the bumper was amputated. Yet vital features are intact, like the exterior mirrors, needed for close maneuvering. The driver-side mirror is ornamented with a cowbell, one jingle bell, and a clamp-on light fixture, minus a bulb. (Why the light fixture? Bill smiles and shrugs: "No reason at all, just felt like it.") Spray-painted on the driver's door are large red numerals "0 1/2." (Why? Same as the clamp-on light.) Bill calls it: "Junkyard equipment, man. I can't see having a new truck out here to tear up." Inside a rusted yet sturdy steel cabinet on the back of the truck is his torch, his most essential tool.
                                                The torch truck.

        Looking less battered, but of the same faded vintage as the torch truck, is a sturdy International logging truck with a hydraulic crane mounted behind the cab. It's parked next to a long roll-off box belonging to a mill near Tulsa that buys his iron and steel. Perched in the open-air seat above the cab, Bill operates the controls for the long-armed crane, reaching for iron piled on the ground. At the far end of the loader hangs an electro-magnet, an oversized wedding cake of steel weighing almost three quarters of a ton. The magnet swings down and lands with a clank on the pile. Then it rises into the air, a skewed cluster of scrap hanging from it. With a deft touch of levers Bill sends the magnet veering up over the roll-off, then hits the release, and the pieces go clangoring into the iron heaped inside. There's an art to building the load, he says: you slope it from one end to the other. "Whereas, if you just pile it anywhere and everywhere, it would make air pockets. Drop stuff up high and let it slide, it'll find its way into a hole." The business is tenuous enough; without resourcefulness he couldn't hope to make it.
        The pile removed, Bill swings his loader to drag the magnet along the ground, unearthing lug nuts and shards. It noses through the dirt like some immense truffle hunter. And then a final sweep, about six inches in the air, and tiny fragments leap into a ferrous fuzz on the magnet's face.

* * *
        He bought the electro-magnet about eight years ago, used, from another salvage yard, although he bought the control box new. "Altogether I've got about $15,000 tied up in that."
        Parked near the metal room doorway is a small forklift, minus the forks. "I bought it for scrap," Bill says, "and it runs like a sewing machine. Hit the key and it'll fire right up. I'll find a set of forks to put on it. I just haven't had time. I'm a scrounger, man—I go find what I need. Very seldom do I buy it new. That's how you make it in business, though, isn't it? Least that's how I've had to do it—rob Peter to pay Paul.
        "The last three or four years, I haven't bought any equipment. The scrap business has been so bad you couldn't afford to."
        Bill didn't have an electro-magnet, nor much of his other equipment, in 1984 when he took over the yard. Not long out of high school, around 1981, he started working full-time for his father who had bought the business in 1977. The place was bankrupt, deep in debt, Bill says, and he made suggestions that didn't set well with his dad. One day his father threw the keys at Bill and said, "You're such a smart-ass, you make it work." Then he walked off the yard, and hasn't been back.
        Recalling how he started out "with twenty-three dollars in my pocket," Bill's voice swells: "Took my first load of iron out and went down to the convenience store, a guy I knew who owned it. I told him, 'I don't have the money in the bank but I'll write you a check if I can get a hundred dollars worth of fuel to get to Fort Worth and back, and I'll cover it when I get back.'" The guy said, "I'm going to take a chance—go on. " Over the next fifteen years Bill says he paid off all his father's debt, over $139,000, besides buying needed equipment. The yard has been mortgage-free for several years.
        How does Bill's dad feel about his accomplishments? According to Bill, "He can't stand it because we made it. After I paid the place off I asked him to sign it over to me, and he said, 'Go f--- yourself.' His exact words, 'go f--- yourself, I want more money.' I said 'I paid off what I promised. That ought to be sufficient.' I was stunned when he said it. I couldn't tell my kid that."
        Although in the past Bill hired some help, he says these days he can't afford to. "I found out me and my wife could do it—and actually get more done." Sue is pretty, with long, very light brown hair. She is on the yard about half the time, wearing the same gray outfit as Bill. The shirt, which she wears untucked, hangs quite long on her. She is petite and looks too slight to be working around tons of loose iron. But she's sharp. One time she caught me rearranging some bright plow points for a photo and immediately said, "but that makes it art." She's quiet most of the time, usually listening, unless to ask something. When they flatten cars, Sue works the crusher while Bill wheels around in the forklift, feeding vehicles to the crusher and removing their pancaked remains.
        They've done well outside the yard too. "Raised two of the best kids in this town, as far as I'm concerned," says Bill. Their daughter, Misty, recently married, is a pre-med honor student at the University of Oklahoma, and son, Bill, works as a mechanic for Johnsons, the local Chrysler dealership. "Both of 'em raised right here," Bill says, "and they know what work is. That boy, I guarantee you, when he was in high school I could go in there at three o'clock in the morning, hit him and say, 'The truck's down with double flats, let's go.' We'd get out to the truck, fix the flats, and he'd come back and go to school and never say a word."
        Bill says working with his father was "almost impossible," and that's why his son works elsewhere. "I told him there's no way you're going to work for me—we'll hate each other. We care too much for each other."
        When the kids were younger Bill often left the yard closed. "If they had school functions, anything, I was there. I didn't care. You might feel nervous because the weather's going to change, and it's right to get something done now," he says. "But you only get one family."
        Bill Jr. comes by one day, looking to borrow a torque wrench and sockets. Bill tells him where to look, but his son hunts a while before finding them. Bill explains: "Hard to keep track of all those tools. You're afraid to leave them in one spot, 'cause if someone breaks in they get 'em all. So you scatter them here and there." He's been burglarized several times. "Very seldom do they ever steal copper or anything like that. It's always tools."
        But tools are vital. "Ain't nothing tougher on equipment than scrap metal," he says. "When you're handling metal with metal, things are gonna break continuously."
        Bill's son leaves with heavy sockets. "What he carried out of here was probably—" he's thinking— "three hundred dollars worth of tools. Which I don't have a problem with, at least it's making someone in the family a living." Bill's lending policy: "He's the only one that gets my tools. Otherwise, they can go fly a kite.
        "A guy asked me one day if he could borrow some tools. I said, 'Can I borrow your wife?'"


Bill, airing up a tire on his forklift
* * *
        Besides the highway department and E.P.A. regulations, there are other conflicts as well. One day a man asks, "Hey, what's the deal on old refrigerators? I've got three I need to get rid of."
        Bill: "I'm not even taking 'em. Some people are trying to put me out of business because of them."
        Man: "They are?"
        Bill: "Yeah, because I had 'em piled out front. They called every authority, everybody they could think of. So I said, fine. I don't give a damn. All logic says I'd rather see them here for a little while than all over the country. Wouldn't you?"
        Man: "You got that right. They'll wind up in the bar ditch otherwise."
        Bill: "Or the river, wherever anybody can get rid of 'em. And legally, to dispose of that refrigerator, you've got to take it down to a refrigeration person, have the Freon yanked out of it. They put a little red sticker on the side of it, saying it's been done legally. They charge you fifty-something bucks to do it."
        Man: "Man!"
        Bill: "Now, how many people's going to spend fifty bucks to get one emptied? And I ask environmentalists, I say, nine out of ten iceboxes quit, what's wrong with it? 'I dunno.' It's out of Freon. Nine out of ten of them's going to be out of Freon. How often does a compressor quit? Not very often."
        About two years ago a semi—way overloaded--broke Bill's scales. "You heard a pop like you wouldn't believe, and the truck dropped down about sixteen inches. They were grossing two hundred-something thousand pounds. Cost $15,000 to put the beams back under it. Their insurance company paid for it, but still I was down thirty days."
        There are headaches aplenty in this business. "Used motor oil, gas in cars, car tires—what do you do with them? Starter capacitors [containing PCBs] out of an air conditioner—it's considered hazardous waste. It's four hundred dollars a barrel to get rid of them. They're in electrical appliances of all kinds. We have to watch for them all the time. They're in your house like crazy. And legally, if I dispose of it, it's mine for the rest of my life. You know, they decide to move that dump, they come charge me again. I just won't let people throw them off. I just hand them back—you figure out what to do with them.
        "Radioactive pipe—that's a big one now—comes from the oil field. It comes naturally out of the ground." So Bill has a Geiger counter, he bought it about ten years ago. "Like last week, I went to ship a load of iron. I check everything that comes across these scales. We got ready to ship that load of iron—we always go around it one more time, to see if I'm radioactive. And apparently somebody stopped by over the weekend, had some stuff they wanted rid of, and they just threw it up in my box. It's a good thing I went around it, 'cause if it made it to the steel mill, it would have cost me over six or seven hundred dollars just to have him [the truck driver] bring the load back." The radioactive material was a piece of pipe. Bill figures it was rejected by his competitor—"they probably got caught across town and thought, we're going to get rid of this."
        We are beset, these days, with materials that are questionable, risky, or downright menacing. Citizens can send pretty much anything to the landfill, although the state wishes they wouldn't. Businesses, however, especially the salvage business, are hobbled by regulations, thus leaving some regulatory black hole for some stuff to disappear into. One more time, someone asks how to dispose of something. Bill: "I don't know. Ask the state of Oklahoma."
* * *
        A gray-haired, retired-looking guy brings in bagged up aluminum cans worth $3.90. Bill hands him a five dollar bill and asks, "You got a dollar?"
        "No, all I got is a five."
        "Oh, well, you're a dollar up on me. I'll get you some day. I'm not going to lose sleep over it."
        The guy looks like he might lose sleep even if Bill won't. Digging in his pocket he comes up with a dollar in change. He hands it to Bill who says, "That'll work." 
        Out front of the building, stuffed into green overalls and seated on an exercycle, is a dummy. Outfitted with cheap curly wig, Halloween mask, and sunglasses, he has "Employee of the Month" printed in faint red marker on his back. Bill says, "That's Bernie! He's been all over this place." Firefighters come to the yard, maybe a couple of times a year, to practice cutting people out of smashed cars. "We have a lot of fun whenever they come. They do it with cars, tractors, whatever. I put Bernie in there and smash the car in. You know, I'd like them to know how to cut me out if I'm ever in a wreck, wouldn't you?" Inside the scales house is a plaque of appreciation from Oklahoma State University.
* * *
        Of the stuff Bill takes in, very little is salable just as it comes. Cars he runs through the crusher before stacking them on a truck. Aluminum cans run through a machine that flattens them and shoots them into a truck trailer, the cans looking like shiny bullets or tracers in their wild trajectories.
        Other aluminum comes in light, bulky form: sheets of siding, lawnmower housings, bike rims. And sometimes it's married to steel, as in transmission housings. So now and then Bill melts aluminum in a smelter, also known as a "sweat furnace" since it "sweats" the aluminum off the steel. Basically it is a two-foot cubical tub lined with firebrick, a propane-fired blast furnace. A heaping hill of gray slag has grown up around it, bits of steel that remain after the aluminum seeps off. The result of several hours work is a stack of bright, twenty-five-pound ingots of aluminum that clink like bricks. Each is eighteen inches long and triangular, seven inches per side. "I like to melt that aluminum, I've always liked it," he says. "It's one of those jobs that—I can be in the pissiest mood you ever seen, come out and start melting aluminum—for one thing I turn the radio way up loud, lock the gate and just . . . " He trails off again. A former employee, Mike, comes to visit one day with his wife, and when they leave she says, "When you get ready to melt aluminum, holler at me and I'll come melt it for you."
        Much of the scrap iron and steel that comes in must be cut into smaller pieces before Bill sells it. Mostly he cuts with a torch. But he also has a shearing machine, an ancient hulk of iron flywheels and gears and one massive cast iron jaw that continually rocks up and away from a fixed edge and then returns, looking like the chomping mouth of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. "It'll cut iron every three seconds—whack—whack—whack," says Bill. One time it turned on him. "I put something in there I shouldn't have, and it reared up and hit me in the side of the head, knocked me out. Took thirteen stitches in my lip.
        "I've been lucky. You have to watch everything you do, working with heavy stuff like this." He blew up a gas tank one day. "Had an old school bus turned up on its side. Had a gas tank there. I cut that frame loose—I guess some gas dripped out—it blew the ends out of that tank. That ten thousand pound school bus—it rocked it."
        Even empty gas tanks are explosive. "They say a lawnmower tank is like half a stick of dynamite," Bill says. Therefore you can't ship crushed cars with their gas tanks intact. The way some of us store hardware in cigar boxes or coffee cans, Bill uses truck beds, and two pickup beds are packed, stacked high, with gas tanks.
* * *
        "It's kind of like being a gold miner," he says. "You never know what you'll find the next day out here. It gets kind of interesting, the different things that come in. I've talked to lots of guys in the scrap business, this stuff gets in your blood."
        Some of the mystery is furnished by anonymous goods that appear on the yard. Thursday at noon the red Mazda pickup is still unclaimed. This happens every weekend, he says. "But you don't dare do anything with it or they'd be in the next day saying, 'Oh, that was a good-running truck, I just broke down.' "
        Plenty of material remains unclaimed forever. Bill points to a sprawl of large appliances at one corner of the lot, close to a hundred refrigerators, stoves, dryers—known as "white metal" in the trade—definitely more trouble than it's worth. "If they don't know what to do with it, they'll sneak out here and throw it off." All those Whirlpool and Kenmore foundlings are not that huge a problem, more like having an overgrown yard that needs mowing. At some point, when Bill finds time, he'll run everything through the crusher. In the meantime, some folk disparage the place for its mess. What irks Bill most about his critics is: "They're the first ones to come down here when they need to get rid of an icebox or an old car."
        Asked why he won't keep everything behind a fence, Bill turns the question around: "How can I work behind a fence and serve the public?" When Sue is not around he's a one-man operation. Nodding toward the existing fence, he says, "If I'm back there working and you pull up and you've never been here before, you'll think, 'Nobody's here.'
        "And why can't I advertise, just like a car dealership? Why should I be behind a fence, if he's not? Bill compares his place to a lot filled with used cars—the cars at Bill's place are just more used.
        Massey Metals sets back from the service road alongside the southbound lanes of U.S. Route 81, across from where Route 19 heads east toward Lindsay, into serious oilfield country. This area of Highway 81, pointing south toward Fort Worth, is an industrial corridor, with a sound track of solid diesel. Next door to Massey Metals is Briggett Excavation, an oilfield service company. Across the way is the Chickasha Manufacturing plant, and up from there is Livingston's, a farm equipment dealership. Farther up the road are trailer manufacturers, the county highway department's yard, and Johnson's Auto Salvage, itself surrounded by an extensive garden of rusting junkers.
        Back at his place Bill asks, "How many photos have you seen of an old pickup or a windmill rusting in a back field—and that's art. But here . . ." He shakes his head.
        On occasion, photography classes from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma have come here to shoot. Bill: "You know when it's pretty to take pictures out here? When it snows. It is awesome looking. Or ice. Like that pile of iron. That don't look like much now, but you cover that with ice and it gets to glistening—it looks cool!"
* * *
        During fine weather, May for instance, you wonder how Bill gets anything done. A number of people wander the yard one evening while he's cutting and sorting his way through a pile of steel. All want to visit with him at one point or another. He cuts everything in reach and then hoists it into the roll-off with the magnet. All the while, Sue stuffs the long or light-gauge pieces into a car that will later be crushed. Two men who look like a father and son are hunting for car parts. A guy sells a load of aluminum and copper and then he and his young son follow Sue out to where she asks Bill how much to pay on the metals. The guy lingers a while, watching Bill's progress through the pile and visiting with Bill and Sue; she asks his young boy what he'll be doing this summer. The boy smiles and shuffles and looks away in an Oh-I-don't-know moment. An 85-year-old man who makes garden carts is rummaging for angle iron. When he was barely more than a kid himself he used to work in a salvage yard in a northwest state, and he's still mesmerized by the stuff that comes through.
        At any given time it is fascinating litter. A cursory glance, one day, yields this inventory: the heavy rear board and innards of an upright piano (dated 1907) that just appeared over the weekend, its skeleton of felt-tipped keys laying nearby; a gold-colored TV antenna, its flimsy arms in pieces; the stripped frame of a Yamaha motorcycle; two lawnmowers, one just a shell with handle and two wheels; half of a manufactured farm gate that broke cleanly in the middle; a white bathtub, cast iron; a stop sign, its paint faded nearly to invisible, and decorated with black spray paint reading "GO"; one tricycle, broken; a red and white Coke vending machine, its door splayed open; one thirty-five or forty pound IBM electric typewriter (it probably still works, says Bill, out of long experience); a bike chain; one lawnmower motor; a glove compartment out of a car; the stripped yellow aluminum body of a chainsaw; the pipe frame of a mass-produced kitchen chair, with maybe half the splintered remains of its plywood back still bolted on, but no seat; and car parts galore: wheels, an intake manifold, air conditioner compressors, and so much more. The labyrinthine and hypnotic geometry of oil passages on the exposed underside of an automatic transmission would draw a crowd in an art gallery.
        For months there's been a mass of keys scattered on the ground next to the truck scales. Bill: "I told Sue, the key to my heart is there if she can find it."
        Bottom-most in a stack of cars is a red VW bug, stripped and door agape. Another one just like it, also red, is midpoint in a nearby stack of three. Atop this second VW is a white Pontiac Bonneville stuffed with metal signs. One is lying on the raised trunk-lid and thus readable:
* * *
        One morning a Public Service utility truck stops on the lot. The driver climbs out and joins several other guys standing on the lot visiting with Bill, while a dispatcher's voice crackles from the truck. The driver says, "The other day I drove by and waved to that dummy. I thought it was you sitting out there." Someone else says, "No, the dummy's better looking."
        There is birdsong, led by a mockingbird holding forth from the deep green hackberry tree that thrives along the fence. Bill says it nests there every year.
        Back behind the fence, a little ways back from the tree, is where Bill melts aluminum. One Wednesday morning around sunrise he sets up to melt. It's like a ritual. He parks the torch truck alongside and sets a speaker cabinet atop the truck, the radio tuned in to KRXO's classic rock.
        Then he fires up the propane torch that fuels the smelter. A blower motor supercharges it with air, lending a steady, rumbling, low-pitched roar to its fire. About 1360 degrees is what it takes to melt aluminum, and it takes twenty minutes or so for the heat to build inside the crucible.
        Soon the air above it is roiling with heat, dissolving the outlines of a white car and coils of rusting wire nearby. Inside the smelter is an orange, otherworldly glow. Gingerly, wearing heavy leather gloves, Bill feeds lawnmower bodies and transmissions and tubing into the orange maw. Sparks shoot up. A bell housing settles and slides lower and disappears. He rakes bits of steel out the back onto the slag pile. The back of his shirt is a continent of sweat.
        Liquified metal begins to puddle in a spout at the base of the tub. Bill takes hold of the long handle and tilts the smelter forward. Looking like quicksilver, molten aluminum flows into a V-shaped trough, one of four pans arranged on a spindle. As one fills, Bill swings it away and the next pan glides into place. The pans rotate and each ingot hardens, ready to pop loose and drop to the ground when the hinged pan is inverted. With a four-tined fork he picks up the bright ingot, still hot enough to ignite paper. It clinks when he lays it atop the stack on a pallet.
        The Allman Brothers crank up a chorus: "Sometimes I feel, Sometimes I feel, Like I've been tied to the whipping post, tied to the whipping post, tied to the whipping post."
        Fire, clink, flow, and turn—it's hypnotic. The world narrows down to one thing. And it melts.
Back to my home page