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,
"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
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
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
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
* * *
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."
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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
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
"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
* * *
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
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:
SUNDAY SCHOOL 10 AM
MORNING WORSHIP 11 AM
* * *
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.
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