I LEARNED THE MEANING OF A REAL STORM
In the 1960’s I was working as an ironworker for American Bridge Co. building the Minute Man Missiles sites in northern Montana. American Bridge Co. is probably the biggest steel erection co in America. My first contact with them was in 1956 on the huge Mackinac Bridge that spans the Mackinac Straight between Michigan and Canada. I had a number of first’s in that year. I got my first American Bridge Co. Bridgman belt and tools; the very best made, and I still have them. I worked with my first Mohawk Iroquois ironworker, who turned out to be a relative. They were known for their excellent iron working skills. Which I found to be true as I continued working and moved back to Montana on the missile sites. There were a number of Flathead Indians including a dozen from this reservation. As I recall stories, Ted Jerry comes to mind on the Hungry Horse Dam. Ted was ½ Iroquois and ½ French. He worked with my dad and they became good friends chatting French to each. Ted was as wild as a Northern Montana storm, his escapades would fill a book. He was later shot and killed in a card game in Alaska so those escapades were left to word of mouth. But speaking of storms – here is one that reminds me of the old western movies and people freezing.
The missile sites were scattered all over the northern Montana plains, from Shelby to Lewistown and around the Great Falls area. I had worked in all these areas but this particular winter of 1962, I was working in the remote area around Lewistown. It had been a real cold winter with day after day of below zero temperatures and non-stop blowing wind. I realized the Northern Plains people had to be of hardy stock to survive winters here. The work we were doing was mostly fitting, welding, and dressing up the inside of the cans (the inside shell of the silo). We were inside of the can, out of the wind most of the time, but it was still freezing work, handling the cold steel. There were four of us ironworkers, and our foreman. One ironworker was from Ontario Canada, one from the east coast, and my friend Axel from Kalispell. We had worked together on the iron ore Taconite plant in Minnesota some years before. We all car pooled, and ate our lunch in our car to get warmed up every day. We were sitting in our car one day, eating our lunch and listening to the radio. This was a special day, and we were glued to the radio as astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, was reentering the earth in his entry capsule. We, along with the rest of the country, were praying the capsule chute would open and he would make it back to earth alive. The foreman knocked on our window and told us to get back to work. We told him we wanted to wait and see if the chute opened. But he told us to get back down in the hole or go to town and get our checks. You can bet he didn’t win any good will from us having to wait for the end of the shift to find out if John Glenn lived. A few weeks later, he made amends to us. I think he realized he had a real good crew of talented hard-working ironworkers, and had come close to losing them, as he tried hard to be friendly to us after that. We had moved to a silo in the Winifred area, a long way from anywhere. It was terribly cold this day, close to 40 below zero. The foreman got a call from the American Bridge office to abandon the missile sites as a deadly storm was about to hit. As we put the tools away and secured the job the wind picked up and the cold blowing snow was almost unbearable. The foreman left in his truck and we followed in our car. He was soon lost from sight in the blowing snow. We made it to the paved road from Winifred that connects to HW 236 at the Helger Junction. But it was so cold that before we got to the junction, the car just quit running. It was 56 below zero and with wind chill it registered -100 degrees. We were stalled in the middle of the road and were afraid someone would run into us with such poor visibility. We were on a little hill so I got out of the car to give it a push so we could get off the road. I pushed on the car and it started rolling backwards on its own. Even though I was dressed warmly the cold was awful. The wind was blowing so hard I couldn’t follow the car. My eyes and nose were freezing shut, and I couldn’t breathe. I had never been in this kind of cold before. I could not see the car, just its lights shining through the blowing snow, but I could not get to it. I was just about to panic when the wind eased enough so that I could make it to the car.
Now the stories of ranchers freezing to death between the barn and their house made sense. The car kept us out of the wind, but it didn’t take long for it to turn into a freezer. We sat there for about an hour wondering what we could or should do when we saw car lights coming towards us. It was our foreman in his truck. He had been waiting at the Hilger Junction restaurant and bar. When we didn’t come by, he came back looking for us. All four of us got into the cab of his truck with him. We decided he was a pretty good guy after all. We spent the night at the bar and restaurant, waiting out the storm. This storm taught me a lot of respect for those tough northern eastern Montana Plains ranchers.