6.12.1913  -  12.12.2002

Books of N.M.Amosov

Home   >   Publications   >   Books of N.M.Amosov   >   The book about happiness and unhappiness. Book One   >   Recollections. My Work as Power Plant. Shift Foreman

Recollections. My Work as Power Plant. Shift Foreman

The end of October 1932. Fifty years ago. (It's frightening how time flies!) It was evening, and Mama was about to see me off: I'd graduated from college and was setting off for Arkhangelsk to work. The weather was fantastically warm, and cobwebs were flying in the air like in the early fall... It was dark, and I could feel the well-trodden ruts under my shoes. I don't remember Mama's exact words but she said approximately as follows:

"It was as warm, as today when your father left us for the front. That was in the end of September 1914. There was no happiness afterwards... And now you're going away..."

She was breathing heavily, trying to hold back the tears. I didn't show her that I had noticed her emotions... There was no need to aggravate her sorrow.

I had a mixed, uneasy feeling about the future, for I expected nothing good to come of it. It grieved me to leave my usual place by the window where I had been reading Dostoevsky during my last one-month vacation. That fall, the profundity of his thoughts had not yet fully revealed themselves to me. He appeared to me as a dark, extraordinary figure with a heavy style; his books were completely different from the other Russian classics...

Mama managed to compose herself and didn't burst into tears while embracing me at the gangway. The steamboat with the strange name of Kassir (Cashier) slowly pushed off. The female figure in a kerchief standing beneath a kerosene lamppost on the bank disappeared in the darkness. Only then did I realize that she would have to return alone in the darkness and a sharp pang of grief pierced my heart...

I was travelling with Seva Miloslavov, a classmate of mine. I had been appointed shift foreman at lumber yard No. 14—15 in Arkhangelsk. The term was a long one: three years. I didn't take many things with me: a home-made suitcase covered with oilcloth and a backpack. In the suitcase there were some books by Mayakovsky, rye-bread, underwear, and two blankets. The backpack was actually a pillowcase in which I kept a patch-work quilt, a pair of felt boots, and a pillow. When filled with straw or shavings, the pillow-case could easily serve as a mattres. I wore all the clothes I had: a short coat of cheap cloth, some trousers which had been remade of a pair of Father's, and a jacket — the first in my life which I had bought with my own money on the eve of my departure. A pair of old shoes and some trots. Poverty is not an evil, but the pack's shoddy appearance irritated me.

The road was a long and complicated one: Cherepovets, then a transfer in Vologda, and finally Arkhangelsk. The railroad cars were unspeakably packed. We had to storm the cars to board every time, and it was a problem to get into the WC. It was possible to sleep only if you occupied the third berth, because people were sitting on both the first and second ones. Foul language and a dreadful smell hung in the air. It was like Great Migration of some ancient tribe: farmers were going to the north, and we were going in the same direction... Every time the train made a stop, we stood in a pack with our cups to get some boiling water for tea.

We arrived at Arkhangelsk at noon. The weather was gloomy, and everything seemed dirty and hostile. Melting snow, and the broad, empty Dvina River. All the buildings of the town were made of wood: the station, the warehouses, and the pier. The steamboat Moskva (Moscow) looked almost like a sea-going vessel with its tall sides. On the pier, there was a long line of people waiting to cross the river and go into town.

Having crossed the river, we found the Farmers' Lodge and left our belongings there. We talked with some local fellows and found the way to the lumber yard. It turned out to be a long ride on a tram that ran through and the centre of town along the main street. We crossed another river, this time the Kuznechikha, a tributary of the Dvina, and found ourselves in Solombala, a suburb of the town.

It was not easy to find the lumber yard. We had to go through a swamp across a dirty overpass on piles. Someone pointed to a chimney on the other side of the swamp, saying that was the place we were looking for. Rain mixed with snow was falling, and it was getting dark. Completely exhausted, we decided to return to the Farmers' Lodge. We left our things at a nearby house (without fearing that they would be stolen) and went back. At the Farmers' Lodge we had supper and were lucky enough to get beds to sleep on. We even managed to read a bit before going to bed. In short, we spent a more or less comfortable night.

In the morning, we easily reached the lumber yard. It was some five kilometres from town. The yard and the settlement were both built on a thick layer of pressed chips and splinters — almost two metres deep. Not a single bush or tree could be seen anywhere around, only standard wooden houses and barracks. The river was very close, and huge piles of lumber stood on the bank. The lumber yard consisted of two wooden structures with conveyer belts to transport beams and logs. The noise of the machines was simply unbearable.

The place I was to work, the power plant, was in a three-storey wooden building with a tall metal chimney.

We soon found the office building in the settlement. The manager, who had been promoted to their post from among the rank-and-file workers, looked at us with suspicion because of our age. I was eighteen, and Seva, nineteen. Nevertheless, he appointed us shift foremen. We were given food ration cards which were then issued for various categories of workers and employees. (Ours were like those for technicians and qualified engineers.) Moreover, we were entitled to a special grant to get us on our feet and a daily allowance for food. We got all this money at once and felt rich! Finally, we were shown to our room in the hostel.

There were five wooden beds without matresses in the room, as well as a table, three primitive stools, a bucket of water, an iron wash-basin, and some cups. There was a piece of bread on the table. On the wall, there were nails (or hanging clothes) and traces of bedbugs. It turned out that three other shift foremen were staying in the same room. They told us we could find wood shavings to fill in our matresses, and soon our beds were ready.

Afterwards, they showed us to the canteen. Excellent! The food was much better than at the college; there were three dining-rooms where only white-collar workers ate. Everything was almost like at home lunch at noon, dinner at six. The cost of meals was two and a half roubles a day. My salary was 125 roubles (after a 30-rouble scholarship!). With night shift increases and other fringe benefits, I might get as much as 180, so I could send 50 roubles to Mama. Even then, I had more than enough.

Before I assumed my duties, I was sent to help the manual labourers eliminate a "bottle neck" — to push logs with a boat-hook through the canal that connected the pier with the lumber yard. A dreadful job it was! Rain, snow, slippery beams and logs and, above all, I couldn't swim. "What the hell did I go to college for?" I kept asking myself, for a polytechnical degree was regarded as a serious higher education at that time: there were only five qualified engineers at the lumber yard. When the emergency work was completed, we assumed our duties at the power plant. I can still see it standing before my mind's eye, down to the minutest detail.

The gnashing of conveyer belts could be heard at the gates to the lumber yard. A small door from the street led to the engine room. When we first came there, we were immediately enveloped by damp warm air filled with the monotonous hum of turbine generators. To hear other people speaking, one had to stand close by... Three full years I lived with this hum and gnashing. When the yard was closed down for repairs, the deep silince seemed strange and somehow disturbing...

The power plant was a temporary one, built of planks and boards. Four steam boilers made by Babcock & Wilcox were mounted on the concrete floor. The steam pressure was as high as 12 gs! The engine room also housed two old turbines: the larger one had a capacity of 5,000 kilowatts, and the smaller, of 1,000 kilowatts (both manufac­tured by Siemens-Schukhert and Siemens-Galske). The distribution board was also in the same room. This was the province of an operator and a repairman who sat at the desk, recording the gauge readings every thirty minutes, as we now record the condition of our patients.

The boiler house occupied three storeys of steel gangway and ladder. The water observation ports and water metres were located in the upper section of the structure. They controlled water intake by the boilers and blew the factory whistle. Today, the factory whistle has long been forgotten, but how captivating and mysterious it was then! The first whistle was sounded an hour before work; it was a long whistle to wake up those who were still asleep. The second one was blown fifteen minutes before work began, telling the new shift to go to their working places. The whistle also sounded at eight in the morning, four in the evening, and at midnight to mark the new shifts. (I had a watch Father gave me not long before he had died. It was antique key-wound watch by Paul Buret which was almost fifty years old then and didn't keep good.)

The stokers were on the first floor. They were responsible for the furnace and manometer, regulating the flow rate of the fuel. Below, near the ventilators and pumps, worked two teenagers who removed the ash that came through the fire bars. The chief stoker was in charge of the boiler house.

The fuel supply system was the most complicated part of our job. The plant used wood splinters and sawdust as fuel. Everything left over the sawing was cut into splinters from 5 to 30 centimetres long, and then was transported to the boiler house by conveyer belts from the log-sawing shops. The conveyer belts or passes, as we called them, were attached to high posts and were some two hundred metres long. At the plant, wood splinters were reloaded into special conveyers with iron scrapers which raised them to the boilers and transported to the furnaces via a runner. The runner had hatches in the bottom, through which the stokers fed the furnaces. The remaining splinters were taken by other conveyers to the warehouse and stored there in case there was a shortage of fuel. The worst job was in the warehouse where the wood splinters had to be loaded on the conveyers with pitchforks. When the piles of splinters and sawdust got frozen, it was a hell of a job. To this end, a special team was assigned to every shift — twelve girls and a team leader. No skills were needed — only pitchforks and spades.

A shift foreman was the commander of the entire crew, from blue-collar workers to unskilled labourers. However, he had no specific duties except one: to ensure that the plant perform at the required level. That was all. No one thought about conserving fuel: there was an abundance of splinters. The area all around the lumber yard was covered with them. The main problem was to maintain a continuous supply of electricity to the city's high-voltage line. A disruption of supply meant a blackout for the town and other industries. An emergency situation could also arise when the conveyers stopped, particularly during peak hours in winter — i.e., in the morning and evening when we had to produce no less than 6,000 kilowatts! Otherwise, the dispatcher of urban utilities would not leave anyone in peace; he called the distribution board operator, the foreman, and the manager...

Our probation period lasted only one week, and then we took over our shifts. There were no emergencies during my work at the plant I do recall, however, my first breakdown at night: the lamps suddenly got brighter than usual. This meant that our section of the grid was going to cut itself off from the rest of the system, since the turbines couldn't maintain the required number of revolution and would stop automatically. This automatic switch-off marked the advent of a hellish time, indeed! The lights would go out; safety valves threw steam from the boilers up towards the roof with a horrible whistle. Smoke exhausts would turn off, filling the entire room with and smoke. Young workers used to run away from the boilers as fast as their legs would carry them or even leave the plant entirely...

Naturally, every worker had instructions as to what he would have to do in an emergency, but instructions are one thing and their strict observance is another: workers must not fall asleep on the job, and they must keep a cool head, following the prescribed procedures. Above all, our wooden building had to be safeguarded against fire.

If there were a fire, they were to climb up the boilers and check the pressure. If the safety valves hadn't worked, there was a strong possibility of an explosion... The furnaces and wind boxes had to be closed, since the air flow had to be arrested to check all combustion. The turbine pump had to be switched on immediately, because if the boilers didn't have enough water, again there might be an explosion... Only afterwards was the worker to go to the engine room and rush to switch on the turbine generator to cover the plant's demand for electricity. Only then come the next phase — starting the turbine up and continuing supply of electricity to the town's grid.

During my first breakdown, I was frightened to death and was of little use: I got lost on the stairs and didn't know what to do. Thank God everything went O.K. — the men from my shift acted rapidly and efficiently. Later, I wasn't afraid of similar situations. Today, they look like kids' games compared with a heart rupture during an operation.

I mastered the secrets of my trade successfully and rather quickly, learning the schemes and diagrams of pipelines, the instructions and plans of mechanisms. I looked after my charges' work, trying not to show that everything was new to me. At the same time, I was not afraid of asking them questions to clarify something that didn't sink home the first time around. After a couple of months, I could replace any worker except that of the distribution board operator and the turbine supervisor who didn't trust me with their work.

On the shift, only the ash removers were younger than me. My fellow workers respected me, although they addressed me informally, by my Christian name. Maybe they respected me because I knew how to work and was not afraid of working, although I never asked them about the source of their respect for me.

In short, my shift worked well enough. Nikolai Mikhailov, chief stoker, was almost my age; he was well-read and came from a good intellectual family. Grigory Zakhann, distribution board repairman, was much older. He had sailed on the high seas and lived in the United States for a while. He told us a lot about the States and other countries and peoples he had visited and seen in his life.

Only one man on my shift completely ignored me — an old man who was one of turbine operators. He had served as a steam boiler operator on one of the Russian men-of-war that had participated in the battle of Tsusima during the war against Japan in 1905. It took me a year to win even a tiny portion of respect from him.

As far as I remember, we always had trouble starting the larger turbine. When it approached 2,000 rpm, it started to vibrate so badly, we were afraid that it would soon explode into pieces. Two thousand rpm was the threshold we had to pass. After that, the turbine worked very smoothly.

One night I will remember all my life no less than the first lung I ever removed or the first commissurotomy I ever performed.

So, it was winter, and the northern regional utility board had an important meeting in its town office: a performance report on the work of the utility company. All the supervisors and the managers had left for the meeting. At seven in the evening, during the peak hour, we almost had an emergency shutdown. We tried to start the turbine but failed because of vibrations: every time it reached the critical level of 1,000 rpm, the operator would push the emergency switch-off button to reduce the vibrations. Using the minimal number of turbine rpm, he tried for half an hour to warm up the turbine and only then started to increase the rpms. Again the vibrations would start and another shutdown would follow. Then the warm-up began once more. The distribution board operator lost his temper: some of the town's districts were blacked out, and there was a risk of cutting the electricity supply to the factories. The situation was fraught with grave danger: the cost of a one-hour shutdown was very high and meant the loss of hard currency, since our timber was designed for export. All our attempts to start the turbine failed because of the vibrations. The old operator stood at the wheel by the emergency shutdown button, not saying a single word.

The chief engineer kept ringing the boiler house.

"Nikolai, all my hopes are pinned on you... We drank a little to celebrate our meeting, and we can't come to the plant four sheets to the wind, you understand, and it's a long way after all. So, do try to start the thing."

I realized that if he arrived intoxicated, and there was an emergency shutdown of the turbine, that would mean the end of his career. On the other hand, I knew that if the turbine were destroyed, I would be the one to blame.

I walked over to the operator and had the nerve to order him to start the turbine.

He didn't say a word but continued his manipulations. He tried to start with a low rmp once again, then opened the valve (to open it he had to rotate a large wheel, almost as big as the one on a steamboat) No dice: the turbine began to vibrate, and he had to switch it off again. I pushed the operator aside slightly...

"Let me try it..."

At first, he didn't believe me. "I won't let you touch it. I'm the boss!" he shouted.

"You're the boss at the turbine, and I'm the shift foreman. Moreover, I've got orders from the chief engineer."

"To hell with you! Go ahead and try if you want to blow us all to kingdom come!"

So, I took the wheel and started opening the valve. Everything was O.K. at first, and then the vibrations started. Everyone gathered around.

At 1,800 rpm, the vibration became even more pronounced. The old man stretched out his hand to press the switch-off button.

"Hands off!"

"You'll answer for this turbine if you ruin it, you son-of-a-bitch."

"Go downstairs to the pump..."

He spat, cursed me through clenched teeth, and left the room so as not to see what would follow.

The needle of the tachometer slowly climbed to 1,900; the vibration was so strong that I had to hold the railing with one hand. My head was empty, and the eyes were fixed on the gauge: 1,950, 1,975... Then, everything went quiet. My palms and forehead were wet with cold sweat, and everything inside me was trembling so I had to sit down on the base of the turbine.

"That's it."

Zakharin began to synchronize the generator to connect it to the grid.

That was the day that the turbine operator finally gave me some sign of recognition. At least he responded to my greetings.


It took me approximately six months to get a good team together. Thereafter, I didn't have any problems and could easily remain in my office. To achieve this, I didn't have to pat anybody on the back or to gossip about my co-workers private affairs. I had been familiar with four letter words since childhood (the northern regions of the country are rather rude from the standpoint of the language in common parlance, but my first actual practice in cursing I had at the power plant). This knowledge is useless nowadays. To tell the truth, I don't say these words aloud, only to myself, and find them quite effective.

Shift work is hard, even on young people. Particularly the night shift, from midnight to eight in the morning. No one was allowed to sleep, since that could lead to disaster. The furnace might be neglected and, if the splinters burned out, the pressure in the boilers could drop. A breakdown of the conveyer gear could stop transportation of fuel for an hour or more.

The most pleasant moment during the shift was the meal break. An ash remover would appear at noon (or at six or seven during night shifts) and ask:

"Nikolai, maybe it's time for me to fetch something to eat." It simply gave him pleasure to hang around the settlement and, if he was lucky, to bring some food from the lumber yard's canteen where the ash removers were known and welcomed.

There was no canteen or cafeteria at the plant, so the workers had to bring their meals with them: they usually had potatoes or bread that they washed down with hot water instead of tea. Sugar and candies were brought once in a blue moon.

Twice in my lifetime did I discover and forget the taste of white bread. I vaguely recall that once, before starting school, I went to the attic and found a small sack hanging from the beam. In it were rusks, and one of them was white bread, which I had never tried before. I ran to Grandma, and she told me that she had put the sack there before the Revolution when it had been possible to get a bit of wheat flour. Thus she explained to me that there had been white bread, white as paper.

Later, during the period of the New Economic Policy, or free market trade, white bread was freely available, even to me. I lived in Cherepovets at that time. When NEP ended, it disappeared, and soon ration cards were introduced. People tried to buy stale bread on their ration cards: it could be cut into thin slices, thus extending the pleasure of eating. It was at the time that I arrived in Arkhangelsk. In the spring of 1935, there was a rumour at the factory that white bread was going to be sold at one of the local bakeries. The line was tremendous. Someone was lucky enough to buy a loaf and he brought it to the power plant. I tried a piece. I didn't discover white bread for a third time, because at the front, it was given to us occasionally with meals. Nowadays, people tend to prefer rye bread. The vicissitudes of fate — that's what I call it.

All four seasons had an effect on the plants' performance. In the summer, it was a shear pleasure to work: there was not much to do, since the nights are never dark in the north, and electricity was needed only to keep the factories running. Fuel was in abundance in the summertime, and the warehouse was usually well-stocked. In the North, warmth has a peculiar touch of charm and fascination; it makes you feel blessed by God. But summer in Arkhangelsk is short — it lasts only one or two months, and afterwards, again come the overcast skies, the rains, and the bitter cold.

In winter, the workload was extremely heavy there were peak hours both in the morning and the evening. From three to eight in the morning and from seven to ten in the evening, the utility dispatcher was constantly pressing us for more electricity, demanding 6,000 or even 6,250 kilowatts. The turbines were working almost at top capacity as well. All the turbines needed was steam to keep them running, but the boiler house was in a fever, as it were. To maintain a continuous supply of electricity, we had to ensure an uninterrupted flow of fuel. Equally important was the art of maintaining the fire in the furnaces. Nikolai Mikhailov knew his job well, but it was me who was responsible for the fuel supply... So I had to run back and forth from the plant to the lumber yard: "Why are the conveyers empty?" "We've got no timber." Upon hearing those words, I ran to the warehouse, asking the girls to use some of our carefully hoarded stock of splinters to fuel the boiler house. The girls spared no effort in shovelling the pressed and frozen splinters... To cheer them up and to keep warm, I often joined them in their work. From the warehouse, I would run to the lumber yard again, demanding fuel as soon as possible. "Get on the move!" I never wore a warm overcoat during these shuttle runs — only overalls. When I got chilled to the bone, I went to the boilers to check the pressure level. If everything was O. K., a short rest was in order. What genuine pleasure those brief respites gave me! The temperature near the boilers was no less than +25 °C.

The happiest moment was the end of a shift without a blackout or any minor emergencies.

The "five-minute" morning conferences in the office were usually lively ones, but some of the workers were still dozing after the night shift. Well, we were young and never complained.

In the hostel, the fellows in our room lived in a friendly manner, though without any strong attachments or warmth. Konstantin Kvaskov, an electrician, was from Moscow — an intellectual. He knew lots of funny jokes and stories, and often read German magazines. He was somewhat patronizing to us provincial chaps but was a poor worker He was fired after a six-month period and left us. Pavel Prokopiev was from Arkhangelsk; a provincial dandy and a good tippler, he left the power plant one spring to work as a mechanic at the local hard liquor factory (his drinking buddies often visited him because of this) The third bed frequently changed owners; I don't recall their names now There was an outsider — Vladimir Skroznikov He was older, married and worked at the lumber yard. Short and squat, he was very kind, straight-forward in his judgements and made a good impression on me.

Evenings and nights were frequently spent by playing preference — one-fourth of kopeck for each hand plus beer. Beer was sold freely in the main shop, without food ration cards. I never got excited during the game, but always dropped out when they switched to Black Jack.

In early December, my roommates threw a birthday party for me (I turned nineteen). We had no money between us, so Vladimir went to the savings bank and withdrew the balance from his account to buy some wine. I tried it for the first time in my life and didn't like it. Nevertheless, I kept on drinking to be one of the crowd and got drunk. I don't remember what happened next: a mental blackout. In the morning, I felt awful; the hangover was terrible, and I was really sick. This reaction has been preserved for thirty years: my stomack revolts against alcohol. This reaction has saved me, in fact. Mama was afraid that I might become an alcoholic because of bad genes on this count. I haven't.

The main things in my life have been work and reading. Higher education is always incomplete and inadequate for professional activity Every college or institute graduate comes ill prepared. Some will learn to work later; others remain stuck in their mediocracy I was lucky enough to learn.