Detritus of Demise

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A faded billboard just inside the Sydney Steel Plant records the days that have passed since the last lost-time accident struck each of the defunct mill's departments. When counting stopped sometime last year, Shops and Services had the best record with 255 accident-free days.

Just below the tally board, large letters spell out the words: "Caring for yourself. Caring for your buddy. Caring for Sysco."

The accident-free record at the steel-making shop, where the multi-million-dollar electric arc furnace lies cold and still, is obscured by a plastic poster taped over top: "TRANS-CANADA LIQUIDATIONS - An Asset Management Group."

All day Monday, redundant steelworkers shuffled past for one more day of caring about Sysco. They trudged along a slag-cobbled roadway toward a decrepit wood frame building lately converted to auction central.

In vacant lots to either side, wild yarrow flowers and purple asters fluttered in the breeze. Here and there, mountain ash saplings fought to reclaim ground nature had ceded a century ago to steel making. Clusters of ripening berries caused their young branches to droop.

Former steelworkers were everywhere: in the crisp black uniforms of the private security firm hired to keep watch over the sale; among the clutch of protesters at the plant gate, passing out leaflets decrying John Hamm's forsaken promise of retraining for the plant's dispossessed; filing into the auction office to remit $5 for the two-volume catalogue of items for sale. Old friends greeted each other with that mixture of pleasure and sorrow that usually reserved for funeral reunions.

Toronto-based Trans-Canada Liquidations, a crisply professional crew in navy blue jerseys bearing an understated corporate logo, had divided the flotsam and jetsam into eight clusters, each with its own building or section of the yard.

Office equipment - a sorry collection of ratty metal desks, dented file cabinets and dated computers, each bearing a yellow TCL lot tag - filled the auction headquarters. One laid-off steelworker hoped to pick up a computer for his daughter, but the smart money said he'd do better in the Bargain Hunter.

If anyone ever cared about Sysco, you wouldn't know it from the derelict vehicles scattered about the yard. Beside the Electrical Shop stood a quintet of 680-kilogram Euclid, Terex, and Scott dump trucks, encrusted in soot and rust. A would-be buyer tried to start them up, but the only one with a battery didn't even flicker when the key was turned.

A 680-kilogram Chevy cube van minus its left-rear wheel tilted helplessly toward the missing running gear. Next in line, lot 3304, a blue, 907-kilogram Chevy flatbed of undetermined vintage, lay beaten and bruised. A prankster had supplied the missing letter to its dented Nova Scotia licence plate: FUC 849. A backhoe in seemingly reasonable shape was rumoured to have a seized engine, but who knew for sure?

Stepping into the Machine Shop, auction area three, was like entering an industrial museum. Lathes, huge and ancient, stood bolted to the concrete floor. The largest of these, lot 342, a direct-current-powered Stamets, capable of turning a cylinder of hard steel 4.5 metres long and 142 centimetres in diameter, would sell the next day for $550.

"Isn't this a sin," said Bob Bartlett of Leitches Creek, who spent thirty-four years winding armatures in the Electrical Shop.

With his friend Joe Elsworth, a veteran of the Devco Railway, Bartlett surveyed a massive, 178-centimetre boring mill manufactured by the King Machine Tool Company. The name was permanently cast into its elegant antique frame.

"That goes back to the days of Forman Waye," said Elsworth, invoking the name of a legendary union leader and working class politician from the 1930s and 1940s.

At back of the Machine Shop, spanners, box-end wrenches, and sockets - most far too big to interest home hobbyists - lay alongside grease guns, oil cans, pry bars, and drifts. At the Steel Fabrication Shop, a sea of arc welders filled half the floor. Fifty mammoth electric motors gathered dust in the Electrical Shop.

Vices. Anvils. Boxes of half-moon keys that keep gears fixed to spinning shafts. Micrometers. Strain gauges. Jacks capable of lifting houses. Foul weather gear.

In the warehouse, shelf upon shelf of equipment never deployed: coils of shiny new wire, cable, and chain; brooms; shovels; wheel barrows; step ladders; bolts; bearings; electric motor fields; pumps; seals; couplings.

"You know what this is worth!" cried auctioneer Norman Jacobs as he came upon lot 328, a massive Wadkin wood planer. The machine's 550-volt power requirement would render it useless to most buyers.

A generation of steelworkers and taxpayers, contemplating an infinity of accident-free days stretching into the future, silently noddedtheir heads.

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