Copyright (c) 2015 Steve Kline
Fired brick have been used in construction work for some 7,000 years. They are made of a mixture of sand, clay, lime, iron oxide and magnesia.
The Brickyard had none of your newfangled rail kilns, where you stack green brick on railcars and move them slowly through the firing. Nope. We had a broad field full of squat round brick and concrete mounds with thick walls and one opening large enough to admit a six-foot tall pallet of brick hoisted on a forklift. Three or four gas burners were spaced evenly around the base of the kiln.
The vast majority of what we produced were extruded perforated facing brick, the kind you see everywhere you go. In the U.S., we made our cities out of brick during the first half of the 20th Century mainly because Chicago and then San Francisco burned down. Brick won’t burn.
Fired brick are brought to life in temperatures that exceed Farenheit 2,000. After that, they’re not very susceptible to fire.
The temperatures in our kilns never were evenly distributed around and about the stacks of brick inside. The color of a fired brick depends on the mix of chemicals and the firing temperature. Because none of these factors remains consistent throughout the process, no fired brick has precisely the same shade as another. And the color varies more and more dramatically depending on each brick’s placement in the space inside the kiln.
If the brick are not properly “shuffled” after firing, the result would be brick walls with big blotches of darker and lighter shades. Masons want their brick to arrive on-site pre-shuffled. They also have to be pre-sorted — contractors won’t buy brick from plants that ship out flawed, cracked #2s.
That was my job. Shuffling and sorting brick. All day long.
The shuffling was as automated as it could be. The stacks of brick dragged from the kilns were loaded onto massive creaky merry-go-round type machines. We had two merry-go-rounds, each holding a dozen or so stacks of brick. I was stationed on a plywood board attached to a six-foot by six-foot metal box that could be raised and lowered so that the top layer of stacked brick always was at about waist level. The box is where I built and banded my packages of shuffled brick.
I wore thick work gloves and carried in my right hand a two-pronged tine, which fitted perfectly into the outermost of the three holes in each brick.
The shrill bell would sound and the merry-go-round would moan, groan, sqeak and squeal to life, circulating the massive stack of brick. Around the perimeter of this grotesque amusement-park caricature were all the sweaty red-brick-dust stained guys, including me, who shuffled, packed and banded brick all the rocking day long.
The shuffling pattern: Two brick from one stack, two brick from the next stack and one brick from the next after that. My hand-tine — which we just called a “fork” — held five brick. The first two-and-two I snagged with the fork, tipping it upward between snags so the brick would slide all the way back on the prongs. The “one,” the fifth brick, I grabbed with my left hand, then transferred it to the tine. All loaded up with five shuffled brick, I would pivot to my right and deposit the load into the packaging-and-banding box.
Each package contained 10 courses of 10 brick each, with empty rows built in to admit the tines of the forklift. My packaging-and-banding box held five such packages. Once I had it filled, I lined the topmost edges with strips of cardboard, pulled the metal strapping machine down from where it dangled from the ceiling, and banded up tight each package. Then I signaled Kenny it was time for him and his forklift to clear out my banding box so I could throw more brick.
The noise around this operation was unearthly. Loud. Yet I had to listen to the brick as I tined and stacked them. A flawed brick will have a distinctive ringing sound when it hits up against another brick. When I heard that ring, I was to stop and examine the brick I was handling for the bad one, the #2. Those were picked out and tossed into the big steel hoppers that were stationed nearby. The #2 brick were recycled — crushed and then remade into good brick.
That little asshole Chet liked to stand near your box and nag at you that he could hear the brick you were handling ringing. Now, I was standing high up on that packaging box and Chet’s feet were on the concrete floor. It would have been sooo easy for me to just haul off and kick him in the face with my steel-toed boot.
Chet. Fuck him.