“…my favorite thing in all world literature (and that includes all the heavy classics) is a novelette called Calumet “K” by Merwin-Webster.” — AYN RAND
“Calumet ‘K'” is the name of a two-million bushel grain elevator being constructed by Charlie Bannon. Farmers and commodity markets are depending on Bannon to build it on time. In opposition are several tycoons wagering on it not getting built. Bannon must heroically overcome incompetance, scheming, and sabotage, in addition to the daunting task of building the massive grain elevator. This is the story of competence – of single-minded effort, unstoppable determination, unflagging certainty and unbeatable ability.
The contract for the two million bushel grain elevator, Calumet K, had been let to MacBride & Company, of Minneapolis, in January, but the superstructure was not begun until late in May, and at the end of October it was still far from completion. Ill luck had attended Peterson, the constructor, especially since August. MacBride, the head of the firm, disliked unlucky men, and at the end of three months his patience gave out, and he telegraphed Charlie Bannon to leave the job he was completing at Duluth and report at once at the home office.
Rumors of the way things were going at Calumet under the hands of his younger co-laborer had reached Bannon, and he was not greatly surprised when MacBride told him to go to Chicago Sunday night and supersede Peterson.
At ten o’clock Monday morning, Bannon, looking out through the dusty window of the trolley car, caught sight of the elevator, the naked cribbing of its huge bins looming high above the huddled shanties and lumber piles about it. A few minutes later he was walking along a rickety plank sidewalk which seemed to lead in a general direction toward the elevator. The sidewalks at Calumet are at the theoretical grade of the district, that is, about five feet above the actual level of the ground. In winter and spring they are necessary causeways above seas of mud, but in dry weather every one abandons them, to walk straight to his destination over the uninterrupted flats. Bannon set down his hand bag to button has ulster, for the wind was driving clouds of smoke and stinging dust and an occasional grimy snowflake out of the northwest. Then he sprang down from the sidewalk and made his way through the intervening bogs and, heedless of the shouts of the brakemen, over a freight train which was creaking its endless length across his path, to the elevator site.
The elevator lay back from the river about sixty yards and parallel to it. Between was the main line of the C. & S. C., four clear tracks unbroken by switch or siding. On the wharf, along with a big pile of timber, was the beginning of a small spouting house, to be connected with the main elevator by a belt gallery above the C. & S. C. tracks. A hundred yards to the westward, up the river, the Belt Line tracks crossed the river and the C. & S. C. right of way at an oblique angle, and sent two side tracks lengthwise through the middle of the elevator and a third along the south side, that is, the side away from the river.
Bannon glanced over the lay of the land, looked more particularly at the long ranges of timber to be used for framing the cupola, and then asked a passing workman the way to the office. He frowned at the wretched shanty, evidently an abandoned Belt Line section house, which Peterson used for headquarters. Then, setting down his bag just outside the door, he went in.
“Where’s the boss?” he asked.
The occupant of the office, a clerk, looked up impatiently, and spoke in a tone reserved to discourage seekers for work.
“He ain’t here. Out on the job somewhere.”
“Palatial office you’ve got,” Bannon commented. “It would help those windows to have’em ploughed.” He brought his bag into the office and kicked it under a desk, then began turning over a stack of blue prints that lay, weighted down with a coupling pin, on the table.
“I guess I can find Peterson for you if you want to see him,” said the clerk.
“Don’t worry about my finding him,” came from Bannon, deep in his study of the plans. A moment later he went out.
A gang of laborers was engaged in moving the timbers back from the railroad siding. Superintending the work was a squat little man—Bannon could not see until near by that he was not a boy—big-headed, big-handed, big-footed. He stood there in his shirt-sleeves, his back to Bannon, swearing good-humoredly at the men. When he turned toward him Bannon saw that he had that morning played an unconscious joke upon his bright red hair by putting on a crimson necktie.
Bannon asked for Peterson.
“He’s up on the framing of the spouting house, over on the wharf there.”
“What are you carrying that stuff around for?” asked Bannon.
“Moving it back to make room by the siding. We’re expecting a big bill of cribbing. You’re Mr. Bannon, ain’t you?” Bannon nodded. “Peterson had a telegram from the office saying to expect you.”
“You’re still expecting that cribbing, eh?”
“Harder than ever. That’s most all we’ve been doing for ten days. There’s Peterson, now; up there with the sledge.”
Bannon looked in time to see the boss spring out on a timber that was still balancing and swaying upon the hoisting rope. It was a good forty feet above the dock. Clinging to the rope with one hand, with the other Peterson drove his sledge against the side of the timber which swung almost to its exact position in the framing.
“Slack away!” he called to the engineers, and he cast off the rope sling. Then cautiously he stepped out to the end of the timber. It tottered, but the lithe figure moved on to within striking distance. He swung the twenty-four pound sledge in a circle against the butt of the timber. Every muscle in his body from the ankles up had helped to deal the blow, and the big stick bucked. The boss sprang erect, flinging his arms wide and using the sledge to recover his balance. He struck hard once more and again lightly. Then he hammered the timber down on the iron dowel pins. “All right,” he shouted to the engineer; “send up the next one.”
A few minutes later Bannon climbed out on the framing beside him.
“Hello, Charlie!” said the boss, “I’ve been looking for you. They wired me you was coming.”
“Well, I’m here,” said Bannon, “though I ‘most met my death climbing up just now. Where do you keep your ladders?”
“What do I want of a ladder? I’ve no use for a man who can’t get up on the timbers. If a man needs a ladder, he’d better stay abed.”
“That’s where I get fired first thing,” said Bannon.
“Why, you come up all right, with your overcoat on, too.”
“I had to wear it or scratch up the timbers with my bones. I lost thirty-two pounds up at Duluth.”
Another big timber came swinging up to them at the end of the hoisting rope. Peterson sprang out upon it. “I’m going down before I get brushed off,” said Bannon.
“I’ll be back at the office as soon as I get this corbel laid.”
“No hurry. I want to look over the drawings. Go easy there,” he called to the engineer at the hoist; “I’m coming down on the elevator.” Peterson had already cast off the rope, but Bannon jumped for it and thrust his foot into the hook, and the engineer, not knowing who he was, let him down none too gently.
On his way to the office he spoke to two carpenters at work on a stick of timber. “You’d better leave that, I guess, and get some four-inch cribbing and some inch stuff and make some ladders; I guess there’s enough lying ’round for that. About four’ll do.”
It was no wonder that the Calumet K job had proved too much for Peterson. It was difficult from the beginning. There was not enough ground space to work in comfortably, and the proper bestowal of the millions of feet of lumber until time for it to be used in the construction was no mean problem. The elevator was to be a typical “Chicago” house, built to receive grain from cars and to deliver it either to cars or to ships. As has been said, it stood back from the river, and grain for ships was to be carried on belt conveyors running in an inclosed bridge above the railroad tracks to the small spouting house on the wharf. It had originally been designed to have a capacity for twelve hundred thousand bushels, but the grain men who were building it, Page & Company, had decided after it was fairly started that it must be larger; so, in the midst of his work, Peterson had received instructions and drawings for a million bushel annex. He had done excellent work—work satisfactory even to MacBride & Company—on a smaller scale, and so he had been given the opportunity, the responsibility, the hundreds of employees, the liberal authority, to make what he could of it all.
There could be no doubt that he had made a tangle; that the big job as a whole was not under his hand, but was just running itself as best it could. Bannon, who, since the days when he was chief of the wrecking gang on a division of the Grand Trunk, had made a business of rising to emergencies, was obviously the man for the situation. He was worn thin as an old knife-blade, he was just at the end of a piece of work that would have entitled any other man to a vacation; but MacBride made no apologies when he assigned him the new task—”Go down and stop this fiddling around and get the house built. See that it’s handling grain before you come away. If you can’t do it, I’ll come down and do it myself.”
Bannon shook his head dubiously. “Well, I’m not sure——” he began. But MacBride laughed, whereupon Bannon grinned in spite of himself. “All right,” he said.
It was no laughing matter, though, here on the job this Monday morning, and, once alone in the little section house, he shook his head again gravely. He liked Peterson too well, for one thing, to supersede him without a qualm. But there was nothing else for it, and he took off his overcoat, laid aside the coupling pin, and attacked the stack of blue prints.
He worked rapidly, turning now and then from the plans for a reference to the building book or the specifications, whistling softly, except when he stopped to growl, from force of habit, at the office, or, with more reasonable disapproval, at the man who made the drawings for the annex. “Regular damn bird cage,” he called it.
It was half an hour before Peterson came in. He was wiping the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, and drawing long breaths with the mere enjoyment of living. “I feel good,” he said. “That’s where I’d like to work all day. You ought to go up and sledge them timbers for a while. That’d warm you through, I bet.”
“You ought to make your timekeeper give you one of those brass checks there and pay you eighteen cents an hour for that work. That’s what I’d do.”
Peterson laughed. It took more than a hint to reach him. “I have to do it. Those laborers are no good. Honest, I can lift as much as any three men on the job.”
“That’s all right if those same three don’t stop to swap lies while you’re lifting.”
“Well, I guess they don’t come any of that on me,” said Peterson, laughing again. “How long are you going to stay with us?”
The office, then, had not told him. Bannon was for a moment at a loss what to say. Luckily there was an interruption. The red-headed young man he had spoken to an hour before came in, tossed a tally board on the desk, and said that another carload of timber had come in.
“Mr. Bannon,” said Peterson, “shake hands with Mr. Max Vogel, our lumber checker.” That formality attended to, he turned to Bannon and repeated his question. By that time the other had his answer ready.
“Oh, it all depends on the office,” he said. “They’re bound to keep me busy at something. I’ll just stay until they tell me to go somewhere else. They ain’t happy except when they’ve just put me in a hole and told me to climb out. Generally before I’m out they pick me up and chuck me down another one. Old MacBride wouldn’t think the Company was prosperous if I wasn’t working nights and Sundays.”
“You won’t be doing that down here.”
“I don’t know about that. Why, when I first went to work for ’em, they hired me by the day. My time cards for the first years figured up four hundred and thirty-six days.” Peterson laughed. “Oh, that’s straight,” said Bannon. “Next time you’re at the office, ask Brown about it. Since then they’ve paid me a salary. They seem to think they’d have to go out of business if I ever took a vacation. I’ve been with ’em twelve years and they’ve never given me one yet. They made a bluff at it once. I was down at Newport News, been doing a job for the C. & O., and Fred Brown was down that way on business. He——”
“What does Brown look like?” interrupted Peterson. “I never saw him.”
“You didn’t! Oh, he’s a good-looking young chap. Dresses kind of sporty. He’s a great jollier. You have to know him a while to find out that he means business. Well, he came ’round and saw I was feeling pretty tired, so he asked me to knock off for a week and go fishing with him. I did, and it was the hardest work I ever tackled.”
“Did you get any fish?”
“Fish? Whales! You’d no sooner throw your line over than another one’d grab it—great, big, heavy fish, and they never gave us a minute’s rest. I worked like a horse for about half a day and then I gave up. Told Brown I’d take a duplex car-puller along next time I tackled that kind of a job, and I went back to the elevator.”
“I’d like to see Brown. I get letters from him right along, of course. He’s been jollying me about that cribbing for the last two weeks. I can’t make it grow, and I’ve written him right along that we was expecting it, but that don’t seem to satisfy him.”
“I suppose not,” said Bannon. “They’re mostly out for results up at the office. Let’s see the bill for it.” Vogel handed him a thin typewritten sheet and Bannon looked it over thoughtfully. “Big lot of stuff, ain’t it? Have you tried to get any of it here in Chicago?”
“Course not. It’s all ordered and cut out up to Ledyard.”
“Cut out? Then why don’t they send it?”
“They can’t get the cars.”
“That’ll do to tell. ‘Can’t get the cars!’ What sort of a railroad have they got up there?”
“Max, here, can tell you about that, I guess,” said Peterson.
“It’s the G. & M.,” said the lumber checker. “That’s enough for any one who’s lived in Michigan. It ain’t much good.”
“How long have they kept ’em waiting for the cars?”
“How long is it, Max?” asked Peterson.
“Let’s see. It was two weeks ago come Tuesday.”
“Yes. We got the letter the same day the red-headed man came here. His hair was good and red.” Max laughed broadly at the recollection. “He came into the office just as we was reading it.”
“Oh, yes. My friend, the walking delegate.”
“What’s that?” Bannon snapped the words out so sharply that Peterson looked at him in slow surprise.
“Oh, nothing,” he said. “A darn little rat of a red-headed walking delegate came out here—had a printed card with Business Agent on it—and poked his long nose into other people’s business for a while, and asked the men questions, and at last he came to me. I told him that we treated our men all right and didn’t need no help from him, and if I ever caught him out here again I’d carry him up to the top of the jim pole and leave him there. He went fast enough.”
“I wish he’d knocked you down first, to even things up,” said Bannon.
“Him! Oh, I could have handled him with three fingers.”
“I’m going out for a look around,” said Bannon, abruptly.
He left Peterson still smiling good-humoredly over the incident.
It was not so much to look over the job as to get where he could work out his wrath that Bannon left the office. There was no use in trying to explain to Peterson what he had done, for even if he could be made to understand, he could undo nothing. Bannon had known a good many walking delegates, and he had found them, so far, square. But it would be a large-minded man who could overlook what Peterson had done. However, there was no help for it. All that remained was to wait till the business agent should make the next move.
So Bannon put the whole incident out of his mind, and until noon inspected the job in earnest. By the time the whistle blew, every one of the hundreds of men on the job, save Peterson himself, knew that there was a new boss. There was no formal assumption of authority; Bannon’s supremacy was established simply by the obvious fact that he was the man who knew how. Systematizing the confusion in one corner, showing another gang how to save handling a big stick twice, finally putting a runway across the drillage of the annex, and doing a hundred little things between times, he made himself master.
The afternoon he spent in the little office, and by four o’clock had seen everything there was in it, plans, specifications, building book, bill file, and even the pay roll, the cash account, and the correspondence. The clerk, who was also timekeeper, exhibited the latter rather grudgingly.
“What’s all this stuff?” Bannon asked, holding up a stack of unfiled letters.
“Letters we ain’t answered yet.”
“Well, we’ll answer them now,” and Bannon commenced dictating his reply to the one on top of the stack.
“Hold on,” said the clerk, “I ain’t a stenographer.”
“So?” said Bannon. He scribbled a brief memorandum on each sheet. “There’s enough to go by,” he said. “Answer ’em according to instructions.”
“I won’t have time to do it till to-morrow some time.”
“I’d do it to-night, if I were you,” said Bannon, significantly. Then he began writing letters himself.
Peterson and Vogel came into the office a few minutes later.
“Writing a letter to your girl?” said Peterson, jocularly.
“We ought to have a stenographer out here, Pete.”
“Stenographer! I didn’t know you was such a dude. You’ll be wanting a solid silver electric bell connecting with the sody fountain next.”
“That’s straight,” said Bannon. “We ought to have a stenographer for a fact.”
He said nothing until he had finished and sealed the two letters he was writing. They were as follows:—
Dear Mr. Brown:
It’s a mess and no mistake. I’m glad Mr. MacBride didn’t come to see it. He’d have fits. The whole job is tied up in a hard knot. Peterson is wearing out chair bottoms waiting for the cribbing from Ledyard. I expect we will have a strike before long. I mean it. The main house is most up to the distributing floor. The spouting house is framed. The annex is up as far as the bottom, waiting for cribbing.
P.S. I hope this letter makes you sweat to pay you for last Saturday night. I am about dead. Can’t get any sleep. And I lost thirty-two pounds up to Duluth. I expect to die down here.
P.S. I guess we’d better set fire to the whole damn thing and collect the insurance and skip.
The other was shorter.
MacBride & Company, Minneapolis:
I came on the Calumet job to-day. Found it held up by failure of cribbing from Ledyard. Will have at least enough to work with by end of the week. We will get the house done according to specifications.
Yours truly, MacBride & Company.
Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17
LIVE TALK: Calumet “K”: Ayn Rand’s Favorite Novel by Shoshana Milgram Ph.D.
“This talk offers an introduction to the background, spirit and craft of the novel Ayn Rand called her favorite. Calumet ‘K,’ she wrote, features a ‘portrait of an efficacious man’; it reflects the sense of life of ‘a time when people were capable of admiring productive achievement.’ Dr. Milgram, associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, specializes in narrative fiction and film. She has lectured on Ayn Rand at Objectivist and academic conferences, and has published on Ayn Rand, Hugo and Dostoevsky. She is editing the draft of her book-length study of Ayn Rand’s life (to 1957).
Samuel Merwin and Henry Kitchell Webster
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