Monday, February 28, 2011

I Got Flashed!

In our single-digit years, Brian and I were together daily. Each of our fathers had farm shops where they worked on machinery. We watched them weld many times while repairing equipment. We were cautioned not to look directly at the arc as the brilliant light would damage our eyes. Since we had caught glimpses of the flash in the past with no resulting damage, we thought the warnings were a little overdone.

             I might add here that the damage to eyes from welding is greatly multiplied if the welding is done at night or in a dark atmosphere. The pupils are dilated and allow much more of the damaging welding flash into the eye. This was a fact that I gradually learned over the years through multiple sessions of eye-broiling experiences.

One Saturday evening, Brian and I decided to try our hand at welding. We were 9 or 10 years old and alone in a welder-equipped shed. The shop had only one welding helmet. We were at my dad’s shop that particular night and I remember that we would trade the helmet periodically. We found that welding was actually quite simple. Turn the welder on, hook up the ground clamp to make a connection to whatever you wanted to weld and then stick the welding lead and rod next to the metal. A tremendous bright arc with a dangerous sounding buzz would occur and the metal joints would be welded together. This was pretty exciting stuff for two little boys. We were doing a man’s job without having so much as a minute’s worth of instruction from an adult.

The only problem was that one of us got his eyes fried. In this instance, it was Brian. The pain that accompanies welding flash does not occur immediately. It usually waits until one is tucked comfortably into bed, enjoys a couple hours of sleep and then... BANGO! The eyes pop open like an infected sore, screaming for relief. Tears flow to the little boy's pupils but they immediately turn to steam  from the super-heated eyeballs.

The victim wakes up with what feels to be a gunny-sack full of grainy, nasty sand in both eyes. For those who have not had the unique pleasure of the welder's flash experience, you are missing out! It is a most memorable experience, an absolute killer! There is nothing that can be done to stop the pain. If the victim gets up and turns the light on, the dreadful discomfort multiplies. 

The next morning was Sunday morning church meetings at the elementary school in Mesa. When I saw Brian, I immediately burst into laughter. He looked strange and out-of-place. He was wearing dark sunglasses, looking similar to a very young Tom Cruise on a Risky Business poster although in real life, Tom Cruise hadn't been born yet. I had never seen anyone wear dark sunglasses to church, especially a grade-schooler. At first, I thought he was trying to impress the pre-teen girls at church and I didn't have much empathy for him and maybe even a little jealousy.

He was a beginner-welder and not a happy camper. His eyes were killing him. He had been up all night with excruciating pain. He looked like he was trying to be a Hollywood movie star with the shades pulled down. I thought it was hilarious, only because I had not yet tasted the fruit of that particular malady. I must have not caught the rays of the evening before but I got my share many times after. 

Not long after this, since I had escaped the pain initially, I did a little welding on my own. As a beginner, it takes some practice to get the arc started and keep it going so one can weld. The old welding helmets contained a lens of very dark glass which makes it impossible to see where you are welding until you get the arc started. Since it was hard to see where the rod was through the lens, the problem was solved by popping the helmet up and watching the location of the rod as I navigated it toward the desired and as yet unwelded parts.

           The resulting flash would blind you for a few moments but there was no pain involved. You had to wait for the sun-like illumination to fade away for 20 seconds or so until you could see again. Then, you would strike another flash and wait another 20 seconds. It never hurt at the time but like a stealthy snake, it would strike with a vengeance with a fang in each pupil around the midnight hour.

Sure enough, I woke up with big piles of imaginary but painful sand in my eyes. I went in crying and told my folks what had happened. They scolded me for using the welder and sent me back to bed. It was one of the most miserable nights of my life to that point. Very, very painful.

The next morning, mom called the eye doctor and took me to town. Even though there was school that day, there was no way I could go. I was looking for pain relief, not book learnin'. I couldn’t stand to open either eye. She had to lead me wherever I walked. 
I was in sixth grade at the time. When mom led me into the doctor’s office, I soon learned from her that a girl in my class was also in the office. In the past, I considered this girl to be eye candy but had no interest in checking her out on this particular day.

Her reason for attendance at the eye doctor clinic was not nearly as glamorous as mine. She didn’t have welder’s flash, she was simply there for an eye exam. She happened to be my current crush at the time. I remember feeling a bit excited that she was there to view my suffering but I was much more excited about being immersed with the doctor's eye-drops.

The doc gave me medicine and some dark plastic glasses but it didn’t help. I suffered through the day. Many times since then I’ve gotten flashed, even as an adult. Often, the eyes take the brunt of the welder’s work. It's just part of the job, especially if one is as careless and prone-to-forget the ramifications of welder's flash as I seem to be.

I have since found that cutting a potato in half and pressing the cool white flesh of the spud tightly against each eye-socket does have some healing properties. I have also learned that when your eyes are burning, smacking a ball-peen hammer to the upper back part of your own head takes a little pain-attention away from the eyeballs. Your eyes may be closed but you can still see brilliant, bright and beautiful falling stars for a minute, even longer if it's a particularly hard hit.

These kind of remedies can be quite helpful and don't cost nearly as much as a doctor's visit.

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