Hilary Peach Dishes on the Brotherhood

I first came to know Hilary Peach as a writer and a poet some years ago. We became Facebook friends through a mutual acquaintance in the Vancouver cultural scene and we had published her work in the print version of Vancouver Review. I soon learned of her “other life” via a string of posts; that of a welder. I recall thinking that it was likely a bit of a rough and tumble world with few women on the ground with her and that she’d certainly have some stories to tell and a fabulous way of telling them.

Hilary contacted me last year to let me know a memoir was on the way and could I do a new portrait for it. We met up in Queensborough and spent a cold January day walking and driving around looking for suitable locations. Something, um, industrial? With pipes and things? How, exactly, do you say “fearless poet welder wit” with a portrait? I don’t know. You hang out and chat and take some photos (see above) near a dis-used railway trestle that’s part of a post-industrial landscaped parklet in a gentrified residential neighbourhood.

In any case Anvil Press has just published Thick Skin: Field Notes from a Sister in the Brotherhood (Anvil Press 2022) about her years working as a transient welder, travelling across Canada and the United States, working in pulp mills, chemical plants, refineries, and generating stations. She now works as a welding inspector and a Boiler Safety Officer, and continues to write. We are pleased to offer this excerpt as an appetizer. So yes, stories to tell…and a fabulous way of telling them!

By the time I started at The Lakes I had been working in BC for around fifteen years, and any sensitivities or fragile aspects of the self were either long gone or well-buried. Be careful, the guys would say to each other, you might hurt my feeling … and it’s the only one I have left. We worked in a physically toxic environment, with chemical exposures, extreme temperatures and loud noise, at dangerous heights, in confined spaces, over long hours. Complaining was not helpful or tolerated. There was a group pride around working in these conditions. Boilermakers are tough. You learn not to show weakness, and if you do, you are open to a wide assortment of abuses. The motto in BC was don’t bleed in a pool of sharks. As disfunctional as this culture was from a human perspective, it was an excellent training in thickening the skin. I no longer had any patience with people who tried to intimidate me, and for better or worse, was basically fearless. This is not necessarily a healthy place to be, and I have since learned that it is a quality shared by the incarcerated, the abused, the traumatized, and those of us who are becoming slightly unhinged.

Nevertheless, I was intrigued when one of the guys from Alberta told me not to go to the tool crib alone, because the guy handing out tools was “a bit weird.”

“What are you telling her for?” one of my colleagues from BC asked. “You should be warning him about her.” The guy was a bit weird, and often said inappropriate things when I went to get tools, but there were usually other people around, so it wasn’t too bad. For the first couple of weeks I ignored him. When I finally did have to pick something up at the crib while I was alone, the guy became much creepier. He said something lewd, asked me where I was staying, and leered at me over the counter.

“You know,” he said, “there’s a way that you could save a lot of money. You could come and stay with me in my motorhome.” He dropped his voice. “You could be my girlfriend.”

“Yeah?” I asked. I looked at him for a long time then leaned against the counter towards him. “But if I was your girlfriend,” I said, breathily, “you’d never get any sleep.” He smiled uncertainly.

“No?” he asked, “and why’s that?”

“Because,” I hissed, “You’d be worried. That I was going to stab you in your sleep, cut out your liver, and make necklaces out of your teeth.” The guy stepped backwards, and I exited. Later that night, a foreman came by our table in the lunch room, and pointed at me.

“I’ve had a complaint about you,” he said. “Our tool crib attendant says that you threatened him. Did you threaten him?”

“Yes,” I said.

“What did you say?” he asked.

“I said that, given the opportunity, I would stab him in his sleep and make necklaces out of his teeth,” I answered.

“Did you?” he asked. “Well good for you. Carry on.”

The decades-long shortage of skilled workers in Alberta had opened up room for women in the trades in ways that diversity initiatives and inclusion campaigns never had. There were a lot more women than in BC. My first time at the Lakes there was a fight in the lunchroom because one gal refused to work for another, who was assigned as her foreman, because they had some bad history. But I found it kind of thrilling to be in a place where there were actually enough women on the job to have a cat fight. At Keephills I was partnered with a woman who was older and tougher than me, and into motorcycles, sex, hard drugs and booze. She lived completely outside my world, and by comparison, I was a nebbish, wide-eyed girl with thick framed glasses, who brought healthy lunches. We were each other’s opposite. Every encounter felt a little dangerous, but I couldn’t help provoking her.

“Would you like a vitamin?” I’d ask, shaking the bottle, when she had a particularly nauseating hangover. “They’re for ladies over forty.”

“Fuck you,” she’d say.

One evening I was late after speeding back from a dental appointment in Edmonton and had been pulled over by the police. The policeman ran my license, and seeing that I had a clean record, let me off with a warning. My work partner had had many less benign run-ins with the cops.

“First of all,” she said, “who the fuck goes to the dentist when they’re travel carding?”

“Dental hygiene is very important,” I said.

“And second… why the fuck would the cop let you off? You just flash them big titties of yours at him and he let you go?” I nodded.

“Yup, pretty much.”

“So, what was your plan B?” She asked “You start crying?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never needed a plan B.” She shook her head.

“Sometimes…. I don’t know whether to punch you in the face, or hug you.”

“Given the choice” I said, “I think I’d rather you hit me.”