Johnny’s Journey

 1915, Denver, Colorado

Johnny Schmidt watched the first signs of Denver pass by the railcar window with a mixture of relief and concern. It had been nearly three years since he had been anywhere but Naturita, and that had been his disastrous trip to Ouray. He was still embarrassed about being beat up and chased out of town, but couldn’t help remembering the whiskey and women, too.

The tracks followed the valley into Denver from the south, limiting his view of the mountains that started nearly twenty miles to the west. Having spent most of the last seven years on the wide open western slope, the town felt confining and impure. Smoke hung over everything, and the number of people and buildings made him shudder. Not for the first time did he question his wisdom in agreeing to this trip, but he couldn’t get enough of the new world spread before him. He had quizzed the brakeman, and others riding in the caboose about where they’d been and what they’d seen.

Riding in the caboose he had stayed warm for most of the trip, but the smoke from the engine, and the dust from the ore cars up ahead made it far from pleasant. He’d rather have traveled on a passenger train than the freight, but the boss was paying him to stay with the ore cars. There was also the satchel he carried, supposedly more valuable than all nine cars of ore. He had gotten used to keeping it by his side, and even slept with it.

With only minimal delay, they pulled into the central train yards behind Union Station. “End of the road for you, Pardner,” the rough voice of the brakeman interrupted his silent awe. “`bout time you did your work, now. Go on over to that white building, they’ll tell you where to go.”

“Thanks, Jake,” Johnny replied, “been good playing cards with you.” He gathered his sparse belongings and jumped off the train.

Inside the white shack was a mass of confusion, centered around a small unperturbed man, sitting at a desk with a telephone to one ear and a telegraph key in one hand. The engineer from his train winked at Johnny and pushed his way to the front of the desk. Above the noise Johnny couldn’t hear what was said, but saw them look his way, exchange papers, and both look over to someone sitting against the far wall. Johnny recognized him immediately.

“Mr. Kithil,” he said approaching the sitting man, “your ore is here.”

“Ah, Schmidt, I’m glad you survived the traumas of the rails,” extending his hand, he turned to the engineer, ” And when will you have our nine cars at the plant?”

“Tomorrow morning soon enough?” from the engineer.

“Certainly, but no later! We have a schedule to keep.” turning to Johnny, he said, “Why else would we send along our best man just to keep an eye on our ore? Come Schmidt, let us go see this marvelous ore you have brought us.”

Johnny followed Kithil outside. He remembered the man from his first trip to Long Park three years before, with Parsons, now the head of the whole Institute. They had come to look at the carnotite mining operations first hand, and as a result, a year later, the National Radium Institute was founded in Denver. Johnny had gone to work for them setting up a mine and some rudimentary processing operations in Long Park, near Naturita.

The nine cars of carnotite ore were covered with a yellowish dust, as were the other cars behind them in the train. Johnny had spent the whole trip in the caboose, playing cards and listening to the brakeman complain about ore cars and all the dust. Johnny agreed that if you had to breathe all the dust you might as well become a miner, where you could at least strike it rich.

As they walked back toward the station, Kithil asked, “Is this your first trip to Denver?”

Johnny nodded, and looked at the buildings ahead of them. The Denver skyline soared above them to the east. He saw buildings of seven and eight stories everywhere. So much bigger than Pueblo, where they had stopped last night, that had quite a few tall buildings, but nothing like this.

The traffic, the canyon-like walls of the buildings, and the crowded streets seemed to close in on him. “You’ll get used to it,” Kithil said reassuringly, “why don’t I take you to the plant? You do have the radium, don’t you?”

Johnny nodded again, and felt the heavy satchel he had kept by his side since leaving Longs Park. Even in the caboose, he had slept with it, using it as a pillow.

Kithil directed them toward a truck, that looked like a cross between a wagon and a motorcar. Johnny was amazed at the number of trucks and motor cars on the streets. A few wagons were visible, but mostly seemed to be hauling freight. The chaos of the roadway was heightened when they passed a trolley and lurched with other vehicles over the tracks.

“Over there,” Kithil pointed to the tall and ornate University Building at the corner of 16th and Champa, “is our laboratory. It’s in the basement, and once we get the new plant built, we’ll move out of there completely.”

Finally they emerged from the confusion and followed the railroad tracks to the south. “See those smokestacks?” Kithil pointed, “We’re right next to them.” Johnny nodded, but had already noticed several saloons, with alluring second story windows, that reminded him of Ouray.

The plant itself wasn’t that impressive. A railroad car half full of ore attested to the need for the cars he brought with him. The buildings were sheet metal sided with chimneys and pipes sticking out of the roof. Piles of greenish yellow process waste flanked what Kithil referred to as the First Plant, and a small ditch glittered black and yellow where the process wastewater drained to the river.

Kithil took him inside a smallish new building next to the First Plant. “This is the Sulphate Building,” he explained, “and this is Mr. Moore, Plant Manager.”

“Welcome Schmidt. We’ve been looking forward to your visit.” Moore shook his hand and led them into his office. Like everyone at the plant, his clothes were covered with fine yellowish powder. “It’s a little dusty in here right now,” he explained, “we’ve just started up the new grinders.” He nodded to the other room. “So, how was your trip? Did you bring the samples?”

Johnny lifted the satchel and placed it in his lap. “It’s all here.” he said, “I haven’t even opened this since I left Long Park.” He gave Moore a sharp look, “and I haven’t let this out of my sight. Not a drop to drink either. I’m beginning to feel like a padre.”

Kithil and Moore both chuckled, for they knew that Johnny had strict instructions to stay sober and careful for the whole trip to Denver. “Well, let’s open it up and relieve you of your weighty responsibility.”

Moore took the satchel, opened it with some difficulty, and removed a flat wooden box from inside. Gently, he set it on the desk, and opened the two clasps. Carefully he lifted the lid and quilted padding to reveal a row of smoky glass tubes. Each was lettered, with the corresponding date, amount, and tare weight recorded on a sheet of paper.

Moore examined each completely before he smiled. “Wonderful!” He beamed first at Kithil, then Schmidt, “The production of our little operation in Long Park is now safe in Denver.”

He signaled them to follow him into the next room. It appeared to be both a lab and storeroom, with a large portion of a concrete wall covered by locked metal doors. He unlocked the doors and placed the box inside. “This is our fire safe,” he explained to Schmidt, “we keep all our radium and other valuables here to protect them from fire, or theft. Kithil here will measure the emanations from the tubes in order to determine the amount of radium in them. With the new plant, we hope to double our production and complete the project. With the war in Europe, there’s a great future for radium produced in the U.S. It cures cancer and other illnesses, and promotes virility.”

He winked at Schmidt, “You just wait till tonight. After sleeping with this radium all the way from the West Slope, you’ll be ready for a bottomless beer and a big bottomed woman, and not necessarily in that order.” They laughed, and Johnny thought that Mr. Moore just might be right.

Gradually the world lost some of its haze and spin. It focused just behind his eyes, in a twisting ball of pain. He became conscious of an overwhelming dryness, and couldn’t seem to close his mouth. The pain subsided, and he began to feel the back of his tongue; it felt swollen and dried, like a dead animal in the desert. He tried to move his eyes, but the sand under his eyelids grated on his eyeballs; the pain returned. He succeeded in closing his mouth, only to gasp quickly when he realized he couldn’t breathe through his nose. What was wrong with his nose?

Johnny had a flash of memory about a large Irishman, and Bertha. Something to do with Krauts and the war; he seemed to remember fighting, but was very unclear. Thinking made the pain worse, so he focused on opening and closing his mouth. That made him think of Bertha. Mr. Moore was right about the radium.

He had just decided that he was curled up in a bathtub, when he heard voices. His body screamed when a large wave of cold water washed over him. He sat up quickly, opening his eyes and setting off all the pain alarms in his whole body. Moore and Kithil and a few others from the plant were laughing at him.

Kithil handed him a cup of water, which he drained greedily. He noticed that he was in a large bathtub, at the bottom of a chain of a half dozen or so. He closed his eyes again to see if it made more sense.

“Where’d you find him?” from Moore.

Kithil replied, “Tom spotted him down at the Bloody Rose. Seems like he spent a whole wad on one of the girls, and tried to drink the place dry. He got into a fight when he ran out of money, and Tom collected him in the front gutter. He dropped him off here early this morning. He said Johnny was less likely to roll around and get hurt in the separation tubs than anywhere else.”

“Well, we’ve established he ain’t dead, so let’s get back to work,” said Moore, “Somebody take him over to the shower and get him some other clothes.”

Johnny opened his eyes and realized he was in the Second Building which was still under construction. He was in the last of the settling tubs, to be used to separate radium from the radium-barium sulphate solution.

The world consisted of shifting horizons and pain, but he managed with help to stagger across to the showers. He was only a little surprised that his nose was flattened and his face covered with dried blood, but couldn’t remember anyone drawing large hearts in lipstick on his chest and thighs. Actually he couldn’t remember much, but Bertha figured prominently in what he did remember.

The showers were a novelty to him, and the warm water was a surprise. He showered and put on some old but clean work clothes they had put out for him. In the next room he helped himself to coffee and got to where he felt he could walk without having to hold his head on.

Johnny entered the Sulphate Building in search of Mr. Moore. They were gathered by a control panel watching the board and one of the new electric furnaces Kithil had showed him. He waited for them to finish.

Suddenly, he heard a sharp crack, like a pistol shot. It struck a chord with his headache and he covered his eyes and leaned against the wall. After a few minutes it subsided enough for him to look up.

Kithil was watching him closely, “Are you okay?”

Johnny grinned, then winced, “Yeah, I’ll probably survive, if my head doesn’t fall off. What was that noise?”

“We’re not sure. We’re trying out a new melting pot, actually an electric furnace. The cracks seem to come from the melting process.”

They turned to the furnace, and Johnny heard a deafening boom, like a blast of dynamite. He ducked as molten material splattered out of the pot toward them, hitting the metal wall behind them with a loud clang.

He saw Kithil jump up and down, brushing at his sleeve. Johnny helped him pull off his lab coat and poured water over his arm where it had been slightly burned by the molten sodium uranate.

Kithil laughed, “Sometimes we get these loud booms, and you’re supposed to duck. You were a lot quicker than I was.” He pointed to the clumps of dried slag stuck to the iron walls,” Some day we can refine the walls, when we run out of ore.”

Johnny finally got to talk to Mr. Moore, “I’ve been thinking,” he started, “I’ve never seen much but western Colorado and mostly just the inside of mines. What with this war coming up, I heard that you can join the army and learn to do something besides be a miner.”

“Well, Johnny,” interrupted Mr. Moore, “if you wanted to stay here, we could teach you something about processing. There’s a great future in radium, uranium and all the radioactive minerals. This plant is just the beginning. With our experiments, others will come along to take advantage of what we learn. Why there’s already talk of Denver becoming the radium capitol of the U.S. With all the carnotite from out west, and the pitchblende from Central City, Denver is a natural processing point.”

“And, I understand you’ve already sampled some of Denver’s other attractions,” he said with a wink.

Johnny blushed and ducked his head, “I appreciate what you say, but I’ve been holed up too long to settle down now.” He added, “If you can just pay me out, I think I’m ready to see something of the world. I’m pretty sure the army will take me.”

“Sure, son,” replied Mr. Moore, “but you be careful. If we get sucked into this war in Europe, you might wish you had a nice safe job back here, processing radium. Let me know if you change your mind. Have you considered changing your name to Smith? With the Germans on the march, Smith might be more likely to get into the army than Schmidt.”

They both laughed, and parted. Years later, both would wonder at the wisdom of Johnny’s choice. Would the radium have left him less crippled than the mustard gas?

by Steve Tarlton