One hundred and eight degrees Fahrenheit, and I tied a rope to the wire handle on a five gallon can. I was inside a square wooden grain elevator with a corrugated iron roof several stories above me in Basin City. Up before dawn, I drove through the dark to Bruce, Washington, where my uncle ran the local Full Circle, Inc., agribusiness office. He had the Warden, Bruce and Basin City branches to manage. After five or six summers working in the grain warehouses, I had been given the job of taking care of the Basin City elevator. Each day I’d pick up a courier’s pouch at Bruce and climb into a company truck for the run down to my station.
One of the first things I did in Basin City was to try to control the rats. Every day their droppings and their footprints circled the exterior of the elevator. Their dens were narrow cracks in the sides of the concrete pad the elevator stood on. I shoved wire mesh, broken glass and bits of barbed wire into the cracks every day and when I returned in the morning I’d find the hole empty of all my wicked obstacles, not a trace of blood on the fine dust and sand. Rat footprints thronged across the blowsand. Poison was left untouched. These rodents knew their business.
There were four bins inside the elevator, all of them heaped to the top with wheat from fields around the dusty settlement. Every so often I would climb to the top of the elevator to stick a moisture probe into the bins. When I was a boy, I had seen grain elevators on fire from spontaneous combustion on two consecutive weekends. Wet wheat makes fire.
It was a perilous climb. This was an old elevator, hand-built of two by four planks interlocked in a wooden square. The only way to the top was by means of a wooden ladder. There wasn’t even a metal cage around the ladder to give me something to grab if I happened to fall backwards. At the time, it meant nothing to me. I was pleased to be gifted with the independence of my own elevator to maintain. I was young, lightweight and strong. I trusted my balance and I knew, as young men do, that I couldn’t be harmed in an accident.
So, that day. It was hotter than any other day that summer, and word came down that I needed to kill bugs in the grain bins. A hot day like this was ideal, because we used carbon tetrachloride, a liquid that evaporates rapidly, forming a gas that is heavier than air. When we loaded railroad tank cars for shipping to Portland the last thing we would do was to dump five gallons of the chemical into the open doors on top, then slam them shut and seal them for the trip. Simple and effective. The grain was probably headed overseas anyway.
This day I scaled the wooden ladder carrying the end of a strong rope tied to my waist. It took me several minutes to reach the top, under the oven of the corrugated steel. I was sweating rivers by then, so I went to the open doorway on the west side of the building to cool off in the shade. A breeze blew in through the doorway and I settled down on top of the wheat to wait for my breathing to steady.
Looking out the doorway, I was gazing at the mysterious concrete blocks and chimneys of some Hanford Reservation nuclear plants. I didn’t know at the time that the dunes of the far side of the Columbia were the most polluted land on Earth, but I was knowledgeable enough to realize that Basin City lay square in the middle of a region plagued by health complaints that were now being linked to Hanford’s emissions. You can’t see that kind of danger; I felt no threat.
Eventually I was ready for the next step. I pulled on the rope until the five gallon bucket of carbon tetrachloride began its ascent. It took me a few minutes to raise it to the top, and my arms ached. I was drenched with sweat again, but untied the rope and tossed the end back over the edge of the bin. Then I followed, lowering myself over the edge onto the wooden rungs, climbing down to the cooler air below. At the bottom I tied a second can onto the rope and then climbed up again. Up and down, up again. At 108 degrees, the heat was like an oven. When I finally reached the top I returned to the open door for another rest. It took longer this time to feel like I was ready to work again.
Now begins the worst of it. I had two five gallon buckets of carbon tetrachloride that had to be dumped on the four bins of grain. I had no mask, not even a dust mask. As soon as I yanked the top off the first spout poisonous gas filled the air. I upended the bucket, letting the liquid chug out the plastic spout–liquid that turned almost immediately into more gas. I held my breath, averted my head to breath. I dumped half the can into one of the bins and backed onto the next heap of grain, still spilling the clear liquid. When the bucket was empty I rushed to that open doorway to breath in some fresh air. Still one can to go. By the time I spilled the first half of the second can I was feeling the effects of the gas. I felt dizzy, somewhat sick. I broke for the doorway again and gulped for air, but the gas was everywhere by now. I did the best I could, filling my lungs at the doorway and holding my breath. When I finished pouring the last of the can on the fourth bin I tossed both cans over the edge. It took a long time before they crashed to the floor.
Now I eased myself over the edge again, feet feeling for the wooden rungs. Carbon tetrachloride gas surrounded me, followed me rung by rung down the endless ladder. Heavier than air, it would penetrate deep into the grain bins to kill insects, but it also settled in the bay where the ladder was. My head spun and I felt dizzy, faint, as I eased towards the ground.
I made it without falling, but I rushed out of the elevator, through the scorching sunlight to the shade on the west side of the elevator. I don’t know how long I sat on the edge of the concrete pad, my back leaned against the splintered wooden planks of one of the bins. I gazed across white dust and tumbleweeds towards the distant blue of Gable Mountain and Rattlesnake Ridge. Maybe Hanford was poisoning us in Basin City, but right then I needed the shade and the soft, hot breeze coming from the Reservation to clear my head from the chemical fumes I’d loosed upon my elevator. In the corner of my eye I saw a rat slip silently past me.