I was 14, a sophomore in high school, and like the rest of the kids waiting in line for a piece of iron stock, I wore a dirt-stained shop coat that covered me from shoulders to knees. Mine was a hand-me-down, its sleeves badly frayed and its breast pocket burned clean through, but it did the job.
My turn came at last. Mister Gregory handed me a 3/8-inch thick, six-inch long piece of soft iron stock. He said nothing. He just glanced at my face and made a mark next to my name.
My forge was nearest the door to the wood shop, so I grabbed a handful of wood shavings as I passed the shavings barrel. Leaving my piece of iron on my anvil, I tossed the shavings into my forge, and began mixing soft coal and water in a scuttle, making it wet enough to hang together but dry enough to burn.
A few minutes later, I cranked a hand-powered blower with my left hand, watching the shavings flare within a nicely squared pile of damp coal in my forge.
Thick white smoke emerged from the coal and rushed up the pipe. I poked a hole in the top of the pile because I didn't want overheated gas to build up inside it and explode, blowing the entire pile out of the forge and earning me a visit from Mister Gregory. Soon, the flames within the coal went from orange to yellow to white as the coal changed to coke and the fire grew hot enough to melt iron.
Gripping the six-inch long piece of round iron stock with my tongs, I inserted it into the flames, watching through the white-hot glare as it heated. When it grew fiery yellow, I pulled it from the flames, placed it on my forge, and hammered one end into a thin taper. Then I put it back in, heated the other end, and tapered it, too.
Next, I heated the entire piece, bent it into a U-shape, and then into a flat-sided oval with the two tapered ends overlapping. Then came a critical step, one very prone to errors. I gripped the solid end of the now oval-shaped piece and placed its overlapping ends into the hottest part of the flames, cranking the blower for all I was worth. Staring into the flames as they glared white-hot, I watched the two overlapping ends, waiting for the point at which they began to melt.
It was midwinter, but I was sweating. An instant too long in the flames and the iron would burn, turning into a 4th of July sparkler. That meant a trip back to Mister Gregory, a check in the failing column of his book, and a repeat of the entire process.
My face and eyes broiled as I stared into the flames, watching white-hot iron in the midst of blinding white flames. Then it happened. As I rocked the iron to see how it reacted I saw a slight movement in its surface. It was time! I whisked the piece out of the flames, held it flat against the anvil, and struck it hard with my hammer. Hot metal flashed. Sparks flew. I held the result up near my burned-out eyeballs.
The iron had welded. I had a chain link!
Over the next few weeks in shop class, I repeated the entire process 36 times, hammering each link smooth over the rounded end of the anvil, and linking them together as I slowly created a chain. Then I forged a 1/2-thick, six-inch diameter welded ring for one end of my chain and a specially shaped hook for the other end. It took four weeks in all, and what I had when I was done was an eight-foot long tow chain.
Is it any wonder us old-timers have such a deep and abiding respect for a well-made tool, and such an equally deep and abiding suspicion of today's throwaway world?