Every father dreams of being his little girl’s hero, but usually, by the time she’s 8 or 9, that exalted status has fallen along the wayside. Still, there are times when it comes around again for a little while. So it was on my daughter Chrissy’s tenth birthday, when I caught a glimpse of that long-forgotten look in her eyes — a look that only a father and his daughter can share. I’ll never forget that day. The day that The Cellarman became a super-hero.
I started work around 1:00 AM that day because I knew we’d be brewing, and as sole cellarman of the mid-sized brewery, it was my responsibility to make sure that a fermentation tank in the bottom of the cellar was cleaned and primed with yeast by no later than 4:30 for the new brew. But, as often was the case, we were a bit backed up, and so to make room I first had to carbonate a tank of beer on the top floor, pump it over to the bottle house cooler, and scrub out the empty tank with caustic soda. The carbonating tanks were the hardest to clean, because they each had 6 long, porous stones in the bottom that the CO2 bubbled through.
Next, I had to pump up a tankful from storage on the middle floor and clean that tank. Working backward like that, I was finally able to empty a fermentation tank and free up the precious, yeasty sludge left behind. It’s important for a brewery this size to be able to keep from purchasing yeast and CO2 from outside sources.
By 4:20, I was reaching into the manway door of the fermentation tank with my long-handled, stainless steel dipper, scooping out a pailful of the brown goo, and quickly dumping it into the clean tank. The smell of it made me gag for a second, because, being around beer all morning and drinking a more-than-adequate amount of it at night, I was thoroughly saturated with beer, inside and out. I hooked up the hose, cracked the air-valve, and headed up to talk to the brewmaster. At 4:28 AM, I was still actually ahead of schedule.
I bounded up the cellar’s three flights of stairs, across the driveway, and up the expanded-metal steps in the brewhouse to a cat-walk on the top floor. My legs had become quite powerful by running up and down the stairs every day, and I got there with a whole minute to spare. “You can let ‘er go, Tom, the tank’s ready.” He preferred to be called Thomas, so I always made sure to call him Tom. We harassed each other whenever we could, but it was all in fun.
Thomas was a great brewmaster, but not much of a conversationalist. He took his job quite seriously: he had to; the future of the brewery rested squarely on his shoulders. He pulled on his gloves and cautiously cracked open a big brass valve. The hot, sweet wort began to gurgle its way from the copper kettle down through the pipes on its course to the cooling system and finally to the fermentation tank deep in the bowels of the cold cellar.
It would be well over an hour now until I had anything to do, so as usual I plopped down alongside Thomas on the strategically-placed planks over the mash tun, where the brewmaster kept an eye on things. Sometimes we’d take turns “minding the mint” while the other napped a little.
“Tom, did you see the cracks in the old welds on your railing up there?” I asked, trying to stay awake.
“Up on the cat-walk, above the kettle.”
He turned and looked at me as if I was crazy. “This building is over a hundred years old. Everything needs fixing.” With that he shut his eyes and we waited.
All was warm and quiet in the brewery at this early hour, save the sleepy chug of the compressor for the CO2 collector, and it was always the hardest part of the shift to stay awake. Whenever we brewed, the entire brewhouse was awash with a pleasant aroma not unlike grandma’s home-baked oatmeal cookies, and it somehow made me even sleepier. “Tom,” I said after a while, not sure if he was awake or not.
“You know what Chrissy said at the supper table last night?”
“Your daughter….she’s turning ten today, right? See, I do listen.”
“Yea, she said now that summer vacation’s started, she’s going to miss Mr. Heitz, her friend Marcy’s dad. You know, the counselor at school…the “hero” who saved that Johnson boy from jumping off the school roof. She says all the students like him, cuz he is so cool, and Marcy is so lucky to have him for a dad.”
“Yes, it was a Johnson, wasn’t it? That tall Johnson boy. I wonder if he ever got straightened out.” He sat back and stroked his neatly trimmed beard. “So she makes you feel like shit, does she?”
“That’s nothing. Last year she told her class that I was a brewmaster. She said cellarman sounded too creepy. And with Marcy bragging up her father’s heroic deed as student counselor, there was no way she was going to tell them that I was a lowly cellarman.
“What do you expect? You are a cellar rat, alright. Not a fine, upstanding brewmaster like yours truly.” We both laughed, but the truth was, I really couldn’t blame her.
A cellarman comes home from work every day smelling like a brewery, pun aside. The job is hard, tedious, and doesn’t pay well. There’s no pension plan. And now the very title of the job was a source of embarrassment to Chrissy. It wasn’t that long ago that I was her hero.
I went back down into the cellar. It was now about 6:30, and I was hoping to get everything cleaned up before the bottling crew arrived at 7:00 and skip out early to spend the day with Chrissy. But it was not to be.
One of the guys from the bottling crew, the candler, had the flu, so Jerry, bottle filler and straw boss of the bottling house, arrived early to make sure I could fill in. So I took the candler’s position in front of the bright candling light, and pulled “shorts” off the line until noon. We always kept a case or two of shorts in the cooler; unpasteurized bottle beer is the best of two worlds, something most people never get to try. Every brewery worker everywhere knows that there are two things that ruin a beer: Heat and air. And there is nothing quite like an ice-cold short after working a long shift in the steamy bottle house.
12:30 PM. I was finally told I could leave and stepped into the brewhouse to grab my coat. I glanced up and could see a small tour group through the steps and walkways. They were on the top floor, and Mark, fellow worker and sometimes tour guide, was going on in his monotone voice, “This is where the brewing process begins…”
They were all looking down into the mash tun, and nobody was noticing the young girl leaning on the handrails — except me! I remembered the cracked welds and froze in my tracks. I yelled up at them to get someone’s attention, but nobody heard me. In a panic, I flew up the steps, and, just as I reached the cat-walk, the railing gave way, and the young girl went sailing over the edge.
To everyone’s horror, she bounced off the kettle and over the edge of the partial floor. Only by somehow getting her skirt snagged on a single lag-bolt protruding from the ancient wood did she keep from falling three stories to the cement floor below.
She wriggled furiously and her skirt ripped more and more.
“Marcy, stay still!” a man yelled out, and then, “A ladder! We need a ladder! Oh, my baby girl!”
Everyone went pouring down the steps to locate a ladder, but I could see there wasn’t time. I jumped down onto the kettle and made my way to the edge of the flooring. By hooking my strong legs around a support beam, I reached down just as the skirt let go.
Time stood still. For what seemed like an eternity, the girl, Marcy, was in free-fall. It seemed like I had all the time in the world to ponder the irony of this situation. The girl was obviously Chrissy’s friend Marcy, and the man frantically searching for a ladder below was her dad, Mr. Heitz.
A fraction of a second later, my hands closed around hers, and there we hung. Now it was only the strength of my legs that kept her from falling. She looked up at me with terror in her eyes, so with the calmest voice that I could muster under the situation, I said, “Marcy. You’re going to be alright.”
Finally, a ladder was erected and father and daughter were reunited. Someone had managed to call 911 in all the commotion, and when the ambulance arrived, she was still so shook up that they decided to take her to the hospital to get her checked out. As she was being helped into the ambulance, Mr Heitz was all over me, thanking me and pumping my arm like a maniac. And he called me a hero. Mr Heitz called me a hero!
4:45 PM. I finally got my coat and left. I was sure that Chrissy had given up on me as a birthday pal by now.
When I got home, she had given up on me and was over at the neighbor’s house, but when she came home for supper, I was eager to tell her about her friend and all. “Guess who showed up at the brewery today?” I began, “Marcy and her dad.” I was trying to be all cool and nonchalant.
“What?” she practically screamed.
“Yea, they took the tour and…”
“Oh no!” she cried, looking absolutely horrified. “Did she know who you were? Did she talk to you?”
“Well, you could say we hung around a while.” I had to say it, in spite of her reaction; I had practiced the line all the way home.
Before I could say more, she jumped up and stormed off to her bedroom. “I’ll never show my face at school again!” she shouted, slamming the bedroom door. Somehow, her birthday was turning out to be a disaster of epic proportions.
I was sitting there, trying to figure out a way to save the day when a car pulled into the driveway. I went to the front porch and peered out from behind the partly open door. A man and a girl were getting out of the car. It was Marcy and her dad.
I could hear them talking as they came up the walkway. He was saying, “You know, dear, I was once a hero too.”
“Oh daddy, don’t be silly. All you did was talk that boy down. Chrissy’s dad is a real-life hero; he risked his own life to save someone he didn’t even know. Now that’s a hero. No, a super-hero! The Cellarman — it even sounds like a super-hero, doesn’t it, daddy?”
“Yes it does, dear,” he added as the doorbell rang, “and he makes good beer, too.”
Like I said, a father’s hero status with his young daughter is a sporadic thing at best and ever dwindling, and a guy never knows when it will end forever, so I make no excuses and admit that when the opportunity arose that day to bask in that glow one more time, I shamelessly milked it for all it was worth.