The Longest War
Jonathan Waldman
(Simon and Schuster)
So there we were in the depths of southern Mexico, next to the Tonameca river, miles from the nearest town. It had been a great picnic --- frijoles charros (beans slowly cooked in the pot with epazote), freshly slapped tortillas (hand-sweat very important for flavor), fresh avocados (sprinkled with the local bitter crumbly white goat-cheese), along with flan for dessert, flan so sweet and dark that, as in that old traditional folk-song, it "Makes Your Eyes Light Up and Your Stomach Say Howdy!"

After a nap in the hammock rocking next to the roiling waters, we roused ourselves, packed up the left-overs in the back of the truck, got in, stuck in the key, gave it a twist . . . and the truck said "click." That was it.

Have you ever done that one, what you get when you wrench the key to the right and you may be sitting there waiting for the roar of the engine and all they give you is a delicate little click.

Me? I'm not much for histrionics there on the banks of the Tonameca River, the sun setting fire over in the far west, dying in gold-red-green splendor. I knew all about being stranded in the wastelands, far from civilization, chewed on all night by the night beasties, being drained of vital bodily fluids by several thousand industrial-strength Mexican mosquitoes . . . the tiniest, the suckinist in the land.

What's more, I'm a grown man, so I don't weep in front of other people. But I did lay my head on the steering-wheel, musing on a long peaceful, beautiful full life, soon to be ravaged by malaria, dengue, the Yaws, and, worse, rank ennui.

"¿Qué pasa?" I asked Jesús. "¿Qué haces?" I asked him what he was doing, because he was scrabbling around in the back of the truck, going through the leavings of our lunch. "Busqué los limones," he said.

He was looking for the Mexican limes, those hard little nuggets we use to flavor all and everything when we are eating (and sometimes to scrub our hands after we're done). I said to him that here we were, about to be assigned to a night of pure misery, on a solitary plot thousands of miles from civilization, supper for the scavengers already scenting our dinner . . . and he's looking for limes.

"¿Por qué?" I asked. "¡Callaté la trompa!" he said, . . . not a nice thing to say to a respectable gentleman of my age, standing (and girth). It's usually translated as "Shut your snout!"

He told me to open the hood. I did, and he pulled the clips off the battery, soaked paper towels in lime juice, swabbed it over the clips and the terminals, which were covered in a powdery fluff.

If I had my iPad and a good internet connect, I would have found that "The white powdery substance is sulfuric acid and hydrogen crystals from the escaping hydrogen battery gases and liquid (the batteries have vents that allow the gases to escape)."

    This acid causes corrosion of the copper wires and steel bolts attached to the battery and to some degree the battery posts and post connectors which are made of lead.

In other words, the corrosion had interfered with the charge we needed to crank up my old junker truck.

§   §   §

And now, reading Rust, I find that as soon as Jesús cleaned the posts with lime-juice, he eliminated the interference in the connections, for one of the cures specified for PbSO4 --- lead sulfate --- is "acetic or citric acid."

Thus the moment I turned the key (at the same time offering Jesús a buss, which he quickly refused) the truck started up like a charm: the sweetest music of the spheres, or those stuck in the hot wastelands there near the equator.

Rust is jammed with such insights, because corrosion, as is often repeated here, means an annual half-a-trillion dollar bill presented to the United States each year, as corrosion degrades bridges, destroyers, fighter planes, highways, public monuments, aircraft carriers, DEW-line electronics . . . and everything in your kitchen. And your bathroom. And your bedroom. Along with cars, joists, and all that human interconnect you've stuck in the ground . . . swings, steps, garages, posts, fences, and the house itself all the way up to the eaves.

§   §   §

Even the Statue of Liberty. Whose restoration, between 1980 and 1986, took place because of a daring climb up her dress by Ed Drummond, a poet from San Francisco, and Stephen Rutherford, a teacher from Berkeley. They had not been officially approved for rapelling up Lady Liberty. They were hellbent on protesting the imprisonment of a Black Panther by the name of Geronimo Pratt. (Once they made it up half-way up her cloak, they unfurled a banner that said Liberty Was Framed.)

After getting busted, the two climbers were charged with mistreating public property, but since they had carefully and patriotically used rubber suction-cup pitons, it turned out that they had done no damage whatsoever. Rather, they uncovered a discomfiting fact. In the overall damage investigation that followed, it was found that the statue had been slowly rotting over the years, which was the fault of two other men --- two respectable Frenchmen.

One was Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi. The other Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel. Starting in 1876, they rigged the frame of the skeleton out of steel. And over it they draped a skin of copper. Two metals: bad. Dissimilar metals, in contact, go sour; e.g., turn to rust through a process known as "galvanic corrosion."

Thus the offenders had built the whole thing in such a way that it would slowly deteriorate over the years. And they could not be charged as Drummond and Rutherford had been, because Bartholdi and Eiffel were dead. Their crime was solely a construction screw-up. Never stick a sheet of copper atop a frame of steel, especially in a windy, rainy, salt-ridden place, with constant mist and general overall damp. Two metals and tempests like that create a guaranteed if slow disaster.

Waldman's book is a gold mine of odd facts on rust, corrosion, anti-corrosion activists, and some of the consequences of our trying to abate this nuisance:
  • The main antagonist to metals is oxygen. "It does not get along with metals, or rather, the way it gets along with metals . . . does not agree with us." Centuries ago, one chemist called it "the fire that burns up all things slowly."

  • Although a rusty surface may not be all that scenic, in pure corrosion it can be gorgeous: it turns "calcium white, copper green, scandium pink, strontium yellow, terbium maroon, thallium blue, and thorium gray, the black." It also turned Mars red, and gives "the Grand Canyon, bricks, Mexican tile, and blood their hue."

  • Waldman points out that it is everywhere, but boring. "Because it's more sluggish than hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, blizzards, and floods, rust ranks dead last in drama. There's no rust channel. But rust is costlier than all other natural disasters combined, amounting to 3 percent of GDP, or $437 billion annually . . . more than the GDP of Sweden."

  • One item designed to specifically outwit it is the aluminum can. "Rust is a can's number one enemy. Manufacturing strong, healthy aluminum cans, in fact, is so challenging, and requires such a vast amount of study, design and precise machining, that many consider cans the most engineered products in the world."
  • The rustiest place in the world, the author avers, is the old Bethlehem steel works in Pennsylvania. I suppose he hasn't seen the collection of old cars, bedsteads, screws, nails, fuel tanks, wasted appliances, life-support systems, metal trash and animal wastes over there in my neighbor Jesú's back yard. He has noisy parties too. And won't talk to me anymore; winks at his wife when I come over, makes that finger-screwing motion around his ear whenever I try to talk at him about his trash-heap lot.

  • You'd think that plumbers would be up in arms about corrosion, but hardly. It's all a matter of business. "They keep telling us they did not want to solve problems because about fifty to sixty percent of their work was in repairing systems" decimated by rust.

  • The biggest problem in the Trans Alaska Pipeline is not cold or snow or rutting elk or cross-country skiers or spills or protesters . . . but wax. Recently, a "pig" --- a sonic device that works its way through the 800 miles of it seeking out blips and twists and wall-thinning --- turned up pushing 1200 pounds of the stuff when it finally popped out at the end of the line, near Valdez. Sorta like ear-wax it is. Tastes bad; never goes away; your friends don't want to tell you.

  • The answer to rusting and collapsing bridges might be something known as "thermoplastic lumber" which is an aggregate made of pressure-treated wood, old dumptrucks, lard, pigbone, used baby diapers, refried beans and pickleweed. (I've been known to make shit up; please check your sources before repeating this list to anyone, anywhere).

§   §   §

Rust: The Longest War is a leisurely and charming read. I especially admired Waldman's way with words, and his ability to come up with engrossing asides. For instance, one cantankerous engineer, Bernard Amadei, is frustrated with the education of engineers in the United States because he believes we are "fixing problems we don't have and ignoring problems we do." He founded "Engineers Without Borders" --- the engineering counterpart to Médecins Sans Frontières. EWB now has over 12,000 members working in forty-five countries, mostly on problems that are "water or sanitation related."

He has found what he believes to be the best engineering program of them all, not at "the University of Colorado, or Stanford, or MIT . . . but at KIT: the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology in Rwanda."

    All engineers there begin by spending three months in a village. When they come to school, they're asked what they can do to solve problems. They do the same thing over the next three summers. Then, to get their degrees, they have to demonstrate what they've done to improve that community.
It's not all peaches and cream there in Rustville. One of the most alarming chapters is called "Coating the Can." You think a can is a can: this light sanitary shiny thing that you use to make it possible to serve tomatoes for dinner, asparagus for your salad, mashed peas for your baby, and beer for your drunk. What you probably don't know about is a goo called bisphenol-A(BPA) which, we gather, the manufacturers paint on the (in)sides of every can, which contains stuff you probably don't want in your tomatoes, salad, babies, or drunks. It seems to turn up everywhere now and one scientific study concluded that, with respect to breast cancers in such disparate places as Canada and Shanghai, "It is plausible that they were exposed to BPA from can linings."

Waldman attended something called the Can School, put on by "America's largest can maker," presumably the Ball Corporation, which manufactures thirty or forty billion aluminum cans a year. They were wary of letting him in the door in the first place (he wasn't one of the regulars). The feel of it, for him, as a likely informer, was so fraught --- he had been refused a ticket by one of the organizers, even though another told him that he was accepted --- that he began to be uneasy around any of the suits, tried to huddle in the shadows at the side of the auditorium.

He ended up keeping notes in a Samuel Pepy's-style code: puso (sic) memoria en pantalones, y uso español en mi papel "I hid my thumb drive in my pants and used Spanish in my notes." (Literally, it reads I hid my memory in my pants . . . which some of us find to be a tad more poetic.)

Waldman was called out the second day of Can School by a Ball executive named Scott McCarty. He "told me that he thought rust was a silly subject to write about, and asked how cans were related. I told him that I was writing about can manufacturing and all of the associated processes devised to prevent rust."

    McCarty said he still didn't think my book was a good idea or that anybody would want to read about cans. I thought, "That's why I'm me and you're you."

Shortly after that, Waldman was, so to speak, canned . . . allowed no further charming notes taken there at Ball's Can School.

--- L. W. Milam
Go to a
from this book

Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH