All of us were playing a big game of tug-of-war but no one would admit it. It may have been a question of strategy for some of us, at least in the beginning, but I think it’s likelier because people were feeling a little ashamed of themselves. We happened to be at Sloss Furnaces, the only pig-iron blast furnace site ever converted into a National Historic Landmark, at least as far as I’m aware. I think some of us were ashamed. Nobody was looking at anybody else. I didn’t see anyone look at anybody else, although I didn’t look at anybody else too long because nobody else was looking at people, so it’s possible I was mistaken on that front, too. It seemed like people were looking mostly up at the two Whitwell-type furnaces, which are nearly twenty meters tall and include ten boilers each, plus two additional blowing engines. We were there during operating hours, sometime between Tuesday and Saturday from 10:00am to 4:00pm. Some of us were looking at our shoes, and I thought I saw Rahul take his phone out of his pocket at one point, but mostly everyone was just looking around at the furnaces, the water tower, the Cowper stove regenerative heat-exchanger system, the administrative offices, the 16,000-square-foot Visitors’ and Education Center at the southwest corner of the site, and the static dewatering silos in the slag granulation complex.
The rope itself, if not actually a part of the tour, had certainly been laid out on purpose at some point. It wasn’t just lying around or left over from before they converted the site from a working blast furnace to a historical landmark, although whether it had been placed there to illustrate some particular distance or scale by a historian, or by some docent or tour guide because they thought it looked appealing or authentic, I don’t really know. Certainly no one was using it before we got started, I can tell you that much. It was a very thick rope, and I think cable-laid, because the strands and fibers were all twisted left together, six by six by seven. They must have used it — before we appropriated for our purposes, I mean — for direct-rope haulage or something serious like that. Some of us couldn’t even fit both hands around the rope, Ernestine for example, and had to keep switching positions, which nobody liked, I can tell you.
Some of us had been looking at the rope to begin with, by which I do also mean some of us were already handling the rope, some examining it up close, some stretching a section taut in front of them, some trying to wrap it around itself, and so on, so I really couldn’t say whether it was one person or several who started to play tug-of-war with it. I really don’t see how one person could have started it, and I’m sure most of the others would agree with me, because if you’re playing tug-of-war at all, there must be at least two people playing. With only one person you’re just hauling rope, or falling over. So it must have been fairly instantaneous, and at least two people must have gotten things moving around the same time in order for the thing to have worked at all, which it certainly did.
Like I said, not everyone could fit both of their hands around the rope, which meant a certain percentage washed out in the first ten minutes or so, just because it’s too awkward to change your grip so many times while also staying put, and of course some of them simply tore their fingertips trying to hold on without sufficient purchase. Later I learned that injuries of this type are sometimes referred to as degloving incidents, which is a type of avulsion wound, and which I guess gives new meaning to the expression “Now the gloves are coming off,” which nobody did say but certainly could have, given the circumstances, which were apt. Somebody else came along during the beginning too, and asked us what we were doing, at least that’s what it sounded like from where I was standing, although I was careful not to listen too attentively. Ludo started to answer and then thought better of it, jerking his elbow up towards his nose as if to scratch it, but I don’t think he fooled anybody. Then it was mostly pretty quiet for a long time, except for the creaking of the rope and the incidental kind of noise that accompanies shifting your weight in your shoes or leaning further back. On the one hand it might seem a little ridiculous that no one was willing to admit that we were playing tug-of-war, but on the other hand it’s not like anyone was running around as they would have been during a game of baseball, and tug-of-war is already about the plausibly deniable application of increased force with decreased activity, so in another way it makes a certain sort of sense. Tug-of-war requires both endurance and explosiveness, pushing with the legs while pulling with the arms, locked-in steadiness and incremental momentum, and nobody was very interested in giving anything away.
The reason it’s called pig iron has to do with the appearance of the molds they use in shaping the iron, which supposedly look like a litter of piglets latched onto the belly of a sow. None of us knew anything about pig iron previously, and the promotional materials we picked up at the on-site museum didn’t go into a lot of detail about the origin of the term, so it’s difficult to say whether it’s a folk etymology. The tour was self-guided, and we never finished it.
I can tell you that the longer the game went on the worse everybody felt. There was no sense of where the center line was supposed to be, and besides which nobody knew for certain which team they were on, or even where one team ended and the other began, because there were so many of us, and some of us were facing in different directions, because not everyone had cottoned on to what was happening at the same time. Everyone was sucking in their stomachs and pointedly readjusting their grips if someone else grazed them even for a moment, even by accident, which wasn’t very comfortable either. Everyone was digging in. It felt very nauseating, that combination of rigidity and straining and stillness, and altogether too private, given how many other tours eventually walked past and occasionally even through us. And the strain was very unpleasant, both for the lower back and the outside of the elbows. It was really very uncomfortable in the extreme. I would go so far as to call that feeling, that strained feeling outside of the elbows, inappropriate. Occasionally someone would even try to offer us advice for ending the game more decisively and more quickly, I assume because they could tell by the look of us that we weren’t having any fun, which only made everyone feel more ashamed of themselves and more dug in than before. Then they would stand there for a while, puzzling at us, or sometimes getting angry and trying to hurt us. Some of them even attacked us physically before giving up and moving on to the metalworking exhibits. That was really pretty shocking to us.
There wasn’t much risk of the rope breaking, not even with all of us hauling on it like we had been. Probably it had been sealed and finished decades ago, a century even, and used to haul trams and freight and goodness knows what else much, much heavier than even our entire front and back office combined with our shoes on. So while there wasn’t much worry about the rope, it did seem to me like the kind of collective tension we were generating between ourselves was crossing some extremely concerning thresholds. I didn’t know what could happen as a result of our actions, but it did seem as though the opposite of what we were doing — whatever the opposite was — would be highly mobile. To burst, maybe, or to leak, and absolutely nobody wanted that. And I don’t think we really had much to be ashamed about anyways, at least no more than anybody else.
Barthelme watch your back
"With only one person you’re just hauling rope, or falling over."