CBC Literary Prizes

Highballin' by Lyle Burwell

Lyle Burwell has made the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for Highballin'.

2020 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist

Lyle Burwell has made the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for Highballin'. (Submitted by Lyle Burwell)

Lyle Burwell has made the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for Highballin'.

He will receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and his story is published below.

The winner will be announced on April 22, 2020. They will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity

You can read Highballin' below.

Warning: This story contains strong language and difficult subject matter.


Moose called yesterday. We worked together once, back when we were young. It was the last underground job either of us ever took. He became an ironworker, I became a millwright. We see each other around town, now and then. Because of what we went through we always have a minute to ask how the other's doing, but I can't remember we ever talked on the phone. So when Moose called, I was surprised.

He wanted to know if I'd heard the news. I thought he was talking about his cancer and said no, feeling guilty about seeing him being wheeled out of chemo last month at Sudbury General and going back the way I came before he saw me. 

Moose said, "They're shutting down #5."

In the early 1960s, St. John Blasting sank Armstead Shaft 5. Starting a nickel mine in northern Ontario means somebody has to blast a 20x24 shaft as much as a mile and a quarter down through the Canadian Shield. Sinking the shaft is all money out, no money in, so unions look the other way while companies hire contractors willing to highball — highballin' being what we called doing work where speed trumped safety.

I was 18, pumping gas, $1.65 an hour. Put in at St. John when I heard they were paying three, plus shift bonus, will train. Two months later I got the call. They asked did I want to be the Shaft 5 graveyard shift greaser and I said, "Yes, sir."

The sky was clear the night I started, a bright half moon overhead. I remember running across the gravel parking lot; frisky, ready to make serious money. Had my head down, watching my knees pump. Felt like I could run forever. Up ahead loomed the Shaft 5 headframe, a pyramid with the peak cut off. Back then we still made headframes out of trestle timber and plywood. Poking out the top, the shivs, two cast iron pulleys ten feet across, tended to business. Recessed into the angled wall of the headframe was a massive garage door, lit by two spots. It dwarfed the door beside it: the one for men. The air in front of the smaller door was furry with insects swarming under a bent green shade. I swatted my way into Shaft 5.

I told the first guy I saw that I was supposed to see the shift super. The guy I told was Moose. He pointed out Mike St. John. The company belonged to Mike and his brother, Billy, who worked days. They were Newfoundlanders, learned their trade in the Nova Scotia coalfields. I found out later this was a concern when the job started. Sudbury's hard rock mining: not like digging coal at all. Blasting, shoring, machinery wear: it's all different. But #5 was down 700' by then and nobody'd died, so the St. Johns coming from coal wasn't the worry it had been, nor the accusation it would later become.

Spooky place, the ladder-way; plywood chambers 20 feet high, 4 wide, 12 long, the only light is the one you were wearing on your head.

The shaft took up maybe a tenth of the headframe floor. A 4' wide plywood ladder-way divided it into two 10x12 shafts, one working, the other for the counterweight. Spooky place, the ladder-way; plywood chambers 20 feet high, 4 wide, 12 long, the only light is the one you were wearing on your head.

The shivs, one over each shaft, raised and lowered iron buckets with bowls big enough to hide a small car. The number of times the working bucket came up during your eight hours was the measure of your bonus. I had to climb up to the loft and grease the shivs twice a shift. The hoist operator held the buckets when I was there, elbow deep in industrial size gears. my butt and jaw clenched all the while.

The hoist shack was the two-story building off the headframe that housed the spools, which together held two-plus miles of steel cable. Whichever way the spools turned, cable was winding down one shaft and up the other.

Moose was the son of a Gaspè miner. More nights than not we'd ride down together once or twice, standing on the crossframe, a steel plate deck that rested on the collar the buckets were suspended from. Down we'd ride to the set, a 20' high steel box that hung from anchors drilled into the rock above the bench, our name for the bottom of the shaft, where the blasting was done. The floor of the set, made of I-beams and small gauge train rails, held the Cryderman Clam, a giant, slow moving version of the devices used to grab cheap jewelry at the midway. The walls of the set served as the frame for the cement walls we poured as the shaft descended. Below the ladder-way, the shaft was all of a piece.

The set and the crossframe were designed so the working bucket passed between the beams of the floor while the crossframe settled on top of them, making a small work area. Moose would climb down a chain ladder and drill holes for the next blast. I'd stay up top, greasing the Cryderman's four motors. While we did our jobs, the Cryderman operator usually dismounted, stretched his legs and had a smoke. 

I'd been working in #5 for seven months when it happened.

Often we hit little streams. Mostly they just seeped, making the walls wet, but sometimes we hit one with some force behind it. When that happened, drillers, working off the crossframe, would punch out catches, where I would install sump pumps and run hoses. We were closing in on 4500' when one of the largest catches, down around 900, started overflowing, landing as a continuous mist, far below. Mike told me to grab a driller and a replacement pump and fix the problem. The pump was a Briggs & Stratton, the driller was Moose.

As we waited for the bucket to surface and dump, two electricians showed up to wait with us. When we climbed aboard, Moose and I stood in one corner of the crossframe with the electricians on the diagonal. The Board of Inquiry later found this to be a contributing factor. We should have each taken a side, Moose and me opposite each other, the electricians doing the same.

They rang for 300, we rang for 900. We would work off the crossframe till the bucket was needed down below. At 300, the electricians entered the ladderway. But before I could swing around to balance the crossframe by standing opposite Moose, the hoist operator, forgetting there was still one more stop to make, let the bucket drop.

Sticking out of three sides of the crossframe were six inch flanges that ran inside timber guides bolted into the shaft walls. All our weight in one corner tilted the crossframe, canting the flanges. The Board's final report said the grinding of the flanges loosened a guide bolt near the 600 mark. I already knew that, because I saw the twisted bolt hanging loose in its hole as we dropped past. The flange catching the loosened bolt on the way up was what eventually brought everything down.

The flange catching the loosened bolt on the way up was what eventually brought everything down.

The hoist operator, a true highballer, was letting the bucket free fall. The bell rope ran down the shaft in the space between the crossframe and the walls. I grabbed it, not thinking straight, and the rope jerked my shoulder out of the socket. Moose saw what happened, so he knew to snatch the rope and let go quick.

Down we plunged, Moose ringing as best he could, me on my knees. We were falling at close to 30 miles an hour and past the 3000' mark before the bucket began to slow. Moose dropped to his knees beside me and helped me lie on my back. I remember thinking he was gentle for a big guy.

Landing blind from close to a mile up is never better than haphazard. The ball of my arm was no longer inside the cup of the socket. The crossframe bumped to a landing. My arm rolled one way, the shoulder rolled the other and I screamed.

I waited out the pain looking straight up the shaft, Moose and the Cryderman operator talking nearby. Though it was a straight line from my eyeball to the top of the shaft, we were so deep no light survived the trip down. Hanging from the underside of the set were floods. Light reflected dimly up the shaft, casting faint shadows. 

My shoulder singing as if I'd been beaten with bats, nearly a mile from the world, I was going cold with shock. The only heat I could muster came from anger. I needed the heat and let the anger lift me to my feet. I was going to climb to the surface and kick some hoist operator butt. It took Moose and the operator a minute to calm me down enough to understand that taking the ladders to the surface was a five or six hour proposition for the healthy, which I wasn't. 

"Soon as I catch my breath, I'm climbing," I insisted. 

Saying it out loud cleared my head. I was talking nonsense. Try climbing a ladder with a dislocated shoulder. My way of conceding their point was to tell them I wasn't riding up till the shaft got inspected.

We argued, the operator saying inspecting the shaft meant missing our quota and losing the shift bonus. "I felt something go," I yelled. "You want one of those flanges to pop out of the track with a full load of rock? Then we got real trouble."

When they saw I wasn't going to budge, and maybe because they believed me, they agreed to send the bucket up once, empty, to test if it was safe. We rang the up code and crossed to the middle of the set, Moose helping me every step. The three of us stood on the rails, hanging onto the sides of the Cryderman, a 30-foot fall onto jagged rock all around.

It took four minutes for the crossframe to reach the 600' level. The Board of Inquiry said it happened just the way I was afraid it would. A flange caught the bolt that we'd popped loose on the way down, setting the bucket to swinging. I calculate it took three seconds for that first deep note to reach us. By then the crossframe, good and twisted, was ripping out the guides, cracking the concrete walls, tearing everything loose. Up in the loft the pressure on the working shaft shiv was multiplying as the hoist bore down to fight the mounting resistance. In the hoist shack, gauges were redlining.

A sheet of concrete completed its long fall and exploded against the bench. Concrete flew up through the underside of the set. A chunk caught the operator between the legs and he fell without making a sound. I never saw him land. Stony shrapnel knocked out enough of the floods to short the system, plunging us into darkness save for our headlamps.

"The scoops," I screamed at Moose. If the working bucket was coming, being inside the scoops was our only hope. We made our way to the chain ladder. Moose went first, then waited for me. I sat on his shoulders and we descended together. Once on the bench the scoops were only a couple steps away. I climbed off his shoulders and we crawled inside the triangular opening, Moose curling against one side, me curling into the other.

On the surface, the pressure grew too great. The working shaft shiv wrenched free of its mountings, giving the bucket 20 feet of slack. When the bucket used up the slack, the cable jerked taut and snapped. The sudden release of pressure twisted the trestle timber tower and the headframe folded in on itself. Below, the roars of the falling sky echoed off granite that had known only silence for two billion years. 

Between climbing inside the scoops and the bucket landing, Moose and I had a good half minute. We were sitting on muddy stone, our backs against iron, our headlamps on each other.

I hadn't thought of those seconds in decades. But with Moose telling me they were closing Shaft 5, the seconds returned.

Death was coming. We couldn't stop it and we couldn't get out of the way. All we could do was wait to learn who it was coming for. And in that certainty there was stillness, a terrible stillness that felt somehow crowded, as if all the dying of the world gather round a single thought, a thought the healthy and safe can never fully form: the thought that death should get on with it.

Death was coming. We couldn't stop it and we couldn't get out of the way.

Death did arrive that night, in a thunderous crash I recalled as more scream than explosion. We were safe inside the Clam, suffering nothing worse than damaged hearing, cuts and gashes, and the humiliation of shitting ourselves. The operator wasn't so lucky. When we finally emerged from the scoops, hacking and stinking, there were places the rocks looked as if they'd been splashed with red paint.

It took us 12 hours to climb out, Moose helping me up 224 ladders. We met the rescue team three hours along and told them what to expect. They gave me a shot of morphine, popped my shoulder back in place, cleaned and bandaged the worst of our wounds, gave us water and pills. Five hours later they passed us on their way back up. They offered help but we waved them on. Coming out under our own steam was the most important thing in the world then, and I can't for the life of me remember why.

When we finally reached the surface a crowd was waiting. It cheered like we'd scored a winning goal. Moose and I just held each other and wept.

When Moose told me they were shutting down #5 I said, "She was a rich one."  Then I confessed: "Saw you at the hospital last month."

"Yep," he said. "Saw you, too. Guess that's why I thought of you when I heard about #5."

"Guess so," I said. "Heard you got cancer."

"Yep," Moose said. "It was the diabetes got your legs?"

I looked down at my stumps and remembered when I believed I could run forever. "Yep," I told him.

"The bucket's falling," Moose said.

That was when I understood why he'd called me. A half century after the two of us climbed out of a shaft too deep for light we were down there again, this time for good.

We talked for awhile, then: about stuff the dying can say to each other but not to the living. About what we're going to miss and what we'll be glad to be rid of. About the crowded stillness that awaits.

We'll be there soon. After we hung up I felt better, like maybe whoever goes first might be waiting in the stillness for the other.


Interviews with Lyle Burwell

Read the other finalists

About Lyle Burwell

I was born in 1951, the second child of a teenage mother and a 22-year-old local sports hero. Both of my parents were hard working, sober non-smokers. Mom's ambition was to never be dependent on anyone, Dad's ambition was to keep Mom happy. She divorced him when I was in Grade 8. My older brother and I stayed with Dad, our four younger siblings went with Mom. Dad is a teamster with a Million Mile pin, Mom was a professor with a PhD. I'm pretty much six of one, half dozen of the other.

About the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize

The winner of the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.

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