Steam room rocks, actually boulders, do not last forever. In our quest for heat we can speed up geologic time and in a year or two, make useless that which nature has taken millions of years to create. The daily heating and cooling of granite takes its toll, and after a period of time, the heat, and the rocks, weaken. We can put it off no longer, the steam room oven rocks will have to be changed. The job was before us and the weak of back were excused.
Early one Saturday morning, a dump truck containing more than fifty watermelon sized granite boulders was parked in the south alley at the back of the bathhouse, just waiting for us to arrive. Nothing in life could prepare the five of us boys for the backbreaking work upon which we were about to embark. When we took our first look at that truck full of rocks, we all got weak in the knees. Fortunately for us, Ronnie Tomaszewski (pronounced Tomashefsky), our fellow shvitzer and foreman for the operation, was not about to let any of us fail. Ronnie was the kettle engineer down the street at the one hundred year old Stroh Brewery, and if those giant vats never posed a problem, neither would this steam room oven. A moment later the alley door swung open and Toots appeared. We looked inside the doorway and got our first glimpse of a set of very steep and narrow wooden stairs leading down to the laundry room adjacent to the steam room. Fortunately, there were only about a dozen steps to navigate. Unfortunately, there was a low chest-high overhang just above the third step that we would have to duck beneath in order to descend into the basement.
However, before we could even worry about carrying heavy rocks along an obstacle course, we first had to clear out the old rocks from the oven. Although the oven had not been lit the night before, we failed to appreciate its effective heat retaining ability. Neil was the first one to be horizontally lifted into the oven through the open oven doors, the only way into the oven. Once inside and crouched over a pile of mostly cracked and broken rocks, he immediately began to sweat profusely in the remaining 120 degree heat. He handed us broken pieces of rock and we each took turns inside the oven repeating the task, each turn lasting some fifteen minutes. We continued clearing the oven until we were down to the narrow brick aisles surrounding the gas jets and serving as a foundation for the rocks, which would have to be mortared and re-bricked. The refuse removed was temporarily placed on the floor of the laundry room, to be eventually loaded by us onto the emptied dump truck.
As Ronnie finished cementing the oven interior, the hard part was about to begin. It was now time to carry the weight we had so dreaded. Standing next to the truck in the alley, I lifted, for no more than a couple of seconds, my first boulder which immediately felt like it weighed about seventy-five pounds. Being a college boy, I figured there would have to be some human-chain-like method to easily and effortlessly transfer the rocks from the truck, down the stairs and into the oven. Ronnie stepped up and quickly set me straight, after all, unlike me, this wasn't his first time changing the oven rocks. Apparently, as I was informed, there was no easy way. You just grab a rock from the truck, cradle it in your arms, navigate the stairway while limbo-ing beneath the overhang, and tender the rock to the man inside the oven who would carefully position it amongst the other rocks. Needless to say, this got old real fast, but we soldiered on because tomorrow, as a result of our efforts, we would experience the best heat of the year.
To make a long painful story short, we did a lot of ducking that day, all while carrying massive granite boulders. And when we finished loading them into the oven, we carried the old rocks, albeit smaller and lighter, from the basement up the stairs, ducking again, and then heaving them with tremendous hatred into the now empty dump truck. By evening, our work was done, and we were rewarded with a shower and dinner. Every year or so after that, when the rocks needed to be changed, we were conveniently absent.
Surprisingly, picking leaves to make oak leaf plaitza brooms is almost as labor intensive as changing the oven rocks! Funny how that works. Once again, extreme heat becomes part of the equation, only this time with the additional thrill of biting flying insects. The oak leaf picking season begins every summer smack dab in the middle of the July heat, when the oak trees and their sacred leaves have come to maturity, and lasts until the leaves change color three months later in September.
I accompanied Dick Brown on a leaf picking mission early one July morning. Our destination was a forest accessible by a fire road, which was accessed by a dirt road, which branched off a paved road I had never heard of before that day. The trek required our motorbikes for flexibility and by nine o'clock, with our bikes conspicuously abandoned as if we were fishermen, we trudged through the woods in search of the mighty oak. A short time later we arrived at a beautiful stand of oak trees and it was apparent we would be there for a while. The sun poked through the tree limbs and a beautiful morning hike in the woods was only slightly marred by the steadily climbing summer temperatures, by now pushing close to eighty degrees.
We each carried a large sack made from a bed sheet in which to place our bounty, but the real battle lay in the protection needed to combat a plethora of dive bombers. Dick covered every inch of his body with clothing, save his eyes, nose and mouth, specifically to protect himself from the king of the forest--the voracious blood sucking mosquito. Our full custom clothing, which also protected us from the blazing skin burning sun, did little to keep us cool as we fought to keep from drinking our canteens dry.
We spread our sheets out on the ground and Dick explained the type of full leafed twigs we would need; a very thin twig with at least three wholesome leaves attached and long enough to form a handle when bundled. All work took place overhead as we stood on the ground. Climbing trees was to be avoided. I watched for a few minutes as Dick methodically separated twigs from overhead branches and tossed them onto the bed sheet. I then went to work. Before long I noticed that I lagged behind Dick in both quantity and quality and, as a bonus, my arms were very tired from reaching upwards into the trees. Sometimes Dick would jump up and grab onto a branch with one hand to pull it closer to the ground so he could snap twigs with the other hand.
Dick had high oak leaf standards and sloppiness was out of the question. After about an hour of picking, Dick looked at my collection and easily dismissed half. I would have to do better, which seemed unlikely since my neck had wilted under the strain of constantly looking up and to my consternation, mosquitoes bit right through my clothing. Dick opted to pick without gloves and paid the price. I heard him curse and then watched as he tweezed a bee stinger from his hand with his thumb and forefinger. He took a small vial from his pocket and dabbed a bit of alcohol on the puncture, and then went back to work. By noon I was done and Dick had stuffed his sack to the limit. I rested while Dick spent the next hour filling the remainder of my sack.
On our hike back to our motorbikes, I asked Dick, "Upon whose property were we trespassing?" Dick informed me that years ago he had received permission from the landowner to pick leaves, he just couldn't remember the guy's name. Besides, Dick would only return here one or two more times as there were other stands of easy oak pickings that needed to be considered--like those adjacent to interstate highways, municipal buildings, and state correctional facilities.
Back at Dick's garage, we unloaded the leaves for the next step in the labor intensive process. Dick examined each twig we picked and separated them into two piles--good and trayph (bad). Seventy-five percent of what we picked made the good pile. Then each twig was carefully examined to remove any burrs or foreign nubs that might scratch someone who was getting a plaitza or detract from the visual beauty of the broom. Next we loaded up all the good twigs into the trunk of Dick's car and drove down to Oakland to deliver the batch of leaves to Toots, who would make the brooms.
Toots took one look at the leaves and a smile lit-up his face, as was the case whenever he received a high quality shipment from Dick Brown or Doug Ryan. Toots went right to work, first tying temporary bundles of five twigs each, of which eight bundles would then join to make a forty stem bouquet. Three separately tied bouquets would then be joined together to form the 120 stem broom with an average of two to three leaves per twig, making for an average of 300 leaves in the finished product. The handle was ultimately tied-off with two long looped strands of sisal twine. The plaitza brooms were sold to Oakland patrons and Dick and Toots split the profits. Toots' narrow-handled gems became the standard by which all subsequent brooms were measured.
Harvard botanist Glenn Adelson, who was also a regular at Oakland, points out that in addition to the northern red oak (Quercus rubra), the best oak leaves come from the swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) and that the white oak (Quercus alba) also makes a good broom.
After Toots died, Dick Brown continued to pick leaves, but he was always on the lookout for someone to fashion the brooms. Although Dick could have made the brooms, he preferred to let others do the broom making according to his exacting specifications, for pay, and he concentrated on picking leaves and then selling the completed brooms. Two other broom makers deserve mention here.
Chet Brown, like Toots, was also a Second World War veteran (Battle of the Bulge). The main thing that attracted Dick Brown to Chet Brown (no relation) was that Chet owned fifty acres of prime lake-forest real estate, where there were many oak trees. This was a match made in heaven for Dick, which unfortunately, after many years, came to an end upon Chet's passing at age eighty-one in 1998.
Enter Dick Brown's Russian associate. Not two weeks off the boat, Dick showed his new friend a plaitza broom and asked, "You make?" Dick's Russian friend had two important things going for him. One, he had a degree in Applied Metallurgy obtained back in Mother Russia, and two; he had seen the inside of a Wal-Mart within two days of landing in America. Wanting to revisit a Wal-Mart as soon as possible, he accepted the labor of green oak leaves that would quickly put greenbacks into his hand. Dick couldn't pick the leaves fast enough to suit his new associate.