Rust Never Sleeps
Updated: Mar 11
The anniversary will be slightly different for each of us, as the pandemic spread and shut things down. For me, it’s March 13. There, I un-buried my lede.
This post started quite literally; I bought a nice old Vermont tap wrench from a machinist friend along with a handful of milling cutters that he found at an estate sale. The wrench had lain untouched in a basement workshop for ten or twelve years and wore a thin layer of rust that just crossed the line where it could have been called patina.. The sale was a scenario more common than most workshop dwellers care to ponder. The man had been a Westinghouse engineer and home shop machinist, making model steam engines, telescopes — beautiful and polished projects. When he died, his wife didn’t touch a thing in his shop, just shut the door. It wasn’t until she died recently that the shop, with its decade’s worth of dust and rust, was opened for strangers to rummage through and haggle over its contents.
My first thought, as I rounded up a few other tools that had some rust spots and slid them into a plastic tray filled with Evaporust, was that if you don’t know about this stuff, you should. It’s non-toxic, you use it over and over and can pour it down the drain when it’s exhausted. It won’t burn your skin and it doesn’t stink, but it flat out works. It dissolves only the rust and leaves bare metal behind, not even blackened unless you forget and leave it in for a week. It won’t even remove paint; I’ve restored steel bike frames with it. It’s green right out of the jug, gradually turning brown with use. A soak of eight hours is generally sufficient for all but the most rusted of things. Sometimes you have to wire brush between soaks for things that are heavily corroded.
When humans discovered iron they discovered rust, and it has been war ever since. While we can add chromium to steel — stainless steel — and make it less susceptible to rust, that also makes it more expensive and, depending on the alloy, more difficult to work. We can plate steel with nickel or chromium or coat it in zinc (galvanizing). Galvanizing is particularly good rust protection but adds cost and only works for things that won’t have the coating worn off. And even hard chrome plating, probably the ultimate in corrosion- and wear-resistance, can fail with water and time. So we fight, but, for the most part, ultimately just suffer the consequences. Like having our cars fall apart. They don’t call it the rust belt for nothing.
Literal rust isn’t actually what Walter Mondale was referring to when he coined the term in 1984, he was talking about the decline of manufacturing and the resulting economic impact on the part of the country that had historically furnished many of the nation’s goods and jobs. Metaphorical rust. It’s just coincidence that it’s also the part of the country where state, county, and local governments dump millions of tons of salt on the roads every winter to preserve the citizen‘s right to drive 80mph on bare pavement regardless of the weather. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and never saw a rusted-out vehicle. Saw a few in Colorado, none in New Mexico, more likely to see the paint baked off the top. When I visited California a number of years ago I was amazed at the variety of 1970s cars I saw being used, apparently, as daily drivers. Datsun 240Zs and B210s, Opel Mantas, Triumph TR6s, great cars but notorious rust buckets that you hardly ever see in the wild back east. Here in Western Pennsylvania, rust eats everything, and the only way to keep a vehicle on the road for much more than ten years is to park it all winter and drive a sacrificial beater in the salt.
Perhaps the fact that we lose so many big battles to rust is what makes the small victories so satisfying. After six or eight hours in Evaporust, my pieces emerged rust-free. You can do the same thing, perhaps less conveniently, with electrolysis. Phosphoric acid works well but turns the steel black, which is sometimes a good thing. People used to swear by Coca-Cola (weak phosphoric acid) as a rust remover; Evaporust works far better. The process feels more pleasing than it should, actually. It’s almost like cheating to get an end result like that without effort, without hours of sanding and scrubbing.
Unfortunately, no such chemical exists for musical rust.
“Rust never sleeps” is an evocative phrase for musicians. Years ago, I used it as the title for a piece I wrote for the PSO Musicians’ newsletter about principal horn Bill Caballero’s practice regimen. I often recommend that students read it, especially those who think that they can make up for not practicing for four days by practicing three hours in one day. Neil Young used the phrase as the touchstone for his tour with Crazy Horse that resulted in the iconic 1979 album of the same name. The whole idea behind the tour was to eschew artistic complacency, to battle rust. A tool in constant use has no chance to rust, which is why many musicians never let more than 12 hours pass without practicing or performing You can’t see musical rust, but you can sure as hell hear it.
That’s something of a concern for me these days. This week marks exactly one year since I showed up for a rehearsal at Heinz Hall to find a sign on the door saying that the weekend’s concerts had been cancelled. Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1, big bass clarinet part, had been practicing it for weeks, got to play it once in rehearsal. Concerts were initially cancelled for two weeks, then for two months, and then for the rest of the season, but nobody wanted to believe that we would be out this long. A doctor I spoke to at the time said he expected it to blow over by June.
One year, and there’s at least another three months to go. At least. I can remember how rusty I used to feel after a week or two on vacation or rotation. I might have been practicing hours a day, but no amount of time in my basement could keep my orchestra reflexes sharp — reflexes for ensemble, for pitch, for projection. Depending on which part you play in the orchestra, you must listen, react, and adjust differently. Maybe it’s a little like playing different positions on a baseball team. Just going from playing second or bass to playing principal, or vice versa, I would feel like I had forgotten how to play the clarinet.
After more than a year with no orchestral playing — woof. At least all the wind and brass players will be in the same boat. The strings have been playing for a couple of weeks, recording concerts for online release, wearing masks and adhering to an elaborate protocol for entering and exiting the hall that keeps distance between everyone. Everyone is being tested, everyone enters backstage singly via a temperature-taking kiosk, and then proceeds to a separate unpacking station and then to a spot on stage that is the prescribed distance from the nearest colleagues. I went through that protocol recording some stuff with a woodwind quintet back in September, and it would sure be nice to see it go away by the time winds are allowed back in the hall.
None of this is to discount the fact that I’ve been very lucky. My whole family has stayed well and we’ve had some nice time together. I’m sure it would gall someone who has lost a loved one or a job or a business to hear me worrying about getting back up to speed returning to a really, really great job. Staying home, teaching remotely, making pipes and going for long walks with my wife hardly qualifies as suffering.
At this time, there is some expectation that winds and brass will be able to join the strings for outdoor concerts this summer, but certainly no assurance. Presumably once everyone is vaccinated we can go back to full strength. We’ll just have to wait and see. Things seem to be getting better, one hardly dares to hope.
Like I said, it all started literally enough, just dealing with a little rust. You’re probably familiar with both literal and figurative rust, and you probably have your own ideas about which is worse. If you have literal rust on literal hand tools, pick up some Evaporust, it rocks.