If you ask me to hazard a guess, I’d say that Chip, my Foreman, had never read Edgar Allan Poe. It was the autumn of 1973 and I was working as a Laborer on the Jim Bridger Power Plant near Point-of-Rocks, Wyoming*. One of the main responsibilities of the Labor Union’s members on that job was to sweep dust off the framework of the building before the Painters’ Union members could spray on a new coat of rust-resistant paint.
The framework of the building was made of steel I-beams that had been painted with several thick coats of scarlet paint and was therefore known as “Red Iron,” as in, “Hey, Pelton, I’m gonna need y’all and Swede to go up on the West end of Level 4 and sweep off the red iron on the walls and ceiling. The Painters’ Foreman will meet y’all up there and show you what needs to be done.”
Chip was from Alabama and his thick, Southern accent seemed to have a difficult time making its way past the wad of Red Man tobacco in one cheek and the smoldering stub of a cigar stuck in the other. At one point, he must have decided that he knew me well enough to start calling me by my first name. That would have been fine but he, despite me gently correcting him, consistently called me “Tom.” I only had to say, “Okay, Chop,” once and he went back to calling me “Pelton.”
One day Chip assembled his crew, there were about eight of us, on the Sixth Level of Building One. He walked us over to an outside wall that showed a narrow opening where a piece of sheet metal had been removed. There was enough dim light inside the wall for me to see that it was hollow. A thirty-inch gap between the inside and outside walls had been created by an intricate frame of eight-inch red I-beams.
Chip said, “Sparky’s just about finished setting lights.” (All Electricians on a construction site are known as “Sparky”) He paused and dropped the butt of his cigar on the floor, stepped on it, then spat tobacco juice on it to make sure it was out. As he did so, an Electrician emerged from the opening paying out a long extension cord.
“All y’all have got safety belts on, right? So you climb up inside the wall up to the fire blocking on Level Nine, then work your way back down to here, sweeping off the red iron as you go. When you get back down here, there’ll be a vacuum to clean up. Got that?”
One by one, the crew, carrying brushes and brooms, disappeared into the opening. I was the last, and as I stepped in I turned to Chip and said, “For the love of God, Montressor.”
Chip looked at me like I was insane.
“You know – Edgar Allan Poe. The Cask of Amontillado?” I looked for some sign of recognition. “A guy seals another guy up into a wall…”
“Get your ass in there, Pelton. Jesus.”
The one part I hated about that job was when I had to sweep off the large horizontal I-beams that spanned empty, open spaces. If you follow this blog, you probably know that all my life I have had to deal with basophobia. This does not mean fear of fish with large mouths, but fear of falling.** When asked to sweep off one of those big girders I would have been perfectly within my rights to beg off. But then I would have been assigned to one of the shovel crews digging ditches down on the ground. It was an interesting decision – did I want the relatively easy but scary job? Or the safe grunt work?
My decision was obvious because there I was – straddling an eighteen-inch I-beam. My butt was on the top six-inch wide web; my boots were on each side of the bottom web. Trying not to look down at the forty-foot drop below me, I’d sweep the beam in front of me with one hand while I clung to the steel with the other. When I’d gotten about as far as I could reach, I slowly scooted forward a foot or two, then continued sweeping.
I felt the vibrations of footsteps and I looked up to see a Boilermaker Foreman coming toward me. He was walking along the top of the beam like it was a sidewalk. He looked up from his clipboard and saw me directly in his way. I don’t know if it was the pallor in my face or the white of my knuckles where they gripped the red iron, but he just rolled his eyes, said something like, “Aw shit,” turned around, and walked back the other way. If I thought this display of nonchalance about height was impressive I had only to wait a few weeks for the real show.
In the meantime, I heard one day that The Laborer’s General Foreman wanted to see me. With some trepidation, I sought him out and he told me that Chip had decided to drag up. In the parlance of construction workers, to “drag up” was to quit your job, pack your bags, and hit the road, usually for another construction site with greener pastures. In Chip’s case, he came out to his truck one morning and had to scrape a layer of ice off his windshield. The next day he was on his way to a nuclear plant being built in warmer and closer-to-home Arkansas. Since Swede had also left the week before, I was the senior man on our crew and he asked if I’d take over being Foreman.
As I put those little vertical orange stripes on each side of my hard hat, I found I had two things to be pleased about. I would be making an extra thirty-five cents an hour, which would make it that much sooner that I myself could drag up and head for Transcendental Meditation Teacher Training. The other thing is that a Foreman is not expected to do any actual work, which would mean I could tell other people to scoot out there on those big girders and clean them off while I remained on solid footing. With handrails.
From then on, once I had the crew all lined up with that day’s jobs and the various paperwork done, I could take a little time and go stroll around the project for some sightseeing. There were four units in total planned. Each Unit contained a huge coal-fired boiler that created enough steam to power a massive turbine generator. At the time I was there, the first unit was well along in construction and would come online in about a year. The second unit was about half-built, and they were still fitting the skeleton of the third building together with tall cranes moving enormous steel beams around like pieces in a jumbo erector set.
The buildings that house the boilers are over 250 feet tall. I was very curious as to how they joined the ends of those beams together. I couldn’t really make out the process from the ground and there were no windows in the steel sides of Unit 2. Then I noticed that there was an exterior fire escape on the side of the Unit with doors at every level. Each door had a good-sized reinforced glass pane installed in it. If I could make my way to the particular door that was the same height as the upper reaches of the frame across the way, I would have a ringside seat.
I first checked with my crew to make sure they were okay, and then went up to take a look. I was expecting to see a good-sized team working on an elaborate system of temporary platforms, scaffolding, and jacks. Each beam represented tons of steel swinging through the air and I felt it would take some engineering brilliance to corral it, position it perfectly, and then attach it. What I saw was one ironworker wearing a tool belt with deep pockets sitting at an L-shaped joint in the frame. A crane was lifting what I guessed was the next horizontal beam toward him.
I found out later that this guy was a member of a particular subset of the Ironworkers Union. They are called “Connectors”.
The Connector, using only hand signals to the crane operator, guided the end of the beam into close proximity. When it was within inches, he locked his legs around the steel he was sitting on and wrestled the new beam into position. He pulled a spud wrench out of his tool bag and shoved the pointy end through the bolt holes, lining them up. Then he put in about three of the necessary twelve bolts, capped them with nuts, and then took out two more long-handled wrenches and tightened the bolts down. Then he stood up and walked along the twenty-foot length of the new beam to the unconnected joint at the other end. Even from my window, I could see that the metal he was standing on was slowly swaying in the wind. In between him and the dirt below was nothing but 180 feet of thin air. He calmly sat down on the end of the swaying beam, twiddled his fingers to get the crane operator to drop it a couple of inches, then wrestled the two pieces together and repeated the bolting process.
When the Ironworker relaxed and lit a cigarette while he waited for the next piece, I realized I’d been holding my breath and let it out with a whoosh. I was cold with sweat and my heart was hammering. I have been to circuses and I’ve seen high-wire acts with spotlights and drum rolls and all the slathered-on faux-drama the management can muster, but I’ve never been as terrified-from-a-distance as I was by that one Connector just doing his job.