(originally written in March 2017)
I heard some version of that sentence at least three times. It still haunts me a bit from time to time. Allow me to work up to giving you more information at the end of the blog.
During the summer of 1978, I began working as a Union Laborer. School was out and I wanted to earn some extra money. One of my brothers knew the Union Steward and he had no problem getting me a union card. That is, he had no problem after I paid $500 for “dues” which was interesting since the union only charged $350. It is called “greasing the wheel” and I was set. I had no issue with paying the money because a union worker made a good wage. I was set to work from June 1- August 10.
Grab a Broom
I was assigned to work at the new power station they were building just outside of Havana. The first day they took all my information and assigned a foreman to me. I was to grab a broom and clean all day. They had part of the plant up and union men of all trades were working on it. I was to clean an area that was the outside perimeter of the plant. I was told NOT to clean the inner circle. It was open to the sky in that area and workers were working high and they wanted to keep people out of the area on the ground level. They told me that was to prevent injury and things could be accidentally dropped from high. They assured me nothing had every fallen but it could. By 9AM I am cleaning and sweeping and leaning on my broom like any good union laborer when about 10:30AM I heard a whizzing sound and then workers yelling. One of the groups above had allowed a roll of cable to slip out of their grasp and it can down to the ground with a whizz. Whiping around and it would have decapitated any one in its path. So much for nothing every dropping.
Geniuses at Work
A couple of interesting things happened that I want to share that didn’t directly affect me but is related to the power plant construction. The first one deals with a railroad. There was a crew that was to build a railroad track from one end of the site to the other. Rails were mounted on five foot planks and then they were placed together (linked) to form the tracks. Problem was… they started with a crew on one end and another crew on the other end and they miss meeting each other by a good 50 feet. They had to go back and remove some of them and re-do the linking so they could complete the project. This took about 3 days to get it back on track.
Another day here was a horrible thing happen. Every day new pieces of steel were lifted up and beams were placed in the building of the plant. One particular day I happened to notice them swinging in the beam and a guy standing on the adjacent beam slowly signalling the beam into the correct place. He got to the last part and told the operator to set it down. Just as he did it moved about 3-4 inches and it was set down on the feet of the guy doing the signalling. Long story short he was taken to hospital and had three toes on each foot gone. The beam had crushed them. Ugh.
Another thing was I was working in the back lot of the site and I came across a guy sitting in a crane. He was just sitting there. He sat there for about 4 hours and then when I came back past him I struck up a conversation. I asked him why his crane was not running and why he just sat there. He said several days before he was sent out there to work and when he was done they instructed him to leave his crane and they would have him bring it up the next day. Problem was… in between that time they had unloaded a very large load of lumber in the path of his return. They couldn’t get him back. He was told to go to his machine and just sit there until the path was clear for him to return. It was 6 days later that they finally got him back. He was paid the entire time to just sit there.
What to Do With Lazy Workers
One oddity happened. I had worked there for about 3 weeks with a guy named “Butch”. He didn’t work hard and he showed up about three days per week. The supervisors called a short meeting one morning and informed all of the workers that Butch had been promoted and was to become a supervisor immediately. Wait, this is the guy that doesn’t work hard and only 3 days per week? Yep. About 3-4 weeks later we got the scoop. They put him in that job to make him show up. It worked. Butch was there everyday and didn’t have to work, only supervise. I guess somebody was a genius to think of that.
I had a horrible couple of weeks when I was assigned, daily, to run a jackhammer. They needed concrete taken out of a 80’x60′ area that was 14 inches deep. It was a mistake and they neeed to rectify it. So for about 10 working days I ran that hammer. It was hard work, slow work and when I got home I was shaking a bit like a jackhammer. Then they rewarded me for four days ( I never complained to them about the jackhammer) and was given a job “spotting.”
Making Sure Nobody Gets Covered Up
This job is on the ground as the backhoes are working. The holes are about 40 feet deep they have a laborer in the hole doing some digging to make it a clean dig. So I stood on top of the hole and watched the laborer work as the backhoe also worked in the same hole….. if the laborer should get covered by the backhoe I was to signal the operator to stop and then I was to alert others that he had been covered up. Then three of us were to go into the hole and dig him out. It never happened.
One day my foreman’s boss approach me and ask me if I wanted to work high. I asked him what he meant and he pointed to the top of the building. I stood there for a long while and then I began to talk.
Me: “You want me to work up there?”
Boss: “Yes, it’s an easy job. All you do all day is make sure everyone has water. You check the water jugs.”
Me: “I don’t know.”
Boss: ” It’s easy. They have flooring and railings up there and besides you make a $1 more per hour.”
Me: ” Ok, I guess I can.”
Boss: ” Good. You want to ride the ball up?”
Boss: “The ball. The ball on the crane. just grab ahold and ride it to the top.”
Me: “Nah, I don’t think so.”
Boss: “Ok, there are steps that go up there. ”
So off I went. I found the stairs and headed up. Oh but wait! The stairs ended at the fifth floor and there are eight stories to the building. What am I looking at? Oh my. There was a straight up ladder that extended to the sixth, seventh and eighth story. Straight up. I stood there for a few seconds when some random guy came by and asked me if there was a problem. I told him I was unsure about climbing the ladder to the top. He responded with, ” do you want to ride the ball up?” I declined and grab the rungs of the ladder. White knuckling my way one at a time. I reached the top level. What am I going to do now? I had to swing my legs over to get on the flooring of the work area. I froze for a bit. Some guy asked me if I was ok and I shook my head affirmatively and slowly swung my leg over and crawl over to reach the top.
I was at the top and not feeling very well. My new supervisor approached me and asked me if I was ok.
New Boss: ” hey buddy, you ok, you don’t look so good.”
Me: ” I guess I am ok.”
New Boss: “Great, let me get you started and you now that you make a $1 more per hour working high, don’t you? (I nodded) You have five areas up here to make sure they have adequate water supply. If a water jug gets almost empty you need to signal the guy down there running the ball. Tell him and he will send a new one up.”
So he pointed to my first area and I started over there…but one thing didn’t look good. They told me there was flooring a railings up here. Technically, they were correct. BUT it was boards running from beam to beam with a rope railing around the edge. GULP. So I started over. Slowly I inched my way over, holding on to the railing. The boards were bowing in the middle and I felt really uncomfortable. I reached the water and it was fine. I told myself I couldn’t do this job. I inched my way back and got to some solid footing when another random guy stopped me.
Random Guy: “Hey buddy, you ok?”
Me: “No I don’t think so. I don’t feel real good working high.”
Random Guy: “But you get a $1 more per hour working up here.”
(I thought that $1 more isn’t going to help me when I die up here)
Me: ” I think I need to go back down.”
Random Guy: “Ok, you want to ride the ball down?”
Me: “No thanks.”
So I decided to forego the dollar more and head back down. I walked over and then it struck me that I need to go back down a straight ladder and I froze. I had to swing my leg over and grab the rungs of the ladder at the same time. I stood there. Another guy asked me if I was ok and repeated the same offer to have me grab the big ball on the crane and ride it down. I mustered the courage to climb down. I finally, reached the ground, and my legs were shaking and I felt ill.
Once on ground, the first supervisor came to me and I told him I couldn’t work high. He said it should be worth it for a $1 more. I made some comment about being at the top and seeing Canton from there and how I wanted to live to have a family and the dollar meant nothing to me. I told him I was sick and was going home.
That night, laying in bed, I could visualize everything I saw from the time starting up to getting back on the ground. I passed up the extra money but that didn’t bother me. The next day back to work, the supervior told me that less than 20% were cut out to work high.
I wonder if things would have been different if I would have ridden the ball.
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