A Day in the High Life of a Steel Walker
Just to speak the honest truth, walking steel is one hell of a way to make a living. That being said, there is nothing in the world like being nineteen stories up and being able to gaze abroad to the farthermost limits of a city the size of Flagstaff Arizona. Something about being so high at 0600 in the morning gives me a really good rush, that seems to make the day go by a whole lot faster than it ordinarily would. Even though I may walk over to the next cat walk fifty yards out, and pause to bevel a beam for the next two hours, still doing so is never as dull way up here as it always was on the ground. Sometimes I may bevel five down at a time, other times I may do only one.., and just pause as I wait for the welder to walk up; or the crane operator to swing the next beam in for me to bevel, then fit them up for some welder somewhere. Hell, I might even pick up a rod holder and weld the damn thing myself, if the urge should strike me!
Just to be honest, things never really get dull out here; they may slow down somewhat, but they never really get boring. If nothing else, in the early dawn of morning darkness there is no sight in life quite like seeing a shower of sparks from a welding rod fall fifteen stories down, appearing as a spice of manageri against the darkness in a magnificent city portrait. I know that it sounds crazy, but I really get a good adrenalin lift from all of this.
There are other events that occur way up here that just doesn't occur in any other working environment. It is said among the men on virtually every job that I have ever worked, that once one gets past the ninth floor, there is no management or law, and anything goes. One just knows what he is supposed to do, and he performs his job; it's really all just that simple. It kind of comes natural without instructions from a foreman. That much is the real truth about it..
For example, right now three out of the four men surrounding me are walking around with rolled joints stuck in between their index and their middle fingers. Up here there is a strong underground market for pot, hash, cocaine, and even heroin. I see people doing it all of the time. I don't mess with any of it though. I don't particularly have any problem with others doing it, I just don't care to do the stuff, myself.
That's why the others always have me assigned the duty of being lookout man. There is only one way up and one way down. I can stand here at a particular specific point, with a two way and the coded word phrase of " the fruit is flying," since I can see clearly who it is that is on his way up, and the men scatter should I speak it. The most amusing sight recently was to see one man leap headfirst into a garbage can that he couldn't even fit all the way into, and hear him swear that he was well hidden, and that nobody anywhere would ever find him. Obviously he already had way too much ganja, and probably needed to be sent back down to the ground for safety reasons alone.
Such observations were not my call to make, however. Out here the rule everybody lives by is that; rats get caught in traps, and are killed with wooden baseball bats, and it's no joke to be taken lightly. The other day a four pound rivet fell on a man with a reputation for being a rat, not just in regard to the drugs, but in regard to the job in general. Many people were suspicious, but the local investigator came up negative, as they virtually always do.
Who could have noticed five stories up when the man who dropped this rivet took his aim, then stepped away after releasing it from his hand? By the time that the rivet struck its mark, the guilty man had stepped completely out of the area. The man went down in a heap, and all that I know is that the rescue squad arrived on site to carry him away. I will assume the worst, poor unfortunate chump.
Such events occur on a fairly regular basis on a really big job like this, where virtually everybody is from out of town, such as the one I am working on right now. People slip on grease while walking the high beam, their safety cords are strangely cut, and it virtually always happens to the same types of people. That's how I know what I am speaking of. Older people thirty or more get no mercy; they should all know better, it is assumed.
A young man will only get one warning, that being him slammed into the wall in some alley between the Conex tool supply trailers by three men wearing bandannas, just before knock time. All four of his tires might also get slashed, with a warning note left at the scene of the crime. I have seen it all in my time. Otherwise, he'll get slapped around a few times; and if he is intelligent he will get the message, and just mind his own business from there on out. Most of us learn our lessons quickly out here, as we all have had to. That being said, there is something about this work that I still love.
A man in his prime just starting out can really raise some serious cowboy hell if he wanted to. If he is really intelligent regarding the matter, he will have his fun for the experience and life enrichment, but then settle down, being contented thenceforth to save his money. People like myself have purchased and paid for entire farms by being resourceful like this.
I am telling you, out here it's a party somewhere, virtually every day and evening, and I see some crazy stuff. We get paid on Thursday, and I have people knocking on the door of my hotel room on Monday night, begging for a place to stay, promising to pay twice what the nightly cost is. Usually the foreman will front him his money, since all of them know the score. There again, wise men observe and avoid the end result, as fools are doomed to repeat the same old mistakes day after day.
Sometimes it is a woman who comes knocking on my door, saying she has partied herself broke, but will do anything just for a nighttime shelter. Pleasure of the flesh is tempting as hell for a young man, but then, only the good Lord above knows what kind of hornets nest he is getting himself into. A majority of the women out here are what we call "bouncing Bettys" anyway, with virtually nothing available in the way of a real woman, but then the reality of this business is that there is simply just not enough time. The prevailing rule of logic out on these jobs is that we are only here for a good time, and anything but a long time!
A bouncing Betty is a woman who goes from man to man in search of cash free accommodations, and will literally do anything for it in exchange, hoping to save a massive wad in the process, just don't you ever mind the high cost to her pride. Most tend to be younger women, but not all by far. All of them tend to gravitate toward the superintendents and the foremen, or the engineers, since these people are paid the highest in wages. Every other one will trade favors on the side for a prearranged fee to virtually any solicitors semi-attractive to them, even if they have taken up with somebody, so it's definitely not an obligated commitment. It's all about money, and easy money anyway, as everything else is around here.
The foreman's girl friend only stands around and snarls angrily at everyone else all day long, netting top craftsman pay; and nobody had better not say a single word out of the way to her. Simply gawking can fetch one big trouble as well. More than a few of these women are older and bear an appearance like spent up tripe bags; but both younger men and older men still take up with them anyway, to the continuing amazement of many, including myself!
I recall one really crazy time back in the late nineteen eighties out in Modesto California on a Frito Lay job, where some of the locals at the hotel we were staying in wanted to get saucy with us out of towners. I thought at the time that it was because all of us were from Alabama, and they were from God only knows where, if not Modesto. They all sounded strange when they spoke, like they were from some kind of foreign country, another planet, or somewhere else.
One began threatening us, claiming that we were gawking at his woman. The truth is that we were! She looked almost as good as a ten point buck, and had a really stacked deck to boot; so why would a real man not want to get an eye full? She made some real tasty eye candy, we all laughed among ourselves! He began to threaten us, bowing up at us, and challenging us to a rumble by picking out specific ones.
Three of his friends walked up, and then we all made out after them. To our shock and surprise, all of them turned tail and leaped into their foreign car, tearing out of the parking lot in full retreat!
My best friend at the time on this job was a man named Malcolm Young. He was a hulking man built like a brick house, with a full rust-colored mustache, a chest length beard, and a temper hot as molten steel.
"Let's get this son of a bitch, boys!," he roared. "He thinks that he is going to threaten us and get away in one piece? Well we'll show him tonight. Tie this rebel flag onto the antenna of my truck there, Jimbo!," he roared. " He's ours tonight, boys! He's all ours and nobody else's, for sure!"
We were sticking right on his bumper, doing fifty miles per hour, then sixty, then eighty, right through the middle of downtown, Modesto. He would turn left suddenly, then right, attempting to throw us off, but we were hot on him like raging beagles on a really fresh cotton tail bunny . He didn't know that we had a lifetime of experience out running wardens in the middle of the night, who were after us while we were fire lighting, carrying a truck bed filled with deer. All of us were raised knowing how to drive. We stuck to him like glue, and before I realized it, we were on a straight stretch far out into the surrounding desert.
Malcolm suddenly stomped the gas pedal in the Ford 5150, rushing up to the foreign car, ramming it hard into the bumper. Our bumper was crafted from schedule 40 carbon pipe hammered square, sprayed with silver galvacon and hard welded directly onto the frame.This genuine work of art was solid as lead, and not going anywhere at all, mind you. His piece of Korean junk looked like it was about to fall into pieces when we rammed him hard in the ass end. He and his friends snapped their heads around in our direction, as if they were grossly terrified.
"You had better beware," I yelled to Malcolm, "these alien sons of bitches might also have guns!"
"Well let them pull guns!," screamed Malcolm. " Take a look there inside that glove compartment, and I'll show up any damn thing that these punks have. I even have an FN behind the seat there, with a full auto drop in, handy for swift action if we need it. Inside my FN I have a banana clip that holds forty rounds, and four more to go with it. Just let these alien pigs try to muck-a 'round with us-a!"
His right foot punched the gas pedal, slamming them again hard in the rear. A piece of metal suddenly fell to the side from their car. The four men snapped their heads backward toward us as though they were utterly terrified, and had no idea as how to respond.
The F150 fell back a ways, then Malcolm punched the gas pedal again, slamming the car so hard that it jumped upward, rattling the four passengers so hard that they almost leaped from their seats. Another piece of metal fell from beneath the car. We were traveling so fast out there in the desert there that I could not determine what kind it was, let alone from where it was that it had originated. I quickly glanced at the speedometer. We were doing somewhere over a hundred miles per hour. The truck roared its engine, then soon fell backward a few dozen feet this time, then Malcolm punched the pedal again.
Again the F150 with its rebored 302 V8 dually rushed forward like it possessed rocket boosters, slamming it's solid home-crafted bumper into ths plastic appearing Korean piece of junk that the strange people were driving. All four surged forward in a way causing us to think that their heads had crashed violently into the dash board and the seat backs; then the car suddenly lurched to the left, rushing off the road, then crashing to a rather violent stop seemingly far out into the yellow desert sands.
The F150 raced on passed for approximately one hundred fifty yards, then did a 360 and spun around to face the opposite direction. Malcolm punched the gas pedal while the truck was shifted into neutral, allowing the motor to roar through its unmuffled exhaust pipes. He eased up as he continued punching the gas pedal, allowing the truck to roar, then idle down as eased into a pause directly in line with the crashed car. Gradually the truck turned hard to the right, the front grill now facing the direction of the crashed car. Malcolm punched the gas pedal four times in slow succession, allowing the truck to roar like a lion way out in the middle of nowhere here, then idle down into a steady growl. The four men raced out of the crashed car as if fleeing in absolute unadulterated horror.
"Just look at these sons of bitches run scared, boys," said Malcolm as he roared with his hearty raging laugh. He rolled down the window as he laughed, screaming at the occupants of the car.
"What are you saucy bastards going to do now? Why don't you all go the hell back to Mars, from where it is that you came?," he screamed as he laughed. He punched the gas pedal hard again, allowing the truck to roar, then idle down. "I'll show these pigs something that they won't never forget."
Suddenly the truck lurched from a complete stop, into what felt like the blast of a rocket, forcing all of us backward into the seats. The heavy bumper slammed headlong into the crashed car. The F150 backed into reverse, then rammed the crashed car again. The rear glass in the car shattered. One of the mufflers fell to the side. Twice more the truck rammed the downed car until the car's radiator soon began to steam. Everybody inside the truck laughed hysterically as the solidly built F150 continued to do its dirty deed of roadside demolishment..
"That'll teach you Martians to muck around with a Southern man!," screamed Malcolm before punching the gas pedal again, causing the truck to lurch back out toward the road.
The man who had first bowed up at us raced toward us as the F150 rolled up onto the highway, waving both hands side to side..
"You can't leave us out here like this! No one ever comes this way! What are we going to do? It gets a hundred plus in the shade out here in the day time. What are we going to do?." he screamed with great distress.
The truck made its way back onto the hard surfaced road, then lurched forward again. I glanced back up into the rear view mirror, watching the four disappear as we moved over the hill ahead. As far as I know, the man is still waving his hands there to this very day. When we made it back to the hotel room, we really had something to laugh about over cans of tossed back beer, shots of whiskey, and some fine grill roasted pork shoulder.
Such events are only small change in a work environment like this, however. In other words, they are only an excuse for another party, and that much is about it, yet still well worth it, we thought at the time. We had a working men's pride and honor to protect. We wouldn't dare allow a bunch of sissyfied foreigners to ever get the best of us! Who knows where Malcolm and the boys are today. That was another time, another job, another place…and a whole lot of Budweiser's ago; but so life goes out on a highrise steel beam.
The white hat on the job, Johnny Parker, saunters up to me. Johnny is about sixty, but appears to be more than seventy. His skin is dried into an appearance of shoe leather from far too many long years out in the bleating rays of the sun, and far too much liquor to drink. His large teeth appear to be missing every other one, a number of them obviously broken in half from what I would presume were three or four too many fist fights at some point in the past.
"Did you get the beam cut and the new weld competed up on fourteenth floor, there Jimbo?," he asked me.
"Yea, I just completed it," I replied.
As I spoke we both gazed outward across the iron yard. A long black limousine pulls down the entrance way, then stops in front of the iron yard. From out of the car emerge four men dressed up in jet black double breasted suits and wearing dark sunglasses. These four men walk up to the foreman's shack out in the middle of the iron yard, one of them knocking on the door. The door opens and Bill Holland, the superintendent steps out. All of them speak and begin looking up in a direction that appears to be toward us.
"What in the hell?," exclaimed Johnny Parker. "They're looking for somebody around here."
"I guess we'll be finding out in a minute who it is," I replied.
The superintendent pulls out his two way, and pretty soon Johnny's radio went off.
"Find Kenneth Lewis for me, Johnny. Some people want to speak with him."
"Have any idea where he is at,?" asked Johnny.
"I don't know, somewhere up there on the nineteenth floor, is all that I know," replied the superintendent over the radio. Johnny radios the area foreman up on the nineteenth floor.
"You seen Kenneth Lewis," Johnny asked.
"Yea, he's right here. Whataya need him for?," the voice of the area foreman replied.
"Four people dressed in black suits and ties is all that I know," replied Johnny.
"What in the damn hell! Well, he'll be on his ways ASAP," replied the voice of the area foreman over the radio.
In five minutes I saw the elevator go down from the nineteenth floor with a man on it who I presumed to be Kenneth Lewis. As soon as he made it off the elevator, he was met by the four well dressed men. They spoke a bit to him, then suddenly one of them grabbed him, and all four slammed him front first tightly up against the wall, forcing his hands behind him and putting on the cuffs. They forced him back around, one man on each arm, and two walking behind him. They walked him out to the limousine, stuffed him in the rear seat with a man on either side, then a man entered into the front seat of the car through each door. Soon the limo eased off, then eased on down the road out of sight. Quickly Johnny grabbed his two way, radioing for Bill Holland.
"What in the damn hell was that?" Parker asked.
"It's the IRS. They said that he owned some fifty thousand dollars in taxes. We pulled his W2 and sure enough, he had claimed nine dependants. According to them, he had been doing it for four years in a row now, and all of you see what happened to him, didn't you?"
"No kidding," replied Johnny, "but so it goes I guess. He is having a day that he is not likely to forget in a while."
The work started back. We hadn't been working but an hour, and suddenly we hear this noise like a two hundred pound sack of grain falling through the beam structure from somewhere up on the twenty third floor. I caught a glimpse as it passed us by in the distance; only it wasn't a sack of grain, it was a man. He collapsed into a broken heap onto earth below the structure.
The whole job basically shut down, and people began to come down off the structure onto the ground. By the time that Johnny and myself made it down, there was already a crowd of a hundred or more men who had gathered around the body of their fallen comrade. The superintendent, was standing there beside the obvious corpse in the middle of the crowd as Johnny and myself walked up.
"Fellows, I purposely waited until about all of you walked up to do what I am about to do. I already know what it is that I am going to find, but I just want all of you to see it, to make a solid point about safety on the job, and why it is that we have all of these rules. They are all made for your benefit, and yours alone.
He patted the man's rear pocket, retrieving a bag of fresh hash, holding it high to display it before all of the onlookers.
"I can smell the scent of this in the air about this man. I can tell that he was smoking this stuff way up there on the high beams, and all of you see where it got him, don't you? Now what if he had fallen on one of you as he made his way down? Where do you think that you would be now?"
"In hell, we guess!," roared an anonymous voice from the crowd. A ripple of laughter followed.
"And that is the problem here that we are talking about. You wouldn't be in hell all by yourself, your whole family would be there with you. And do you know why? All because of one dumb mistake that you made out here that could have been avoided.
That's why we are going to get tough with this drug testing business, starting today. We are going to have a random test starting at 1400 hours today! Now do all of you get that? Now I have called the ambulance to pick him up, already. Personally I think that they'll just wind up carrying him over to the funeral home. Now all of you get back to work and remember these valuable lessons learned out here today."
The gathering crowd then dispersed, each man going back up to his work station. Soon the temporarily silenced air stirred again the whine and buzz of grinders, the hiss of the cutting torch, the hum of generators, and the ram of the jack hammer. I hopped the elevator and headed back up to the eleventh floor this time. No sooner had I made it off when I was approached by more than fifteen coworkers.
"Man, here's our bottles. Can you piss for us?," they all asked, as they shoved empty medical sample bottles in my direction. I always wondered how they acquired the empty sample bottles.
"An individual wearing sunglasses stepped up close to me, saying;
"Man, if you will piss for me, I'll pay you a hundred dollars up front."
No sooner had he turned away, when another offered a hundred twenty, then another offered me two hundred, and the offers kept going up. I wound up taking the best offer first, then asked the next best offer to get me a few beers, which he gladly did. The next best offer did the same, and so on. Soon I had over twelve hundred dollars cash on my person, and a fine buzz just for the extra effort! That's pretty good when you consider that I only clear an average of fifteen hundred a week after taxes, for the work that I do. That's almost like netting another week's work, just for selling piss! I can now save my pay check and half of my side money.
When we paused to take a lunch break, we all did so without much drama. Something about lunch time can cause a change in people, however. For the past week a man who all of the workers called Cornbread, seemed to be bent on proving his manhood. He might have been twenty three at the time, with an attitude and chip on his shoulder twice his size. He seemed to get his kicks insulting and threatening his fellow co workers, daring them to reply back to his crass insults, or else. This was why he was called Cornbread, because one sops milk with Cornbread. He followed on in his usual routine, never anticipating any change of response. I sensed that something was different, however, I just couldn't quite figure out what it was going to be.
By 1500 Cornbread was in the porta john, either riding the clock or using it for what it was intended, as most were. Quick as a flash Eddie The Wire raced around the porta john with a hoisting choker, locking it fast by winding around it three times, then holding up the free end with his right hand. He motioned toward the crane operator with his left hand, as he sat patiently inside the 10-100 with his left hand. Soon the headache ball moved in just above his hand. He silently connected the choker to the hook on the headache ball, motioning for the crane operator to lift away.
The choker tightened, and by now Cornbread had caught on that something big was up, and that it unfortunately involved him. He began to beat on the sides of the porta john like a wild man, screaming to be allowed back out, and making threats about what he was going to do when he did get out. Eddie motioned for the crane operator to lift away, which he did, suddenly snatching the porta john up well over two hundred feet high in the air, swinging it over the job site, pausing it, then suddenly dropping it, stopping it no more than forty feet off the ground; then pausing, allowing it to spin and dangle. On the inside Cornbread screamed and moaned sounds of horror, disgust and woe. After about five minutes, the porta john was eased back down into it's place on the ground.
"Go back to work men," Eddie whispered as he ran about, waving the men on who pretended to be busy at their workstations. He eased back out to where the porta john was, unsnapping the hitch and unwrapping the choker. When he unwrapped the last wrap, he pulled the choker free from around the porta john as he stepped behind it, turning and vanishing in the crowd that had gathered underneath the building. We pretended to labor at our workstation, yet remaining low enough above to get a good glimpse of Cornbread when he opened the door to step outside.
Finally after what seemed like five minutes, he did so. He was literally soaked from head to toe with a mixture of urine and feces from several hundred different people. When the wind shifted I could smell him, even though I stood a sixty yards from him. He screamed with both disgust and rage, weeping at his frustration in not knowing who was responsible for his great misfortune. He gazed with the rage of a wild animal across the work site with his teeth tightly clenched.
"I will find out who did this and I am going to kill him! I am going to kill him dead, I tell you, just as dead as a damn dog!"
He raced in a tear filled rage toward the foreman's shack, disappearing inside when the door opened. Thirty minutes later he was seen walking toward the parking lot, and driving away, to the clapping cheers of all the men.
At 1600 hours we got the call to gather at the foreman's shack. Johnny Parker was standing out front with a large hand full of envelopes. Today was that long awaited, most treasured day of them all, payday. He quickly handed the checks out to all of those that he knew, who took there's and headed on back to their work station.
A lone worker made his way out among the men saying almost as if he was singing;
"Check pool, check pool, check pool, anybody interested?"
I was, so I walked up, signing my name onto a paper that he held in his hand, then handing him five dollars to enter.
When 1700 hours arrived, the same man was walking around examining out numbers. 500 was the lucky number. He walked by mine to examine the serial number. Sure enough, my number had a 5 and two zeros! The man merrily smiled, then shook my hand, announcing;
"Here we are fellows, we have a lucky winner. He has won a thousand dollars. Give him a big hand for his accomplishments!"
Thirty minutes later was knock time. Mobs of men shook my hand to congratulate me as I made my way toward the gate and the parking lot. A group of twelve yelled boisterously at the same time..
"Yeah boys, it's Budweiser time down at Medusa's Lounge this evening! Then a rock em sock em evening over at the Mirage house tonight!"
I really didn't do half bad for a working man. I capped off 1500 dollars in my pay. 1200 dollars just for my side gig pissing, and a thousand more in the check pool. This sum totals out to 3700 dollars cash, if one includes my paycheck that I haven't cashed in yet. Indeed not all that bad for a poor working man and a week's worth of work, I'll say! In the end, though, it's all just a day in the high life of a steel walker.
H. L. Dowless is an international ESL instructor. He has been a writer for over thirty years.