The first summer I worked on the construction crew, my foreman’s name was Fred. He was a big guy, a Ukrainian. “The Ukrainians,” he would say, “are a proud people.” Fred wore bib overalls and a billcap. He kept a pencil in one bib pocket, a pack of Kools in the other. In moments of stress he tweezed a cigarette out of the pack with thumb and forefinger, lit it, and complained about his ulcer. He never ate lunch. He was a Vietnam vet and bragged once in a while about shooting men over there. In another life, one in which there had been no war and no draft, he probably would have gone to college and become an engineer.
“Your first lesson on this job,” he said, “is don’t get killed by the crane.”
This was residential construction. We poured basement walls in future subdivisions, three or four basements a day. It was production work. The crane hooked and swung eight-foot and twelve-foot panels from a trailer bed parked up on the road into a hole where we set the panels along a footing. On the back of the crane was a half-ton counterweight. Some of the tools we used were kept in a deep box on the crane platform. “Tell Joe you’re going in the toolbox for a sledge hammer,” Fred said. “If he doesn’t know you’re there and swings the crane around, that counterweight will rip your head off.”
We were a crew of six men. Each of us wore a toolbelt with a hammer holster. I felt like a present day cowboy. There was a foreman, a carpenter, a crane operator, and three laborers. Laborers were grunts–lifters, carriers, holders, schleppers. I was new to the crew and, as a college guy, as a guy who taught school during non-summer months, I was not expected to last. It was hard work
I did last. I had to last. I was getting married that fall and I needed to make money.
“You’ll have to join the union,” a co-worker named Gene said. “They’re a bunch of gangsters, if you ask me.” Maybe they were. But the pay was twice what I would have made working in a store that summer. Even the grunts got paid a union scale.
We worked from seven in the morning until five or six in the afternoon. We worked in light rain. We worked in muddy holes. We worked in sweltering heat when the temperature in the holes would be five degrees higher than up on the road. Fred said, “When it gets so hot my knees start to shake, we quit for the day. Otherwise we work.”
He was rough.
Gene talked all day while he worked. He worked slow. He talked slow. He made us laugh. He had a lot to say. He talked about his wife, Honey, how no one he knew could curse the she did. And then he would demonstrate, imitate her cursing him out. Fred would get mad. One day he yelled at him. “Gene!” he said. “If you can’t work and talk at the same time, then shut the fuck up.”
It all sort of took me by surprise.
I had never been part of a crew. I had played no team sports in high school, I had not been in the military. These guys smoked and swore and spit. They were all married and all talked about their wives with respect (Gene was clearly in awe of Honey), but otherwise ogled women and bragged about their sexual prowess. They had a definite manly swagger, proud of their muscles and strength and power. Some hot days, late in the afternoon when we were finishing work, Fred would send Biff the carpenter out for sixpacks of beer. We sat by the wall, tired and happy about a day of hard work, drank the beer and felt like men.
If you didn’t quit, if you came to work every day and did the lifting, you were accepted.
Much to my surprise, I fit in. I swore, I spit, I took deep pleasure in working outdoors, in being under the hot sun, in feeling a cool breeze or the inviting shade when we stopped work for 30 minutes to eat lunch. I joined in the continuous banter and bull that went on while we worked. I felt like one of them. When we moved equipment from one job site to another, it was a pleasure driving one of the trucks, being above other vehicles on the road, looking down at everyone in their cars. Sometimes we saw into those cars, saw a woman’s long bare legs. The guys would say, “Hey, baby.” Not loud enough to be heard. They said it for themselves. We felt like real men.
One day Fred asked me to stop by his house to meet his wife. He said they had a pool out back. It was nice.
We talked on the way there. He said he had liked math in school. He used the Pythagorean theorem to square the walls we poured. He wanted to be the best foreman, get the most yards of concrete poured every week. Maybe one day he would go back to school.
We pulled in the driveway in his pickup. “Come on,” he said. Still in our dirty work clothes, we walked around the house to the backyard. “Hey, honey,” he said, “this is Rick.”
Her name was Katherine. She was lying on a pool lounge chair. Fred walked over, got down on one knee, and kissed one of her bare feet. It was such a tender gesture.
“Hey, Freddie,” she said.