The continuing saga of one man’s welding career
So, I’m half-awake and realize it’s Saturday, and I can sleep in. Then my toes start cramping, and I’m not about to let them wake me. So I start relaxing mentally while physically bending them back and forth, and then nod off.
I guess my sleeping brain forgot to tell my toes I had relaxed. I woke with them curled in so damn bad I thought they were gonna break off. As I got up screaming like a little child, I realized the cramp had spread to my danged calf muscle!
I jumped out of bed and tried to push my curled-up foot down flat on the floor, as my wife asked if I was OK. “Hell no!” I hollered, frantically trying to make my foot go flat.
I'm pushing, but it ain't doing nuthin but putting me in a world of hurt until finally it starts slowly, and I do mean slowly, easing back to normal. Good golly Miss Molly, was that the definition of a "rude awakening" or what?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again: If you have your health, you are rich. As I continue recalling crazy characters and happenings in my career, I want to stress to you that whether you’re a newbie starting out or an old salt, please be careful out there. Whether you’re working in a shop, plant, the field, or even in your garage, don’t get in the “comfort zone” where you are taking safety for granted. Just like my foot cramps upon waking, accidents come out of nowhere.
And cable TV people—hint, hint “Fast and Loud” and “Orange County Choppers”—I love ya man, but stop showing unsafe crap on your shows. Don’t close your eyes with no hood on to make a MIG tack. That thin little onionskin eyelid is not protecting you from the UV rays!
Wear gloves when using a grinder or welding. Fasten down whatever you are grinding, drilling, polishing, or cutting. Protect your skin from the UV rays that cause cancer; skin cancer is one of the most deadly of all cancers. Also wear safety glasses.
I love it when my students point out something they’ve seen that’s unsafe on one of the shows, because it means I’ve taught them safety. I’m not judging anyone; I’ve done my share of unsafe stunts, many of them while working way up in the air as a union iron worker. But I finally learned to never risk it. I got hurt really bad twice because of someone being unsafe, the last time shattering my ankle when a guy knocked me off of a three-story building. A split-second decision cost me my health and my career. It ain’t worth it to cut corners! Work SAFE!
Speaking of One of My Dumb, Unsafe Stunts...
I’ve written about Ed from the black iron plant before. There was never a dull moment with him around. One time he put this stuff in our co-workers Frosty and Humpy’s gloves that turned their hands purple, and they did not think it was funny; didn’t talk to him for months. He had one of the most ornery smiles I’ve ever seen, and if he was giving you “that look,” you’d better be really observant, because it usually meant one of his crazy jokes was about to happen to you.
Ed always had a nonfiltered cigarette hanging out the corner of his mouth and eventually died from emphysema. He was pretty bad off his last couple of years, but still could be seen hauling ass around his neighborhood on his electric scooter. He was an old-school boilermaker and also had driven a truck, which gave him back problems.
I’ve written about the two of us putting up four huge overhead cranes in a steel receiving warehouse. We put up the first section of monorail about five stories high inside the warehouse and then mounted the cranes. We hung a small platform in the middle, underneath the cranes.
OSHA would not have approved; it was just a 3-ft. by 5-ft. plate with angle iron on each corner, no sides at all. We sat on it and took turns welding the monorails after we had tacked them in place.
While Ed welded his side, I huddled up to the warm exhaust fan of the welding machine, because it was the dead of winter and about 10 degrees. We worked from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the word miserable comes to mind when I remember that job. There was pigeon crap everywhere that stunk horrifically. Below us were all kinds of beams and columns separated from each other by vertical pipes that almost shouted out to us, “Fall and we’ll be glad to impale you!” Ed would scare the heck out of me by going to sleep on that platform while I was welding my side of the monorail.
After a few months we finished and decided to test the monorail and cranes, which had controls that hung down for the steelworker below. They traveled north and south with a main load hook that trolleyed back and forth east and west, as well as going up and down. We pulled the controls up to the platform and got ready to drag race!
The warehouse was a city block long, and we were neck and neck until about halfway. That’s when I heard a big boom and no longer saw Ed’s crane to my side. He had forgotten to raise his main load hook! It snagged a huge girder on the ground, causing the crane not only to stop abruptly, but to do a wheelie and then slam back down. I quickly ran the beams back to see Ed had been thrown off his platform.
Scared to look down, I heard, “Get me up!” He had managed to catch the corner angle by hooking his arm and was hanging by his elbow, dangling in midair. I did a double take and saw his cigarette still hanging out the corner of his mouth. He reached up with his dangling free hand, took a pull off his cig, and then reached for me to pull him up.
Now to the younger generation reading this, please realize I was young and dumb and we were really lucky no one got hurt. I’d been welding only three years and quickly learned that kind of stupidity could get someone hurt or killed. I vowed never to do anything like it again.
Movin’ on to the Ironworkers Union...
I’d met and seen a lot of crazy characters in the shop and plant but hadn’t a clue there’d be even crazier characters in the field. My first not too particularly fun moment was when a guy asked if I was a punk. After being in the Army and having a few years of shop and plant work under my belt, I was not pleased with that question.
A journeyman ironworker who had taken me under his wing must’ve seen the “about to kick your ass or die tryin’” look in my eye. He took me aside and said, “He’s not meaning anything bad; first-year apprentices are called punks because they do the crap work, ‘punking’ stuff around.” (Carrying bolts, welding rods, tools, etc.) I learned to begrudgingly accept the word, but was danged glad to get my first year behind me. I didn’t like it, but I understood it; it was part of earning respect. Still, it was a tough pill to swallow.
My first job in the field was at a fiber glass plant. There were four stainless steel tanks about five stories tall with a big hopper on the bottom. (A hopper is the funnel-shaped bottom of the tank that allows whatever is in there to flow out.) Every weld that had been made at the fabrication plant had failed inspection. Since the tanks already had been set in place, the most practical way to fix them was to do it on the job site.
My first task was grinding chest-high, horizontal seams with a 9-in. grinder while standing on scaffolds the carpenters had built for us. There were only two of us apprentices on the job with about 30 journeymen, so take a guess who did the crap work?
The other apprentice had one of the worst work ethics I’ve ever seen and the speed of a snail. That’s when I learned it really matters who you’re partnered up with. If you start a job with your very best friend and he doesn’t work while you do, you won’t be friends very long if you have any pride in what you do. This guy was seriously one of the laziest people I’ve ever met. One thing about it though, sometimes it may take a while, but being a sorry hand will finally catch up to you.
But that’s also where I met a guy named Kelly and a bunch of other characters, and that is when I knew being an ironworker was gonna be some kind of crazy!
Questions for the author can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org