April 8, 2014
You may have the skills, but if you can’t follow rules and don’t have a good work ethic, your skills won’t get you very far. Marty Rice shares personal stories of workers who have learned this lesson the hard way.
Continuing with my journey and the crazy characters I've seen and met in my welding career, I'm gonna go chronologically with some of the highlights my memory allows. In previous articles I mentioned Kelly from my first ironworking job at the fiberglass factory. I'll get to him, but I remembered another guy from that job I gotta tell you about. Some names are real and others changed to protect the dumbardness of …
Del was the only other apprentice on my first ironworker job and was as sorry as it gets when it came to work ethic. We were using 9-in. grinders on the seams of these big stainless steel hoppers. The work was chest-high and brutal, for me anyway. Del would sit down and smoke a cigarette every time the boss turned his back, and it was irritating as hell. Later we both got chewed out for our lack of production!
I kept my mouth shut, but it wasn't easy. I should have taken up for myself, but I was young and dumb and didn't know what to do. The problem would be taken care of a few weeks later, though, when the boss asked me to ride up to the top of the building with him. Back in the day, we rode the headache ball on the crane quite often. (One leg wrapped around the wire rope, one on the ball with one or both hands holding on.) It was freakin' awesome—dangerous as hell— but awesome nonetheless! Nowadays there are far more stringent rules and, if possible, a skip box is used. We had them back then but most of the time hopped on the ball. Back in the real "old days" the "Cowboys of the Sky" rode on hooks and even the loads being hoisted, and some of them lost their lives when the loads shifted during the lift.
There also have been fatalities from riding the headache ball, and now it's usually done only when there is no other way up, to save lives or property, and in other emergencies. These days those who ride also tie off, which we didn't do. Thank goodness companies have really upped the effort in keeping jobs safe for workers. Funny how there were times when I wasn't scared at all and was exhilarated working high, but other times I wanted to hug a beam and cry. Riding the ball never scared me except for once, and that was when I got off of it, something I'll explain later about one of the best operators I ever worked with.
So anyway, the boss and I reached the roof about 20 floors high and climbed our way down a couple of floors. We were standing on grating (like stairsteps on an amusement park ride) and could see through to the floor below us. Besides riding the ball, the only other way to get to that area was climbing a very scary ladder. We looked down, and there was Mr. Lazy smoking a cig, getting up every now and then to go look down the ladder to make sure no one was coming up.
Our boss hollered out his name, and Del looked up with the best "what the hell … oh no, I am busted!" expression I have ever seen. The boss fired Mr. Lazy on the spot and thanked me for having a good work ethic, which was a helluva proud moment for me. I would again see Del on my second job as an ironworker …
It was a blustery cold day, and we were up on the second floor of an expansive department store at a new shopping center. Most of the steel had been hung, and we were getting ready to hang the penthouse. It was to be on top of the second floor in the middle of the building to house corporate offices.
The owner of the steel-erecting company we were working for was also the general foreman and had called us over for a safety meeting. He was a real hard-ass and not fun to work for! I remember telling him Merry Christmas on Christmas Eve morning. (He, of course, had us work Christmas Eve.) He gave me a cold stare and said, "You're late!" I was one lousy minute late! One minute! On Christmas Eve!
Our weekly safety meeting would usually involve him hollerin' "Work safe; now get to work!" So he was getting ready to start the big meeting and saw Mr. Lazy "cooning iron" a few hundred feet away. (Cooning is crawling on the beams instead of walking upright on them, looking like a raccoon while doing so.) Not proper protocol working for a small company, because it takes way too long.
The only way to get to where we were was to walk or coon across a lot of 3- and 4-inch-wide beams. Even though it wasn't that high up, it was still intimidating looking at the concrete below. The boss/owner saw Mr. Lazy crawling and asked who he was. Someone told him Del, and he said, "Go tell Del he's fired!" On Christmas Eve! He'd only made it about two weeks on his second job, but I would see him again a year later when it happened even quicker.
I was working for Buford, one of my favorite bosses ever, and that's his real name—a Texan through and through. I worked several jobs with him side-by-side as a journeyman; then with him as a pusher (foreman); general foreman; and, years later, superintendent, which is over all the construction trades on a job. I have good memories of Buford, and one is ironic, because my local called me from out of town to see if I wanted to work with him. I was on the road the next day. Turned out it was back at my first ironworking job at the fiberglass plant. We started on a turnaround (working at a plant or factory that is functioning with the employees still there) and then shutdown (working at a plant or factory where the employees have been sent home with possibly only a maintenance crew left). On this job I would see Del, the lazy apprentice, for my third and last time; three strikes and you're out.
We were building a "tornado-proof" enclosure for the headquarters of an electric company. I put "tornado proof" in quotes because I am leery of that designation, just as I was leery of the "earthquake-proof" hospital I had worked on. We were expecting a new apprentice to show up, and when he drove up, I saw it was Del. I had long since made journeyman. Del was still an apprentice and barely hanging on after getting fired so often, not showing up at apprentice school, and not showing up for work
Buford asked, "Is that Del?" and someone said it was. "Go tell him he's fired!" The poor guy didn't even set foot out of his truck; heck, he didn't even open his door before he was run off. You've heard of someone's reputation preceding him, and this was a prime example. Sadly, this was his last chance, and they kicked him out of the program after that. I felt bad for the guy, but he brought it on himself; you can't work construction if you won't work!
Before I move on, I gotta go back to the foreman on the department store job, Squeaky.
Squeaky and the Crane Operator
Squeaky got his nickname because when he got mad, his throat would start constricting and his voice would start squawking. He was just a bit less of a hard-ass than the owner and did not like any nonsense on the job. Squeaky had all kinds of funny sayings, and the best/worst one was when a crane operator got the crane stuck in a mud puddle.
He told the operator to drive the crane (which was on wheels as opposed to tracks) all the way around the job, because there was a huge mud puddle between where he was and where we were gonna start hanging steel. My fellow workers and I were walking to the other side of the job to get a drink of water, when Squeaky said, "He better not be, he damned sure better not be, he *$%#@## well damned well better not be … he is, he is, he is!!!"
We watched as the crane sunk down, mired dead in the mud, and all of us realized at once that we would be working knee-deep in mud digging it out. It is a miserable task getting a stuck crane out of the mud. Time is money, and with no crane, production stops. So Squeaky told my friend Rick to go tell the operator he was fired. Rick said, "Dang, Squeaky, that guy just got out of jail for falling behind on child support and has five kids." Squeaky looked at him and said, "Is that right? Well dang! I'll only get about 10 hours of sleep tonight worrying about him!"
To be continued.