Wichita Falls, Texas, 1961: During the summer, I worked as a laborer on the construction site. We were building a high school. The concrete foundation was completed, and the concrete beams and upper floors were in progress.
Here’s how it’s done: Carpenters and iron-men work together. The carpenters build wooden forms for the columns and beams, and the iron-men wire knobby lengths of iron inside these forms. The lengths of iron are called rebar; I’d guess it stands for “reinforcing bar”. These rods are wired to support them so that, when the concrete has been poured, the iron rods go all through the concrete. That way, if the concrete ever cracks, the metal rods keep it from falling apart.
It was hot as hell, out on that concrete slab. And that’s not all …
I’d graduated from High School, even after the drumming incident, and the summer job was to provide funds to visit the World’s Fair in Seattle, which I’d read about in Life magazine during my senior year study hall.
During the summer, I weathered the heat — sometimes up to 114 degrees. My muscles grew, and by summer’s end, I was actually buff. Kind of a new experience for me.
One scorching day, I went to help Mort, a huge black man, who was tearing down some wooden forms. He was sweating like a hog, and attacked the wooden forms with great vigor. It was impressive.
“Damn!” he said, starting down a new wall. I laughed.
“It’s a great life, Mort!” I shouted. He swung the crowbar.
“Yeah,” he grunted. “If you live it.”
. . .
The best defence against the heat was to plan the work ahead of time, and then get out of the sun when possible. My carpenters were skillful, and would send me to find the boards they’d require well ahead of time. After I brought their boards, they’d send me to “look busy,” so that the foreman wouldn’t assign me somewhere else. I did good work for my carpenters; they looked out for me.
But one day, caught out, I was loaned to the iron men atop the frame of the yet-to-be gymnasium.
Here the columns and beams were in place, rising three floors above the ground. I watched one of the iron-men walk along the foot-wide columns, three stories above the concrete floor so far below. I saw him trip, and would have fallen, but the hammer-loop on his overalls caught on a stub of rebar projecting from the beam. After a very colorful burst of swearing, he was one happy guy.
“I can walk that beam,” I said. So I picked up the iron they needed, and went walking down the beam, stepping over the rebar stubs sticking up.
It was easy. I didn’t fall.
Looking back, the memorable thing is that I wasn’t afraid. I knew where I was. It was no big deal, little different from walking along a board placed upon the ground.
Alas, balance does not stay with us over the years.
Some years later, I was moving into the fourth floor of a victorian at Lyon and Oak, and decided to hang my windchimes outside the window. The floor below had a bay window projecting, with a flat space above. This permitted me to stand upon that flat space, in order to attach a hook to the eaves above my window.
I climbed out the window, onto the flat area. In my mind, I’d planned to stand up and drill the hole for the hook. But when I began to stand up, it was wrong. I was missing that sense of balance.
I could no longer clearly feel where I was. I couldn’t with confidence stand upright, four floors above the ground, even though the standing space was far larger than that beam had been, all those years ago.
Now, in order to drill the hole, I had to work one-handed, because I needs must use the other hand to hold onto the window frame, to ensure that I’d not topple.
Gain in wisdom, we do. But along the way, as primates, we go all to hell. All of which, I suppose, brings us to the question: “Why are we sitting in this handbasket?”