I am weary. My back complains when I yank the pull-cord of the gasoline engine and the lumbering machine sputters to life. I pull and latch the lever to engage the clutch and reach for the shovel as the blades of the mortar mixer begin to churn the water. After twenty-three and a half shovelfuls of sand, I dump in a bag of dry cement and the engine bogs down for a second or two. The airborne powder sticks to my face, dissolves into the beads of sweat, and rolls down to my lips where I taste the bitterness of my toil.
It had only been a month previous that I removed my “Green and Gold” tassel and tossed the cap high into the air with 250 other seniors who had gathered in the high school gymnasium in Richland, Washington. That was the first week of June 1977. It felt good to be done with high school. Throughout the previous twelve years I had acquired enough knowledge to graduate, but for me, school was mostly a combination of being bored and being bullied. School had been bearable, but I have no fond memories from those days. Now was the time for a fresh start. With plans to study engineering prerequisites at the local community college in the fall, I need to earn some tuition money over the next three months.
That next Monday after graduation, I drive over to the part of town that is booming with new home construction. The first house I approach is clearly unfinished and unoccupied. Yellow stickers are still attached to the windows and the front yard is unadorned dirt with a pile of rocks near the curb. An extension ladder leans against the edge of the roof and two men are working on the stone veneer of the chimney.
Squinting into the morning sun, I call up to them, “Need any help?”
One of them stops and looks down to size me up. The pause makes me nervous, but then he speaks. “Well… maybe.”
I was a pretty lean and scrawny seventeen-year-old kid back then… 5 foot 9 inches and all of 120 pounds – maybe 125 after a big meal. The man walks down the ladder facing outward as if it were a staircase. “Do you know how to work? This is hard work.”
I give him a straight-forward answer: “I know how to work.” I must sound convincing because he tells me to come back in the morning at 5AM and to bring my lunch. Before I leave, another young guy appears from around the corner carrying a bucket of mortar. “Shane, come over here and meet the new hod carrier.” Turning to me my new boss asks, “What’s your name, anyway?” Shane sets down his bucket and extends his muddy hand. “Glad to meet ya. It’s about time we got some more help around here.”
This is how the summer begins. My new boss’s name is Dave, and he is right about how much work this job requires. He pays $4 per hour, which is much more than the minimum wage of $2.30 per hour. Shane teaches me how to mix up the mud, and how to carry 8”x8”x16” concrete blocks (sometimes, two in each hand) while I climb the ladder as if it were a stairway. I can handle the smaller forty-seven-pound bags of Portland Cement, but am barely able to lift the ninety-four-pound bags. Shane and I are the ones who move several hundred pounds of stone from the ground to the roof. Indeed, this is hard work. We finish up the fireplace and chimney on this house and then move to a different house to build another.
We work from 5 AM until the early afternoon when it gets too hot to function. By noon, our shirts are off and I cannot ignore a series of scars on Shane’s lower back. I guess they continue down onto his butt. I am shocked. I think, “Welcome to the real world.” I had received plenty of well-deserved spankings from my dad while growing up, but they were merely designed to get my attention, never anything that would leave a scar. It had only been a month previous that I received another dose of the real world – I had a co-op job in a local engineering office during my senior year of high school. A month before graduation, I learn that my boss had committed suicide over the weekend. I had heard of this type of tragedy before, but never anywhere this close-to-home. “Real life” is beginning to look pretty complicated compared to the pleasant childhood I am in the process of leaving behind.
The lunch I would typically take to school is not nearly enough for this type of a day’s work. I eat non-stop for my allotted thirty-minute lunch break and am still hungry. I also devour two or three large helpings of dinner in the evenings. Calories are essential. My light frame is beginning to bulk up.
I eventually learn the main reason Dave hired me… he had landed a big job and would need many more laborers. A new Holiday Inn hotel is going up in Richland, and it would be built out of concrete cinderblocks. After building three or four fireplaces at new homes, we move to an empty lot on George Washington Way between Torbett and Van Giesen Streets. By now, I have been on the job for three weeks and consider myself an authentic hod carrier; especially after Dave hires some other laborers and asks me to train them in scaffolding construction and the fine art of mixing the perfect batch of mud.
We construct a path of 2”x6” boards on the surface of the rocky dirt to run wheelbarrows full of mortar between the mortar mixer and the masons. My boss watches me transport a load of mortar and tells me that instead of walking, I should run back and forth behind the wheelbarrows. Full of mud, they weigh a couple hundred pounds and are unstable enough to spill if not careful; I find this out the hard way. Not only is this job hard work, but the hurried pace imposed on us makes it a stressful job as well. But I like it. It feels good to put my back into my work and to be a necessary component of a team. I am learning a trade, I am becoming competent, and I am helping to build something worthwhile and lasting.
I turn eighteen years old on the last day of June and consider my future. I wonder if I should work for a few years before college. I could earn money for tuition and learn a trade. Manual labor is certainly satisfying to my soul. I am wondering how long it will be before Dave hands me a trowel and tells me to stand on top of the scaffolding with the masons, lay the blocks, and boss around the hod carriers. I suppose this may be the aspiration of all of us laborers, but none of us are presumptuous enough to vocalize it. Good hod carriers are essential to the success of this job, but we all know that we are at the bottom of the ladder in more ways than one.
As the hot days roll into July, we finish up the first of eight floors of the new hotel. Our routine has been established and we work fairly well as a team. Apparently, I am one of the better mortar mixers, and if someone else’s batch doesn’t turn out to the liking of the masons, they request that I mix up my recipe for the next barrel of mud.
It is now July 7, 1977. The sky is clear, as usual, and the mid-morning sun is heating up the cinder blocks, the tools, and the metal scaffold bars. We periodically spray down the mortar to keep it moist due to excessive evaporation. Anticipating the need for another batch of mortar, I run with the empty wheelbarrow back to the mortar mixer. I fill the mixing tub with water to my imaginary line, yank the rope to fire up the engine, engage the clutch, and shovel in the sand. Add to that a half bag of lime and a ninety-four-pound bag of Portland Cement. The dry cement powder often sticks to the side of the mixing barrel, so I usually brush it into the turning blades with my bare hand.
This time I feel a tug.
It doesn’t really hurt at first, but I know something is not right. I wipe the mud off on my jeans and inspect my fingers. Everyone else is at the far end of the construction site. I squeeze the tip of my left forefinger in the palm of my dirty right hand and run to find Dave. He senses my urgency and soon we are running together back to his pickup truck. A roll of toilet paper is on his dashboard and I peel off a long strip, wrap it around my fingertip and squeeze tightly around the throbbing stub. Dave is driving fast and running through red lights down George Washington Way. My finger is now pulsating with a deep, dull pain that goes down to the bone. His tires squeal as we turn onto Swift Boulevard. In a couple blocks, we come to an abrupt stop in front of the emergency room at Kadlec Hospital.
I struggle with the door handle but manage to get it open and hop out. After only a few minutes, I am called into an exam room and greeted by the cheerful and easy-going Doctor Lewis Zirkle sporting his white Adidas tennis shoes. A shot from a needle into my finger introduces a sharp pain that temporarily hurts more distinctly than my injury, and I watch as the doctor cleans and flushes the wound for several minutes. This is when I first see the damage. My left index finger is now a half inch shorter and a flap of skin dangles from the tip. I can see the jagged edge of the severed bone. Dr. Zirkle remains calm and confident. He jokes about how this is “nothing” compared to what he saw in Vietnam.
My mom shows up in the middle of this procedure and seems glad to see that I’m not dying. A phone call had informed her that “There has been an accident and your son is in the emergency room.” After being cleaned and stitched and bandaged, Doctor Zirkle guesses that I will not have a fingernail on my stub. We stop at the pharmacy to fill a prescription for pain pills and head home. When my dad returns from work that evening, he finds me on the couch elevating my stitched and bandaged left forefinger. The look of emotional pain on his face feels much worse than the physical pain I am experiencing. “Oh my son, I am so sorry…”
I am not sure what the pain pills are (codeine, I believe), but I take a dose as prescribed. When I stand up after eating dinner with my right hand, I faint and fall to the floor. I resolve that I will not take any more of those pills. After a couple days, the dull throbbing pain diminishes and becomes bearable. After about three weeks (and a few dozen stupid daytime television shows), my finger is healed enough to get back onto the proverbial horse. The hotel is now a few stories higher, and I join in as before, albeit, a bit more cautious around the mortar mixer.
The building continues to rise throughout the remainder of the summer. Working on the upper floors requires staying engaged in the moment. There are no guardrails around the edges. Daydreaming could be fatal. Dumping a loaded wheelbarrow of trash over the edge gives me the heebie-jeebies… it feels like the weight of the wheelbarrow will pull me over the edge and just thinking about it gives me a touch of vertigo.
The top of the elevator shaft extends up an extra fifteen feet above the top floor. When pouring the grout into the blocks on top, we walk the 8-inch wide blocks and skirt around the protruding rebars. It looks to be a hard landing a hundred feet below, but we need to direct the heavy grouting hose into the cinderblock voids; and the grout, which is being pumped up from a truck far below, just keeps coming. Dave reminds us that the state building inspector “gets paid good money just for watching” and we should not dilly-dally. We need to focus and work despite the recurring heebie-jeebies. One of the laborers working next to me stumbles and goes over the edge. As he passes from the land of the living over toward certain death, he grabs one of the rebars. With the force of his weight, the bar bends over, perpendicular to the wall. Clutching the end of the unintentional yet convenient lifesaver, his body is hanging out into empty space with the heels of his boots on the edge of the top row of blocks. Throwing the grout hose to the side, two of us reach down and pull him back up. Our co-worker who had just escaped death climbs down the ladder to the roof of the building to gather himself. The rest of us keep working.
In retrospect, it was good to be able to finish the job we had started, especially knowing that a piece of me was embedded somewhere within the structure. The ownership of that cinderblock building changed hands a few times over the years, but it still serves as a hotel. I scrapped the idea of becoming a mason and focused on my goal of becoming an engineer. I enrolled in college that September weighing about twenty pounds heavier and a couple inches wider than I had been that spring.
Dr. Zirkle’s prediction about not having a fingernail proved to be wrong – the finger did grow a crusty little nail. Workman’s Compensation sent me a check for $1700. At the time, I thought it was a windfall. However, now I wonder how many thousands of dollars I would have paid for the use of that fingertip over the last forty years. I sometimes wish I still led the simple life of a lowly hod carrier, running behind a wheelbarrow and hauling buckets of mortar up two or three levels of rickety scaffolding like a tired monkey. No, that is totally not true. I wish my work was somehow more connected with the sweat of my brow and an ache in my back – but not that connected.
Indeed, years later, I find myself as an experienced engineer in a demanding position that periodically involves immense levels of stress working with a fleet of multi-million dollar turbine-generators in power plants. The industrial safety culture is much different now than it was in the 1970s. President Richard Nixon formed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1971. Other than wearing hard hats, OSHA’s safety policies had not extended far enough to affect our job site in 1977. Back then, you had to keep your head in the game or pay consequences.
Now it seems there are endless provisions made for workers that are either designed to accommodate those who are not in the physical condition necessary for their work, or absent-minded enough to forget that their work is dangerous. Many workers are “not in the game,” either physically, or worse yet, mentally. The most effective encouragement I ever hear in safety meetings is to remain engaged in the work-at-hand and to avoid distractions and wandering minds.
In decades past, the emphasis on safety seemed to be focused on externals – personal protective equipment, emergency drills, and dealing with hazardous materials or dangerous sources of energy. Many of these precautions are usually obvious to the one who remains engaged with their work. For others, a safety gadget or administrative procedure can produce a false sense of security and can “dumb-down and zone-out” the work force. When driving a car, I can daydream at a stoplight, but at a busy roundabout, I must stay fully alert. Job briefings that refocus the crew have the right intent, but even these sometimes seem routine and irrelevant, like an obligatory church service.
Externals can be helpful, some of them are necessary, and they happen to be the only tools available to management. Wearing a seatbelt while driving a car and wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle are examples of common sense external injury-prevention measures. Mental alertness is nothing that can be legislated or enforced, yet it is the main attribute workers can use to stay safe. The worst scenario is when the primary objective of safety training is to satisfy legal concerns so that if an employee gets hurt it can be proved that it was their own fault because they were “properly trained.”
Throughout the years, I discovered that many things are more difficult to perform with a stubby index finger, especially when it is on my dominant left hand. I have learned to compensate for some activities, but untying a stubborn knot is particularly frustrating. And after the accident, I always had an excuse for my lack of dexterity on the neck of a guitar. It also provided a good reference point on the scale of pain; twenty-five years later, I sustained an excruciatingly painful elbow injury on a poorly-designed zip-line. The doctor asked about my pain on a scale of 1 to 10. I answered, “This is about a 6 or a 7, but when I cut off my fingertip in the mortar mixer, that was about an 8.”
Office workers may not understand what is at stake at a construction or industrial work site. Losing the tip of a finger is a big deal, but less serious than losing a limb or an eye… or a life. I have had the scar of a stubby finger and limited dexterity for the last forty years, and will till the day I die. I had learned my lesson about being careful around rotating equipment, and respecting the fact that they will continue their path with inertia whether or not I am stupid enough to place myself (or my fingers) into their line of fire. A moving train has enough momentum that it takes a couple miles to stop regardless how many lifeless bodies are stuck to its front grill.
If I could rewind the clock, I certainly would. If I could learn a lesson without the painful experience that teaches it, why not? The misfortunate event that occurred on 7-7-77 became a part of my “coming-of-age” process. It also gave me my own dose of reality that served to wake me up and help refocus the direction of my life in more ways than one. I know it is possible to learn from the mistakes of others, but that option is only available to the extremely wise. I am still trying to manage how to do that effectively. I sometimes reflect on this event as I navigate through life, and especially through the gauntlet of hazardous power plants and periodic turbine overhauls. I can only hope that I am wise enough to learn from the dumb mistake that I made all by myself forty years ago.
Lessons learned can be difficult to experience and puzzling to decipher. I have played the “Monday morning quarterback” countless times over the years. In this case, was I a victim of an unsafe jobsite unmonitored by OSHA? Was my boss pushing us too hard? Was I a victim of the perceived invincibility of my youth? Was I even a victim at all? Was I, perhaps, the subconscious perpetrator of my own injury? Or… for all I know, there could be an ancient and foreboding omen about a calendar date containing all those sevens.
P. S. – Dr. Zirkle has since retired from his Orthopedic Surgery practice in Richland and is now President and Founder of the SIGN Fracture Care International non-profit organization. SIGN collaborates with local surgeons in developing countries around the world to develop training and implants that support their efforts to provide effective and affordable orthopedic surgery to the poor. (See http://signfracturecare.org/) Rumor has it that Dr. Z still wears tennis shoes to work.