HIGH IRON

It was a cold Monday morning, winter of 1989, we were putting up a building in downtown Manhattan.

I mean it was “North Pole” cold. Not that I have ever been to the North Pole.

Despite three pairs of white tube socks my feet were freezing. It got so cold sometimes I couldn’t feel my toes.

This particular job lasted months, I was there almost a year.  I made good money, met some good people and felt like I was on top of the world; life was good.

But believe it or not there were days I did not look forward to work. Some days I thought my fingers would fall off. It sucked getting out of bed at five in the morning. I got ripped a new asshole one day I skipped work.

I was an apprentice on the job working as a welder’s helper for the late Andy Purcell. He was the pusher. The pusher was the guy who ran the gang. Think of it as a coach of a football team. Andy was a great guy. It was a great gig. I loved working for him. He took care of me.

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One of our welders, Jerry Darlington was one of my favorite men on the job. He was in his late 40’s, and he had the coolest accent; he was born in Kingston, Jamaica. We would have some great card games in the shanty when we got rained out.

While setting up his wooden platform so he could get down to work, Jerry said something to me that changed my life.

“Steve my man, how old are you? Jerry asked before slipping his shield on.

“Twenty-five,” I replied as I stuffed his pouch with a few welding rods. Speaking of welding rods, one day I went to get the coffee for the gang and I forgot the plastic stirrers. Andy used a welding rod to mix his java.

Jerry looked at me and answered, “Let me ask you, do you really want to be doing this for the next forty winters?”

I looked down over the edge at the people on the street rushing to work, looked around the job and watched the other Ironworkers getting after it, and most of all, thought about how cold I was. And it wasn’t even eight-thirty.

At this point in my life I was stuck. Stuck in a rut. Going with the flow. You see the thing was I loved coaching basketball and I really wanted to do that with my time. I wanted to do it full-time.

But I loved being an Ironworker. We always got the utmost respect on any construction site. We were on top, ahead of everyone. Ironworking was the chosen profession of most of the males in my family.  My father, older brother, uncles, cousins and most important, my grandfather and his father all worked the iron. Ray Corbett and his father were two of the best.  The work ethic and values I learned has helped me on my journey. Matter of fact, it changed my life for the better.

The men I met are still good friends to this day. Often times when I pass a job site where they are setting iron,  I can’t help but think back and wonder what those years would have been like If Jerry had not asked me that all important question on that cold Monday morning?

HAPPY LABOR DAY!

Enjoy the day…

Respectfully,

Red

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7 Responses to HIGH IRON

  1. George Farrell says:

    I was fascinated with iron workers as a young guy working summers through college. I worked with my father as a junior woodchuck steamfitter ( NYC local 638 ). Being the “kid” I did not have a whole lot to do and would watch the iron workers from American Bridge erect the steel for the Con Ed Ravenswood Powerhouse in Long Island City. Could not believe the death-defying things they did on a daily basis and think nothing of it. These were the days before safety cables, everyone roped off, each elevation planked off, etc. If you fell and went “in the hole” that was all she wrote. Awesome men! Happy Labor Day, Coach.

    • hoopscoach says:

      Georgie,

      I don’t think the old time ironworkers would obey the “tie-off” rule. Those guys were “cowboys in the sky.”

      It was truly an experience as I look back. Wish I had a different thought-process as an 18 year-old kid.

      Met some great men.

      Thanks for sharing.

      Hope all is well.

  2. Pat Fenton says:

    That’s great stuff, Steve. As old Johnny cash once wrote, “I was there when it happened, so I guess I ought to know.” And you do. Few people have the nerve to do what you did.

  3. George Farrell says:

    Vivid memory of ironworkers in action…. Ravenswood powerhouse circa 1963. Two huge Gerosa cranes with caterpillar treads needed for the lift. In tandem they raise one humongous upright stand-alone column and the guys bolt it in down below. Nuts were huge and the spud wrench looked like a home-made affair cuz the nuts were so big. They used a piece of pipe as a lever and four guys manned the wrench. Now one crane is released and the other is still steadying the upright column which had to be 50′ high and 6′ wide at the flange. It is standing alone like some iron Stonehenge tablet waiting to be tied in to the steelwork of the main building. This iron was for the turbine room. I am watching and wondering how they are going to get a connector up there…way too wide to climb. The second Gerosa crane trundles over and I watch the connector slide a long iron bar into his toolbelt and hop on the ball. Up he goes until he can slide the bar through the empty boltholes with about a foot of the bar sticking out. He stands on the bar and releases the crane for the pick. There he is 50 feet in the air on a beautiful sunny day, his American Bridge hardhat the same color as his Carhartts, standing on a steel bar no wider than a stickball bat! As he is waiting for the gang below to get the cross-member ready for the pick, my man takes off his White Chief gloves and lights up a smoke and is just enjoying the view of Manhattan across the East River. Just like a day on the beach! Up comes the cross-member and it is too long and won’t fit. The crane holding it steady starts moving away bending the top of the upright just enough to slide the crosspiece in. Snug as a bug in a rug. My man bangs in a few drift pins until he can bolt up and then walks out to the choker and releases the crane. Keeps walking to the main building like a stroll in the park. I was absoutely spellbound…what a memory!

    • hoopscoach says:

      Great stuff George, hope all is well.

    • hoopscoach says:

      George,

      When I first started ironworking I was a “punk.” (For all those who got the wrong impression, a punk is an apprentice).

      Each day I was spellbound.

      Ironworkers are incredible.

      The men I worked with taught me life-long lessons. Lessons I couldn’t read in any textbook.

      One in particular, Willie Higgins taught me, “Never say can’t.”

      Joey Alba, Brian Brady, Billy Phelan, Phil McNiff, Ray Costello, and many more.

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