On July 25, 1968 I took a dispatch from the Apprenticeship Director of IBEW Local 728 (Ft. Lauderdale, Florida) and began my career in the Electrical Trade. I was 19 years old, married—with a child on the way—and clueless as to what life had in store for me.
After I filled out the necessary forms one of the owners, Earl, gave me some advice that rings true today, “Keep your mouth shut and your ears open and you will learn all you need to know about this trade”.
Earl took me out back and introduced me to Harry, my Journeyman-for-the-day. Dressed in a starched white shirt with short sleeves rolled halfway up to his armpits, Harry had the slim physique of a distance runner. A pack of Marlboro cigarettes and a 5-pack of Tiparillo cigars together in the left chest pocket of his shirt quickly dispelled any notion that Harry was pro-health.
Earl introduced us and Harry escorted me over to our work truck, a 1948 Chevrolet panel van. Harry opened the back door of the service truck and I was enveloped with the sour scent of oil-soaked wood mixed with the odor of tobacco, moist cardboard, plastic and… yeast (the van previously belonged to a bakery that used it to deliver bread to its restaurant customers).
There were wooden shelves down both sides of the back of the van containing cubby-holes that housed various types of boxes, fittings, reels of wire and electrical devices. Some of the containers were hand-labeled with a permanent marker and some had the ends of boxes torn off and stapled to the face of the toe board that prevented the contents from spilling out in a turn.
The floor of the truck was awash with miscellaneous items from various jobs that were completed or still in progress. Down the entire passenger side of the truck was a stack of conduit (pipe) of mixed sizes. Because electrical conduit comes in 10 foot lengths, the passenger seat was removed to allow the conduit to slide all the way to the front of the vehicle, thus allowing the rear doors to close.
I put my lunch and my hard hat in a nest of loose wire and went up front and took a seat on the stack of conduit. Harry got in the driver’s seat and fired up a Marlboro cigarette as we backed out to begin our (my) adventure. I had no idea where we were going, what we were going to do when we got there, and most importantly: who-the-hell-was-Harry?
After a good 5 minutes of no conversation I broke the ice, “Where are we going?”
“To hang some light fixtures.”
More silence followed. Harry stubbed out the Marlboro and lit a Tiparillo. He gave me a sideways glance and said, “I haven’t seen you around the shop before, Kid.”
“Today is my first day with the company.”
Another mile of silence. Now we were officially out in the Sticks on a two-lane road with large drainage ditches on both sides and weeds up to 8 feet high that obscured the view to either side of the vehicle.
“So, are you a Journeyman or an apprentice?”
I’m carrying a hard hat and a sandwich, how could I possibly be a Journeyman? “I’m an apprentice.”
“Oh fer Chriiiiist’s sake, whadda I do to deserve THIS?” Harry shot a whithering stare directly into my eyes, “I can’t believe that they would fuck me like this, today of all days. EVERYTHING I gotta do today and they saddle me with you.”
Silence mixed with horror filled my head. I met this guy 15 minutes ago and have already done seemingly irreparable harm to his life and mental well-being by answering a few simple questions.
“What year of apprenticeship are you in?”
“First year? First year. Fuck me. First year apprentices are THE WORST! EVERYTHING I gotta do today and they saddle me with you. I’m telling you, Kid, Earl must really have it in for me, you can count on it.” Harry emphasized the Hell-that-was-now-his-life by beating on the top of the steering wheel with his left hand keeping time with his pronunciation of every second or third word.
At this point I was trying to figure out how to get out of the van. According to the speedometer we were doing 60 mph in a 45 mph zone. If only there was a stop sign or a traffic light, some place where Harry would have to come to a complete stop or at least a slow roll, and give me a chance to jump out of the vehicle—but there was none in sight.
Harry contemplated his situation in silence as his foot squeezed more speed out of the van. We slowly passed 65 mph, inched up and beyond 70 mph when Harry asked the question that went to the root of his problem, “How long have you been in the Trade, Kid?”
“What time is it now?”
The first spasm was in Harry’s left arm, we ran off the road and onto the right shoulder, heading for the drainage ditch. Harry over-corrected and we shot across the road toward the drainage ditch on the other side. One pump of the brakes and another correction of the steering put us sideways on the surface of the highway, as Harry struggled to get the van under control.
Harry screamed, “THE FUCKS wrong with you?”
“Whaaat?” I said as I slid side-to-side and fore-and-aft on the stack of pipe.
“You can’t do people like that!”
“Like what? All I did was answer YOUR question.”
“I watchin’ you, Kid.”
“You better keep an eye on the road, sir.”
We arrived at our destination, a moving company’s warehouse that was roughly the size of a football field. We had to park in the front and carry our tools and materials two hundred feet down the side of the building to a 5 foot high loading dock where we climbed up a ladder and carried everything back to the front of the building. Our workplace was on top of the offices in the front of the building, our goal was to suspend some fluorescent light fixtures off the outside of the building to illuminate their freshly painted sign.
Harry looked the job over and said to me, “Ok, Kid, we are gonna need 20 feet of three-quarter inch rigid, 100 feet of half-inch EMT and a bender; get me half a dozen 1900 boxes and blank covers, 10 set-screw connectors, 15 couplings; I want a box of black, red and white #12 TW, a handful of red scotchloks….”
At this point I thought I was filling a recipe for baked goods. My eyes must have glazed over because Harry stopped talking and after a count of three said, “You got no fucking idea what I’m talking about, do you, Kid?”
“No, sir,” I replied, “but I noticed that your bins in the truck are labeled and there are pictures on the ends of the boxes of material. I’ll figure it out.”
“FUCK ME! Everything I gotta do today and they saddle me with you. Come with me.” Harry lit another Marlboro.
We climbed down from the top of the offices, walked the length of the warehouse, climbed down the loading dock, and walked back the length of the warehouse, again, to the parked van.
Harry climbed inside and started tossing material out the back door to me, all the while providing voice-over narration of the items, “This is a 1900 box (6 of them flew out the door), these are set-screw connectors (a handful of metallic projectiles exited the door on different trajectories).” This went on and on until everything we needed was scattered in the parking lot and I hurried to picked up the items.
“Now pick this shit up and bring it upstairs where we’re working. I got some laying out to do.” Harry walked away muttering, “Everything I gotta do today and they saddle me with you.”
We eventually got the job done that day and I don’t know which was more difficult, the physical labor of toting material back-and-forth, or the emotional strain of working with Harry. At the end of the day, when we returned to the shop, Harry turned to me and said, “You’re all right, Kid, but I am still keeping an eye on you.”
The trouble with Harry was that he did not work well with others. We worked together again half a dozen times over the next year and Harry was still Harry and I was still The Kid. As my education and skills grew Harry was able to cut me a little slack, now and then, but he always kept an eye on me.
Since that day in 1968 I have used Harry as my touchstone for professional relationships. From time to time I ask myself: Am I treating anyone the way Harry treated me?
The short answer: Hell, no!