“Fingerprints” is a term that bridge workers use to describe what happens as we instinctively reach out and grab the nearest solid object we can hold onto when we unexpectedly slip, slide, or fall on the bridge. We say that we grabbed the bridge so hard that “we left our fingerprints out there.” —Allan G. Smorra
T his memoir will trace the path that led me to becoming an electrician and eventually leaving my “fingerprints” on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California.
I originally set out to write a novel over the course of 30 days by joining the National Novel Writing Month event (NaNoWriMo). By writing 1,667 unedited words a day I would have 50,000 words at the end of November and have a novel under my belt to edit and do something with.
After two weeks of planning and outlining a story I realized that I lacked a plot, a necessary ingredient for a novel. I had characters and situations but there was no good reason for anyone to read it. As it turned out, I had a revelation three days before the start of the challenge.
I made a commitment to go to a memorial service at a church in Sonoma, California for a fellow electrician, John, who had passed away two weeks before. I arrived early, parked the car and rolled down the windows in order to enjoy the cool October air. The sounds of a bagpipe were in the distance and I turned in that direction and saw the lonely piper practicing his notes. I had a small chuckle as I thought to myself that this must be the way people practice the pipes — as far away from other folks as they can get.
My attention went to the people who were now arriving, all were strangers to me. I tried to work out who were family and who were friends. I attempted to judge the closeness of their relationship to John by the way they interacted with each other. I realized that this was a pointless activity and just sat and silently observed the gathering crowd.
A few electricians showed up and I got out of the car and went to greet them. It was a solemn time for us; it was difficult to believe that John was gone. More electricians arrived and so did carloads of family/friends of John.
We got in line to enter the church and sign the memorial register. I moved into a quiet, familiar state of being alone-in-a-crowd. It was a coping skill that I had developed at an early age. I took my place in the third row of the seats on the West side of the church and settled in for whatever was about to begin. It turned out that the Catholic priest, Father Jack, led us in singing Cat Steven’s hit song, Morning Has Broken.
I looked around the church at the assembled crowd, which now numbered close to two hundred congregants, and I looked around me at the number of electricians that I could see, probably fifty to sixty men and women. I thought about the individual connections that we each had with John, the connections we shared collectively with John, and the connections that we had between each other independently of John.
My mind filled with a vision of a pebble being thrown into a lake and its ripples radiating outward. That pebble was John and the ripples touched us all.
But then a completely different vision came to me, one of a handful of pebbles being thrown into a lake. That handful of pebbles was all of us who had worked together with John. Our ripples radiated out, overlapping each other just as we did in life as we came in contact with each other, and John. The ripples spread, collided and died down just as some of us have retired, died, or moved on, losing contact with each other at times, re-connecting and overlapping again at other times, this time for certain.
Something inside me stirred and my mind started to awaken. The sunlight streaming in through the skylight was suddenly brighter, the voices singing the song suddenly sounded more clear with the organ emphasizing the message, ”Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning. Born of the one light Eden saw play…”
A feeling of peace and serenity moved from the top of my head to my heart and stayed there. Gone was the sorrow that I felt about John’s passing, I could see that we were honoring him and concentrating on the man who touched us all. Gone was the pressure that I felt that morning when I got up and contemplated not having a plot for my upcoming novel. I felt, for the first time, that I was a part of this celebration of John’s life and recognized that I was a part of John’s life and that he was a part of mine.
The thought came to me that I didn’t have to write a novel in thirty days, that what I wanted to do was to write every day for thirty days and have 50,000 words by the end of November. I realized that I could write a biographical piece and explore relationships and jobs much better than I could create fictional ones at this time. I realized that it was okay to feel this way and maybe in the future I can come up with a fictional story that will rival reality.
This entire event, from the first vision to the above realization took about ten seconds and when it was over I was able to be present for the rest of the memorial service in a way that astounded me.
Father Jack started talking about time, Chronos and Kairos. Chronos time is the linear, sequential way of looking at events: this happens on this day at this time. Kairos time is a moment of indeterminate time when something special happens, it happens when it happens for as long as it takes. As an example, Father Jack said that it is not the number of breaths we take in a lifetime that count (Chronos), rather it is the number of moments in life that take our breath away (Kairos). I felt like I had just experienced a Kairos moment with respect to the vision of the pebble and the acceptance that I could write whatever I wanted to write for the next month.
For the next hour and a half I sat and listened to stories about John from his family and friends. It turned out that the priest had grown up around the block from John and had gone to school with him. It wasn’t just a service for a member of the congregation for Father Jack, he was conducting the service for a life-long friend.
One of the points that he made was that death was not the end of life, it was a change; we go on in another dimension. If we were to stand on shore at the ocean and watch a ship disappear over the horizon we would say that it is gone; someone over the horizon, unseen by us, would turn to see it and say, “Welcome.” Death and Change are compatible not exclusive.
It was a powerful message and as I listened to the service my eyes welled up with tears many times. I felt like I was being washed over and over again from the inside out. I didn’t fight the feelings that came, or the tears that flowed, I just sat there and felt what it was like to be me at that moment. Anyone sitting near me saw a different Al than they ever did before. I felt strong, not weak, even as I wiped my eyes and blew my runny nose.
I would be remiss if I did not include some light-hearted moments in John’s life:
- John had certain opinions on sports, for example the National Basketball Association: Why don’t they just give each team 100 points and put two minutes on the clock?
- When his son was 9 years old John had his own business and picked him up at school every day. Every day they would drive by a park on the way home and every day the same group of 20-something Hippies would be in the park throwing a Frisbee around. One day the son asked his dad why the people were in the park every day and not in school or working. John’s answer was: The people were members of a religious organization, The Frisbyterians, and that they were practicing their religion — the principal belief being that when they died their soul would fly up onto the roof of a house and remain there for all eternity.
- John was not without his observations on the human condition while standing in a long line: C’mon let’s go — 5 cents holding up 5 dollars!
- John was rather droll when it came to picky people: He’s busy pulling fly shit out of pepper.
My fondest memory of John was when we worked together at the KGO Studios on 900 Front Street in San Francisco back in 1983. KGO was moving into the old Visa building off the Embarcadero and it was the first time that I worked on such a facility. 15 or 20 people at John’s service were on that job at one time or another (it ran for about two years). After the first year, John organized a Bar-B-Q for lunch one day, across the road on one of the unused piers. It was supplemented by the profits from the sale of scrap wire that we collected during the progress of the job.
One of the apprentices, Bam-Bam, had a 4-door Chevy Suburban and he made a serving table by putting a scrapped door in the back of the SUV and using a sawhorse to hold up the other end. The General Foreman gave his ok to the plan and so 20 of us enjoyed a pleasant, slow lunch in the sunshine of a gorgeous San Francisco day-by-the-bay.
I had a camera and took some photos that day and one of the best is one of John holding a beverage. You can read the time on his watch, 12:45. Ooops! For the rest of that job I would remind John that I had the negative and would use it if I had to.
John was a Prince among us paupers and I miss him.
This is the first part of a series. Click on this link to read more chapters.