This is the seventh part of a series. Click here to catch up on previous entries.
“People who lean on logic and philosophy and rational exposition end by starving the best part of the mind.” —W. B. Yeats
May 6, 1968
Office of the Dean
Dear Mr. Smorra,
In your letter of April 10 you have asked about the possibilities of your being readmitted to Georgia Tech. As you know you were dropped for academic deficiencies at the end of your last quarter here (March 1968)… Your grades here at Georgia Tech have in general been unsatisfactory with only one quarter meeting the minimum requirement for graduation and in that seventeen hour quarter you dropped one course and were repeating two courses you previously failed. Your present overall average is only a 1.6. It appears from the record you are not in the least headed toward graduation here…”
Rocker T. Staton
The Long Road Home
I drove home to my parent’s house in Ft. Lauderdale as a broken college dropout. I explained what happened to my folks and my father’s disappointed look said all there was to say: I was a disgrace. I had made a half-hearted attempt at college and got what I deserved.
At the end of the week my father and I drove to Atlanta and packed my belongings into a small U-Haul trailer, which we then drove 750 miles back to Ft. Lauderdale. It was a quiet trip up and back that culminated in me promising to get into school again somewhere, or to get a job. My plan was met with more silence.
I went to the University of Miami to see what I needed to do to gain admission in their School of Architecture. I met with an admissions counselor and they agreed with what Georgia Tech recommended: Go to a Junior College for two years and raise my Grade Point Average, then apply for admission and transfer any Junior College credits that qualified. In other words, start over.
I phoned the University of Florida Admissions Office to get an appointment with a counselor and they conducted a quick survey over the phone with me. After answering their questions about my grades and academic history at Georgia Tech, they also agreed that I should go to a Junior College for two years, learn some new study habits and get my GPA up.
This is not what I wanted to hear and the thought of going from Georgia Tech to Junior College was not acceptable. What would people think? That I was a lousy student? That I was not as smart as everyone thought I was? I wasn’t ready for the truth, so I decided that the Job Market needed my talents as much as I needed a job.
I applied for work at several companies to do technical drawing. I figured that I could capitalize on my exceptional drafting ability. I got the same old run-around that is running around today: Who else has employed you doing work of this nature? Then, as now, you couldn’t get a job unless you had experience and you couldn’t get experience unless you had a job. My best thinking was getting me nowhere so I decided to drop back into punt formation, deep in my own end-zone, and go with my strong suit: Construction Laborer.
I was broken mentally, but physically I was in great shape. I had joined the Laborers’ Union between high school and college and my Union ticket was on inactive status while I was away at school in Atlanta. A few forms and a small fee was all it took to re-activate my membership, sign the book and get in line for a job.
Fun in the Sun
I spent three hours a day, everyday, for two weeks waiting my turn in the lobby of the Dispatch office of the Union Hall. I was one of four or five white faces in the crowd and I watched as men were dispatched ahead of me. Some of these men I knew were behind me on the roll book but they were men who had families to feed, car payments overdue or mortgages to pay. I was just a nineteen-year-old kid with a broken dream and parents who would, and could, take care of me.
I took a dispatch to work for a General Contractor who was remodeling the local hospital. I was put on a crew doing general material handling and cleanup work. The job was not a challenge to my mental capacity, but it was tough physically. Physical activity and a break from thinking was what I needed at the time and this job gave it to me.
The General Foreman that ran the job was a tough man to work for. He was mean and drank a fifth of Vodka a day. Afternoons were especially rough, unless he got to work early and then he was a bear by 10 am. After flunking out of school, I was unsure of myself and tried to please anyone who was in authority. I somehow thought that I could make up for my past mistakes by being 10 times better now. One day this boss put me to the test and I learned a lesson about unexpected friendship.
A new floor was being added and on this particular day there was a big concrete pour in progress. A mobile crane operator was hoisting 8-yard buckets of wet concrete from the ground to the men waiting above on the re-bar covered wooden deck. After lunch the pour had progressed to a point that the crane operator had to swing his boom on a path that was blocked by a section of Mason’s scaffolding.
The section in question was on the end of a six-story high scaffold system. My drunk boss stumbled out of his job trailer and spotted me and three of my fellow workers carrying trash to a dumpster.
“Yo! You, collech-boy! You and them three nigras get your asses up on that scaffold and take the end section off. Raht now, dammit, you’re holding up my pour! And don’t drop any planks!”
The four of us looked at each other and headed for the stairwell without saying a word. Two of my co-workers were about my age and one was much older (he was probably thirty years old).
We got up to the sixth floor and walked over to the edge of the building. I could hear the boss as he stood on the street below cussing and screaming at us, and I could see him urging us on with wild arm gestures. We looked at the situation before us. There was a 2×10 plank across an eight-foot span of vertical scaffold sections and there were two 2×10 planks on top of the vertical sections that rose above our location on the sixth floor.
The oldest of my three co-workers volunteered to remain at the edge of the building and stack the parts that we would hand him when the three of us went out onto the scaffold and took it apart. That was fine with me, this looked like a daring challenge and I certainly loved to be daring.
I stepped out onto a 10-inch wide, 2 inch thick, wooden plank and I felt it bend under my weight. It bounced up and down as I walked across it and when one of the other guys stepped onto it to join me our combined weights really strained the board.
The first thing we did was to hand over the planks above us to the two men inside the building. The plank bounced with every move we made. A quick reminder here, this was 1968 and in the Deep South construction workers did not have Personal Protective Equipment in the form of fall protection harnesses; OSHA did not exist; people were expected to be happy that they even had a job.
There was more caterwauling from the boss below, more insults and taunts in the name of efficiency. My two co-workers removed the cross-brace sections of the scaffold and passed them to the inside man. One of the two of them crawled inside the building as his part was over. I said that I would pull the last section loose and then the two of us would hand it inside the building. It would be two of us doing it because there would be nothing to hold onto at that point. We would be sixty feet in the air on a 2×10 board holding onto a 35-pound tubular square of metal.
I was on the end of the plank where the side-section of scaffold was standing so I grabbed hold of it and gave it a tug. It did not move, but the plank moved up and down. I gave it a harder tug and one side lifted up about two inches and went no further. A few more attempts at pulling up on the section yielded no further results.
Our third man went down one floor in the building and crawled out onto the scaffolding below us. He had a hammer and said that he would pound on the bottom of the section while I pulled up and maybe we could free it. On the count of three I pulled and he pounded and movement happened.
We rested and gave it another try, a mighty blow by him and a strong tug by me and suddenly the momentum of our combined efforts had me holding the piece over my head with outstretched arms, wobbling back and forth on the end of a 10-inch wide plank, sixty feet in the air. The scary part was that I had overcompensated for the weight of the scaffold piece and my momentum was carrying me forward, over the edge of the plank, and in the direction of my drunken boss below.
It has been my experience that time has a way of stopping in moments of acute stress or danger. This day, on the edge of that scaffold, looking at the people below looking up at me, time slowed to a crawl. The sounds around me were muted in my head and my eyesight focused into a very narrow cone-of-vision that extended no further than the ends of my fingers.
I looked to my side at the man inside the building standing helpless and frightened; I looked down at the man with the hammer as he tightened his grip on the scaffold and instinctively reached out towards my foot with his free hand; I felt, I did not see, a hand grab my belt from behind; I heard the words, “I’ve gotcha, it’s OK”. I felt a second hand on my left shoulder and heard the words, “Easy, now. Lower the section and lemme help you hand it over.”
“Thank you, man. Thanks a lot,” was all I could say as I slowly turned around and, together, we handed the piece to the two men inside the building. I wish that I could tell you the names of the three guys that I worked with that day. I especially wish I knew the name of the guy who saved my life, but time has erased it.
I know for a fact that after the events of this day I started thinking about finding another job, far away from this boss who had us doing such a crazy stunt. Daring or not, I was happy to be alive and pissed off about what had just happened. I thought that if I quit this job it would be another entry on the Lifetime Failure List, right after quitting college. I felt trapped. My Thinker was broken and I didn’t even realize it.
It would take a lot more pain, heartache and bad decisions to make me aware of this condition.
Fingerprints will continue with Part 8.