This is the ninth part of a series. Click here to catch up on previous entries.
Yes, Sagittarius, this is a good moment to abandon old beliefs and moral values. Your view of life has changed and, above all, you’re more aware of how your outdated, preconceived ideas sometimes poison your life. The past no longer concerns you. It’s time for you to make a clean break from the beliefs that are holding you back. You might shock your family, but they’ll get over it.
—My recent Daily Horoscope
The Lioness (TL) and I were married in a simple evening ceremony presided over by Pastor G in the church that my family regularly attended. In addition to our families, TL’s college roommate/sorority sister and some friends attended the event as well as a handful of my fraternity brothers. We spent our Wedding Night in a room at the Pier 66 Hotel, which is located between the Intracoastal Waterway and Ft. Lauderdale Beach. The next day, Sunday, we met my parents at church for morning services followed by brunch.
We said good-bye and headed west to visit TL’s family on the way out of town. We got on the Florida Turnpike and drove north towards the University of Florida in Gainesville, where we booked a room in a hotel next to Wolfie’s restaurant and had an abbreviated honeymoon. On Monday, The Lioness went to class and I hung out in the room and did a bit of free-hand drawing, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore.
I went to the Registrar’s office on our second day in town just to pickup some course schedules and pamphlets on the U of F School of Architecture. After reading the literature and talking to a counselor it became crystal clear to me that my poor grades and lack of effort in school meant that I was not going to be returning to college in the near future, if ever. There was no way that I could provide for a family of three, go to work, go to Junior College (with the hope of eventually transferring to a four-year school) and have a reasonable chance at success when I had no job, no marketable skills and certainly no knack for higher education.
By signing up for the Draft in Atlanta when I turned 18, and moving to Ft. Lauderdale a year later, the U.S. Army hadn’t caught up with the fact that I was no longer a student with a valid deferment, or where to find me. Computers had a long way to go in 1968.
I had no idea what to do except go back to the Laborers Union hall and get another job. I would be living at home with my parents for a month until TL finished school and then we would have to find a place to live and get an OB/GYN for her and the baby. The thought of providing food, housing and healthcare for two people scared the crap out of me. I couldn’t even take care of myself.
I said goodbye to TL and drove home to Ft. Lauderdale on Wednesday, May 1st, which was four days after our wedding and three years to the day since we had our first date. I spent the next two days at the Laborers’ Union Hall waiting for a job. This time, work was good and people were being dispatched daily. My prospects for being sent out to a job site looked good for the next week. Perhaps I was finally moving uphill.
During the second week in May 1968, I took a dispatch to work for a drywall contractor on an 18-story L-shaped high-rise apartment building that was under construction on the beach in Pompano, just north of Ft. Lauderdale. I was one of a crew of 8 laborers, 10 sheet rockers, 8 tapers, 10 carpenters and 4 ceiling texture men. Manpower-wise, we were one of the smaller sub-contractors on the job.
Taking into account the total number of masons, plasterers, carpenters, laborers, electricians, plumbers and operating engineers, there were probably another 150 men on the job. The building was a beehive of activity with materials being delivered onsite, stored for use and then moved into place and installed. It was a blue-collar ballet of men, material and tools.
There was a mobile tower crane on the job which moved around on railroad tracks that were laid on the inside perimeter of the L-shaped building. The crane operator, Shorty, had a commanding view of the workplace from his perch in a control cab 22 stories above the ground.
A material elevator, a buck-hoist, was located in the front of the building and it transported material-only to each floor. The men on the job had to use the stairs to travel from floor-to-floor, at times hand-carrying tools and material if the buck-hoist was busy delivering large quantities of building supplies.
It was important to have a good relationship with Tommy, a.k.a. Tomcat, the hoist operator. He was in charge of the lift and decided who moved what and when. You had to get along to go along and that was the just the way it worked because both Tomcat and Shorty worked for the General Contractor. Their employer’s schedule carried first, second and third priorities when it came to moving material in the vertical plane.
My immediate boss was a guy named Doug, an enthusiastic guy in his late-thirties. He scheduled the work and tracked the progress in his weekly meetings with his Project Superintendent, Don. Together they had their hands full overseeing material orders and deliveries, installation and finish work, plus manpower issues. Any one of these items was a full-time job and Doug did all of them.
Teamwork was essential for progress to be made and Doug was a good manager of men. He had the knack of knowing what a man’s strengths and weaknesses were and he assigned work accordingly. There was an air of camaraderie among us that was a refreshing change from the hospital job that I had quit. I went to work with the other laborers loading bundles of metals studs and track on the buck-hoist and unloading it on the floors where the carpenters had laid out the outlines of the walls of the various apartments.
This Condominium was a big one with 20 apartments on each of 18 floors. We used dollies to move materials around the spacious floors, taking care not to place the studs on the chalked wall layout lines. The ocean view from the building was fantastic and at lunchtime it was an opportunity to feel like a rich person as we inhaled the sub-tropical breezes coming in off the Gulf Stream, lying just off the coast, and watched the clouds scudding over us on their journey towards far horizons.
I was 19 years-old, making $3.25 an hour and trying to figure out where The Lioness and I were going to live when she came home from school. The apartment rental ads in the newspaper were not promising in our single-income price range when you factored into the housing budget enough room for three people and future medical costs. I continued to focus on work and not getting fired, I felt helpless about my future housing situation.
As I have grown older I have found wisdom in something that my grandmother used to say, “When one door closes another one opens.” I have found that the hallway between those doors can be a bitch, but Grandma’s words have always proven to be true.
The first door that opened provided an opportunity for shelter. My Aunt and Uncle owned the duplex that my grandparents were staying in. It was located diagonally across the street from my mom and dad’s house and it had a one-bedroom apartment on each end with a small bedroom and attached shower/bathroom between the two. This room had connecting doors to each adjacent apartment and could be opened to either one as additional rental space, or the doors could be locked and it could be rented on its own as a third unit.
One of the apartments was rented to a newly married couple and my Grandparents lived in the other end. When my Aunt and Uncle came for a visit they would stay in the middle unit and open it into my Grandparents’ side. My Aunt and Uncle offered to let us stay in the middle unit rent-free until we figured out what we were going to do. It was a huge weight lifted off our shoulders when TL came home from school and we started living together as a married couple.
The second door opened a few days later when my boss, Doug, took me aside and asked me to be the foreman for his crew of drywall laborers. I told him that I was not comfortable being in charge of a crew of guys who were so much older than me and who had more experience doing this work than I did.
This is where Doug used his management skills. He said that he needed someone with writing and record-keeping skills, that his experienced men were good at what they did, but could not do what he needed to be done. Doug wanted someone who was literate and capable of arranging for Item A to be unloaded, stored and eventually delivered to, say, Location 1.
This person needed to be able to keep track of how many item A’s were in stock, where they were, when the next load was due to arrive, and make sure that Location 1 was clean and clear for delivery and then get it to the workplace before the time it was to be installed. This person, me, had to work on Doug’s team and lead the unskilled workforce that would allow the skilled trades to build out this high-rise condominium.
Doug told me that the job as foreman came with a $.25/hour increase in salary and that Ulysses, the most experienced hand, would help to keep the troops in line. I said that I would do it. It occurred to me at the time that Ulysses was the foreman and that I was the window dressing – the token white boy in charge. Today, in hindsight, I am even more certain of it.
Ulysses was an interesting man. He had an outgoing personality and he made friends easily. Black as coal, standing six-foot four-inches tall and weighing in at around 220 pounds, his physical presence commanded attention and respect. He and I got along great and at no time did we ever have a difference of opinion on how to do something.
My management style was simple: when I got a task from Doug I would think it over and assign it to someone. If the task involved too much thinking I would explain the situation to Ulysses and ask him how he thought it should be handled and we would do it his way. I looked at getting his advice as a learning experience, one that I could file away for future use as a starting point to solve the problem myself if the situation occurred again, and they usually did.
I began running into old high school classmates on the job, guys who were home from college for the summer and making money for the next school year. They worked as unskilled laborers for other contractors on the job and we would have lunch together now and then.
One day I ran into Jan, a former teammate and drafting classmate from high school. Jan had just arrived on the job and he was working for the electrical contractor as a second year apprentice. We exchanged hellos and made a commitment to have lunch together later in the week. I had no idea that my life would change forever after that 30-minute lunch.
During the month of June we started unloading mountains of drywall sheets and tractor-trailer loads of rolled fiberglass insulation, stacking it around the various floors for the sheet rockers. We also unloaded and stacked a vast sea of joint compound in 5-gallon buckets. To call us ‘laborers’ was a misnomer; we were more like worker-ants as we toiled to carry heavy objects for the use of others.
The mobile crane made the deliveries of sheet rock onto a conveyor rack that projected fifteen feet out from an apartment balcony. To support the weight of a load of 50 sheets of drywall, the balconies had to be braced below with 4x4s a minimum of six floors to distribute the weight on the semi-cured slabs of concrete.
The drywall boards that we used came in 4-foot by 12-foot sheets. Two sheets were taped together on their ends and a pair weighed about 150 pounds. We were expected to handle a pair of sheets by ourselves for a hundred feet or less of travel. If it was farther than that, two of us would load an upright dolly with 10 pairs of rock and push it to the designated spot, weaving around walls, doors and tradesmen as we rolled over extension cords, hoses and general floor debris and stacked the sheet rock in a pile at the destination.
Sometimes the floor was too cluttered with scrap materials to roll a dolly across, so the two of us just carried the sheets carefully by hand to where they were to be stacked.
This part of the job got old by the afternoon of the first day. We were on the second floor and they were still pouring concrete for the sixteenth floor. I was certain that my arms would be four inches longer and that I would be two inches shorter by the time we got to the eighteenth, and final, floor. This unskilled labor gig was a lot tougher than I had expected it to be and my back had already acquired an unnatural curve at the waist towards my right side as a result of carrying the heavy loads.
I began to think seriously about getting into an apprenticeship program and learning a skilled trade. I knew a little bit about plumbing from hanging out with my father and working weekends at the plumbing supply warehouse where he was Vice-president. I thought that I might be able to get a spot as a plumber’s apprentice and get my Student Deferment active again.
As planned, Jan and I had lunch together and caught up with the events of the previous two years since we had graduated from high school. I talked about going to college and how that didn’t work out; I told him that TL and I were married and that we had a child on the way.
Jan told me about how he got into the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) apprenticeship program upon leaving high school. He had just completed his second year and had two more years to go before obtaining Journeyman status. Jan explained that he was learning a skill that could be taken anywhere, make a decent wage and provide for the future in terms of making a contribution into a pension and having healthcare benefits for him and a family (he was single, but hopeful).
Jan encouraged me to make an application to the IBEW; he said that I would enjoy the challenge of the work and provide for a family much better than I could on a Private’s pay grade. I thanked him and told him about how I was thinking about becoming a plumber. Jan laughed and wished me luck.
I went back to lifting and hauling heavy loads for my employer. The glitter of the job was gone, but I was glad to have it. The guys that I was working with were a cross-section of the people that my parents always told me to avoid. They were the dropouts, the bikers, petty thieves, gear-heads, and bottom-dwelling ne’er-do-wells that inhabited a part of society that ‘we’ did not associate with.
It is important to note here that we left Ohio less than a month after my sixth birthday. The town we lived in was very segregated, not only between Blacks and Whites, but between the Germans (us), Jews, Polish, Greeks, Italian, Slavs, and (insert Ethnic group here) . Every group had a place, an area in town where they lived together as an ethnic unit, and those who chose to live among the people in other groups were not to be trusted. Imagine my shock when we moved to the Deep South in 1955.
I began to watch my fellow workers as we went about our daily routines. I noticed that they shared a certain bond between themselves that outsiders were not permitted to join. I noticed that I had changed in order to fit into to that group and this new life. My speech pattern had taken a dive for the gutter. Four-letter words were more commonplace, gone was whatever educated tone I may have picked up in college.
That educated tone was a handicap when I started working there. My impression was that people thought I was talking down to them or flaunting my educational background. I wasn’t intentionally doing that, but after a while the look on people’s faces was a clue for me to loosen up and jump down from whatever perch I was standing on.
I started looking at the various skilled tradesmen on the job and soon realized that they seemed to have a quiet confidence in their abilities and place in the world. I decided that I wanted to do whatever I had to do to have that for myself, and then the third door opened.
Fingerprints will continue with Part 10.