This is the tenth part of a series. Click here to catch up on previous entries.
“I believe in the Scottish proverb: Hard work never killed a man. Men die of boredom, psychological conflict and disease. They do not die of hard work. The harder your people work, the happier and healthier they will be.” —David Ogilvy
Door Number Three
I was on the 12th floor of the high-rise making a survey to see what we needed to do before the sheet rockers started their work in two days’ time. It was one of those sub-tropical South Florida Chamber-of-Commerce days— the kind of day that you pick up a camera, point it in any direction and take a photo. If you were to put that photo on the front page of a newspaper—let’s say, in Minnesota—everyone who saw it would say, “I want to be there”.
My old schoolmate, Jan, was walking by and said, “Hello”.
We had not seen each other, or talked, since our lunch the previous week. We made the usual small talk and then Jan got right to the point, “Have you given any consideration to what I told you about an apprenticeship in the IBEW?”
Why did he care? I thought to myself. “No, I am still thinking about becoming a plumber.”
“Have you called their Hall and made arrangements to apply?”
“No, I am still thinking about it.” Procrastination is my biggest curse and oldest enemy.
“The window to apply in any trade is closing and you are going to have to do something soon or else wait a year when the sign up period comes around again,” Jan said.
This was news to me, I thought that classes started monthly and you just got absorbed in once you were accepted into the program.
Jan asked me once more, “Why do you have your heart set on being a plumber, is it because of your father?”
“Well yeah, no, but kinda, yeah,” I stammered. “It’s just that I know a little bit about plumbing. I mean, I have helped my dad out on different jobs around the house and all, and I am kind of familiar with a lot of the material and tools and stuff…”
“Lemme show you something, all right?” Jan interrupted. “Come here and take a look down there.”
We walked over to the edge of the 12th floor and looked down. “See those guys in the ditch?” Jan asked as he pointed at the beach.
There were three men in a chest-high ditch handling a 6-inch cast iron drainpipe. The breeze off the Atlantic Ocean was blowing sand into their eyes and ears and all over their sweaty faces and bodies. They were alternately working and wiping sweat mixed with sand as the merciless sub-tropical sun beat down on them.
“Plumbers, right?” Jan said.
“Yeah, what’s your point.”
“Follow me,” Jan said as we walked the length of the building to where the other wing joined up in the crook of the L-shape. “Now, what do you see?”
It wasn’t only what I saw as much as what I heard and felt. There were two electricians pulling wire in electrical conduits, a radio was playing the latest hit records, the wind was blowing through their little corner of cool, quiet solitude. I watched as they worked as a team with a smooth rhythm, one man pulling on a fish tape that had wires attached on the other end, the second man was feeding the wires down the pipe. They demonstrated an effortless work ethic that was much more appealing than the labored efforts of the plumbing crew.
“Do you see a difference here? Which one of these trades is more appealing to you?”
I watched the two electricians stop for a drink of water, one of them lit up a smoke. They laughed over some small joke and went back to work. I shot a glance out of the corner of my eye towards the ocean view on the other end of the building.
“You must go to school to learn whatever trade you pick, no matter how much or how little you know about it when you start. They all begin with the idea that you know nothing and start teaching from there. You don’t have any bad habits if you don’t have a clue about electrical work, so you have a leg up already—you have nothing to ‘unlearn’. It’s a good thing, honest.”
I looked at Jan and said, “How do I get into the electrical apprenticeship program?”
“Now that’s more like it,” Jan grinned, “Plumbing is a good trade, you would be good at it, but I think that you will be more satisfied in the long run as a wireman. Now here is what you need to do…”
Jan gave me the address and phone number for the Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee, and told me who and what to ask for. He also told me to gather my high school diploma, as proof of graduation, and a transcript of my grades, showing my successful completion of at least 1 year of algebra.
When I got home that night I called the JATC and made arrangements to get an application the next day after work. The director also told me to schedule an appointment with the State Employment Office to take an Employment Evaluation test. This test was in two parts: there was a three hour written test to check verbal and math skills and there was a two hour mechanical aptitude test that evaluated dexterity and eye-hand co-ordination.
If there is any truth in the saying, “All great changes are preceded by chaos,” then I was right on track. The Lioness was home from college and we were adjusting to living together in a non air-conditioned, one-room apartment as her pregnancy was advancing. We had one car, and I used it for work. We ate dinner with my parents every night because we had no kitchen, or money to dine out.
For all the perceived negatives, we could have been much worse off. I was motivated to do more for us and to take responsibility for our future. I worked weekends at the plumbing supply house for cash (ten dollars for eight hours work) on Saturdays, and on Sundays after church I would silver-solder copper and brass pipes into a dishwasher drain fitting that was eventually chrome-plated and sold at the supply house. We saved what we could to pay for the inevitable doctor/hospital bills that were coming in November, less than five months away.
I was absent for most of the week, either at work, Monday thru Friday, or working on the weekend at the warehouse/my dad’s workbench assembling dishwasher drain fittings for $15.00/100 items. We were in a beehive of activity that was slowly taking off in a positive direction and that was when Door Number Four opened.
Door Number Four
Door Number Four had a name and the name was Ralph. Ralph was the guy who was responsible for erecting the condominium for the General Contractor. Call him El Supremo, Mr. Big, or just Ralph, he was a pleasant man with a huge responsibility.
Ralph resided in an air-conditioned trailer in the front of the job site and he ventured out at least twice a day to tour the site and check on the progress of the various sub-contractors. Always quick with a smile and a sincere ‘hello’, Ralph was a favorite boss-figure to me even though I didn’t think he had any idea who I was, other than a lowly laborer for the drywall contractor.
Ralph proved me wrong one day when one of his superintendents approached me and said that Ralph wanted to see me in his trailer. For the life of me I did not know why. My best guess was that I had screwed up somewhere and that this was my Come-to-Jesus moment.
I stepped out of a moist 95-degree heat into 65 degrees of dry refrigerated air. A chill shook my body after I closed the door and walked over to the receptionist’s desk. I told her who I was and why I was there and she buzzed Ralph with the news. I was ushered into his office immediately.
Ralph motioned for me to have a seat in one of the chairs facing his desk and offered me the choice of a drink, water or coffee? I declined and he poured a cup of coffee for himself (no booze added, yes!).
“I have been watching you for the last month or so around here,” he said.
I sat there not saying a word. I did not know what to say, or where this conversation was headed. I had no idea that anyone outside of my boss, Doug, and least of all Ralph, was paying attention to what I was doing on the job.
Ralph continued, “You seem to have a lot on the ball, more so than the average laborer. What is your background, why are you doing this?”
I gave him a brief rundown on college, marriage and impending fatherhood.
“You need to have a trade, have you thought about being an electrician? Those guys are the f—king Prima Donnas on any job site, but they have the best work and the best conditions wherever you go. A smart kid like you would enjoy the variety that the electrical trade offers.”
Variety! Ralph hit it on the nose for me when he said the magic word: Variety. I like learning something new on a regular basis. The idea of being in a work environment that was always expanding and venturing into new areas was enticing.
Any doubts that I had about whether getting into the Electrical Trade was the right decision were gone after listening to Ralph for two minutes. I said, “Thank you for your advice, it just so happens that I have actually started the process of applying to the electrician’s apprenticeship program for a spot in the Fall class.”
This was great news to Ralph, “Fantastic, kid. I can put in a word for you. I know the Director and a couple of the members of the Board. I will make a few phone calls on your behalf.”
“No, that’s ok. You don’t have to do that!” I was afraid that his good intentions would taint my application. I wanted to do this on my own.
“Naw, no, really, it would be a pleasure for me to help you out, son. I really want to see you succeed in bettering yourself and providing a comfortable life for this new family of yours.” Ralph’s heart was in the right place, why was I resisting his generous offer of help?
“I really don’t want to put you out, I know that you are a busy man.”
“Never too busy to help a deserving person.”
When would this guy give in? Answer: He wouldn’t—Ralph was from New York City.
“Thanks, Ralph,” I finally got to the point, ”I want to do this on my own. I want to make the grade and be selected for my skills, not because of a favor owed to someone.”
Ralph was undeterred, “Listen up, son, we are all in this together. If I recommend you to someone as a potential electrician it is my ass that is on the line too, do you get me? If you screw up and waste their time and money training you, it is going to reflect badly on my judgment. They are not likely to listen to me the next time I see a hot prospect.”
“I’m sorry, I misunderstood. This is new to me. I am not comfortable accepting help from people.”
“Get used to it, kid. We all need help sometime or other. One day you will get the opportunity to help someone and then you will understand, trust me. I had help getting to where I am today, and this thing we are doing, you and I, this is payback for me—for accepting someone else’s help a long time ago.”
“Thanks, Ralph. I will do my best not to let you down.”
“I believe you, kid. Good luck.”
The Lioness was very supportive of my decision to get into a trade. Bottom line, it was the one shot that we had at getting healthcare and enough money to live on, now and in the future. I had no other prospects and we both knew that I was in a dead-end job. I had advanced as far I could go and for my mental health, and our economic situation, I needed to do something else.
It was time to act.
Fingerprints will continue with Part 11.