I got the call from Jackie on Friday night. “They rushed Ray to the hospital this afternoon, he was having trouble breathing. Ray died tonight.”
There it was. Rainman was gone.
The four of us had just gathered for dinner last August under the late evening sun in Sebastopol.
Ray has been in a rehab center for a couple of months due to complications with MS. 15 years ago he got into a clinical trial for an experimental drug and made good progress. The last few years have seen a decline in the effectiveness of the drugs. And now, this.
Ray joined the IBEW Apprenticeship program on July 25, 1968 in San Francisco, CA. A continent away—in Ft Lauderdale, FL—on that same day, I joined the IBEW Apprenticeship program and began working in the trade.
Question: What are the odds that two such individuals would cross paths and form a 30-year friendship?
Answer: Better odds than you think.
In 1968 I was a college wash-out. Georgia Tech had had its fill of me and my dismal grade-point average. My attempt to become the next Frank Lloyd Wright put me closer to becoming the next Frank Lloyd Wrong. I decided that if I couldn’t design buildings, I could damn sure help build them in South Florida.
My buddy, Ray, came from a family of wiremen in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was a natural at the Trade and among the elite that we describe as a Mechanic, i.e., someone who is above average in the use of tools and who consistently turns out work of the highest caliber. During the last months of Ray’s apprenticeship he worked on the completion of the Transamerica Pyramid.
I knew about the Pyramid from my days as a student. I read everything that I could get my hands on concerning the Transamerica Pyramid. It was a go-to destination for me at some future point in my life and in 1986 I got a job doing tenant-improvement work there.
I worked for the contractor that wired the building originally. A few of the crew worked on the building as it was going up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I was in high cotton.
One day my boss introduced me to a new guy on the job, Ray. Our assignment was to install a run of inch-and-a-quarter conduit for a new fiber optic feed coming in from the street. The path would require a four-foot change in elevation, a ninety-degree change in direction and a ten-foot offset to get around some existing work. It would be a challenge, working off ladders 10 feet up in the air, but the kicker was that we had to use a six-foot radius on all of our bends and sweeps to evenly distribute the pulling forces on the glass cable.
This was a modification of the technique of concentric bending and would require calculating developed lengths for both the radius and the number of degrees for each bend. We would use a series of 30 three-degree bends for the 90-degree right angle turn and 10 three-degree bends for the 30-degree angles that would make up the kick and offset angles.
Once the math was over it was a matter of hands-on skill with the bender to align each small bend in order to avoid a twist in the overall bend.
Ray and I were like two peas in a pod with this job. We thought alike. We could both visualize how the run of pipe would look when finished and what it would take to make that happen. Using trigonometric cosines would allow us to create a work of art out of an ordinary conduit run. We had the kind of chemistry between tool partners that usually only develops with time. We knew each other’s next move. We didn’t need words, we had action.
We got finished by the end of the day and the shop moved Ray to another job. We would not work together again for 10 years, although in that time period I had the opportunity to work with 2 of his 3 brothers.
Ray was my boss the last time we worked together. He was the foreman of the material crew and I was his crew. Together we unloaded, and stored every nut, bolt, box, fitting, light fixture, circuit breaker, panel, and you-name-it, that came onto the jobsite for installation. We had to know where each item was located, how many we had, and how soon the materials had to be re-ordered.
It wasn’t an simple job on a twenty story building with 50 guys burning through tools and material on a Hyper-track pace, but Ray made it look easy.
Down in our lockup area of the basement Ray had a makeshift desk cobbled together out of a piece of plywood on top of a used wooden crate. On the corner of the desk he had a glass jar containing an assortment of wrapped candies—cinnamon, butterscotch, starlight mints. Whenever someone came down to our ‘office’ to talk to Ray the first thing he would do is slide the jar over to them and offer them a candy.
Construction workers, by and large, will always accept a piece of candy. It is a treat to have a piece of candy in the middle of a loud, dirty, chaotic day. The man would then slide the candy to the side of his cheek and conduct whatever business he came down to see Ray about. Business concluded, Ray would offer each man a piece of candy for the road.
Ray went through about five pounds of hard candy the first week of his foremanship. One day I said to him, “You know, Ray, you’re going to go broke feeding all these guys candy over the course of this job.”
Ray laughed. “It’s all part of my plan.”
“Would you like to elaborate on that?”
“Here’s how it shakes out. If a guy comes down here, he usually has a problem, and that problem has something to do with getting the material he needs to allow his crew to do their job.”
“Ok, so far.”
“It’s easier to catch flies with honey than with vinegar. I offer them some candy and they take a piece, it’s human nature. It is now a lot more difficult for them to get upset and take out their frustrations on me with the gift of my food in their mouths.”
“That is fucking brilliant, Ray.”
“Have another candy?”
I pitched in and began buying candy for the jar. After all, we were a team and what benefitted one, benefitted all. Here is the crazy part of this equation, by the end of the first month the guys on the job started bringing in candy for the jar—replacements for all the treats they had taken in the past. The jar became self-sustaining, Ray and I just kept it full from the volunteer stash.
Ray and I worked together for a couple of months and it was one of the most enjoyable times of my career. Having the opportunity to work with someone that I respected and learned a thing or two from made the day go fast. Ray had worked on the Alaskan Pipeline in the mid-seventies and I was kicking around mines and industrial work in the Rockies at the same time. We had a lot of stories to share and memories to last a lifetime.
One day on the job the White Hats showed up along with our own General Foreman and his Project Manager. The presence of upper management types is usually not a good sign, even when you know that they are coming to do an on-site inspection, and this visit was a complete surprise.
The GF called Ray over to the group and the Head Hat started talking. I was stacking a load of wire reels on the floor and out of earshot of the group. I saw the GF take a white envelope out of his pocket and hand it to Ray. A chill went down my spine. Chain-of-command, white envelope, check the time—2:30 pm—a layoff! They were handing my paycheck to Ray so that he would lay me off. WTF?
Ray had a half-hearted smile on his face when he came over to me and kneeled down. I looked at the envelope in the pocket of his overalls. “Well, partner this is it. They got me.”
“I’m history, they just laid me off.”
“Why, Ray? What’s going on?”
“They didn’t say.” Ray started gathering his paperwork and inventory list.
“Wait here, Ray. I’m going to be right back.”
I walked over to my General Foreman, a man who I had known for 15 years. We had worked together on several jobs including 7 years of asbestos abatement work.
“I don’t understand what is going on here, and I don’t expect to ever find out the facts, but I think that you are just the messenger in this act. Whether you agree or disagree with this decision to let go of Ray, you are carrying out the will of others and it must suck to be you right now.”
My GF was silent. His jaw was clenched and no words were forthcoming.
“I quit. If the shop is petty enough to get rid of Ray, I want nothing to do with it. I’m going down to the union hall and sign the books with Ray.”
Ray had just finished gathering his paperwork when I returned. “Let’s go, pardner. I just quit.”
“If they are unhappy with the job that you are doing for them, there’s no way that they will be happy with me. Let’s go sign the books.”
We had an apprentice with us, it was his first day on the job, so Ray made arrangements for him to pair up with another journeyman until the next morning.
It has been 20 years since that fateful day and we never found out why Ray got canned. Neither one of us pursued the matter and we finished our careers in relative peace.
Jobs come and go, but friendships last a lifetime.
You caught your final long call under a canopy of blue sky.
Photo Credit: Transamerica Pyramid Center