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Post Hard Physical Labor: My Worst Jobs
Created by John Eipper on 10/25/15 6:08 AM

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Hard Physical Labor: My Worst Jobs (Randy Black, USA, 10/25/15 6:08 am)

I truly enjoyed Richard Hancock's (24 Oct) stories of his experiences with the Bracero program and his observations about the work ethic of the various parties, himself included. Richard truly has a gift for telling stories that convey the color of the era along with the social aspects of the time. He can truly draw a memorable picture with his words. I'll think about his family name and history when I travel through Alpine, Texas and past Hancock Hill next weekend on my way to the World Chili Championship at Terlingua.

Richard's pick ax and cotton picking experience brought back memories of the worst jobs I ever had in my developmental years.

Which brings me to my first couple of summers after my early years in college.

In the summers between college semesters, my stepfather took a rather unusual tactic aimed at raising my otherwise terribly low grades at the University of Oklahoma and later at Texas Tech. Because I was a slow learner, it took him a couple of summers to get his message across.

Dad was a senior executive in Chicago with the George A. Fuller Co., at the time the largest commercial construction firm in the USA, it was said.

The firm's history included NY's Flatiron Building, the NY Times Building, the Washington National Cathedral, Marshall Field's, the Lincoln Memorial, the Bahá'í Temple in Wilmette, Illinois and nearly 1,000 other major projects over many decades in the United States.

As such, he commanded responsibility for a number of construction jobs across the nation.

After my abysmal freshman year academic showing at OU, during the summer of 1967 he assigned me to a construction site in Los Angeles as a laborer on the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City. On a rotating daily basis, I shoveled concrete, hauled lumber and other goods around a 30-acre construction site in the California sun about ten hours a day for about ten weeks. On the weekends, I had to serve as gardener's assistant plus vacuum the halls of four 8-story apartment towers at the intersection of Sunset Blvd and the Pacific Coast Highway, a property that the Fuller company owned. The 7-day work schedule did not get my attention and my sophomore year grades were not much better.

Thus, for the summer of 1968, I was sent to Dayton, Ohio to work on a demolition job that prepared a site in downtown Dayton for what was to be Dayton's tallest structure, the 22-story Grant Deneau Tower.

As a newly minted member of the Laborers & Hod Carriers Local, five days a week, I ran a 120-pound jackhammer.

I should qualify that to admit that I was one part of a 2-man team that in turn was part of four or five other demolition teams. On a daily basis, these teams set about to demolish the two-level deep foundations of an ancient movie and vaudeville theater. We worked below ground level in the dusty, humid conditions that typified Dayton in summer and the site in particular.

The other fellows were African-American, I was the only white guy of dozens on the site. I was 21 years old and about 125 pounds. Prior to the previous summer in LA, the hardest work I'd ever done was throw a daily newspaper, deliver pizza, or mow laws in Dallas growing up. I'd always worked, just never this hard.

The work and the Dayton climate throughout that summer were brutal and somewhat dangerous. Each team would split time pick-axing and shoveling the rubble the other had demolished with the jackhammer or holding the rope up at ground level that suspended the jack hammer so that the operator could hold the machine at chest level and hammer horizontally into the old foundation. My partner was so strong, he didn't need the rope to support the tool. He could lift up the iron tool, all 120 pounds of it, put the business end against the concrete wall, support the weight with his hands, arms and shoulders, and push the pressure trigger with his chest and off it went into the cement. I was left to shovel the debris. When he needed a break, we'd switch places but he'd help me support the weight by tying a rope to the jackhammer and supporting part of the weight from overhead at the top of the wall.

The others in these crews were old men in their 30s and 40s. They had been doing this work all of their lives. They knew nothing else. They were black, muscular, not a hint of fat on their bones, they all smoked, brought their lunches to work, took few breaks, were not afraid of hitting on a bottle of rot-gut during lunch, and played hard on the weekends. After the first couple of days, my partner confided that the construction boss whispered that I was the son of a company exec in Chicago, but to work me as hard as possible. "Don't cut him any slack and let me know if he's not able to keep up."

Eventually, this group seemed to take a liking to me, sometimes taking me with them on Saturday nights to "after hours" joints in Dayton's ghettos. Everyone seemed to be carrying pistols under their shirts on these nights out. The joints smelled of sweat, urine and stale beer, were packed with ladies of the night, laughter, music and did not close until 4 a.m. if then. But my friends from the jackhammer crews took care to keep others from giving me trouble. Still...

One Saturday morning, my partner took me to a local pawn shop and had me purchase my first pistol for $14. It was a used .22 cal revolver. "You may need it next month," he advised. "When Dayton burned earlier this year after Dr. King was murdered, we burned our own neighborhoods. The word is that in August, we're going to burn whitey's neighborhoods."

I was living in a boarding house near the old NCR plant in Dayton, a predominantly white, blue-collar area. Later that day, he took me to the river bottom where he showed me how to shoot my old pistol. We killed a six-pack first and then killed the cans. Fortunately, the predicted riots that summer did not materialize. By the way, the plaque on the outside of that pawn shop indicated that it had been the site of the Wright Brothers Bicycle Shop in the 1890s.

The good news: I got the message and my grades picked up and I was able to graduate from Texas Tech. I'll share this final thought: Whenever I pass a construction site, I am nearly always reminded of my summers in Ohio and California. Whenever I hear the sounds of a jackhammer, I marvel that I survived that summer in Dayton and I'm grateful to my father, RIP.

JE comments:  Randy Black has a gift for narration, too.  I hope this post will start a thread on "my hardest (or worst) job."  "Worst" here is relative, as strenuous work teaches you a lot more than sitting in a cushy office.  When time permits, I'll write about my summer at a Missouri grain elevator.

I wasn't sure how to classify this post--Culture?  Sports?  Education, as in work ethic?  I settled on "Economics."

Best of luck next week in Terlingua, Randy!  Remember that your chili recipe will also be representing the honor and reputation of WAIS.

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  • Wright Brothers' Bicycle Shop (Patrick Mears, -Germany 10/25/15 10:34 AM)
    I enjoyed reading very much Randy Black's post of 25 October.

    I just wanted to pass along to Randy that the old Wright Brothers Cycle Shop in Dayton was purchased by Henry Ford when he was assembling historical structures in Dearborn's Greenfield Village. It was dismantled and then reassembled on the Greenfield Village grounds. If Randy is ever in the neighborhood, he might enjoy seeing and walking through it.

    JE comments: Randy and I almost made it to Greenfield Village after WAIS '13, but we had time only to visit the adjacent Henry Ford museum. Among the historical icons of American technology at Greenfield, one can also see Thomas Edison's workshop. (The HF museum houses a glass orb which allegedly contains Edison's last breath. This is one of the more bizarre items in the collection.)

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