The power plant loomed out of the morning blackness, hulking above the Iowa corn fields like some menacing, malevolent, medieval castle. It was surrounded by trees in soft fall colors, planted there in an attempt to showcase it as environmentally friendly and to soften its sharp square lines; but you can’t hide that much ugly.
I passed the memorial park, a rock with a bronze plaque listing the names of men killed during the plant’s construction and subsequent overhauls with space at the bottom for more names, a reminder that if this plant was on your yellow brick road, your life sucked.
The little park had a sidewalk leading to and around the rock, along with picnic tables and benches nobody used. The families of the dead men had moved on—ol’ ladies remarried, kids grown and scattered, living out their own dramas, looking for their own big rock-candy mountains.
It’s better if you don’t survive an industrial accident. Then you don’t have to watch your family leave, because when the money stops, they leave. When Big Mike got that hook buried in his head and they had to cut pieces of his skull out of his brain, his wife and kids were gone by the time he learned to walk and talk again. It’s better for the company, too, if you don’t survive; it’s cheaper for them to buy your family off than to take care of you the rest of your life. Most families settle out of court, and by the time the lawyers take their cut, there’s not much left.
It was the last overhaul of boiler season. The guys had come in from all over the country with pockets full of money from other jobs; enough money to do whatever it was they did—drugs, booze, road whores. The outfit had pulled all three of its boiler crews in for the job, and it was western.
From the parking lot the boiler was silent, and I wondered if night shift was made up of ghosts caught in some never-ending, boilermaker hell, going about their tasks in quiet agony, forced to serve for eternity the same evil they served in life—the almighty dollar. Only this time they know the payoff—broken homes, failed relationships, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, and industrial carnage. I thought about turning around. I felt like my soul would be damned as soon as I brassed in, but I’d cut that deal long ago. Someday, I will join that ghostly crew and be greeted by their vacant stares, recognized, and welcomed.
A Navajo woman was selling burritos at the gate. They’re tasty, but go off like a five-hundred pounder two hours after you eat one. I passed.
Two of the big 750s were still on line, and as I got closer to the plant the hum of operation—the rumble of the boilers, the rushing sound of I.D. and F.D. fans, the roar of the suck trucks, and the rev of ninety-ton cranes—became a wall of sound that drowned thought.
On big projects, how many men they plan on killing is figured into the price of the job, just like lost, stolen, and broken tools.
By the time I got to the unit we were tearing into, I could hear the big boiler groaning in protest at the violation and pick out the individual sounds of the overhaul in heat—the hiss-crack of the gougers and the pop of molten metal hitting pavement; the angry snarl of nine-inch grinders cutting their way through water walls; the high cymbal clash and deep clunk of light metal and heavy iron being moved; the rhythmic pound, pound, pounding of nine-pound beaters and the thump of separation with its clouds of rust, fly ash, and insulation; the knock, knock, knocking of the air chippers busting out refract, and the piercing, teeth clenching whistles of the suck truck’s big vacuum hoses.
Up on level 8, the nightshift was barely visible through the clouds of fly ash. Their eyes were blank and twelve-hours tired, and their faces were covered in brown dust. They looked at me without seeing. They’d been thinking about cold beer for the last three hours and just wanted the shift to end. They’re tough rock-and-rollers for the most part, getting old before their time, with no way out.
I headed down the catwalk to the back of the boiler where we had our gang-boxes staged and where the crew met for the morning safety meeting. Boom-boxes pounded out AC/DC, Metallica, and Monster Magnet from inside the firebox.
The crew drifted in one at a time. A couple of them looked and smelled like they’d been out all night. A few more were animated and wired for sound—obviously on meth. A lot of them are level-one primates with no recognizable human response mechanisms. Oh, they know when they are hungry, horny, and thirsty, and they do feel pain, but have no sympathy for the pain of others. They aren’t the kind you would want around your daughter. Most of them I’d shoot if I saw them in my front yard—out of common courtesy for my neighbors. On a good day, when they aren’t sick, throwing up, and soiling themselves from the excesses of the night before, they wipe their ass and toss the shit-paper on the floor. You try hard to keep from becoming a product of your primitive environment, and it makes you antisocial in most people’s eyes, but direct in yours. You become blunt, with language that is socially unacceptable, and like the rest, addicted to adrenalin. Still, there are a few good guys in the mix. Lem walked up and we nodded in greeting. I had worked with Lem for ten years. Lem was one of the good guys.
Some of the crew were coughing, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before the whole crew was down with whatever they had. I wondered if I still had any meds left from the last time boiler crud went through the crew.
The safety meeting was the same ole BS from the general foreman, foreman, safety men, and company ass-sucks who couldn’t care less about safety—all trying to justify their existence. On big projects, how many men they plan on killing is figured into the price of the job, just like lost, stolen, and broken tools. The reality is that broken bones and stitches hardly foster comment, and managing the risk is the best that can be hoped for. But management loves the sound of their own voices. Hell, when I got hauled out in the meat-wagon in ’94, they didn’t even pay the doctor bill. If they cared about safety, they would drug test some of their pushers. The general foreman was sweating like a whore in church, and his brother-in-law, a foreman, had a syringe sticking out of the pocket of his coveralls. It’s the same with all these outfits; they load the job up with their non-productive sons, sons-in-laws, and sons-of-bitches, and then demand productivity from the rest of us. The meeting and the paper work they make us sign are just so they can cover their asses when something does happen, and for the company to get a break on its insurance. If you pay attention at the meeting, you can pick up on the political intrigue and power struggles, but I had no time for it. I was there for the paycheck, not the “intelligent” conversation.
They put the word out that they were in a bind for welders again. Welders had been dragging up and going to other jobs. Boiler outfits deserved that though; they call all over the country to get skilled labor to travel into their jobs, and then act like they’re doing them a favor by letting them on the jobsite when they get there. They asked us for phone numbers of any welders we knew who might want to come out. I did know a couple, but I kept my mouth shut. That outfit was too chicken-shit for me to take a chance on losing a friend.
I saw Lem at the gang-box and asked about his kids. He had two boys playing in state finals in football and was thinking about pulling the pin so he could go home and watch them play. The foreman stopped to line us out, with slurred speech and animated motions. I was headed for the water-wall-screen and Lem, for the v-bottom. I grinned at Lem and he rolled his eyes. We made plans to meet on the turbine-deck for lunch.
I slipped into my harness, grabbed my tool bucket, and crawled through the manway into the boiler. Some kid was working next to the hole and sprayed me in the face with his grinder. Pieces of metal imbedded into my skin like thousands of hot needles. I didn’t say anything to him and worked my way to the other side of the boiler where I dug my welding hood out of my bucket and started attaching tube shields.
I had put on six or eight shields and was leaning back on my pelican hooks, fishing in my pocket for a can of chew, when I noticed that the boiler was quiet. I could hear the distant hum of the suck truck but nothing else. I checked my watch to see if it was lunch time, but it was only 10:30. I looked around but didn’t see anybody. I looked over at the manway and saw a foreman from another crew motioning me to come out of the boiler. I crawled through the hole and asked, “What’s up?”
“They want everybody out of the boiler.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Don’t know. I think something happened in the bottom-ash,” he replied.
Ten minutes later they passed the word that they wanted everybody off the unit. When I got to the ground, I saw the head safety man directing everybody to meet in front of the office trailer. I walked up and he tried to ignore me, but I stepped in close to him and asked, “Who is it?” He finally looked at me and said, “Lem.”
I asked him, “How bad?” and he just shook his head.
“Scaffold collapsed…somebody cut out one of the panels supporting the scaffold.”
We stood around in front of the office trailer for about an hour until the project manager came out and said, “Lem died on the way to the hospital.” We were told to hit the gate and come back in the morning, a routine I was familiar with, having been through it eight times before.
I went back to my travel trailer, showered, put on the best clothes that I had, and walked across the street to a quiet little bar to get good and drunk, think about Lem, and honor him in the only way I knew how.
It was a nice quiet place, and I took a seat alone at the bar and ordered up two shots with two beer chasers. I sat one shot and one beer in front of the empty stool beside me—Lem liked his booze—and proceeded to slowly and quietly get plastered.
A couple of hours later, I sat staring at Lem’s drinks in front of his empty stool. The fluted shot-glass reflected dull amber light through the whiskey, and the sweat from the beer bottle had pooled onto the bar. I tried to remember his face, laugh, and the color of his eyes, but he was already fading. My eyes filled with tears. I slammed down another shot, slid off the barstool and headed for the door, drinking any more would be disrespectful.
The next morning we had a meeting with the corporate damage-control team. They had flown in from California the night before on a private jet to stick their fingers in the dike. They all had brand new company coveralls on—I didn’t know they even had company coveralls—with the fold creases still visible. They all had brand new welding gloves on—the same gloves that they took money out of our checks for—so they could look like one of the guys. They all had brand new company hardhats that they carried under their arms, so as not to mess up their hair. They talked about what a great guy Lem was, but they didn’t know him, had never met him, had never shared their lunch with him or loaned him a few bucks till payday. But you’re always a great guy after you buck out. They looked put out, their tidy corporate lives had been interrupted and they had to look at us, the industrial human rags that had been employee numbers up until now, and it was uncomfortable. They said we needed to put the tragedy behind us, because we had a lot of work left to do to get the unit back on line. We knew they were only worried about busting the bid and losing their Christmas bonuses.
Out on the unit, the thing I noticed most that day was how the hands couldn’t look each other in the eye. They looked down as if ashamed, as if they felt complicit in Lem’s death—and maybe we were. We all knew about the drugs, the lack of supervision in the boiler, and the job-first-people-second attitude. Hell, most of us had participated, or at least accepted all of it as the cost of employment.
After the meeting, I got back in my hole and sat on my bucket for most of the morning, eyes welling up, at times overflowing. I took my welding hood and put it on so I could hide under it when the tears came. I thought about the meeting and how the execs had called Lem Leonard. I realized I had never known Lem’s given name, and he had never known mine. Most of us went by nicknames—Tiny, because he was big; Ladder, because he was tall; Hook, because he hooked up the crane; Eight Ball, because he hooked up the hands; and Fubar, because he was. I wondered if it was some primeval survival instinct that made us do that; if I know your name and speak it, I own your soul. My friend Charlie came and pulled up a bucket. We sat for a long time without saying a word—what could we say? Finally, he stood up, put his hand on my shoulder, turned and started for the hole. I said, “Hey Charlie…what’s your real name?” He looked at me for a moment, smiled and said, “William, William Charles.” I stuck my hand out and said, “Mine’s Robert.” We shook hands and he crawled out through the manway.
I rolled up my bucket highway tight and headed for the parking lot. There was a job in Texas I could get on. The conditions would be the same; the dangers, the drugs, and the systemic nepotism would all be there, but at least I wouldn’t be working for the same shitbirds.