I have held many, many jobs in my years. One of the most interesting of all was when I was an Ironworker. By the way, never call an Ironworker a Steelworker. They hate that. Steelworkers make and fabricate the steel. Ironworkers erect it. Ironworking is all about erections.
I had been working at this little filter factory when I got a call from an old friend telling me they needed help on his job—which I knew was Ironworking. Joe said I would be making twice what I was making and could get all the overtime I wanted. Since I wasn’t making that much at the time, it was kind of a no-brainer until you actually factor in what the job of Ironworking entails, that is. There are two types of Ironworkers; those that have went in the hole and those who are going to go into the hole. The hole simply means falling off some building. They dig a hole for damn near every building ever built and that is where the “hole” part comes in. A lot of guys fell into those holes I guess.
But at the time I was tired of being poor and driving junk cars and shopping at Farmer Jacks. I walked in and told my boss the next day, and the next day after that I was deep in the heart of Metropolitan Detroit inside a huge auto factory staring out at what I thought resembled the construction site for Hell itself. It was late autumn and the skies were gray and the cement was gray and the air was gray with all the smoke from all the welders and generators and diesel vehicles working the site. It was loud and smelly and no one was exactly whistling Dixie while they worked. It took me over an hour to get there and traffic was an outright bitch most of the way. But what really caught my attention was the skeleton of the structural steel building being worked on. It was huge and only one floor, floor to roof was about sixty feet, and there were no safety nets—not that I was expecting them.
The night before I had run out to Sears and picked up a large crescent wrench, a twenty-five foot tape measure, some work gloves and a new pair of boots as instructed by my friend, Joe. I was wearing jeans, a long sleeve T, and a flannel outer shirt and my new work boots when I found Joe and his boss, who is referred to as a Pusher in the trade, and introductions were made. I wasn’t shaking like Don Knotts, but it’s safe to say my butthole was in a bit of a pucker.
Joe had been doing this shit for years. He is a big fella, about six foot two and two-hundred-fifty pounds. Joe has fought in Tough Man contests before and done quite well. He drove a Dodge PowerWagon with a 454 engine and could pass everything except gas stations. Curt, the Pusher, was also a big guy. He stood about six foot four and was not slight at all in build. He had a beard but he shaved off the moustache part. Curt dropped out of his Alabama six grade elementary school and went to work on farm where, he claimed, he ran off more mules than he can remember. Think about that for a second. I am about to go to work for a man who ran off work animals—when he was only a punk kid!
Which brings me to the word “Punk”, which in Ironworking lingo refers to an Ironworker who is still in apprentice (Punk) school. I was not one of those. I was a paper guy in that I got a special permit to Ironwork because they just didn’t have enough guys at the time. I didn’t get what the journeymen got paid, but I really didn’t deserve it and did not complain. I couldn’t do what those guys could do.
Joe told me to bring a lot of food because hard work makes a man hungry. Plus, Joe knew I would bring extra food for him to eat because he had hooked me up with the job. We tore some shit up during coffee breaks and lunches. Curt was amazed at how much we ate and used to dog us out constantly. That was what made us start to chew with our mouths open.
So, it was my job to do dumb shit the skilled guys didn’t want to be bothered with. I would carry stuff. I would hold stuff. I would run back to the gang truck for a tool. I would wrap up the yards and yards of extension cords, welding leads and ground wires. I would carry those big assed, heavy wooden extension ladders around. And sure enough overtime was plentiful. So I worked ten or twelve hour days, six days a week most the time and made a lot of money and never had time to spend it so I couldn’t help but to save a ton of it. This should be taught somewhere.
The first few days I was never put out on bare steel—that is I was never made to walk the iron. There was tons of other stupid stuff that needed doing, and I did that. The first time I did have to step out on that stuff I can tell you I was butthole puckered by a factor of ten. This day I was going to be a Bolter-Upper, and to explain that, I have to explain this and it is very important so pay attention: The crane lifts the beam (or perlin, or girder, or whatever) to the Connector who attaches it with one, maybe two, erection bolts, and then moves on. There are two Connectors, one for each end of whatever is being connected. Every bolt they insert is only hand tightened and it is these guys job to do this as fast as possible. The Boss is always happy when a lot of steel is going up, and a happy Boss is a good boss.
These erection bolts are left loose by the Connectors for two reasons. One, because the building will need to be plumbed (look it up) and if all the bolts are tight, the plumbing process would become a might dangerous—this is the voice of experience talking here. So, stop and consider this for a second. When you see those guys walking those beams on those buildings there is a very good chance those beams are loose. The second reason, once again is, speed. The Connectors are followed by the Bolter-Uppers and miscellaneous guys who throw in the rest of the bolts, weld in the stairways, bolt in the handrails and mess with the elevator shaft steel. Every other trade follows the Ironworkers up the building.
(*The strongest place in a building is by the elevator shafts. There is more steel there than anywhere else.)
But this day I am Bolting-Upping and now I have to tell you this. I have a commercial grade, quick-release tool belt with two spud wrenches, two bull pins, a sleever bar, a twelve inch crescent wrench, the 25 foot tape measure, a monkey tail, a ten pound, short-handled Beater, and two canvas pouches full of two and a quarter inch erection bolts. All told this is about sixty pounds strapped around my waist. (Spud wrenches are wrenches on one end that taper off to a point on the other end. Sleevers bars are kind of like crowbars. Bull pins are steel pins, tapered at both ends and are about seven inches long. None of these things are light.) It is my job to go around to all the connections and insert the rest of the erection bolts into the holes into the beams. Since this was a huge auto factory, all the steel and thereby all the connections were large meaning they took a lot of bolts. On top of that some idiot had already landed the roof decking on the trusses making everything just that much more tight.
The whole trick to Bolting-Upping is hole alignment. If the holes are aligned you can do this job by hand lickety-split. If there are stacks of decking on top of the steel, it gets crooked and getting bolts in is some serious labor. First you try to pry the holes into alignment with the sleever bar, but that only works some of the time and mostly just on small steel. When the sleever fails, then you go to the bull pins. You beat those things through any hole you and with your Beater and usually those make the other holes align and you can throw in some bolts. In the worst case scenario you break out the torch and cut new holes, but that is a major pain in the ass because you usually have to drag out a ton of torch hose, move the gang truck around or some other dumb shit. It tends to piss off the Pusher. Better to use conventional methods.
During coffee one day Joe started dogging me about how slow I was bolting up. Curt told Joe to shut up. And that is how I realized what a fucked up Bolting-Up job I had undertaken. Curt was giving me my props. Me and Joe just laughed. When you work that hard and in such dangerous conditions, everything is funny.
But, Bolting-Up also meant walking on bare iron. Okay, so it was a big building and so it was big steel, but with all the tools strapped around me, and the dozens of distractions constantly going on, and looking down at sure death I set out that morning and actually made it home that night. I was not proud, because I wasn’t exactly dancing across that stuff, but I did feel a twinge of something exciting. I don’t know. Maybe I was just stupid.
It actually took me about a year before I could dance on the iron. One day it just came to me. We were putting the steel roof joists in a strip mall and I was running the hose to the impact wrench (YoYo) my buddy Joe was operating. That hose is about three inches thick and you can get a hundred yards of it strung out pretty fast. Somebody has to keep that stuff from getting tangled up so the guy running the yoyo can move swiftly from connection to connection. The cool thing about being the hose guy is you don’t have to wear your tool belt because you don’t even need it and because it would slow you down. (Of course, you are not supposed to be up there without your monkey-tail either, which connects to your quick-release belt, but what the Hell.) Anyway, it got good to me on that day. I started out a little slow, but by the end of the day I was an iron walking fool.
Machismo is everything with Ironworkers, but it is more of a silent version. Ironworkers don’t trash talk or brag very often that I know. Their respect occurs in much the same manner. If you can’t walk the iron, you just cannot hold your head up high among these guys. Once word got out I could walk I could feel everyone’s vibe toward me lighten up. No crew would ever have to carry me again. I could handle my business. I still didn’t know shit, but I could do almost any job with just a little direction or none at all.
A little over five hundred and thirty feet, that is the highest I ever worked. We did some stuff to a tower crane in Troy.
Yes, I have worked with Indians on the job. And yes, I call them Indians instead of Native Americans because that is what they called themselves and that is what they wanted us to call them. And no, Indians are not necessarily the best Ironworkers in the world and don’t have any genetic superiority when it comes to this line of work. They run the full gamut just like black people and white people and guys from Newfoundland and whatever. I just wanted to dispel that little myth sooner or later.
However, this one Indian guy I worked with, Soup Bone, was his name was the faster Connector I ever witnessed. We were building this HUGE tech center for one of the Big Three and Soup Bone had boomed in from some place or another, and was teamed up with Chris who was a damn fast Connector in his own right. (Boom, like boom of a crane, means to work away from home.) At coffee that morning Chris told me he couldn’t keep up with Soup Bone. Even when Soup Bone took the harder end, he was beating Chris to the choker. (The choker is a cable that attaches the beam to the crane which must be released before another beam can be set.) Soup Bone’s helmet was constantly falling off his head and the Pusher worried the safety guy would come around and write us up.
My job was to be the Hooker-On. I would attach the chokers to the hook on the crane to be delivered to the Connectors on the building. Hooking-On is an art and very important to production. First, you have to measure every beam and mark its center point so when it’s raised it goes straight up. Secondly, you have to attach the choker to the beam in the right spot and then direct the crane operator into position to drop the ball (With the hook attached, of course.) to where the choker can be attached. And then you signal the operator to hoist and give that beam a push to get it swinging as it goes up. If you do this perfectly that beam arrives to the connectors and glides right into their hands so they can place it easily into the connection and slide in a few erection bolts. If you are really in a hurry, and have a good crew, you can Christmas tree crane loads i.e. attached numerous beams to the hook at once so that the crane has to make fewer round trips to the pile. If you ever get a chance to witness this, stop and enjoy for a while. It is truly a thing of beauty.
Typically crews keep to themselves during coffee breaks. This is how I got to know Soup Bone. He has got to be one of the coolest human beings I have ever met. He actually went through that ceremony where you hang by your chest skin for like twenty-four hours. He showed me the scars. So, he was great and all, but several members of the tribe were slackers and a couple couldn’t even walk the iron.
I never left work without stopping and taking a look at what I had done that day. I’d fire up a smoke, lean against something, and just stare for a few minutes. Sometimes it was hard to tell, sometimes it was majestic. Steel don’t lie.
One day, I got paid to drink beer. I was working for this Pusher who reminded me of a lumber jack and he ran a raising crew i.e. Connectors and Hooker-Ons. I was hooking. It was lumber jack’s birthday and as splendid summer day it was. At seven o’clock that morning we started drinking beer and we did not stop until seven o’clock that evening. Yes, we were paid, including overtime rates, for the entire day. The Owner even stopped by to replenish our dwindling beer supply which I had thought was exhaustive at first. However, it was not enough for us alone to waste an entire work day. We coerced every other tradesman we could corral, as well. We damn near had the entire job drunk by noon, and this was a twelve story on Main Street in you know where. We could have built a bull dozer from our pile of empty cans. We damn near bought out the beer store around the corner. I remember very little about that day, including how I managed to drive home.
During coffee one day me and Joe and Curt the Pusher were in the gang shed yapping about something when Curt announces he ain’t never been scared of nothing—in his life. Only a moron would argue with Curt. If he said something you knew damn well it was a certainty. That man simply would not tell a lie. Ten minutes later I’m in a man-lift with Curt tightening up the sway rods in trusses taller than either of us. Curt would belly the man-lift box up to the bottom of the truss, him on one side, me on the other, and I would hold the bolt and he would tighten the rod from the other side. Curt would yell, “Good?” and I would yell, “Yeah”, and we’d move onto the next. Oh yeah, we are about sixty feet in the air. The next sway rod we attack is almost right above a bank of generators making it hard to hear. Curt yelled, “Good?” and I yelled, “Nope!” and Curt took off anyway—thus pinning me between the basket and the truss and knocking the wind out of me. I grabbed the truss and kicked up my legs just enough so the man-lift didn’t rake me off the truss and drop me like a box of rocks. Curt got about ten feet away before looking back and realizing something was missing. When he got me back in the basket he said, “You scared the shit out of me!” But, all I could do was laugh. “I thought nothing scared the shit out of you, Curt?” He had to laugh, too. That shit was funny.
I have had numerous near-death experiences Ironworking. After about the third or fourth one, however, it ain’t no big deal. Ironworkers don’t want to see anyone get hurt ever. If you can’t do something, or are just having a real bad day, no Ironworker is going to leave you hanging in a strain. The other end of this is the, Call The Hall, mentality. That more or less means, if I can’t do it, can’t nobody do it. Call the union hall and find someone who can. Usually Ironworkers don’t get hurt just a little. Everyone knows this. The line any Ironworker walks between health and death is thinner than any beam or girder. They have the moxy to be able to do the job, but also the crazy wisdom that their brain needs keep things in proper balance.
You use long steel cables to plumb a building. You attach these cables at various angles and put a level to a colyuum (column) and stretch those cables with turnbuckles until the colyuum is plumb—straight up and down and square. This is a much easier job to do if the Bolter-Upper guy hadn’t decided, for safety’s sake, to tighten every erection bolt he inserted so the beams would be more stable when having to walk on them. Anyway, the end result was that that same guy who over-tightened them bolts was the same guy operating the turnbuckles to plumb the building, which is a very dangerous job. Those cables can snap and when they do they go right after the guy who is turning the turnbuckle and can cut a man in half or at least severely fuck him up in an instant. Curt couldn’t figure out why the building was so hard to plumb up. He’d plumbed up hundreds of structures in his day, and never before had he encounter such grief. To top it all off, we were using this new-fangled laser machine to plumb the building, and Curt was playing Hell trying to figure that thing out.
So a cable snapped just as I was standing back from the turnbuckle and it went by me like a bullwhip. I didn’t even have time to be scared. Even after that no way was I admitting to over-tightening them bolts much less volunteering to loosen them—which would have taken forever. I think the Boss chewed Curt’s ass for taking so long, but we finally got it done and could leave that job site for good.
Demolition work is even more dangerous than erection type work. Taking down a building is a touchy business. For one thing, you can never be perfectly sure of how it was actually put together. There might be strains and stresses and weaknesses where you least expect them. You never know what might happen when you cut something loose. On this job, the Owner was trying to salvage the bowstring trusses existent in this building. They were valuable for some reason. It was a marina and the Owner was a boat nut I guess. Anyway, we had to take this bad boy down and not break them trusses in the process. Easier said than done. While we didn’t exactly break anything, I was standing on top of one of those bowstring trusses when the building caught fire and the fire trucks had to be called. In fact, me and Curt and Joe kept working the whole time even when the smoke got ridicules. This was on a Saturday and none of us wanted to come back Sunday to finish the job. In the end we had to come back the next day anyway.
Ironworkers can, have and will work in any kind of weather. The union says they can’t be made to work in the rain, but we still did whenever we could get away from it. The company I worked for had its own rules. They wanted Ironworkers who wanted to get paid. So, outside of just stupidly bad weather, we climbed up on that iron every chance we got. I’ve worked when it’s twenty below zero out. I’ve worked in 99 degree heat and direct sun light. I’ve welded in rain for thirty days straight and got shocked at least a thousand times. Nobody messed around with high winds too much. When those came they either found you ground work to do or you just went home. I one even worked during Earthquake tremors, although I didn’t know it at the time.
One thing that always amazed me was the gang trucks. I can’t imagine there is a more efficient means to make use of a flatbed truck than to make it a gang truck. When there wasn’t a crew shack to be had, or if it was filled with dickweeds, we went to the crew truck for coffee breaks. It held our many various tools and equipment like the welder and a generator. There was always a water jug on the crew truck. You left your lunch and thermos there. The blueprints were kept in the crew truck. Each Pusher got a crew truck but you could barely tell them apart because we all basically used the same stuff. You would be amazed at the size of the building just one of these crew trucks can erect.
Hand signals are used a lot in Ironworking. Most of the signals are pretty obvious. Up is up and down is down. Twirling your finger up means highball that bitch fast! A slash across your waist means halfway. A head shake means you fucked up. Outstretched arms mean, “What were you thinking?” or “How much further?” Tapping your thumb to your index finger means lunch or just a little bit. Bringing an imaginary cup to your lips means coffee break. Swinging your arm in wide circles means bring it in.
Being in a strain in Ironworking happens when you are literally straining and perhaps in a dangerous or potentially dangerous position or location. Ironworkers are always cognizant of leaving a guy in a strain. Bad shit happens when people have to go into a strain, but it can’t be avoided. You can’t do Ironwork and not get into a strain. People tend to watch closely other guys when they are in a strain. It is a tense time.
I was in a strain one time with everyone watching. I was operating the YoYo, which is an air driven impact wrench that weights fifty to seventy-five pounds. At this particular time I was hanging off the side of a building, about forty feet up, upper-cutting a connection with one hand on the YoYo, and holding on with my legs and my free hand. Joe was working the hose. Now, the YoYo connects to the air hose with what we call a whip hose that is about four feet long and of a slightly smaller diameter. The hoses snap together and then you insert a safety wire in case the snap fails. There is a lot of pressure behind those hoses.
Anyway, here I am in my strain, upper-cutting these erection bolts with his heavy-assed YoYo when suddenly the whip line snaps and comes around and hit me square in the balls. I damn near blacked out it hurt so bad. How I held on is anyone’s guess. How I did not drop that heavy, and expensive, YoYo is a miracle. But, I didn’t. It took a minute, but I finally recovered. Joe reached down and grabbed the YoYo, and then he grabbed me. Curt commended me for not dropping the YoYo. I was so proud, I got right back on that YoYo and finished out the day. That’s what a strain is, anyway.
Walking iron is totally a mental thing. It’s good to have strong legs, but not imperative. You just have to make up your mind to do it, and then wait for the confidence to come otherwise you will go right in the hole. You put those beams on the ground and most anyone could walk them. You raise them a foot or two in the air, and still most anyone could walk them. You’d probably lose about half the population at five or six feet, and most the rest at ten or twelve feet. Once you get above that it takes a special breed.
Walking it and working on it are two different things. Even with that beam wiggling beneath your feet, it is not that difficult to navigate because it always wiggles at the exact rate you are making it wiggle. Hence, with a little brain work your body can adjust and just stroll right along, even while carrying pails full of erections bolts or arms full of miscellaneous iron. Don’t look up at the clouds, they can give you vertigo. You look down when you have to, and try to stand still when you do. Never get on the same beam with another worker unless you absolutely have to. You can tie off if you want to, but that might get you killed. Lots of guys forget they are tied off and stand up and walk away—no good things happen because, even though you might not hit the ground, you are definitely going to sustain some damage. Move slowly and deliberately. Make sure everyone around you knows what you are doing or going to do. Yell, “Headache!” when you drop shit, because you surely will.
Cranes are fascinating, and can kill you fast. Do not play on them. Operators have limited vision and a lot going on. 99% of the time they are concerned with what’s on the hook and not who is wandering around back by the counter weight. Your casket will be a closed one.
The second you fall off the building, your pay stops—literally. It’s a legal thing I am certain, but is very hard core. Sometimes the building falls down all by itself and with you on it, like what happened to my buddy, Joe. Six ton colyuum and Joe fall down go boom-boom. Some idiot had drilled holes into the concrete below the colyuum base. If Joe would have had his monkey-tail tied off, he would have died.
One day we had just finished erecting a tower crane and had some parts left over so we threw them over the side so we could watch them fall all the way down. It was cool. It was exactly like when Wily E. Coyote falls off a cliff. Poof! The crane guys got all mad because the extra pieces we’d thrown off were actually necessary pieces and we refused to retrieve them. It was just too freaking hot.
Ironworkers know all kinds of fancy knots, and I learned them all and have now forgotten every last one. Kind of a shame really. Those knots used to work real well.
I put one Christmas tree on one building. No big deal.
I rode the crane a couple times, which is highly illegal, but beats climbing up the side of a building six floors or more. You put your feet on the ball and your hands on the string and hope to Hell you don’t get any steel slivers. Most operators are used to doing this and are quite good at it. The trick is the landing. You don’t want to mess that up.
It is impossible to resist throwing a spud wrench at least once and trying to stick in something. It is like when Vikings throw axes or something. On a construction site there is always tons of stuff to throw your spud wrench at, and we took advantage whenever possible. Spud wrenches are not balanced nor were then intended to be. So, it is real hard to stick one. Foam insulation offered the best target. One way or another, a spud wrench would stick in that stuff and we loved it when we came across some. Of course, the guys who had to install it hated us, but our rule was, if you can’t beat us, fuck you.
Which brings me to this. Ironworkers are the basically the first trade on the ground. The Hole Digger guys come after the surveyors, but they leave and we start the building in earnest and we stay until the top is reached and every piece of miscellaneous steel piece is put in. Ironworkers are constantly working above the other tradesmen and it drives them nuts. Pissing us off is a very bad thing to do because we will drop shit on your head. Maybe just an erection bolt, but maybe a sleever bar. We might even drop something on your car you thought was safe in the parking lot. Very few idiots challenged the Ironworkers on a job site. We would fuck your shit up.
We don’t wear our safety helmets backwards because it looks cool, even though it does. We wear them that way so we can pull the cutting goggles down over our eyes easily. We were doing this long before it was the cool thing to do. We used cutting torches a lot.
United States Steel used to hand out fiberglass safety helmets which became known as “piss pots”. Guys would never give up their piss pots. They wore them proudly, and some guys only broke them out on special occasions. The truth was piss pots were unsafe and US Steel had long ago quit issuing them. But, Ironworkers still love them piss pots and if you look closely enough maybe you will see one on some site. They are dark brown and look like fiberglass. Anyone wearing one today definitely had it handed down to them.
I never met a boring Ironworker. Seems strange, I know, but it’s true. Every guy I met had some uniquely interesting character and personality. I have never found this at any other job. Ironworkers have tales to tell, experiences to share and just generally seem to understand life and getting through it. Curt, for instance, used to yodel on the job. He was good at it too and it infected everyone with happiness. On any job I have ever been on, there was always somebody doing something interesting or entertaining, and when there was a big job and two or more crews were working it, it was an outright circus.
We built twin six story towers one spring, and raced like madmen–Horseface’s crew against the Lumber Jack. I think we sent some kind of record on that job. The crane operators damn near had nervous breakdowns. My dumb ass was on utility duty so I worked on both buildings and did my best to keep shit brewing between the two crews. It was stupid actually. We were being paid by the hour. Our racing only benefitted the Owner economically speaking. But, moral wise that shit was gold, Jerry, gold.
There are two ways to fall off a building. One, you actually fall off and probably land on concrete and re-bar needles outside the building. The other way you fall inside the building where, unless it is a factory or something, you fall no more than two floors until you hit something hard. After every two floors of steel get hung, the decking gets thrown down, so that is what will stop you. If you fall on your head, therefore, it don’t really matter, and when you fall such a relative short distance, it is hard to get turned around in time to land on your feet. In other words, going into the hole sucks.
Ironworking bought me a trips to Cancun and Barbados. It bought me a sweet IROC Z28 Camaro, some great camera equipment and a house. In my eyes back then, I had a ton of money in the bank and no debt outside the mortgage. However, after a few years I also knew my luck was limited and forced myself to draw up an exit plan. So, when the usual winter lay off came around that year, I found another job and never went back to Ironworking. It was the smart move, but one I will always regret. Not only was the money great, but the job satisfaction was something I have not been able to duplicate since. Probably less than one person in a million could do that kind of work, and I miss the special feeling that fact gave me. Ironworkers are special people indeed, but only another Ironworker can truly appreciate what they do.
The next time you are in a skyscraper or tall building, or a factory or power plant, or an airplane hangar or hotel pause and consider for a second the men and women who built it. They are some bad motor scooters indeed!