When I first started the job - six years before I found myself hanging from my safety harness seventy feet over certain death - I asked an old timer called Smitty, what are you supposed to do if you fall? He squinted his eyes at me and pushed his hard hat far back on his balding scalp so that his tanned forehead gleamed in the sun. He coughed and spat generously off to one side and replied, “If you fall, don’t bother screamin’, you already look stupid.” He continued on his way across the shivering steel joist while I clung helplessly to a column.
I watched his loogie sail through the air and eventually plummet to the ground with an air time of about five seconds. Smitty didn’t mince words. He had seen many new ironworkers start and then quit a short time later. It was considered a pretty good take if you could keep ten percent of your new hires after two weeks. Smitty had seen forty seven years of hard labor on the iron. He had a constant pained expression, with a furrowed brow and a bent back. He spent most of his time on the ground wrapping flexible steel chokers around beams and slipping their ends over the hook of the crane. The crane would raise the beams up, sail them through the air and bring them neatly within reach of the ironworkers who were ready to bolt them into place. I was often one of the ironworkers, called connectors, who would receive the beam from the crane, guide it into place and secure it.
I remember while waiting for a beam, I would enjoy watching Smitty bury his head in the wrinkled blueprints trying to read the badly faded numbers. If unsuccessful, he would huff, stamp, and kick at several beams laying around on the ground. If his foot became injured, his hard hat would be hurled a great distance and everyone on the job would be treated to the grandest and most colorful display of curses I have ever heard. Smitty frequently warned new ironworkers that they might as well quit because, “You probably won’t make it anyway, and if you do stay then you’ll simply fall. Matter of time, really.”
My fall happened by myself and I had no one to blame. I was laying smaller pieces of deck about seventy feet up and didn’t think I needed help, of course. I did have one crucial thing going for me that day and it saved my life. Early in the day I had realized an opportunity to use safety equipment, which was a rare thing. I strapped myself into my harness and tied off to a nearby beam. My harness was connected to a lanyard, or length of strap, which was tied to a beam, which prevented me from smashing onto the bare concrete below when the decking went out from beneath my feet. I immediately fell into the space between the beams with no time to catch myself, which was always my backup plan, and I felt the glorious tug of my harness straps as they caught me and held me suspended in space. As I hung there thinking about my good fortune, I looked down between my boots. I could barely make out some building materials scattered over a concrete slab. I was indeed fortunate.
My friend Clayton, a new worker, was twenty feet away and stared at me open-mouthed. His hands fidgeted nervously and he was in a half sitting and half crawling position. His face was confused, shocked. I had seen guys fall before, but he was still new and had never seen anything like it. His eyes were wide and his hands gripped the beam with white knuckles like a first-timer on a rollercoaster.
Clayton had been an easy hire. He needed work and the job paid well for beginners. I had explained that ironwork was not for everyone and that he would have to be comfortable with heights, sometimes with as little as two inches of beam. He quickly nodded his head, grinned wide and asked when he could start. Now he just sat and stared at me.
“I’m all right, Clayton! Yell down to a mason over there to get a lift up here!” I waited and began to slowly twist the other way around from the breeze that had suddenly kicked up.
I craned my head upwards and noticed a piece of steel decking I had been standing on was still perched over my head, perilously caught in the web of a beam. Its edges are razor sharp and it was pointed right at me. Now I began to get nervous. If my twisting were to cause it to become dislodged it would surely come down on me like a meat cleaver and not only would I be splattered all over the concrete but I would be neatly sliced in two. With all of my head craning I knocked my hard hat off and watched it fall and shrink below until it finally clattered on the pavement. I counted about five seconds of air time.
I was reminded of an ironworker called Ram. He had said he would sometimes fall on purpose just to prove he didn’t need a ladder. Ram always wore sunglasses and plastered his high hat with several obscene stickers. His favorite slogan was ‘High steel sex appeal, baby!’ When I would wave to Ram from the other side of the building he would always respond by flexing one of his enormous arms. It was a show of manliness, one that I embraced and returned with equal fervor. Because of our time on the steel together, we became easy friends. Our favorite pastime during work was to mock the other tradesmen and throw bolts at them when they weren’t looking, then duck out of sight. Ram was short compared to the other guys and would often brag of cheating on his wife over the weekend during his last episode of riotous drinking.
Last year Ram fell from the third level of a partially finished building and landed on some decking on the second level. He was helping to land a massive bundle of deck from the crane and simply stepped off the edge. He said it happened so fast he didn’t have a chance to catch himself. Five months later he was able to leave the hospital after recovering from fractured ribs and a collapsed lung. He was back on the iron by the end of the year. Poor sucker. He had a wife and three kids and ironwork was the only way he knew how to make money. After his return to work, his wife would drive to the job site at lunch time and the guys would focus on their own bolt bags when she cried openly and clutched at Ram’s shirt as he went back to work after eating his lunch with her. She was always left standing alone by her car, arms crossed, tears coursing their way down her cheeks.
I waited for the lift to be brought and thought about my fiancé. I wondered how I was going to tell her. She was the soft, impressionable type and clearly disapproved of my job. I think her greatest fear in this life is being alone. How could I tell her about this fall? I could say I had a close call at work and it ended fine. But, I know she would press for details. She would hold my face in her hands and make me look into her eyes, oval and penetrating. As always when she did that, I would melt and tell her everything. It happened like that when I fell the last time. It was only from a ladder about fifteen feet up but this was different. I had a feeling she was not going to take this fall nearly as well.
The lower straps of my harness began to dig in my legs. The men on the ground were having some trouble with the lift apparently, but I could see another one coming from the other end of the job site. In the meantime I thought of the piece of decking perched over my bare head. It might come down and end it all for me. Or, my harness might give way. Seconds counted now.
I would miss my fiancée. I would miss my life.
I looked around me, frantically searching for a friendly face, something to put me at ease. I wanted to look upon something familiar, something to part this world with should it really be my time. I couldn’t see Clayton, I assumed he made his way to the mason’s scaffold which was hidden from my sight. I desperately wanted companionship at that moment. My harness was turning and I became dizzy. I closed my eyes.
I wanted to tell the other guys how I felt about them, that I appreciate each of them. I knew they all were committed to ironwork and to each other. They stuck up for each other and they all knew their job was the hardest and the most respected job in construction. They had honor in their work. I thought of all the great things that ironwork was and it made me proud. But then I thought of my fiancé and her look of fear, and her trembling lower lip when she thought of me falling. Now I understood what she felt. It was real for her. Even though I worked all day on five inches of steel over wide open space, dying had not been real to me. Now I understood the pained, thoughtful look old ironworkers like Smitty wore when they saw the younger ones scamper and race over the smaller sized beams. They were thinking of old friends that had fallen and died. Their eyes told of the pain their wives felt each morning, watching their husbands leave for work not knowing if they would return.
The wind picked up. I heard my harness creak under the strain of my weight. I thought about Clayton, Smitty, and Ram and how they were committed to something that brought real meaning to their lives and yet, might kill them. I thought about the people that loved them, how I loved them, and how I would soon be leaving them behind and quitting ironwork forever. I heard their loud voices in my ears and saw their tanned, weathered faces forever etched in my mind. I thought of my future wife and kids. I thought about all the wonderful things life still held in store for me and I came to grips with life's greatest fear.
My harness creaked and the wind blew and I turned slowly in the breeze.
Ironwork by Malachi King was read by Ben Crystal at the Liars' League Fact & Fiction event on Tuesday 8 March 2011 at the Phoenix, Cavendish Sq., London
*From The Author*
My piece "Ironwork" comes from my real experiences as an ironworker on the high steel in Grand Rapids, Michigan, US. I walked the high steel beams every day to earn money for college, but when I became engaged my fiancée didn't like it one bit. When I had my near-fatal fall, saved only by my safety harness I hardly ever wore, she nearly went berserk and cried on my shoulder until I relented and agreed to quit. I went back to college full time and eventually got a job teaching English to high schoolers in a public high school I once helped construct.
I will always pine for those days on the steel - the force of the wind against my body, balanced precariously on a thin iron beam, the curses of the other ironworkers, the sun, the incredible risk, the open spaces - it will always be a part of me. As one ironworker put it "Once you get iron in your blood, you can't get it out!"
While in college, I wrote about my experiences in an earlier version of "Ironwork" and my class mates liked it so much I polished it up and gave them a copy and saved one for myself. I began submitted my written work only lately and have found some success with short stories and a few nonfiction pieces. I know that "Ironwork" will always be something I can enjoy, something to take me back to my twenties, to the winter wind in my hair and the heavy tools in my hands, ready to take on the world.
Malachi King is an English teacher, Mensa member, and holds a Language Arts degree from Grand Valley State University. His writing centers on the extreme: extreme emotion, extreme survival, and extreme courage. Many of his stories have been published in various online and print markets including Orion's Child Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine, Indigo Rising, Widowmoon Press, and The Corner Club Press. He's currently seeking an agent for his science fiction novel, and can be contacted at www.malachiking.webs.com
Ben Crystal is an actor, writer, and producer. He works in TV, film and theatre, and is a narrator for RNIB Talking Books, Channel 4 and the BBC. He writes about Shakespeare while living in London and can be found online at www.bencrystal.com. His latest book, Sorry, I'm British! is now available in all good bookshops.