By Ron Pestone
In 1962 I graduated high school from a small Westchester village and thanks to no planning or real thought I had no idea what I wanted to do in life. Up until my senior year when a new teacher arrived at the school with a brilliant mind coupled with a drill sergeant attitude I considered school a good place to hang out and have fun. He changed all that. This incredible guy by the name of Joe Braunhut introduced me to literature and American Realism in particular and overnight my world changed. I devoured books he recommended with an unquenchable appetite and Joe and I would spend countless hours discussing them. But it was my senior year and in the blink of an eye school was over and I was set adrift. My previous school academic record ruled out college so I needed to find a job. And if I was going to have to work for a living I needed to find a trade. Despite having spent all my early years around plumbers and steamfitters I never looked in that direction. I always liked big, noisy and bigger than life, so huge earth moving machines were a magnet for me. Through my father’s connections I became a union member of the Operating Engineers. Previously I had written on this site some of my earlier experiences in the union which you can find in the archives titled, ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT PREDJUDICE which lays some of the ground work for this story.
Well the union sent me to bulldozer school and I had some great experiences running a Caterpillar D8 bulldozer on a major gas highway running through the mountains of upper New York State. I was young and scrappy and loved ripping out stone walls and rough grading the path the huge gas line was going to be buried on.
On this gas pipe line job there were six D8 bulldozers clearing and grading the path for the line. The first dozer knocked down the stone walls and pushed some of the boulders and stumps to the side of the cleared path [this was me, the kid] each dozer that followed bought the clearing a little closer to the final finished path which by then looked like a smooth dirt road. The last dozer put the final touches on the road and this operator was an artist. When he finished the road looked beautiful and more to the point was ready for the army of backhoes that were going to dig the miles and miles of wide trench that the gas line would be buried in.
At lunch time all the dozers, or the closest ones, were pulled in a circle and the guys all ate lunch together. Lunch in construction is only a half hour and the bosses really mean it so if you want to eat you bring your lunch pail with you. My mom packed the greatest lunches and there was more than one dozer operator who offered to trade what he had for what I had. Most times I didn’t trade but sometimes if the guy had a great story I would make the trade. One time Jimmy an old time dozer operator who had a fondness for booze and gambling told me this story.
“I met this guy on my last job who every time he opened his lunch used to bitch like crazy about it. It was always peanut butter and jelly which he hated with a passion. Sometimes he would get so worked up when he opened his lunch pail he would throw the sandwiches on the ground other times he would bitch that next time he got the same crap for lunch he was goanna commit suicide. Well one day he didn’t show up for work and we found out that sure as hell he had committed suicide. I, like most of the guys he worked with, went to pay our respects when he was laid out. I met his wife who seemed like a real nice person and in talking to her I laughingly told her how her husband John hated those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. She looked at me confused and said, “I don’t understand that, he packed his lunch every day.” “\With that Jimmy burst out laughing and all the other dozer operators joined in. Then I understood, it was a joke. I traded my ham and cheese sandwich for his bologna sandwich, the story warranted it.
As the kid of the group I did the listening. They all told great stories of loves, fights, drinking, general hell rising and some of the crazy guys they worked for. I learned a lot from those guys but the one thing that hit me like a bolt of lightning was that every one of those guys had bad backs. The guys were twice my size and yet they were all paying the price for bouncing around on a bulldozer all day. And the pay they were getting just wasn’t enough for walking around in pain. You know everybody loves to talk about how much construction workers make but it’s all seasonal and when you look at your W2 at the end of the year nine out of ten times its nothing to brag about.
I thought long and hard about it. Then I called Joe, my old teacher and with his help I went to community college at night for the next four years taking all the academic courses I missed in high school. Each winter when I was laid off I doubled my academic load. In the meantime I adjusted to life in the construction industry as an operating engineer. The life was based on active work and the season. When it was cold you were laid off, when it rained you were sent home and when the work slowed up you were laid off. I bounced around and soon discovered that no matter how hard you worked or how much extra you gave when the job was over you were gone. In the process I worked with and met a host of employers and employees. I crossed paths with more than one bad guy which usually didn’t end well for me if the other guy had a Rabbi in the union.
The way they handled it, the union usually called your house when you were working and either left a message or spoke to whoever answered the phone and they either moved you to another job or said you were laid off. In either case the money that was owed to you was mailed to you. It was the way it worked, the union made the call and when they made the call you followed their direction.
Don’t Forget: We Build America