August 15, 2010
If I had to count the number of times I was almost killed or maimed while working construction I would need both hands and one foot. I’ve had huge bulkheads fall down within inches of my skull; I’ve dangled from a 15 foot ceiling because I knocked my ladder over while hanging drywall; and I’ve breathed in more than my fair share of asbestos. However, all of these brief brushes with death are nothing compared to the Beam and the Hot Iron Shower.
My dad hooked me up with a construction job for good reason. At the time, I had no common sense and probably needed toughened up a bit. Many of my dad’s best stories were when he and his buddies, also in construction, had come close to killing themselves. It was funny because usually the subject of the story lived to tell about it. What ever didn’t kill them made them stronger. I never had anything almost kill me. Maybe my dad thought it was time for danger.
During the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college, I was working for a construction company based out of the South Hills of Pittsburgh. Generally I did demolition work. I’d knock down walls, rip up carpet, and take out the garbage. They were menial tasks but there was something extremely satisfying about them. At the end of the day I could look at a place where a wall had been and say, “That wall ain’t there no more.” However, during this particular summer I was helping with some larger scale demolition. We were completely stripping an entire building, leaving only the steel-framed skeleton, because we would be remodeling it to be the construction company’s new headquarters.
In the process of this huge modification, we realized that the blueprints of the new headquarters called for the removal of a huge cross member beam at the front of the building. However, there were only three workers there: myself, Phil a journeyman carpenter and Harry the foreman. Both were long time friends of my dad.
Phil and Harry had fun torturing me throughout the summer. I was a dumb college kid with no common sense and they took full advantage of that. They made me smooth out 16 tons of river stone gravel with nothing more than a garden shovel. They told me to wash foundation tar off of my arms with gasoline on a 100-degree day (basically the gas gets into your open pores and burns like hell). I was so naïve that they could pretty much convince me to do anything.
Like I said, the cross member beam had to come out. The 30 foot long, 400 pound beam hung probably 20 feet off the ground. It was securely welded into place on the larger upright beams that made the four corners of the building.
“How the hell are we going to get that down?” I asked Phil.
“We’re going to cut that motherf–ker with the torch,” he replied as he kicked the legs out on his 18-foot ladder. Swearing was like a contest on a jobsite. Whoever could pepper more F-words into a sentence was the better man.
Phil crawled up the ladder on the left side of the building with his blowtorch in hand. When he was at the top, he lit the flame and went to work. Sparks of melting iron flew from the beam as the incision was made. The molten metal droplets cooled and beaded on the ground, they looked like buckshot pellets. After only a few seconds the beam was released from one side of the building. The job was halfway done.
I had just been watching this happen sort of gap-jawed. There’s something about fire and metal and sparks that just captivates my attention. But it was time for me to get involved.
The cross member beam was still relatively straight, parallel to the ground, across the top of the building. It dipped slightly under it’s own weight to the cut side.
“Ok, c’mere,” Phil said as he climbed down the ladder again. “When I start cutting this side, the beam’s free side is gonna slowly drop down to the ground. As I finish it though, it’s going to fall completely. Now, I’m going to be up pretty high. I can’t have that thing fall against my ladder or else I’m going down hard. I need you to kind of guide it away from me when it’s ready to go.”
“What?” I said. “You want me to stand under that thing?”
“Jesus Christ,” he muttered. “Yes! It’ll be two seconds you nancy-boy.”
Working construction did do one thing to me: it made me very aware of what a sissy I was. Earlier that day, Harry had found a dead snake in some shrubs next to the building. He picked it up and flung it at me while I was drinking a Mountain Dew. I (like many rational people) acted as though the snake was a Molotov cocktail and dove out of the way, spilling my delicious soda and knocking over a nearby wheelbarrow. They had a good laugh at that.
Determined to not cement my image of a jumpy coward. I hitched my belt up a bit and said a very stupid thing, “Fine. I’ll do it.”
Phil climbed up the ladder on the other side and began cutting the beam. As he predicted, the free side slowly dropped down to the ground and the beam became parallel with the ladder. Drops of fire rained down to the ground.
“Ok. I’m gonna finish it up,” Phil yelled down. “Get under there and try to push it away from me when it falls. Don’t look up, cause you might get those sparks in your eyes.”
I slowly moved closer to the beam, put both my hands on it and said, “Go for it.”
I heard the blowtorch kick on again and immediately felt a searing pain on my head, neck and shoulders. My peripheral vision saw that I was literally surrounded by a Hot Iron Shower.
“GHAA!” I screamed and jumped back out of the way.
“What’re you doing?” Phil called from high in the air.
“That freaking hurt!”
“C’mon we’re almost done.”
I placed my hands on the beam again. The torch started; the pain started. It seemed like much longer than it probably was, but when you’re in the process of getting flash fried, time tends to slow down. I bit my lip and felt the burn.
I heard the snap of the remaining steel and the beam began to fall. I gave a huge shove as it descended and ran away as fast as possible. The beam landed with a fat crack on the gravel. Mission accomplished.
I shook my entire body like a dog does after a bath, trying to clear the smoke off of me. There were blisters on my neck, my shirt had burn holes in the shoulders and clumps of my hair that had been seared together.
Harry was doubled over in laughter and Phil was cracking up as he climbed down.
“Holy S—t!” Phil said through tears. “I never seen anything like that in my life.”
“I didn’t think you were going to last that long,” Harry said.
“What? Well what was I supposed to do?” I asked as I picked molten balls of iron out of my scalp.
“I don’t know,” Harry replied. “But if Phil told me to do that I would’ve told him to F—k off!”
I stuck my finger through the singed holes in my T-shirt and looked at a clock. It was only 11:30, not even lunch. I had a long time to go before I could head home.
My dad would get a kick out of this.