Monday, July 25, 2005

Hanging Around

The father-son relationship is hard to explain. It can be characterized as love-hate with nothing in between, a walk on the tightrope with no net. My dad had hidden fears, some of which I have become aware lately, while others have been exposed through bitter struggle, when words bit like hollow tipped bullets that passed the skin like a whisper, but exploded within, churning my insides into creamed corn. Every mistake I made affirmed in him the worst, triggering belligerent and sometimes violent responses, paralyzing me into indecision, for fear of making the simplest misstep. His was the self-fulfilling prophecy, an engine in perpetual motion that oiled itself.

Dad met his fifth and hopefully final wife, and pulled up his construction operation to devote his attentions, forcing me to strike out without him.

"I got you a job with the Ricks boys," he told me one night.

"Really, what are they doing?"

"They have the roof framing contract at Fort Drum. I had to pull some strings to get it done though."

"Dad, I've been jamming here; they should have no problems with my coming on board." It was true. I had been building roofs as a subcontractor -- dad was the general -- on an army base in Aberdeen Maryland, away from his constant scrutiny and direction. I prided myself on quality and speed, and had built a reputation amongst the other subs.

"Well, they didn't want you, but I told George that he owed me one."

"I see."

The Ricks boys were the three wunderkinds of dad's childhood friend and rival, depending on the astral configuration, George Ricks. Each was born with a hammer in one hand and a teat in the other, and never has there been a more talented group of carpenters to grace a construction site. The middle of the three, Raimey, became my boss and mentor, who taught by example and expectation. If you still had a job in the morning, that meant you were doing good, but you were never, ever told so.

Work started in the morning while it was still dark, synchronized with the coming sunrise once the extension chords and air hoses were spread, air compressor running, skill saws plugged in and our toolbelts stocked and ready. We ran from place to place, while toting lumber, spreading rafters, and nailing down roofs. Everything we did was in double-time, and breaks, as Raimey would say, were for pussies.

Our biggest nemesis on the job site were the OSHA safety men, who insisted that we wore hard hats and were tied off, but that flew in opposition to our work ethic. We leapt from rafter to rafter like gazelles, Raimey being the fleetest of all. When the safety man came by, we clipped onto the safety line that was strung from the farthest opposing rafters, and unclipped when he was gone. As such our roofs popped up like toast, perfectly brown.

Raimey was of a rare breed that could show up to work every day, crisp as a new dollar bill, while at night, drink and rage until the bars closed. He had three personalities: daytime, slave-driving taskmaster; warm, giving, overly generous friend in the early evening; and angry, tempestuous drunk at night. I didn't have a car back then, so every night Raimey let me have his van, but he made sure that I understood that he would have done the same for anyone.

Usually I was partnered with Tucker, a product of a farm in rural Idaho, who had long, dirty blonde hair, and a gentle disposition. He spoke slowly but deliberately, and had an innate moral confidence. To pass the time during our grueling workday, as we nailed hurricane clips or fastened fascia board, we would sing old Schoolhouse Rock songs, quote Star Trek episodes, or make up our own foolishness.

"Remember the old, 'Hanker for a hunka cheese'?" I asked Tuck.

He immediately jumped into the routine, "Hanker for a hunka, slice or slab or chunka, cheese!"

One of our favorites was an imitation of an old southern man, that sounded like he was eighty, like the old man at the beginning of Play Me Some Mountain Music by Alabama, "Yewww ain't just tootin' boy, yer darn tootin'." We thought it was the funniest thing ever, and we said it all the time, while Raimey would pass by rolling his eyes like we were two simpletons. Perhaps we were...

I don't know how it started, but one night Raimey and I were in the back of the van with all the tools, chords, hoses and toolbelts at our feet, and Tucker was driving. Raimey had more alcohol in his veins than blood, and he was prodding me as usual, but tonight I had reached my limit. He leapt on top of me and pinned me to the floor and opened the side door. His hands were locked around my throat as he screamed: "Feel the air seeping from your lungs."

Thankfully I was a lot stronger that he was, and I turned it around slowly and backed him off.

"You can't hurt me mother f$%&@r," he hollered at me as I got out of the now stopped van.

"I don't want to hurt you Raimey, but I would if I thought it would help." My heart was hammering like the pulse of speed bumps under a speeding car, and my muscles were quivering from adrenaline loss.

"Come on," he goaded, "Let's have this out once an for all!"

"Raimey," I returned, "It's not that I'm scared; I just feel sorry for you." And I walked away into the night. The next morning Tuck and Raimey picked me up at the normal time, and we were back to business as usual.

A month or so later I was traipsing down a triple-wide rafter, hung over and walking lazy. My feet were dragging behind me. Towards the edge of the roof, three stories up, my foot caught the back heel of the other and I plunged over the side. Dad always had pride in me for one trait that he claimed was hereditary: we were survivors. He told me that some people just get hurt or dead, while others in the same situation have a knack for coming out of it unscathed. He saw me fall once on a job, and laughed at how I grappled with the rough framed walls before landing harmlessly on the floor below. He rubbed my head and smiled, then told me to get the fuck back to work.

I've experienced it before and since, that when something life threatening occurs, the world slows down. A lot of thoughts went through my head as I started my dive. Like, "What the hell am I doing here? I hate this job, and this life that I'm leading. This isn't where I wanted to be when I was a kid." I twisted around in the air, now fully aloft, so that my back was towards the ground. I reached out and snagged the tail end of rafter and caught it solidly, and hung there for a minute as I appraised my situation. A floor below there was a block wall, that I may have hit first, but sticking out of every gap in the blocks were six foot lengths of metal rebar, which I may have been impaled upon. Two floors below that was nothing but cement and rubble, an almost certain death.

"Whoa dude!" I looked down and saw an electrician staring up at me, slack jawed. "That was hairy."

"Did you like that?" I asked, smiling, still hanging like a pinata.

"See you at happy hour tonight. I'm buying you a beer!"

"Ok, but none of that cheap shit."

I looked up to where my hand kept me in this world, and made a life changing decision.

"I'm going back to school."


Mrs.T said...

Did you?

I hope you did. Life is too short to be stuck doing crap you don't want to do.

Beth said...

You have such a way with words. Such nice stories. I just wanted to tell you this again!

Scott said...

T - I did! I might continue the story tomorrow (or later), so I won't go into any detail here.

Knitter - Thanks! Always appreciated.

jenbeauty said...

I really want to hear the rest! Such an amazing way of telling a story. I love your writing and your history Scott.

Mr. T said...

Wow... I'll say it again.. WOW.

I agree with GK.. a way with words. It certainly keeps me coming back to hear more.

Thank you Scott for sharing these wonderful stories.

trinamick said...

Great story. Several in my family do roofing. None of those safety features for them either. But then again, they've also got medical files as thick as my arm. Hmm...

Scott said...

Jen - As usual you charm me! Thanks.

Mr. T - Glad to see you back. I'm walking around with a notebook so I can write down whatever inspiration I get when I get it. Hopefully I can keep them coming.

Trin - You said a mouthful there. I fell something like three times but from a single story, and bruised my kidneys once. Most that stay in the profession are crooked, bent men with artificial knees and hips. I had to get out soon, and this one was too close for comfort.

Mr. T said...

Good idea on the notebook. I started my blog mainly to entertain Mrs T's wild notion that I should have a blog.
But I have to be in the mood or inspired and then it has to hit me while I'm sitting in front of my PC. Having a notepad to jot down ideas as they come is an excellent idea. Now to find a notepad worthy of my jottings.

Tee said...

Waiting for the rest of the story. Good reading as usual :)

Joely Sue Burkhart said...

Scott, this is awesome. I love the "life changing" element, and your writing is wonderful.

Dixie Belle said...

Hey Scott. You have a great blog. The stories are really good. Someday, I'm gonna say,
"I knew him when..."

Scott said...

T - Keep pressing on. Your wife was spot on. You have explosive passion that comes out with the right stimulous, kind of like the Manchurian Candidate.

Tee - Good to see you as always

Joely and Dixie - Thanks, stop by anytime and, *clap!*, pump me up.