Saturday, June 25, 2005

The Right Shovel

The old man likes to talk about fishing. And when he does not talking about fishing, he talks about work. As a union laborer, he worked high and low, from girders spanning the Missouri River to the sewers running into the Mississippi. He will tell you about them all, puffing a cigarette, coughing, and then laughing, again, at his own stories; stories he has told so long that they are part of him, stories that meander like the rivers' memory from place to place, changing like shifting currents over time.

One story he recounts is of a summer spent shoveling cement on a road gang widening Highway 141 in West St. Louis County. He reveals that one of the secrets to survival under these extreme working conditions is to wear a hooded sweatshirt packed with ice behind your neck and in your sleeves.

The other survival tip for summer road work is choosing the right size shovel, he says. He recalls how a young buck showed up at work one morning -- his first day on the job. The strapping youngster, wanting to impress his bosses, took the largest shovel available and began heaving cement at breakneck speed. The old man says he tried to warn the younger man not to use that particular shovel. There was a reason why the shovel chosen by the new-hire had never been used, why it still had the wrapping paper around its broad blade.

It was too big.

Cement is very heavy and to move it manually it needs to be hefted in small increments. That's why the veteran laborers would shorten their shovel blades with a grinding wheel. The old man tried to explain this to the younger man, but he wouldn't listen.

By mid morning, the new-hire was lying unconscious by the side of the road. He didn't show up for work the next day.