Why you should care
Because there’s nothing romantic about blue-collar labor.
It’s Feb. 13, 2002, early in the afternoon, snow falling lightly from a steel-gray sky. I’m 21 years old, and my mouth is full of blood and broken teeth.
Six months earlier, I’d been laid off from my job at an auto supply manufacturer. Tired of the monotony that the factory rat life breeds, and with a wife and child to support, I decided to dive into construction. The housing market was in full swing, new houses springing up left and right every day. Skimming the classifieds, I found what I was looking for, an entry-level apprenticeship position as a rough carpenter. The pay was good, and the idea of working outside during the dog days of summer was incredibly appealing. The foolish optimism of youth is powerful indeed.
I was put to work harder than I’d ever been before, making my brief stint as a roofing laborer pale in comparison. You’re essentially lower than dog shit as a laborer, of which you are constantly reminded. My hair was extremely long, and coupled with my fledgling beard and large floppy hat, I was a great target for ribbing. Farnsworth. Amish man. The most popular was Schleppy, a fine bit of Yiddish slang meaning “to proceed or move slowly, tediously, awkwardly or carelessly.” Yeah, I was a hit, and like most young guys trying to prove themselves, the name-calling rankled me endlessly.
“Watch out for the stair hole!” Those were the last words I heard.
Being stubborn as hell, there was no way I was going to give my tormentors the satisfaction of copping to the irritation, or worse, quitting. I kept at it, getting marginally better and at least attaining a grudging respect from the crew. There were a few more setbacks along the way. My Cavalier was totaled in a car accident on the way to work, which sidelined me for two weeks while my ribs healed. Coming back landed me on a new crew, but since I wasn’t quite as green, I was eager to prove myself. A mere few weeks back on the job, I took a 2-by-12 to the face, which punched a hole under my bottom lip and made me feel like a king-size jackass for my carelessness. Still, I pressed on.
Then the snow came.
The trades are a miserable game in the winter. Out in the elements all day, boots soaked and feet numb, making fires with scrap lumber to stay warm and praying for 5:00 p.m. so it would end. Still, I had people counting on me, so I pressed on.
Then came Feb. 13.
We were finishing the last few houses at the end of a cul-de-sac, another new subdivision almost complete. We had just eaten lunch and were in the process of building the outside walls for the house, a small ranch model. For those unfamiliar, walls are generally built facedown, then either raised by hand or by crank or crane, depending on the size and weight. These walls being small meant that we were building and then carrying them to their appropriate location. Since this wasn’t a union job, certain safety regulations weren’t in place, including the need for a protective railing surrounding the hole in the deck where the stairs would go, meaning there was a large void in the middle of the house.
I looked like a casualty from the Saw movie franchise, covered in blood and algae, soaked in foul-smelling water.
We finished the wall and gathered around to begin the lift. Holding the wall at waist level, we started to walk it across the deck. I was in the middle and unable to see in front of me.
The next moments still make me wince to this day.
“Watch out for the stair hole!” Those were the last words I heard as my feet stepped into dead space à la Wile E. Coyote, and I plummeted.
With my belt and tools on I dropped like a stone. Thanks to gravity and physics I went from feet first to headfirst into the cement. The basement was filled with about 2 feet of standing water, melted snow that had nowhere to go. It’s the only reason I’m still alive to write this.
I smashed facefirst into the cement, my left hand held out instinctively. The pain was instant and deafening, my head filled with ringing that drowned out the world. I leaped to my feet, pure adrenaline driving me. Blood was pouring from my nose and mouth; the left side of my upper lip was almost detached; pieces of teeth floated in the brackish water. That’s when I looked at my arm and noticed the new angle in it, and felt the world go gray when I touched it.
The other guys gathered at the opening, shouting to me to find out if I was OK. I struggled to respond, managing something like “I think I broke my arm.” They got a ladder set up, and I clawed my way, one-armed, up into the light. I looked like a casualty from the Saw movie franchise, covered in blood and algae, soaked in foul-smelling water, cradling my broken wing to my chest.
I was rushed to the hospital, where they discovered my wrist had shattered from the impact. They reattached my lip, fixed my teeth and scheduled my surgery, in which they rebuilt my wrist with cadaver fragments. Six months of healing and rehab ensued, followed by a career change. These days I have scars and lots of Frankenstein jokes. But I no longer build houses.