The unimaginable crushing weight of a skyscraper stands in equilibrium with the muscle of the earth itself, and together they tremble, pushing against each other like the motionless wrestling of equal Titans. The old timers used to say that one man would be killed for every million dollars spent. But costs went up, and the modern equivalent became “One man for every seven stories.”
Dangerous Professions Part One: Construction
We all think we know what danger is. We’ve all been afraid. But fear and danger are not the same. Children are afraid of the dark, but the dark won’t hurt them. Many people fear flying, and yet flying is safer than driving. At least, statistics tell us that. But statistics don’t tell the real story.
Statistically, injury for injury, it is more dangerous to be a farmer than to pilot a fighter plane. But when an Air Force F-16 crashes into the suburbs of Wiesbaden, it is far more spectacular and commands our attention in a way that will never be matched when a tractor crushes a farmer to death.
In a way, our collective perception of danger has to do with glamour, while individual perceptions of danger are, well, individual. But even sexy danger can become commonplace. Arnold Palmer’s chief pilot took me into his jet one day and pointed at the cockpit. “That’s my office,” he said.
In this ongoing series of articles, we will discover various definitions of danger — some in surprising places. We will meet people in various professions, from firemen to crack dealers, all of whom live and work, daily, near death.
In so doing, I believe we will also discover that deep within all human beings is a spark of heroism and daring that guarantees that mankind is riot so commonplace after all.
The stories about death were told as if casting a spell. After I had been working on high buildings for a while, I came to understand that the construction workers tried, unconsciously, to transfer death and all its grisly trappings to the newcomer. By telling it, they gave it away-the more gruesome the tale was, the better for warding off danger — and like a game of tag, whoever was “it” had to turn around and give it away again. I got splashed with blood, metaphorically speaking, just as soon as I got on the job, and now I’m obliged to pass it on to you. It’s part of the ritual of initiation.
Buddy O’Malley, a truck driver, was killed when a crane fell on him in a steel yard. Buddy was delivering a tall crane on a flatbed truck. He parked in back of the steel mill, and the crew gathered to figure out how to get the crane off the flatbed The men sipped coffee and laughed as the summer sun grew high, sucking up the crane’s long shadow, like blood soaking into the brown earth that had been turned for years by the studded heels of rolling stock.
Suddenly, the crane’s shadow began to get longer, and the men looked up to see it tipping over. The abused earth had given way beneath the truck’s tires, which now listed to one side, spilling the crane off the flatbed.
Most of the men were too stunned to move, and they simply let events move around them. But Buddy panicked and ran. The crane boom was creaking as it came down through the air like the long neck of a brontosaurus. Buddy ran a kind of zigzag pattern at first, the way ants run when you kick an anthill. It was as if he could see his own fate stalking him, as if he had driven all the way from home with fate at his heels and had mounted the cab of his truck that morning knowing that Death itself was drawing a bead on him as he sipped his coffee.
Then he straightened his path and ran flat out, as hard as he could. He ran right into the shadow of the dinosaur, where man merged with darkness, and the earth swallowed him.
One of the ironworkers ran to Buddy and turned away as soon as he saw what had happened: A length of intestine had come out of Buddy’s mouth. The crane boom had cut him in half.
It took three hours of hard work in the hot summer sun to get the crane lifted off the corpse. “We picked him up with a No. 16 banjo shovel,” the ironworker told me, fashioning for me the gift of these images, casting out Death with his spell of words. “Buddy turned black lying there in the sun. The smell was so bad it coulda gagged a maggot.”
“One of the ironworkers ran to Buddy and turned away as soon as he saw what had happened: A length of intestine had come out of his mouth. The crane boom had cut him in half.”
This story was one kind of initiation, but it wasn’t long before I was crawling around on tall buildings and death was happening for real. Right here in Chicago, a material tower (a crane that resembles a T square) on top of a new building was lifting a bucket of cement. The bucket had reached the 40th floor when it caught on the lip of the building and tipped over like a cream pitcher, pouring a ton of wet concrete to the street below, where it crushed the driver’s side of a taxi, killing the cabbie. The vehicle, bearing its grim cargo, continued to roll along in the slow-traffic lane until a passerby reached inside and pulled the parking brake. The flattened cab, bearing the flat man, came to rest in front of a doorman who almost opened the door for a couple who’d been waiting, until he realized what he was seeing.