Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Memoir of a former sheet metal worker

I admit it. i used to be a sheet metal worker. Yeah, that was me, so many years ago, wearing boots, jeans and a t-shirt. I was on a ladder at 6:30 in the morning, almost every morning while working the field. When working in the shop, I started work at 7. I have some good memories of that time of my life and many, not so good. I would like to share some of that with you, the world, now.

I started work for my father when I was 12. My father once told me that sheet metal work was not fun, but it was something I could take to the bank. He said that air conditioning is one of the most complex building trades, and he's right. Air conditioning has something for everyone: electrical, mechanical, controls and other features that don't come readily to mind. Just know that I started the trade when I was 12.

I started one summer, working 40 hours a week. I just showed up by buying some boots, jeans, and I got some company t-shirts. I got my ride to work at 5:30 weekdays. My starting pay was $1 an hour. I carried the bucket for Al, the job foreman assigned as my supervisor. I complained that my arm hurt carrying the bucket, and Al would just mock me. Oh, it's all rushing back to me now. The characters were Al, Bob, Kurt, Rudy and Rickey and Matt. There were more later, but these were the big ones.

I carried the bucket every morning. I fetched stuff from the truck when a part or tool that wasn't on hand was needed. Somehow, I managed to stay safe in a construction environment. I was careful everywhere I went. I learned to use tools. I mostly just watched what was going on at first, and then I was given a face mask and directed to cut fiberglass and wrap it around ductwork. I did a lot of that.

I also spent time sealing ductwork. We called it "pooky" and and it was a foul smelling goo that was used to seal the ductwork. I did that. I can remember spending a few hours going through a bag of screws looking for a particular type of screw that was needed. I was a gopher and grunt, rolled into one. I did all kinds of odd jobs in the field.

I worked downtown in LA as we did commercial construction, you know, office suites. I saw all the pretty and handsome people dressed in business attire. I wanted to be one of them. I hated what I was doing, but I wanted to be loved and approved by Dad. So I did sheetmetal. I remember helping out in a nearly finished office, putting the finishing touches on a system or fixing something where there were people working. I was coming of age, so I noticed the women in their business attire. I wanted to be with them then.

I did everything around the shop. Swept floors, cleaned toilets, took out the trash. I worked in a metal shop with lots of dangerous equipment around. I was very wary of the corners of the metal laying on the tables. I cleared the scrap and sometimes I got to cut metal in the big shear, a machine that I could feel through the floor when it cutting metal. It was an 8-foot shear that would cut with big "k-thunk" sound and it was really scary at first.

At the end of the week, we'd go back to the shop at the end of the day and I'd wait for Dad to finish drinking beer and chatting with his buddies in his office. I'd wait for some select moment, a pause in the chatter, then I'd clear my throat and rub my index and middle finger with my thumb for the money. Then Dad would give me $40. That was the prize. $40.

I spent some of it on food, even though I had an allowance for food. Back then, $5 would cover the food. I ate in some diners downtown and off the lunch truck, too. Breakfast burritos were good. McDonalds always left me feeling hungry. I learned to pack my lunch to save money because the food in restaurants wasn't good enough.

Every day, I would come home dirty and loved taking a shower after that. I remember spending time, counting my money and imagining the great things I would do with it. I opened a bank account and kept my money there. I watched the balance rise over the summer and felt something good about having it there.

By the end of the first summer, I had a few hundred bucks, but no real friends. I missed out on time I could have spent playing or studying something cool in science. But I had money that none of my peers had. That was all I got for the first year.

For some reason I did it again. I was hooked on the money, but working a job I hated. I wanted to work in an office. I wanted to do something with my mind. While I was reading science at home, the guys I was working with were more interested in sharing the number of beers they drank or how drunk they were and still able to get to work. It was hard to bring up the subject of black holes in casual conversation.

The next year, I got a 100% raise to $2 an hour. it went pretty much the same as the year before, but this time, I had more money when I was done. I was getting to like this. But I missed the free time, the pleasure of going to the park, the library and just hanging out with friends. I did this, I think, until I was 15, then I got a job at the local supermarket for a couple years and really rolled in some dough there.

I hated school. I got teased every day and there was just no escape from a world where I had adversaries and few friends and no support from Dad or Mom on what to do. I don't remember asking for help.

So when I heard that Aviation High School was closing, I decided to get a GED and work for Dad. Big mistake. Don't work for dad. Even if you're tempted, just don't. Even if you think you ever had a chance at doing what he did, forget it. Everything is different for you than it was for Dad. You'll never achieve what he managed to achieve. You could do better somewhere else with a college degree.

But I didn't see much support for going to college. Dad told me that people who go to college are stupid and never amount to anything. Tell that to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google. I wanted to learn computes, but Dad seemed to think that sheet metal was the ride. So I stuck to it.

I worked in sheet metal until I was 27. I did everything. I worked in the field, worked in the shop. I did that mystery job called air balance. I helped to bring to production the first numerically controlled plasma cutter on the west coast. I worked as job foreman. I worked as project manager. No joy. No joy. No joy. I had nothing to show for it when I left.

One day, they said I had to go back to the field and work on a ladder again. I quit. I went off into no man's land. I was stressed out so I spent a year on workmens comp. No career, no goals, no guidance. I spent a few years fishing around, looking for something to do. I found computers. But all along, I had a desire to write. I didn't know it then. But I feel it and work it every day now. I'm a writer, not a sheet metal worker. I'm a tech, too, but that is real work. Writing is natural for me - once I get started on an article, the words just flow from my fingers. Thank God I learned type!

So there you have it, a very brief overview of my life as a sheet metal worker. I've wanted to write about that for a long, long time.
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