I show up at the job site, in the Agua Fria wash, just east of Buckeye, in central Arizona. It’s 4:45am. The Agua Fria, like so many desert rivers, is usually dry with the water running through thick sand and rock, somewhere below the riverbed. I’ve taken three, extra-strength Tylenol and I’m trying to finish off my third, 20oz. cup of Circle K coffee.
The sky has a dark purple hue and I can make out the skeletal booms of two giant track cranes looming over the pit. It’s still too dark to see the job. In the distance the whiny grinding of the big diesel motors in the heavy equipment coming to life is breaking through the nighttime quiet. As the motors start their mechanical chugging, all over the job, the thick, sweet scent of burning oil and diesel fills the air.
I step out into the dark and walk around to the back of my beat up ‘64’ Ford pick-up truck. Reaching over the tailgate I feel around in the sea of empty beer cans, fast food wrappers, boxes of tie wire and various; chains, chokers, shovels and sledgehammers. I feel the worn edge of my canvass bolt bag and grab a hold of my tool belt with both hands. Making sure it’s right side up, so my shit doesn’t spill all over the ground, I strap on the 40 pounds of wire and hand tools I’ll be wearing for the next ten hours. Though they are heavy they always give me a feel of security as I tighten the buckle and then give the belt a quick shake to make sure they are settled.
As I strap on my tools I always think of my father telling me about the time he forgot to shake his belt down.
I can still see the distant, blank look on his face as he remembers that day, some 30 years before.
“Joey, don’t ever go up on the iron with out settling your tool belt.”
Taking me back to that day, he is about 18 years old, hung-over and late for work. On high-rise in Seattle, he’s working the red iron and climbing as fast as he can. When he gets up to a horizontal beam about 160 feet up, he swings around to get a foot on a spot where he can stand and get organized. As he does, his spud wrench brushes the side of the upright. This is an eight-pound steel wrench, with a point on one end that is used to line up the bolt-holes in flying structural steel. It’s hanging out of his scabbard and is knocked free.
He says, “I felt the weight on my belt change and immediately knew what had happened. I turned around so fast that I almost went into the hole and scream ‘headache!’ Everyone on the ground scatters, except one old, black laborer.”
Looking down, my father can see the shiny steel wrench hurling towards the ground; tumbling, end over end. His senses suddenly sharpen, as if he were flying along with the, now deadly, projectile. Watching in horror, the wrench flips over just in time to drive, point first, clean, through the side of the old man head, just above his right eye. Instantly bursting out the back of his head, it slams him to the ground. He reaches up and feels the head of the wrench deeply imbedded into his, now crushed, forehead. He leans forward a little and makes a gurgling sound as he tries to utter something. He shakes violently for a second and then his eyes turn dull gray as he goes limp. This is followed by a slow moving, deep red, pool of blood, that is crawling, across the oily dirt, like a huge halo around his head. Suddenly my father is standing back on the beam looking down at the tiny figure, surrounded by the growing crowd. And then he’s back with me, an old man, sitting in his oversized chair.
He looks me directly in the eye and say’s “It was one little mistake, I wasn’t paying attention for a few seconds.” Hoping that he could spare me this unforgivable guilt, he goes on slowly, still a little distant, “ The job is no place for children. They get people killed.”
Remembering that moment, I give my tools a good shake and start walking over to the pit. By the time I get to ladder there is a line of about 60 men. The ladder has been built out of wood, in place, chained to two, 500 pound, concrete blocks and is wide enough for three men to descend at the same time. The pit is about a half-mile long and 50 feet deep, running below the surface of the Agua Fria wash.
While I’m climbing down the ladder I notice the wall of the pit, a few feet in front of my face, consists of loose, wet, wash sand… very dangerous… a good place for a cave-in. I can see it, grain by grain, constantly giving way, as I climb down.
When I get to the bottom of the ladder I see my older brother Mike. Surrounded by men he’s in charge and handing out work assignments. He’s standing between a six-foot tall section of pipe and the wall of pit. It’s five am and already hot… over 100 degrees, which is sticky and uncomfortable. Around ten it will climb to over 120, with all of this moist sand the humidity it will be like wearing a soggy blanket that just came out of a hot oven. Men will go to the hospital with heat stroke today.
I can see there is a submersible pump every eight feet or so on both sides of the pipe, and we are standing in a few inches of water. I ask Mike, ‘what’s up with all these pumps?”
He say’s, “We’re twenty feet below the water table here. The water level in this pit changes all day long.” He points over to the wall of the pipe. I can see a dirty waterline that is about three feet up on the side.
Mike say’s, “We placed this section yesterday, so that’s how deep the water was last night. Listen… you stay, the fuck, awake. This is one dangerous son of a bitch. We’ve had a lot of accidents.”