Life is hard. My father tried to protect me from the world, but also knew that one day I would have to stand up and fight. My life up to that point was one of swimming pools, ice cream and ponies. I was thirteen years old and the hardest thing I had ever encountered was not being chosen for basketball or loosing at monopoly.
I was sitting in the living room on the big brown couch with my father watching television. Most of my friends had paper routes and always had pocket money. I wanted a summer job.
“I was wondering if you might have some work for me?”
“Well, we could use someone picking up the wire down at the fab yard.”
My father owned a rebar fabrication yard in South Phoenix. Rebar is, sort of, the skeleton of a concrete building or structure. In the office, detailers take the architectural drawings and figure out what load and stresses will be on the various components of the building. They design a rebar frame that is engineered to meet that load. They create a set of plans and cut sheets that list the quantities and various lengths or shapes needed to build the columns, beams or floors in the high-rises, bridges, dams, power plants or whatever is being built. The fab yard then takes stock lengths of rebar, cuts and bends it into the required lengths and shapes. It is then loaded onto trucks and shipped out to the construction site.
I remember thinking ‘how hard could that be?’
I said, “Thanks dad, that would be great!”
“Okay Joey, get some sleep and I’ll wake you up. We leave at four.”
“Four!” I had never got up that early. “What time do they start?”
“At five, it gets hot early”
The next morning while we were riding to work, he gave me a little talk.
“Joey these guys are real men, they don’t screw around. They don’t want to be your friend; they just want to get the work done.” He went on, “It’s been my experience that in life there’s always a whip. It will either be in your boss’s hand or in your own head. Trust me it’s a lot easier if you hold the whip.”
We got out of the car, on the oil-covered dirt road, in South Phoenix’s old industrial district. I was sticky and sweating and the sun wasn’t even up yet. There’s a smell in that part of town, chemical, steel, iron, dirt, sweat, and the smell of years of men working on the same piece of sun-baked ground.
A few minutes later an old truck pulled up and a short unassuming man in his mid-forties got out. He was wearing a faded yellow cowboy shirt and had a friendly little smile on his face.
Yawning and stretching he mumbled, “Morning Joe”
“Good morning Chuck, Joey this is Mr. Reeves.
“Good morning Mr. Reeves.”
“You can call me Chuck, Joey, It’s nice to meet you”
Then my dad asked if I had any money. I said, “no”.
“Well, here’s a few bucks, A truck will come around at nine and then again at noon. The foods not too bad. Don’t eat too much in this heat, it will make you sick. I’ll pick you up at two.” He knew I was a little nervous and added, “Just do what Chuck tells you… you’ll be fine!” Then he got back in his car. Chuck and I watched as he drove down the street to the old two-story, red brick house that served as his office.
As soon as he was out of sight, Chuck turned to me. The kindly look on his face had disappeared. With more anger than I had ever encountered, starring a hole right through me, he screamed, but he did so without raising his voice.
“Listen to me you little mother fucker, your daddy might have gotten you this god damn job, but he can’t keep it for you. Where are your fuckin hand shoes?”
“What?” I squeaked out.
“Your hand shoes… your gloves goddamn it. You little son of a bitch, you show up on my time without your fucking tools. Ya know, I don’t give a rat’s ass… when your hands look like raw fucking hamburger go whine to someone else. Are you going to stand here bullshitting all day or are you here to work?”
I tried to answer but before I could he went on,
“I want every fuckin piece of wire in that yard in that dumpster before the end of the day.”
In the fab yard they received up to ten trucks loaded with forty thousand pounds of steel each, every day. The bundles are tied together with rusty wire called bundle wire. It’s as thick as a pencil, so thick I couldn’t even bend it. All this wire is cut off the bundles and tossed into piles, after the cutting and bending the rebar is retied into smaller bundles and shipped to the job site. Wire is the lifeblood of a steel yard. Needless to say it would be impossible for one person, let alone a thirteen-year-old boy, to keep ahead of the piles and piles of rusty wire generated everyday.
I had no idea what I had done to make Chuck so mad, and I didn’t want to find out. I started picking up wire as fast as I could. The bundle wire looks like big spiders about a foot across and the tips of the legs are razor sharp. They get all tangled together and I had too pull as hard as I could to get them free. On the second or third bunch, as it broke loose it sliced deep into the palm of my hand. The blood oozed, and I howled, “I’m cut, I’m cut… Chuck help, help!!! I’m cut.” Chuck came running over. “Let me see… Well shit boy you aren’t hurt, what kind of a pussy are you? You aren’t fuckin lucky enough to die… Get your ass back to work!” I was crying, scared to death and quite sure I would need stitches, when the biggest man I had ever seen walked over and handed me a brand new pair of White Mule leather work gloves.
He was about six two, two hundred and fifty pounds, not a drop of fat with reddish blond hair, a sunburned face and steel grey eyes. He stuck out his huge hand and as he grabbed mine he smiled and said “Hey kid, give those a try… my names Willie!”