Jan Wejchert, Waldoboro: An unlikely protector held me to the beam

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A man once stopped to talk to me. I had frozen in fear five stories up, shaking under the weight of the load of wood I had hoisted over my right shoulder, balancing on an 8-inch I-beam I was standing on, unable to move. forward and overwhelmed by the weight of the wood I was carrying. Five floors below me were men working on the concrete bridge; if i let go of my load i could kill them and in all likelihood i would fall the other way.

Eleven ironworkers sit on a steel I-beam 850 feet above the ground on the 69th floor of the RCA Building in Manhattan, Sept. 30, 1932, during the construction of Rockefeller Center. Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

It was summer, mid-70s. I had found a job as a union carpenter, working to protect the new telephone building under construction in midtown Manhattan near the Brooklyn Bridge, nestled near the police headquarters. Above me stood an iron trellis, and I had headed there to fill the crude stairwells with the wooden inserts I had spent the morning making, when I had lost my courage. I was new to the job and had lost sight of my mechanic, who had led the way. And as I stood there, frozen, on this matrix of I-beams, a burly ironworker walked towards me. Dressed in work boots, jeans, T-shirt and helmet. My first impression, seeing him approach and seeing this first-year apprentice carpenter standing in his way, was the impatience in his eyes swollen with marshmallow alcohol.

“Are you stuck?” He asked. I told him yes. He pointed out that there was a plywood platform about 15 feet from where I was and I could go back there. He offered to answer me. I agreed, and when we arrived I dropped my load and almost collapsed. I thanked him and prepared to move on, but then he told me to stick around, went and got a few buckets and sat us down.

A family photo shows Jan Wejchert in the back row, with his parents, who did not approve of his iron, sitting in front of him. Courtesy of Jan Wejchert

He explained that walking on steel is very scary at first, but most guys get used to it. He said, however, that some guys could never quite figure it out, and there was no shame in that. I could just go and explain this to the foreman and the company would send me somewhere else, to a job that didn’t involve the iron. He then explained the ground rules; that when two guys approached you went to the cross tees, passing always right. And that’s how I learned to walk on steel. It has become commonplace. I kept my focus. I kept my balance. I stayed on the beam.

I marveled at the huge I-beams being hoisted, often with a crate or two of beer balanced on top, a rigger straddling each end, wearing shorts; a hammer, a marlinspike and a wrench for the tools. The occasional bolt or nut sped past. And ever present was the steady litany of the percussion hammer, the groan of the hoisting crane, the smell of the welder, the flash of his bow.

I never saw this ironworker again, but I certainly think of him, because he saved my young life. I continued to work on this site for many weeks, erecting site fences, construction gates, walls, and the myriad of other job protection tasks. Then the company needed me elsewhere.

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