An industrial scale construction project is complex practically as well as economically speaking. But sociologically speaking the breakdown on this job was simple. On the site there were three tribes claiming the linked circular platforms. Three tribes and one job to be done. There were the iron men, the mud puppies, and the engineers. The engineers had clean hard hats, button down collars and clipboards. They were skittish and every loud noise had them looking over their shoulders. Us iron men handled the 20 foot lengths of steel and tied the vertical and horizontal sections of rebar to reinforce the structure. You wouldn’t want to call us skilled but we had tools. And then there were the mud puppies.
The mud puppies pushed buggies of concrete from the central tank, load by load and dumped it load by load all along the form walls. The buggies weren’t just wheel barrows. They were the standard construction wheelbarrow on steroids. The mud came up by crane in a big hopper and the mud puppies lined up like taxis in a rank to get their buggies loaded from the spout and then ran their buggies to the wall, slammed the buggy against the form, tipped the load in, and ran back to get in line again. All you had to have to be a mud puppy was shoulders and thighs.
The silos were joined by ramps and the mud all came up to one central distribution point. The mud puppies had to get a full head of steam to get the buggy up to the top of the ramp, gravity took charge coming down. On the downhill part of the run they were unstoppable.
One mud puppy had a mouth on him. Everything was the iron mens’ fault. Every delay, every fuck-up. He would not give it a rest. By the 7th or 8th day the entire site wanted him gone. One night as he topped the crest of the ramp and was committed to the downhill plunge a group of iron men slid a length of rebar through the buggy’s wheel. Tipped it right up on its front end and stopped it cold. The mud puppy carried on. He flew over the dead buggy and landed off in the middle of the site. No one said a word. The foreman walked by and looked over tipped buggy and the spilled load. He just nodded and shrugged. Before the job started a guy showed up who wasn't welcome. The foreman told him to beat it. Fella opened his mouth like he had something to say and just like that, one punch, put him down on the floor. The foreman tucked bus money under his hand figuring he would get the hint when he came too. Justice on the job site was swift and personal.
We got paid out in cash after the last day. We all lined up and got our envelopes. A new guy and unassuming, I was last in line. The foreman asked how I was getting home. I wasn’t sure what to tell him, wasn’t sure what he wanted to hear. I'd seen him in action.
I mumbled that I was riding the bus.
Son, he said, iron men don't take the fuckin’ bus, iron men fly. He pulled out his wallet and added the price of a ticket to my envelope.
So I flew to St. Louis for Christmas with my parents and a few days later my sister and I went to a memorial service for John Lennon over in Forest Park. They played Imagine and let a single white dove fly free into the clear blue winter’s sky.
All these years later, I look out into the achingly blue South African sky. A land of tribes and hard, hard work ahead, and think, Yebo baas, iron men ain’t the only ones to fly.