Way back in 1972, I was working high steel, and we were laying out new Butler steel roof panels. Craig and I had started the same week and worked well together. Walking 2-inch tops of the bar joists did not come easy, but we had mastered doing that. They connected to 4-inch-wide steel beams, which seemed like a wide sidewalk-in-the-sky after balancing on the 2-inch ribbons of steel. The new roof panels were greasy and wanted to slip from our grips, but we carried each one out across the maze of elevated steel to place them on top of the girders where they would soon be fastened, and then their seams rolled over using a heavy mechanized seam-roller machine.
As we turned to retrieve yet another roof panel, I heard metal buckling and turned to look at Craig, who was no longer topside! He had stepped on the end of a roof panel not supported by any underlying structural member, it buckled, and he now lay motionless some 30 feet below. Everyone scrambled to get down off the steel — Craig was not breathing. Floyd, our foreman, was the first to get to Craig and started on CPR, when Craig started breathing again. In the final analysis, nothing broken except for pride and the lone injury, aside from bruises, was a dislocated thumb. It was at that moment in time that I decided working high steel was not going to be my life’s work.
Scanning the help wanted ads, I spied one seeking a plumber with six years’ experience. I called and he rejected me. Next night, same ad, same call, same response. This went on for the next full week, but I persisted because I really wanted to quit the high steel job. The owner finally relented and granted me an interview. Long story short: He hired me, and I gave my two-weeks’ notice to the high steel outfit.
First day as a plumber
I expected my new boss Ray would have several experienced techs that would be teaching me the ropes. Turned out, I was his only employee and he turned me out on my own from day one! My first call was a Burnham boiler that was not working. Turned out to be a simple thermocouple replacement, and I was off to the races.
My second call that first day was a Goulds jet pump that would drop off to zero pressure before its 20/40-pump switch would engage and re-pressurize the potable water system. Was it a defective pump switch? Those of you who work on well water jet pumps no doubt already know what the issue was. I turned off the power, drained off the pressure and removed the pump switch. Next came the copper tube, which was also open and clear, but I spied a ledge of rust completely covering the outlet on the body of the jet pump that had been hindering water movement. The pressure switch couldn’t “see” the change in pressure as it occurred, and transfer of pressure being inhibited caused the delay in triggering the pump. Knocking away the shelf of rust resulted in a return to normal operation.
Ray’s business began to flourish, and he had hired a second employee. Terry was built like a linebacker and he was strong as an ox. Ray landed a job in a farmhouse to install a new oil-fired Burnham boiler and the installation of two zones of Slant-Fin fine-line 30 baseboards. Ray would come out in the morning to lay out our day’s work and we two neophytes would do as instructed. Part of our work included replacing an 80-gallon electric water heater.
Piece of cake! Terry and I both had, by now, replaced more than a few water heaters. They say experience is the best teacher, and little did we know there was a new lesson in store for us that fateful day. The tank’s label noted this was a stone-lined tank. Having no real experience, much less knowledge as to why a water heater would be lined with cement, we pressed forward. It wasn’t until we started tilting the stone-lined tank to get it on the hand truck, that we sensed how heavy it really was. After struggling to move the tank across the dirt floor to the old wooden steps in the basement, we found it impossible to move that heavy tank so much as a single step upwards and there were six more steps to go! Two strapping, strong young men stymied by an ancient stone lined water heater? I don’t think so!
The old pickup truck was a beast and it had a trailer hitch. On board was a bull rope, too. See where this is going? Nothing could possibly go wrong, right? I backed the truck up to within a few feet of the cellar entrance, and we tied off the bull rope from hand truck to trailer hitch, then shifted the three-on-the-tree into first gear and gunned it. No dice. Tires spinning, there simply was not enough traction to yank that water heater topside.
If at first…
Plenty of bull rope, so we two geniuses decided to play out lots of rope and let the truck have a running start. In the rearview mirror, I spied that stone-lined tank rising like a poltergeist from the basement along with shards of lumber! While we had succeeded in getting that exceptionally heavy water heater out of the basement, we had been far too successful in bringing the wooden basement steps along, in pieces, for the ride. Ray, our boss, thought the entire incident funny, and returned with new lumber to rebuild the basement steps.
If he hadn’t lied…
Ray hired a third guy, Butch, who was an actual journeyman plumber. Butch wanted to know why I was not registered with the city, and why I wasn’t going to night school for plumbing. If ya don’t know, ya don’t go! I had not known about the need to get registered as an apprentice, so my hours on the job would count towards being eligible to take my journeyman’s test, and that night classes would reduce my waiting period from four years to three or that you simply wouldn’t stand much of a chance to pass the test without the schooling. When I approached Ray asking about these issues, he poo-pooed the ideas and told me they were nonsense. “You don’t need them — just a waste of time and money.”
The truth will out
Never, ever lie to your employees. Your reputation and integrity cannot recover once your lies have been exposed. Well naturally, I checked with others in the local trades and discovered Butch had told me the truth, and Ray had lied to me. At the same time, an employee at F. W. Behler had quit after being caught sleeping on a roof, and a local supply house owner, who knew my parents, alerted Dad that there was an opening at Behlers and to urged me to call up Herb and Scott Behler before they placed any ads.
Opportunity knocked and I answered that door! Nothing can replace the feelings gained by passing that journeyman’s test and then, two years later, the master plumber’s tests. In 1985, I purchased the Behlers’ business and retired in December 2019. What a wonderful ride it was and I’d do it all over again.
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