“The glory of young men is their strength,” Proverbs 20:19. It is a common theme among aging warriors as they begin to lose the raw power they once possessed. I’ve sadly experienced it personally as the things I was once able to do easily, are gradually becoming a bit more difficult.
No less a writer than Rudyard Kipling wrote of this is a tangential reference to the main character in the “Jungle Book” the man cub, Mowgli. This isn’t the Disney version of Kipling’s classic novel, but the rawboned, live and die saga of the original text.
Kipling noted that his enemies once feared Mowgli for his cunning, but now, as a grown man, they feared him for his strength as well.
It seems like a lifetime ago, and in many ways it is, but I was once the guy with the size two hat and the size 50 shirt. That’s a euphemism for a young, strong guy who will attempt anything the boss tells him to try without question. After all, as a late teenager and early 20-something, you’re still 10 feet tall and bulletproof. Life hasn’t pounded you down just yet.
May 1979, a scant 43 years ago had me looking for a summer job. I’d worked the summers of ’75 to 1977 at the Louisiana Pacific planing mill in Riverton, but production slowed, and then stopped by 1979 as the leases the company above Dubois were infested with pine beetles, ruining the lumber, and the demand for logs.
In 1978, my dad and I built a three apartment complex on the foundation of the old Mount Hope Lutheran Church in Kinnear. A 1978 Ford Fairmont was my pay for that summer job. I’d saved enough working at Louisiana Pacific the previous summers to get me through college that year.
In 1979, at 22 years old, my roommate Frank Schmidt and I hired on with Alder Construction from Salt Lake City to build the Riverton water treatment plant north of the Central Wyoming College campus.
The job began with Frank and I following a trackhoe as our soon to be friend Alex excavated the basement of the facility. The first day the hole was only 10×10 feet, but by the end of six weeks, the entire footprint of the building had been carved out of the sandstone beneath the site.
We found a complete petrified cottonwood tree one afternoon. Alex hit something hard with the bucket of the trackhoe and shut it down.
Frank and I took digging bars, seven foot hunks of hardened steel that weighed 12 pounds each (we called them idiot sticks) and started to chip away at the exposed cottonwood trunk. The orange tinted blocks of petrified wood came up in three foot long sections. We gingerly lifted each 300 pound piece of the tree by hand into the bucket, and Alex stockpiled them for us.
We began taking my dad’s 1978 ¾ ton GMC to work for a while, loading three or four sections of the tree into the truck each day after work and taking it back to the farm. After a few days we had the entire 24 foot tree at my parent’s farm between Kinnear and Pavillion.
The days were hot, the work intense, arduous and often times dangerous, but what did a couple of 22 year olds care. Nothing could faze us. The first few weeks we weren’t allowed to stop work for anything, even water.
We built forms, chiseled rock that the foreman had to have within a quarter-inch of surveyed tolerances and went home every afternoon to load hay, or go fishing. It’s good to be young, strong and invincible.
On extremely hard days, we’d stop at my grandma Gasser’s house on the road that bears my grandfather’s name after 5 p.m. for homemade bread with butter and grandma’s homemade raspberry preserves, and a couple of quart jars each of unsweetened ice tea. Grandma would talk to us through the screen door since we were too dirty to go inside the house. Many times we’d fall asleep on the grass before driving back to Kinnear. It was a good life, and at $9 an hour in 1979, it was fabulous pay.
We had a few mishaps on the way. Frank’s boots had holes in them and one day he suffered chemical burns from standing in the wet concrete all morning. My mom bought him a new pair of boots to protect his feet.
One afternoon as I crawled up the web of rebar we were tying for the next pour I slipped off the wall during an afternoon thunderstorm. I hit the end of my four foot safety bell with a jarring impact that startled me, but I caught myself, climbed back on the wall and continued tying iron.
During concrete pours we’d have a line of trucks backed up waiting to empty their nine-yard loads into a two-yard bucket that Alex operated with the crane. Frank and I would grab the bucket, guide it over the top of the 22-foot high forms, pull the lever and drop the contents into the wall.
Most of the time we did this in a high wind. The bucket was stable with the full load of concrete but when released the wind would often catch the bucket, rocketing it off the wall six or seven feet. One day I pulled the handle, dropped the concrete, and held on too long as the wind hit the bucket. I sailed off the wall, high above the job site hanging on the bucket, but Alex deftly guided it back to the wall, and let me step off, ready for the next load.
One afternoon the foreman, Loren Ricks called us into the office. “You guys forgot a couple of sections of #18 rebar on that last form. You’ll have to drop it over the top of the wall by hand,” he said.
We hadn’t forgotten anything, since we weren’t allowed to make a decision. He just pointed and we did the work, but there was no arguing.
For those who haven’t experienced a 20 foot section of #18 rebar it weighs about 260 pounds. Our job was to straddle the 16 inch forms at the top of the 22 foot wall, pull up the #18 rebar hand over hand and then carefully lower it into the form. If we dropped it, it would crack the footer and all hell would break loose from Loren with us getting fired on the spot.
So Frank and I picked up the rebar, lifting it 14 feet over our heads until the last six feet was at our feet and then lowered it into the form.
It was such a ridiculously hard job that all we could do was laugh at each other as we set the four huge pieces of iron in place.
As we were about to get off the wall, Loren yelled up, “You’re not done, crawl inside and tie it in place.”
It wasn’t a job for someone with claustrophobia and we barely fit inside, but we crawled to the base of the form and tied everything in place at two-foot intervals.
Just another day on the job for a 20 something, but maybe that’s why I have a twinge in my lower back now and then and it’s no doubt part of the reason I’ve had both knees replaced.
No one ever said the glory of young men is their wisdom, or their intelligence, but strength, that’s an entirely different attribute.