My father, Ronal Lee Bohanan, was a union ironworker for almost 30 years before his body reached the point that he could no longer outwork the younger men.
Dad takes great pride in all he does, which is one of the reasons he was such a good ironworker. He worked equally hard whether the job was lofty, such as setting the antenna on a television tower 2,000 feet in the air, or lowly, such as stooping all day to “tie rods,” a back-breaking job in which he twisted a strand of wire around two intersecting pieces of rebar, high-stepped over the rebar, then tied the next one, over and over all day, preparing a concrete slab to be poured. The rebar inside the concrete made it exponentially stronger, but it was Dad’s least favorite job, he said, and it finally drove him to give up ironworking for good when he was about 55 years old. (He’s now 75.)
I knew some of his co-workers for decades, and I labored alongside some of them when Dad took me to work with him. They were welders who could lay down a perfect bead, high-wire artists who worked without safety harnesses almost half a mile in the air. Because of the heavy nature of their work, the heights they often worked from, and the combination of skills they mastered, I think I can say without stretching the truth that ironworkers, to a man, considered themselves first among the crafts, and that some of the boilermakers and sheet metal workers, the plumbers, painters and electricians that populate construction jobs even agreed, at least secretly.
The danger they faced gave ironworkers their place in the pecking order, I think. My friend Rick Storm of Amarillo, a Vietnam War veteran who worked many years as a union painter, including jobs my father was on, once told me that only a fool would mess with the ironworkers on a job site.
After work, however, with a few belts under their belt—that was a different story. Ironworkers not only thought of themselves as the hardest-working craft, but also the hardest-drinking and the hardest-fighting. No doubt they were. And, 20 years after my father retired, they probably still are. After risking death all day on top of a tower, my father and his buddies seemed unintimidated by the thought of fist fighting.
Certainly there were ironworkers who didn’t drink and fight, but the ones I knew, including Dad, went to the beer joint, as they called it, most days after work. Though he’ll want to backhand me for saying so, my father had several bar fights that I know of when I was growing up, and though they’re not really discussed in the family, I feel certain that he came out the winner because of the snippets I’ve gleaned through the years. Also, I’ve seen and felt firsthand the injuries that result when grown men fist fight in bars, and Dad never had any such injuries that I knew of. After he reads this, I’m sure I’ll find out for certain, if he doesn’t throttle me first for telling things that are better left in the past.
He had plenty of job-related injuries, though. He once had the lower part of his leg run over by a crane, and that leg still gives him trouble. He had the pinky and ring finger of one hand cut off, though a doctor was able to reattach them. He can’t bend those two fingers, but otherwise you’d never notice a thing.
There was a decade or so when my father built television towers almost exclusively. He traveled the country with a crew of men and their wives and girlfriends, all of whom I came to know well—Ron Waldron, Darrell Girty, Royce Hawthorne, and Paul Lollar. My mother, Marty Bohanan, and my sisters and I traveled with him for most of that time, until moving every few months began to affect my older sister Misti’s grades in math. Amarillo had always been our home base, and so Mom, Misti, Kathy, and I settled there while Dad continued to travel the country.
I was 16 years old when Mom, Kathy, and I moved for the summer to Florida, near Orlando, where my father had already been working on a tower for a few months. I worked with him more that summer than I ever had before, and I went to the top of a tower for the first time. I had been working construction for a few years by then, but nothing had prepared me for the feeling of stepping out of the tiny two-man elevator, which was nothing but a steel-mesh cage, onto an I-beam nearly 2,000 feet above where we had parked the truck that morning.
My heart racing, I clung to the steel beside me and inched out along the beam until I felt confident to look around and breathe and admire the view. It’s impossible to describe seeing the sun near the horizon early in the morning from that height. Or watching from above, after Dad pointed it out to me, a long cloud formation suspended hundreds of feet in the air that mirrored perfectly the shape of the river below it, moving ever so slowly, like a pillowy snake, toward the sea.
As a boy I idolized my father, as all boys do. I thought there was nothing he couldn’t do. Even at the age of 16, a time of life when we become smarter than our parents, I understood that I would never know the things he knows.
Certainly there are things my father cannot do, things he can’t say to me that I wish he had or would. But I try, with all my might, to live up to the father I’ve come to know in my later years, a friend now, but still my guide, a man to look up to who shows me—always—how to approach life when it throws its worst at me. The deaths of my two sisters, Misti and Kathy, far too young. The passing of my grandparents, Ray and Cora Lee, Clarence and Jewel, and my uncles David and Casey, my aunt Jo, my friends. Accidents that leave loved ones crippled in body and mind. Betrayals by friends for reasons I don’t understand.
I am writing about my father, because it is Father’s Day, but these things are just as true of my mother. Though I know that they feel the same turmoil I do during these painful times, they move through the day with a mixture of humility and pride and take care of the things that must be done, care for the people who must be cared for, with never a word of what it’s cost them because that’s the way many of their generation were raised. No poor me.
Despite all the times as a child, and even as an adult, that I wished my parents were not this way, so steadfast, so bound by duty, responsibility, and doing the right thing in every instance, I have come to see that this is what stands between us and the terrible abyss, this is the thing that allows a family to go forward in the face of the tragedy that comes to us all.
As a son I believe, I know in my heart of hearts, that I’ll never live up to my father, that I’ll never be as good as I should have been or could have been. Only through the grace of my own children have I been able to overcome this feeling because they allow me to see the question from the perspective of a father rather than a child. Each of my three children—Kali, Harper, and Travis—has shown such a capacity for love, for helping me in my times of need with a word or gesture, a simple expression of love, that I now see that it doesn’t matter if I feel unworthy, or if I feel that I should have done more or been a better father or son.
All that matters is that we never give up, and keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep caring for one another. Even when my sister Kathy dies, as she did on May 29 of this year. Even when I lose my temper, or fall short of the things I want so badly to accomplish.
All that matters is that we try, for each other.
Sonny Bohanan of Fort Worth writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry. He can be reached at [email protected]