Tag Archives: Ironworkers

Fiction excerpt: ‘The World Drops Beneath You’

Tool belt

An excerpt of my short story “The World Drops Beneath You,” published in the anthology Stories from Texas College Students (2016, Lamar University Press). Get the anthology on Amazon to read the story in its entirety, or read it on Medium.

The World Drops Beneath You

© 2016 Sonny Bohanan

The red lights of the television tower pulsed on and off in the distance, a constellation of dying stars lined up single file, like good soldiers, to wink out in unison. Jake stared at the glowing embers and drifted along the edge of sleep as his father drove through the early-morning dark. His mind snapped to attention when Pop turned up the radio for news of the war: Nixon had announced he was bringing home 25,000 troops over the next year. A momentary tingle of hope raised goose bumps on Jake’s arms and the back of his neck, but he realized a heartbeat later that the decision wouldn’t affect the draft notice folded in his back pocket.

Riding to and from work each day, Jake had silently rehearsed how to tell Pop that his lottery number had come up. But when the time came to say the words, his throat grew thick, and he choked on the bitterness he felt at having invited the war into his life by dropping out of school. Words were useless now. They couldn’t stop the chaos that seeped nightly from the television like poison gas—riots and political assassinations erupting across the nation, the latest wave of troop replacements disappearing into a jungle no one had heard of until it arrived in their living rooms.

As Pop drove, the darkness slipped away imperceptibly, leaving traces in the corners and shadows of things, spies behind enemy lines. He turned the pickup in at the job site, and the headlights picked out three men drinking from Thermos cups at the concrete base of the tower. Pop and Jake usually arrived fifteen minutes early to drink coffee, but it was already five-thirty.

“Couldn’t get Shorty out of bed?” Stony said as they stepped out of the truck.

“You can see the boy needs his beauty rest,” Pop said.

Wally, the boss, tapped his watch with his shortened right index finger. “All right, let’s get up there.”  The finger had been sliced off at the knuckle twenty years earlier. When Jake was a kid, Wally had made him laugh by inserting it into his nostril so it appeared to be planted three inches deep.

They cinched on their tool belts, and Pop turned to Jake. “I want you to go up top this morning and install the brackets for the co-ax cable.” He opened a box to check that they were the right size, and handed it to Jake.

“Did you get the elevator running again?” Pop asked Wally.

“Yeah, but you’ve got to control it from the ground,” Wally said. “The wiring’s crossed, and I couldn’t get the damn thing straightened out. We need the electrician out here.”

It was July 20 and already hot at sunrise. The men were working on a Sunday because a series of spring tornadoes had damaged the crane and knocked out the electric power for more than a week, putting them behind. They had less than a month to finish the tower, which rose nearly 2,000 feet above the High Plains to transmit the signal for the ABC affiliate in Amarillo.

Jake started to sweat—he had never been all the way to the top. The men had finished installing the elevator two days ago, and no longer had to climb the ladder hand over hand for 180 stories. It took Pop and Wally, the most experienced of the crew, half an hour to climb it wearing their tools. The elevator’s steel mesh cage ascended the tower in two or three minutes, but only two men could fit inside it.

“You want to ride on top?” Pop asked.

“I don’t think so.” Jake had seen Stony and Gilvin ride on the elevator roof several times. They were the youngest of the crew except for Jake, and were given the shit jobs.

“It’s safe,” Pop said.

Jake glanced inside the elevator at the loose wires sticking out of the control box and said nothing.

“Hell, he’s scared,” Stony said. “Me and Gilvin will do it.” They climbed onto the roof, and Jake carried the box into the elevator cage underneath them. Wally stepped in beside Jake.

Pop stayed on the ground to run the controls. He lifted a walkie-talkie to his mouth, and the one on Wally’s belt squawked, “You got me?”

“We got you.”

“Let’s go.” Pop punched a button and the elevator lurched, rising slowly at first, then faster through the center of the alternating red and white sections. Jake’s stomach tightened as the world dropped beneath him. Seen from below, the guy-wires tethered to massive concrete footings were taut, inch-thick cables that cut a straight line from ground to tower. But from above, Jake could see that the cables in fact drooped in tremendous arcs, the tensile force that held the tower in place unequal to gravity’s ghastly power. The sight gave Jake a sick feeling. The laws of physics, so straightforward on the ground, were warped and unreliable at this height. He reached behind him and secretly inserted his fingertips through the steel mesh, gripping it to steady himself.

The rush of the elevator cooled the sweat on his forehead. A thick morning haze permitted him to look directly at the sun, deliciously pink like a scoop of neon ice cream sizzling and melting along the bottom where it sat on the horizon. Wally spoke into the walkie-talkie and stepped out of the cage when the elevator stopped. He lowered himself into a sitting position on the beam, his legs dangling on either side.

Jake’s stomach swam as he followed. He set the box on the small elevator platform and stuffed as many brackets as he could fit into his tool belt. He tightly gripped the steel next to him with his right hand before stepping cautiously off the platform onto the I-beam, which was about two feet wide. Showing Jake what to do, Wally marked the steel with chalk, drilled four holes, and quickly attached one of the brackets with metal screws. He finished in a couple of minutes and handed the drill to Jake.

“We need one every ten feet,” he said. “Just work your way down. Go ahead and do one, and I’ll watch you.”

Jake attached the drill to his belt and stepped down the ladder to a spot he judged to be about ten feet. He was sweating profusely, soaking his T-shirt as he worked the tape measure.

“Take you all day to do one,” Stony said, amused, from atop the elevator.

Jake avoided looking at the ground while he measured ten feet and marked the holes. He clamped his legs to the beam and held on with his left hand while drilling with his right, barely gaining the leverage he needed to pierce the steel. He took a socket wrench from his tool belt but fumbled it, made a swipe for it and missed, almost losing his balance. Wally cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, “Headache!” The wrench clanged twice against the steel as it fell, then, seconds later, a third time. The tiny dot on the ground that was Pop dove for cover under his pickup truck. . . .

Read the rest of “The World Drops Beneath You” in the anthology Stories from Texas College Students (2016, Lamar University Press). The book is available at Amazon.com. The full story is also available at Medium© 2016 Sonny Bohanan

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Sonny Bohanan is a writer and editor in Fort Worth, Texas. Read his writing portfolio or follow him on Twitter. He was an editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the American Literary Review.

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A son’s lifelong search to live up to his father

Ron Bohanan and Sonny Bohanan at Texas Rangers baseball game, 2012

My dad, Ron Bohanan, and I attending a Texas Rangers baseball game in 2012.

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.

Ron Bohanan in his backyard in Amarillo, Texas.

Ron Bohanan relaxes in his backyard in Amarillo, Texas.

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.

Ron Bohanan and Sonny Bohanan in Amarillo, Texas.

Dad and I in Amarillo, Texas.

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 bohanan48@yahoo.com.

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