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Lifeline

Lifeline

by Matthew Braun

His knees always told him when the rain was coming. Before he got out of bed or turned on the news to watch the smiling idiots. Before he even opened his eyes, he knew the weather for the day.

As Carl looked at himself in the mirror he examined his wispy red hair for evidence of further loss, admired his relic of a bushy moustache, and settled into the mindless routine of the morning.

The wipers kept cadence on the 65–‐mile drive down the Gorge into work while he listened to Rush Limbaugh. The tirade was interrupted by the tone from the Bluetooth on the Ford’s stereo.

Before he could say hello, a voice boomed, “Thor! How are your hands today? Steady as ever?”

Carl could picture Jim’s wide grin and large cheeks. Both were in the Operators Union, but Carl’s 35 years of climbing tower cranes was matched by Jim’s years of climbing the union political ladder. While Carl enjoyed Jim as a fishing partner and gameday companion, over the years he had become suspicious of Jim’s convictions. Jim had even suggested during the last election cycle that Carl should vote Democrat across the board, even for that black man. “We unions need him,” Jim had said.

Carl had principles, though, and there was no way that he could bring himself to consider voting for a black man, a homosexual, a gun control advocate, a Muslim, or anybody who would undermine the morals that the country had been built on. Their friendship had been challenging for both of them ever since.

Carl sighed. “Hands are strong and steady as ever, Jim. Just like they’ve always been.”

“Good! Hey, I know it will be a busy day. I stopped by the project over the weekend and it looks like you have a lot of hoisting to get done this week. I wanted to give you a heads up that there is an architect named Kevin who will be asking for a look from the cab today. It will be requested through the usual channels, but I wanted to give you a heads up that even though he is a little, you know, light on his feet –‐ I really, I mean, we really, need his support. We have some negotiations coming up with the Association of General Contractors and Kevin’s influence on those guys is important. So, play nice, get him up, get him out. You don’t have to like him, but please don’t piss him off.”

Typical Jim, thought Carl, trading principles for political considerations.

“Its not my call, Jim, you know that.”

“I already spoke to your foreman Frank. He’ll make it happen on your side. Frank’s a union man and a friend. I just don’t want you to shut it down or piss off the architect when he comes up. I know that you can get a little short and mouthy with some kinds of people, Thor. Its what’s always made you great!”

“Don’t kiss my ass, Jim. But I will let this Kevin faggot…”

“Carl!” Jim interrupted.

“I’m just messing with you. I’ll let the guy come up, but nothing more.”

“Thanks buddy,” Jim hung up with out a goodbye.

Carl finished his drive into downtown and parked at the garage and walked across the street to the corner coffeeshop for a refill and to relieve himself of the previous 32 oz. of coffee. The early morning crowd at the coffeeshop was the typical Type A businessmen and attorneys, plus a few other construction workers. As he waited for the restroom to open, Carl was again struck by the absence of the typical Portland fruitcakes, hipsters, artists, and homeless people during the pre-dawn bustle of downtown. He really hated being in the city, but loathed seeing the weirdos even more. As he looked around the urban shop his mind did a count and saw no blacks or mexicans and just a couple of orientals. One of the reasons he appreciated Portland was its lack of diversity, even if everybody talked the good liberal talk. The door opened to the single toilet bathroom and two male baristas walked out smiling. One touched the other’s elbow and said, “Have a nice day, John”, then turned to grin and wink at Carl.

Carl felt his stomach lurch and his head suddenly hurt. He turned on his heel and walked out the door.

“Goddammit,” he muttered under his breath, “Goddamn fucking faggots ruining my breakfast.” He stalked over to the project site to use the outdoor plastic toilets and a cup of the burnt office trailer coffee. He knew he would never return to the coffee shop.

“Yo, Thor!”, Frank called to him from across the yard, “C’mon over here. Let’s go over the pick schedule.”

Frank was very short, fat, hyperactive and talked fast. He had the mannerisms of someone who babysat 250 grown men everyday. He was likeable and respectful, but was known for the control he exerted on the trades. Frank went quickly through the hoisting schedule for the day and kept glancing over at Carl’s obviously angry face.

As he wrapped up, he asked, “Hey, everything OK, Thor? You seem more, um, pissed off than usual.”

Carl related what had happened at the coffeeshop. Frank snorted and responded, “No morality in the Rose City. Hey, speaking of which, I have a favor to ask you, and I really need you to not fuck it up. I have a fruity architect who…”

“Goddamnit, I know, I know,” Carl interrupted, “Jim already called me this morning on the way in. What the hell are you guys trying to do to me?”

“This Kevin is a good guy,” Frank said, “He may not like girls, but that just means more for you and me, right? Seriously, he has some serious sway over the contractors and both you guys and the Carpenters are coming up for renewal. We really need some outside help and Kevin has indicated his support for us.”

“Fine, whatever, just don’t expect me to go all Brokeback up there. Back to the schedule, who is doing the rigging for the ironworkers today? Hopefully its not that useless retard from last week.”

“Ohhh,” Frank blushed, “Yeah, about that. I know that I said we would dump him, but they are short handed and he’s a minority, and we have project quotas to make.”

Carl felt his face flush and his scalp tingle.

“Don’t worry about it, Thor. I will personally check all of the rigging. He does a fine job, he may be slow, but he does a fine job. Besides, you know what they say about ironworkers, right? What’s long and hard on an ironworker?”

Carl grinned and responded, “Second grade. All right, fine. You check his work and put a boot up his ass if he gets behind. I want to get out of here on the early side and I don’t want to have to climb down in the dark. Don’t make me bring down the hammer, Frank.”

Frank smiled back and said, “I’ll keep it moving, Thor. We’ll be talking.” Frank hesitated for a minute, “Hey, we weren’t able to get the monthly inspection yet on the crane. Would you mind giving her a gander on your way up?”

Carl flushed again, “GODDAMNIT Frank! You sonsabitches go and lease the cheapest, oldest, most run–‐down piece of shit that could be called a crane, hired a podunk, out of state erector nobody’s ever heard of and now you don’t even take the time to get the inspections?” Carl was panting and red–‐faced with rage.

Frank shifted his weight, looked at Carl sidelong and moved his Copenhagen from one side of his mouth to the other.

“Does that mean you aren’t going to drive ‘er today, Thor? Goddamn, man, I didn’t rent the piece of shit. I’m just trying to keep a project moving here. Jesus, no wonder they call you the god of war, you have such a fuckin’ temper.”

Carl rolled his eyes. He had long before tired of correcting people on that. He had earned his moniker on his high school football team from Jim, who had misremembered what the history teacher had lectured regarding the Norse gods. But the name had stuck with him ever since.

Frank continued, “Just because you are the best in the state at high tower operations doesn’t mean you can say that shit. If you have a problem with the crane, then don’t climb today. Think of it this way, what we didn’t pay in lease costs we are paying in your wages.”

Carl shook his head, grabbed some coffee, refilled his thermos, and inventoried his backpack for the climb up the 500 foot tower: Lunch, water, iPod, phone, two–‐way radios off the chargers, piss bottle.

His workday started as soon as he set foot on the base. He had a half hour to climb the tower, but he didn’t stay fit by letting himself dawdle up the tower. On his way up he smelled the air get fresher as he left the lower levels of exhaust polluted air. The noise of the city fell to the background and he heard only the rain on the steel latticework. Halfway up he took a short break and an image of the men coming out of the bathroom flashed through his mind. He snorted, grabbed the steel rail, and continued the climb.

He poked his head up through the trap door on the work platform outside the cab. The rain was splattering in his face off the steel as he hoisted himself up and closed the trapdoor behind him. He pulled on his harness, clipped to the lifeline and walked out onto the jib catwalk and looked over the cable, trolley, and pulleys. The rain was running down his neck and the early grey had not yet lightened enough to see details. It was a cursory glance that merely told him what he expected to see: namely that all the parts and pieces were still there. He scurried back to the cab, climbed into his seat, turned on his radios, plugged an iPod earbud in, turned on the heater and settled into his morning.

“Frank to Thor,” the site radio sputtered a few hours later.

“This is Thor,” Carl radioed back.

“Hey, are you planning on coming down for lunch, or are you eating up there today?” Frank asked.

“I’m going to eat my sandwich up here.”

“Great,” Frank responded, “When you are done with this pick, we are going to move you over to the ironworkers’ beams on the north side. Then I will send that architect up during lunch. He’s got an hour total, so with the climb up and down, that will give him a few minutes in the cab looking things over during lunch. Does that work?”

“Fine, great, whatever,” Carl growled back, “Just make sure you are watching that rigger’s work.”

“Did you say rigger, or…” Frank laughed back.

“Very funny, Francis, just watch it.”

Carl swung the crane back over the site and waited for the steel beams to be connected to the hook. After just three picks, the lag in time on the ground was becoming noticeable to the schedule and Carl realized that he would be picking through lunch.

“Frank to Thor,” over the radio.

“Frank, what the hell is going on down there?”

“It’s coming along. I think I am going to need you to work through lunch today so we can finish the picks. They are pretty easy, I still need to get Kevin up there. Do you mind letting him poke his head into the cab for a few minutes?”

“What can I say, Frank?” Carl sighed.

“Great. Well, he’s on his way up now. And Carl,” Frank paused, “please, be nice.”

Carl didn’t respond and wheeled the trolley out to the end of the jib. Fifteen minutes later the head of a man in a hardhat and black thick–‐rimmed glasses poked his head up through the trapdoor and waved to Carl. His glasses were dotted with rain and his designer raincoat was soaked underneath a size XXL safety vest that hung loosely around his frame. Just as the man was crawling through the trapdoor, the rigger called in the load–‐up signal and the 500 foot tower crane swayed as the cable tensioned over a ton of steel.

“Whoa!” the man laughed as he swung open the cab door, “This sucker sways more than you’d think.”

Carl glanced at the man and grunted, “Shut the door, it just got warm in here.”

“Hi, I’m Kevin with HDP Architects.” Kevin shouldered into the small cab, he was sweaty from the climb up and his glasses had already started to fog in the warmth of the cab. He shrugged out of his vest and raincoat.

Carl watched as Kevin pulled his arms out. There was a large tattoo on the man’s forearms that he quickly rolled his shirtsleeves over. Carl stared at the man’s arm where the shirt had covered and looked again at his face.

“Were you a jarhead?” Carl asked.

Kevin looked at Carl. “There are no former Marines. I’m Kevin,” he repeated.

Carl looked at Kevin hard and put out his hand. “I’m Carl, most people call me Thor.” “So I hear,” chuckled Kevin. “How do you know about me being in the Corps, Thor?”

“Your tattoo,” said Carl, “Your tattoo is the same one my son got when he deployed. Deployed to Iraq.”

“Oh, was he FORECON?” Kevin looked surprised. “It’s a unit tattoo. There are less than three thousand people in the world with that ink. Who is your son? Is he still in? I’ve been out since the end of the first Gulf War.”

“My son Charlie, Charlie Holmgren, died outside of Baghdad nine years ago. He was a proud Marine. He was FORECON,” Carl started. He felt a shudder of sorrow and fatigue course through his body, and the moment passed with just rain pattering on the cab’s sloped glass.

“I didn’t know Charlie. He was long after my time and as you probably know, there is no Marine Force Recon anymore. I’m sorry to hear about your son.”

“Frank to Thor,” the radio chattered, “What the fuck are you doing?” Frank sounded worried and angry. Carl looked back out the cab window down the length of the jib and realized that he had left the line running, had missed his target stop, and brought the load far too high. The headache ball was nearly to the tip of the jib.

Carl cursed and shut down the motor.

“Hang on Frank,” Carl said.

“Is everything OK up there, Thor?” Frank asked, “Remember what I told you.”

“Things are fine, I got a little distracted when Kevin got here. Sorry.”

“That’s fine, Thor, but you need to look at the load. I think it shifted when you shut down the hoist. Hang on, you are just a little above the roof line. Don’t move, I am going to send somebody up to look at the load from the roof, we are going to tape off the danger area.”

Carl studied the load carefully. The steel, which had been strung with five pieces on a single vertical line in “Christmas tree” fashion, had a loop slip on the third piece from the bottom and it had shifted so that it was hanging precariously 450 feet above the ground. He set the brakes and waited.

“Hey, looks like you have your hands full here, Thor.” Kevin’s voice startled Carl, he had forgotten about his visitor. He twisted around for a moment.

“I don’t understand why you let people say the things about you that they say, Kevin,” Carl said.

“What things are those, Thor?” asked Kevin. His lips had drawn tight and his eyes had narrowed to a scowl. He looked very much like a soldier to Carl. He looked very much like his son had when he had become a Marine in the elite reconnaissance unit, very much like a man who knew his place in the world and would establish it with violence if he needed to.

In the moment of two breaths, Carl recalled his early days in the union. The picket lines, the union busting tactics by the contractors, the out of town scabs with nothing to lose. The street fights and violence and the looks on the faces of his union brothers. He remembered his son wrestling for the high school, and his decision to join the Marines after the 9/11 attacks – attacks so far away, and yet in their backyard. A memory flooded his mind –‐ the sounds of daybreak, the pink sunrise, the morning dew of that Saturday dawn shortly after the invasion of Iraq when he became one of the first parents to receive the tragic visit. He remembered the men and women of Charlie’s unit, who, in the following two years would stop by when they were in the Portland area to pay their respects, and recount to Carl stories of Charlie’s burgeoning manhood, bravery, and leadership. And he remembered their faces when they described what they had done to avenge Charlie’s death. He saw the same look on Kevin’s face now.

“Frank to Thor. We are almost up to the roof level. From what I saw below I think we have a problem. One of the sticks is loose and looks like it is about to fall. How is the machine doing?”

“What things are those, Thor?” Kevin repeated. He still had a deadly look on his face, though the panic piercing Frank’s voice had softened his expression.

Carl stared back at Kevin. “Thor to Frank. I have the brakes on and I am sitting tight. I think I brought the line up too far. I am hoping its not bound at the front pulley. I won’t know more until I can move it.” He turned to Kevin. For the first time in a very long while, he weighed his words.

“Well, sir,” he started carefully, “I hadn’t heard that you are a Marine. I hadn’t expected a former FORECON jarhead to climb my ladder today, not someone from Charlie’s unit.”

“What had you heard, Thor?”

“Well, I had heard that you were, um, gay, or something. That you were ‘light on your feet.’ And that you were a political consideration for us union guys.”

“Ah,” Kevin had a wry, unsurprised look on his face, “Let me guess about what really bothers you, Carl. What makes you think that’s not all true? ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell?’ C’mon Thor, you know that there are all types in the military, including the Corps.”

He paused, “Why do you think I was quietly discharged after being awarded the Navy Cross?” He continued with an affected lisp: “Because I’m a faggot?”

Carl stared at Kevin, unable to reconcile all that Kevin had said. Kevin lifted up his raincoat and slipped it on, the baggy reflective vest sagging from his shoulders.

“Thor,” Frank’s voice crackled over the radio again, “We are in place and safe. I need you to swing the load really slowly over to the roof deck where we are. We are going to offload the pieces here.”

“Copy, Frank.” Carl turned to Kevin. “Hang on. I can’t let you climb down until I am done with this load, the turret is going to swing over the trapdoor, so give me minute.”

Carl swung the jib counterclockwise until it was over the roofdeck and pulled the brake loose to lower the load. Nothing happened.

“Frank to Thor!”, Frank sounded more anxious and talked faster than usual, “Wake up! What is going on up there? Get the load down, we can’t leave it hanging there in this breeze.”

“Frank, I have a problem with the brake on this old bitch. I think the line is jammed at the trolley. Stand by.”

Carl stood up, pulled on his gloves and raincoat, grabbed the radio and looked at Kevin. “Sit tight. I’m just going to be a minute, I think the line fouled. It happened last month and a tech came to fix it, but we don’t have time for that right now.” He shrugged into his climbing harness, stepped out of the cab onto the jib and clipped into the lifeline running horizontally to the trolley.

As he walked out to the trolley he was pondering his conversation with Kevin while picturing what the crane technician had done the previous month to correct the pulley brake. As he neared the trolley he could see that a mess of cable had played off the spool and there was a jam of cable between the hardened steel pulley and the protective shield.

“Thor to Frank,” he called, “I have a mess up here. I am going to need to grab a bar from the cab and try to break it loose. I am going to sound the alarm to clear the area below, you need to get everyone off the roof except someone to unhook the pieces after I get the load down, and that guy needs to be as far back as possible.”

Carl hurried back to the cab and pulled out a long ¾” steel bar. He pressed the crane alarm bell and it rang out the signal to clear the area around the entire site. His site radio started buzzing with conversations as foremen and superintendents scrambled to get their field crews to safe zones.

“Can I help with anything?” asked Kevin.

“Yes,” Carl explained quickly, “This is the line brake. It is off right now. Press it forward to lock it down. After I unjam the line, it may want to go –‐ even though the motor should hold. If it starts to play out I need to you get the line brake on. Watch me, I may give you this signal,” he held up his fist, “to hit the brake anyway.”

Carl heard Kevin say “Got it” as he scrambled out onto the jib. At the pulley he worked the bar into the knot of cable and leveraged it away from the pulley shield. The steel bar slickened with rain and he leaned into the lever, his left hand holding it in place on the cable, the other hand at his chest for leverage. With a loud crack, the cable popped out of the jam, the lever snapped forward and slipped out of its wedge. Carl felt his hand catch as the cable ripped through the pulley and the load began to drop toward the roof. He screamed with pain as the cable ripped at his hand and tore at his wrist. The cable suddenly stopped. His glove had caught in the wire rope and trapped his hand in the pulley housing, but apparently Kevin had gotten the brake on. He looked over his shoulder down the jib to the cab. He saw Kevin climbing out.

“Kevin, get back in the cab!” Carl yelled, “GET BACK IN THE CAB! You have no harness and the jib is under load!”

“Frank to Thor,” the radio in his coat was garbled. “What is going on? Why is Kevin on the jib? The load is still off the deck, but it nearly took out the ironworker. Do you need help? Should I send somebody up?” Frank’s panicked voice crackled on the radio. Carl tried to reach the radio in his Carhartt to answer Frank. Kevin scurried over to him, both hands grabbing the catwalk rails.

“Kevin, grab my radio, get back to the cab and call for help. You CANNOT be out here without your harness,” Carl barked.

“Hold on sir, we need to get you out of here, this isn’t good, you are bleeding out too fast from where your wrist was lacerated.”

“Frank to Thor, the steel is slip…”

The end of the jib suddenly jumped straight up like a fishing pole that has lost a salmon as the steel beam slid out of the loop and fell into the two below it, breaking their clips. The sudden jump in the cable caused the other two pieces to slip out of place. Two thousand pounds of tension on the line suddenly went slack on the end of a jib one hundred and fifty feet long. Carl grasped for a catwalk rail as the pulley held onto his left hand with the bite of a pitbull. His harness was clipped to the lifeline and as his body rose to three feet above the catwalk, it suddenly stopped and was yanked back with a slam to the catwalk decking. He watched, unable to grab or scream, as Kevin was flung into the air, nearly ten feet above the jib, and crashed off of the catwalk handrail. Carl heard Kevin’s arm break as he fell down onto the rail, slipped off the top of it to the outside of the jib. In a flash, Carl saw Kevin’s eyes meet his, mouth still grim and tight–‐lined as he tried to hold onto a jib trellis member. His safety vest caught on a bolt and tore. Kevin gasped and disappeared from Carl’s view.

Carl heard the sirens a few minutes later as he lay on the catwalk. His mind, like his left hand, had gone completely numb. He saw the blood running down his arm, could feel it pooling in his armpit.

He thought about Charlie, as he lay there. The loss of blood was making him feel light–‐headed and weak. He had often imagined what it had been like for Charlie in the last minutes of his life. He wondered if Charlie had gone with quick surprise like Kevin, or had he laid there and slowly bled out like he was now? He thought about the men at the coffeeshop that morning. Had one of them been a Marine? Had one of them served with Charlie?

Just as he was losing conciousness, he heard Frank shouting, “He’s there, at the end. Here, hook onto the lifeline.”

© 2011 Matthew Braun

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