The last job I worked as a brick mason tender was right on the beach by the blue Pacific. On an empty stretch of sand the Navy was building garages for amphibious landing craft. They would be able to drive the craft straight out of the water, across a little sand and right into their garages.
These garages were big. Almost forty feet high. I was given the job one day of getting all the planks off the scaffolding. Usually I would just throw the 2 by 6 planks–what were they? 12 feet long maybe–onto the ground. But if you threw a plank that heavy from forty feet up you could crack it pretty easily. So instead, you had to walk out to the last layer of planks, bend over, pick up a plank and balance it on the two 2 by 6 that were left for you to walk on. After this naturally, things go more intense because you had to go out, bend over, pick up a plank, and walk back to dry land, on ONE 2 by 6 while balancing a 2 by 6. And this was forty feet up going straight down to the concrete floor of the amphibious craft garage.
I did ok for a bit. I would go out and pick up one and walk back on two. Then I would go to the scaffolding right next to that, pick up one and walk back on two. I did this for a bit and you can see I was avoiding the part that involves walking back on one and yet it was impossible to avoid because I was running out of scaffolding that had three planks (except for the part of the scaffolding where we were stacking the planks to be lowered down by fork lift).
Finally I steeled myself and went out to the very end of the scaffolding where there were only two planks, bent over and picked up one, leaving myself with one, which I slowly pivoted across my body to balance it and myself. Whereupon I completely froze—too much aware that I was standing about 40 feet off the concrete on one 2 by 6 while attempting to balance another one across my body.
Fortunately, there was a black guy there who had been picking up planks from the other direction. He saw me and said, “What’s wrong.” I said I couldn’t move. “Drop the plank,” he said. So I did but I still couldn’t move. “Get down and crawl,” he said. So on wobbly legs I got down on my knees and crawled. He gave me a hand up and began to talk about a job he had in Chicago working forty stories up and one guy was pushing a wheelbarrow full to the brim with mud along a two by six and the wheelbarrow started to go and the guy struggled to straighten it and losing his balance tumbled to his death. “Always let go of the wheelbarrow” the black guy said.
He had an interesting grin because he had a gold cap all around one of his front teeth, and a piece of the gold was punched out in the shape of a star, so that the white enamel of what was left of his front tooth filled in the star. I hadn’t seen that before and I haven’t seen it since.
At the end of that week, I got a pink slip. I had been laid off.