Sunday, May 08, 2011


Here are six guys who won’t be home for Mother’s Day because they’ll be working, finishing up the water tower they have up on its legs.  The crane put it in place on Friday about 8 PM, which was scary because the light was almost gone.  This is outdoor steel work, at the mercy of the weather.  Rain, snow, lightning, and wind.  All dangerous when climbing on steel with heavy boots.  The last two would worry me the most.

The shortest guy with the longest beard is the field foreman: Fred Knight, a grandfather who had a tumor removed from the bottom of one lung in January, still working seven days a week for three weeks straight in order to get the water tower up and ready to paint.  These guys don’t fool around and they don’t waste money living in luxury on this end because they have families to support back home in Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana.  They drive big clean new pickups.  The tall man to the left of Fred is the one with the caramel Kentucky accent who ran me off earlier when I went trespassing with my camera.
When you get a few miles from Valier now, you’ll see the water tower and there won’t be any question about what town this is.  The men say there is NO chance that it will ever collapse or tip over.  Maybe in an earthquake like the ones that built the Rockies thirty miles to the west, but  in that case there won’t be any town left anyway, much less the webwork of pipes under the ground that this tower feeds.  But if the electricity that drives the pumps that fill this tank should ever fail, this will only be a landmark.  At night driving into Valier, you might not notice the tower, though once it has lights on it -- I haven’t heard about that -- you will.  What you see now is the red lights on the field of wind towers to our north.  There are many.  I’m curious about what a person can see from the top of this tower besides the wind turbines to the north, the Rockies on one horizon and the Sweetgrass Hills on another, a long landscape of glacier-built ridges and glacier-run-off-gouged coulees, with the shelter belts and wood lots of ranches spaced across the straight-edged wheat fields. 
One of these guys got too warm and threw his jacket off the walkway up at the top, its arms spiraling like a guy trying to fly.  He helped it out with a few sound effects.  The other guys paid no attention.  Old joke.  They were just coming down when I got there.  One man broke wind in relief.  (If I were stick welding that high, I’d have a clenched butt,  too!)  He was embarrassed, so I joked about the government looking for natural gas.  Later we did have a conversation about what people look like after they’ve jumped off something that high.  Not good.  They’ve clearly thought about it and one had witnessed such a tragedy.  He was quite eloquent about the inconsiderateness of such an act.  They sound so very different from desk jockeys, a difference I appreciate.
Once there was a time when working guys like this were thought of as heroes, like soldiers, and kids aspired to be welders.  Some still do that, but I didn’t notice little kids clustered to watch the tower go up.  Probably home playing computer games.  Great Falls is the hometown of the Red Horse Brigade which is construction workers under military orders who fly into the Middle East or whereever (I hear their big planes go over in the night because the closest route is far north -- BIG planes because of the heavy equipment as well as heavy-duty men.  I don’t know whether there are women.)  They mostly do flat work like landing strips, I guess, but with the added feature of possible gunfire.

Looking at the closeup of the men’s faces, I’m struck by how different they are from each other.  Some are expansive and happy to pose.  Others are compressed, belonging to themselves.  My writing mind began to work on a play or a movie about the interactions among them.  I don’t know whether they always work with the same people or whether they are a “pick up” crew for each job.  In the case of the first the most dramatic dynamic would be some new guy coming in unknown and the struggle to “learn” him and trust him in such a risky situation.  In the second case the most dramatic story might be an accident that hurts or kills one of them.  I’d just leave the town out of it, but maybe portray some of the men as country and some as city.  Maybe drop in a military man.  It would sure be a welcome chance to get away from bureaucracies and sex.
To the town this new watertower will soon be a point of pride whether or not it ends up with purple panther tracks on it.  Maybe someone will write a poem about the feelings of the dinky old watertower being so overshadowed by something so new and massive.  I’m wondering about the thoughts of Roger Skogen, the water master for the town, who will be responsible for operating this system as well as the old tower.  Once he shut off the pumps to work on the old tower, forgot to turn them back on, and the whole town ran out of water about 7AM -- people in the shower, people frothing with toothpaste and outrage.  People with no coffee.   Life on the edge of the infrastructure.  Risky one way or another.
The town, of course, is wondering whether this will mean the water pressure will go up and some (like me) are wondering what that will do to our fragile old plumbing.  What it will do to our water bills.  The fourth attempt to find potable water for a new well is only a few blocks from this watertower, the location that was helped by a water witch dousing.  I haven’t heard the results.  There’s not enough money for another test hole.
Another kind of story is how humans are remarkably and admirably able to create marvels of engineering and courage.  All the time the men make small lightning with their welders, the land smiles and is what it is.  On Mother’s Day the Kicking Woman family generally opens its Thunder Pipe Bundle, partly to honor Molly who was their strong matriarch until she “went on ahead,”  but also -- over centuries -- meant to remind the People to be humble and to seek harmony with the land.

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