I once worked with a man who was an illiterate bridge builder. Stan could not read nor write one single word of English, or any other language, but he knew what the plans meant, and he knew how to get the steel into the forms and do it perfectly.
I had heard about Stan, and I knew a few things about him. The first was he always did his work right. Next, at noon, not a minute before, not a minute after, he would eat his lunch, and he always brought his lunch. He ate two sandwiches with a bottle of Coke. He ate alone, on the bridge, or close to it, and he didn’t socialize with anyone while he ate.
Stan despised state inspectors, and he had less use for state managers, I knew that, too. But anyone who ever complained about him, for Stan could be, uh, abrupt, was invariably told, “Back off, and let the man work.”
The first time I met Stan I went out to the project, shook his hand, told him who I was and then said, “I’ll be at the field office, if you need anything just holler, and I’ll come running.”
I told my inspectors to leave the man alone, and we would see if he was as good as they claimed. I was willing to give anyone enough rope to hang themselves.
A week later, I waited until Stan and his crew left for the day, grabbed an inspector and a measuring tape, a level and rod, and a string line. After two hours of intense inspection, we found one form that was just shy of being one sixteenth of an inch too wide, and we found a gum wrapper in the bottom of a form. Every form was tight. Every piece of rebar was properly spaced and tied perfectly. Each one. Every one. I could have held a class on steel tying it was so well done.
We backed off the man and let him work.
The project went so smoothly I sent one of the inspectors to another project, just to give him something to do. One day, Stan pulled up in his truck and invited me to go to lunch with him. He told me he was retiring after this project and wanted to say good-bye. His wife’s sister, who was ten years younger than she, wanted to drive an RV cross country, and Stan was going along for the ride. Stan wanted to see the Dodgers play in Los Angeles.
He told me they had bought a color television in the early 60’s, and he was impressed. And all his life he wanted to see a live game, and he liked Tommy Lasorda, and was sad he would never see him in person.
I was stunned. I had no idea Stan had a life outside bridge building, much less a wife. And kids, and grandkids. The words poured out of him in a rush. The story of how he and his wife were both too young to get married when she got pregnant, but they did anyway, and how a daughter had married well, and now the son-in-law was making more than the owner of the bridge company.
“Why now, Stan?” I asked.
“You’ll know, Mike, you’ll know when you can’t stay, when something else calls so hard you have to listen,” Stan told me.
And once again, Stan was perfectly right.