Friday Firesmith – Stan, the Bridge Man

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. 

Take Care,


7 thoughts on “Friday Firesmith – Stan, the Bridge Man”

  1. When he had something to say, and someone he wanted to say it to, he said it.
    No sense wasting time and breath plus possibly annoying coworkers before that.

    • Stan was as straight forward as anyone you could meet. What I loved is when there was a meeting he had to attend he would invariably say, “We done talking?” And if we weren’t Stan would ask again, and again, until we were. Until we had lunch together I don’t think I heard him say a dozen words in two decades.

  2. A lot of men in those days were like that – Nobody needed ‘managers’ – the rise of ‘Business Studies’ in college was the kiss of death for the working man

    • Ianronj, I think managers were needed to manage those things that needed managing, but I always was a Big Picture type. I wasn’t interested in how someone did their job as long as they got it done. I was also totally immune to those guys that weren’t easy to talk to, either. Many a manager whined about Stan. All I did was stay away from him, and when I was around, I never tried to prove I knew more, because I didn’t. I liked watching his style of working his men, never raising his voice, explaining why something had to be, but always in that monotone he had that you couldn’t tell how he felt about something. Unless you got in his way. We’ve lost respect for this sort of person, this breed of man, and those who are in charge now, couldn’t tie steel or pour concrete for a doghouse, much less a bridge.

  3. I can’t remember who recommended the book, “Neptune’s Inferno” by James D. Hornfischer, but I just finished it. The battle of Guadalcanal has always held my attention, but I had never really stepped into the sea battles in detail. The nightmarish and horrible blow by blow, shell by shell accounting by Hornfisher is not easy or light reading, and is destined to leave me with nightmares about being burned alive or eaten by sharks. However, the books is a Primer for anyone who wants to understand how the military worked, or didn’t work, during that time in history, and in that area of battle. I hope that my understanding of the conflict is greater now, and, my already deep respect for the men in the Navy and the Marines, is increased tenfold.

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