Sky Boys

by Karen Kinley

Big Mo gulped the rest of his coffee, anxious to escape the cacophony of young voices emanating from his kitchen, even if that meant a long day of work. 

His wife, Eleanor, tried to mitigate the wails of hungry children with oatmeal and small portions of codfish cakes. Even though she was an expert at stretching Mo’s paycheck, it might be the only meat they ate today. 

Eleanor wiped the counter and called over her shoulder. “Will ya be ’ome straight after yer shift, love?” 

“Yes, Missus.” Big Mo, so nicknamed because of his tall stature, leaned to kiss her, then left the cramped Brooklyn apartment.

With his lunch pail in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, Mo hustled to catch the subway train that would take him into Manhattan. The warm morning sun felt good on his skin. He took a deep breath as a refreshing breeze rushed by, a welcome change from the stale, static air of his modest home. He hoped it was a sign of a good day.

As the train crossed the bridge over the East River, the New York City skyline came into view. Mo caught sight of the incomplete framework of the Empire State Building, currently under construction. It also happened to be his destination.   

He slid closer to the window and spotted a skyscraper on the east side that he helped build about a decade ago. And another further uptown that was one of his first stints as an ironworker.

Mo remembered that job. The more seasoned laborers had chattered on about how this was a young man’s game, and he had laughed it off, having little to worry about at the time. But lately, at 37 years old, his sore muscles told a different story. In just a few short weeks, he would be competing for employment against more able-bodied men.

Mo’s biggest fear was having to drag his wife and seven children back to Newfoundland where he knew he could get work in the mines if he needed it. But New York City was the place he wanted to be. America was the promised land. He’d do anything for work, as long as he could stay here.

Emerging from the subway, the sounds and smells of the city filled his senses. There is no better place, Big Mo thought as he walked several blocks to the job site. He stubbed out his cigarette and stepped onto the crowded construction elevator, his well-worn boots scuffing the wooden floor. He nodded at two familiar faces as the platform clanked upward.

“Morning, Victor,” Mo said to a lean, fair-haired man. “How was the potluck dinner?” 

“Real good. Ended up being a late night. Alma and the boys were still sleeping when I left this morning.” 

“Sounds like everyone enjoyed themselves.” 

Victor was like a brother to Big Mo, as they had much in common. Both men were immigrants. Both struggled to provide for their families, as most did during the Depression. And both knew that the best way to do that was by working hard.

Mo then turned to a tall, strapping fellow. “Hey, Buck. You marry that girl yet?”

Buck flashed a crooked grin. “Not yet, but the day’s still young.” 

There was a lot to like about Buck. The young man had both confidence and charm that put everyone at ease. Not only that, Mo thought, Buck was quick on his feet. A good quality to have if something unexpected happens.

When the elevator stopped, everyone scurried in different directions. Big Mo, Victor, and Buck headed to the northeast corner, having been assigned to the same sector for the past four weeks. 

Each settled into his job for the day. There was little downtime during the twelve-hour shift. Only thirty minutes were allocated for lunch. Smoke breaks were kept to a minimum. The workday progressed on sweat and adrenaline. 

It was late August of 1930, and construction of the Empire State Building’s steel frame was nearing completion. On this day, the crew was working on the 92nd floor. The gusty wind and dizzying views found 1,100 feet above the ground would make most men nervous. But these workers were used to it. To them, walking on steel girders a quarter mile high in the sky was child’s play. In fact, the men often made light of the danger they were in. Without harnesses, safety nets, hard hats, or guarantees, there existed only one thing that provided any sense of security: the job. 

Victor was assigned to a gin pole gang. He and two other men, together with the derrick operator, used the equipment to lift and guide the massive steel beams into place, much like a crane would. It was slow, painstaking work, but he was a patient man.

Buck, although young, was already an accomplished riveter. When a beam was maneuvered into place, one man heated metal rivets in a small forge and then tossed each of them to another man who caught them. It was Buck’s job to hold each molten hot rivet in place while a fourth worker hammered them into the beam. Buck often found himself perched precariously on the edge of the building, feet dangling over the sidewalk far below. 

Being one of the more experienced steelworkers, Big Mo was recently promoted to foreman, a fact about which he was plenty proud but never boastful. He went from gang to gang across the lofty space, balancing on boards as the air swirled around him, and would lend a hand or offer his expertise where it was needed. Jobs were hard to come by these days, and Mo was grateful for this one. The long line of men on the ground below waiting for a chance to work on this very building was a constant reminder of his good fortune.

His mind drifted to the memory of a fellow steelworker’s untimely death on the job two months ago. Mo had known the man vaguely and was told he left behind a wife and two sons with a third child on the way. Another worker took his place the next day. Whatever became of the man’s family? A lump formed in Mo’s throat at the thought.

The day moved along with its normal rhythm. Each of the men knew their jobs well and worked together like a well-oiled machine. The lack of safety equipment wasn’t an issue for any of them, having long grown accustomed to the hazardous conditions. 

The previous month, a photographer had joined them, taking photos of the men as they went about their work. Many of them had fun showing off, being a bit more daring than the job entailed. Some posed by hanging over the side of the structure against the backdrop of distant New York City streets; others pretended to nap on a beam suspended over the open air. It made for very good photos and earned the workers the nickname, the “Sky Boys.” 

The Sky Boys savored their moment in the spotlight. It was rare to have something interesting happen on the job. Most of the time it was business as usual. 

Shortly after lunch on this sweltering hot day, as one gang was maneuvering a steel girder into place with a derrick, a strong gust blew across the site. The wind caught one side of the girder, causing the enormous beam to rotate. The girder struck a steel column on the northeast side of the building, ricocheted off, then spun the other way.

Although this scenario was not uncommon, it was nonetheless unexpected. The girder may not have swung wildly, but several hundred pounds of steel, even moving in a slow spin, can do a lot of damage. Men in the path of the girder ducked or jumped out of the way. The long beam narrowly missed a rivet forge, which would’ve been an issue for the men working below. 

Big Mo was about ten feet from the rotating beam. In his haste to get out of its way, he didn’t notice the riveting tongs that were left on a board behind him. He stepped on them and lost his footing. When he reached for a scaffolding support, he missed it and fell off the board. 

In the slow-motion seconds that followed Mo’s fall, his mind went to one place: his family. He couldn’t be injured. And he couldn’t die. There were nine mouths to feed, and they were counting on him. He needed to survive. 

On instinct, Big Mo twisted his body and stretched out his hands, nimbly grasping the board he had just fallen off. His fingers clung to the wood as his body dangled beneath. Other than steel beams, wood planks, and a few scaffolding platforms, there was nowhere to stand for several “floors” below. If he couldn’t pull himself up, he would most likely tumble three stories and land on concrete. He dared not look down.

Don’t let go, his brain implored while his heart pounded in his chest. Don’t let go. 

Almost immediately, he heard urgent voices overhead. A few seconds later, he felt a hand reach down and grasp his shirt collar to keep him from plummeting below. He glanced up. It was Buck. Before either man could do anything, Mo felt someone move beneath him, stabilizing his legs on strong shoulders. Victor hollered up and assured Mo that he was secure. Above him, Buck adjusted his grip and began to pull. It took some effort, but Buck was finally able to heave the tall man up enough so he could pull his body onto the board. The rescue was met with applause by the men around them. 

Standing on his own two feet, Big Mo clasped the hands of the two men who had just saved his life. He tried to express his gratitude for their selfless actions that spared him a gruesome fate. That saved his family from unimaginable hardship. That gave him back the future that nearly slipped away. He wanted to impart all of this to them, but the only words that came out were “Thank you, gentlemen.” 

Buck and Victor simply nodded their heads.

“All in a day’s work,” Buck said, his crooked grin on display again.

The afternoon continued without any other dramatic incidents, and at the end of the shift, Big Mo and a dozen other workers rode the elevator to the ground, where they scattered into the city like insects, the dirt and grime from the job embedded in both their skin and their souls.

Big Mo couldn’t help but reflect on his near-accident. Seated on the train headed home, he watched the other passengers and wondered if they, too, were thinking about how fragile life was, how it could change in an instant.

He said a silent prayer of thanks that he would see his Eleanor’s face again and hug each of his children. He imagined a different existence in Newfoundland. He pictured a squat home with room to roam, perhaps a goat for milk, a vegetable garden. But America offered so much more.  Schools were better. Medical care was available. And he had a good job.

So even though the Great Depression had its grip on New York City and elsewhere, he knew that the life he was building here was better than any other. Big Mo made a promise to himself that he would do everything in his power to keep his family in America. 

He leaned back in his seat, watching the skyline of this great city as it drifted past the window, and thought once again, There is no better place.

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