Saturday, January 8, 2011

Boulder Dam

Milton turned off the road and hopped the fence. He had always liked this spot, partly because it was north-facing and cool, and partly because it commanded such a sweeping view of the gorge. He sat down and unwrapped a sandwich. It was a bright fall day, and the place was solitary. Cloud shadows floated on the canyon walls.

The first time he went to the overlook it had been gray and gloomy. He had turned in his application that morning and was feeling downright scared. The place was simply crawling with hopeful unemployed strangers and there were more arriving by the minute. He had been gold-fevered; he had been a fool.

Eight days later he got his work I.D., against the odds, as it seemed to him. It was printed on honey-colored paper and laminated.

Milton Landers C-Class Detonator

DOB:12/9/1904 Sex:M Height:5-11 Weight:175


There was no picture; not even a fingerprint. A child of nine could have forged it, but so what. He had a job.

It was 1932. Mohandas Gandhi was staging a hunger strike, the Sydney Harbor Bridge was newly completed, Bolivia and Paraguay had gone to war, the Mars Bar was introduced, and Josef Stalin’s second wife was found dead in her home with a revolver next to her subordinate hand. Back at home, unemployment had reached 33% and Herbert Hoover was packing to leave the Oval Office.
Hoover had reviewed preliminary plans for the dam 10 years ago as Secretary of Commerce. Congress authorized the project in 1928, awarding a contract for nearly $50 million to build a structure capable of holding back a new 250-square-mile lake and generating 4.2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity every year.

For the next three and a half years, this was home for Milton. It was a parallel universe - filled with the din of machinery and the acrid smell of spent explosives And there was the dust. In Michigan, dust was something that you swept up off the floor every third day or so. In Nevada, dust was a food group. On windy days it was usually better, though not always. Working up on the cliffs was actually one of the more desirable places to be. This was the province of the high-scalers - men who rappelled off the canyon rim and worked with jackhammers and dynamite to bring the canyon walls down to bedrock. While other men were getting carbon monoxide poisoning in the stifling diversion tunnels, the high-scalers hung suspended in the free air, reveling in the intoxicating self-sufficiency that men feel who work closely with nature and rope.

It took about a week to get used to the exposure. The job quickly became a source of pride, even identity. As your personality shapes your career, so your career, in turn, begins to shape your personality. A man’s profession eventually shows on his face, sometimes in his walk. Within a few months, you could tell the high-scalers on the streets simply by the way they grinned and swaggered. They were, deservedly or undeservedly, the project’s heroes, as they played the most dramatic and therefore the most visible role.

Keeping his eyes on the river, Milton pulled an apple from his coat pocket. He bit it slowly. Even with all that, high-scaling wasn’t just a swashbuckling showcase for the ladies. In his time on the ropes he had seen a man killed, and heard of several others. Fatal falls were rare; the greater danger was being struck by falling rock. It was Chick who first took his cloth cap and dipped it upside-down in tar, letting it harden into a stiff shell. These came to be known as Hard-Boiled Hats, and were quickly in widespread use among the high-scalers.

It was also Chick who caught the Government inspector who managed to fall under the safety rope. Chick saw him sliding, let out a quick, fluid rappel, traversed a swift arc along the cliff, intercepted the tumbling uniform just before the cliff edge, secured the man to himself with a long prussik, and then swung back out so he could be hauled up. The whole rescue took about sixteen seconds. Politics was already a sore spot around the dam site, and the incident didn’t favorably influence the workers’ opinion of their bureaucratic visitors, falling into a canyon being generally regarded as undignified.

But not all dam politics were that simple. On weekends Milton would go to The Silver Spigot in Boulder City where he often found himself defending Hoover, who was continually being posthumously maligned. Hoover, Milton felt, was a man’s man. He had worked internationally as a mining engineer, spoke fluent Mandarin, and when the battle of Tientsin trapped him and his wife in Tianjin during the Boxer Rebellion, he personally guided U.S. marines to the front line. He was surprised at how many people didn’t know these things. He was also surprised at the number of people who expected the president to change the destiny of a nation in four years and faulted him personally when he didn’t. Perhaps the president was really nothing more than an effigy for the country to burn. The idea disgusted him.

Now here he was, back at his overlook with some savings and confidence in his pocket. The dam was built - a giant solemn gate to a still-empty lake - and Hoover wasn’t even present at the ceremony. What father is not invited to his son’s baptism? Politics certainly looked like a rough ride sometimes. But time erodes pretension, and greed and greatness will both haunt a man. Truth is like a cactus; it’s hard to uproot and carry around with you.

Milton threw his apple core into the canyon and knelt to cinch up his boots. The day was wearing. He flailed his jacket against the fence three or four times and put it on. Crunching sagebrush, he made his way back to the road and stuck out his thumb.

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