Sweat, Steel, and Stealth

Retrofitting the Bay Bridge will take five years, hundreds of workers, a million bolts, and 19 million pounds of iron. The hardest part? Making sure no one notices.

As the big boss -- the general foreman of ironworkers -- Turley is known for being straightforward and fair. He speaks with the authority of someone who has seen a rapist hung in Algeria, a boy whipped with bamboo sticks in Singapore, and who has heard firsthand accounts of the conditions of jails in Libya.

With more than six decades of life experience, Turley overflows with stories and constantly dispenses advice to his young ironworkers on subjects like saving money, investment, and interpersonal relationships.

"Some guys come in here crying about their money problems or their wife problems," he says, shaking his head. "They come in here in the morning all huffy-puffy about a fight they had with their wife. I say, "Wait, did you listen to her? Did you let her finish talking? You need to be man enough to listen to her, and she needs to be woman enough to listen to you.'

Anthony Pidgeon
Roy Turley, general foreman for ironworking, was pulled out of semi-retirement to run the bridge retrofitting.
Anthony Pidgeon
Roy Turley, general foreman for ironworking, was pulled out of semi-retirement to run the bridge retrofitting.

"One guy, his wife was pregnant and he was nervous as a cat every day. I said, "Listen, son, you're 200 pounds now, and at the end of it you'll be 150 pounds, but it'll be fine.' I told him that he needs to show a lot of interest in that baby, and she needs your support. When he had that baby, he could hardly talk on the phone, he was stuttering so bad. I told him to get a good night's rest and that I'd see him the following day. He was a young guy, and it was his first child. That's a big thing around here, for guys to have babies. Six guys have had kids since this job started.

"To run these jobs, you almost got to be a psychologist," Turley concludes. "I never thought I'd say that."

Turley's right-hand man is Cal Kinney, a stocky 50-year-old with sleepy eyes and an upturned nose. Kinney likes to speak his mind, and he'll repeat himself over and over to drive the point home. His grainy voice has an East Coast edge, and it is made more resonant by the Winston cigarettes he smokes, a pack of which he keeps under his hard hat during the day.

Kinney is the kind of guy who believes in tough love ("I yell and scream all day long. It bites their pride, but it's good training"); doing a hard day's work ("When you break a sweat, you feel good"); a stiff drink ("I drink vodka because you could be in the bar all day and only smell like you had one"); and assigned gender roles ("Ironworking has always been man's work").

His opinions and worldview have been solidified by 28 years of ironworking, and Kinney has been around long enough to remember the glory days.

"We never tied off when we first started. We climbed the iron freely, that was part of being an ironworker," he says. "We were king of the hill, like cats on the iron. Now there's nets and safety cables. Safety, safety, safety. You're tied six ways to Sunday and you can hardly move on the iron anymore. We used to walk across I-beams and climb columns. They gotcha so moused up with so much safety equipment now.

"And back then the foremen would yell and scream at ya, but you never forgot what you learned. Now you got to be politically correct, and you can't call them names or you might offend somebody. When you first started out, you were a "punk.' Now, you can only call them "apprentices.'"

But some things remain the same. Kinney says he can still go to any ironworkers' hall in any state and have a "hand reach out with a hot cup of coffee."

And ironworkers still have a lot of pride, he says. "These guys'll get in fights about who's better than who, who's quicker than who, who's telling who what to do. They'll throw down in a parking lot and they buy each other beers afterward. Sure the boys will be rowdy, but boys will be boys. That's the way they are. That's the natural order of things. And if you don't know it, you'll learn it."

He tells tales of ironworkers like a veteran telling war stories: "The wildest it ever got is once we had to hang iron with a helicopter. It was fast-paced, to the wall, right to the edge. You got one foot in the web, one leg around a column, and 10 tons flying at you, and that's a lot of iron. A lot of guys lost fingers. You sat there with your bolts, waiting for it, and here it comes, and it's coming at you banging up and down, then you slam in a sleever bar, and throw a bolt and nut on it, get it in, and you're sliding down the column to get away from the metal before the copter pilot cuts the rigger loose. And maybe that bird woulda crashed, but you were lucky that day, so you go out and have a few beers and bragged it up."

But all the safety precautions have put an end to Kinney's fun, though he realizes that times have changed and he's getting too old for the business anyway. The construction company that hired Kinney and Turley has a "safety director" who makes nearly daily appearances on the site to talk to the workers about tying their harnesses to stable beams, or lead testing.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Around The Web

©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.