A man once stopped to talk with me. I had become frozen with fear, five stories up, trembling with the weight of the load of lumber I had hoisted on my right shoulder, balanced on an 8-inch I-beam on which I found myself, unable to move forward and becoming overwhelmed by the weight of the lumber I bore. Five stories below me were men working on the concrete deck; if I dropped my load, I might kill them and, in all likelihood, I would fall off in the other direction.

Eleven ironworkers sit on a steel I-beam 850 feet above the ground on the 69th floor of the RCA Building in Manhattan, on Sept. 30, 1932, during the construction of Rockefeller Center. Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

It was summer, the mid-’70s. I had found a job as a union carpenter, working protection on the new Telephone building going up in downtown Manhattan, by the Brooklyn Bridge, nestled by the police headquarters. Above me stood a lattice work of iron, and I had been headed into it, to fill the rough stairwells with the wooden inserts I had spent that morning fabricating, when I lost my courage. I was new to the job and had lost sight of my mechanic, who had been leading the way. And as I stood there, frozen, on to that matrix of I-beams there wandered toward me a burly ironworker. Clad in workboots, jeans, T-shirt and hardhat. My first impression, as I saw him approaching and regarding this first-year apprentice carpenter blocking his way, was of impatience in his marshmallow booze-swollen eyes.

“Are you stuck?” he asked. I told him I was. He pointed out that a plywood platform was about 15 feet back from where I was and that I could work my way back there. He offered to talk me back. I accepted, and when we got there I dropped my load and nearly collapsed. I thanked him, and prepared to move on, but he then told me to stick around, went and got a couple of buckets and sat us down.

A family photo shows Jan Wejchert in the back row, with his parents, who did not approve of his walking iron, sitting in front of him. Courtesy of Jan Wejchert

He explained that walking steel is initially very frightening, but that most guys get used to it. He did say, however, that some guys could never quite get the hang of it, and that there was no shame in that. I could just go explain this to the foreman and the company would send me somewhere else, to a job that did not encompass walking iron. He then went on to explain the basic rules; that when two guys approached each other you passed at the cross-tees, passing always to the right. And so it happened that I learned to walk the steel. It became commonplace. I kept my focus. Kept my balance. I kept on the beam.

I marveled at the massive I-beams being hoisted up, often with a case or two of beer balanced on top, a rigger straddling each end, clad in shorts; a lump-hammer, marlinspike and wrench for tools. The occasional bolt or nut would come whizzing by. And always present were the steady litany of the impact hammer, the whine of the hoisting crane, the smell of the welder, the flash of its arc.

I never saw that ironworker again, but I certainly think of him, because he saved my young life. I went on to work on that job site for many weeks, erecting job fencing, construction gates, walls, and the myriad other tasks of job protection. Then the company needed me somewhere else.