Thursday, June 11, 2009

From HS to Where? I.B.E.W. 134 That's Where

So, where does an honor roll student with high PSAT and ACT scores go after high school?

Take up one of the scholarships from: Illinois Institute of Technology, University of Illinois Chicago, or Westminster College?


Stay at home and continue to run her maid service. Well, at least for another 6 months.

Much to my father's dismay. He said he was NOT going to have me at home all day making phone calls and visiting with girlfriends. A.K.A. making appointments and assigning work.

So, on an extremely cold day in winter at 4:30am I bundled up and made my way to Humboldt park. To stand in line with several thousand other people. For over six hours. The electrical trades had just opened up and we were all hoping to get accepted as residential apprentice trainees.

By the time we had gotten into the field house, that did not open until 7:00am, they would have to help us hold a pen to fill out the form. Many of our hands were too cold to clutch the darn thing.

As fate would have it I made the cut.

Next step was to go to Washburne Trade School. On the first day there were over 500 of us taking an eight hour test. Before the test they let us know that only 100 of us would make the cut.

Made the cut and immediately started an eleven week intensive. We had four classes. Basic Math, Basic Wiring (low voltage), Electrical Code, and Pipe Bending. There were exams every three weeks, and final exams at the end. If you got three F's you had to start the course all over again. You were given three tries.

With the intensity of the classes I had to close or sell my maid service. One of my lead girls bought the service with a loan from her dad. A sweet $50K. However, all I was doing was hanging out at home and talking with my girl friends all day. Right?

Math, Basic Wiring and Code were a breeze for me. Pipe bending was a little more difficult. The math part of figuring out how much pipe length would be lost in a bend, how to make the degrees precise, and how to make the pipe lay flat with two or three bends in was doable. No problem with half inch pipe. No problem with three quarter inch pipe. However, one inch pipe and larger was ridiculous. At all of 110 pounds I was hanging of the bender like a monkey on a stick. No matter how much longer I made the handle I just could not get the leverage. Thank goodness for my pipe bending partner. The guy towered over me and could probably bend the stuff with his hands.

The cockroaches at Washburne were huge. We would joke about them by saying that they wore leather jackets and had tattoos. Many of the students wore their pants tucked in their socks for fear of a leg crawler.

Between classes we would sit in the halls waiting for the doors to open. On one occasion one of the bigger roaches was making it's way down the hall. There is nothing so funny as watching big guys screech and move to their feet to get away from a bug. We got in big trouble that day. With a piece of string I lassoed the little monster. And, another student hung him from an administration door in the hall. Hey, we thought it was funny.

Washburne housed more than classes for tradesmen. Yes, it was training Electrical Residential Apprentice Trainees - or RATs. And, it was home for the Carpentry Apprentices. However, it was also teaching several classes for upcoming chefs.

The lunches at Washburne were incredible. For $2 you could fill up your tray with gastronomic delights and foo foo pastry deserts. Lunch was definitely my favorite part of the day.

Well, when the eleven weeks were up we assigned our first jobs on the last Friday of school to report to work on Monday.

It was my first time on a construction site. The foreman, boss, did NOT want me there. He told me to go back to the union hall and get another assignment; that he did not work with broads. That morning he showed me how to load a Hilti stud gun and handed it to me. Showed me where the 20 foot ladder was; and had me start shooting studs into the cement ceiling.

The gun was difficult at first. I thought it was just because it was new to me. On the fourth or fifth shot the gun recoiled and threw me from the ladder. The safety steward, an older electrician, came running over to see what happened. First to see if there was any bodily damage, which besides bruises there was not. Secondly to see my Hilti license. Which I did not have. Did not know I needed. Then he asked me which box I had gotten the gun from. Replying there was no box the foreman handed it to me, the steward went to see which gun I had been using. It was the gun that had been marked do not use. The thing was broken and had recoiled the previous week sending another electrician to an emergency room. The foreman purposely tried to get me off the site since the union would not pull me. Wow, and not even lunch yet.

Remembering what my father said about how some people out there would make it tough on me, I stood strong. Stayed there and worked my day out, worked the next two months out on the same site.

But, that first night when I went home - boy did I have the break down. Cried like a child. Heck at 17, you still are a child.

The electrical apprenticeship program at that time lasted for four years. Once a year you would go back for another education intensive. Second year classes were for eight weeks. Third and fourth year classes were for six weeks each.

Many of the men treated me like the original foreman. There were many slashed tires at the end of the day on my car. There were letters on my windshield telling to: 'go home', 'leave now', and asking me 'do you have a death wish'. It seemed that the only workers that had no issues with me were the older journeymen, and guys in the other trades.

There are many things I learned in the trades that I still love to this day. One, I will never need help with electrical at home, even though I only worked in industrial and commercial. And, then there all sort of other things like the thrill of power tools. Coring holes in cement, threading heavy wall pipe, the chipping hammer, and band saws. Learned all about welding - prefer oxy/acetylene to mig or stick. Oh, and best of all - learned that on the job site you use an electric pipe bender for all pipe one inch and large on a sweet machine by Greenfield. You could even set the degree of the bend.

Learned that men really do act differently without women around. There is more of a pack mentality. And, boy can they waste time talking and talking and talking. Getting to see men in a no woman zone had really given me a more informed and enlightened view of them. In ways a whole new respect.

My favorite job site was the Brookfield Zoo Dolphin building and life support building. My name is written on the ceiling in the ladies washroom above the tiles of the suspended ceiling. It was my first chance to work with PVC pipe. Got to meet the man that invented the pipe. But more than that had a chance to walk the floor of the tank and look out like a dolphin would.

The last job site was the United Airlines terminal at O'Hare airport. There were over 3,000 construction workers there. We were all on mandatory overtime - ten hour days, seven days a week. You work so much you don't have time to cash your checks much less spend the money.

While at O'Hare I collapsed. Had had a stress stroke four months earlier while working at Stickney sanitation plant installing new fiber optic meters. That's when they found the gallstones. They had to clear a group of runways and send an ambulance through. Was cut open in the ambulance to relieve some of the pressure so the gallbladder would not burst.

Had 3 months off of work. Went back for three months and quit.

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