It was 1976 and I had been out of high school for less than a year. I wasn’t ready for college, so I was working full time for a fire & safety company in my hometown. We installed and serviced fire and burglar alarms, as well as fire extinguisher equipment. Not the world’s most exciting job, but I was making some money and was happy to be working. I had known my supervisor since I was a small boy, so there was no uncomfortable time of feeling each other out and no competitive hi-jinks that go on in many work settings. We got along great and enjoyed our work, so life was good.
Many of you know that I love to talk, but Larry ran circles around me in that department. The stories flowed continuously, mostly between the two of us, but frequently with strangers who we met on the job. We’d be picking up our tools from an installation and I’d notice that he was involved in a conversation with the supervisor from the electrical crew. The first few times, I assumed that they were discussing work related things, perhaps taking care of final arrangements for wiring up the alarm panel. I would keep working at picking up the tools and tag-ends of conduit and wire, then would saunter over close to where they were still talking in animated discussion. “…and wouldn’t you know, he was caught knee-deep in the sewer drain and couldn’t get out!” The words would meet my ear and I would realize that it was another story. So, I’d make my way over to the van and sit in the passenger seat, waiting him out, knowing that it might be another half-hour. Larry could really tell a story.
Funny thing…when we were in the middle of the job, it was all work. Measuring and cutting wire, installing pipe or a fire extinguisher, trouble shooting an alarm system, it was all the same…Go as fast as you can and get the job done. But come the end of the job or the day and it was time to talk. I suppose I gained a good bit of experience while on that job, not only in the manual skills required to achieve success, but in the verbal skills necessary to tell a good story. I’d watch Larry’s hands as he described his escapades at college, or the faces of his listeners as they reached the point of boredom and I learned the important components to a good story, as well as the pitfalls of telling them. I felt the pain of his shop teacher as he cut his hand on a careless student’s tape measure and was embarrassed with him as he told of his trick knee and how it trapped him into a distressing episode with a young lady. I have great memories of working with and learning from him. But I do remember a time when Larry was speechless and left a job without saying another word to anyone.
We had just finished up with an installation at La Plaza Mall, a huge new shopping complex under construction on the south side of town. We picked up our tools and headed out the side exit, but unbeknownst to us, the concrete finishers had laid a sidewalk outside of that door while we worked that day. They had started in the corner where the door was and worked their way down the side of the building, about fifty feet away. Larry opened the door and stepped out–into six inches of still-wet concrete! I was right behind him and he hit me pretty hard as he jerked back inside the door, but he wasn’t quick enough to shut out the anguished “Aaaaaaayy” from one of the horrified concrete workers, who had seen nothing but a door opening and a foot plop down below it into their beautifully finished work. They would undoubtedly have to return to that end of the sidewalk to reach over 8 feet from the edge and smooth out the significant divot that Larry’s big size 11 work boot had left. It was the only time I remember leaving a job without a story or two, but Larry’s terse, “Other door!” were the only words I heard from him between that point and the time we were several blocks away from the site in our van.
For just that one afternoon, the storyteller was speechless. I am still contemplating the conundrum that, while I have forgotten many of the stories he verbalized, I will never, ever forget the story that quieted his loquaciousness, even if only for an hour or two. It’s definitely not in the same context, but I think Job in the Bible put his finger on it when he said, “My ears had heard of You, but now my eyes have seen You.” as he repented of talking about things too wonderful for his puny intellect.
Maybe silence really is golden. Of course, that pained “Aaaaaaayy” will always stand out in my mind as a potent communication in its own right. And that’s a good reminder to this long-winded storyteller that the job is completed; it’s time to go home and to bed.
“My father taught me to work; he did not teach me to love it. I never did like to work, and I don’t deny it. I’d rather read, tell stories, crack jokes, talk, laugh – anything but work.”
(Abraham Lincoln~Sixteenth U.S. president)