Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Nap Boule! Passing the Test

Once again we woke up in the dark and at breakneck speed headed down the hill into Port-au-Prince for the first real day of work. I met the carpenters I’d be working with, all of whose names seemed totally incomprehensible to me at the time. I tried to write them down. Just recently I discovered an old tattered notebook I’d tucked away. In it was the simplified list I’d made that day: Stripe Shirt, Green Cap, Red Hard Hat, Cowboy Hat, Blue Cap, Straw Hat, and Blue Shirt, and so on. And of course there was the interpreter, Bobby MacBean, an impish fellow in his fifties who had lost all his teeth along the way. The men called him S.D.N. They said it stood for sans dents net, "completely without teeth."

Eventually I mastered all their names, however difficult they seemed at first. This was something that stood us in good stead months later, when some serious labor problems developed.

An excavation crew had already dug out the spaces for the grade beams of the huge main building for the sugar mill equipment. Concrete workers had laid down a "mud slab" of low grade concrete as a base on which to set the reinforcing steel.

I discovered that since Haiti is theoretically prone to earthquakes, the Haitian government had ordered the specifications for the building to be increased for that possibility. It was obvious that a tremendous amount of steel and concrete would be needed to build this thing. And as might be expected, the concrete and steel were to be supplied by companies connected to the Haitian government.

Our job was to set up the forms for the first run of grade beam. That was simple enough. We had plywood and 2 x 4's, So far, so good. Then I found out that all the blueprints were in the metric system. So a 4' x 8' sheet of plywood would measure 122 x 244 centimeters, or close to it. We set to work to build some forms.

MacBean was helpful getting the message across, and the men seemed to know what they were doing. I wondered at one point how they felt about having a foreigner telling them what to do. I was soon to find out.

I’d basically been just working alongside them, as we built a dozen or so forms, supervising the cutting of the 2 x 4's in an economic manner, and showing them to set them at 40 centimeters on center, more or less. A couple of them seemed to be grumbling about something. Then more of them joined in and I noticed that they were looking over at me. I asked MacBean what was going on. He said, "Oh, Boss, you got a problem now. The say the way this work, you the big s–t, and they the n----rs!"

Hoo-boy, the defining moment of any job: the moment that will determine how things will go with your co-workers from then on out, a fork in the road leading to heaven or hell. I prayed for the right words. Suddenly I remembered the story of Nehemiah rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem. The murmuring stopped, and the crew waited for my reply.

"Tell them this," I said. "If any one of them can show me that he knows more about building a building like this than I do, then he can show us how to do it, and I’ll be one of the laborers. No problem." They seemed satisfied with my answer, and the crisis passed.

One other thing happened that increased my "props" with that crew, and I still don’t completely understand how it happened. A couple of them (Red Hard Hat and Straw Hat–wow, I just remembered their real names: Yves Caillot and Andre Decaille) were very large men, and a couple of years older than I was. Now it’s a psychological fact that we humans, no matter what our condition, feel superior in some way to the majority of the people we meet, even if it’s through a contrived comparison of our own devising. I noticed that Andre Decaille was about to replace a circular saw blade the wrong way, and pointed it out. He turned to the others, and although I couldn’t understand him at the time, you could tell he was probably saying I was just about the dumbest son-of-a-b---h he’d ever met. I stood back and watched.

To prove his point, he picked up a piece of wood, lifted the saw with a flourish, and started to cut. Of course the blade was in backward. What happened next was something I’d never seen before, or since for that matter. The blade heated up and the teeth melted right before our eyes. He stopped the saw. The teeth had extruded out into elongated points with a gob of molten metal on the end.

I don’t know where the company got those saw blades. When installed properly they seemed to work fine. I had never seen a piece of steel melt from the mere friction of running it through soft wood. I shook my head in wonderment and moved on to something else.

I’m sure Andre must have thought that I’d worked some voodoo on the blade just to prove a point. Even though he turned out to be one of our best workers, he never had much to say after that day.

For an informative look at Haitian customs and religion, check this out.

Things continued smoothly for the rest of the summer. Although we were working six 12 hour days per week, I eventually got to know some of the locals. Most of the grade beams for the main building were now in place. We’d actually done a great deal of work, although little of it showed, because most of it was below ground level.

The job site was in a rural area, and unfenced, so there were always people we didn’t know on the periphery. Some of these were job seekers, wives of the men, or people trying to sell things. Toward the end of one week a strange figure appeared several times, each time standing silently with his back to a building, watching. He was a large man, over six feet tall, and well-dressed. In spite of the heat he was wearing a gray three-piece suit, a black hat and dark glasses. He carried a black leather case, and didn’t speak to anyone.

We were about to get a visitor.

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