When you’re 100 stories above the ground walking across a six-inch steel beam, Jay Dickson has some good advice.
“Don’t look up,” he advises.
He should know. The Village of Pine Ridge resident spent more than 30 years working on high steel.
“Everybody says, ‘Don’t look down,’ but if you stand out in the street and stare up at the sky, you’ll feel yourself starting to wave back and forth. The clouds and everything move,” he says. “When you look down, everything is still.”
Jay grew up on Long Island, the son of a Catholic school teacher and an Army psychologist father.
“My father was tough, but a good man. He started with 20 years in the Navy and then went to the Army for another 15 years. He retired as a colonel,” he says. “My mother spent 42 years as a teacher – that’s all she ever did.”
After high school, Jay spent time working with Robert Berks, a sculptor probably best-known for his four-ton, 12-foot bronze statue of Albert Einstein, which now graces the grounds of the National Academy of Science in Washington, D.C.
“I had just finished high school when a friend says, ‘We’re doing a project in Orient Point with Robert Berks,’” Jay says. “He said we would all live on the Berks property – no commuting.”
The process was arduous.
“We had to build our own tools,” Jay says. “Every screw and nail we used, we had to make it.”
The statue and its construction went on to be celebrated on TV and in print, with some criticism of Berks for the multi-million-dollar government grant that financed the work.
After that gig, Jay married, went to Mexico on his motorcycle with friends, had a good time for a couple of years, and got divorced.
“A friend asked if I’d come to work on a project as an ironworker. I was qualified for the work, and he said that he’d help get me into the union,” he says.
Six years later, after the discovery of six bodies, that company was found to be a front for an organized crime family, although no suspicion was ever cast on the ironworkers.
While many people marvel at the complexity of giant skyscrapers, Jay compares their steel skeletons to “A giant Erector Set. You look at the drawings, and beam B fits into B-one, and so on.”
But, in reality, the beams often don’t fit.
“There’s a group called the ‘plumbing up’ guys.’ If the building is off-plumb, they may use cables to tug it back into position,” Jay says. “If that doesn’t work, beams may be cut, redrilled and rebolted. If all else fails, the steel is completely replaced.
“The inspectors are tough in New York,” Jay notes dryly. “They don’t want the building to fall down.”
One facility that ensures strong buildings in New York is located just west of Miami. There, the first three floors of all major New York buildings are constructed and subjected to a series of rigorous tests involving water, wind, heat, cold, fire and other elements for strength and safety. One test involves creating a vacuum on one side of the building strong enough to literally suck the thick glass out of the windows.
Walking on a narrow beam on a building perimeter high above the ground is just part of the job.
“You get used to it. The worst part is the wind. A sudden gust can blow you sideways,” Jay says. “Or, if you’re leaning into the wind and it stops suddenly, you can be caught off balance.”
There’s no doubt that it is a dangerous job. Ironworkers get specialized life insurance through the union.
“We’re trained that if someone falls, we actually step back,” he says. “If a 200-pound guy is falling, you can’t stop it. If you try, you’ll go over yourself.”
Sadly, he says, he lost a few friends over the years. “It’s a hard thing to step back and just watch a guy go.”
Another ironworker hazard is getting an MRI.
“You have to sign a release form that steel particles in your body could be forced out by the MRI and the medical department and hospital are not responsible – which is never a good thing to think about when you’re lying there,” he says.
With all of the job-related cutting, grinding and hammering going on, getting metal bits in body parts is very possible.
Hearing loss is another hazard.
“How sound travels in steel!” Jay says, adding that he is deaf in one ear from the noise over the years.
After three decades as an ironworker, foreman and supervisor, Jay stayed safe. That included a stretch working high above Manhattan on top of the 103-story Empire State Building.
Then, in an ironic twist, he fell from the back of a truck firmly planted on the ground, injuring his back – an accident that would soon bring his days on high steel to an end.
“I was told that if I broke my back again, I would be paralyzed,” he says.
During his career, he worked on about 100 different buildings in Manhattan, Arizona, Florida and Washington, D.C.
That brought Jay and his wife, Claudia, to The Villages. They looked at a number of retirement locations and stopped in at The Villages on their way back to New York. They liked the lifestyle and bought a house.
While Jay was back in Long Island, Claudia returned to The Villages.
“She called me to come down,” Jay relates. “When I got here, she had furnished the whole house. It was ready for move in.”
The adjustment from working seven days a week to retirement was not easy.
“I never had time for golf,” Jay says with a laugh.
His latest project is an oak bar he built for the lanai. He’s also a motorcycle enthusiast who owns a 2001 Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail and has a limited edition 2019 Harley scheduled to arrive in the new year.
Claudia, meanwhile, is a medical transcriptionist, avid dragon boat paddler and president of the Pine Ridge Social Club.
While Jay is on the ground, the high steel tradition lives on in the family. His son, Joseph, is an ironworker following in his father’s footsteps – being careful to look down and not up at the moving clouds.
John W Prince is a writer and Villages resident. For more information visit www.GoMyStory.com.