We’d spent a few hours assembling some scaffolding. I was working the frames and x- braces with a rope. Cy would tie them, I’d raise them, wrap my legs to keep from falling, and slide the frames on to the frames already set. After I’d raise the braces, I’d fasten them, Cy would pass up the decking, and we worked our way to the top.
We’d poured the bridge columns a few days before. The can forms were removed and we needed to rub, and grout, the fresh concrete. The scaffolding was needed for access to the columns. They were around 30 feet to the top; and our task was to give the columns an aesthetic finish.
It was hard work. For me, it was business as usual. I was young, full of energy, and it was just another day on the job. Cy was pushing sixty and age was slowing him down. I did what I could to ease his task. I was raised to respect my elders and I respected Cy for many more reasons.
As we worked, we talked about many things. We’d chip the concrete with chipping hammers, fill any imperfections with grout, and rub the surface with grinding stones to give the surface an even finish. I’d climb down to replenish our water and grout buckets.
As the day progressed, and the conversations unfolded, I realize Cy’s name wasn’t anywhere close to his real name of Lafayette Brown.
Before I go any farther, I need to describe Cy. He was a black man; slender in build, tall, graying hair; long arms with sinewy muscles and he chewed tobacco. I think he chewed Brown Mule, which was a plug. He’d bite off a chew and work on it for a few hours. He didn’t spit much, which meant he either swallowed some of the juice, or waited a long time before spitting. I think it was the latter, because his voice would rattle after long conversations.
Cy taught me as we worked. I’d helped rub and grout concrete, but actually performing the task was fairly new to me. He showed me how to use the chipping hammer to open the small perfections, the right consistency for the grout, and how to apply the grout to the surface, so the grinding rock would create an even finish. After the grout set for the proper time, he showed me how to use long, even strokes with the finishing brush to achieve the right texture for the finish.
We worked for much of the morning, before I asked about his name. He smiled as he explained his nickname, and I admired him more when he finished his story.
Cy needed a job. He was young, had a family, and he needed to provide the necessities for survival. He bugged a construction company to the point the owner finally created a task so cumbersome, he knew Cy would fail and go away.
The task was to unload a rail car full of bags of cement. The cement was stacked on pallets, and there were many pallets in the box car on the siding.
Cy, who was more than determined, started his task one early morning. The owner of the company, smug with his decision, described what was needed and returned to his office. Cy went to work.
Somewhere, between lunch, and quitting time, Cy returned to the office and asked the owner if they had anything else for him to do. The owner, thinking he was being played, went back to the rail car to find it unloaded. Cy stood quietly; and the owner exclaimed: “You unloaded that like a cyclone”.
So, Cy was hired permanently, and it was decades that passed, when I had the honor of helping him on the job. The nickname stuck, and the respect he earned was not without merit. He earned his place; and only a shallow fool wouldn’t realize his importance.
There are millions like Cy in the world. We pass them on the street and some, like me, are honored to be able to work with them long enough to learn the things that only those that work with their hands understand. They pass on; and few understand their importance in the grand scheme of things. Most are anonymous forever. I can’t let that happen with Lafayette Brown. He was a man, among men, and I was blessed with the opportunity to know him.