got hired to change light bulbs. The maintenance department at
Washington University in St. Louis advertised for a "Junior
Electrician," and I showed up.
My job was to walk around campus
with a cardboard box of fluorescent tubes on one shoulder and an 8 feet
stepladder on the other. I was the guy who made all the clanking noise
in the library setting up the ladder, opening the casement, dropping
20-year-old dust on your table when you were trying to study. I wasn't allowed to replace ballasts or cut any wires — that was a job for a "Senior Electrician."
Washington University had a large campus. Changing light bulbs was a full time job.
showed me what to do. He'd been promoted to "Senior Electrician." I
was his replacement. Franklin was about my age, maybe a year older. I
was white; Franklin was medium brown.
First day, in the stifling
St. Louis heat walking across campus to our assigned building, Franklin
asked me how I'd spent my summer.
"Long story," I said.
"Go ahead," Franklin said, stopping under the shade of a tree. "We got all day."
gave Franklin a brief synopsis of my summer. It included being turned
down for a summer job at Jack-In-The-Box — thank God! — hitchhiking to
California and somehow winding up in a hippie commune in Big Sur,
hitching back, a Hells Angel, a man who owned 7 brothels, a stolen
truck, a night alone in the middle of the desert, a drunk cowboy, a day
in the Winnemucca, Nevada jail, a Mormon missionary, hopping a freight
train, joining my girlfriend in Colorado and driving her beat-up old VW
bug to a ghost town in New Mexico and then to Vancouver, Canada and then
across Montana to Madison where at a party we met Miss Wisconsin who
was tripping on LSD, and then to Chicago just as the National Guard was
pouring in for the Democratic National Convention, and then to
Washington DC to see our parents, and back to St. Louis. And so here I
was. "What about you, Franklin? How'd you spend your summer?"
"Right here," Franklin said.
And there it was: I was working my way through college; Franklin was just working.
started in Dunker Hall. Franklin parked the ladder under a fixture,
climbed up, opened the casing and began my training on everything there
is to know about changing a fluorescent tube. Two minutes later,
Franklin said, "Okay, you got it."
Next, Franklin showed me how
to hide from Boss-Man: a little storage closet tucked into a wall of the
English Department. The closet was about 4 feet high and 8 feet deep —
just big enough to hide inside. Franklin said when he had my job, he
used to go in there and stay all day.
There was no light in
there. It was a wooden box. You close the door, and you might as well
spend your day in a coffin. Actually, a coffin would be better: at least
it would have bedding.
I'd rather do a day's work. So I said, "Um, not today, but thanks, Franklin."
"Can I ask you something?" Franklin was scratching his chin.
"Why do you want a beard?"
"Girls like it," I said. Not true, actually, but it was an easy answer.
"Girls, huh." He turned and started walking. "Follow me."
took me to the Art School building — Bixby Hall, I think — up to the
top floor where in another hallway there was a metal door to an air
vent. Franklin held the door open. "Go on," he said.
"Live models," he said. "Naked." Franklin climbed right into the air vent.
"I dunno, Franklin..."
"Would you shut up and get in here?"
I followed. What can I say? Adventure beckoned.
air vent was about 3 feet across the bottom, 2 feet high, sheet metal.
It smelled like stale dust. It rumbled and creaked and boomed like
thunder when you moved. (And it was probably full of asbestos — but who
knew at the time?)
"You have to slide yourself real easy,"
Franklin whispered, and he started squeezing along this tunnel that was
angled slightly downhill. Cautiously, I followed.
Probably everybody in the entire Art School could hear us moving around up there.
tunnel made a transition from rectangular to round. At the bottom of
the round section was a circular metal grate. This grate, Franklin said,
looked out over the art studio. Franklin was on his stomach, slowly
sliding feet-first down toward the grate. I was a few feet behind him,
facing forward. I was wondering how Franklin expected to see anything if
his feet were where his eyes needed to be.
At about this point it dawned on me that Franklin had never actually done this before. He was just trying to impress me.
last 10 feet or so was at a slightly steeper angle, and that's where
Franklin lost his grip. The metal was slick and there was nothing to
Franklin went booming feet-first down that air tunnel and
came up hard against the grate. There was a CLUNK and then a POP. All
this time I was leaning forward trying to grasp Franklin's outstretched
hands. Franklin was desperately looking up at me and waving his hands
around toward me and couldn't see that the grate had popped off. He was
starting to slide out.
Now, imagine you're in the art class.
You're the basic zoned-out art student. It's one of those big airy
studios with skylights and a high ceiling.
You hear this odd noise.
look up, and this big metal grate comes popping off the wall 20 feet
above you. You scramble out of the way. There's a crash and a clatter
and a WUNK WUNK WUNK as the grate hits the floor and settles to rest.
look up again and see two feet sticking out of the air vent kicking
wildly. Suddenly — this is where I finally catch hold of Franklin's
desperately flapping hands — the feet zip back inside the vent. You hear
a RUMBLE RUMBLE RUMBLE as Franklin and I scramble back up the vent and
into the hallway. You run out of class to see what is going on. You run
up the stairwell just as two dusty guys are running down a different
stairwell with all the adrenaline that comes from sheer terror.
ran all the way across the parking lot. We ran up the grandiose front
entry steps to Brookings Hall. We ran across the glorious grass of the
quad. We ran back to the English Department where we opened that little
wooden door and climbed into that hard dark space and shut the door and
lay there with the box of fluorescent tubes between us.
have I been so glad to spend an hour in a coffin. A dog wandered into
the building and started sniffing at our door. You could hear students
and professors walking by. Just outside the closet, a conversation
developed between a grad student and a whiny-voiced professor, and it
became clear that they were having an affair, that neither of them were
enjoying it, and that it was going to end badly for both of them.
caught us. Officially, that is. Larry, the gray-haired "Master
Electrician," seemed to always be suppressing a smile as he ordered us
around. Ever after the incident, Larry assigned Franklin and me to
opposite ends of the campus.
Before the year was up, Franklin got
drafted. On his last day all the electricians chipped in and gave him
an envelope of cash, about a hundred bucks, as a going-away present. It
was a tradition there. Franklin gave me his old pair of linesman's
pliers with a nick in the handle where it had touched a live wire that
sent him jumping.
I never saw him again. I lost the pliers when somebody stole my tool box.
Many years later, visiting Washington DC with my kids, I touched Franklin's name on the Wall.
Franklin was my first buddy in the trades.