Wednesday, September 21, 2011

365 Jobs: Junior Electrician

September 1968

I 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.

Franklin 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."

I 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.

We 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."

He 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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 grab.

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.

You 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.

You 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.

We 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.

Never 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.

Nobody 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.


  1. Hilarious. Poignant corollary. And man what a summer you had.

  2. Thanks, mate. I'm still trying to figure out everything that happened that summer.