Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving

Striving to engage – Anecdote 1

I’ve called my blog Strive to Engage and you are probably wondering why that is:

  1. Living with intent was already taken;
  2. It has nothing to do with being affianced!; and
  3. I want to live a rich life full of connections and the joy of giving so it’s through engagement that I can achieve that.
The Open Road by Pico Iyer book cover

The Open Road by Pico Iyer book cover

I’d like to share a short anecdote with you about what I mean by being engaged. First I’ll need to set the context; I love to read and my bus ride to and from work is a sacred time for me to read without being interrupted (I have two young children at home and a hectic job so there are no reading opportunities at either end of my bus trip!). I was sitting at the bus stop waiting for my next bus and blissfully reading The Open Road by Pico Iyer when I became aware of an annoying teenage boy riding up and back on the narrow strip of paving separating the seats from the buses. I watched the boy recklessly riding up and back past elderly people, a heavily pregnant woman and young children, doing quick stops, spinning the bike around and generally making a nuisance of himself while checking for responses from travellers. I was impressed to see an elderly man confront the boy but disappointed to see the boy say something rude and turn his back on the man to make another traverse of the narrow footpath/loading area.

I pondered the saying that it’s in a crowded setting that an individual has the least chance of getting help and played over in my mind the horrific footage of a girl being hit by a car in China while pedestrians passed by and nobody helped her. The next thing that I knew I was standing in the middle of the footpath with my feet spread wide apart and firmly planted, my arms crossed and the book with the photo of the Dalai Lama on the cover held outwards like a talisman, thus blocking the path of the boy (as an aside I’m tall (178cm or 5′ 10″ but lean 58kg or 9 stone, 2 lbs so I don’t think I’m particularly physically menacing). He rode right up to me with the intent to ride into me, just stopping at the last instant but I held my ground. I insisted that it was antisocial behaviour to ride his BMX bike in a crowded place with vulnerable people around him and gestured towards the young child right next to the wheel that he was pivoting around in the air).  The boy yelled in my face that he would call the Police and that he had the right to ride wherever he wanted. I retorted that he had no rights in this situation and I would be happy to speak to the Police about the matter. He slunk off to the other end of the bus stop and I turned to watch him carefully. He dropped some rubbish and started another ride along the footpath but I stopped him again and insisted that he pick up his rubbish. He refused, saying that I was not his mother. I almost laughed at this point because I realised that I was treating him in the way that I would treat my own children. Instead I started to count (yes this is most embarrassing to admit that I started counting to 3 even though I had no backup plan and anyway, who disciplines a stranger? I do apparently). Amazingly he dismounted, picked up the rubbish and put it in the bin. I continued to keep an eye on him where he was slinking around at the other end of the bus stop while other passengers came up to me and thanked me for my efforts.

At that point I realised that I was still standing in the same position in the middle of the footpath, feet still planted, arms crossed and talisman still on display. I also realised that my legs were shaking with adrenaline. The boy called out that I should stop staring at him and I realised that I’d made my point so I took a seat and tried to return to my book. At that point the boy walked his bike up to me and apologised, held out his hand and introduced himself to me. It was surreal. I actually couldn’t believe that it had turned out that way. He went on to explain that he’d been bullied that afternoon so I counselled him on how to get help to put a stop to the bullying. He went on to admit that he’d been antisocial and he thanked me for standing up to him and when his bus arrived he waved to me as he boarded his bus. Amazing but true!

As a footnote I afterwards realised that he could have attacked me and that I myself was in a vulnerable position for confronting him. It was with dismay that the very next week I read in Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell the scene where Timothy Cavendish was mugged by three teenage girls (it’s great writing so I’m going to share the quote here and you can read my review of the book here!):

A trio of teenettes, dressed like Prostitute Barbie, approached, drift-netting the width of the pavement. I stepped into the road to avoid collision. But as we drew level they tore wrappers off their lurid ice-lollies and just dropped them… ‘You know, you should pick those up.’ A snorted ‘Whatchyoo gonna do ’bout’ it? glanced off my back… ‘I have no intention of doing anything about it,’ I remarked, over my shoulder, ‘I merely said that you —‘ My knees buckled and the pavement cracked my cheek… A sharp knee squashed my face into leaf-mould. I tasted blood. My sixtysomething wrist was winched back through ninety degrees of agony, and my Ingersoll Solar was unclasped.


6 comments on “Striving to engage – Anecdote 1

  1. William Filgo
    November 3, 2013

    I loved your anecdote. I am sixty-three years old and so I have many anecdotes to relate. Mark Twain was perhaps the greatest story teller of this genre, but I have far to go before I would compare myself to the master. I mention him because I am reading his autobiography and recommend it for the rich detail of American small town life. I was struck by discord between the stated goals and meaning of strivetoengage and this story of conflict and danger.
    In nineteen sixty-two, my father was sent to an American Air Force base in Holland for a three year tour of duty. My mother was born in Bristol, England and had endured the bombing and the war from the age of eight to fifteen. She refused to let my father go abroad without his family of wife, four children and a dog. He was forced to reenlist to fulfill his contract for taking his family with him. My mother was not a stable personality and had to fight every day in war time and post war England and indeed that is the most dire form of engagement. My mother was bigger than most men and when I enlisted eight years later, I could not beat her at arm wrestling. I am not small and I won the award for most physically fit in my company of two hundred and twenty nine men at the end of basic training. My mother was capable of engaging directly with any situation that could arise.
    The stress of preparing for going overseas with a family had pushed mother beyond her ability to cope and she was finding unnecessary battles to fight. She beat up my brothers teacher, a strapping man of over six foot, because the teacher had struck my brother for some insolence. The teacher did not know my brother had one eye and we were all very protective of him. Mother had to complete her American citizenship so that the passports were in order, we all needed typhoid, tetnus, smallpox, and sundry other innoculations. Any one of these being incomplete would mean we would not travel with my father, but at a later date. Mother could not countenance such a delay and she was breaking. Just before we were to go, a surprise air raid siren and full alert was sounded to see how well the base would respond. Mother froze at the top of the stairs in a catatonic state, her bowels evacuated.
    I was twelve years old and I was put in charge of staying with mother whenever dad was gone. My brother, younger by thirteen months, was in charge of staying with the two younger children. We sailed on the SS United States from New York and landed in La Havre, France. We took a train to Holland and we were put up in a hotel until we could rent a house. We had to rent “on the economy” because there was no on-base housing. It took an average of two months to locate a house that most Americans found substandard for more money than we had ever paid for rent in the U.S. We were being bankrupted by hotel rates and living out of a suitcase for that time.
    Dogs were allowed at hotels in Holland, and our dog liked to chase the ducks at the pond in a nearby park. One morning, he walked himself to the park and came back soaking wet from falling in that stinking green water. The hotel manager tried to kill the stench by throwing a bucket of water on him, but that made Rover run up to our room on the third floor howling like he had been killed. Mother grabbed the diaper bucket, emptied the diapers and filled it with water. She ran down the stairs with me in tow. She drenched the manager and beat the hell out him for good measure. We had to move.
    I have been careful to not run into someone like my mother and push that one too far.

  2. strivetoengage
    November 3, 2013

    William you told that anecdote extremely well! Thank you for sharing. I laughed out loud and cringed for you, your brother, your father and your mother (not to mention the hotel manager and teacher). It sounds like your mother had a difficult life due to the trauma that she experienced in her childhood.

    Thanks for the recommendation to read Twain’s autobiography, I will add it to the list 🙂 I suppose that when I wrote this post I thought it would illustrate an example of engaging with my community rather than being disengaged. Every other passenger in transit simply watched the boy with the bike and I felt that I had the capacity to peacefully prevent his antisocial behaviour with my voice alone. Interestingly, just yesterday my friend lamented that she has never stood up to anyone even when she felt that it needed to be done. I will keep in mind your cautionary tale should I ever consider anything other than a non-violent approach!

  3. William Filgo
    November 6, 2013


    It was April Fools Day of nineteen ninety-eight. I was working as an ironworker and our four man crew was installing the roof system, the catwalks and stairs in a new performing arts building at a high school. After installing the beams of the roof system, we installed the catwalks using an electric winch with a thousand feet of three-sixteenths wire cable. It had a working load limit of one thousand pounds, which was fine for the small catwalk pieces. Two men were on the roof beams, one man operated the GoLo ( the electric winch), and one man put the catwalk pieces on the GoLo hook. The GoLo was mounted to a concrete slab at ground level and it could pivot to aim at the sheave hanging by a choker (a wire rope length of cable with an eye braided in each end). The sheave cannot always be located exactly where the catwalk element is to be installed, and the drift (the pull from hanging perfectly vertical) is called the fleet angle. Although I was the oldest man on the crew at the age of forty-eight, I had to go to the roof beams and attach the catwalk pieces to the roof iron. I had a partner and we were thirty-five feet above the concrete floor. An apprentice was putting the iron on the hook and an old-timer was running the GoLo. The up men, my partner and I, would lay on the roof beam and grab the vertical leg, called a hanger, beneath the beam. One would hold it while the other welded it in place. Once two hangers were installed, we reached down and attached clamps to the hanger so that we could climb down the hangers like a ladder. This “ladder” is a three inch by three inch angle iron, an L-shaped straight bar, with clamps on it. The GoLo raised the horizontal piece, a C-shaped bar called channel iron, and the two ends are connected with two three-quarter inch diameter bolts at one and half inches of length. There is a knife-clip on the hanger with two thirteen-sixteenth inch diameter holes in it. They match the two holes in the horizontal channel iron. I think I have given a clear picture of the hazardous nature of our endeavors and I was proud that I still had all my fingers and toes after twenty years of always taking the hard point.
    We had finished the catwalks and only a staircase stood between us and the inevitable layoff, the reward for a job well done. We set the GoLo on the roof to start installing stair sections. The stair sections weighed about a thousand pounds, putting us at the limit for our load line. Two men would have to work under the suspended load, like the king in the Sword of Damocles. The GoLo wouldn’t swivel, giving us a large, difficult fleet angle. A bad fleet angle can force the load line over the cheek plate and off of the drum. A load line at full limit and shocked can fail and drop the stairs on the two men trying to install it. It was my turn to operate the GoLo. I brought these troubling circumstances to the attention of the foreman and suggested we rethink our approach. I was given the alternative of doing the job or going back to the Union Hall. I didn’t trust anyone else to safely operate under the conditions, I felt it would be on my conscience if someone died after I left.
    I was bent over the GoLo since it was attached to the top of a wall opening for the stair landing. The angle of the load line was about thirty degrees from horizontal and pulled hard to the right. I had the power switch in my left hand and the load line in my right. We were raising a one-floor section of stairs about fifteen feet long and five feet wide. It had channel iron stringers twelve inches tall with sheet metal stair steps that would later be filled with cement. It had to tilt at the proper angle sit on both landings at about the same time and they would be welded into place. I was leaning hard to keep the line on the drum, but my eyes were on the load in case it hung up on the narrow clearances. I couldn’t see the broken wire on the load cable, but it grabbed my glove and pulled my hand into the drum. My hand was palm up and I was pressing against the wire with my palm. A thin wire with a thousand pounds of force will instantly sever fingers in this configuration.
    I didn’t know anything, but I knew everything. I couldn’t see with my eyes, but my mind was seeing in all directions. I was above, below and in every place around me and all at the same time. My consciousness was expanding faster than the speed of light and I suddenly knew. I knew that my mind was reaching to the infinite and when it hit the boundaries of all that is known it would collapse. I knew that I also knew everything and that I only had to frame a question and the answer would be mine. It was peaceful, but I knew it was going to end when my consciousness had collapsed all the way back to normal. I determined to ask the one question I had time to ask. I wondered what I would ask, I felt effusive, munificent. Would I cure cancer? Then time sped up, the question was answered. I immediately knew that the power switch was in my left hand and I released it to save my three other fingers from amputation.
    My metaphysical adventure was over, but the feeling stayed with me all day. It was there through the trip to the hospital and back home. I couldn’t sleep that night even though I had a lot of pain meds. I wondered if it was real, did I achieve oneness? If I did, why did I ask where the button was? I think I would give up some fingertips to be of benefit to mankind. Maybe I didn’t.

  4. strivetoengage
    November 8, 2013

    What a dangerous scenario! Your foreman was a knucklehead and his blatant disregard for safety makes him unfit for his job.

    • William Filgo
      November 8, 2013

      I find that the terms middle-manager and knucklehead are synonymous. This man was a very good ironworker, but he had never been given his due. He was a one-eyed black man amongst a heartless, fault-finding, narcissistic, old-school clan of back stabbers. Paul Hogan, is an ironworker and his life story lends credence to the mindset that I am describing. My foreman, Colonius, had to get some production and most of the delays were not his fault. The owner of the steel company, like most small business owners, had to employ every member of his family to keep the peace. Many of these guys were incompetent, so the field ironworkers had to fix their mistakes. That is not the way to make money. Colonius had learned that most of the men he got from the union hall were not going to give him good advice or even work hard for him. He did the best he could, but he was trapped in the mask he had made for himself. He always regretted what happened, but no one was killed. In my town, alone, four men have died in less than a year. My own son had his left foot amputated by a falling beam in June of this year. It is a very dangerous profession. The work is physically debilitating, you usually work with a partner and the average weight that two men must carry all day long is about three hundred pounds. That is the weight of the iron that you carry to the place it must be installed, so you are also carrying your hand tools on a tool belt that is so heavy you must hold it up with suspenders. In addition you are usually working at precarious height with little footing. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The work can be safely though. The last five years of my career, I worked at a nuclear power plant. They are so worried that someone will go off half-cocked and cause a chain of events that could release radiation, that every thing that is done must be documented and laid out by certified engineers. It takes a lot more people to get anything done and it is very expensive, but the consequences of failure demand the meticulous oversight. I was on the refuel crew. A crew of about fifty worked around the clock to dismantle the reactor, remove the spent fuel, put in new fuel and reassemble the reactor. I felt fortunate to be part of a two billion dollar machine that provided electricity to one million households. I was a heavy rigger, and once I had a seventy-five ton contraption of highly radioactive stainless steel on the hook of the polar crane. The polar crane is a five hundred ton crane that sits on a railroad track that circles the upper level of the containment building. It is used to pull components in and out of the reactor core. The lift was so hazardous that only our crew was in the building. If the component came out of the water, we would all be dead before we could get out of the building. You can never forget these things and is difficult to find anyone that wants to hear about it.

      • strivetoengage
        November 8, 2013

        As is usually the case I was too quick to condemn the foreman. I’m sorry to hear about your son’s foot! Does he have a prosthesis now? Life must be extraordinarily difficult for him.

        I couldn’t carry around that kind of weight. During my PhD project I went underground in a coal mine a few times to collect samples and I found the weight of the resuscitator etc. and all of the samples of rock and groundwater difficult to carry with safety boots, helmet, torch etc.while walking kilometres underground but it weighed barely anything compared to what you describe (I am a bit of a lightweight though ; )

        Also during my PhD I conducted some experiments at a scientific reactor facility and ever since I’ve been fascinated by nuclear power. What you described is very interesting.

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This entry was posted on September 17, 2013 by in Me and tagged , .
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