By Michael Ledwith
Sept 2, 2022
The summer before my junior year in high school, only 15, another football player with a car and I began cruising around looking for construction jobs.
Construction was the ultimate ambition for a high schooler. Rumor was that even the bottom rung of the construction job ladder paid $5 an hour, way more than the $1.25 minimum wage everywhere else.
The rumored dream job for a kid during the summer was to get really lucky and get the job holding a ’SLOW DOWN ROAD WORK’ sign for the county.
All you had to do was stand around and get paid $5/hour. Was America great or what?
We had heard rumors of that sort of job from other guys on the football team, along with rumors that Cocoa Beach High girls were so easy that they would go to the drive-in on the first date, and would bring schnapps stolen from their German War Bride moms.
We stopped at every site between Satellite Beach and Cape Canaveral with no success. Driving to the Intracoastal from A1A along windy roads lined with new housing developments under construction, or crews building shopping plazas or schools.
Things were popping along the Space Coast as we raced to the moon.
Turned down because they were no jobs, or because we had no experience, or were too young, or because we were white boys.
White kids don’t work hard, we were told by big tough looking white foremen. White kids were soft. They have rich NASA daddies and they aren’t hungry enough. It’s too hot during the summer for white kids to work they said.
But on the third day, we drove out the 520 Causeway toward the mainland over the Banana River. Within a mile or so we stopped at a small construction site that was a concrete slab with low walls, no roof, and what looked like a radio antenna.
There were a bunch of black guys working at the site. An old Cuban man dressed like Truman on vacation, sitting on a new leather couch in the middle of the slab with a beach umbrella providing shade.
A short, muscular white guy, mid-thirties, greeted us as we got out of the car by asking, you looking for work? His name was Joe,
If you can start right now, I’ll pay you $6 an hour in cash, no paperwork, no fucking tax shit, show up at 6am, we work till four and you get an hour for lunch at 11.
We both had on our nice pants and shirts that our mothers had insisted we wear to make a good impression. My buddy Chuck was wearing a clip-on tie. He took it off.
The construction boss says, I’m Little Joe Costanza and I’m fuckin’ crazy cause I got shot in the head in Korea.
He gestured for us to come closer. He made a fist and rapped the upper right side of his head. Hear that, he asked?
I couldn’t hear anything except the sound of a guy punching himself in the head. A thud, and as he rapped on his head a bit harder came a louder thud.
Chuck shouted yes! It’s like you’re hitting a metal door with a ball peen hammer!
Little Joe was delighted. He gave us sledgehammers and led us to a solid concrete wall about four feet high and ten yards long, and said, knock that down. Then put the fragments into that wheelbarrow and run the barrow up through that door frame and dump it into that flatbed truck.
There were 4X4s running as a ramp balanced by concrete blocks from just on the other side of the wall up through the door frame to the truck.
Can you boys do that and not fuck it up?
It was June in Florida. 95’. Humid. No breeze.
My dress shoes kept slipping on the concrete as I swung the sledgehammer. They were dusty with concrete dust and one of the tassels had broken off within ten minutes. Joe came back and took Chuck to lift buckets filled with concrete as part of a chain to fill rectangular wooden forms. From man to man until dumped into the form fifteen feet high.
I pounded concrete.
One of the black guys came over and lent me a spare pair of work gloves, said, next time you hit the blocking sled, brother, you’ll hit it hard.
I filled the wheelbarrow with concrete to the top. It was way too heavy for my skinny,135-pound frame, but I was sure as shit not going to take any out in front of the rest of the men.
I lifted up the handles, stayed low, gained speed ran across the smooth floor, hit the ramp, straining up the incline to get to the truck bed. Like the fool I was, I completely forgot about the top of the door frame.
It slammed into my forehead like a Louisville Slugger wielded by Mickey Mantle taking one out of the park.
It knocked me out cold.
I came to with Little Joe yelling kid! Kid! Frantically pulling concrete off me. The rest of the crew shaking their heads and saying, maybe that’ll knock some sense into him and he’ll get a job at Publix.
The Cuban guy, lit cigar in his mouth, walked over, looked at me with contempt, and said pendejo.
I jumped up, I’m OK, I’m OK!
And then I fell over.
Somebody poured water on my face. Joe was cradling my head in his arm, giving me a shot of rum. I touched my forehead, a huge, long bump, a little blood.
I got up, started filling the wheelbarrow.
Son, Little Joe said, stopping me, why don’t you go over there, pointing to a pile of lumber, and pull some nails out of those studs for a while?
Every morning Chuck would pick me up at 5 am. We’d drive to SeaPark to check the surf. Then drive north in solid speeding traffic heading for the Cape and the launch pads. Turn on to the empty 520 causeway heading west and pull into the construction site.
Across the road, NASA’s enormous Vehicle Assembly Building on Merritt Island shimmered in the morning light and haze. Chuck talked about the recent fire that killed three astronauts. His dad had been on the pad when it happened. Chuck could smell the smoke on his dad’s clothes when he got home.
The black guys were doing this as a living, not to save money for college. They worked hard, listening to Motown on the radio and kidding the two white kids. Would you date a black girl? Had you ever kissed a black girl? Warning us that we’d better not because we’d never even look at those skinny blonds with little boys asses again.
They had wives and kids and some of them were back from Vietnam.
Boys, the guys from Vietnam would say, study hard, stay in school. Uncle Charlie is no fool. He ain’t fucking around. He’ll chew your skinny asses up.
The Cuban guy had been the head chef at the Havana Hilton. He had fled Castro with a bounty on his head. All his entire family had been shot dead by Castro.
He escaped to America with nothing. Worked as a waiter at the Cape Colony Inn, then became the beach director renting umbrellas and surfboards to tourists from New Jersey. Saved his money so he could open his own place.
We were tearing down a radio station that had lost its broadcasting license to build that Cuban restaurant.
The restaurant was his American dream.
Almost every day, his Cuban friends, all of them refugees, would come by to see the dream being built. They’d sit on the couch under the umbrella, drink rum and play cards.
One day, the County building inspector showed up. He told Little Joe that this was an illegal construction site.
Inspector says Where were the permits? Where were the union workers in skill positions? What the heck was he doing?
Little Joe told him about Korea. The Chef came over and told him about Havana. Two of the black guys told him about their daughters wanting to go to college.
The County building inspector, the chef and Joe went into the little air-conditioned trailer parked up next to the Banana River. They stayed in there for an hour.
They came out drunk and friendly smoking illegal Cuban cigars.
The inspector had a bottle of rum in one pocket, a dozen Cuban cigars in the other. We didn’t stop working.
Several days later, a union guy showed up, big Cadillac, already smoking a cigar, loud cologne, two toned shoes, Panama hat, pinky ring.
The union guy yelled at me as I walked by carrying a power saw: Union guy shouting What the fuck do you think you’re doing!!
Little Joe Costanza come out of the trailer in a flash. No cigar. No rum. No smile.
But there was a 1911 Colt in his hand.
He fired it into the blue sky. He put two rounds into the ground between me and the union guy.
The union guy jumped three feet in the air.
What the fuck are we doing here!? Joe yelled. What the fuck are YOU doing here?
His voice was hard as a hammer’s head. What we’re doing here is I’m about to shoot some stupid union motherfucker. Get the fuck out of here!
The union guy in a whisper, sounding like he was having a stroke says, you’re crazy.
You’re goddam right I’m crazy says Joe. Crazy? Crazy? Hey listen.
He stepped closer to the union guy, did that rapping thing again with his head, rapping on the side of his head with his knuckles. He says, know why that don’t thud? Know why it pings a little, why it sounds like a ballpeen on a tin roof?
‘CAUSE I GOT SHOT AT CHOSIN, ASSHOLE! Got my fucking head almost blown off by some Commie bastard! By some Chi Com wanna be union organizer! They had to put an inch-thick metal plate in there to keep my brains from slopping out of the hole the bullet made.
YOU KNOW WHAT THIS MEANS? You know what that means to a slimy fuck like you?
The union guy looked like he already crapped his nice suit pants at least twice.
It means I got a license to kill, Joe said, rapping his own head again.
It means I can shoot you, empty this clip in your stupid fat face and nobody will do nothing because the tin plate caused me to do it. Them commies made me do it. Now you get your ass out of here and don’t come back for six weeks.
Six weeks? The union guy asked?
Joe’s voice turned friendly, making nice with the gun in his hand: Six weeks from now we’ll all have dinner right here, said Joe. Well, WE will have dinner right here, but you won’t be ordering Moros y Cristianos with us if we see you between now and then.
We never saw him again.
Three weeks later we started two a day practices. Chuck and I quit.
Everybody was too busy to do more than wave goodbye, Little Joe was in Orlando.
The Cuban refugee’s dream restaurant is still there.
It’s a sushi place now.
About the author: Michael Ledwith is a contributor to johnkassnews.com. His last piece was “Do You Know Me?” a story about a search for faith.
Ledwith is a former bag boy at Winn-Dixie. Worked on the Apollo Program one summer in high school. Army officer. Ran with the bulls in Pamplona. Surfer. Rock and roll radio in Chicago. Shareholder, Christopher’s American Grill, London. Father. Movie lover. “I am a river to my people.”