A personal note on the significance of July 14th

No, it actually has nothing to do with Bastille Day.

On July 14, 1978 around 9am, i climbed back to my work station at the Quincy, MA shipyard.  I was there as a production welder and very involved in a reform effort to turn our local union around (it was VERY conservative).

It was a very warm day, but that was not unusual.  My welding partner had left on break, so I was by myself.  I climbed twenty feet to my position to start welding.  I pulled the shield down and proceeded to weld.  I suddenly felt the boards i was standing on wobble.

The next thing that i remember i was opening my eyes and trying to figure out where i was.  I looked up and saw that my partner had returned but was staring down at me from many feet above.  I then felt the pain.  A medic came to my side.  I asked him how bad it was.  He would not give me an answer.  I was loaded on a stretcher and eventually placed in an ambulance and rushed to the Quincy hospital.  I slowly realized that i had fallen twenty feet and landed on my head.  They called my girl friend (who subsequently became my wife of 35 years) and informed her that i had been involved in a very serious accident and that she needed to come to the hospital right away.  She assumed that i was at death’s door.

Shipyards are among the most dangerous of work locations.  In the 1970s they were the second most dangerous industry after mining.   Danger was everywhere, from the possibility of falling to one’s death; being crushed; electrocuted; or simply more ‘minor’ accidents, such as getting ‘flashed’ by the light from an electric arc welder, thereby irritating your eyes.  Shipyards are so dangerous that the average worker simply cannot think about it.  If you think about it too much, you cannot work.  You become paralyzed.

In the 1970s many of the activists, and other workers, who demanded a safe and healthy workplace were attacked as being anything from communists to homosexual.  That’s right: homosexual.  For men to demand a safe and healthy workplace was portrayed by conservative workers (and companies) as being insufficiently manly.  Nevertheless, in workplaces around the country workers took up the cause of health and safety and fought for reforms–such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act–since no worker should be injured or killed trying to make a living.

I was lucky.  Apparently when i fell i was knocked unconscious on the way down so that i fell like a rag doll.  A week prior to my accident a worker had fallen nine feet to his death.  I fell twenty and survived.  I suffered a concussion, some bruising and a cut on my scalp.  My girl friend–to be wife–showed up at the hospital and i was sitting up in bed and said “Hi!”  To say that she was shocked would be more than an understatement.   I was out of work for a few months and returned, much to the surprise of many of my co-workers, continuing to work in the shipyard for two more years.

In the aftermath of that accident i gained a new appreciation of life. I realized how quickly death can come to your doorstep.  You might not have time to say good-bye to anyone and you might have a long list of agenda items to accomplish that will never see the light of day.  But when death arrives, it is non-negotiable.  As a result, from that moment, on July 14, 1978, i realized that every second that i have is nothing more than a gift.  A special gift, as a matter of fact.  A gift that must be recognized and appreciated, rather than abused and wasted.   I realized in the aftermath of that accident that i had another chance.  My co-worker who died the week prior was not so fortunate.

Perhaps this helps to explain my sense of urgency and why i always appreciated something that Malcolm X wrote in his Autobiography.  He said that he was intolerant of people who did not wear watches because they failed to appreciate that we do not have endless time.  I read that passage years prior to my accident.  The accident, however, imprinted it on my soul.

5 thoughts on “A personal note on the significance of July 14th

  1. Thanks for sharing this story and important reminder to make the most of every minute and day of our lives. Coincidentally, I was working in the NASSCO shipyards in San Diego at that same time. I was an electrician, almost always working with welders. In 1980, we went out on a wildcat strike after two workers died from an odorless gas in an enclosed space. This came after years of complaints by workers of health and safety violations and an average of 100 people a day being treated in the shipyard clinic.

    • Thanks. I remember the struggles that took place at the NASSCO shipyard. I remember that it was very intense.

      Yes, those of us who worked in shipyards can never forget the intensity and danger of that experience.

  2. Bill, I still remember this. It was one of the things that led me to work actively for workplace health and safety and strengthened my commitment to the labor movement. I even remember learning at the time that shipyard workers there who were killed on the job were thrown over the fence so it couldn’t be claimed that they died on company property. I am so very glad that you survived AND were able to continue in the struggle. The shipyard may no longer be there, but the need for workplace health and safety protections and worker activism is greater than ever.

    • Thanks for this. You are absolutely correct about what the companies would do. I remember the various ways that the company would attempt to avoid liability. After i was seen in the hospital–after my accident–there was significant pressure for me to return to work, despite the seriousness of the accident. Had i gone right back, given that i suffered a concussion, i could have dropped dead.

  3. I worked there too in the 1970s. I’ve marveled at your resilience re: the accident and the whirlwind of conflicts for which you have advocated justice; I do realize that’s not your purpose in writing the piece. I’ve wondered over the decades about what the lasting effects were. Indeed I just wrote to someone about it, not knowing about this piece. Certainly we are all better off for your standing up to the pressure to return to the gallows of the shipyard before you were healed. As usual the company get-back-to-work reflects pure stupidity and narrow thinking even from the perspective of self-interest. So many acts of murder, directly and indirectly go un-brought to justice while acts of justness and justice do go punished such as the videographer (and spouse) of Mr. Garner’s murder, and the millions of workplace deaths due to unsafe and unhealthy practices. To me, it partly goes back to how the media portrays or omits acts of justice and injustice. The videographer was bending the rule about what can be reported. The role of the internet can challenge the status quo, but often we surround ourselves with what we choose to read.

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