When you're driving Westbound on Interstate 70 between Colby Kansas and the Colorado state line there's not a whole lot to look at. The mile markers change, but the scenery is almost stubborn in its sameness. I mean, once you've seen one limestone fence post, you've pretty much seen them all. Maybe that's why your eyes will pick up small details that you'd otherwise tend to overlook.
And perhaps that’s why the single steel-toed work boot laying on the north side of the westbound road stood out. It would have been easy to overlook. It blended right in with the landscape and the dry Kansas soil. It was kind of dirty—like all the other stuff that had collected on the side of the Interstate. But somehow it stood out. Maybe it was the early morning sun reflecting off the steel toe that was exposed from heavy wear.
The boot had obviously seen some heavy duty. And yet, there it was, all by itself on the side of the road. Once it had had a partner—but the other boot was long gone, leaving this one to weather alone along the roadside.
The other boot? Well, it had seen pretty much the same thing as this one and it was just as worn out as the guy who had laced it up every morning. You’d be excused if you thought it had fallen off of some beat up pickup truck, but you’d be wrong. It had fallen off the back bumper of a 1989 BMW 318is after the driver had stopped for gas outside of Colby. He’d rummaged through his trunk while pumping gas, looking for something to keep him awake as he headed back home to Colorado in the middle of the night. He’d set one boot down on the bumper to dig deeper into his trunk and had forgotten to put it back in. The boot balanced on the bumper for about a mile until a bump in the Interstate finally shook it loose and it tumbled to the side of the road.
It probably sounds strange to refer to a 22-year-old young man as worn out, but—at least temporarily—it was pretty much the truth. He was part of a steel-working crew out of Colorado that traveled regionally. When you think of steel workers, you probably get an image of some middle-aged guys in a dark, plant that’s backlit by furnace fire somewhere in Pennsylvania. While that’s certainly one image of a steel worker, there are others who run I-beams on construction projects all over the country—carrying steel on their shoulders that gets welded into the framework of an emerging building.
That’s where this boot and its companion had been. From dawn until dusk, its owner had run his legs off, delivering steel to the welders who were creating new buildings for Walmart and Big R and the other companies who had lost their facilities in one of Kansas’ legendary (and far-too-frequent) tornados.
It was a cutthroat business. You had to be faster and cheaper than the competition—and you had to complete the job by a specific time in order to be considered. It meant working fast and working hard and working long hours to get the job done.
The young man who wore the boots hadn't always been a steel worker. In fact, he'd worked at a garage that specialized in servicing German motor vehicles—hence his 1989 BMW. He'd worked at the garage for several years—learning his craft and working his way up the ladder. But one day, a friend (who had always been a bit "unreliable") came to him with a tale of work that paid fantastic wages. But the young man had to act quickly because the crew that was being assembled would leave within 2 days for Kansas to rebuild a Wal-Mart store that had been devastated by the recent tornados.[G4]
It was an offer that was hard to resist. While the specifics were scant (including exactly how much was being offered), the promise of stratospheric wages (at least for one who was working at just a bit over the minimum wage) was hard to resist. And it wasn’t just a “one-and-done” proposition. There were promises of other lucrative contracts waiting.
It was a young man’s dream. There was a wild and untamed world out there. It was a chance to make your mark and make more money than you’d ever seen in your life. Rules? There didn’t seem to be any. It was all up to you to grab as much as you could as fast as you could. Danger? Sure, there was some, but that somehow made it more attractive. Besides, when you’re 22 years old, it’s pretty much an established fact that you’re immortal.
Still, the young man agonized over his loyalty to his existing company and the promise of untold riches that awaited him. He even ran the idea past his parents to see what they thought. Their response that he knew next to nothing about this new company and that talk was cheap didn’t help him all that much. They also told him that it was his decision—and somehow, he knew he had to find out the truth for himself.
He screwed up his courage and told the owner of the shop where he worked that he was taking his chances with the new operation. And a day later, he was on his way— driving his old BMW about as fast as it would go—to the construction site.
It turned out to be every bit as exciting as he’d hoped. The pace was fast. The work was hard. And the talk about making money flowed like the sweat that ran down their faces. He and his companions (all about his own age) were treated like adults. They were given responsibility—but also held to the highest level of commitment when it came to working.[G5]
Nobody on the crew walked. They ran everywhere—often carrying 100 pounds or more of steel on their shoulders. They were on the job site at dawn and ran through deep puddles of water left by the recent tornados—soaking their boots (and their feet) immediately and repeatedly. They continued to run and lift and carry throughout the day in the sweltering heat and humidity.
It didn't take long for the heat, humidity, and pace to begin taking its toll. Their feet were never dry and after a while, the constant pounding began to wreak havoc. Their feet blistered and bled. The skin fell off and never had a chance to heal because they never had a chance to dry out—except at night when they fell exhausted in the beds of the cheap motel rooms where they were packed like sardines.[G6] [G7]
Of course, before crashed for the night, the bosses would bring in all the pizza or burgers they could eat. They’d even throw in a few beers (but not enough to impact performance the next day). The young men would fall into an exhausted sleep—disturbed only by the cramping and soreness they acutely felt in every muscle.
Sometimes in the evenings, while they were swilling beer and pounding down the pizza, the older crewmembers would regale them with tales about others who had gone before them. There was the story about the steelworker who had been hit in the face by a load of rebar that was being lifted up by a crane. He’d lost almost all of his teeth, but the foreman had paid for implants out of his own pocket, and the guy was back on the job within a few days. Of course, nobody thought to ask what things would be like for him 10 years down the road.
There were other dangers besides being hit in the face by a load of rebar. Often the job required them to traverse I-beams barely 18 inches wide while carrying a heavy and awkward load on their shoulders. OSHA probably called for them to wear protective clothing and something to prevent them from falling—but who were those OSHA wimps back in DC who had never had to meet a deadline in their lives. Precautions be damned! They had a job to do and a deadline to meet!
Of course, none of these kids wore sunscreen. Sunburn? Pah! That was a badge of honor. It showed that you worked your ass off outdoors all day long. And skin cancer was something that no 20-year old had ever suffered from.
Still, the constant abuse of their bodies did begin to take its toll. They were sore at the end of the day. And it was more than just the soreness of a normal hard day's work. There were injuries and wounds and severe sunburn that went untreated. But there was a job to do.[G8]
At first, they didn't notice it, but eventually, a few of them caught on. The "company" always provided them with Gatorade or some other sports drink to keep them going. Initially, nobody noticed that the bottles had all been opened. [G9] [G10] [G11] It didn’t matter. You drank it and kept on running. Only after a while did some of the kids realize that the bottles had been dosed with painkillers so that they could keep on running and lifting and working without stopping.
And then, when one job was finished, the push was on to head to the next job—as fast as possible. They all drove their own cars (the company never provided transportation). So when the young man with the worn-out work boots was told where he had to be by the following morning, he set out on the Kansas roads at speeds well above the posted speed limits. He was promised that “The Company” would pay for any speeding tickets he might incur. Of course, there was no mention of what would happen if he lost his license. That was pretty heady stuff—until the first ticket came and nobody remembered the promise that it would be “taken care of.” But he didn’t mind so much. He was high on the promises of so much more money to be earned that something like a $100 speeding ticket was something to laugh at.
The pace went on—unabated—for most of the summer. And always, the stories of fat paychecks dominated conversations. None of these kids thought it odd that they were always paid in cash. And none of them had the means (or the inclination) to check the amounts they were paid against the actual hours that they’d worked. They had cash in hand, and for most of them, it was more than they had ever earned before.
Then one day, in the early fall, it was all over. The kids’ cell phones went silent. There were no more calls from The Company about new jobs. They called in to see where they were supposed to go next, but their calls weren’t answered—or returned. The stories of unending projects now rang hollow in their ears. There were no more stories about big paydays or the heroes of steel work who persevered through tough times. They were on their own.
The kid with the 318 BMW headed back to Colorado where he lived. He wasn’t in such a big hurry now. He stopped at a gas station just outside of Colby, Kansas to fill up. While he was pumping gas, he dug through his trunk for some snacks to help him keep going as he made his way home on that late night run. He pulled one of this work boots out and set in on his rear bumper. As tired as he was, he didn’t notice it there as he closed the trunk and climbed back into the car.
The boot—rather remarkably—remained there as he drove up the on-ramp to I-70 headed west to Colorado. Finally, the boot fell off a mile or two down the road and tumbled over to the side of the road where it came to rest.[G12]
After he returned home, it took the kid with the BMW a few weeks to realize that his “lucrative” career was over. He kept waiting for the call that never came that would tell him about the next “big” job. Finally, he realized that the call would never come. And he began to think through all that had happened—and how he had been taken for a ride. It wasn’t that easy to accept. It was the first job he’d landed completely on his own—with no help from his family. And when he recalled the stories he’d told his family and friends about the big money he’d be making, he felt just a little bit foolish.
At tax time, he finally received a tax statement from his former employer that showed his total earnings for the year. He was more than a bit surprised to read that his total earnings with “The Company” for the time he’d been employed was a whopping $30.
Of course, he’d received considerably more than that in cash. But to be honest, he didn’t even know how much. And he realized that he’d been had—and that the big wigs had made off with the bulk of the money he’d helped them earn.
It was a tough lesson, but one he’d never forget. He looked at his feet—permanently damaged from ill-fitting boots that never dried out and had given him hellacious blisters. And as he tossed the remaining worn-out steel-toed boot in the trash (wondering where the other boot was), he knew he’d never make the same mistake again.
And though his feet would hurt for years to come, he landed firmly on them—and ended up working for a company (in the career he'd trained for originally) that treated their employees the way that companies should. And while he didn't miss that steel-toed boot, he was—somehow—thankful for the experience.