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The Night the Bucket Fell

ISSUE:  Summer 1936

It was the night on which the first man was killed that the bucket fell. He had died earlier that night in the rock quarry of the dam, and we were talking about him as we sat on the edge of the form waiting for the midnight whistle. Within the form the men whom we were to relieve were working steadily. It was ten minutes until twelve; we would work from twelve until six-thirty—the graveyard shift.

“There’ll he plenty more killed on this job,” said Slim. We nodded.

“Wait’ll insulation starts rubbin’ and wheels start slickin’.” He jerked his hand. “Yeah, wait’ll all this stuff starts wearin’ some.”

As if in fulfillment of his prophecy, there was a sudden flash of blue light in the control room of number one head-tower. The arc lights stretching along both sides of number one cable blinked and went dark. And as we stood and looked, the great four-ton bucket, loaded with twelve tons of concrete, dangling two hundred feet over our form, started the swing which was to leave it a mass of wrecked steel and wasted concrete.

Extending a third of a mile across river and dam-site and three hundred feet above were the two powerful cables, thick as a man’s arm. Their ends were attached to head and tail towers on opposing mountainsides. Running out on the great cables were the carriages, appearing to be all wheels and pulleys. Through them threaded the lesser cables, supporting and controlling the buckets suspended beneath. In the control rooms of the head-towers sat the men who maneuvered the huge square buckets to a platform on the hillside below. There a dump-car poured in its load of mixed concrete. Then the carriage rolled out across the dam-site until, with a swing, the bucket was brought smoothly to a halt over the form into which its load was to go. Wheels moved, the bucket was lowered, and the concrete was dumped. However, at ten minutes before midnight of the warm summer night, there had been a flash in number one head-tower, the lights along the cableway were out, the carriage was jerking crazily, control cables lashed in the air, and sixteen tons of steel and concrete was swinging in widening arcs toward the ground.

The men in the form were wading through the soft concrete to the edge, or else stood silently watching. Then into the racket of pneumatic drills, water pumps, and shop machinery came the crash of the bucket as it landed out of sight on the limestone floor of a hole forty yards away.

“I’m not goin’ to work here much longer,” said Slim. He was white. “Not much longer,” he repeated.

No one moved toward the hole; we were paralyzed by the dread of what we should find. Red finally spoke.

“Wonder if there’s anybody in that hole?”

We knew there were men in it.

“I’m gonna quit Saturday,” said Slim. “To hell with this job. Yeah, I’m gonna quit.”

Cap, our foreman, was the first to look in. He had been on his way from checking in and now he stood on a ledge staring down. Forty men in our form watched him, forty pairs of eyes watched his old red face underneath the ten-gallon cowboy hat that he always wore. We watched his face as if the verdict of what had happened was not yet delivered, as if in him was the final judgment of life or death for those upon whom he looked. For perhaps fifteen seconds he stood staring, his head swaying with each breath, and we watched him, the sole link between us and what was in the hole.

Men were running from other forms and from the shops, and just before the first of them reached him Cap hoarsely shouted down.

“Anybody under that bucket?”

It broke the spell. We clambered down the ladders of the form and ran to the ledge. There below us, bunched against the rock wall, were five men. As if also released by Cap’s question, one of them suddenly broke away and ran back to cut oft a jack-hammer that had continued to clatter not five feet from where the bucket lay on its side. The five men began to talk all at once.

“Naw, nobody’s under it. Naw. Jesus, I was right beside it. Yeah, right there. Naw, not till it hit; we never seen it. Jesus …” They were trembling noticeably.

The bucket, more than eight feet tall, and almost four feet square, lay there, some of the concrete still pouring slowly from the open top. The jaws at the bottom were twisted and smashed. The load of concrete lay in a pile, half in and half out of the wreckage, and the rock floor of the hole was spattered. Some of the men below us were also spattered.

We stared, wondering. On the west bank there would be explanations — dismissals, perhaps. Here, however, were only the broken bucket and the five shaken men.

The midnight whistle sent us back to the form, and the relieved crew trudged in their clumsy concrete-boots to the checkout window and the camp-bound busses. They caught cups of coffee at the commissary. A man killed on the shift and the bucket fell. Christ, what a night.

Number two cable and bucket moved over us and we took up the implements left by the last shift; the electric vibrators, looking like giant hand grenades, the concrete flatters-Betseys, we called them—the steel brooms, the shovels. A hundred miles about us lay the midnight darkness of the hill country. Here under millions of watts of light we awaited the first bucketload of concrete.

There were ten of us in our particular crew and we were all young men from the surrounding mountains. We had left our coves and valleys for the first time to take work here on the dam. There was poverty at home and we were young and strong and the pay was good. We helped the others in the concrete, we ran the vibrators, the flatters, we shoveled concrete into the angles of the form, we washed down the hardening mass with air-and-water guns. Sometimes we operated jack-hammers in the rock, we slung picks and sledges, we shoveled the loosened limestone. We were Red, Jim, Smith, Bud, Fat, Shorty, Slim, Joe, Ed, and Soldier, and we lived in the basement of one of the bunkhouses. When Slim had said that there would be others killed we had agreed. We were young and immortal; we had lived always on farms and we thought that our lives would continue forever, just as in the newness of the strange machinery we had sometimes believed that it too would never really wreck, that it too was perfect and indestructible. Now there had been a man killed, we had seen the greatest machine of all crash, and we were afraid.

The carriage slid out on the cable, bearing beneath it the first bucketload, and at a safe distance we watched it lower. Two of us, with steel rods, jerked up the lever-bar. The jaws opened and the concrete clattered through. The bucket rose fifty feet, stopped suddenly to clang shut the jaws, and then continued upward. We dragged the vibrators into the mixture.

That night we did less work than usual. Every man kept a watchful eye upon the cable and as soon as the bucket would leave the loading platform we would begin to drag out our implements. Apprehensively we would watch the dark steel shape swing to a stop high above us. Even the swashbucklers of the crew, two young men wearing short rubber boots and carrying steel bars, whose task it was to close in on the lowered bucket, to insert their rods behind the lever-bar, to bust the load, and then to dart back from the angry outpouring of twelve tons of concrete,—even they lost some of their recklessness on that night. From the water-boy, wanderer of the dam-site, the courier who brought back cigarettes, candy and news from other sections, we learned about the man who lay dead in the first-aid shack. He had been caught in the conveyor belt at the rock crusher and was badly mangled. We learned his name, and some of us knew him. He lived in a mountain village, he was married, he had three children. It was then that we began to curse the broken bucket, the dam, everything that had brought us out of the hills to this place of peril and death. In the conversations between the unloadings we would curse, curse the bucket as if it had somehow been responsible for the man’s death. We thought of home and what would be said if we were brought back like he was. We talked to the pipefitters, a hardened breed who told calm stories of sudden and violent deaths on other jobs. We reminded ourselves of work that needed to be done on our mountain farms, we spoke of jobs at home where no sixteen tons of death dangled overhead. Again and again we cursed the bucket which now we hated and feared. And yet once we had watched with pride as, night after night, smartly and surely, it had dropped down and dumped its load.

“Looka there; ten buckets for us and jus’ seven fuh number two. I been keepin’ count.” And the cry had gone up: “Pour away!”

The bucket had slipped across the boundary that distinguishes inanimates in the human affection, and like a ship or a favorite automobile it had become “she.”

“Here she comes; careful—dump ’erl”

At the commissary we had bought nickel postcard pictures of the bucket, and on the weekends, when we rode home packed seven and eight in rickety automobiles, we had described “her” with almost possessive pride.

Now we worked, and cursed her as we worked, and yet, with each curse, there was a vagueness in our hearts, we felt that the curses were half-hearted, that within us something besides fear and hatred was striving for realization.

About four o’clock the pouring was finished. We were divided up, some going to a new form which was being prepared, the rest staying to wash and broom the hardening concrete. In the new form we jabbed at ledges of rock with jack-hammers, we picked at the loosened shale, we shoveled it into large flat scoops. In the other form with steel-bristled brooms we attacked the slime forming on the concrete and we washed away the debris with the powerful air-and-water guns.

During this time the number two bucket had been taken to the loading ledge and disconnected and the free cable was dropped into the hole where the broken bucket lay. The concrete had been shoveled out, the loose parts had been disconnected, and it was now ready to he taken to a multi-wheeled truck which was waiting on the east bank. The hook was fastened, the line tautened, and slowly the bucket rose.

We noticed the bucket just as it was drawing into position beneath the carriage. Face after face looked up. Very slowly and very carefully the bucket moved beneath the cable. Across our heads it passed toward the tail-towers and the waiting truck, Every face was now turned upward. Jack-hammers were slapped of, air-and-water guns poured their streams unguided, not a pick or a broom moved. The men in the shops came out and stood and watched. We watched as if somebody dead was going by, and nobody spoke. We watched as it completed its journey, all of us whose lives had come into contact with the now wrecked mass of iron and steel. All of us who had served it and had kept the pace it had set watched it pass, and we looked upon it now without cursing, without hatred or fear; we looked upon it with eyes of triumph, pity, and wonder as it passed over us. We knew now—though not one of us could have expressed it—what it was that had moved in us, what had been in our inarticulate hearts all night. Like Cap’s words at the edge of the hole, the sight of the bucket had released the thing within us.

We were from the hills and we had not before known machinery. We had had our Fords, but they had served us, they had fitted into our ways of life, they had obeyed our commands. We had worked long hours in the fields and we had worked always to our own rhythm, at our own speed. During all the months here we had served the bucket. Every four minutes it had dumped its twelve tons of concrete to be shoveled, shaken, flattened, smoothed, and washed. Twelve tons had to be handled and there was another load on the way. Step on it, grab that vibrator. Every four minutes. Shovel it there, boys, she’s comin’. Step on it, vibrate that toward the form, here she is, get out, get out from under there, break ’er! break ‘er! We were from the hills. We had adopted the bucket’s speed, we worked to its rhythm, it seemed a thing of life itself. The control was in a little room in the tower high on the mountainside, and sometimes in a deep form when we couldn’t see even the tops of the towers, the bucket, for all its clumsy bumpings, seemed a thing that motivated itself. Only the squatting telephone man directing the bucket’s movements—up the river, downstream a little, head tower a bit, eas-sy, stop—only he and his instrument supplied the one visible human link. Sometimes we had begun to think of the bucket as a thing of greater life than ourselves; we saw ourselves serving buckets and conveyor belts, and the conveyor belts caught and killed us, the bucket would also catch and kill us—and then something had flared in the far tower, the bucket had swung crazily, it was now wreckage, and we were watching that wreckage go by. The belt had got one of us and we had got the bucket. We hadn’t really got it, of course, but it seemed to kind of even things up when you thought about it that way. The bucket would be fixed and we couldn’t fix the man, but for a while, for tonight, we were even, we were ahead; we had beaten them, We would lose in the end, maybe. When the dam was finished, there would be electricity, there would be factories, jobs, development of the “resources,” better houses, the women wouldn’t have to tote water, the kids would go to decent schools. We would have regular hours, we wouldn’t sit all night with a jug of liquor on a mountain top listening to the dogs run, we wouldn’t have to drag our strength out plowing fields from which the topsoil washes with every rain. The dam rises foot by foot and all these things are nearer.

But the bucket is passing over us and for a while we are ahead. We’re fighting a losing fight, maybe, but for a little while longer we’ll hold out. For a little while longer we’ll keep our guitars and our unmarked graves, our creek-bed roads and our stills in the laurel. We’re the reactionaries and the last of the rugged individualists and we have never heard of either.

And so we felt like cheering and still we didn’t want to cheer. We felt that for a while anyhow—we felt all this, we didn’t know it; there is a difference—that for a while we had won and the thing passing over our heads was not only the bucket but also all the things that other people had planned for us. For a while, anyhow.

After the bucket had been placed on the truck we went back to our jobs. Sometimes in the deafening clash of the drills, sometimes behind the smash of the air-and-water guns we would sing or hum a snatch of song. Feelin’ good.

The dawn shadowed the east bank and about five o’clock the sun came up. At five-thirty the lights went off and we worked in the daylight. At six the riggers edged out on the narrow threadwork of number one cableway to the disabled carriage. At six-thirty the whistle blew and we handed our tools to the morning shift. Then we walked in our awkward rubber boots past the shops where, with acetylene torches, they were already working on the disabled bucket, and then to the checkout window.


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