High steel spidermen & flagger moms in orange cone hell


Expanded from the August 8, 1999
Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

WHO THEY WORK FOR -- Even back at the old homestead, flagger moms are never far from heavy equipment. Standing, left to right, longtime flagger moms and best of friends Raylene McKay and Darci Fullerton, who holds her daughter, Montana. In the foreground are Fullerton's daughter, Ashley (at left), and McKay's daughter, Kelsey.

The past few days were tough on the outdoor professions. Hot August heat cooked asphalt into a rocky black licorice.

The lightning storms which announced the weekend extracted too high a price for a little cooling off.

I know some people who paid it.

One is tall, tanned and elegant, capable of arresting your full attention as she walks past you at the mall with moppets in tow.

On Friday, Sparks sent her home in tears.

She's a road warrior, one of those who daily gird for battle by donning a dayglo helmet and arming themselves with only an eight-foot pike tipped with a stop sign instead of a spear point.

DOING TWO JOBS AT ONCE - Flagger Mom Darci Fullerton during a work break on Geiger Grade while being interviewed by videographer Mike Tilton of MarkOne Video. Fullerton's comments will be added to the "Give 'em a brake" public service television series promoting road construction zone safety. The longrunning campaign is a statewide cooperative effort between Laborers' Local 169, other unions and the Nevada Dept. of Transportation. Recent spots have emphasized the doubling of penalties for speeding in posted construction zones. The new commercials will feature workers and their families telling true stories from orange cone hell. (If Tilton looks familiar, it may be because he's also a member of the popular musical group, The Lazy Eights, named Reno's best local band of 1999 in the annual Reno Gazette-Journal "Best of Reno" readers' balloting.)

Her thankless task is to guide people through orange cone hell and bring them out alive.

That includes her. Some days, survival comes hard on the striped River Styx.

Flagger Mom's breaking point came at the hands of a woman speeding into a Sparks Blvd. intersection, oblivious to road construction and just not noticing that her SUV was about to badly lose a tangle with a big rig.

"A man on the passenger side held a baby in his lap that belonged in a car seat," said the still-shaken street soldier.

"The driver had to swerve left across two lanes of oncoming traffic. I don't want to think what could have happened to that baby in the front seat. I just went home and cried a couple of hours. After getting hit (myself), it just freaks me out," Flagger Mom added.

Not long ago, a motorist took her for a spin - over the hood and onto the pavement. She has yet to fully recover from her injuries, physical or mental. War vets might call it post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I feel so extraordinarily weak, like I can't do it anymore," she says.

"People will head right into me. They show cones and barrels more respect because they know we have the potential to move out of their way," she told me as her toddler cooed for attention.

At less than a year old, the little girl doesn't know that her mother goes to work in a war zone every day. Some of Flagger Mom's comrades have actually come under small arms fire.

A few years back, Raylene McKay and a co-worker took five rounds of live lead while working near the South Meadows highway ramp in Reno.

"Two shots came within inches of my girlfriend's head," McKay says.

"The police did not want to take our statements. My husband was major upset. Our state guy found five shell casings the next day," she says.

As road rage becomes the nation's fastest growing sport, the danger is not lost on her children.

"My oldest daughter worries every morning when I leave, but it's this job that puts food on the table," the slightly built, bespectacled McKay recently told me on a hot day in Washoe Valley.

Flagger grandmother Dawn Trapp puts it bluntly: "We have the second most dangerous job in the United States, behind only convenience store clerks."

Out on a bleached-white highway between Fernley and Fallon, Trapp narrowly avoided becoming a statistic herself during last week's thunderboomers. Out east, a storm can cut a driver's visibility to the end of a hood ornament, which Trapp almost became.

"It's amazing," said Sparks Flagger Mom. "I can send a line of 20 cars through and someone will be talking on a cell phone and not follow the rest."

Her Sparks Blvd. near-tragedy took place within sight of where a man fell to his death on the high iron back in the 1980s. A wind gust caught the sheet steel he was anchoring, blew it down an elevator shaft and took him along for the ride.

IRON FLYERS -- Ironworkers from Local 118 guide a battleship-sized
truss into place on the Peppermill Hotel-Casino in Reno.

Last week, I ran into one of his descendants who continues in the family profession. More of the same shiny, shaped sheet steel which once turned into the wings of death was being bullied into place all around me. Each 20-foot section must weigh a couple hundred pounds.

On a sunny day, the raw metal becomes a blinding heat reflector and ironworkers turn into ants under mother nature's magnifying glass.

"It's always either too hot or too cold," my tour guide said. "When you do this kind of work, you've got to get used to everything you step on moving under you," he added as I followed him like a toddler learning to walk.

The high iron requires a bizarre mix of daredevil, weightlifter, ballerina, gymnast, acrobat and Spiderman possessed of a psychotic death wish.

Ironmen tie themselves off at every opportunity, but when they move from one perch to the next, they become high wire artists working without a net.

Overhead, their brothers guide ship-sized steel sections into place with the grace of dancers in an aerial ballet.

I avoided dumb "how does it feel?" questions. These guys labor under full knowledge that a bolt from the blue will more likely come as a one-inch chunk of steel blown from a bucket rather than from some soggy thunderhead.

Ironmen and flagger moms make more than the average worker. Most people try to get paid for what they're both good at and enjoy.

On most days, it's probably worth it. Sometimes, like Sparks Flagger Mom, you just break down after a hard day.

Next time you see a hard hat, tip yours.

And be careful out there.

MOTHER NATURE'S MAGNIFYING GLASS -- Hot sunlight intensifies on reflective Q-Sections of formed steel, which are part of any major build. They arrive as heavy steel sandwiches, each containing multiple sheets which must be separated, lifted, placed, crimped and welded to await their entombment in concrete.

Read more about the Flagger Moms' Safety Campaign


Nevada Labor | U-News | C.O.P. | Sen. Joe Neal
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© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of U-News, where the past three years of columns may be accessed. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks Tribune since 1988 where an earlier version of this column appeared on 8/8/99.

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