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The end of physical ability

The temperature was already 85 when we started work at 7 a.m. on the I-49 bridge over Missouri Highway 150 in Belton. Even before they took their positions among the piles of rebar, the men were sweating. Jungle-like humidity lay on us like warm, wet blankets. When work carrying, placing, and tying concrete-reinforcing rebar began, we bent to the work with determination. It was going to be a long day.

I was helping carry and place the forty- and sixty-foot ¾-inch rebar on the bridge deck. Four of us would heft six or seven pieces of steel and work as a group to move the rebar from the piles to pre-marked locations. Men came behind us and cross-hatched our rebar with more, sometimes up to an inch in diameter. A gang then moved along slowly tying with epoxy-coated wire the rebar together where they crossed to form a mat that, later, concrete finishers would inundate and smooth over. Their work covered ours and no one was the wiser.

By 11 a.m., the temperature was over 95. I was sweating profusely but was set on keeping up with my compatriots and finish what we had started. Soon, I began to feel the chills, which I thought was odd. Shivers ran up my spine and down into my hands. Then, I couldn’t make my body work fast enough. The harder I tried, the less successful I was at getting my motions coordinated.

The other men worked slower, trying to keep a pace was difficult in the heat. But I don’t give up and neither did they. The man choosing the stick to lay out of the bundle we held in our hands began to yell at me. It was like something out of a movie. I could see him struggling to free the iron from the other pieces and looking angrily at me. I realized slowly that I was fumbling the bars, making things difficult for him and the other men in the line. I concentrated even harder and failed more miserably at my work. My hands just would not do what I told them.

As I watched the rebar dance and jumble in my hands, I couldn’t hear the man yelling at me. Everything around me had fallen silent, though I could see saw blades throw sparks where men were cutting rebar to length. I knew the crane was working but couldn’t hear its blatting. Cars zipped by without a whisper.

Suddenly, I looked at the man to my left, the one yelling at me, and said from what seemed like the inside of a drum, “That’s it. That’s all I’ve got.” The world went dark.

The next thing I knew, my foreman was helping me across the jersey barriers that separated car traffic on the bridge from the construction area. My knees felt made of water. My head swung from side to side without my control.

It was then I realized that I’d reached the absolute limit of my physical abilities. Heavy work and heat brought me to the very end, a place where I didn’t give up on my own but where my body forced me to stop. I’d never been there before. Being at the very edge of my bodily limitations is an interesting place to be. The mind is willing but knows there’s nothing left in the tank. The body is unable and doesn’t respond to command.

I thought I’d reached the ends of my physical abilities before, but that just wasn’t true. What happened was that the work had just too much for a bad attitude or too demoralizing or fraught with expectation of defeat. I realized after the bridge incident that there’s a difference between giving up and having to give up. No matter what, before, I was able to get up and walk away. Pushed over the end of physical ability, there is no getting up and walking away. I drop. I have to be helped back to wherever I came from.

Since that time, about ten years ago, I have only been at the very end a couple of times. Weight and heat and cold affect what I can do when I can do it. Now working for the Postal Service, I have been brought to very edge, the almost-there where I can see the end but still have fumes to run on.

Once last January, I had to deliver a block of houses on what’s called a dead-head, a street that only has houses on one side, and then it’s a long walk back to the truck. It was 36 degrees and torrential rain that the wind was blowing sideways. Night was falling. I didn’t have a proper raincoat but an old army trench coat that was water-resistant. It had soaked through earlier in the day and I was drenched through my layers of sweaters and thermal shirts. “One more row of houses,” I told myself. “Just a half mile. I can do this.”

And I did that. But at the end of that half mile, I was nearly finished. I couldn’t close my hands. Deep chills shook my body from head to toe. My physical strength was sapped to the point that I could hardly make it back to the truck, my steps stumbling and halting. I had been on the clock 12 hours that day and had delivered miles and miles of mail.

I made it back to the station, had enough left to get the truck in order, shake my way to the time clock and drive home. But I wasn’t safe driving home. It occurred to me about two miles from the 71 Highway exit off I-435 that I could just as easily cause loss of life and end my own. Hypothermia at 65 miles an hour.

In another instance more recently, I was carrying the mail after I had completed my own route. I had worked seven 11- and 12-hour days in a row. I remember the sun setting on the quiet neighborhood. Traffic was nearly nonexistent. The light was idyllic and the atmosphere settling after a 93-degree day. I had carried 21 miles of mail, and this was the final relay before heading back.

I plodded along, my feet as numb as clubs, gone way past footsore and beaten. My legs were no longer doing what I told them to. They moved at a pace all their own, and no how hard I tried, I couldn’t get them to move any faster.

This is it, I thought to myself, I have reached the end. I hobbled back to the truck and drove to the station. Offloading my crates and trays took superhuman effort. I barely made it to the car before I collapsed in the driver’s seat and thought to myself, well, I didn’t need an ambulance to get me back to the station. I didn’t kip over in the heat. I was able to make those final steps.

But I had seen the end of my physical limits. I was right there. I had not given up nor had I been made to give up. I would survive to carry mail another day.

I’m interested to see what the end of carrying the mail. I have been close on these occasions and a couple more. It has driven me to the edge but not yet pushed me over. I wonder what it looks like.

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