A veil of morning fog masked the horizon Oct. 6 as Cody Coyle’s bridge-building crew guided a crane swinging 215-feet long steel girders into place on the Harney Street Viaduct.
Clad in safety harnesses, orange vests and hard hats, the S&S Builders crew members walked the narrow beams about 40 feet above the railroad tracks securing each section before moving on to the next girder.
As the sun clambered above the mist into a clear blue sky, Marty Neal, a 26-year-old laborer with moderate bridge-building experience, snapped a photo of fellow crew member José Gardea, 48.
“Sometimes the opportunity for a good photo just presents itself,” Neal said. “Everybody is carrying around a pretty high-quality camera in their pocket now.”
The photo was intended as little more than a memento, but after reviewing it, Neal decided it could be something more than just another Instagram post or Facebook update. He printed the panoramic photo on a 10-inch-by-40-inch canvas and presented it to his coworker a few weeks later.
“(Gardea) is a hard-working family man that shows up to work every day and works as hard as me despite being twice my age,” Neal said.
“His values and commitment to hard work remind me of my father.”
While Neal is no stranger to hard workers and family men, Gardea struck him as different.
“When I first met (Gardea), I remember wondering why he wasn’t running his own crew,” Neal said. “He’s got the attitude you’d want in a boss and plenty of experience. But once I got to talking to him, I realized he likes just working for working’s sake. He likes to leave the work at work so he can relax and unwind with his family.”
A father of four, Gardea is a soft-spoken man with a slight build and thick Hispanic accent.
“It felt pretty good,” he said. “I’d never got nothing like that before.”
With most of Gardea’s features hidden under a hard hat or behind tinted safety glasses, a hint of a smile and barely perceptible nod were the only emotions he expressed when asked about the gift. But Coyle, the S&S Builders site superintendent, put his hand on Gardea’s back and a hush fell over the crew members huddled around him. A moment of silent pride circled the group before Coyle spoke.
“He’s one of the hardest workers on my crew,” the superintendent boasted.
Unlike some careers where coworkers might spend years together, construction workers often only spend weeks or months together before heading to the next job.
In the blue-collar world, stoicism is a virtue, words are best used sparingly and the calluses on a worker’s hands speak louder than the references on his résumé.
Gratuitous acts of appreciation or bonding are typically reserved for job completions or exemplary inspection rankings. On many jobsites, celebrating momentous life occasions is often reduced to passing a donations bucket around the break room.
So, gifts can be rare.
“My boss is an interesting person in the fact he doesn’t tell people ‘good job,’ but rather it’s in the things he does,” Neal explained.
“We’re supposed to get a steak dinner for the rate the steel went in (on the viaduct), so I’m under the impression we did alright.”
Neither Gardea or Neal worked for Coyle before this spring, but Coyle said he wasn’t surprised by their comradery.
“I build a crew like that every summer,” the 32-year-old said. “When you’ve got hard workers teamed with hard workers, it really builds good working relationships.”
The crew began the Harney Street Viaduct project by demolishing the remnants of a refinery in January on the west side of the tracks where the viaduct is slated to tie into Cedar Street.
Coyle said progress has been steady, and he expects to pour the east-side approach slab, a concrete pad built on the grade traffic will use to access the viaduct, before the new year.
Having workers like Gardea and his son, Sean, who live in Laramie, working on odds and ends could help keep the project on schedule through the winter, he said. Coyle lives in Cheyenne and frequent weather-related road closures can make being on the jobsite every day difficult.
“We’ll get the bridge completely ready to pour, then wait for Spring (to continue more concrete work),” Coyle said, explaining his crew would soon be ready install the viaduct’s concrete road base. “We’re hoping to have Third Street opened by next week.”
Once the job is done, Neal said he would look for work elsewhere. But until then, he said he is relishing the opportunity to work on a tight-knit crew.
“Sean and Jose are pretty reserved,” Neal said. “They’re quiet people, but Sean has the same kind of work ethic his dad does. I’m kind of envious because I wish I could work with my dad like that.”