Strike the Steel


“I want you to knock all the cement off these steel posts,” the boss said as he handed me the sledgehammer and stood back to watch me begin. Anxious to impress him with my eagerness for the task, I planted my feet in a wide stance, raised the sledgehammer high above my head, and brought it down hard on the barrel-sized keg of cement caked on the first leg of the extracted guardrail.

Six … seven … eight solid follow-up strokes to the same spot, but all I could feel was the stunning reverberation up the handle of the sledgehammer. Not a single chip of the hard cement seemed to yield under the blows. After resting the hammerhead on the ground for a moment and rubbing my right shoulder, again I raised the hammer high above my head and repeated the effort, but with no better result.

I felt a little embarrassed as the boss watched a minute longer. Then, starting to walk toward the tool shop, he said, “I’ll get you something that may help.”

As I had arrived for work that morning wearing ankle-high work shoes, with cowhide gloves dangling from the back pocket of my denims, I had wondered, as I had on the two previous mornings, if this would be my last day on the job. I hoped not. With only three months before I would enter the mission home, I needed every penny I could earn to help cover my mission expenses, for the first few months at least.

Dad said no sacrifice by the family would be too great for the privilege of supporting me in the mission field, and he meant it. He knew what that kind of sacrifice was. I remember how the family had spread margarine on the bread and then scraped most of it off again while my older brother Ron was in the mission field. I also sensed dad’s special gratitude when occasionally I was able to spare a few dollars of the earnings from my part-time job to add to what was sent to Ron.

Yes, I knew it would mean sacrifice, gladly offered. I also knew I had to do all I could.

I took a firmer grasp on the handle, holding it a little lower this time to get a better weight advantage from the heavy steel head. Several more strokes, and now I could feel myself becoming angry. How could I strike any harder? Why didn’t the cement break?

“I hope he doesn’t get back before I’ve shown some kind of progress,” I said to myself, glancing toward the tool shop.

When I had told the boss on Monday morning that I had quit school to work for a few months so I could go on a mission, I had hoped he would be kind of proud of me. Instead he had said, “Why do you want to waste your time like that?” Ever since then he had seemed bent on going out of his way to make snide comments about the Church and other crude remarks that, I suspected, were designed to shock me. But he was the boss and the one who would let me stay or let me go.

I had been much more comfortable last week when I first got this job and was helping Bert Godfrey lay a brick wall to replace an old wooden one that had burned down. How could I help but like that leather-faced but kindhearted man who had served three missions, two of them building missions.

The company had hired me for ten days, mostly to help build that wall. But Bert and I had worked so well together that we had finished it in a week. He didn’t seem to mind that I was a bit clumsy and lacked experience. He knew I was trying and he knew why. He just kept talking to me about serving the Lord.

Bert hadn’t told me that the real boss was on vacation, and it had come as a surprise when I showed up for work the next Monday morning. So far, though, my strategy seemed to be working. Although I was earning more than I had ever earned before, I figured that if I worked so hard that I was worth still more than they were paying me, maybe the boss would feel he just couldn’t afford to let me go.

I looked again at the long I-beam rail with 13 steel legs extending from it like a giant comb with most of its teeth missing. It had long ago served as a bumper guard, preventing cars in the parking lot from hitting the adjacent building. It had been installed by digging 13 large holes in the ground in a straight line, spaced at eight-foot intervals. A steel post was cemented into each hole, and the connecting bumper rail welded to each post. Recently the entire rail had been removed by having two large Hysters extract the whole thing in one piece, and it was lying in the driveway with each post encased in a barrel-sized cement block.

As I heard boots scuff the loose gravel on the asphalt pavement leading from the tool shop, I let loose a wild flurry of blows. I was glad that a few beads of sweat had formed on my forehead. “Here, try this,” the boss said as he handed me a heavier sledgehammer. That wasn’t quite the kind of help I had in mind.

I smiled as I traded him the smaller hammer, but I could tell that he sensed it wasn’t a completely honest smile. He watched me for a few minutes more, and then without further comment, turned away to supervise the crew working on the remodeling project in the steel fabrication plant.

“The only difference between the hammers is that this one is heavier and harder to lift,” I grumbled silently as the steel head collided with the stonehard cement. Finally one small chunk broke off. After several more strokes my arms started to ache, but the cement still remained intact.

At this rate I knew it would take me three days to complete the job. I also knew that if I didn’t show substantial progress by noon, I’d be out of a job and back standing in the labor lines at the Employment Security Office taking any kind of work available. Three days of that had made me especially anxious to keep this job.

Besides, it was 1954, and thousands of striking workers with families to feed were looking for short-term, full-time employment. How was a 20-year-old youth going to compete with them for the few jobs available?

It took only a few more hard but unsuccessful strokes to persuade me that I had reached my limit and that it was time for me to treat the problem as one needing more strength and wisdom than I possessed.

Resting the heavy hammer on the ground and trying to compose my anger and frustration, I felt the need and desire to discuss the problem with the Lord. Without either kneeling or closing my eyes, I started praying aloud to the Lord and explaining the task I faced. In a conversational but sincere way I reminded him that I wasn’t asking for the money so I could buy a yellow convertible. He had called me on a mission, and I knew he wanted me to go. This job had already been an answer to my prayers, but I needed to keep it. I didn’t expect him to send a host of angels from heaven with sledgehammers, but I knew he could help me.

Never in my life has a prayer been answered more immediately or clearly. Suddenly my mind was filled with a thought so lucid and strong that my heart started pounding. It was a simple solution, as I later considered it. To brighter or more experienced minds it might have occurred earlier, but to me it came as a direct answer to my prayer.

The compelling instruction said to me, “Instead of striking the cement, strike the steel.”

Still not fathoming exactly why, I raised the hammer and brought it crashing down five or six times on the steel post right next to the cement. As a large section of the cement cracked into big chunks and fell off, I realized that the blows to the steel had started a series of strong vibrations that were transmitted all along the steel shaft.

I quickly forgot the weight of the hammer. With new energy I struck the steel again and again, then moved on to the next post, amazed at the magnification of my efforts as the steel vibrated and the cement cracked.

Less than two hours later I had removed the cement from all 13 posts and stacked the large chunks in a pile. With the sledgehammer on my shoulder and a prayer of gratitude in my heart, I went to find the boss.

“I’ll need some help moving the railing out of the driveway,” I said, trying to conceal the excitement I felt inside. Thinking I was giving up on the project, he motioned me to follow him to the parking lot.

As we rounded the corner of the building and he saw the railing and the pile of cement, he stopped quite suddenly. His eyes blinked and opened wide. His chin started to drop a bit. For a full minute he stood silently, looking first at the railing, then at the cement. After a moment more he turned, motioned me to follow him again, and said, “Come on, I’ll give you another job.”

Nothing more was said about the incident, but the following morning when I arrived for work, he simply said, “Lloyd, you’re welcome to stay on as long as you like.”

I worked there for nearly three months before entering the mission home. He then let me come back to work again for another ten days until I departed with my group for the mission field. Never after that memorable morning did he, in my presence, make a disparaging remark about the Church or my plans to serve a mission.

Many times since that day the Lord has helped me strike the steel instead of the cement in solving other problems. But as I departed for the mission field in late November 1954, I knew that I was called of the Lord. I knew that he was listening to my prayers. And I knew for myself that he would give no commandment save he would prepare a way for it to be accomplished.

[photo] Photo by Eldon Linschoten