In March, I came upon a crew fixing a broken water main. A backhoe was lowering a steel trench box into the excavation. Often soaked from water, the sides of those excavations are unstable and pose a risk of cave-in to workers in the trench. The box is designed to shore the trench and protect the crew.
The scene brought back a day I was in one of those trenches. It was before safety regulations required the protection of a trench box. Four of us were on the crew for this job; two laborers, a backhoe operator, and I had the sonic leak detector to hone in on the source of the break. We didn't know each other, having been called from other jobs for the emergent problem.
Three of us were in the trench. The two laborers were using hand shovels to expose the pipe. When they finished, I would duck down close to the pipe to listen for the hiss of water escaping under pressure to estimate it's location.
As the laborers were almost finished, the side of the trench collapsed. We all knew it was possible and had been watching for telltale cracks or slumps. Sometimes though, action was faster than reaction. We all had stories of someone killed or seriously injured this way. Seemingly instantly, the walls at the front slid; the forward guy was buried up to his chin, the second up to his waist. Behind I was up to my ankles.
Without thought, I grabbed a shovel and dug out the worker in front me. Then he and I dug out the worst buried . The whole time, we were literally undermining our position. The trench was still unstable and pressurized water from the leak could reach the trench at any moment, turning it into quicksand. The operator stood watch for any warning signs.
When we got our colleague free, we went right back to work. We cleared the trench again, aware of the danger. All of us did our jobs and climbed out with some relief, safe to risk our lives another day.
Looking back, I'm struck by how dangerous so much work was, and still is. We weren't stupid: we were fully aware of our vulnerability. Yet we embraced it. We risk our lives for our often menial jobs, and that day, without consideration or hesitation, we risked our lives for each other.
I look back and remember how meaningful the work was. It was usually dirty; often dangerous, rarely celebrated, but it was honorable. As I look back, we weren't working for money nor glory. We worked to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. I worked to pay for an education: my path to liberty. Others worked to provide security for families and loved ones. We shared a sense of honor and duty. Embracing risk with courage was baked in.
Forward to today. I'm working from home, socially distancing, wearing masks, somewhat ambivalent, thinking, I've faced greater danger. When I see someone not taking precautions, my first thought is, respect. I know they've survived worse.
If you're inclined to see someone like this and think they're stupid, selfish, willing to inflict harm, I'm asking you to think again. Imagine someone who has worked a lifetime to secure blessings under difficult and dangerous conditions, of which this is just one more. Imagine them embracing risk with courage. You and I from our distance can interrogate the system that puts us at unequal risk.
And you, my honorable risk-embracing colleague, respect. Yes, we're not afraid. And I'm reminding you of our shared duty to rescue others. We take precautions not for ourselves, but for pregnant mothers and their babes in wombs, for children, for those recovering from accidents and other illnesses, for loved ones with chronic illness, for our elders.
And if today you and I were to find ourselves side by side when something turned dangerous, I know you and I would join to risk our lives in partnership to set it right.
So here's what else I need from you: when we climb out of this hole, I want you still alive, healthy, and blessing us with your sense of honor and duty. I and we need you.
Okay then, let's put on those masks: duty and honor.