My Foray into Psycholinguistics
For a while I was kind of a temporary assistant to the engineer on a bridge construction project. The bridge was being built with reinforced concrete. Concrete is cheap and very strong in compression, but weak in tension. Steel is strong in tension, but expensive. Before the concrete is poured, long steel rods are placed in a framework where the concrete will be. These rods, sometimes called ‘re-bars,’ take the tension while the concrete takes the compression. It’s an ingenious system.
At lunch I got to talking with one of the men building the bridge. It turned out we had a few acquaintances in common. I asked him what his job was. He said, “I bust rod.”
My friend was a union ironworker, and his particular job was cutting and bending three-quarter-inch steel rods to the prescribed shape, and then putting them in place to form a kind of cage that the concrete would be poured around.
Busting rod is hard work for good pay. It demands intelligence, strength, and stamina. Heavy construction is dangerous, and working high up on a bridge over a river, next to highway traffic, makes it more dangerous yet.
“Hey, boss, the chop saw’s busted again.”
But it is construction. Nobody’s busting anything, except by accident. The rods are cut with a special saw, they’re bent with a bender, and they’re placed and wired together by a skilled worker. The man was building a bridge. If I were building a house, I wouldn’t say I was “bustin’ board.” So what’s up with this?
Part of it is just a way of speaking. Like Pushin’ broom or Pushing Tin. But why ‘Bust?’ Is it unworthy of a man if it’s not violent? Do computer programmers bust code? [Insert lame Microsoft joke]
When I was a boy I busted stuff all the time. Usually old stuff that was already busted: Clocks, toasters, model airplanes, Army men. As I grew older I busted bigger stuff, sometimes by accident. In high school, I almost busted half the physics lab. Once in a while I got busted.
When I was a young man I had a job busting stuff for Uncle Sam. I busted a lot of stuff violently with explosives. I blew up buildings, cars, all kinds of things. Instead of getting in trouble I got a good salary with full medical and dental. If people asked, I said I was ‘in the Army.’ If pressed for detail I used the equivalent civilian job title and said I was an ordnance engineer. I never described my job as ‘Bomb buster;’ I and my fellow soldiers would have regarded that as embarrassingly lame.
“I’m a tenth-level Paladin”
Joe Carter writes about how, for effete intellectuals, ideology fulfills a fantasy role. I wonder if what leads an intellectual to satisfy his fantasy in ideology isn’t a broader human need. That is, it’s not that they’re inadequate Che Guevara wannabes; It’s just that they’re men. We all need to feel significant. The difference between the activist professor and my friend the ironworker is in how this need manifests itself.
The guy who glamorizes heavy construction into dragon-slaying is far less pernicious than the intellectual with a big idea. The ironworker who imagines he’s slaying a dragon builds a real bridge. The ideologue who sets out to build a metaphoric bridge ends up building a labor camp.