The Crane Pays the Bills
Debra Salazar

This story is about elephants—I mean cranes. No, one elephant, and the crane operator who tried to save her life. In truth, I am not sure that my father had much interest in saving the elephant's life. He likes my dog, is gentle with her, lets her inside his house, even talks to her. He calls her pooch, no need to remember her name. He is like that with my lover too. Always asks about her, offers her food and drink. But he can never hang on to her name. Notwithstanding my father's kindness to dogs and his daughter's guera lover, it was not compassion for other creatures that got him out of bed and on the highway in the middle of the night. The crane pays the bills.

My father has operated cranes for thirty years; he is a mechanical genius. No hyperbole there. When moving parts misbehave, family members call my father. He kept my 1968 VW Bug running until it got smashed in the 1980s. There was the year in the late 1970s my Bug went on sabbatical. In spite of all his lectures—oil is cheap; engines are expensive—I forgot to check the oil, for a summer. My dad took care of it though. He builds, repairs, rebuilds.

It took ten years for my father to get a chance at being a crane operator. That is a story about construction unions, and nepotism, and race. I know parts of that story but I am not yet ready to tell them. Burns me too much. Still.

This is a story about pragmatism and craft. My dad has no tolerance for imprecision when it comes to his crane, or his seven-year-old daughter's recitation of multiplication tables; the harshest words he ever spoke to me followed errors in my mental calculations—

Don't be a dummy like your dad! You have to be educated; education is the only thing they can't take away from you. Nine times seven!

A long list of nephews who tried to apprentice with my dad can attest to his integrity about craft. But possibly not, it seems craft was not part of their working vocabularies. Hence the old man operates solo, does his own oiling, sets up the rigging. Setting up the rigging is hard work, takes a strong body. My dad has one, big biceps and powerful quads. He has a U.S. Marine bulldog tattooed on his right bicep. It is an impressive bicep and an expressive bulldog. On our Friday nights at the Y, I used to do chin-ups on my dad's bicep while the bulldog frowned at me.

I can still conjure up the odor of Friday nights at the YMCA. While my dad pressed and curled, I wandered through the weight room. He would stop to supervise me in a dumbbell exercise and I would pump iron as well as any nine-year-old, brown-skinned, southpaw girl who wanted to pitch like Sandy Koufax. On Saturdays we played catch. He tossed up flies and I would throw the runner out at the plate; my dad made the sweep tag. I have never pitched. But I roamed outfields for years. And I still lift. My dad does too. The weights are not as big; he no longer goes to the Y. His garage is part-shop, part-gym. He rigged up a sound system to listen to big band music, and the occasional ranchera station. He never tires of demonstrating the features he has designed.

The crane pays the bills. That is no small concern for a guy who started picking sugar beets in northern Colorado before he could read. My dad was born on the high plains between Fort Collins and Cheyenne. He quit high school, lied about his age, and joined the Marines. Mexican boys in the forties had to work—not so different from today.

He served in Korea, lost hearing in one ear. The lie about his age was not the only one he has ever told. There was the story about his purple heart, the one with his brother's name on it. And he told me about our distant relative, Emiliano Zapata. I felt such pride. Pride in ancestry does not always come easily to the only brown girl in the class. That girl did not know that her father's version of our family tree had been cinematically inspired. Then I saw the movie, watched Marlon Brando spit—My mother was a Salazar.

My father never looked back once he got in the operator's seat. He shifted gears, caressed levers. He drove pile for twelve years, several of those at the San Francisco Airport. He set girders for freeway overpasses. My dad has done the yeoman operator's work. But his boom has also slid forty-ton blocks of concrete into place on skyscrapers and lined up long steel beams to support bridges. That was when he worked for Bigge, operated a 120-tonner. These days he is independent, does two or three picks a week with his forty-ton hydraulic truck crane, placing refrigeration units into compartments above produce-processing warehouses. I watched one day, held my breath while he lowered his block, hooked each unit, raised it, and then slowly slid it into its slot. Pipes carrying fluorine gas ran along side each compartment, giving my father only inches of clearance on each side. I breathed again when he released the unit and pulled in his boom. On days with no picks my dad checks lines and tires, lubes, and polishes the crane. That the crane pays the bills never eludes him.

His wife called me in November with a story. My father got a phone call in las mañanitas. There is a wild animal training center near where they live. An elephant had fallen over and was not getting up. They wanted my dad to go over and lift her. So my 76-year-old father got out of his warm bed and drove his crane over to the park. He got a sling under the elephant, then mounted his crane, shifted gears, pulled levers, and lifted her to her feet, held her there until her blood started circulating again. The same call came the next two nights. My dad phoned me Saturday morning on his way to rescue the elephant for the third time. He told me an elephant veterinarian was flying in to figure out why the elephant kept lying down. Elephants have long life spans. This one has lived only eight of the sixty or seventy years she might enjoy. She is way behind my father.

I learned the elephant's name only later in the story, after she stood on her own. For four or five days my dad's crane was busy with Lisa. Some jobs he had scheduled before she lay down were postponed. My dad devoted his working hours to keeping Lisa upright. One morning he left the crane holding the elephant while he went home to microwave a frozen waffle for his grandson. Mateo, the grandson, is five, younger than Lisa. He lives with his grandparents during the week. They give him time, attention, warm his waffles, and deliver him to kindergarten.

Mateo does not get to visit the crane holding the elephant. My dad's wife does though. She tells the guard at the gate that she wants to see the woman who gets her husband out of bed in the middle of night. During her visit she takes a photograph—my father, his machine, and Lisa.

I know there could be many stories here. How horrible it is for an elephant to live in a wildlife park in Salinas, California. How could elephants thrive alongside rows of artichokes, strawberries, and garlic? Not to mention the Silicon Valley commuters who are starting to displace the produce. Maybe Lisa decided to retire from North American modernity and my dad keeps torturing her.

But I prefer to think of my dad rescuing the elephant, keeping her upright long enough for the experts to figure out why she keeps lying down. I know my dad is gentle with her. And maybe the park takes in zoo refugees. I would like that best of all.

But the best is not often true. Lisa is an actress; she performs in commercials. Some day perhaps a feature film. I learned to say film only in my forties. Really I am a movie girl. Not that I like them, just use the word. I read books and wander trails. Occasionally I wield a pneumatic hammer or a chop saw; I have a vision for my house that exceeds my capacity to pay others to realize it. Hence the small set of power tools arranged neatly in my shed and the summer hours breathing sawdust and VOCs. It is not drudgery though; calculating lengths, leveling boards, and trimming windows have their allure. I mis-measure though, leave gaps. And I seldom sand enough; my work is sometimes bumpy. Not my dad, his carpentry is immaculate and ornate, all curves and smooth surfaces. Mine is right angles and sharp edges. We have aesthetic differences.

But I am my father's daughter. We do not say a lot. We do not believe in God, only work. We cannot sit still. We listen to music––do you like disco mija? Yes dad, I do. He does not dance though. I will dance to every song—shake it like a Polaroid picture; se me acabó la fuerza de mi mano izquierda; I don't have to lie to you to make it sound fly to you. But I have never seen my father dance.

My father reports that Lisa has a sore knee. With modern medicine perhaps the sadness in Lisa's eyes will ease. Cortisone injections do wonders for my dad when the arthritis in his shoulder flares. And I take ibuprofen, to keep my knee from speaking too loud during a 10k or a century. The doctors should be able to fix Lisa's knee, make her pain free again.

My father and I do not talk often, once a month or so. Through the winter and spring, I forget to ask about Lisa. Our conversations return to normal.

How are you mija?

I'm fine Dad. Are you still working too much?

Oh mija when I stop working, I'll die.

I visit my father in the summer. We amble down the hill from his house and wander through the village of San Juan Bautista. He always wanted to live on a hill; it took a long time to get up there. We pass the motorcycle rally on the main street, failing in our effort to ignore the Harleys, hundreds of them. Actually my dad stops to admire one, pointing out the paint job, the curves. But the noise unnerves my dog so we head over to the Mission. I have spent time in Missions before; they were a regular field trip destination in elementary school.

Here is where the saved Indians worked, here the Father slept, here the saved worshipped.

Today my dad obsesses about the unmarked graves, the inhumanity of the Missionaries. The saved Indians were going to heaven; God would find them without names on their crosses. But my dad finds no comfort in the Fathers' explanation; instead he rails against the Missionaries and their abuse of the people who looked like us. My dad would not have been saved, would not have worked for the Fathers. He lost enough jobs in his twenties to convince me of that; he had no patience for white guys with big bellies, who forgot to notice his humanity. We converse about the Indians and their salvation.

Thousands of them buried in unmarked graves mija. They didn't even mark them.


It was horrible!


We walk on. I ask him about the current condition of El Camino Real. He shows me where the stagecoach parked. We stop in a kitsch store. I pick out a funky, turquoise, chicken-shaped birdhouse. My father says it is funny looking. I envision it hanging on a low cedar branch outside my house. He insists on buying it for me. This time he does not mention how he has to make up for not giving me enough when I was a child. That is what he writes every year on the birthday card he sends me. A note—just a little something to make up for the times I wasn't there—is folded over the hundred-dollar bill stuffed in the envelope. I spend it on art. Some years it takes months to find the right piece. Two years ago the piece was my right forearm, a tattoo of a heart wrapped in barbed wire. Not a Valentines Day heart but an anatomically correct one. The chicken wrapped, we wander over to the Teatro Campesino where Zoot Suit is performed and Chicano history is recovered for tourists. Then we wander back toward the main street. I ask about Lisa.

How is the elephant doing?

She's dead. They called me for a week. Then just after the last call, they called me back and told me not to come. She died.

I thought they got a specialist.

They did but he couldn't figure out what was wrong.

I do not know how many nights my father visited Lisa, only that she died shortly after the last phone call. Was it the fifth or the seventh call? My father lives by physical precision but factual accuracy is not his forte. I could investigate, question his wife. But I have lived with my father's combination of precision and inaccuracy for half a century. Lisa died; the date is not important. I chinned on the Marine tattoo; most days the purple heart stays in its box.

Debra Salazar teaches political science and studies the politics of the environmental movement. In her spare time, she ruminates about death, insanity, and modernity. Her creative nonfiction has been published in Witness and The Other Journal.