The Riff part 3: when a story wins
Ivan was the crane driver. He drove a tower crane, one of those skinny structures that perch high above civil construction sites. He was another of the Italian refugees. I reckoned he was in his mid-fifties.
There was something different about Ivan. Physically, he was massive, with a presence like a piece of granite or a heavy steel beam. His biceps and forearms were sinewy and thickly knotted. It was as though he single-handedly uprooted trees or strangled bears and lions for training. He had a boxer’s nose and scarring on his face. There was a quietness about him like an ex-soldier or fighter who’d been to the far reaches of human tolerance.
Ivan was one of those blokes who made a conversation falter when he entered a room. Although he spoke very little he was never thuggish and always warm and polite.
I’d been getting a hard time on site from my Australian and English workmates. A young bloke who read books, studied music and obscure martial arts was ‘different’. Someone who befriended the ‘wogs’ was especially strange and therefore needed to be ostracised.
Ivan had taken me under his wing as had all the Italians. I got the sense from Ivan that he saw something of himself in me. Each morning as we gathered around for the site safety meeting, he would nod and put his massive calloused hand on my shoulder, give it a gentle shake and quietly say ‘Marco!’ before making the long climb up to his crib in the crane. He had the effect of backing off the bullshit from the other guys.
From a distance I admired his quiet power. Nothing seemed to faze him. At 17 years old I’d already been through a lot of shit. I’d been surviving on my own since I was fifteen. I didn’t know it at the time but I’d come out of my childhood as a casualty. I was still trying to find my way and work out where to from here. Now in my second year as an apprentice, I’d grown in confidence, I was strong and fit. I stood my ground and gave as good as I got to my workmates. This was something of a shock to the older blokes and of great amusement to the foreman and of course, Ivan.
I don’t think we ever exchanged more than a few sentences each day over the couple of years I knew him. It was the same for most of the crew on the site. There were whispers about his past but no one seemed willing to elaborate. A lot of the older Europeans had come to Australia as refugees, their lives and families ripped apart by the war. A Croatian man I worked with recounted being quickly hidden by his parents in some bushes. He witnessed his whole village lined up and machine-gunned.
‘I was a young boy….. all my family,’ he said simply.
‘Marco, you don’t want to see such things.’
One morning I arrived at site and there was a new crane driver.
‘What’s up with Ivan?’ I asked the foreman. ‘He sick or something?’
‘Yeah, nah, he’s taken a job in the city at the Hilton site.’ He shrugged and walked off. The new Hilton Hotel in the middle of Adelaide was a big deal. There was a lot of work but the build was controversial.
It was common for blokes to move about from site to site. Construction workers could be a shady bunch. There was drunkenness, petty theft, gambling, unpaid fines and false identities. On our job, the cops regularly turned up. They’d collar a labourer or two and hustle them into the divvy van. This was the mid-eighties and the peak of construction union power. There were constant fights, walk offs and stoppages. Maybe Ivan was just fed up.
A couple of months later we were at smoko in the lunch shed. One of the carpenters nudged me and pointed at a small article in the corner of the paper and laughed.
‘Ya hear about ya mate Ivan?’
‘Yeah, stupid bastard,’ said another bloke.
‘What?’ I said.
‘Here ya go young fella, have a look for yourself.’
Late one evening at the top of the Hilton, Ivan had climbed out onto the arm of his crane and jumped off.
‘Yeah, nah, I was talking to a mate on site about it. They were gunna’ do a concrete pour the next day. They reckon they were pickin’ up pieces of him out of the reo* for days.’
‘Jesus’ said a couple of blokes.
The siren on the hill blasted and we packed away our stuff and headed back out.
Nowadays, the Hilton hotel sits bland and nondescript on its corner in Adelaide. I still pause and take a breath when I go past. I take a moment to think about Ivan. I think about his family and what he left behind. I imagine his quiet decisiveness, his deliberate steps, his large frame climbing up and out onto the extended arm of his crane. I see his crooked smile and haunted eyes as he crouches to take in the lights of the city one last time. I think about what may have driven him out and into the night.
The stories we tell ourselves are powerful. They can be so vivid and alive that they crowd out the present and obscure the future. We can’t hide or outrun their reckoning. I expect even Ivan for all his strength was overwhelmed by this unending weight.
Back then I was really still a kid but I wish I’d had the tools to unlock or shift his stories. I wish I’d paused that bit longer at our morning hello. I wish I’d sat and talked with him more. I wish I’d got him back to training and got him moving, got him out onto the floor or into the ring, where every day is a new day and we begin again.
Maybe it would have helped. Maybe he would have gained a different perspective and maybe there would have been a sliver of light, a glimpse of some peace and respite from the constant narrator in his head, just enough for him to reframe things and find a way through.
* steel reinforcing rods used in concrete.