COLUMBIA — Virgil Jeffery has been a crane operator for so long he's not sure anymore what he likes most about the job — it's all pretty good. But his 14-year-old daughter Holynn laughed and answered the question for him: Dad gets to spend the whole day away from her.
Right now, Jeffery spends his days 177 feet up in the air. He's that speck in the glass box of the big, blue crane between McNally's pub and the U.S. Post Office, at the site of the new parking garage at Fifth and Walnut streets.
Graham Construction Co., based in Omaha, Neb., began working on the garage project in August 2009, project manager Dave Rexin said. The crane went up in September of that year, and Jeffery not long after, Rexin said.
Jeffery, an Ashland native, has operated cranes for 19 years. It's so much a part of him he doesn't really know how to describe it anymore.
"It's a cool job," Jeffery, 45, said. "I just got lucky."
It might be a cool job to perform, but in reality, it's a hot job. Perched above the city, he sits in a glass box in which temperatures can reach more than 100 degrees before the air conditioning is turned on. Still, last Thursday, the best the air conditioning could do was keep the cab about 91 degrees, Jeffery said.
The construction crew jokes about Jeffery sitting in the crane in his underwear because of the heat. No, Jeffery said, he normally wears an old pair of shorts and a T-shirt.
Jeffery gets to work at 5:30 a.m., arriving at the construction site 30 minutes before the workers on the ground. He jokes that he gets paid to take a 3o-minute climb up the crane. Once he reaches the top, he has to perform basic maintenance on the equipment and run safety tests to make sure everything is running correctly before the rest of the crew shows up.
As part of his daily tests, Jeffery needs to make sure the crane's internal safety measures function properly. The computer on his crane lets him lift a maximum of 19,800 pounds; a 22,000-pound test weight sits right below his crane. Every morning, when he tries to lift the test weight, the crane's alarms go off and its safety features kick in — exactly what's supposed to happen.
Every time the crane reaches its limits, like when it tries to lift the test weight, its computer sends a notification to the crane's owners in North Carolina.
"It's a tattle tale, is what it is," Jeffery said with a laugh.
About 12:30 p.m. Friday, Jeffery was getting ready to start his after-lunch jobs. Iron beams that had been assembled before lunch lay on the newly poured concrete beneath him. As workers return from lunch, Jeffery will move the beams to their proper place, where concrete will eventually be poured over them.
About 2 p.m., he'll start working with concrete. Buckets filled with it line the sides of the parking garage. Jeffery will use the crane to move those buckets to various parts of the site so workers can pour the concrete wherever it's needed.
He said his job is called a service machine. "I am there to provide hoisting service to any of the crafts on the job," he said.
Those "crafts" include plumbers, concrete workers, iron workers and pretty much anyone else involved in the construction.
For Jeffery, the choice to become a crane operator was almost a no-brainer, even if the training wasn't. His father is a member of the Operating Engineers Union Local 513 and Jeffery followed suit. The union is a father-son organization, Jeffery said. He has been a member for 19 years.
"Because my father has been doing it for so long it was easy for me to get into the operator's union," he said.
Training to become a crane operator was more difficult.
"It's a mess," Jeffery said.
About four years ago, he had every license he needed to operate a crane, but when the Columbia parking garage job came up, he had to get even more licensing. That required taking practical exams at his union's school in Silex. He also had to take written exams through the NCCCO, a national crane operators' certification program.
Jeffery said he is suited for crane work; heights don't bother him, and he doesn't mind the climb up a spindly silver ladder. Even if the ladder sways in the wind and shakes whenever someone else is on it.
"When it comes to the cranes, some people have a knack for them and some don't," he said.
Not everyone wants to climb 200 feet in the air to get to work every day.
"If you're a nervous Nellie, there would be a lot of stress involved," he said.
Even though Holynn has experience with cranes — she sat on her father's lap and helped him operate one when she was about 10 — Jeffery said he wants her to go to college rather than follow in his footsteps.
Parents always want better for their children, he said.