Walter Franklin Eno Jr., 59, plumber, father of a plumber and descendant of plumbers, stood on the skeletal top floor of an Army hospital under construction in Northwest Washington.
He pointed to some hardware on which he and his men were about to hang a toilet and shower-bath that will be reserved for the President of the United States.
"Fancy? You bet it will be fancy," Eno grinned. "All this for one man to be sick, and he'll probably go to the hospital instead."
Eno, now a foreman, has been putting into government buildings, commercial projects, houses and apartments since 1935, working for others or on his own.
He joined Plumbers Local 5 in 1939. His family union affiliation goes back more than 100 years.
Whether the President ever has a chance to appreciate Eno's workmanship or not, the congenial plumber says he is content with other rewards for his labors.
He makes $463.60 a week, including $40 extra for being foreman but not counting medical and other benefits.
At the end of a week, he can change out of his rough work clothes, hang up his hard hat and head from his home in Hillcrest Heights, Md., to his beach place at Piney Point, and his 40-foot diesel cruiser.
His social life, he says, centers around friends outside the construction trades.
"My wife and I like the good things in life," he says. "Most first-class plumbers live good."
The trade, handed down in his family like a corner grocery or an aristocratic title, has given him a smooth journey from his boyhood in Anacostia. Traditionally, unions have admitted, and many contractors have hired, sons and other relatives of long-time members. That tradition is being disrupted now, according to union leaders, by federally imposed equal employment opportunity programs for minorities and women, who have largely been excluded in the past.
At the same time, the construction industry continues to suffer high unemployment, estimated variously at 14.2 per cent by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and 19.5 per cent by the unions.
As for Eno - "All I know is I've never been out of work a day in my life," he says. "Never."
Asked his thoughts on unemployment, minority programs, legislative battles and other union concerns in the headlines. Eno said he is "not the right person to comment" on such matters. He did venture an opinion that "most of the top men, the really good plumbers" work all the time.
Later, after checking around, he amended that, "I found out there are some damn fine men out of work," he said.
As members of America's skilled working class elite, beneficiaries of hard-fought union struggles, union tradesmen typically earn 50 per cent more than their nonunion counterparts, according to studies by BLS and others, though there is considerable variation in some cases.
About 40 per cent of workers in the construction industry belong to unions compared with 25.8 per cent union membership among all paid workers in the country, excluding farm and domestic workers, according to government figures.
One of the most important developments for Eno as a union man has been in the pension plan, he said. He intends to retire in a few years. "On 40 years' service, you get around $390 a month now," he said, "plus Social Security. That's a big help to the working man.My father retired in 1960 (after 58 years in the union) and his pension was just $30 a month." Eno's father died recently.
Eno earns these rewards in the seemingly chaotic world of the construction tradesman, a world of mud and plaster dust and debris, of work at the mercy of the weather, of cranes and bulldozers, mazes of half-finished walls, tarpaulins, crumpled milk cartons and occasional girlie pictures tacked up somewhere.
Eno's present job is at the hospital under construction at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where the plumbers ultimately will install about 6,000 fixtures ranging from therapeatic whirlpools to kitchen equipment, fire mains and the more familiar bathroom facilities.
The worst part of the job is the "deep ditch" work, Eno said. That's working down in the mud and water when the building is first begun. Most men prefer to get a job out of the hole and into the next phase - especially when it's 10 degrees, or 90 degrees, outside. You're usually in the hole about five or six months."
For most people who will pass through this building when it is finished, it will have seven floors. For the workmen now, it has 14. The extra levels are sandwiched between the regular floors and contain the intestine-like tangle of cooling and heating ducts, electrical wiring and pipes the workmen are installing.
This concept of separate walk-in floors for the life-support systems of large buildings (rather than scaffolding to suspend the materials in the ceilings) is but one of the innovations Eno has seen in construction work over the years.
"The work is a lot easier on the man than it used to be." "All the pipe, threading and concrete drilling used to be done by hand. Now you use machines and threadless pipe. Everything is geared to saving labor."
Eno reminisced with his lifelong friend and fellow plumber, Bob Collins, about how things used to be. Collins had grown up with Eno in the same Anacostia neighborhood. Now assistant business manager of Local 5, and wearing a suit, he was visiting the job site to show a reporter around.
The two men had worked together on the Pentagon during its construction in the early 1940s, Eno recalled. "Radio contact is something else we have now that we didn't have before. Bob Collins was foreman there (on the Pentagon job), and he used to run his legs off," Eno said.
The Pentagon job took only two or three years to build. Collins said, with men working around the clock on a wartime footing.
"I remember in 1939, when I made $60 a week and lived like a king," Collins said.
"Well, I made a $10 a week in 1934 and worked like a dog," Eno countered.
Another change, the men noted, is the apprenticeship program of which the unions are very proud.
"They're turning out first class mechanics now. They go to class and learn theory, along with the skills," Eno said. "We never had that chance. We had to learn on the job."
Eno's son Frank Thomas Eno II (named after his great-grandfather, a bricklayer around the time of the Civil War), went through the apprenticeship program 12 years ago, working a 40-hour week and going to class an additional five hours a week for five years. The requirement recently was cut to four years.