Engineering Happiness

I recently met a happy man.

Why shouldn’t he be happy? He has what most men want: loving parents, a wife, Jana, who was his high school sweetheart, two cute little boys, a house, good friends, family members who live nearby, good training and a good job. He also possesses a fine sense of humor and good looks.

Aside from his parents and looks, he has achieved his blessings on his own. He made me ponder a question I’ve often considered—how is it that some people figure out life and others don’t?

Maybe it is because the ones who don’t are not tower crane operators, or in the industry jargon, “operating engineers.” About 100 cranes are operating now in the city of Boston. Fifteen are tower cranes.

Thirty-five year old Robert J. Amoroso, RJ for short, operates that gorgeous, red Potain tower crane rising 200 feet (for now) against a blue sky on Franklin Street at Millennium’s growing tower at Filene’s. Counting the operating engineer’s training school in Canton, his apprenticeship and then employment, RJ has hoisted materials for 15 years at power plants, paper mills, bridges, tunnels, and high rises and placed them (don’t say “dropped”) gently on a surface.

“It’s the best job in the world,” RJ said.

That is one clue to contentment—he’s passionate about his work.

RJ climbed his first crane when he was a child. His father, also an operating engineer, showed him the ropes, and RJ knew the job was for him. “He had me running the boom,” he said.

RJ was also impressed with his father’s union, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 4, a community of men and women who look out for one another. That is another ingredient of contentment—being part of a trusted community.

RJ works hard. He’s up early, driving from his home in Easton into a garage on Franklin Street. Typically, he arrives at 5:30 a.m. so he can climb the crane, check out its parts and get ready for the construction team that shows up about 6 a.m. He stays in the six-by-six-foot cab until the work day is over, which can be 8, 10 or even 12 hours. He is accompanied by his “oiler,” the apprentice operator who assists him. If the ladders leading to the cab are icy from a snow storm, or if a heavy wind buffets the crane, no crane work takes place.

He has his lunch with him. Bathroom breaks involve bottles and buckets. The hardest part of the job, he says, is staying mentally strong. “People’s lives are in our hands,” he said. And thousands of dollars in materials.

Glass, for example, can’t be broken if you’re a tower crane operator trying to set it on a surface surrounded by guys waiting to release it from its straps. And you can’t hit the guys.

RJ likes the view from the cab and is proud of his skill in operating the crane. People who work hard, acquire a skill and then deploy it to accomplish something greater than they are—in RJ’s case, building a giant building that could stand for centuries—will probably be happier than those who don’t achieve such goals.

RJ makes good money, and a well-paying job is another ingredient for happiness. Tower crane operators are paid, counting all benefits, between $75 and $90 an hour, with take-home pay around $55 an hour—double for overtime. RJ cautions that days can add up between jobs, so following his father’s example, he plans on being out of a job six months of any year, although that hasn’t happened recently.

Operating a tower crane can be dangerous work, but one peril RJ hadn’t counted on was tangling with a hawk.

As he was climbing a crane last year at Tata Hall at the Harvard Business School, a hawk attacked him, ripping his arm and causing him to fall upside into the cage around the ladder below. After 16 stitches and four days rest, he was back on the job.

RJ’s crane is now at the highest level it can go without being attached to the building. That will occur in December, and it will gradually rise to 610 feet as the building rises. It is slated to come down next October.

Jana recently brought the boys to the parking garage near the crane to watch their father work. The boys were transfixed. “They can’t get enough of it,” said RJ.

Soon, when Bobby Junior is five years old, RJ will put him in a harness and climb with him to the cab.

            It looks as if happiness will continue into the next generation.

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