The first time I met Derrick we were working at Kent State University for their bicentennial celebration. He was tall, and carried himself strong.
At first, he just seemed like any other crazy stagehand I’ve had the pleasure to work with in my career, but soon he did something wholly unexpected.
Derrick was a rigger, you see. Part of the job is to go into the ceiling, walking among the rafters and basically defy gravity for a few hours in order to make the truss actually fly. As an OSHA standard, if you go above six feet you need to wear your five-point harness and then use a lanyard to tie yourself off in order to keep you from plummeting to your death. Derrick suited up, climbed the 60 feet into the ceiling as per the usual, but then to my surprise, didn’t clip onto the fall arrest with his lanyard. In fact, the laws of gravity never seemed to apply to him. He just walked among the rafters as though he were taking a stroll through the park.
Derrick let in a rope for the ground rigger to send up the appropriate hardware for him to begin his job. My husband was his ground rigger that day and when Derrick got his hands on the hardware this normally rather quiet man bellowed louder than anyone in the room. Using some choice vocabulary, Derrick explained how he wanted the hardware sent up because he didn’t want to deal with having a rat’s nest of rope and hardware to dig through in the air. My husband never messed it up again.
Could Derrick have been more pleasant when educating my husband at the time? Sure. But, that’s just not how stagehands are. We are crass people. We swear like sailors. We’re dirty, stinky, toothless (in some cases) and generally looked at as riff-raff. But the best part about it is: we don’t really care. It’s our job to get dirty and stinky. If we’ve lost a tooth, it’s probably because something heavy smacked us in the face. And as for the riff-raff, well, we take that as a compliment, thank you very much.
Derrick was no exception to these standards. He excelled at being filthy. And we all loved him for it. He always had some of the best stories and when he spoke I generally tried to listen.
I really respect riggers. They are just fearless and in the case of the crew I work with, they have been in the business a long time. I know I can learn a lot from them. I never want to get in their way, and I am always happy to help out. Another rigger I work with, known as Bike Mike, is another fantastic example of the filth of the stagehand world. When he asks me to help him at a load-out, I do. When he corrects me, with choice vocabulary and a loud booming voice, I understand he’s not yelling at me because he doesn’t like me. It was the same with Derrick. And usually is the case with all stagehands. We don’t yell at you because we don’t like you, we don’t make it personal. We’re yelling because what you are doing is wrong and could endanger yourself or others. And because we care about the general well-being of all crew on the deck, we yell to make sure you never make that stupid mistake again. People’s lives are at stake on the deck when you have thousands of tons of metal dangling from a chain motor, or hundreds of pounds of weight rolling toward you in road cases that could crush you if you aren’t paying attention, we are pleased if we can all come out uninjured.
Derrick eventually moved on to a bigger and better gig and became a trucker for a touring company. But when his company came back to The Nautica he didn’t shy away from getting up in the air and lending his friends a hand. I always enjoyed watching him defy gravity. I felt safe knowing he was up there watching out for us little ants on the ground.
One night I remember passing him and saying, “Man, I wish I had your balls!” He grinned really big and said, “Yea, I wish you did too.” We both laughed. That was the perfect response, and I walked right into that comment.
But I really did wish I was as ballsy as he was. I wish I could step out onto those rafters and take a leisurely stroll 60 feet in the air without worrying about misstepping.
I have my fair share of 60 foot climbs. In the summer months, when I’m lucky, I work as a Follow Spot Operator for the concerts we put on at The Nautica. It requires me to climb 60 feet up and stand in a crow’s nest at the top of the venue. It’s the best seat in the house as far as I’m concerned.
Derrick passed away on December 8, 2013 while hauling gear at night. He lost control of his truck and it rolled, ultimately killing him. His funeral was like a viking ceremony. All the stagehands in the area showed up. So many filthy stagehands just off from a gig, showing up in their jeans and tour shirts. I think there were over a thousand of us in one small room. There was a short message from a Pastor and then they opened the mic for anyone who wished to say a few words about Derrick. It was standing room only. The stories shared about our departed friend from his daughter and other stagehands made us laugh and cry at the same time. And when we were given the opportunity to pay our last respects people left small shackles by the box that contained his ashes.
It was truly a beautiful site. And I’m honored to have been in his presence for the time I was. I learned a lot from him. And this coming summer at The Nautica will not be the same without him.
A few weeks after his funeral I had a dream about him. We were back on the deck of The Nautica, but The Nautica was huge. About seven times the size it actually is in real-life. I saw him and ran up to hug him. And then he told me a story about a stagehand he worked with doing something stupid. We were laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe.
I took that dream as a sign that Derrick is at peace. He is working the big rig in the sky, looking down on us and keeping us safe.
Rest in peace, my friend, my comrade. And know that this young stagehand is forever changed by you.
To Derrick Gable!
This post has been submitted to February 2014 NaBloPoMo. NaBloPoMo is a month-long challenge to post once a day on your blog, hosted by Blogher.