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My brush with death showed me the power of small actions

Mike Freiheit/The Globe and Mail

In honour of Facts & Arguments's 25th anniversary, we present this week the five winning essays from close to 400 submitted for our silver-jubilee contest, Moment of Truth. This is the third.

Read Monday's essay here, Tuesday's essay here and Thursday's essay here.

I grew up in the suburbs at the tail end of the baby boom. Hordes of kids filled schools, masses of cars filled roads, endless tracts of houses filled farm fields. I always felt insignificant: an ant, a grain of sand.

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Sure, my folks told me I was special, but I understood this to mean to them, not really special: their special ant in a minor colony in a galaxy somewhere. I didn't think somebody so small could make a difference. I never won any awards, was never on TV, never saved a cat in a tree. Looking back, I think I never really tried.

After high school, I quit university: It didn't matter what a single ant did. I rode a motorcycle, drank beer, worked crap jobs to pay for gas and beer. I think I expected somebody, somebody in charge, to challenge me; a quest, save the day, change the world.

I got a job working in construction on a cold, muddy job site 10 storeys up, people scurrying below – like ants. You know the scene, at least from the road – blue plywood hoarding around the site, rough men in orange and yellow vests crawling over a slowly-rising skeleton, crane hoisting buckets of wet cement to the highest floor, steel rebar sticking out like winter branches, hammer drills rattling the air.

Inside the fence, the trailers sat in the mud. At lunchtime, our crew would sit in the trailer, the floor smeared in mud, big rumpled blueprints on the drawing board, big sandwiches in hard hands, talking about nothing. Or hockey. The guys all had families, houses, hobbies, cottages. I had none of that. I just worked my dumb job, rode my bike and at night, sat in my shabby room, reading and smoking. It didn't matter.

One day, I had to carry a stack of pipe from here to there. I couldn't walk where the cement was being poured, so I had to walk across a little bridge, balance across a two-by-four plank nailed across the deep, deep elevator shaft, my steel-toed boots poking over the edges into space. I carried an awful lot of pipes from here to there and got tired. With the pipes on my shoulder, I hooked my gloved hand into the collar of my green parka to ease the load. A small thing.

When the pile was almost completely moved, I stepped onto the plank bridge for the 30th time – and found that the nail that held it in place wasn't there. Never was. Some goof had forgotten to nail the end of the plank down. Another small thing.

The plank flipped and bounced out from under me and I fell into the shaft. I only fell five feet and then jarred to a stop, dangling from the pipe. My gloved hand held on to the collar of my green parka. I heard the plank shatter to splinters far below me. The ends of the pipe rested on the oiled plywood deck on either side of the elevator shaft.

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There I hung, my feet far above the shaft floor, my arm hooked over the pipe, my rawhide glove clutching the parka collar for, as they say, dear life.

I hollered, but the guys pouring the cement were a ways away and up to their knees in wet cement, a sticky, stony porridge. They couldn't help me. I somehow hooked my heels out of the hole and flipped up out of the shaft onto the wooden deck around it. Safe. Alive.

The pipe fell, long seconds, clanging to the floor of the shaft. I scuttled down the stairs, across the muddy site to the trailer, grabbed my tool belt and sped home on my motorcycle. I sat in my dark room and considered how small things can make a big difference.

I realized that I didn't want to mean nothing. I wanted to make a mark, make a difference. I had been born with a quick mind and prodigious memory, and I knew, really, that I could make a bigger contribution to the world than carrying pipes around or leaving a mark on a concrete floor. I didn't know what I would make of myself, but I knew I had to try.

The next day, I enrolled at the University of Toronto and sold my motorcycle to pay tuition. I spent days lying under trees with books, sitting in lecture halls or in pubs, discussing ideas with curious people. I spent nights in library carrels. I studied philosophy, then literature, but eventually gravitated toward science.

I kept my tool belt on the back of the chair in my student hovel. Whenever I felt tired, or small, or insignificant, I looked at the tool belt and studied harder. I remembered that small things can make a big difference. My brush with death had made me want be a part of the world. I graduated university "with high distinction."

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Some days I start to feel like an ant again, but then I look at the things I've achieved since dangling from that pipe. I have a healthy, beautiful family. I own a successful business. I try to be a good neighbour and a friend. I try to make the world a bit better every day. I pay attention to the difference I can make with my gestures, my words. Small things can make an entire life feel worthwhile.

Keith Richardson lives in Toronto.

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