New York Harbor, 1885. Only 20 years after the Civil War. New York was the epicenter of the world.
Bubs McFee had traveled all the way from Maryland to be here, hoping to get hired as part of the auxiliary metal-working crew that would help assemble the world’s most famous statue.
Competition was stiff. Everyone wanted this job.
A big-bellied foreman surveyed the long line of hopeful young laborers, sizing them up like an infantry. When the foreman’s eyes landed on Bubs he laughed.
“God sakes, son,” said the foreman. “You don’t look old enough to shave. You sure you’re in the right place?”
The other applicants laughed.
“What are you, twelve?” said the foreman.
Bubs said nothing.
At age 23, Bubs looked like he was an adolescent. But he had worked the steel girders on exactly 28 buildings and three truss bridges in Pittsburgh. Bubs had been laying rivets since his fourteenth birthday. He could climb anything, lift twice his weight, and swing a nine-pound hammer so hard you’d feel its impact from three states away.
“Your mama know you’re here?” said the foreman, whose belly jiggled with laughter.
This got another laugh from the group. But Bubs did not break a smile. He merely stared at the foreman.
The foreman looked at his clipboard. “Bubs, huh? That your real name?”
“Well, Bubs, you have any idea how many beamwalkers die each year on my clock? Have you ever laid a rivet in your life? Can you even lift a hammer with that puny arm you got?”
The foreman shook his head. “You’re naturally gabby, aren’t you?”
Bubs took the Fifth.
The foreman squinted and leaned in. “Well, I think you’re a liar. I don’t think you’ve ever worked with iron in your life. I don’t think you’d know a rivet from your own butt.”
The foreman held up a hammer. “You want this job, I’m gonna need a little proof, kid.”
In a few moments a full-scale competition was underway to separate the wheat from the chaff. A gaggle of competing ironworking applicants crowded beneath a tall unfinished steel skeleton, ready to prove themselves.
Young Bubs buckled a leather harness around his scrawny waist and prepared to give his audience their ticket’s worth. Nearby ironworkers were already running bets on how many rivets skinny young Bubs could lay down.
The foreman shouted the ground rules. “Gentlemen, you have three minutes! First man to climb the iron and give me five good rivets gets a job!”
This was a tall order. Five rivets in three minutes? Even your average veteran riveter could only install one rivet per minute. But then, Bubs was not average.
The foreman wound a stopwatch. Bubs loosened his shoulders and took deep breaths. He placed the tongs and hammer into his toolbelt then glanced 50 feet upward at his “feeder,” a man cooking red-hot rivets over coals.
Riveting was a two-man job. One man operated the coal forge and tossed glowing rivets to the riveter; the riveter swung the hammer and shaped each rivet with nothing but his shoulder muscles and will of the Lord.
“On your marks…” shouted the foreman.
The crowd never knew what hit them.
Bubs scaled the iron column like a veritable superhuman. His awesome hammer pounded each steel pin faster than you could scratch your nose. The booms from his mallet were like locomotive collisions. His competitors didn’t stand a chance against the wonder kid.
Men on the ground lost their smiles. And their bets. Mouths gaped open as the crowd watched a 23-year-old steeldriver from Baltimore pound iron rivets like a downright miracle.
After only one minute, Bubs had laid in four rivets. After two minutes, he’d finished nine. When the clock ran out Bubs had driven 13 rivets into the iron. None of his competitors had even come close to finishing four.
Young Bubs returned to the ground, his chest heaving with each breath. Men applauded him and took turns congratulating the young man, some still shaking their heads in mock disbelief.
Even the foreman was rendered mute as he gazed into the distance at the New York Harbor surrounding them.
This diverse crew would help European craftsmen erect the iron framework of a gargantuan statue. Its pylon underframe would be riveted together, then covered in 350 forged copper plates, secured with 300,000 copper rivets. It was the project of a lifetime. The kind of thing that lands men in history books.
When completed, the neoclassical sculpture would stand at 305 feet. Her Torch of Freedom would greet 12 million immigrants between 1892 and 1954. Steamship passengers would later report that the statue was the first thing they saw from sea. Many newcomers would weep when they first laid eyes on her. Most still do.
Not because of her appearance, but because of what she stands for.
The foreman clapped Bubs on the shoulder and gave a warm smile.
“That was quite a show, kid. Ain’t never seen anything like that. You start tomorrow morning. You and me are gonna build the most beautiful statue this world has ever seen.”
Bubs wiped the slick sweat from his ebony face. “Yes, sir,” he said.
Segrid - July 4, 2021 7:38 am
PERFECT. Nuff said.
Sandi. - July 4, 2021 7:58 am
Heartwarming story told by a wonderful writer! Happy 4th of July, Sean.
orgillian - July 4, 2021 8:22 am
Well done sir. Your holding that last bit of information until the end makes it even more powerful.
Amanda - July 4, 2021 9:18 am
Beautiful! Where did you find this story?? Independence is a powerfully strong concept.
Ed (Bear) - July 4, 2021 9:22 am
Thank you. Perfect story for today!
Hard working people like Bubs deserve to be celebrated.
Nell Thomas - July 4, 2021 10:38 am
Hats off today The Forth of July- to Bubs, Lady Liberty and certainly to Sean for a great story.
Heidi - July 4, 2021 10:51 am
While some are tearing down our nation there are also inspirational stories rising. Thank you.
Joan moore - July 4, 2021 10:58 am
Two examples of what makes our country the best.
Ann - July 4, 2021 11:09 am
🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸…let freedom ring! ❤️🇺🇸❤️🇺🇸
Ann Padgett - July 4, 2021 11:11 am
Now see; stories like the ballad of Buds McFee are one good reason to love history! They are also why I enjoy reading tender tidbits of it by Sean of the South. Thank you and Happy Fourth!
Karen Holderman - July 4, 2021 11:21 am
Happy Fourth of July.
Janie F. - July 4, 2021 11:40 am
I could see it happening! Amazing story Sean! Thank you & Happy 4th of July to you and yours!
Ernie - July 4, 2021 11:44 am
Inspirational message perfect for Independence Day. Thanks. There’s a Bubs McFee in all of us.
Karen - July 4, 2021 11:50 am
Happy Independence Day; Good bless America!
Molly - July 4, 2021 11:51 am
Thank you for reminding us what made America great! And will keep America great!! Happy 4th!!
Mildred McCaskill - July 4, 2021 12:12 pm
And long may She stand!
marisa stewart - July 4, 2021 12:14 pm
Thank you — never underestimate! Home of the brave – land of the free. May she continue to represent all that was sacrificed.
Debbie g - July 4, 2021 12:22 pm
Happy 4th. Thanks again for most uplifting story for our Independence Day Wonder if Bubs ever got the smile off his face 😀😀thanks for inspiring story. Sean. Love to all !!
Nancy Crews - July 4, 2021 12:23 pm
❤your writing. All most of us need is a chance.
Phil (the Brown Marlin) - July 4, 2021 12:26 pm
Awesome! A Sean classic. Nice surprise ending that is good for us all. God bless America!!
Peggy Thompson - July 4, 2021 12:32 pm
God Bless America. Everyone just needs a chance to prove their worth. Great story! 🇺🇸🎉
Debbie - July 4, 2021 12:42 pm
I loved this….the statue is an awesome sight, and it’s always good to get stories from “behind the scenes” of it being built.
Linda - July 4, 2021 12:44 pm
More people should know that this country has always been diverse. We have had our faults, but as of today, we are still the best country on earth. I speak this as the grand daughter of immigrants from Lebanon and Syria who worked their way South from Ellis Island. Who became citizens and raised us to love this country. They showed me what it means to sacrifice everything to come here proper like. My family fought in wars for this country and gave all. In turn this country gave us a life i would have never known had my family not gave up everything to come here. It saddens me sometimes to see how little people really know about this country and how it is being erased. We are destin to repeat what we don’t learn. If we erase it all, it will come full circle and I believe most people are not prepared. The generation now doesn’t even know what getting their hands dirty means. We have allowed the lines in the sand to be blurred. Happy Independence Day… i pray we remember, and Sean, this helps.
Terry - July 4, 2021 12:51 pm
Love this story! Where did you find it? Once again people of color and women are left out of our history ☹️
terieasterling - July 4, 2021 12:54 pm
💝🇺🇸 Great story! Thanks!
Jan - July 4, 2021 12:56 pm
Love this story! What a great example … just let your actions speak for you, no need for words! Thank you, Sean.
Paul McCutchen - July 4, 2021 1:12 pm
Fantastic story. Thanks for starting my morning .
Cathy - July 4, 2021 1:16 pm
What a gift on July 4th! I think this might make today even more special to all of your readers. Thank you Sean. Can’t wait to share this with my family
Tom Wallin - July 4, 2021 1:29 pm
Great story. Please don’t ever again say you are not a writer. You write so we can understand your thoughts and feelings through the words and pages. Thanks.
Tom - July 4, 2021 2:12 pm
The foreman was correct. He and Bubs built the greatest statue I’ve ever seen. I don’t see how anyone can keep from getting misty eyed when they see that Great Lady.
Dina - July 4, 2021 2:34 pm
Dianne DeVore - July 4, 2021 2:51 pm
Bubs is the epitome of America!!! Thanks for this story.
Sally Wells - July 4, 2021 3:41 pm
Thank you Sean.
Patricia Gibson - July 4, 2021 5:28 pm
Thank you for sharing ❤️
Stacey Wallace - July 4, 2021 5:55 pm
Thanks so much for your uplifting story. God’s grace and hard-working Americans such as Bubs have made America the greatest country on earth. May God continue to bless America and you.
Anita Smith - July 4, 2021 6:31 pm
Thank you for sharing your gift-great story.
Linda Moon - July 4, 2021 6:49 pm
I love ballads. Anyone with the name “Bubs McFee” and the work he did deserves one. I “heard” music of the Chimes of Freedom Flashing by a balladeer as I was reading about Bubs. I’ve gazed on Lady Liberty with my two children in tow, one of whom tried to RUN up the 162 steps to her Crown. Mama eventually stopped the run. I’ll never forget seeing Lady Liberty while on a long road trip…the first of many roads travelled in this beautiful land of the free. And, your beautiful storytelling, Sean, took me right back to Her.
MAM - July 4, 2021 7:32 pm
Awesome writing, Sean, and leaving that little tidbit of information to the end only enhanced the ballad. Bubs did what he was hired to do. Wish more people did that today. As a small business owner, I have my issue with finding people who WANT to work. Keep up the wonderful writing, Sean. And Happy Independence Day to everyone today, as we celebrate the birth of the best country on Earth. May her flag fly forever!
Becky Jackson - July 4, 2021 7:54 pm
One of your best!
Dellison - July 4, 2021 7:56 pm
Beautiful!! Thankful for men like Bubs. Happy Independence Day!!
Suzanne Brantley - July 4, 2021 8:21 pm
What a beautiful story!!! Thank you, Sean!
NancyB. - July 4, 2021 9:49 pm
My cheeks needed watering so my eyes obliged as I read this Balladof Bubs McFee.
Thank you, Sean!
Charles E Vianey - July 4, 2021 10:01 pm
Thank you Sean. Great story. Grateful for Bubs and for the legacy he created.
Christina - July 5, 2021 12:01 am
What a wonderful tribute to the unsung heroes! Thanks Sean!
Liz Hoyt Eberle - July 5, 2021 12:36 am
Thank you, Sean. Beautiful story, perfectly written. My grateful words are not enough. You are amazing and I am blessed to now know Mr. McFee.😌🇺🇸💕
Tammy O'Connor - July 5, 2021 3:29 am
I cant wait to read this to my grandchildren!
Deborah Blount - July 5, 2021 4:26 am
I had never heard that story before. That was wonderful. Thank you. I would definitely buy and read a book about the life of Bubs.
LauraD - July 5, 2021 1:33 pm
Now I want to know the rest of Bub’s story!
Chasity Davis Ritter - July 5, 2021 2:23 pm
That is awesome. And yep you got us on the end there. Be a good little mini TV movie for sure.
Pam Ames - July 5, 2021 3:21 pm
Very touching story! It is so good to hear stories of unsung heroes who contributed so much to our country, especially contributions that were made by minorities. Public television featured some great stories this year of those who persevered during the negro suffrage and civil rights movements. Of particular interest to us was the Oklahoma massacre. We never studied about that in our history books – probably because they were written by ancestors of those who committed those terrible crimes.
Thank you for writing such poignant stories! We’d love another visit to Columbus, GA when you get an opportunity – the impromptu piano “concert” at St Luke was awesome!
SUsan Reese - July 7, 2021 11:46 am
Oh my stars- what a great O’Henry ending!
CHARALEEN WRIGHT - July 10, 2021 1:28 am
Katherine D Jones - July 13, 2021 4:59 pm
WOW! Now that’s the kind of story that I really wanted to hear on 4th of July!! Sean, Thank you! Please keep on writing – we Need to see these stories – especially now. Thank you for finding them (we know it’s not easy and takes very good interviewing & powers of observation) – but it IS very much appreciated! AND your writing gives us all (& especially me) HOPE. So THANK YOU!
Bill Harris - July 18, 2021 11:55 pm
Thank you Sean