Silence is Golden

Years ago I had a summer job at a prestressed concrete factory. We built bridges, and exterior building panels on a daily basis. It was a stressful job because of the tight deadlines, and the hard labor that came with the territory. The employees there could have come straight out of the Wild West – the serious, tough, tobacco loving, don’t take no shit from no body type that you never want to cross. Verbal abuse was rampant, so if you weren’t a fast learner (fortunately I am) they made your life a living hell. Needless to say, the turnaround for summer workers ran fairly high.

Prestressed concrete bed

Out of the dozens of summer workers that came every week to replace those who had left, only three of us lasted. How? We were fast learners and we all picked up on one valuable thing – silence is golden. No one ever talked on breaks. EVER! This is the one thing most of the new workers didn’t understand. Breaking silence drew unwanted attention, and guaranteed increased verbal abuse and the worst jobs on the line for the offenders.

Since then, I have valued moments of silence. An attribute usually found among the elderly. (Maybe it’s because hearing problems make conversation frustrating?)

When I lived in Saint Paul Minnesota, there was an elderly man in the apartment complex who loved to feed the squirrels and cuss at other residents. Rather amused, I made it my mission to befriend him.

He smoked a pipe, so I bought a pipe. He fed peanuts to the squirrels, so I bought a bag of peanuts. He sat in silence (when he wasn’t busy cussing at people), so I sat in silence. Each day I would get closer to where he was sitting (that really pissed him off, not to mention the fact that I was feeding HIS squirrels). Then one day, he finally invited me to sit with him.

We made small talk in-between long moments of silence. I learned several things about him – his name is Paul, he was 85 years young, he used to work for the rail road, and he was the first resident to live at the apartment complex. No matter how many times I told Paul my name, he still called me ‘kid’ – my grandpa would call me Zeek…I’m convinced he forgot my name…

We became close friends over a two year period, and spent time together almost every day – usually spent in total silence, just enjoying each others company. One day he informed me that his daughter was making him move to an assisted living facility in northern Minnesota. In a matter of weeks, my friend was gone.

I still speak with Paul on a regular basis. He has become one of my closest friends despite our large age gap. I can’t help but wonder if we would be friends if I hadn’t learned to appreciate moments of silence at the concrete factory many years ago…

Lessons learned:

  1. Awkward silences don’t always need to be filled (in some situations they do).
  2. Friendship doesn’t have to be limited by age.


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