FULLERTON — In his prime, Damian Cobian could hang heavy sheets of drywall on a ceiling all day. Short, thickly built, with the powerful arms of his trade, Cobian spent 14 years earning a living at pennies per square foot.
An immigrant from outside Guanajuato, Mexico, he would rise with the sun as often as seven days a week, for a job few Americans would take: Hoisting the drywall and nailing it to the wooden frames of homes that were springing up in Orange, Los Angeles and Riverside counties.
The job was arduous and repetitive, but it paid more and promised a better future than his previous work as a gardener, and it meant his five daughters, four sons and wife could count on food, clothes and a roof over their heads.
But nearly 15 years on the job wore him down. Five years ago, at 58--twice the age of most men hanging drywall--Cobian's rugged body failed him. He dislocated a disc in his lower back.
"I felt my back did not have the strength," said Cobian. "I went to the doctor, and he told me I could not do it any more."
Like all men who hang drywall, Cobian's livelihood depended on an agile body. When his gave out, as some do in this risky trade, the debilitating injury meant the end to dreams and a future in turmoil.
"To each person falls certain luck," Cobian said softly. "What can I do?"
Without income, without benefits, Cobian's meager savings were depleted as he waited a year for a settlement from the drywall company that employed him. Without a job, there was no money for repairs to the home he had finally managed to buy for his family. And gone was his dream of a bigger one.
Without knowledge of English, at an age when most men are contemplating retirement, Cobian's prospects for finding other work were dashed.
Cobian now survives by stretching his monthly Social Security payment of $680 to cover his mortgage, food and other bills. Two grown children--who live with him and his wife, Candelaria--help with earnings from their jobs as a stock clerk and a secretary.
Injuries that come with repetitive motion are common in drywall work, according to Harriet Applegate, who is heading a five-year study sponsored by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of carpentry injuries in Cincinnati. They include carpal tunnel syndrome, bursitis, arthritis and wrist injuries, she said.
Acute problems more commonly affect the back, shoulders, neck and legs, Applegate said.
As painful as Cobian's injury was, it is not inconsistent with what some workers in dangerous fields face everyday. But police who dodge bullets and firefighters who risk their lives in burning buildings are protected by strong associations or unions, unlike the drywall workers who go home complaining of neck pain, sore shoulders, and often, hands so stiff they cannot open, said Roy Navarro, a drywall organizer.
"Look what we do in the morning when we have to lift drywall," Navarro said. "If you're a baseball player and say, you have a game that day, you get to warm up for two or three hours before you start playing. We don't have that. We're there in the morning. No warm up. We work."
Cobian was drawn to the job because it offered good money--when the work was available.
In the 1980s, when it sometimes seemed there would be no end to the homes going up, there were times when he could pull in about $600 in a week, and up to $20,000 in a year, he said.
But the work flow sometimes ebbed. Sometimes he earned nothing. "It was not very secure work from week to week," he said.
About the only constant was that, no matter what Cobian earned, the money went quickly. The kids needed new clothes and there were always mouths to feed. The car needed gas and there were payments each month on the three-bedroom home in south Fullerton. And then there were the electric and phone bills to pay.
Like his co-workers, many of whom are Mexican immigrants, Cobian had his share of sprains and bruises that come with toting slabs of plaster up narrow scaffolds and shaky wood-frame stairs. There were more serious accidents, cuts from the knives used to carve drywall.
Drywall hangers constantly run the risk of falling, sometimes from two or three stories, as they lift the heavy slabs in place for nailing. Cobian's left sleeve covers a three-inch scar from the day he fell down a flight of stairs and through a glass window at a job site.
"There are times when you have to hoist (the drywall sheet) over your head," he said, raising an invisible slab with his thick arms. "You have to be sure your footing is secure."
After his back injury, Cobian could no longer keep up with the younger men, whose bulky bodies could handle the burdensome sheets.
Today the onetime gardener spends his hours tending the herbs and vegetables behind his home, the constant pain in his lower back the legacy of his abandoned struggle to achieve the American dream that brought him here from a ranch in rural Mexico.
"I know we can't do anything about it," he said. "But we go about adjusting."