Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Learning from our mistakes

As I mentioned in my previous article, I am going to write a few things about the summer I worked with my father on a construction job. He had been an Operating Engineer (the heavy equipment operators union) for most of his adult life. I joined for the summer work and the good wages ($5 was terrific money for summer work in the 70's). We were working on Interstate 79 north of Pittsburgh where it crossed over another road and a stream. One of the things that needed to be built was a cement tunnel so the stream could pass under the new highway. Dad and I were working on a truck crane (similar to the one in the picture here). He operated the crane, the skillful part, and I did anything he asked me to do. The official name of the job is Oiler, though, and I kept the machine lubricated and clean. All the important moving parts were lubricated every morning and during lunch (I ate after the official lunch time). Another task I had was to give him hand signals when he couldn't see where the load was.

Normally, on this job, the crane was used to lift heavy metal pieces from the trucks that delivered it and move them to the guys who would assemble it. The crane held the heavy part in position until it was attached. Then Dad would swing it around to get the next part. Another of my jobs was to attach the pieces to the crane's hook. Also, we would hook up a large bucket to hold cement. The cement trucks would pour the cement into the bucket, Dad would swing the bucket where the cement was needed and the guys there would pull a lever and the cement would be released into the form that would hold the cement until it dried. The final part of the pouring was for the top level. I didn't realize that would be any different than the others but for the very top level, the cement needed to be smoothed. I figured it was just going to be buried in dirt and rocks so why make it look pretty but I guess it was important to smooth the top of the cement.

On one part of the cement tunnel, my father had to lift the load over a small mound of rocks and dirt and he couldn't see where he was placing the load so I had to stand where I could see the pouring site and see my father in the cab of the crane. I'd known the hand signals since I was a little kid. That part was second nature to me. Deciding where to have him move the cement bucket was a different story, though. We filled the cement form up to the last layer where they would need to start smoothing and everything went fine. Then, the smoother came in. After the first load he needed to start working, I needed to move the bucket to get the next load but now he was in the way so I had my father move the bucket a different way back. This worked and I just assumed it would work this way for the rest of the pour. We brought the bucket back with more cement, it was poured, the smoother continued his work and I signaled to move the bucket back the way it had come. But this time, some cement that was clinging to the bucket dropped into the area the smoother had already finished. The cement was now not perfectly smooth.

Everything stopped. I mean everyone at the site turned and looked at the smoother who was now standing up and staring straight at me. You've heard the expression, "If looks could kill..." Well, I think I actually felt a blast of heat on my face as his eyes glared at me. I think all the other guys were expecting him to run up and throttle me. He looked that mad. My father noticed that I was no longer giving signals and motioned to ask me what was wrong. I just waved him off and signaled to get the bucket back to the cement trucks. I noticed that even the cement truck drivers were looking from me to the smoother and back again. I was amazed. At first I wondered how this guy could take it so seriously. All this was going to be buried in tons of rock and earth and no one would ever see his work. I learned a great lesson. This guy was good at what he did. He didn't care if no one would see it after it was covered. He saw it now. The inspector would see it before it was covered up and all the other workers saw it. He wanted to do the best job he could.

The next pour, I made sure to have the empty bucket swing far away from the finished area. The smoother didn't acknowledge me at first but after a few more passes of the bucket, he did give me a grudging nod as acknowledgement that I'd learned my lesson. After we were done, I made sure to go to him and apologize and he was gracious in accepting my apology. But he made it clear that I was never to do anything like that again. I never did. I've always tried to look ahead and see if my actions would make more work for someone else.

1 comment:

Emma said...

Dear my poems that i am
Roses or red
Violets or blue
I feel just right
with a hug from too you.