BuildWitt: A Not So Brief History (PART 7)
Jumping Jack, Jose^2, and Rattle Snakes!
Welcome back to my best, yet likely inaccurate, recollection of the history of BuildWitt! We're seven parts in, and I'm not even within a stone's throw of what I intended to accomplish. Shit...
In case you missed PART 6, I discussed the first half of my second summer in the Dirt World.
I met my new coworker, Jumping Jack. And that's where we start today's story…
Jumping Jack and I went everywhere together. He never spoke but had a terrible temper. At first, we fought constantly. We were side by side in a narrow ditch, with him nearly stomping on my toes at every turn.
But I don't give up. I learned Jack's ways after enough time together. We didn't become friends, but we got along well enough to finish the job.
The job at hand? Backfill thousands of feet of waterline.
And as for Jack… Those of you in the Dirt World likely know him. For those who don't, Jack's not some asshole coworker—Jack's not even a person. Rather, Jack's a machine.
Arizona Water Line 101
Water follows sewer and storm. The latter two are (usually) gravity-based, restricting them to a straight line. But water can snake through wherever it must, thanks to its pressure.
Arizona water lines are typically 4' beneath the surface and made of ductile iron. Crews dig the trench to grade, place AB bedding material, and lay the pipe. To finish the job, engineering typically calls for AB (aggregate base) 1' over the pipe before backfilling the remainder of the trench with native soil. Like anything dirt-related, compaction is KEY.
Aaron Compaction 101
Verrado called for thousands of feet of waterline. To achieve peak productivity, one crew dug the trenches, another laid the pipe, and the last backfilled. Ya boy was the caboose.
Every morning, someone would drop me off with Jumping Jack (a 2.8 horsepower Multiquip compactor), a shovel, a 5-gallon gas can, and a roll of utility tape. The damn machine weighed nearly as much as I did, so it was a wrestling match even to get started.
Compaction was my only goal. When I arrived, the loader had already spread roughly enough AB atop the pipe. For about 100', I'd advance down the trench with my shovel in hand, smoothing out the surface to help the compactor trounce it easier.
I'd fire up Jumping Jack for the main act and let 'er rip. I'd hit the perimeter and then work the middle, much like lawn mowing. Five passes total would cover the narrow trench.
I'd proudly survey my work, run the utility tape across it, and advance the gas can and my lunch box: one section down, one million to go.
The heat never dipped below 100 degrees, there was approximately zero shade, and I was alone with my thoughts. Ten hours per day, every day. For weeks… I was a backfill PRO.
Jose and Jose and Company
Since we were performing what seemed to be the world's largest waterline install, I figured backfill duty was it for the summer. But one morning… The superintendent reassigned me to a pipe crew! I was back!
Jose was my new foreman. Think Mexican energizer bunny—the guy didn't stop… He'd run around all day, yelling swear words in Spanish at everyone with a smile. It was hilarious.
Two other Mexican guys served as the pipelayers. One was Jose, and I've spent fifteen minutes trying to remember the other guy's name... I want to say Valdo, but I think that was another guy from Texas?
My mom asks how I remember all this. The answer is I sometimes don't. I'd call Jose and ask, but he's too damn hard to understand on the phone.
My new crew was laying water and sewer lines around the Verrado development. We had work to do, so training wasn't in the cards. I jumped in with both feet and prayed my floaties would keep my head above water. Some days they did, and others, I sunk like a lead weight.
Like the summer prior, I was the man on top. The only difference was that the pipe was much smaller and more involved. I learned to read a grade rod and stakes, measure and cut pipe, and prep fittings.
I thought I was damn cool. I was part of a team and slightly more helpful than before. Even though I destroyed every stick of pipe I cut, I loved being the one the crew depended on to furnish every joint.
I ran the same play I learned at Pierson—work as hard as possible to earn everyone's respect. They knew I was borderline useless, but they appreciated my effort and made me one of their own.
I note the Mexican thing because there's a notable cultural difference between working with Mexicans and Americans. Mexicans are much more familial. They watched my back, brought me delicious food, and taught me even more bad words.
My favorite phrase of the summer was "pinche chingadera." I couldn't figure out what it meant because Jose would use it to label EVERYTHING. After weeks of acting like I knew what he was saying, I asked one of my Mexican friends to translate.
Ahhhhhh! The next day, I used the phrase with the enthusiasm of a six-year-old on Christmas morning.
I loved working on a pipe crew but had my eye on the iron. I badly wanted to run the excavators and loaders we used daily. I was vigilant like a hawk, waiting for my opportunity to swoop in for seat time.
My opportunity came. We needed to bag stacks of pipe, and the excavator operator was sick. Put me in, coach! To my genuine surprise, he did. I took the controls of the 308 mini-ex to help with the bagging.
For anti-corrosion, we covered every ductile iron pipe with plastic. We'd cut the thick black plastic to roughly 20', lift one end of the pipe, thread the pipe through the plastic on one end, set it down, lift the other side, and pull it across the remainder. We'd finish with a few passes of tape to keep it in place and then stack it on 4X4 lumber.
For an experienced equipment operator, this process is similar to watching paint dry. But it felt like I was piloting a Falcon X rocket. Every move required perfection and complete focus.
Digging a hole is one thing, but lifting heavy pipe around two other guys had me shitting bricks. I did my best, and we bagged everything with only a few "what the fucks!?" exchanged. But I wasn't out of the woods...
The following morning, at the safety meeting, the superintendent asked who parked the 308. I timidly raised my hand, sensing he wasn't about to hand out a compliment. I was right. I got a crisp ass-chewing for parking it near someone's house neighboring the new development. I'd pay good money to see a 308 out my kitchen window, but Karen didn't feel the same. Lesson learned.
After a month of Verrado, my crew had a new assignment. Markham was building a new road for the City of Phoenix, and we needed to install the waterline before road construction.
It was only two weeks of work, but we smoked it. Our crew was a well-oiled machine, and I was finally cutting pipe semi-straight. Jose even let me occasionally run the excavator and loader!
Operating anything was pure type-two fun. It was TERRIFYING at the moment, but I loved everything about it after. It was like drinking salt water… The more I drank, the thirstier I became.
And now for the summer's final act…
Hitting the Links
Our scope of work was to replace an existing waterline on a golf course an hour out of town with a new PVC line. I hated the drive, but I loved being alone—no one to bother us, no traffic to worry about, and no other crews to share with.
Many mesquite trees were in our way, so Jose began pulling them out with the excavator. Lucky for us, every tree was a nightmare-themed pinata. Rattlesnakes poured out of the roots, slithering in every direction. After the fear subsided, we began keeping a snake score. Just Arizona things…
With the danger noodles dealt with, the job was a breeze. Our production numbers were fantastic. Soft digging conditions and no existing utilities—you can't ask for more as a pipe crew. That is until we reached the wash crossing.
Engineering called for the water line to transition from PVC to ductile iron, an alignment well beneath the scour line, and concrete encasement. Our waterline went from only a few feet deep to 20-30 feet deep. No problem… We'd use bigger trench boxes.
The boxes arrived, and we assembled them like a giant erector set. But to our disappointment, they didn't work as planned. The only other option? Lay everything back at a 1:1 slope.
Production hit a wall. Every 20' stick of pipe required damn near 45 minutes of digging. I learned what "hurry up and wait" meant. We'd go like hell to get the next stick in the ground, only to wait for the machine to do most of the work.
Being August in Arizona, we'd entered the hottest part of the year. Every day was a scorcher, often surpassing 115 degrees. Mother nature didn't want us there, but we had a job to do.
The heat plays tricks on the mind if you're not careful. I RARELY lose my cool, but I remember myself being extremely frustrated on a few occasions. At this point in the summer, the expectations were high, and whenever I fucked up, the guys let me know. I appreciate it now, but boy did it drive me nuts.
As the job ended, so did my summer at Markham. The sand in my Dirt World hourglass had run out… I was back to the horrors of engineering school. Now that I was a year in, would it get any easier? Absolutely not…
But that's a story for another newsletter... Until then, stay dirty!
Dirt Talk Podcast
This week on Dirt Talk, host Aaron Witt is joined by BuildWitt’s own Eric Jumper to dive into the dark web of construction. They make predictions about ConExpo 2023, virtual equipment training, and why “more robots” is a poor solution to the workforce issues facing the Dirt World. If you have any questions or feedback, email the Dirt Talk crew at email@example.com. Stay Dirty!
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I’ll see you next week!