Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Digging Ditches for the Council Bluffs Natural Gas Company

Mother left her reporter job at the Council Bluffs Nonpareil newspaper to go to work at the Council Bluffs Natural Gas Company as secretary to the president of the company somewhere around 1950.

When I reached the age of 16 in the summer of 1951, I was legally eligible to work summer jobs that paid far more than work as a newspaper carrier or corn detasseler or raspberry picker or greenhouse worker. I was ready to move into work that men did. And thanks to my mother’s influence I secured a job with the gas company working on a crew that installed new gas mains in various parts of Council Bluffs.

Gus was my boss; a short, broad-shouldered muscular swarthy man who I think was of Greek heritage. Most of the time he had an easy manner about him and his instruction were given in a friendly manner. But he did not tolerate loafing and would say something gently sarcastic to remind someone that work was not about having fun. “Hope you’re not having trouble keeping your shovel clean” was all he needed to say to keep your mind on the task at hand.

I would typically rise about 6 AM, dress, eat, and pick up my lunch box and thermos bottle, catch the bus, and get a transfer for another bus to the South part of town. I would then walk about 3 blocks and be ready to go to work at 7:30. I would climb in back of a flat bed truck with 2-3 others. Someone would fill up the big water cooler and lift it up on the bed near the cab for safe traveling. On hot days we would stop close by and buy a big enough chuck of ice to last through the day. Gus would light up his cigar and climb into the driver’s seat and off we’d go to our destination.

Gus’s right hand man was Hans. Hans was a gentle giant of a man who spoke with a pronounced Swedish accent. Hans would always ride shot gun and once inside the cab he would place a chaw of Red Man tobacco inside his lip. I learned the best place to sit on the flat bed was next to the cab on the driver’s side. That way I was out of wind and away from potential sprays of tobacco juice occasionally emanating from the passenger side window.

We moved all around the city but sometimes our crew would spend 2 weeks at the same place installing a 6 inch gas main for 2 or 3 blocks down the side of an unpaved street. Les was our back hoe man He could really put his machine into its paces. Les was small in statue (about my size then). When one looked at Les there was no doubt that he was lower middle class working man. And he talked and thought like one. He smoked a lot was a drinking man and the lines on his face gave evidence to his habits.

This is the first job I had where men worked together as a team. Everything was always done calmly without anger or hysterics. I always carried out my jobs with eagerness and a desired to please because I wanted to build a reputation of being a hard worker and an easy person to get along with. I knew if what my boss thought of me would somehow get back to my mother causing a possible embarrassment to her if the message was negative. But, if the message was positive it would reinforce the image my mother would always try to project on to me.

When you are 16 you really don’t realize how much you are being influenced by things going on around you in so far as how many things ooze into your habits and attitudes. When in a leadership position as an adult, I always tried to act calmly even in the most stressful situations. I can’t image that I would ever pound my fist on the desk, turn red, and rant and rave as a means to motivate someone. And when I have run into people of this ilk, I always wonder how such leadership traits could possibly be effective in the long run. Usually my disrespect for them is so great that I secretly pity them. But I digress.

Laying a new 6’ inch cast iron main required lifting and moving pipe about 16 feet long into place along side the newly dug ditch. The ditch would be about 2 feet wide and 6 feet deep. When ready, two ropes would be looped around the pipe and two men would then straddle the pipe and sidle until the ditch bifurcated their bodies. Then the ropes were gradually lengthened until the pipe was in place. Each end of the pipe had a collar with six 3/8 inch holes evenly spaced around the circle. A tacky tar was smeared on the two faces to be joined, the holes were lined up and bolts were inserted and tightened. The pipe had to have a certain degree of levelness which was checked after each section was laid. Later, the pipe would be filled with pressurized air and each joint would be checked with a soapy solution to make sure the joints didn’t leak. In more modern times, the pipes are smaller, more flexible steel pipes that are welded together and checked for leaks before they are lowered into the ditch. These smaller pipes can also accept more gas pressure so more volume of gas can be pushed through.

Life working outside in the summer in the heart of the Midwest is not too difficult except in the dog days. A lot of time I would be digging a hole in the ground which requires a steady energy consuming effort. After a new main was laid, frequently there are a few houses along the street that didn’t have natural gas service. So I would dig a ditch from the new main to the house so a smaller pipe could be laid for service to them.

Half of Council Bluffs lies along the old Missouri river bottom and there are sections of the town where thick, dense clay lays a couple of feet below the surface. Digging up this material, which we called gumbo, requires a least 3 times the effort and takes 3 times as long. I took meticulous care of my two shovels, one a shade, and one a pike that was used for penetration. After each day, all the dirt was removed and the digging surfaces were polished and oiled to prevent rust and the edges were kept semi-sharp. Even so, when a shovel full of gumbo was brought up, it stuck to the shovel’s surface and had to be removed by whacking the shovel forcefully against a hard surface or pushed off with a hand, foot, or big stick.

Small tree roots were usually at the mercy of a heavy foot and sharp shovel edge. But some of the larger ones required several whacks before giving way. Buried rocks would announce their impenetrability with a clank of stone against metal. It was then time to search for soft soil near them so they could be dug up.

I tan easily and whenever possible when sweat was running down my face and arms, I took my shirt off. I learned that wearing underwear was not the desired thing. Dirt and/or sweat would travel downwards and filter themselves on my shorts and the elastic was uncomfortable. Not only was free swinging cooler; there were no more blackened white shorts to launder. There was no compromising when it came to foot ware however. Heavy work shoes were needed at all times.

My glory days as a ditch digger came when we had to make repairs on Broadway, the busiest street in town. When holes or ditches were dug on city streets, the holes had to be filled in and tamped down so that later, the dirt wouldn’t later compress and sag the pavement. We had an air compressor that traveled in back the flat bed and usually I got the job of tamping where I learned the value of keeping my feet out of the striking zone.

But when you work on a major street, you have to gouge out the multi-layers of pavement with a jackhammer before you can get to the dirt. To me the epitome of the strong all-American male back then was the image of a construction worker running a jackhammer. So here I am, 16 years old, shirt off, tanned skinny body running a jackhammer on Broadway trying to act like it wasn’t a big deal. I found a do-rag for my forehead making my costume complete. Clouds of cement dust covered my body as the jarring noisy jackhammer pounded my arms and shoulders. Streaks of sweat ran down my back and chest. My hair resembled a chalk eraser. Surely, I thought, I was becoming a man. What comes next?


vikkitikkitavi said...

Dad, I can't believe you're featuring the artwork of that creepy Art Frahm.

Very funny send-up of his work here:

GETkristiLOVE said...

I am so happy you are taking a writing class because these stories are great. By the way, our best defenseman's Ho name is Back Ho.

Dad E said...

KristE-Glad you enjoy them. I am writing these for my decendants. And I was consious of the possible implication of using "Ho".

Vikki--Ok so the cartoon was a bit of a stretch as far as the story went, but not to the fanasies of a 16 year old boy that would not know the first thing about how to talk to a woman.