Surveyor's Footsteps: Teaching the Use of Basic Tools
In the old days, when there were three people on a survey crew, the boss hired recent high school graduates and college students for the summer. This was common practice as that was the busy time of year with construction layout work. These young people were sentenced to hard labor for 90 days each year as they were routinely called back again the next spring. Most companies paid slightly over minimum wage and the temps were glad to have a job. A few would become full time employees.
Today, while doing some major cleaning of my greenhouse prior to its upcoming renovations, I came across my grandfather’s old pick axe. He was a mason by trade and a builder in northern New Jersey. Both sides of the pick were severely worn down and I would not want to keep it in a truck because you could not use it to open a manhole with those rounded ends. The only reason I keep it is because it was Pop-Pop’s and reminds me of him. I am thankful to have inherited his tool along with his work ethic.
Looking down at its worn condition reminded me of a summer day with a college student that grew up with little connection to the building trade. He was smart and a good worker. I asked him to go to the truck and get the pick. In a few minutes I heard him yell loudly, “Oh No! The pick is broken!” You would have thought it was his personal pick.
I asked him to show me and he came over with the pick head in one hand and the handle in the other. The instrument man and I had a good belly laugh at his expense. Mr. College knew the general shape of the pick and so could see the parts, but thought the handle had broken off. That day he learned how to slip the handle through the top and tap it on the ground to set it tight. Later, he would see me tap the bottom of the handle on the ground to get the top to slide down so it could easily be stored back in the truck.
This student was not stupid, just inexperienced. I can’t remember when I first had a pick in my hands, but it was probably before my 10th birthday. Those were different times. Neighborhood boys raided their dad’s tool box and went to work on building, digging and cutting things up. I believe I used a pick when we tried to dig a cave on the steep bank of the creek out back. We also spent a lot of time around the new houses going up around us and learned by proximity much of basics of the building trades. Our tree forts were the beginning of our construction efforts. Most of today’s youth in much of America grows apart from tools and building.
I rarely see kids playing around construction sites. Where I once pulled out surveyor's stakes and used them for swords, children now get their sabers in video games on comfortable couches. My first day as a rodman on a construction site brought back memories of pulling out lath and piling them like a farmer’s autumn haystack.
My old Missouri boss told me of his father running crews building irrigation canals on the eastern slopes in Washington State and how he was just hanging around. One day, he lazily walked down a line of lath and pulled them all out. His father never learned it was him. The next day he saw them upset and then re-staking the line and him finding out what the markers meant. He too would one day be staking and hoping kids did not pull up lath when school let out. I used to mark the time of year when children would be off for summer and try to ask contractors to be sure to keep kids off the site. Today that is no longer necessary.
Today, companies send out one-person crews so time ought to be spent where seasoned field people demonstrate tools and their use to younger workers. One of my former head of surveys told me that for every survey, the licensed person ought to at least visit the site once and see it with their own eyes. Although it makes sense, it’s not practical. I know of companies with 10 crews and one licensed land surveyor. Will that one person be able to field supervise all those crews and teach the art of land surveying?
Experienced land surveyors must pass on this knowledge to their apprentices. Young adults need us to fill in the blanks in their education. We actually might also need to explain how to use tools like a pick or shovel. It’s easy to read the elevation of the bottom of a manhole from a plan, but somebody has to first pop the lid and measure to the bottom with a “level rod.” They should be so lucky to have a 25-foot rod and know how it works. They also need to be aware not to grab the “poop stick” by the wrong end and wash it off with snow, sand or the dew on the grass before putting it away.
Every new person I’ve trained has learned to use their senses to find pins with a shovel. Learning how there would not necessarily be a reason to dig up a lawn when you can simply push the shovel into the earth on a 45-degree angle, and feel and learn what it’s like to slide up the side of a buried vertical pipe at a property corner and the rough side of a rebar. The world outside the office door is physical and will always require the knowledge of how to use crude implements.
I still make drill holes in curbs and sidewalks. My apprentice will have to see me demonstrate how to hold a chisel and strike it with a hammer in such a way to leave her mark. The Army Corps sure liked to see a good benchmark box cut crisply into a headwall. In Kansas City, all the survey companies took pride in their company curb cuts, which were as a cowboys branded steer. You can’t just hand a field person a hammer and chisel and expect much more than cuts and broken fingers. I still have not mentioned lectures about safety glasses.
In years past, I have seen the way construction workers look at land surveyors and think we are on the softer side and not tough like carpenters and concrete crews. If I will be on a site for a while doing stakeout work, I try to make an impression.
To do this, I drive a few hubs the way Billy and Mike taught me years ago. Billy was the tough guy party chief. I was put on their crew for a few days when my chief was on vacation. Billy exclusively did construction stake out work because he got so much done in a day. When I saw him wind milling the sledge hammer and driving hubs down, I was in awe. He was the man!
The transit man, Mike, saw me gawking and exclaimed, “You can drive them like that.”
“I don’t think so,” I mumbled.
They stopped for a few minutes to teach me the fine art of swinging a hammer, taught me to forget about missing the hub, find my reach, and then start sweeping that eight-pound sledge. I would tap the hub slightly, then let the hammer swing back behind me and sweep it high over my head and bring it down squarely and send that wood home. With no pause, I swung it again and again until it was exactly as deep as I planned. What a rush. It took little time before they showed me to do it with one arm.
“There, you see,” they both said. “It’s easy.”
Four years back, I pulled up on a construction site to set stakes. The carpenters noticed me and glanced when I parked. Purposely, I got out hubs instead of 18-inch stakes. When I set the first one, I did as Billy and Mike taught, and tapped it slightly, then started swinging round and round till it went down. From the corner of my eye, I could see they had all stopped what they were doing to watch. Was I showing off? That was not my intention and any of them could do what I did, had they the courage to ignore the first 10 split hubs, but they would need to be taught.
All the trades have forms of apprentice teaching. I can’t saw a straight line, but I can survey. I can’t sweat a copper pipe fitting, but I can hold a steady plumb bob. The landscaper knows the proper way to trim branches and promote the life of a tree, while I know how to clear lines with a machete and take down small trees. We all need teachers to learn our trades.
Thinking back on my old pick axe brings to mind how I still have a pick in my truck, but it is sharp. That tool stands the test of time and will be in surveyor’s trucks for years to come. Same goes for post-hole diggers, pry bars, shovels, machetes and hammers. Oddly, plumb bobs and tapes are somewhat a thing of the past. I still carry them in my truck but rarely get them out. Who knows, when I show my apprentice the proper technique of holding the plumb bob on the tape, it may be the last time it makes an appearance.
I can think back on how excited I was to get my first gammon reel. The trademark GAMMON REEL was filed on June 13, 1986, and they are still sold and in use. I wonder if early surveyors thought the steel tape would never catch on. Who would replace a chain with that? And what person in their right mind would replace a dependable perch rod with a chain of metal links that wear and tangle?
We exist between a technology that listens to satellites and reads measurements with light, but still requires a hammer to drive property corner pins. Some tools do become obsolete and we will lay them aside, but it will be many years before technology replaces my pick and shovel.